Alice Munro's "Amundsen" Part 1

On the bench outside the station, I sat and waited. The station had been open when the train arrived, but now it was locked. Another woman sat at the end of the bench, holding between her knees a string bag full of parcels wrapped in oiled paper. Meat—raw meat. I could smell it. Across the tracks was the electric train, empty, waiting.No other passengers showed up, and after a while the stationmaster stuck his head out the station window and called, “San.” At first I thought he was calling a man’s name, Sam. And another man wearing some kind of official outfit did come around the end of the building. He crossed the tracks and boarded the electric car. The woman with the parcels stood up and followed him, so I did the same. There was a burst of shouting from across the street, and the doors of a dark-shingled flat-roofed building opened, letting loose several men, who were jamming caps on their heads and banging lunch buckets against their thighs. By the noise they were making, you’d have thought the car was going to run away from them at any minute. But when they settled on board nothing happened. The car sat while they counted one another and worked out who was missing and told the driver that he couldn’t go yet. Then somebody remembered that the missing man hadn’t been around all day. The car started, though I couldn’t tell if the driver had been listening to any of this, or cared. The men got off at a sawmill in the bush—it wouldn’t have been more than ten minutes’ walk—and shortly after that the lake came into view, covered with snow. A long, white, wooden building in front of it. The woman readjusted her packages and stood up, and I followed. The driver again called “San,” and the doors opened. A couple of women were waiting to get on. They greeted the woman with the meat, and she said that it was a raw day. All avoided looking at me as I climbed down behind the meat woman. The doors banged together, and the train started back. Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some small, untidy evergreens, rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment. But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray. “Where you heading?” the meat woman called to me. “Visiting hours are over at three.” “I’m not a visitor,” I said. “I’m the new teacher.” “Well, they won’t let you in the front door, anyway,” the woman said with some satisfaction. “You better come along with me. Don’t you have a suitcase?” “The stationmaster said he’d bring it later.” “The way you were just standing there—looked like you were lost.” I said that I had stopped because it was so beautiful. “Some might think so. ’Less they were too sick or too busy.” Nothing more was said until we entered the kitchen, at the far end of the building. I did not get a chance to look around me, because attention was drawn to my boots. “You better get those off before they track the floor.” I wrestled off the boots—there was no chair to sit down on—and set them on the mat where the woman had put hers. “Pick them up and bring them with you. I don’t know where they’ll be putting you. You better keep your coat on, too. There’s no heating in the cloakroom.” No heat, no light, except what came through a little window I could not reach. It was like being punished at school. Sent to the cloakroom. Yes. The same smell of winter clothing that never really dried out, of boots soaked through to dirty socks, unwashed feet. I climbed up on the bench but still could not see out. On the shelf where caps and scarves were thrown, I found a bag with some figs and dates in it. Somebody must have stolen them and stashed them here to take home. All of a sudden, I was hungry. Nothing to eat since morning, except for a dry cheese sandwich on the Ontario Northland. I considered the ethics of stealing from a thief. But the figs would catch in my teeth and betray me. I got myself down just in time. Somebody was entering the cloakroom. Not one of the kitchen help but a schoolgirl in a bulky winter coat, with a scarf over her hair. She came in with a rush—books dropped on the bench so that they scattered on the floor, scarf snatched off so that her hair sprang out in a tangle, and at the same time, it seemed, boots kicked loose and sent skittering across the floor. Nobody had got hold of her, apparently, to make her take them off at the kitchen door. “Oh, I wasn’t trying to hit you,” the girl said. “It’s so dark in here after outside, you don’t know what you’re doing. Aren’t you freezing? Are you waiting for somebody to get off work?” “I’m waiting to see Dr. Fox.” “Well, you won’t have to wait long. I just rode from town with him. You’re not sick, are you? If you’re sick you can’t come here. You have to see him in town.” “I’m the new teacher.” “Are you? Are you from Toronto?” “Yes.” There was a certain pause, perhaps of respect. But no. An examination of my coat. “That’s really nice. What’s that fur on the collar?” “Persian lamb. Actually, it’s imitation.” “Could have fooled me. I don’t