(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“You know, you might be able to find someone now who’s willing to talk."]
For several days, I could not get Eileen Fuller’s words out of my head: “David’s been good to me.”
As a child, I never questioned why my mother stayed, but I remembered at least twice when she had tried to leave. The first time, I was only about five, and my mother had apparently decided she could only manage to take me with her. She had told me that the other children, all older than me, could take care of themselves. We made it to the bus station, bought the ticket, and waited. Mother was terribly agitated, wringing her hands, and constantly looking at the entry doors. Moments before we were to get on the bus, my father arrived and took us back home; my mother had made no attempt to argue with him.
The second time she tried, she left all of us behind. She and a girlfriend just got into the girlfriend’s car and “headed west” together. “No destination, no plan,” my mother had later told me, “just west.” My father had followed them — and I never figured out how he always knew my mother’s every move — and caught up with them at some nondescript motel. I didn’t know the details, because neither of my parents ever told me, but I do remember the black eye and the bruises all over my mother’s arms when she got back.
After that, my mother never again tried to get away, and I understood now, probably even more than she did then, why. Eileen Fuller was probably just like my mother: afraid to stay, afraid to go. I wasn’t sure that there was anything I could do to help her, but I kept trying to think of something.
A few days after my visit to Eileen, I decided to go downstairs and visit Miss Hattie. It wasn’t our regular day, but I knew she wouldn’t mind. I thought she might give me some new insights and lead me in a new direction. When she saw that it was me at her door, she smiled and quickly asked me in. “It’s not Tuesday,” she said, “but it’s always nice to see you. Come in. I want to know all that’s happened.”
I slipped off my shoes at the door, and as always, I followed Miss Hattie down the hall.
“Tea?” she asked, following our usual routine.
Miss Hattie turned into the kitchen and prepared the tea while I stood nearby, hoping I could assist, but she never let me. As always, she was wearing a dress – this time it was light green — and matching green slippers. After so many visits with her, I knew that she had a pair of slippers to match every dress she owned. Her hair was pulled back behind her head, long and silver-gray. In her youth, she must have had a lot of hair, because even now it created a pony tail at her neck that was as big as her fist. My hair is thin, and I envy anyone who can pull their hair back and actually have something thick enough to tie with a ribbon.
I recalled Miss Hattie telling me that she never went out because she felt it wasn’t safe. “Too many young boys on those skateboards,” she had once told me. “And those homeless people asking for money. Worst of all are those drug addicts that look so awful. I don’t know which I hate the most, but I prefer not running into them.” I had asked her then how she got her groceries and she had said they were delivered. I thought she was lonely, and I once asked if she wanted to take a walk with me to English Bay. She had responded with a yes, but we had never gone. I think we both knew that Miss Hattie would probably never leave the apartment with me.
With the tea preparations complete, Miss Hattie and I carried the cups to the living room. As always there was not a single thing out of place.
“Well,” Miss Hattie said, as she sat down in her faded-blue armchair, “what have you learned? I’m so anxious to know!”
“Quite a lot.” I filled her in on my second visit to Eileen Fuller and the second note and the phone calls.
“Well, that’s very interesting,” Miss Hattie said. “You’ve managed to learn a lot. I wonder if you’re ever going to prove anything, though. I’m sorry, dear, but it seems rather hopeless, doesn’t it?”
Miss Hattie’s words were a reflection of my own fears. “I do seem to have hit a dead end, and I don’t know where to go from here. But I’m not willing to give up. Not quite yet.”
“No, I don’t think that you should,” Miss Hattie said. “In my day, you know, we never mentioned child abuse. Corporal punishment was considered perfectly all right, and I used it a few times with my students, though I usually had the principal do it. Parents thought nothing of spanking their children or hitting them with a belt. I was spanked often as a child, and I think it taught me to behave. The Fullers may have just been disciplining their child and a terrible accident happened.”
I understood that Miss Hattie had been raised in a different time, and even her teacher training would have been considerably different than mine. I had been teaching in BC for only a few years when Article 76 of the BC School Act had stated that teachers had to behave as “kind, firm and judicious” parents, but they could not use corporal punishment. I, of course, had been raised in a violent home, hidden under the guise of good parental discipline, but I had never approved of hitting a child in order to get them to behave. In my teacher training, corporal punishment was considered “normal,” but I had always been convinced that I could reach my students, and gain their respect, without it, and so I had never used it. The law, passed in 1973, had not changed anything for me. I was well aware of teachers who still felt it should be returned and I knew that Miss Hattie was of the “old school.” I had no desire to argue with her about the merits of corporal punishment. What I did want was ideas for how to get Eileen Fuller to tell me more about what happened in that family, especially on the day that Catherine died. Still, I couldn’t resist a little bit of personal expression.
“For most of my teaching career, corporal punishment wasn’t allowed,” I said, “and we were taught to look for signs of child abuse in our students. In fact, it was eventually required by law that we report suspected abuse. You grew up in a different time, Miss Hattie, and sometimes we learn from our mistakes and find better ways of doing things. You said yourself that the children were showing no respect by the time you finished teaching, yet the schools still allowed corporal punishment at the time.”
“True,” Miss Hattie sighed. “But it doesn’t look as though things got any better. You said they had no respect either!”
