Dinner Along the Amazon

  Right then I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a ghost, you know, and then it looked like a great big gray overcoat, and it sort of fell at me.

  But it was Effie.

  Of course, I didn’t know her name then, or who she was or anything, but I figured out that she must be the new maid that my mother told me to watch out for because she was coming that day. And it was.

  It was then that she gave me that look I told you about—the look that said ‘Are you the one I’m waiting for’—and then she sat down and started to cry.

  It wasn’t very flattering to have someone look at you and then burst into tears, exactly. I mean it doesn’t make you want to go up and ask them what’s the matter with them or anything. But I thought right then that I had to anyway, because I felt as though maybe I’d really let her down by turning out to just be me and everything. You know, I thought maybe she thought it was Lochinvar or someone. I’d seen maids break up like that before, when they didn’t like Toronto and wanted to go home. They just sat around just waiting all the time for some guy on a horse.

  I soon found out that I was wrong, though.

  Effie was waiting all right, but not the way most women do. She knew all about him, this man she wanted—just when he’d come and what it would be like, all that stuff. But the man she was waiting for certainly didn’t sound like any man I’d ever heard of.

  She just called him ‘him,’ and sometimes it was even ‘they,’ as if there were a thousand of them or something.

  That first afternoon, for instance, when I went up to her and asked her what was wrong, she sort of blew her nose and said: “I’m sorry, I thought you were him.” Then she looked out of the window beside her and shook her head. “But you weren’t. I’m sorry.”

  I couldn’t figure out whether she meant ‘I’m sorry I scared you’ or ‘I’m sorry you weren’t this man I was expecting.’ But I guess it didn’t matter because she really meant it, whichever way it was. I liked that. I didn’t know anybody who went around saying they were sorry as though they meant it, and it made a big change. So I got my glass of milk and my piece of bread and sat down with her.

  “Would you like some tea? I’ll make some,” she said.

  “I’m not allowed to drink tea, but I could have some in my milk. I’m allowed that. My mother calls it Cambridge tea.”

  “Cambric—” She stood up.

  “I thought it was Cambridge. I thought my mother said Cambridge tea.”

  “No, cambric. Cambridge is a school,” she said.

  Then she smiled. Boy, that was certainly some smile. And it was then she told me her name and where she came from. Howardstown.

  I’d seen it once—it was all rocks and chimney stacks and smoke. I saw it from the train and it didn’t exactly make you want to go out and live there. Howardstown had that sort of feeling that seems to say T wish everyone would go away and leave me alone for a change.’ So you can see what I mean. And that’s where Effie came from. So knowing that, you could tell why she preferred to come to Toronto to wait for this man she was expecting.

  About that. I had to ask her but I didn’t know how. I mean when somebody flings themself at you like that, how do you go about asking them why? You can’t say ‘Gee, you sure did behave sort of peculiar just then.’ You can see what I mean. It would just be rude.

  So I sat there drinking my milk; and while she waited for the kettle to boil, she came over and sat down beside me at the table.

  “Do you like the rain?” she asked me.


  “Like today? Like now?”


  She gave up on that and said: “When does your brother come in?” instead.

  “Bud? Oh, he doesn’t come in till it’s time to eat. He plays football.”

  “In the rain?”

  “No, I guess not. I don’t know, then. Maybe he’s over at Teddy Hartley’s. He goes over there sometimes.”

  “Oh.” She didn’t know about Teddy Hartley and Bud being such great friends.

  I began to wonder if when Bud came in she’d leap at him too. I had a picture of Bud’s face when she scared him. The trouble was that he’d probably start right out with his fists. He was like that. If you surprised him or anything, he just started swinging. With his eyes closed—he didn’t care who you were. Sometimes you can really get hurt that way. Surprising Bud.

  When I thought of that, I thought maybe I should warn her. But I couldn’t figure out how to say that, either. It was the same sort of thing. I thought of saying ‘By the way, if my brother comes in, don’t go leaping out at him—or else.’ But before I could, the kettle boiled.

  Effie got up and put some of the hot water into the teapot.

  “Always warm the pot,” she said, “first. Then pour it out and put in the tea leaves. Like this. Then you pour the boiling water over them—see? Or else you don’t get any flavour. Remember that.”

  I do. My first lesson in how to make tea.

  She came back and sat down.

  “Now it has to steep.” I remember that, too.

  She folded her hands.

  Her hair was black and it was tied in a big knot at the back. She had brown eyes that sort of squinted and she had a smell like marmalade. Orange marmalade. And she looked out of the window.

  Then she said that the tea had steeped itself for long enough and was ready. She filled my glass because I’d drunk all my milk. I hoped my mother wouldn’t come in and see me.

  Effie said: “Your mother told me I could have a cup of tea every afternoon at four o’clock. It’s four-fifteen now.” And she poured her own cup.

  I got back to what I wanted to know.

  “That sure is some thunderstorm out there,” I said.

