Memories of a summer at Plage Laval, near Montreal.
Billy McLean’s already nine. I’m only eight, but I’ll be nine in the fall: October 8, 1953.
Billy’s not scared of anything! He even talks back to his mother. I would never do that. I like to do things with him every summer—we have adventures. He’s easy to find, because his cabin’s attached to ours, in the back.
Billy’s very skinny. He’s got millions of freckles on his face, like stars in the sky. And he’s got orange hair like his mother. He doesn’t have a father.
Billy’s mother never smiles.
One morning I go around and tap at his screen door, like I usually do. He comes out, wiping milk from his mouth with his sleeve. His mother’s voice sounds like sandpaper: “Make sure you’re back for lunch, Billy!” He just brushes past me, and keeps on walking. He mumbles something that sounds like “She’s always pickin’ on me,” but I’m not sure.
We head for the road, Billy walking fast, like he has something very important to do. I have to run a little bit to keep up.
“Where we goin’, Billy? What are we gonna do, Billy?” I gotta know what he’s planning, don’t I?
He pays me no attention. When he gets this way, I just shut up. Now he slows down. He’s staring at the ground, and all of a sudden he stops and crouches and points at something.
“Look at this!”
I bend down to look. “Eww!”
“’S’matter? You don’t like ants?” he asks, like he’s daring me to say Yes I do. I stare at all those ants with their millions of little legs. Uh-oh, is this one of Billy’s tests? If I say I hate them, he’s gonna call me a stupid name… But if I lie, and say I like them, he might—
“Look! They’re neat!” He picks up a small branch and lays an end of it near one of the ants. I watch as it bumps up onto the stick and continues along, aiming straight for Billy’s hand. Now it races across his hand, up his forearm. Ugh! I can’t stand it; I grab Billy’s shoulder.
“Stop!” I yell. “Yuck, stop it!”
He calmly flicks the ant off his arm with a finger.
“Aw, don’t be such a baby,” he says.
A baby! I hate when somebody calls me that. “Well… it’s… it’s dirty.” I don’t want him to think I’m afraid of them or anything. He just snorts, as if to say, What can you expect from a girl.
Then we decide to visit the hideout. Actually, Billy decides, and I go along.
It’s hard to find the hideout if you don’t know it’s there. You have to know where to turn off the road at just the right field. You have to know where the wire fence is loose at the bottom so you can crawl under it. You have to know which way to turn in the tall grass and weeds that go up to your knees. And you have to know that this weedy stuff has a lot of burrs in it, so you would’ve worn long pants or knee socks before going there in the first place.
Finally we reach the hideout and crawl inside. We sit and rest, and pick burrs out of our pants and socks. The hideout’s made of old wood. The pieces don’t match up very well, and you have to watch out for all the nails sticking out, but we don’t care.
The hideout was Billy’s idea, a place where we could go to get away from grownups for a while. Where we could make noise, be messy, and stuff like that. We got together with some kids from down the road and built it, all by ourselves. Billy was the boss and told us what to do. He’s so smart.
So we’re in here, looking over some old comics for a while, and then Billy yawns and stretches and says those wonderful words:
“Think I’ll go to Kosy Korner. Get some French fries.”
Oh happy day! I follow him out of the hideout, back across the field to the road. And all the way to the restaurant, my most favourite restaurant, I can just about taste those yummy fries already, so crispy and salty. Mummy and Daddy hardly ever take me there, and I don’t have money to buy some for myself. But Billy always has money. Sometimes he shares his fries with me, if I’m lucky.
I love going into Kosy Korner with Billy. It’s sort of like—maybe a “date,” like my big cousin Laura has dates. He walks over to the stools at the counter, the money jingling in his pocket. I see the usual signs on the wall: 7-Up, the Export Scottish lady, the Player’s bearded sailor. I see the fat bags of Humpty Dumpty chips on a wire stand, and piles of Mae West cakes and Black Beauties in their glass case on a shelf. The jukebox in the corner’s playing “I Love You, a Bushel and a Peck.”
I look over at Billy. He’s sitting on the stool at the end, and there’re no more empty ones. Guess I’ll have to stand again. This happens a lot because this place has only six stools and all the truck drivers come here and take up all the stools and the few tables, too. The men are joking around with Lucille, the waitress. She’s so beautiful, like a movie star; she has shiny, blond wavy hair and red, red lipstick. Anyway, I take my place right behind Billy and I wait for Lucille to bring him his fries.
Here they are!—crispy, brown, steaming hot, falling over the sides of their small cardboard cup. My stomach’s growling. I feel like the Little Match Girl from that fairy tale Mummy reads to me. I know I have to be very patient now. If I wait long enough, Billy might decide to share. I watch as, one by one, each chip goes from the box up to Billy’s mouth and disappears inside, and he chews with wet slurping sounds. Up, in, and slurp. Up, in, and slurp. I want one so much, I think I’m gonna faint. Finally I can’t stand it anymore.
I lean over. “Uh, Billy,” I say, “could I…may I have one? Maybe just a… little one?” I whisper this right into his ear, because I don’t want everybody to know I have to beg for a fry from my “date”!
It works! Billy makes a face and passes a fat one back to me. Mmm, that tastes great! I just love these fries so much. I decide I’m going to be braver, and I stick my hand around and in front of him, waiting for more. Sure enough, he plops another fry into my hand. Okay, I see it has a black mark on one side of it, but I don’t care, I’ll eat around it.
In this way I manage to get another couple of fries from him before they’re all gone. Then it’s time to pay, and Billy as usual gives Lucille the ten cents.
Lucille says, “Hey, you must be a rich kid, huh? This is about the third time this week you’re in here.” Billy just shrugs at her, and we leave and head back home.
It’s later in the day when the terrible thing happens. It’s after supper. Mummy’s gone down the road to visit with Mrs. Campbell. I get bored when I go there, so I stay behind. I play some solitaire. Then I feel like going outside so I go around to the side of the cabin and sit on the big lawn swing. I start to swing but then I hear loud noises coming from the back, where Billy lives. I stop dead and listen; my mouth’s open ’cause I hear better like that.
There are smacking sounds, there are cries… and a real angry lady, yelling. I get more and more curious, so I tiptoe along the cabin wall towards the back. The noises get louder. When I reach the end of the wall I peek around the edge until I can just see—oh no! There’s Billy, screaming, crying, his face all red. There’s his very mad mother, her face is red too. And there’s something in her hand, a belt, and she’s whacking him on his behind. She’s standing in the middle of the grass, holding on tight to his wrist, and he’s running around her in circles trying to get away from that belt. She yells and she hits, it sounds like this:
“How many times/Whap!—have I/Whap!—told you/Whap!—not to/Whap!—take my money/Whap!—from my/Whap!—purse!!!/Whap!!!
And then Billy looks over and sees me. It’s only for about a second but in that one second I think I see that he hates me. I turn and run.
I run into our cabin, into my room and onto my bed, and I cry a little bit and I think a lot.
When Mummy gets home, I tell her what happened. We talk about how Billy did a bad thing, stealing money from his mother. I tell Mummy I would never do that. And then she helps me decide that I won’t be Billy’s “date” anymore at Kosy Korner. She says she and Daddy will take me there every weekend ’cause I like those fries so much.
We talk some more about if I should still play with him or not. I tell her I still want to be his friend because we have such great adventures and if I can’t play with him, I’ll prob’ly be bored. She says Okay, playing with him is fine. So that’s what I’m doing. But the funny thing is that I don’t think he’s so smart anymore.
Tomorrow – for a change – I’m gonna play with Anna, from down the road. Her cat had kittens!