(A novel by Susan Overturf)
While waiting for Jeff to get back to me, I immersed myself once again in self-discovery, examining the many items from the boxes my mother had left to me. In the privacy of my own apartment, thinking back on my childhood, it was easy to step back in time and be a child again, fearful and uncertain, aware that something was wrong, but powerless and alone. As I thought about this, I thought as well about little Catherine who had died perhaps in the same room where I now worked, and I wondered how close I had come to the same fate as hers.
The process of exploring what life might have been like for my parents when I was a child was less emotional but still useful to my exploration. As a married woman and the mother of two grown sons, I could now find far more empathy with my father and mother than I could as a child. I could understand their pain and appreciate how difficult life must have been for them. I realized, with often grievous clarity, that it had been tough on all of us. There had been little money, the terrible war, and my father’s long absence. Without my father, my mother had struggled to keep the family together. Upon his return, she was subjected to his brutality and dark anger; she must have been exhausted. Each family member developed their own way of surviving: My father found it in a bottle; my mother descended into a kind of madness; my older siblings disappeared, staying away as often as possible; I simply avoided contact whenever possible.
When my father came home from the war, everyone told me that he was a different man: my mother said he used to tell jokes; my brothers said they once played catch with him; my sisters said he took them out for ice cream. Unfortunately, I had no such memories; thus, I struggled to get to know him. The first thing I learned was that he was a hard person to please. I was always getting in his way, whether I was playing with my dolls on the living room floor, asking my mother for a cookie in the kitchen, or getting ready to go to bed. He complained about everyone and everything, and it seemed as though he always had a bottle and a glass. It would be years before I would understand that the alcohol influenced most of his behaviour.
When my father was home (which was a great deal of the time since he struggled to hold down a job), everyone walked on eggshells, and mostly had the smarts to stay clear of him. On any given evening, one of us nearly always was on the receiving end of his fist or the back of his hand. We preferred the nights when he didn’t come home.
As an adult looking back on this time in my life, I could now saw my father through different, more compassionate eyes. I understood now some of the demons he fought then and how fate pulled him into a situation over which he had no control. When the war first began, in 1939, he hadn’t joined up immediately, partly because he knew his poor eyesight would disqualify him. He was also a married man with two children. However, as an assistant manager in a clothing store, he was just managing to make ends meet, and it bothered him that his friends were leaving and he was not. As the war progressed and more men were killed, the Army lowered its standards: my father was finally able to enlist. He probably left just days after I had been conceived because he didn’t know about me until he read about it in my mother’s letter.
When my father returned to a large family that needed him, he was unable to cope. He worked in sales, mostly, but he moved from job to job, especially as his drinking increased. Between his emotional state and his alcoholism, he sank deeper into despair, and he took out his anger at the world on his wife and his children. He most likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, even though it was a term not used until after the American war in Vietnam. He never talked about the war, but he had come home a broken and beaten man because of what he had seen and done.
As I looked at the family photographs again, and remembered what I could about both of my parents, my thoughts inevitably turned to the young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fuller, and their child, Catherine, who once lived in my apartment. I wondered again how much similarity there might be between my childhood and Catherine’s. From what little I already knew of Mr. Fuller, it sounded as though he was a lot like my father: angry, argumentative, defensive. Mrs. Fuller sounded a lot like my mother: quiet, passive, obedient. I wondered what demons had driven Mr. Fuller as they had driven my father, and I decided to take time each day to explore and learn more about the Fullers and their lives.
This might have been an impossible task if not for the fact that they had lived in Vancouver and the Engles and Fullers, particularly the Engles, were well-known families. I began by finding their engagement and wedding announcements in the local papers, which told me where they had graduated from high school. I took trips to both schools, searched through high school yearbooks, and had an opportunity to have brief conversations with some of their former teachers. Since graduating from UBC law school, David had joined a local law firm and it was easy to learn more about his firm through newspaper and magazine archives.
Still waiting to hear from Jeff, and after spending two days researching the Fullers, I wanted to hear what Miss Hattie would say about what I had learned. And, of course, I had promised that I would tell her what I knew. Exactly one week after our first visit, I returned to knock on her door, and it already felt comfortable and routine. She greeted me warmly — this time all in blue — and made me another cup of tea.
