From Charlie's Point Of View
Chapter One: Scene 1: Bernadette
Bernadette Lyall reaches out one skinny purple-pyjama-covered arm to shut off her alarm clock. Now it is official. The school year has begun. While she was asleep, it was still summer, but now it is 7:00 and a new term beckons. Actually, it doesn't beckon, it grabs her and drags her forward like a big dog on a leash.
New school: Schuyler Colfax Middle School. New teachers, new classmates. They'll have to take a bus to get there. Six stops. And the school is so big -- you could fit the entire population of Kim Campbell Elementary into one of the new corridors. She hopes she'll be able to get the two of them from classroom to classroom without losing their way.
The two of them. Bernadette Lyall and Charles Fairmile. Bernie and Charlie. Inseparable since kindergarten. Of course he'd be lost without her, but she can't imagine school without him either. Bernadette sits up straight and pushes her hair off her face. There's a lot of hair to push. Bernadette's hair is like the wall in the song -- so high, you can't get over it, so wide you can't get around it. Dark as night, and almost as scary. She slides out of bed without rumpling the covers. Her clothes are laid out from last night: black top, black pants, black socks. All her clothes are black, except her underwear. It is white. Mom doesn't believe in little girls wearing black underwear.
"It makes you look like a tramp," she said last month in the neighborhood discount store, a converted movie theatre down the block from their apartment building.
Bernadette hates that store. The aisles are sticky from thirty years of chewing gum and spilled soda. Fat moms paw through ripped plastic bags, and yell at their children, who ignore them. The smell of chemical disinfectant mixes with old popcorn and cigarette smoke. They have shopped there as long as Bernadette can remember.
"Aw, Mom," she said. "No one will see it."
"And anyway, you wear black underwear, Mom."
Bernadette stares at herself in the cracked bathroom mirror: skin and bones and freckles, a button nose, and hair that won't stay combed. Oh, well.
Strangely, Mom is up early, and, even more strangely, in a good mood. Wrapped in a rainbow-coloured robe, she leans back against the counter. Coffee cup at her elbow, cigarette in her mouth. Dreamy look in her eyes.
"Hey there, hon! How are you this morning? Grab yourself some cereal. There's Froot Loops. Let me get out of your way so you can sit down. I mean, how the hell are you?" The cigarette bobs jauntily in her mouth when she speaks. Bernadette is careful to keep her hair away from the lit end -- not an easy task in a kitchen the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.
"Great. That's great." She chuckles. "Just great. Have some cereal."
"Mom, how many of your pills have you had?"
She laughs so hard she starts to cough. Bernadette pours herself some cereal. Mom finishes coughing and spits into the pitted metal sink. "Don't make me laugh when I'm inhaling," she says.
"No pills, you little monkey. I'm feeling too good. I had a wonderful sleep. Did you have a wonderful sleep? How are you this morning? Oh, yeah, you told me. Fine. Sheeh, I'm better than fine. I woke up with the biggest smile on my face, I tell you. See, I had this dream."
Bernadette has overheard her mom describing dreams to friends. They often involve soap opera stars. "Mom, I don't need to --"
"It was about your father." She smiles broadly, remembering all over again. "I was killing him, the little rattlesnake. With my bare hands."
The apartment door, four years ago. Afternoon. Sun shining through the living room window, making a diamond pattern on the floor. A wiry little man with greasy hair and scarred knuckles from a fight. "Well, bye," he says.
"I'll see you, sometime."
"Get the hell out of here, Gary, ya bum!" Mom called from the living room.
The divorce never came through. Bernadette's parents were still married. There wasn't a day she didn't think of it.
Sun's around the other side of the apartment building this morning. The kitchen window faces west. Bernadette checks the best-before date before pouring the milk. Her mom notices.
"Honestly, honey, you are a picky one. You're like what's her name's daughter. You know her, the cashier at the money mart. She has a daughter, thirteen, like you, and -- Edna, that's her name. Not the daughter, the cashier. Her daughter’s name is Anastasia, and she actually checks the due date on cough syrup! Would you believe it? And Tylenol. We had a good laugh about that."
Bernadette spoons Froot Loops into her mouth. Her mom butts out the cigarette, and goes over to pour herself another cup of coffee.