  “Yes.” She went very dreamy. “That’s why I thought you were him.”

  “Who?” I certainly would have made a terrific spy. Why, you wouldn’t have known I really cared at all, the way I asked that.


  “Who’s that?”

  “There has to be thunder, or he won’t come.”

  “Why is that? Is he afraid you’ll hear him or something?” I let myself get sarcastic like that because I thought it was time I got to the bottom of things.

  “On a cloud,” she whispered. “A big black cloud. That’s a rule.”

  All those other men always come on horses—white horses. Not Effie’s. A big black cloud. I felt pretty strange when she came out with that one. It sort of scared me.

  “Will he take you away?”

  “Of course he will. That’s why he’s coming. That’s why I’m waiting.”

  “Do you wait for him all the time?”

  “Oh no. Not always. Only when it rains. Then I get prepared.”

  I looked around, but there weren’t any suitcases or anything. I wondered what she meant by ‘prepared.’

  “That’s why I thought you were him. There had just been a pretty big thunder and there was lightning and then you were there. I even thought I heard music.”

  “Maybe my mother has the radio on.”

  I listened, but she didn’t.

  “Did you hear anything?” she asked.

  “You mean like music?”


  “No, I didn’t think so. I can’t remember, maybe I did—”

  “You did!” She leapt up. I got scared again. “Did you, did you? Tell me if you did. Tell me. Did you hear it? The music? Did you hear it?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Oh, but you said…”

  Then she sat down and it looked like she might cry again.

  “Do you want Howardstown?” I asked. I had to say something.

  But she said: “No, thank you.”

  “Wouldn’t you like to go back?”

  “No, thank you.”

  “I was there once. It was pretty.”

  I lied again, but I thought maybe I had to for her sake. Then I lied again.

  “I was
there in the summertime. We spent our whole summer holiday there because we liked it so much. Don’t you want to go back?”

  “No thank you.”

  That long line there is where she blew her nose.

  “Don’t you want to see those nice rocks and everything? I liked those.”

  Then I thought of something. I thought I had it.



  “Doesn’t it rain there?”

  “In Howardstown?”


  “Of course it does.”

  “But does it thunder?”

  “Of course it does.”

  “And lightning?”



  I guess it wasn’t such a brilliant idea after all. So I thought again.

  “Did he say he’d meet you here—I mean in Toronto?”

  That at least made her laugh, which was something. It was nice when she laughed.

  “Of course not. Don’t be silly. Why, if I went to Timbuctoo he’d just as soon find me there. Or in Madagascar even. I don’t have to wait around in any old Toronto.”


  I was trying to think where that was. Madagascar.

  “Besides, it’s not just me he’s after.”

  That really got me. I thought he was after Effie.

  Then she looked at me and all of a sudden I felt it. That it wasn’t just some knight in shining armour she had in mind. Or some crazy man on a black cloud, either. No, sir. Whoever he was, he surely was coming. You could tell that just from the way she looked.

  Then she said: “Some day when I know you better, I’ll tell you. Right now it’s four-thirty.”

  And she put her cup into the sink and washed it. And my glass and the plate from my bread and butter. She ran the water over them and she sang a song.

  And it rained and it rained and it rained.

  But there was no more thunder.

  That was over.

  The next time it was the middle of the night. About two weeks later.

  There was another of those storms. I didn’t wake up at first, but then there was a crash of thunder that really did shake my bed. I mean it. I nearly fell out, even.

  I called out in a whisper to Bud, but he was asleep. I forgot to tell you we sleep in the same room. Anyway, I knew I didn’t have to be afraid, so it didn’t matter that he didn’t wake up. Thunder doesn’t scare me when you can look at it—I even like watching it—but when it’s night-time and everyone is asleep but you, then you begin to wonder if it really is just thunder. And sometimes you begin to think that maybe somebody will come and grab you when you can’t hear them because of the noise. I wondered if that was what Effie meant.

  “Thunder and lightning and music,” she’d said. It was like that. If there was ever thunder and lightning and music, then he’d come.

  I began to get scared. There was thunder all right, and there was lightning, but there wasn’t any music.

  Then there was.

  I didn’t exactly think I’d sit around to make sure. I thought I’d better tell my mother.

  Thunder and lightning and music. Yes, there certainly was music all right. It was faint, but it was there. Maybe I’d better warn Effie too, I thought. Mother first, and then Effie.

  I went into the hallway. My mother’s door was open, and she was King there only covered with the sheet because it was so hot. She was asleep, though. The street lamp shone through the window and I can remember the metal smell of the screens. They smelt sort of electric.


  She son of moved.

  “Hey, Mother.”

  I was very quiet, but I had to wake her up. I could hear that music even more now.


  She rolled over towards me and took my hand. I could tell she really didn’t want to wake up. Maybe she’d been dreaming. Our dad was away.

  “I’m sorry, but I had to.”

  “Are you sick?”


  “Then what is it?”

  “Can I get in with you?”