Once settled in the living room, she asked, “So, did you find your nephew?”
“Yes, quite easily. He was the young constable you remember.”
“How nice for you. You must have spent time catching up on family news.”
I nodded and took a sip of my tea. “We did. His mother, Mary, is my oldest sister. But I don’t see my siblings often. Jeff knew more about the family than I did.”
Miss Hattie sipped her tea, but said nothing for a moment, as though she wasn’t sure what the correct response was to a sister who didn’t talk to her sister. After an awkward silence, she ignored the sibling problem and said, “What does your nephew remember about the case?”
“Quite a bit, actually.”
Miss Hattie nodded her head. I had the feeling she was trying to be polite, that she really hadn’t been too impressed with the police work she had observed. “What did the police think then?“
“I don’t know the answer to that question yet, because Jeff only remembers his own investigations and interviews. He did remember you, incidentally.”
Miss Hattie smiled, seemingly unimpressed.
“He personally felt the death was suspicious, but he emphasized that no proof was ever forthcoming. He’s going to check the file. It isn’t even considered an open case; it’s considered solved.”
“Regrettable, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so, but what else could be done, I wonder?”
“More interviews. Perhaps an autopsy. No cremation. That might have helped.” Miss Hattie’s voice was non-judgemental, yet there was a ring of sarcasm to it.
I put my teacup in its saucer and stared at her. “You’re upset about this, aren’t you?”
“I have been for ten years.”
I set my empty teacup down beside the couch and leaned back, crossing my arms. “I understand, and I promise that I will try to find the answers. If Jeff doesn’t call me by the end of the week, I’ll call him.”
“Good.” Miss Hattie said it without criticism.
“In the meantime, I have done some research into the Fullers.” I smiled and showed my excitement. I had brought my notes with me, and I pulled them out of my purse now and began flipping through the pages.
“Really.” Miss Hattie raised an eyebrow. “Do tell me what you have learned.” She sipped her tea and gave me her undivided attention.
I didn’t really need to refer to my notes, but there was a comfort in having them in my hands. I cleared my throat and began my best teacher-lecture: “Eileen was the only daughter of a wealthy Vancouver businessman, Vern Engle, and a Vancouver socialite, Lorraine Adams Engle. Vern, also an only child, had inherited his wealth along with the company from his father and his grandfather before him, and the Engle name is considered ‘old money‘ in Vancouver.“
Miss Hattie finished her tea and set it down. She looked at me intently. “So Eileen grew up with money. She must have felt like she‘d fallen a bit by living at Royal Manor. I always sensed she was a bit of a snob, but she was also shy, I think.” Miss Hattie pointed at my tea cup, asking if I wanted more, but I declined.
“Eileen grew up on the Engles’ large estate,” I said, “in Point Grey, and she attended West Point Grey Academy.”
“Oh,” Miss Hattie nodded, “I knew a few students who attended that school. I wasn’t impressed. It might have been private, but their standards weren’t as high as they claimed.”
I nodded in understanding. “I’ve never discovered much difference between private and public schools,” I added, “except that one costs more.” I smiled and then returned to the subject of the Engles. “Based on my research, Eileen was a quiet-but-serious student, obtaining high marks in every subject. She played tennis, taking private lessons from a young age, but she did not participate in team sports. She was a member of the debating team and graduated with the highest grade point average in her class.“
“Hmm,” Miss Hattie mused. “That’s no easy accomplishment, no matter what school you go to.”
“I agree. I think probably that Eileen was a pampered young woman, but she was not stupid.”
“And what have you learned about David?” Miss Hattie asked.