"Yes, it was a great dream. There he was on his knees, Gary Lyall, my lawfully wedded husband, with his head tilted back, and my hands around his neck. You know how you can do anything in a dream? Fly, even? Well, I could keep your father down on his knees, and I stood over him with my hands around his neck, and I was squeezing like a son of a gun, and --"
"What? It's not real, honey. It's a dream. Don't go thinking I'd kill anyone in real life. I'm too gentle. I revere life. I heard a woman say that on TV. I revere life, she said, looking up to heaven. A gospel singer, big as a whale, but with the voice of an angel. I feel just like her. I revere life. I couldn't kill." She slurps coffee. "Though if I was going to kill anyone, it'd be your father. His eyes'd bug out, like they did in the dream. And then I'd --"
"Mom, I'm eating here."
Speaking of which, there's something funny about the Froot Loops. They should have gone soggy by now, but something in her mouth is crunching. Bernadette opens the cereal box and stares inside.
"Aw, Mom. Look! There's things with legs in here. In my bowl too."
"How many of 'em?"
"I don't know. Lots. Ew." She feels around the inside of her mouth with her tongue.
"No, hon, I meant how many legs? Six legs ... eight legs ... a million legs ...."
Her mouth seems clean. Bernadette pokes around the bowl with her spoon. Floating black things. Why didn't she notice? "They're insects, Mom. Six legs I guess. One, two, three, four.... I only see four legs." She swallows. "Geesh, I wonder if I could have ... "
Her mom gazes out the window, a dreamy look still on her face, smoke spiralling up into the air. Not paying a lot of attention. "Four legs. Hmm. Deer have four legs. And they travel in herds, don't they? I saw a news special about deer in cities. They're in the big parks, and sometimes they wander out into the streets. They can be a real hazard to traffic."
Bernadette frowns at her mother. What can you do? It's like Mom's head is a big house filled with different rooms. Sometimes she gets lost in there. She was a pretty girl. There's a framed picture on her dresser, Mom and some long-haired guy at an amusement park. She's eighteen or nineteen, wearing a polka-dot top and blue jeans, and smiling. Sometimes Bernadette wonders what happened to the pretty girl in the picture.
Mom sighs now, and scratches herself. The synthetic material of the red bathrobe rustles. "Funny, I'd have thought we were too far downtown for deer."
Bernadette pushes away her cereal bowl. "I think I'll brush my teeth and go get Charlie.
Scene 2: Charlie
Charlie's kitchen is the same size and shape as Bernadette's. Unlike hers, it is warm and welcoming. And, as far as he can tell, spotless. The counters are clean under his fingers, the floor is freshly polished so that his socks glide over it. The juice glass in front of him squeaks with cleanliness. Charlie's plate is almost empty now, but it was filled with nourishing scrambled eggs and toast. The radio behind him is tuned to a classical music station -- a modern chamber work playing quietly.
Charlie's mother stands behind him. He can feel her warm breath on the back of his neck. He can feel her gaze: tender and kind of, well, crazy. "How are the eggs? Too dry?" she asks.
"No, they're fine."
"What about the toast?"
"You're wearing the dark outfit today," she says.
"It looks nice. The stripes in the shirt are very tasteful. You know, they're the same colour as the frames of your sunglasses."
"Uh huh." He doesn't care in the least.
"Gladys!" His father's voice, a light baritone, sounding unusually upset. "Look at this! I’ve got holes in all my black socks!”
"Oh, Roger. Are you sure, dear? Oh, dear."
Charlie hears a clatter by the sink and his mother's footsteps fading as she leaves the room. Is he finished? Did his plate make the clatter? He reaches out cautiously. His father's plate is there, but Charlie's placemat, still warm from the plate, is empty.
"I guess I'm finished," he says. Charlie's point of view depends mostly on hearing, touch, smell, and imagination.. What he actually sees of the world is:
Charlie is blind. Stone blind, bottom of a midnight well blind. He has been from birth. It doesn't really bother him. How could it? He doesn't know what he's missing, any more than you know what it's like to be telepathic. No you don't.
