(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["I was more convinced than ever that Catherine’s death was not a simple accident at school, and Eileen Fuller knew more than she was telling."]
I easily found a number for David Fuller in the Vancouver phone book. I assumed that he and Eileen were still married, based on how he spoke to me when I saw him in his office a few months ago, but I knew nothing for certain. I called the number and someone answered on the first ring.
“Hello,” a soft voice said. “Fuller residence.”
“Hi,” I said. I wanted to be friendly and non-threatening, but I wasn’t sure if this was Eileen, or a household maid. “Is this Mrs. Fuller? Eileen Fuller?” I asked.
“Yes, it is. Who is this?”
This is my lucky day, I thought. I actually got Eileen! “My name is Dorthea Parsons.” I tried to sound calm and professional. “I wonder if I could come and visit you, Mrs. Fuller.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Whatever for?” she asked. Her voice was so soft that it was hard to hear her.
“I wouldn’t want to go into too much of that on the phone, Mrs. Fuller, but I’d like to talk to you about your daughter, Catherine.”
“Catherine? Why? She’s dead.” Her voice was flat, emotionless, and it gave me the chills.
“I live in the apartment where you used to live, Mrs. Fuller. Apartment Five-One-Three at Royal Manor in the West End.”
“Yes,” Eileen said, and the unspoken part was, “So what?” I was reminded of Miss Hattie’s encounter in the building’s elevator with David Fuller more than ten years ago.
“Well, no doubt this is a bit hard to believe, but I can sense your daughter’s spirit in the apartment; I’d like to tell you about that.” I crossed my fingers, bit my lip, and raised my eyes skyward. Please don’t think I’m a nut, I thought.
Although there was silence on the other end of the line, she wasn’t hanging up. I hoped that meant that Eileen Fuller was intrigued. What mother would not be? “You’ll have to tell me more,” she said. “What do you mean?”
“I’d really rather tell you this in person. When could I come and visit you?”
There was silence. I kept my fingers crossed for luck. Finally Eileen said, “Any time during the day, I suppose. I don’t think my husband would want to know about this, though, so you must come when he’s not here.”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
Good, I thought to myself, I don’t want David to know about my visit. If he heard about it, I’m sure he’d forbid it, and I’ll just bet Eileen is a wife who obeys her husband.
I agreed to meet with Eileen the next morning, and our phone conversation quickly ended. I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I would say and how I would say it while simultaneously cleaning, vacuuming, and dusting.
I slept restlessly and awoke early the next morning. The Fullers lived in a large home in the Shaughnessy Heights neighbourhood of Vancouver. I knew of the area, but I had never been there. I had checked out my map the previous evening, and I knew precisely how I would get there. I ate a small breakfast of toast and jam, showered, and dressed. I debated what to wear — casual or formal? I wondered. I settled on a pair of light blue dress pants, a simple round-necked tee in shades of pink and blue, and a blue shirt-jacket.
I walked to Burrard and caught the Cambie bus to Oak and King Edward. From there, I walked to Laurier Avenue. The bus ride was easy enough, but once I was on foot, walking through the neighbourhood, I began to feel like an alien in a foreign land. At the very least, I certainly felt middle class. The homes were huge, often surrounded by tall hedges and iron gates. They looked pretentious and uninviting, and I worried that I would be unable to break through the false facade and reach the mother inside Eileen.
The Fullers’ home was gated, as many of the other homes were, and a man sat inside a small little building next to the driveway. I couldn’t believe there were people who employed a gateman, but there he was, large as life! I’d obviously lived in the cheaper parts of town all my life.
As I approached, the gateman — an older man with a white mustache and beard wearing a uniform and cap — came out to meet me.
“Are you Mrs. Parsons?” he asked. Large and portly, the man looked uncomfortable in his uniform which didn’t fit him very well. I guessed he was retired and doing this job as a way to earn a few extra dollars for his pension.
“Yes,” I said, not surprised that he already guessed who I was. He no doubt could tell that I wasn’t royalty. Who else walks up to this house but a poor pensioner?
“I’ll let you in,” he said, and he turned back to the small building and went inside. He must have pushed a button because the gates suddenly began to open.
