Lawrence Russell


§§ Let me confess: you're looking at that photo of me and my brother Maxime who's wearing a dress. That's the way it was in those days, little kids wore dresses, didn't matter if they were a boy or a girl. He's very young there, perhaps two because he can stand up. Do you know what I did? I put him in a bucket and swung him around and around. It had a rope on the handle, so I swung him really wide, around and around until I was sick with it and was tottering.

Why did I do that? Do I look like a bad girl? That was a bad thing. I still think about it, and feel guilty, and you know that was eighty years ago. Yes. And I don't know if he's alive or dead today.

See my pretty shoes? Black patent leather, nice and shiny. I'm five there. Well, I look five.

Why did I do that? Must've been jealous, I suppose. I was the youngest and then he came along. You know I can still see that zinc bucket like it's sitting out there on the deck. Later, when I came over here, he'd send me letters complaining about how difficult things were, always money problems, always stuff about our dad. They thought I was rich because for a while I sent my dad a hundred bucks a month and after he died they thought I would send it to them... and I did once or twice, because I felt guilty. We couldn't afford it, we weren't rich, although they think everybody over here is rich.

Yes, that's my dad there. He's wearing a uniform because he was in the what-do-you-call-it, the Home Guard, or Civil Defence. The Germans took him away for forced labour in Normandy but he got along well with the Captain, who made it easy for him. They'd sit and smoke and have a drink and look across the water at England. That Captain hated the war, and they shot him for being a traitor. Yes. My dad did o.k. and he got out of it all without a scratch, which was just like him. My mother and me ran the bar all by ourselves, and we had Germans staying upstairs where the billiards room used to be. They just took it over, and they wrecked the beautiful staircase with their boots. Four years. Seemed like forever.

Maxime was too young so they left him alone. He had odd jobs, and he was involved in the black market. That's how I met Mats. When the Canadians came, they were hanging around before going into Holland, and they were selling stuff so they could go drinking. Mats sold the radio out of his tank and Maxime brought him around to the bar... so I suppose I owe him that. Before he left, Mats gave Maxime his pistol because there were a lot of rough customers around, it was quite lawless at the end of the war. I guess he sold it. I guess he did, because he never went to jail or nothing for shooting someone, and he never had any money.

Good photos, aren't they? Taken by a professional. We look sort of sad, don't we? In those days you had to stand still, or the photo was blurry, and you couldn't hold a smile forever, could you?

I was very glad to get away from Belgium. I just worked from dawn to dusk, washing the floors and setting up the beer kegs in the cellar, and then working behind the bar. It was nothing but work all the time. Sometimes I'd ride my bicycle into Bruges on an errand with a girlfriend, but I never got out much. My childhood lasted about 5 years. They took me out of the convent school when I was fourteen to stay at home and work in the bar. Yes. Fourteen. That's the way it was. And really I was working from five years old, baby-sitting and running errands, and later washing floors. One thing, though, it was quite a classy place we had there, part of a chain. I understand it doesn't exist anymore. Knocked down, something else there now.

I received a letter from Maxime saying my dad wanted to come over and visit, so we sent him a ticket, and he did come for two months. He was a rascal, you know. He pinched Mabel Crocker's bum went she stopped by for a visit. Yes. My mum was dead by then of course but he was always a rascal. He cashed in the return part of his ticket and we had to buy him another to get him back to Belgium. He took the train to Montreal but instead of staying in the hotel we'd booked, he cashed that in, then went to a monastery and stayed for free. He knew he could do that somehow. And you know he got his funeral for free too as we paid for that. I sent the money to Maxime and apparently it wasn't enough, but it was all we could afford, so I never answered Maxime's letter about it. No, I've never been back, and honestly I don't have the desire to visit. You can imagine why.

Still, I feel guilty. I had another brother, you know. Older. Phillipe. He died when he was four or five. SIDS, I think. I was in the bed with him and didn't know, thought he was just sleeping. But could it have been SIDS? I don't know, must've been something else. 1927. I was three.

No, they're all gone, although I don't know about Maxime. I couldn't speak to him anymore now because I've forgotten the language anyway. I locked him in one of the stables at the back after school one day, and it turned out his arm was broken from playing soccer. That was mean, wasn't it? I didn't know his arm was broken when I did that and it's hard to understand what I was thinking. The devil, I guess. The devil just showed up, told me what to do. Just like the bucket, and you know I can never look at one of those buckets without seeing what I did to him. Fortunately buckets are plastic these days, so I'm not feeling as guilty.

Listen to me, would you... it's like I'm talking to the priest and I haven't talked to one since I left Belgium.

Well daughter dearest, if you want these pictures, better take them now, because who knows where all this stuff will disappear to when I'm gone. Take them, and take any of the others you want.

Yes, we were pretty good-looking. Mats Jnr. your brother looked quite a bit like Maxime. Funny thing happened to me the other day. I was looking through the pockets of your dad's jackets to see if he left me a message, because I think he would have, you know. The last time I saw him in the hospital he told me not to worry, to go home, get some sleep and we'd talk more next visit. He must've known there'd be no next visit, I'm thinking... so he would leave me a message, I think. But all I found was this letter from my brother Maxime, one I'd never read... maybe Mats had kept it back from me, because Maxime was asking for money. He said he was sick, was having bad headaches, and trouble controlling his diabetes. Same old stuff. I guess Mats figured I'd feel guilty and put a money order in the mail.

But I wouldn't, you know. Not now.

It's strange how diabetes runs in my family, yet I've never got it and you neither, and yet it got Mats Jnr. last summer. They tried to revive him, did everything they could. When the ambulance went away I thought he'd be back like always.

My voice is shaking, isn't it? First it was Mats, your dad... then two years later, your brother, Mats Junior. My husband and my son, gone. I know you wonder why I cry so much, but it's hard not to. It gets awful lonely. Every time I look into the field I'm looking for Mats or Mats Junior and you know it's just like they've gone off someplace and they'll be back. I keep thinking that, they'll be back.

I saw a man crossing through the field the other day swinging a piece of plastic pipe and there was something familiar about him, the way he walked or something, just like Mats Junior. The pipe or tube or whatever it was made a weird sound, not music, more like a bird or an animal at night. I got the binoculars, and do you know who it was? It was Maxime. Yes, my brother. Impossible. He looked about forty seven, same age as Junior when he died. Yes, impossible. I wanted to go out onto the deck and call out to him but I didn't have the strength to get out of my chair... I'd left my stick in the kitchen and I just didn't have the strength... I watched him disappear down by the pond, there, where the horses are, and the strange sound went with him.

I wanted to call out to him but I couldn't. Anyway, I don't speak the language no more.

Well, that's what I saw, that's what I heard. I suppose it must be an illusion.

Ah, look at my hand shaking. Please, take these photographs. Please. I don't need them anymore.

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Belgium © LR 2008