Marg Nelson was born in Vancouver, BC. She met her husband in 1970 and began teaching in Quesnel, BC. Back home by 1978, she taught English at Vancouver Community College for 32 years, retiring in 2008. With two adult step-children and three grandchildren, Marg now enjoys The Write Practice and traveling, having just visited S.E. Asia. You can read more of Marg’s writing on her blog.
I still remember her first day in Grade 10 French. We all stared at her, unaware of our rudeness, unmindful of her discomfort. We always stared at anyone new. Under our gaze, she grew awkward, her pink cheeks turning scarlet. That high, Scottish colouring could deepen but not disappear. She would never need blusher.
Mrs. French Class introduced her as Linda Cairn, and she took a seat near the front, two rows over from me. Outside, the fall winds threw rain at the glass, and eyes that had followed Linda to her desk now swiveled back.
It was a review of the verb “to be”, which I knew well, so I studied the new girl instead. She had a gorgeous complexion. Her face was all peach, with baby fuzz around the jawline. Her skin was clear; her hair, shiny, brown and smooth, hung to her shoulders but lacked style. She had well-plucked eyebrows and a straight nose. She wore a crisp, white blouse and a straight, grey skirt. We call them pencil skirts now.
Linda was medium height. She had a good figure, but her cats-eye glasses! They commanded too much attention. It would be hard to get respect with peepers like those.
She lay down her books, adjusted her skirt beneath her, then looked around at the class while Mrs. French Class droned out her “je suis, tu es, il est”.
I smiled across the rows. Big mistake.
From then on, she dogged me, following me to my locker between classes and at lunch.
“Hi! Can I come to the cafeteria with you?”
“Uh . . . okay.”
Her voice was loud and croaky. She continued to use it.
“I live up on Station Street. Where do you live?”
“Uh . . . I live on Barris, just up the hill.”
“My dad’s in real estate and my mom’s a homemaker. We just moved in last week. I have an older brother, Wayne. We go to the United Church on Fairmore Street. It’s a really pretty church and my dad knows the pastor.”
Linda’s tray crowded mine and her face hovered over my shoulder.
“Vancouver is so different from Edmonton. Have you ever been to Edmonton? I don’t know anybody here. I have one aunt here, but all my other relatives are in Alberta. I’m hoping to meet some friends and have lots of fun. I had lots of girlfriends back in Edmonton.”
She was smiling, but those cats-eye glasses jarred me. Her name should have been Marian the Librarian.
“There’s a sock hop this Friday,” I said, hoping to interrupt the flow of talk. I waved at the poster on the wall behind the cashier. “It’s in the gym at noon.”
“Really?? I love to dance. I just love it. Do you like the Beatles? I do, and I like Chubby Checker, too. I’m a really good twister. Are you? Maybe we can go together.”
“Uh . . . sure.”
Great! This was all I needed. To be stuck with this nerd at a school dance!
In Socials class, she leaned in from the next row.
“Barbie, come to my place after school? You can meet my parents.”
“I have volleyball practice today.”
“Oh. Well, can I come and watch?”
“Well . . . okay.”
“Come home with me tomorrow, please?”
I went on Saturday. Linda introduced me to her folks as “a terrific volleyball player.” Her parents smiled and moved into the living room. Her father had a lively Scottish accent, but her mother gave new meaning to “bland.” Mrs. Cairn sat us down, served up tea and small talk. The tea came in china cups, and there was a plate of Peak Freans—the ones with jam in the middle.
“Well, Barbie,” said Mrs. Cairn. “We’re certainly glad Linda has made a little friend.”
Little friend? I was sixteen! I wanted to run.
When they asked, I told them my folks were teachers.
“That’s wonderful, dear,” said Mrs. Cairn, not interested at all.
Finally, Linda dragged me downstairs to her basement room. The stairs descended in two short sets, with a small landing in the middle. I stood there, halfway down, stunned by the huge, brass cross on the wall above the landing. It had chains or rosaries of some kind hanging from it and had to be ten feet high. I’d never seen such an open display of faith in a home. Certainly, my family wasn’t religious. The sight shocked me a bit. Maybe Linda’s mother would think me a heathen and not let her be friends with me. Not a tragedy.