“Thanks.” I smiled at him and then walked past him and down the curving driveway to the house. I could not believe the size of the place! Based on my minimal knowledge of homes, I figured this one had to be at least ten thousand square feet. It was white with blue trim at the doors and windows; there were two floors, and large windows in every room. The grass and shrubbery along the driveway and near the house were all neatly manicured. I could not imagine how two people needed such a huge house except for ego, a way to display one’s wealth. I briefly wondered if society would ever realize how wasteful this kind of consumerism was. I felt small and insignificant as I stood at the front door and rang the bell.
Within a few minutes, a woman greeted me. She wasn’t dressed in a uniform, but in a dark, plain dress, with her hair pulled back in a bun. She looked my age. I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Was this a maid? A female butler? I didn’t have a clue. Whoever she was, she let me in and led me to a large room where I was asked to wait.
The room was a sitting room, I supposed, though I had no idea what names, if any, were given to rooms in big houses. Personally, I would have called this room, “The Cold Room.” The hardwood floor was covered with several large, patterned rugs. The all-white furniture looked uninviting and uncomfortable. The red, heavy-looking drapes hung at each window, lifeless and cumbersome. The red-and-white motif was evident everywhere: knick-knacks, flowers, drapes, and carpets. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be here. I suspected it was used as it was being used now: a holding room for unwelcome guests.
“Good morning, Mrs. Parsons.” I turned to see a woman standing at the door. I assumed that Eileen Fuller could not be more than about thirty-five or thirty-six years of age, but this woman looked older. Her hair, black and straight, seemed lifeless. Her eyes, dark and full, looked sad, like a lost puppy. She was tiny, no more than five feet, but she stood tall and with elegance and grace. She was dressed well: a black pantsuit, nicely tailored, with a white blouse and ruffles at the cuffs and collar. She wore black sling-back sandals, with a two-inch heel, which seemed a little cool for a January afternoon. The only jewellery she wore was a gold band on her left-hand ring finger. “Please follow me,” was all that she said, as she turned around and left the room.
I did as I was bid, and Eileen Fuller’s shoes tapped on the tile floor as she crossed the hall. She led me to a much smaller, cosier room. There was a small fire in the fireplace, a soft and comfortable looking light-green couch and matching chair, a desk in the corner with items neatly placed in pigeonhole compartments, and a small white terrier lying on the rug in front of the fire. The room was bright with sunshine streaming through a large window which looked out onto a flower garden, now dead for the winter, and the lawn. “This is my own special room,” Eileen said. “I prefer it here.” She gestured to the couch. “Please sit. Can I get you some tea?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” I said, as I sat down on the light green upholstered couch and placed my backpack beside my feet. Eileen walked over to a long burgundy rope, which hung from the ceiling. She pulled it twice, and then sat down opposite me in the couch’s matching chair. It took me a moment to realize that she had pulled a rope that would summon her servant. I had no idea there were still people in the world who lived this way; I felt as though I had gone back in time. A second later, the same woman who had answered the door arrived, and Eileen asked her to bring us some tea. I decided that, although they had a big house, they couldn’t afford a lot of servants. Or, perhaps all was not as well in Camelot as it seemed.
A moment of silence passed, each of us not quite sure what to say to the other. It was Eileen who finally broke it. “Well,” she said. “I am most curious to hear what you have to say.”
I wanted to get as much information as I could from Eileen, but I knew from dealing with my own mother that abused women don’t talk easily. I had to convince Eileen that she was my friend, that I understood the pain she felt at the loss of her child. If I didn’t gain her confidence, I knew that I’d never get the truth. I chose my words carefully. “As I told you on the phone, I‘m living in the apartment where you and your husband once lived. In Royal Manor. In the West End.”
“Yes, so you said.” Eileen seemed unemotional. “What does that have to do with me?”
An odd question, I thought. Does she not remember our phone conversation? It occurred to me for the first time that perhaps my mission would utterly, totally fail. Eileen Fuller appeared to be a severely withdrawn person. “Well,” I said, “I think your daughter’s not happy.”
“What do you mean?” Eileen tilted her head as though she might hear my words better and then understand them.
