Mrs. Wakeham

Michael Collins
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2nd place, Cuffer Prize 2010

Mrs. Wakeham came in from bingo and put the kettle on. It was a cold night, the bones in her legs hurt. She put her good raglan back in the closet to hang, stiff-shouldered, until Mass, Saturday coming.

She slid a tin of Danish butter cookies from behind her big Bible. She turned the lid, turned Copenhagen out of sight, and added her winnings to a wad of money bound with a rubber band. A St. Anne de Beaupres card was wedged inside as well. Mrs. Wakeham sealed the tin and adjusted the Bible in front so it was safe again.

She went into her dark bedroom. Light from the hall formed a long triangle across the floor, light glinting in the glass covering her dead husband’s photo.

Her children gave her that picture on her 80th birthday, at the Star of the Sea. There was a sheet cake from the supermarket. In the picture he was young, firm-jawed, black and white. People still remarked how good a man he’d been. How sudden it was he died. He dropped. He worked at a sawmill and then at a whale factory and then at the American base, which is where the pension came from.

Mrs. Wakeham worked too. She’d been the school nurse. She had the right qualities for the job, which was all it took to have a job back then. She was firm with children, neat about her person, kept competent records. She was sensible and effective in a crisis. You can go to pieces later, was her motto.

The kettle in the kitchen started a low moan, halfway to boiling. The water chattered to itself.

She loved being the nurse, it was Nurse what people called her. She loved dispensing little cures, soothing little wounds. Antiseptics and bandages, the small authority of these things. People were courteous to her. She was not a pitiable creature.

People asked where she found the time. She said she didn’t know, but really the question was silly. Time is never found. Time is something everyone has. You never go looking for it, like it’s fortune or favour or a lost button. It just is.

The school was a little building when she started, girls to the east, boys the west. It was next to the convent and every morning the Hail Mary and Our Father were said. Sometimes, after staff meetings, Sister Ramona worked the piano and sang in an airy, high voice. Like her voice was trying to reach somewhere, like all the might Sister Ramona had in her body was now in the air, stretching, stretching. They all sang. There was tea and Mary Mulrooney who lived next to the school would sometimes bring in sandwiches and sit for a spell. Mrs. Wakeham was always happy to be there.

Then she had her babies and thought it proper to leave the school. People still called her Nurse Donna when they met her and she was too polite to correct anyone.

When the last child left to work on the boats, Mrs. Wakeham marched up to the school and said she would come back now.

It was around this time that Mr. Wakeham passed so suddenly.

They’d moved the school out onto the highway, made it bigger. Children from other places were sent there, buses every morning and afternoon. Things were regulated. There was a district school board answerable to a provincial department. Mrs. Wakeham had no degree, so it was not acceptable for her to be school nurse again.

“Frankly, it’s a wonder they let her be nurse in the first place.”

The library did need looking after and they would be happy to take Mrs. Wakeham on, in the capacity of a volunteer of course. Mrs. Wakeham bought three new skirts and blouses from the life insurance and showed up on the first Monday of September when the sun was cracking open the eastern hills.

At school she carried a St. Christopher’s medal with her and kept a crucifix under her blouse. This was proper. There were still a few nuns and brothers teaching but most of the teachers were just ordinary people. Only one of the sisters from the old days was still there and she was retiring. It wasn’t the same, she said, since they took away her strap. Children have no respect for you if you don’t use the strap. Sometimes she said they’d soon force the Church out of schools altogether. Mrs. Wakeham always exhaled slowly at this notion.

It was all different. The piano Sister Ramona used to play had fallen out of tune. Sister Ramona was retired and living in Quebec, people said. Mrs. Wakeham was not invited to staff meetings. Mary Mulrooney was in the home.

Late one afternoon she was heading to the principal’s office to return the paper guillotine she’d borrowed. It was 4:30. Poor Miss Lake was in the teacher’s lounge straining her eyes over her timetable, her forehead in her left hand. It was winter and light failed early. Miss Lake was a pitiable creature. She drove 40 minutes each way to be at the school. Mrs. Wakeham worried about her. She would never find a husband, probably.

Mrs. Wakeham had a key to the principal’s office because it adjoined the supply room. The principal was very keen on monitoring the school’s paper use. The board gave them a quota and would send a letter if it was exceeded. The school was silent. The fluorescent lights hummed very loudly.

The principal was a former Brother. Mrs. Wakeham was never sure how to address him. She didn’t like how yellow and uneven his fingernails were. There is no excuse for untidiness, even in a bachelor.

Mrs. Wakeham unlocked the door and stepped into the office. The principal was sitting at his desk very neatly, like he’d been expecting her. His hands were clasped in front of him like a child praying. The muscles in his face smiled.

Young Billy O’Keefe stood to one side like a guilty party. His eyes were on the floor.

Mrs. Wakeham was captivated by the clasp his right hand made around his left wrist, the little tendons, the thin white-blond hairs.

“Mrs. Wakeham!”

“Good evening sir, pardon me, I thought you was gone,” Mrs. Wakeham said.

Billy O’Keefe’s shirt was half-untucked, she noticed. His hand still sealed his wrist. There was no motion.

“I’ll just leave this here.” She hefted the guillotine and let it clunk to the solid wood desk. The blade shifted with the weight of it. She turned and left. She was halfway down the hall when she heard the door shut. Miss Lake was still in the staffroom. She hadn’t moved at all.

Mrs. Wakeham left the school shortly after this, and was given a plaque for her service.

The kettle was calling her now, wordless, the light from the open door and a wail, if she had forgotten.


Michael Collins is working on a PhD in English literature. His writing has recently appeared in the Newfoundland Quarterly and in Rattling Book’s “EarLit” anthology. He is the 2009 recipient of the Lawrence Jackson Memorial Writer’s Award. His story, “The Last Islander,” received an honorable mention in Cuffer Prize 2010.

He lives in Placentia. 

Geographic location: Copenhagen, Quebec, Newfoundland Quarterly Placentia

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Recent comments

  • Crystal Hilliard
    November 27, 2010 - 13:40

    Wonderful piece Michael. Good job!!

  • Michael Collins
    November 27, 2010 - 09:23

    I'd like to thank the sponsors and judges of the Cuffer prize once more. The contest is a wonderful addition to the province's literary landscape. It is gratifying to see my story here, and I hope others will like it. "Slip," my contribution to Rattling Book's audio anthology EarLit 4, which you mention in my biographical blurb, is read by Joel Thomas Hynes (first place). So it is a neat bit of Cuffer 2010 two-fer-one.