know what they put you in here for—it’ll freeze your butt off. Excuse me. You want to see the doctor, I can show you the way. I know where everything is. I’ve lived here practically since I was born. My mother runs the kitchen. My name is Mary. What’s yours?” “Vivi. Vivien.” “If you’re a teacher, shouldn’t it be Miss? Miss what?” “Miss Hyde.” “Tan your hide,” she said. “Sorry, I just thought that up. I’d like it if you could be my teacher but I have to go to school in town. It’s the stupid rules. Because I’ve not got TB.” She was leading me, while she talked, through the door at the far end of the cloakroom, then along a regular hospital corridor. Waxed linoleum, dull green paint, an antiseptic smell. “Now you’re here, maybe I’ll get Reddy to let me switch.” “Who is Reddy?” “Reddy Fox. It’s out of a book. Me and Anabel just started calling Dr. Fox that.” “Who is Anabel?” “Nobody now. She’s dead.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “Not your fault. It happens around here. I’m in high school this year. Anabel never really got to go to school at all. When I was just in public school, Reddy got the teacher to let me stay home a lot, so I could keep her company.” She stopped at a half-opened door and whistled. “Hey. I brought the teacher.” A man’s voice said, “O.K., Mary. Enough out of you for one day.” She sauntered away and left me facing a spare man of ordinary height, whose reddish-fair hair was cut very short and glistened in the artificial light from the hallway. “You’ve met Mary,” he said. “She has a lot to say for herself. She won’t be in your class, so you won’t have to undergo that every day. People either take to her or they don’t.” He struck me as between ten and fifteen years older than me, and at first he talked to me the way an older man would. A preoccupied future employer. He asked about my trip, about the arrangements for my suitcase. He wanted to know how I thought I would like living up here in the woods, after Toronto, whether I would be bored. Not in the least, I said, and added that it was beautiful. “It’s like—it’s like being inside a Russian novel.” He looked at me attentively for the first time. “Is it really? Which Russian novel?” His eyes were a bright grayish blue. One eyebrow had risen, like a little peaked cap. It was not that I hadn’t read Russian novels. I had read some all the way through and some only partway. But because of that eyebrow, and his amused but confrontational expression, I could not remember any title except “War and Peace.” I did not want to say that, because it was the one that anybody would remember. “ ‘War and Peace.’ ” “Well, it’s only the peace we’ve got here, I’d say. But if it was the war you were hankering after I suppose you would have joined one of those women’s outfits and got yourself overseas.” I was angry and humiliated, because I had not really been showing off. Or not only showing off. I had wanted to explain what a wonderful effect this scenery had on me. He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into. “I guess I was really expecting a sort of old-lady teacher come out of the woodwork,” he said, in slight apology. “You didn’t study to be a teacher, did you? What were you planning to do once you got your B.A.?” “Work on my M.A.,” I said curtly. “So what changed your mind?” “I thought I should earn some money.” “Sensible idea. Though I’m afraid you won’t earn much here. Sorry to pry. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to run off and leave us in the lurch. Not planning to get married, are you?” “No.” “All right, all right. You’re off the hook now. Didn’t discourage you, did I?” I had turned my head away. “No.” “Go down the hall to Matron’s office, and she’ll tell you all you need to know. Just try not to get a cold. I don’t suppose you have any experience with tuberculosis?” “Well, I’ve read—” “I know. I know. You’ve read ‘The Magic Mountain.’ ” Another trap sprung, and he seemed restored. “Things have moved on a bit from that, I hope. Here, I’ve got some things I’ve written out about the kids here and what I was thinking you might try to do with them. Sometimes I’d rather express myself in writing. Matron will give you the lowdown.”

sual notions of pedagogy out of place here. Some of these children will reënter the world or system and some will not. Better not a lot of stress. That is, testing, memorizing, classifying nonsense. Disregard grade business entirely. Those who need to can catch up later on or do without. Actually very simple skill set of facts, etc., necessary for going into the world. What about Superior Children, so called? Disgusting term. If they are smart in academic way, they can easily catch up. Forget rivers of South America, likewise Magna Carta. Drawing, music, stories preferred.Games O.K., but watch for overexcitement or too much competitiveness. Challenge to walk the line between stress and boredom. Boredom curse of hospitalization. If Matron can’t supply what you need, sometimes janitor will have it stashed away somewhere. Bon voyage.