  “All right. Pull the cover up. That’s right.”

  We lay there and heard the rain.

  “Now tell me about it. Can’t you sleep?”

  “No.” I didn’t know where to begin. “Mother, has Effie ever talked to you?”

  “What about?”

  “I don’t know. But she said to me that if there was rain, and if there was thunder, and if there was lightning, then maybe something would happen.”

  “The end of the world?” Mother laughed very quietly.

  “No, I don’t mean that. Some man.”

  “A man? What do you mean?”

  “Well, she said if there was thunder and lightning and everything, to watch out for music. Because if there was music too, then he’d come.”

  “Who’d come, dear?”

  “This man. This man she’s waiting for.”

  “Well, if she’s waiting for him, then it’s all right.”

  I guess she didn’t take it very seriously.

  “Besides,” she said, “there isn’t any music.”

  “Yes there is.”

  “There w?”

  She sounded serious now all right.

  “Yes, I heard it. That’s why I woke you up. I thought maybe we’d better tell her so she could be ready.”

  “Ready? Does she…does she really know who he is?”

  “Well, she seemed to. She never said his name or anything. She just said that—”

  “And you heard it? The music, you really heard it?”


  “Now don’t joke with me, Neil. This may be very serious.”

  “Spit. Honestly, I really heard it.”

  “Where from?”

  “I don’t know. I just heard it.”

  My mother got out of bed.

  All this time the thunder was getting louder and the lightning was like daylight.

  “Well, we’ll wake her up and ask her what it’s all about. Is Bud awake?”


  “Leave him, then.”

  She tried to turn on the lights, but they didn’t work. (That always happened two or three times a year in those big storms. Toronto never worked when you needed it to.) So we went into the hall in the dark.

  Effie’s room was at the top of the stairs. Very small, but it was the only one we had for her. It used to be mine. It had a sloping ceiling.

  We knocked on her door.

  No answer.

  It was pitch black. Effie always pulled the blinds. My mother went over and opened them and a bit of light came in. And then we saw that she wasn’t there. Her bed was all slept in and everything, but she wasn’t there.

  My mother let out a yell. Very quiet, but it was certainly a yell.

  We didn’t know what to do.

  We went out into the hall again.

  “Shall I get Bud?” I said.

  “No. No, not yet.” She was trying to get calm. Very calm. And then she was all right.

  “Maybe we’d better go and look downstairs. We can get some candles from the dining room.”

  We started down the staircase. Halfway down we heard the music again.

  Very low it was. No words or anything, just the tune. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular—it was just there.

  We stood still and listened. If we hadn’t been so scared, it would have been pretty. I mean it was a good tune. One that you could hum.

  My mother caught my hand and we started down again.

  “Dining room,” she whispered.

  The dining room was down the hall, and beyond it there was a sun room, all glass windows, and in the summertime, screens.

  We got into the dining room all right, and from there the music was louder.

  Then we saw her.

  She was in the sun room, watching from the windows. All her black hair fell down her back. When there was lightning she
stood up, and when there wasn’t she sat down. All the time she sort of rocked to and fro to the sound of the music.

  She was crying—but she had that wonderful smile.

  Just once, when the music stopped, she said something. I don’t know what it was because she said it too quietly for me to hear. And the reason she said it when the music stopped was because she was the music. She was. It was Effie singing.

  My mother and I didn’t bother her, though. She looked so happy there—even with the tears down her face—and as my mother said, “It doesn’t hurt people to sing once in a while.

  Even at night.”

  So we went back to bed and my mother said would I like to sleep with her, and I said yes. We got in and we thought about Effie downstairs.

  “Do you know?”

  “No. Do you?”


  Then, later on—I think it was about three months later—Effie came to my mother and said she’d been called away.

  “Where to, dear?” my mother asked her.

  “Just away,” said Effie, like a princess. “And so I’ve got to go—”

  My mother didn’t ask her because Effie had been such a good person in the house, and Mother knew that if she had to go away then she had to, and it was honest. You never had to think about that with Effie—she always told the truth and everything had a reason. Even if you didn’t get to know what it was.

  We certainly hated to see her leave us. Even Bud was sad about it, and he was never much good with maids. He used to be too shy with them.

  Before she left, she gave me a set of toy animals, little ones—a pig and a cow and a horse and four sheep—all in a box. She knew that I had this toy farm.

  And for Bud she had a box of toy soldiers. Only they were very peaceful soldiers, just standing at ease, and there was a little sentrybox too, for them to go into when it rained.

  She gave my mother a hankie with an M on it because my mother’s name is Margaret. It was real linen and she still has it.

  The day she left, she was having a cup of tea just before she went to get on the streetcar and I found her in the kitchen just like the first time. I had some flowers for her. Little ones, that she could carry without them getting in the way.

  And she looked at them and said: “That’s his favourite colour.” (They were purple.) And she thanked me.

  So I asked her right then and there.

  “Tell me who he is.”

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