“David Fuller’s parents weren’t as wealthy as Eileen’s, but he certainly wasn’t poor. His father was Wendall Fuller, a professor at Simon Fraser University. His mother, Ruth Walker Wendall, was a nurse. David has an older sister, Marilyn, but they apparently weren’t close. They were seven years apart in age, so that’s not too surprising. David grew up in the same area as Eileen, but he attended the public schools, graduating from Point Grey High School. His marks were average, but he was a popular soccer, volleyball, and basketball player. His teachers found him to be capable of better work than he produced. His Grade 12 yearbook indicated that he would some day ‘take everyone to court.‘“
Miss Hattie laughed. “Oh, my, that sounds like him. I found him to be rude and arrogant in what little contact I had with him. You know how some people just seem to act as though they’re better than everyone else?” I nodded and Miss Hattie continued, “Well, that was David Fuller. I’m sure he thought that he was not going to be living at Royal Manor long, and the people who lived here were beneath him and not worthy of his notice.”
“What about Eileen? Was she like that too?”
“Not really. No. She did stick to herself, but, as I said a moment ago, she seemed shy. She’d smile at me and say hello.” Miss Hattie moved a little in her seat, readjusting her position. “This is all very interesting, Dorthea. Thanks for coming to tell me. I think I’m going to look forward to your Tuesday visits.”
“Thanks, Miss Hattie. I enjoy it, too. Perhaps some day I can write a book called, ‘Tuesdays with Miss Hattie.’” Being English teachers, we both chuckled at the allusion. “I enjoy coming. You give me great insight.”
“Did you learn anything else?”
I shook my head and turned down to my notes, flipping pages. “Let’s see,” I mumbled to myself, “what else?” A few notes at the top of page reminded me: “Oh, I tried to find out if Eileen and David met before they both entered UBC. I couldn’t find any evidence that they had. They were, however, in two classes together that first year, and their romance apparently blossomed quickly and marriage happened shortly after. Both the engagement and wedding announcements were in the society pages of the local papers.“
“It sounds like it was a fast romance. I thought young people these days just moved in together.”
I chuckled. “They usually do, I think, but perhaps Eileen’s parents weren’t going to let her do that. I think Eileen was pregnant with Catherine when they got married, as Catherine’s birth came only six months after their marriage. I’m guessing the Engles disapproved of their daughter’s marriage to David Fuller. They would certainly not have considered him their daughter’s social equal, nor would they have believed that he could support their daughter in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. I suspect that it was only Eileen’s pregnancy which forced the Engles to give their blessing to the marriage, if they even did.“
“It’s a familiar story, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “I taught too many young women who thought marriage was their only future, despite our ever-changing society where many women choose careers. Eileen apparently dropped out of school as soon as she married. She might have taken a small, part-time job, but certainly David carried on to get his law degree. It wasn’t clear to me how David had managed to pay for his education — I found no evidence that he had a scholarship — and I wondered if one or both sets of parents had assisted.“
“I’m guessing that at least Eileen’s parents might have wanted to help their grandchild,” Miss Hattie speculated.
“Possibly,” I said, “but I think there might have been some bad feelings.“
“Partly to be expected.”
“The marriage certainly destroyed Eileen’s chances of a career. As a housewife and mother, she left no trail for me to follow, unfortunately, though she was, and still is, involved in a few charitable organizations. David, on the other hand, has done well. I looked up his law firm on the internet. He works with personal injury lawsuits, apparently achieving admiration from his clients and his peers. He‘s considered a good lawyer.“ I set down my note pad and sighed. “That’s about it.”
“You’ve learned a lot. Congratulations!” She smiled and I smiled back. “What are you going to do next?”
“I’m going to go back and see my nephew. And then, I don’t think there’s any two ways around it, I’m going to have to go meet Eileen and David.”
Miss Hattie’s eyebrows almost came together. “That sounds a little dangerous. Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Yes, I do. At least I think I do! And I’ll come back here next Tuesday and tell you all about it, assuming I get that done in the next seven days.”
The rest of our conversation was about the weather and long-ago teaching experiences. Since I didn’t want to out-stay my welcome, I ended it after an hour. Miss Hattie expressed her appreciation of my visit and walked me to the door. As I was putting on my shoes, she said, “You be careful now. You don’t know how those people might react if you start asking questions they don’t want to answer.”
“I will,” I promised. I grabbed the handle and opened the door. “I’ll come to see you next week.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Miss Hattie closed her door and I waited to hear that the dead bolt turned and the chain rattled over the slide. Then I returned to my apartment.
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.