By now we had entered Linda’s cheerleader-type bedroom. I gazed at the white canopy bed, the Barbie doll collection and the white, frilly curtains. A big letter “L” dominated one wall. It was right out of Seventeen magazine.
“Do you like it? I do!” She twirled around, then fell onto the bed. Then she was up again. “Here’s my sewing machine, and these are the pictures of the church camp I went to last year!” I peered at them—she looked clean and well-scrubbed in every photo.
I was keen to extract myself and get somewhere normal, but something held me back. Linda’s eagerness, maybe. Or her loneliness. Nobody talked that much unless they were lonely.
When I did get away, I walked home the long way, and the September air felt fresh. The sky held grey clouds and a mist cooled me. I felt my shoulders relax.
The next day, Linda was on about the Sock Hop. She had also discovered Bob Selkirk. Bob was Mr. Popular, but I couldn’t see her getting near him with those cat’s eye glasses. He had a personality that wouldn’t quit. He was funny, charming, witty, good-looking. And on many occasions, he was the class clown. Linda was in love.
“I’m going to ask him to the dance on Friday,” she said.
Points for trying, I thought.
But Bob DID talk to her. That was part of his charm, I guess, but I just about fell over when she marched right over just before math class and said, “Save me a dance on Friday, Bob!” He was surrounded by two buddies, and they gave him the elbow.
Bob looked her over.
“Sure, four-eyes! Anything for the new kid from Edmonchuk.” Then he turned and laughed for his buddies.
Linda joined in and brayed something about “not everyone who lives there is Ukrainian, y’know.” She gave me a grin and a thumbs-up.
On Friday, the atmosphere was electric. Nobody cared about lunch; all we cared about was the dance. Held once a month, the hop was the highlight of the week. The lights would be turned down low, and anything could happen. There were to be dance contests.
Linda and I hugged the wall as we entered the gym. Or rather, I hugged the wall and she stayed near. She began to move as soon as Chubby Checker began. I didn’t join in, so she drifted away.
Linda hadn’t been exaggerating. She WAS a good dancer. Soon she was twisting away in the crowd with—of all people—Bob Selkirk! Bob was as good as she was, and they were clearly enjoying themselves.
On her first week at a new school, dancing with Bob Selkirk! I would never have dared.
The gym floor writhed with couples and the wooden floor creaked. I had a crack at dancing with a shy guy, but I forget what happened. My own heart throb was caught up with one of the popular girls. He was tall and handsome and hoped to be a fire fighter some day. His name was Todd, and I yearned from afar.
Suddenly a cry went up and there was clapping. I looked over to the centre of the crowd, and the floor had cleared, leaving Linda and Bob alone, twisting like a darn, better than anyone else. Linda’s face at its ruddiest beneath those cats eye glasses. Her poodle skirt flared and her ponytail jumped. Bob was grinning for all he was worth, arms flailing, wearing one of those orange-and-white striped cardigans that were all the rage then. They looked marvelous together.
The music ended and Mr. Smythe, the math teacher, took the mike.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I give you the undisputed winners of our twist contest . . . Linda Cairn and Bob Selkirk! Come on up, you two, and get your prize!”
I stared as Bob and Linda joined hands and ran onto the stage. Mr. Smythe raised their arms like boxers, and the room exploded once more. They held up their silver cups and Linda performed a little curtsey. Inside, I was fainting with amazement, admiration, envy.
But that was then.
Four years later, Linda was dead, killed in a car crash south of the border. Her fiancé was with her at the time; he was killed too. Both of them, crushed like bugs on a hill, too close to a sliding Kenworth with a swaying load of pipe.
Middle of winter, with snow on the ground, in the springtime of her life. All the promise still lying ahead. All that clean living, wasted.
At least she’d won the stupid twist contest.