He reaches for his napkin. He folds the unused paper square in half to make a triangle, then folds two sides of the triangle towards the middle. He hears his parents talking. Dad is running late. Mom is sympathetic. She always is. Charlie folds the napkin three more times, producing a slightly lopsided crane.
Roger Fairmile enters the room. "Son, I'm sorry." What's that smell? Charlie wrinkles his nose.
"That's okay, Dad."
"You don't even know what I'm apologizing for."
"Don't be smart, Charlie. I'm late for work. It's already ...."
"8:14," says Charlie.
"And I'm nowhere ready to leave. First I cut myself shaving. Then I broke a belt loop, so I had to change into yesterday's pants; and then I spilt cologne all over. And now I can’t find any black socks without holes. My morning is a mess. And I’ve got an early meeting about security. I'm going to have to take a cab to make it on time."
Charlie's dad works in a bank. He is an assistant to the assistant branch manager. He's not supposed to wear the same suit two days in a row. It's company policy.
"That's okay, Dad. Bernadette and I will take the bus by ourselves."
"That's what I'm getting at. Do you think you can?"
"Of course," says Charlie. "We've practised. We know the route. We've lived in the city all our lives. And we're fourteen years old, you know. We're not kids."
“I wanted to meet your teacher. He’s supposed to be very good. Very innovative.”
“You can meet him some other time, Dad.”
“I suppose so.”
"Are you sure you’ll be okay?” asks his mom. “Are you sure, Charlie?” She works in a daycare. She spends a lot of time asking people if they are sure.
“Sure I’m sure.”
“Well, if you’re sure. You will be there to pick him up, Roger? Won’t you?”
“Hmm hmmm,” says Dad with his mouth full. “I’m sure too.”
“That’s good.” She approaches, sniffing the air. "Are you really wearing ... cologne, Roger?" she asks, in a suddenly husky voice. "You don't usually."
"They were giving out samples at the bank yesterday. Some kind of promotion. I wanted to surprise you."
"I'm surprised all right," says Charlie.
"No, not you. Do you like it, Gladys, my aproned angel?"
"Oh, my financial turtle dove, I do. I know you’re late, but I can’t resist that smell." She inhales deeply. "Mmm, I do like it. Very musty."
They kiss deeply, noisily. Charlie shakes his head. "You know, there are times when I'm really glad I'm blind."
"Mmm. Kiss me again, you fiduciary Adonis," says Gladys.
"I love it when you talk that way."
The couple continue to kiss passionately behind Charlie, who is, for now, forgotten at table. The traffic noise rises from the street below. The clock ticks. Their sighs deepen.
The music starts up again. Something lively, with trumpets.
Charlie clears his throat. "You folks about done?"
They stumble, and bump against the table. The butter dish moves. His father swears.
Charlie hears Bernadette's special knock at the front door. "Time for me to go," he says. Crossing to the fridge, he takes his lunch from the regular shelf on the left, closes the fridge door and walks steadily to the hall. He doesn’t have to count paces at home – he knows the apartment better than you know your pocket -- and yet he can’t help noticing how many steps it is from the kitchen to the hall closet. Sixteen. At the beginning of the summer it was seventeen. He’s grown again. He can remember when it was twenty paces. He can remember when it was more than he could count.
Roger hurries after him. Charlie hears his footsteps, then his voice. "Wait up, son."
He turns, points his face at his father.
"Let me help you get ready. Here's your knapsack."
He holds it out for Charlie, who shrugs into the straps. "Thanks."
"And your white cane. Got your what-is-it – the braille computer?”
"My Louis Light? It’s in the knapsack, Dad."
"Oh, yeah. Pretty heavy."
A small silence.
"I want you to know that I'm really proud of you, Charlie. With Bernadette around, you'll do just fine today. I know you will." He coughs, embarrassed.
"You guys did great at the practice session. Right up until the end, that is."
"Now I've got to go and change my shirt. There's butter all down the sleeve. I'll see you after school, okay?"
"And, son, remember what I told you. When you get to the classroom, find a place you can hear."
Footsteps fade towards his parents' bedroom.
Excerpted from Charlie’s Point Of View by Richard Scrimger. Copyright © 2005 by Richard Scrimger. Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.