I knew that whatever I said might drive Eileen away, but I plunged ahead. “Do you believe in ghosts, Mrs. Fuller?”
Eileen frowned and crossed her arms. “Ghosts? No, I don’t think I do. Why do you ask? What’s this all about?” The flat, emotionless tone to her voice continued.
“I’m a mother, Mrs. Fuller.”
“Please call me Eileen.”
“Thank you,” I said, somewhat annoyed by Eileen’s tendency to stray from the topic. “I’m a mother, Eileen. I have two sons, grown men. I’ve always been able to sense things about them. I think of them every day. What about your daughter? Do you think of Catherine?”
Eileen Fuller showed emotion for the first time. Her eyes filled with tears, and she bowed her head. She brought her hands together and began to twist them in her lap. “Of course I do,” she said softly. “I loved Catherine with all my heart. I‘ve missed her every day since she left.” She stopped wringing her hands and, for the first time, she looked directly at me. “Do you really think my daughter is speaking to you? How do you know it’s her?”
“I’ve seen her, Eileen. She’s a little girl, about six years old, wearing a white dress. It’s not as though she talks to me. She doesn’t. But she looks as though she’s asking for my help. I think it’s Catherine because she’s the only little girl that I know of who died in that apartment.” I paused and then asked, “Do you have a photograph of your daughter?”
Eileen stared into space, as though she were thinking of where a picture might be. “I don’t know. After she died, I couldn’t bear to look at her picture. If I still have them, they’re stored in a box somewhere. David didn’t want me to be upset.”
“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine not having photographs of Jake around to remind me of him. I was sure I’d feel the same if either of my sons died.
Eileen broke into my thoughts. “What do you think she‘s saying to you?”
“I‘m not sure of anything, Eileen. As I said before, she doesn’t speak. I’ve read that ghosts return because something is unsettled, unfinished. And, I think Catherine and I might have a lot in common.”
Eileen raised her eyebrows. “What could that be?”
“We both were frightened as children. We both had fathers we feared. We both had mothers who did nothing to protect us.“ I paused, waiting to see if Eileen would react, but her face was blank. “I’m sure,” I added, “that Catherine is unhappy. She wants justice.”
“Justice?” I was growing weary of Eileen repeating everything I said. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“She didn’t die after a fall at school, did she?”
Eileen sat up and leaned slightly towards me. “Of course she did! What are you talking about?”
“Can you tell me what happened the day you lost Catherine, Eileen? I’d like to hear it from you.”
Eileen smoothed her hands over her pant legs. She turned and looked away from me and gazed out the window. Just then, the tea was brought in, and while it was being placed on the table, we remained quiet. As soon as the maid left, Eileen poured a cup of tea for each of us, but I noticed that her hands were shaking. Having something to do seemed to calm her slightly.
“I picked up Catherine from school that day, like I always did,” Eileen said. “She seemed fine, but we didn’t talk much on the way home. Shortly after we got to the apartment, she told me that she had a headache. She said she had fallen that morning at school during recess and she felt sick to her stomach. I told her to go lie down for a while. She got into her pajamas and crawled into bed. I was busy making supper, and when David got home, I went in to get Catherine. She was in bed, asleep. At least, I thought she was asleep. But when I went over to wake her up, she didn’t respond. I called for David, and David called nine-one-one. When the ambulance got there, they told us she was dead.”
As I carefully listened to Eileen’s story, I tried to find any inconsistencies from what I had read in the newspaper articles and already heard from the neighbours or from Jeff. “Why did Catherine get into her pajamas?” I asked. “It was late afternoon, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Eileen said. “Yes, it was. I think she didn’t want to get into bed in her clothes. I think I told her to change. I can’t remember.” Eileen rubbed her forehead and then glanced at the ceiling, as though she would find the answers there. She held the cup of tea in her hands, but she didn’t take a sip from it. “I really don’t remember much about that day. After they took her away, I collapsed and the next several weeks are a blur to me.”
“It must have been a terrible thing for you to go through,” I said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my child, especially a young child. Weren’t you concerned when she said she had hit her head? Were you not aware of the possibility of a concussion?”
