“Chapter 1: The Boarding House and how Mary arrived there.”
The Boarding House is The Sunshine Home for Disadvantaged Seniors, The Lonely and Other Infirm, located at 13 Dockmackie Square.
“The house was close to two centuries old and looked it. … Any repairmen who were called to fix this or that ran away at the first sight of the house.”
Mary Malone is 64, an “ermine-haired, slender woman of medium height … made up of pale, yet attractive, delicate features.”
She always smiles before she looks in the mirror, just as she always tells herself there are those worse off than her: at least she has a roof over her head.
She used to work in a St. John’s department store, a full-time employee of decades standing, but “was laid off when the department store owners filed for bankruptcy, moved their fortune to a foreign bank and themselves to an island in the Bahamas. She lost her income, her retirement, her employee discount and her Christmas turkey.”
She also lost her family home, in a betrayal that emerges as a significant plot point.
Impoverished, “it became nothing for her to steal food from a corner grocery store. Nothing for her to pick up a wallet from a trusting old woman’s purse that lay open and unattended in a supermarket cart, while the woman searched the shelves for a tin of chicken soup five cents cheaper.”
Mary works sporadically, paid under the table, in the dining room of a fashionable hotel. This allows her to scavenge food, and participate in a regular poker game (where she cheats).
In burden to her poverty, her housing options were even more limited than most, as she refused to go anywhere that barred her cat, Sophie. Mary told her social worker she’d rather sleep in her car. “’Wait,’ the worker commanded. Her eyes rested a moment on a framed photo of her beloved Golden Retriever. She wrote down an address and handed it to Mary. Her voice softened. ‘Try there.’”
Thus: 13 Dockmackie Square. Her roommates are Constance Hoddinott, non-stop knitter; Doris Lush, avid protester of senior social issues; Gus and Betty Butler, he a former plumber and all-round inventor, she a turquoise-bandannaed maker of love beads and astrology charts; and Eugene Vokey, who shares the attic with his dog, Duckie, and is the only one who answers the phone, as the others, fearing collection agencies, call out “I’m not here.”
They’re eking out an existence, but eking it together.
And then Mayor Benjamin Bellows announces 13 Dockmackie Square and its environs are being demolished to make room for a luxury hotel. “These St. John’s seniors … let’s be honest, they have no future. St. John’s is a vibrant city, full of young people. And, old people just don’t fit it with our revitalization theme.”
Best, really, to see them institutionalized. The elderly will have a roof over their heads and get their three squares — and no one will have to deal with them, or even look at them.
Mary and her roommates have no desire to be shipped off and housed, pet-less. But what they want, what they need, no one is going to give them. They’ll have to take it.
And soon the TV news is broadcasting reports of a rash of (often bungled) robberies. Experts are interviewed:
“It’s Troke, actually, Dr. Travis Troke. So, these supporters are obviously misguided and are just encouraging the criminal element. But, they’re not the ones I’m concerned about … it’s this group of seniors run amok. Normally, seniors are docile, law-abiding citizens. I believe what we’re seeing here is repressed rage, unfulfilled desires – like for motorcycles and sports cars – rebelliousness and obviously a twisted form of sexual release not uncommon in seniors, especially baby boomers.”
Meanwhile, Mary and her friends are still caught in official social services procedure, such as a home visit to assess their needs:
“I’m Mildred Peach, social worker. Okay, Mr. Vokey. Are you able to maintain the integrity of your social network?”
Constance jumped out of the armchair. “You made me forget Coronation Street. I’ve missed the first ten minutes.”
Mildred scribbled “hostile, aggressive behaviour and confrontational’”.
“That’s not what I asked you,” sputtered Mildred.
“What the hell did you ask me?” Eugene asked.
Mildred wrote “confusion” on their forms. “Would you mind turning off the television?”
“We can’t miss our story, dearie,” Constance answered.
‘Resistant’, Mildred wrote then asked in a voice a couple of octaves higher, “Do any of you have hypertension?”
“I will if you don’t be quiet and let me watch my story,” threatened Constance.
This is a self-published volume, and it does include repetitive errors, especially comma faults. And the page formatting is really off.
In arcs that might have been caught by some more informed editing, the mayor, city developers, and some family members are drawn with heavy one-note villainy, and is it really OK that Mary takes from characters often not much better off than herself?
But the main characters are a demographic not often written about, especially with such a lively tone.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.