The Stars Shine Down(7)


by Sidney Sheldon

The following Monday Big Bertha dropped her off at St. Anne's Grammar School, and Lara was taken to the principal's office.

"This is Lara Cameron."

The principal, Mrs. Cummings, was a middle-aged gray-haired widow with three children of her own. She studied the shabbily dressed little girl standing before her. "Lara. What a pretty name," she said, smiling. "How old are you, dear?"

"Six." She was fighting back tears.

The child is terrified, Mrs. Cummings thought. "Well, we're very glad to have you here, Lara. You'll have a good time, and you're going to learn a lot."

"I can't stay," Lara blurted out.

"Oh? Why not?"

"My papa misses me too much." She was fiercely determined not to cry.

"Well, we'll only keep you here for a few hours a day."

Lara allowed herself to be taken into a classroom filled with children, and she was shown to a seat near the back of the room.

Miss Terkel, the teacher, was busily writing letters on a blackboard.

"A is for apple," she said. "B is for boy. Does anyone know what C is for?"

A tiny hand was raised. "Candy."

"Very good! And D?"

"Dog."

"And E?"

"Eat."

"Excellent. Can anyone think of a word beginning with F?"

Lara spoke up. "Fuck."

Lara was the youngest one in her class, but it seemed to Miss Terkel that in many ways she was the oldest. There was a disquieting maturity about her.

"She's a small adult, waiting to grow taller," her teacher told Mrs. Cummings.

The first day at lunch, the other children took out their colorful little lunch pails and pulled out apples and cookies and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.

No one had thought to pack a lunch for Lara.

"Where is your lunch, Lara?" Miss Terkel asked.

"I'm not hungry," Lara said stubbornly. "I had a big breakfast."

Most of the girls at school were nicely dressed in clean skirts and blouses. Lara had outgrown her few faded plaid dresses and threadbare blouses. She had gone to her father.

"I need some clothes for school," Lara said.

"Dae ye now? Weel, I'm nae made of money. Get yourself something frae the Salvation Army Citadel."

"That's charity, Papa."

And her father had slapped her hard across the face.

The children at school were familiar with games Lara had never even heard of. The girls had dolls and toys, and some of them were willing to share them with Lara, but she was painfully aware that nothing belonged to her. And there was something more. Over the next few years Lara got a glimpse of a different world, a world where children had mothers and fathers who gave them presents and birthday parties and loved them and held them and kissed them. And for the first time Lara began to realize how much was missing in her life. It only made her feel lonelier.

The boardinghouse was a different kind of school. It was an international microcosm. Lara learned to tell where the boarders came from by their names. Mac was from Scotland...Hodder and Pyke were from Newfoundland...Chiasson and Aucoin were from France...Dudash and Kosick from Poland. The boarders were lumbermen, fishermen, miners, and tradesmen. They would gather in the large dining room in the morning for breakfast and in the evening for supper, and their talk was fascinating to Lara. Each group seemed to have its own mysterious language.

There were thousands of lumbermen in Nova Scotia, scattered around the peninsula. The lumbermen at the boardinghouse smelled of sawdust and burnt bark, and they spoke of arcane things like chippers and edging and trim.

"We should get out almost two hundred million board feet this year," one of them announced at supper.

"How can feet be bored?" Lara asked.

There was a roar of laughter. "Child, board foot is a piece of lumber a foot square by an inch thick. When you grow up and get married, if you want to build a five-room, all-wood house, it will take twelve thousand board feet."

"I'm not going to get married," Lara swore.

The fishermen were another breed. They returned to the boardinghouse stinking of the sea, and they talked about the new experiment of growing oysters on the Bras d'Or Lake and bragged to one another of their catches of cod and herring and mackerel and haddock.

But the boarders who fascinated Lara the most were the miners. There were thirty-five hundred miners in Cape Breton, working the collieries at Lingan and Prince and Phalen. Lara loved the names of the mines. There was the Jubilee and the Last Chance and the Black Diamond and the Lucky Lady.

She was fascinated by their discussion of the day's work.

"What's this I hear about Mike?"

"It's true. The poor bastard was traveling inbye in a man-rake, and a box jumped the track and crushed his leg. The son of a bitch of a foreman said it was Mike's fault for not gettin' out of the way fast enough, and he's having his lamp stopped."

Lara was baffled. "What does that mean?"

One of the miners explained. "It means Mike was on his way to work - going inbye - in a man-rake - that's a car that takes you down to your working level. A box - that's a coal train - jumped the track and hit him."

"And stopped his lamp?" Lara asked.

The miner laughed. "When you've had your lamp stopped, it means you've been suspended."

When Lara was fifteen, she entered St. Michael's High School. She was gangly and awkward, with long legs, stringy black hair, and intelligent gray eyes still too large for her pale, thin face. No one quite knew how she was going to turn out. She was on the verge of womanhood, and her looks were in a stage of metamorphosis. She could have become ugly or beautiful.

To James Cameron, his daughter was ugly. "Ye hae best marry the first mon fool enough to ask ye," he told her. "Ye'll nae hae the looks to make a guid bargain."

Lara stood there, saying nothing.

"And tell the poor mon nae to expect a dowry frae me."

Mungo McSween had walked into the room. He stood there listening, furious.

"That's all, girl," James Cameron said. "Gae back to the kitchen."

Lara fled.

"Why dae ye dae that to your daughter?" McSween demanded.

James Cameron looked up, his eyes bleary. "Nane of your business."

"You're drunk."