Eileen stared at me for a few seconds and then stood up, as though her height would give her authority over me. Then she said, “You’re trying to say this was my fault.” Her voice got louder: “It wasn’t! It wasn’t my fault! David knows that it wasn’t my fault!” Eileen looked totally bereft, the pain of losing her child permanently etched into the lines of her face.
“It’s all right, Eileen.” I took a sip of my tea and tried to breathe deeply. I looked up at her and said, “I’m not blaming you.”
Eileen’s face softened. “Well, then. All right.” She settled back down into her seat and sipped her tea.
“What does David know, Eileen? I thought he was there at the apartment when Catherine died.”
Eileen frowned and set down her cup of tea. She pulled a handkerchief out of her pants pocket which she began twisting in her hands. “No, no, David wasn’t there.” She turned away and looked out the window. “At least, I don’t think he was there.” Then she turned back to face me. “I don’t think he was there. I’m not sure.”
I probed a little more. “Think, Eileen. It’s important. What happened? Did David come home early that day? Did he get mad at Catherine for something she had done?”
Eileen shook her head. “No, no, no, no, no. Why do you think that? David didn’t do it! He didn’t do it!” She stood up and went over to the window. “Why are you asking me these questions?”
“Because I believe that Catherine’s death was not an accident. I believe that your husband may have killed your daughter, and I think you were there and saw it.”
Eileen turned from the window and looked back at me. She shook her head. “No, that’s not true. It isn’t! Catherine just died. Those teachers at the school should have told me she had fallen. It’s their fault. My baby died because her teachers were negligent. David wasn’t even home when it happened.”
This isn’t going to be easy, I thought. I made up something, hoping that Eileen would begin to face the truth. “I heard that he came home early that day, that Catherine made him mad. The lady who lived below you said she heard loud noises and screams.”
“No, that’s not possible,” Eileen said. “I was there. Catherine went to bed, and she just never woke up again.”
I decided to change the subject. “Eileen, I was hit by my father. I saw my father hit my mother. I know what it’s like. Does David hit you? Did he hit Catherine?”
“No, no, no!” she almost shouted at me. “David’s a good man. A good husband. He loved Catherine.”
“Why have you never had more children?” I asked, changing the subject once again, and hoping that I might calm down Eileen in the process. “Was it because David didn’t want them?”
“No, it was me. I just could not bear to have another child that I might lose.” Eileen began to pace back and forth and I felt uncomfortable. This is going nowhere, I thought.
“Eileen, please, sit down.”
Eileen obediently returned to her chair, as though I had been the Queen of England giving her a royal command. The thought crossed my mind that she was used to obeying orders. She reached down and petted the little dog, who rolled over and wanted a tummy rub; Eileen obliged. I watched and smiled, but neither of us spoke for a moment.
I finally broke the silence. “I’m sorry to bring up all this pain for you, Eileen. I really do think that Catherine’s spirit wants rest. Don’t you think she deserves justice?”
Eileen said nothing at first, but after a pause she spoke what I didn’t want to hear. “Mrs. Parsons, I think it’s time you left. I‘ve nothing more to say to you.”
Eileen had a story that she had told many times in the last ten years, and I was not going to break through it. Not today. She was frightened and weary, but she wasn’t ready yet to tell the truth. Perhaps, in time, I thought, I could develop her trust and confidence. “All right,” I said with much disappointment. “I’ll leave, but I’d like to come back some day. Would you mind that? Could we have another visit?”
Eileen frowned. “I suppose not,” she said, “but it won’t do any good. I won’t change my story.”
So it was just a story and not what really happened, I thought. I picked up my backpack and said my good-byes. Eileen did not even walk me to the door; she remained sitting on the couch, her dog now in her lap. She looked sad and lost.
I walked down the driveway and passed the gateman, now sound asleep at his watch, snoring loudly, as his body leaned up against the inside wall of the little building and his head drooped. He seemed a metaphor to me for how society was ignoring Catherine’s death. I rode the bus back to the West End, watching the traffic and stores and people, and I thought about Eileen. “I won’t change my story,” she had said. I was more convinced than ever that Catherine’s death was not a simple accident at school, and Eileen Fuller knew more than she was telling. She was either covering for someone else or for herself, but I felt that I would never prove it. I was at a dead end.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.