Today’s post is a short story by Margaret Reilly, who still misses the rink…
Margaret E. Reilly
The blue-gray light of a winter afternoon came in through the windows that lined one wall of the 4th grade classroom: windows that started waist high and went up to the ceiling in rectangular panes; windows for displaying the children’s art on; windows to gaze out of with endless longing. Martha looked out at the snow and then at the clock at the front of the room, up high beside the poster of John XXIII. She read the words beside John Kennedy’s portrait again, for the thousandth time, “Ask not what your school can do for you, but what you can do for your school.” Ten minutes to go. Three-thirty. Three-thirty-one. She watched the seconds tick by and filled in the blanks in a grammar sheet handed out by the teacher.
The windows were hung with Valentine hearts and cupids made in last Friday’s art period. Art was not treated as a subject like all the others. It was a reward given grudgingly and sporadically. Martha loved art class and would be filled with a hopeless rage when it was swept aside for extra math or some other more “important” subject. Father O’Whalen came in one Friday afternoon when they were painting life-size figures on huge sheets of craft paper, almost the best art project they’d ever done. The children had to stand up beside their desks, abandon their paints, and say, “Good afternoon, Father.” They had to pretend to be glad to see him when they were all thinking, “How could he come now when we’re having so much fun? Why didn’t he come during math class?” Father O’Whalen had a poor sense of timing. He didn’t understand children. When Martha heard the scriptural text “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” she knew it must refer to Father O’Whalen.
Finally the bell rang. Miss Beamish told them to put away their books and get their homework ready. Martha thought this was completely unfair. Once the bell rang she thought they should be dressed and ready to fly out the door. Now the torture really began. They went one row at a time to put on their coats and boots, with the teacher choosing the quietest row to go first. Martha sat so still she barely breathed. Malcolm Edwards, the worst boy in the class, sat at the end of her row. Every day he would fidget and drop things or start some kind of trouble and hers would be the last row to get dressed and leave. It wasn’t fair. How could Miss Beamish judge the whole row by the behaviour of the worst boy in the class? If a kid made up rules like that she wouldn’t have any friends to play with, but adults got away with this stuff all the time.
Martha’s skates were hanging on the peg underneath her coat. She hung them over her shoulder by the laces and hurried out with her book bag tucked under her arm and her coat half done, up. She headed for the skating rink in the park beside the public library. The shadows on the snow had already turned from blue to deep grey and it would soon be too dark for her to be out alone. She put on her skates in the hut and hid her book bag under the seat. Sometimes the big girls would come along and throw her bag in a snowbank, scattering her books and papers all over the field beside the rink. They only did this if they were bored, when there were no boys around to flirt with. It wasn’t anything personal.
Martha glided onto the ice and started her methodical circling. A light snow fell and gathered on her white toque and green plaid coat. She kept her hands in her pockets as she skated round and round, picking up speed on the straight stretches and losing it on each corner. A few boys played hockey, shooting the puck from one end to the other and calling out in the still coldness, but they didn’t interfere with Martha’s steady rounds. With each turn her mind became freer, nothing existed but the circle of ice in front of her and her gliding skates. Her thoughts grew still and came to a stop until there was no Martha – only a sensation of movement and cold and the grey-white ice. This is what Martha came for, although she never could have put it into words. If asked, she would have said, “I skate because it’s fun.” This freedom from self-consciousness was too important to talk about with just anyone. It was pleasurable enough to be a sin. If it was a sin she didn’t want to hear about it. Martha called this secret state the “funny feeling”. She wished she had a best friend to discuss this with, someone she could really trust, someone who wouldn’t laugh or talk behind her back. When spring came and the ice melted Martha could get this feeling on the swings at the park, but it wasn’t as good as skating because swinging made her dizzy after a few minutes. Skating was something Martha could do endlessly, tirelessly.
The street lights came on, Martha’s signal that she had to head for home. The sidewalks were covered with snow so she walked the four blocks on the tops of the snow banks, falling through now and then and filling her boots with crusty snow. From the porch she could smell supper cooking. One of her older sisters, likely Rose, would be getting supper ready since their mother wouldn’t be home from work until at least five-thirty. Every room in the house was lit up. Martha slowly hung her coat on the hall tree and stowed her boots in the cupboard. She savoured the last few moments of anonymity before becoming Martha again: cheerful Martha; good-natured Martha; bookish Martha. She went into the kitchen where Rose was standing at the sink, peeling potatoes.
“Could you grab that pot for me, Martha?” No one ever said hello or good-bye in her family. One just came in and rejoined life in progress.