“Touché,” I laughed. “But most of my students gave me respect in my classroom because they quickly learned to respect me as a person and as a teacher. As the years went by, however, that struggle to earn their respect got harder. I also saw less and less respect from students in the hallways, particularly those who didn’t know me, and I observed some terrible behaviour in other teachers’ classrooms. The problem, I believe, is that society is in a big mess, and our children just reflect that decay. Too many children today have a sense of entitlement, and no sense of accountability or responsibility.”
“Well, I’ll agree with that!“ Miss Hattie was enthusiastic in her response. “Is there anyone honest any more? Is there anyone who cares about their neighbour? And what about drugs and these dealers? And youth gangs? Society has completely lost control of its children, and heaven knows where it’s all going to end.”
“On that we can agree, Miss Hattie,” I said.
“Which brings me back to little Catherine Fuller. Eileen Fuller insists that her daughter fell at school that day, and you say you heard no thuds above you that afternoon, so that would suggest that no one pushed or shoved her to the floor at home. Unless, of course, you just didn’t happen to hear it.”
Miss Hattie turned and looked out the window. “Oh, I’ll be so glad when the leaves come back on the trees,” she said.
I was disturbed by the change of subject. I had thought that Miss Hattie’s mind was sharp, despite her 90 years of age, but this little sidetrack made me wonder if she could help me after all. Just as I was pondering this, Miss Hattie spoke again, this time back on topic.
“You know, I’m not sure that that little girl had to be pushed or shoved. They talk a lot these days about ‘shaken baby syndrome’ and that mother or father could have shaken her and then she died. There would have been no marks on the child’s body. I wonder if she had a bruise on her head from this so-called fall at school.”
“An interesting point,” I replied. “I had wondered if the injury might not have occurred that day but even a day or two before. But I don’t think it could be ‘shaken baby syndrome’ as Catherine was five years old. That happens when the baby is still quite young and the skull has not yet completely formed. I have thought, though, that whatever injury Catherine had to her head, it might have happened several days before, not just that day. I don’t suppose you remember anything unusual in the days before her death?”
Miss Hattie rolled her eyes and sighed. “Oh, my dear, that’s way too long ago for me to remember. I just know that noises came from that apartment nearly every day. But on the evening of the day she died, it was conspicuous by its absence!”
I found myself speculating. “I wonder if it’s possible that Catherine died, not because of any one incident, but because of several. If she had hurt her head numerous times over several days, maybe the day she died was just the culmination of that.”
Miss Hattie shook her head. “I don’t know much about those things, but my brother loved to break horses on our farm. He fell off so many of those horses that we thought sure he would kill himself, always hitting his head or breaking a bone. Then one day, when he was about thirteen or fourteen years old, he just died in his sleep. We didn’t know why, and there wasn’t a doctor around to tell us anything anyway. We just buried him in our little family cemetery on the farm. You don’t suppose it was because he’d hit his head too often?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I think it’s possible. I need to do some research on that. I know that people can die from severe head trauma. If your brother hit his head often enough when he fell off those horses, it’s possible that slow internal bleeding began. The same thing might have happened to Catherine. But I can’t understand why a doctor wouldn’t have noticed the bruises. If Catherine had fallen or been pushed many times, I would think that her scalp would have shown bruises.”
Miss Hattie, although an English teacher, knew a few things about science, but not much. She did know quite a bit about human nature, however. “It wouldn’t have mattered if there were bruises, anyway, because the parents wouldn’t allow an autopsy.”
“Yes,” I said, “but I still don’t understand how they got away with that.”
“Money, dear. Money. You can buy anything you want. I think Mrs. Fuller’s father had plenty of it. He probably paid the doctor to be quiet, and they convinced the police or the D.A. that there was no crime; therefore, no autopsy was necessary.”
I hated to think that Miss Hattie might be right. All of my life I had worked hard. I could honestly say that I had never lied or cheated on my taxes; I had never shoplifted, nor reneged on a debt. I had always tried to be a responsible citizen, and it always disappointed me when I realized that there was a world out there — a monied world — that could buy whatever they wanted. “I’m so afraid you’re right, Miss Hattie.”
Miss Hattie leaned forward in her seat and raised her eyebrows. “You know, you might be able to find someone now who’s willing to talk. Maybe the doctor has a guilty conscience. Maybe not. But it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“An interesting idea,” I said excitedly. “I hadn’t thought of that. I think it’s time to return to my nephew again, too. I’ll see if I can find out who the doctor was.” At last, it appeared I had some new directions, and I was glad that I had come to visit Miss Hattie again. “And you know what else?” I asked. “David Fuller was a drug dealer.”
Miss Hattie showed no surprise. “There always seemed to be a lot of strange people coming and going,” she said. “Do you think they might have had something to do with Catherine’s death?”
“It’s possible. I don’t know. But I’m going to keep it in mind. And I think I’ll go see Eileen Fuller again.”
“Really?” Miss Hattie seemed surprised and then shook her head. “She’ll never tell you the truth. I think she’s probably a very disturbed young woman.”
“She may be. But if I can get her to relate Catherine to me and her mother to mine, I might break through her defenses.” I stood and placed my tea cup on the small table nearby. “I really must not take any more of your time, and I’ll start looking into these new possibilities. Thank you so much for your help.”
“No problem, Dorthea. I love the company, and I hope you’ll come again.” Miss Hattie stood up to walk with me.
At the door, I turned around and thanked her once again. After leaving, I stayed until I heard Miss Hattie bolt and chain her door. I worried a bit that since someone was after me, they might go after Miss Hattie, too.
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.