Chapter 1: Angela CHAPTER 1 Angela
TORONTO | JANUARY 2017
Angela Creighton is late for work.
She was up late the night before, and this morning she wakes with a poorly timed migraine. Careful not to disturb her wife’s Sunday morning lie-in, she tiptoes to the kitchen, where she washes down a painkiller with a glass of pulpy orange juice, toasts a bagel, and slathers it with too much garlic cream cheese. Clamping her breakfast between her teeth like a retriever, she tugs on a hat and cinches the waist tie on her plaid coat, then quietly closes the apartment door and hurries down the stairs of the walk-up.
Out on the sidewalk, Angela rushes to the bus stop as she munches the bagel while fishing her sunglasses out of her purse. Normally she would enjoy it, since sunny days in the winter are few and far between. But the light is making her wince and her head is throbbing like a bullet wound behind her eyes.
She was over at her friend Jenn’s last night for their monthly book club, which had, as so many book clubs are wont to do, descended into a wine club over the past six months. Now they drink too much cheap pinot grigio, inhale charcuterie and cheese with a desperation that suggests it might be their last meal on death row, and sometimes talk about books they’ve read.
Angela hadn’t taken part in any wine-drinking pursuits for the past several months, but she let herself go last night. It was the sole, pathetic shred of silver lining from the miscarriage, and she capitalized on it in spectacular form. She and Tina will be setting out on another round of fertility treatments once her body heals enough to try again, so she figured she may as well enjoy the booze in the meantime. It’s her second miscarriage in a year, and the stakes are starting to feel higher every time an insemination treatment or a pregnancy fails. A steady flow of alcohol helps the hurdles appear a little lower, if only for a short while.
The bus trundles up to the curb and Angela boards, drops a token into the metal slot, and finds an empty seat near the rear door. The shop she manages—Thompson’s Antiques & Used Books—is less than ten blocks west, and she stumbles off the bus onto the slushy curb a few stops later.
The entrance to the shop is just inches from the edge of the sidewalk on bustling College Street, and Angela presses herself against the door to stay out of the way of the passing pedestrians as she fumbles with her keys. Throwing her hip a little against the old warped wood, she bursts her way inside and shuts the door behind her.
Angela likes it in here. It’s a peculiar hybrid of a shop, home to plenty of used books that cycle through its doors on a regular basis, and a motley collection of antiques that never seem to sell. It smells like furniture polish, coffee, and that dusty scent of old books that’s both rotten and enormously appealing. It isn’t a big space, only the size of a modest apartment. There’s a small storeroom behind the cash desk that houses several dusty, neglected boxes and a cheap drip coffeemaker Angela brought in during her first week on the job.
She feels her mood lift a fraction at the now-familiar smell of the place. She’s always been a book lover, and she and Tina share an eclectic taste in decor, so the whimsy of the antiques shop suits her just fine. There’s always a bit of buried treasure to be discovered in here.
Angela flicks the light switches, walks to the old writing desk they use as a sales counter, and slides her purse underneath with her foot. She turns on the computer till—by far the most advanced piece of technology in the shop—then retreats to the storeroom to put on a pot of mercilessly potent dark roast. When she was pregnant, all she drank was decaf, determined that the placebo effect of coffee could still be achieved by brewing it at double strength. But today, with a sharp jab of bitterness to her heart, she puts on a large pot of regular brew.
Chipped mug of coffee in hand, Angela mentally shakes herself and sets about the usual tasks of sorting new inventory and following up on order holds. For the life of her, she can’t imagine why the store has stayed in business this long, especially with real estate prices being what they are in this city. The small apartment over the shop has been rented out as additional unnecessary income since the property was first purchased by Angela’s aunt Jo (who married Old Money and really has no need for employment). Although she could easily sell the place for a fortune in a matter of days, Angela suspects her aunt has kept the shop running simply for something to talk to her immaculately groomed friends about during their weekly manicures.
Prior to starting at Thompson’s, Angela had hopped around in retail, most recently working for an uptight manager at an overpriced shoe store. Although she couldn’t prove it, Angela suspects she was “laid off for the season due to a decrease in sales” when her boss found out about the pregnancy several weeks too early. He was a fifty-something conservative and borderline homophobe, almost certainly of the school who believed maternity leave was nothing but a corporate inconvenience. Angela had confided the news of her pregnancy to a coworker after she ran out of excuses for her frequent trips to the staff washroom to throw up, and she’s sure the coworker blabbed.
So when she found herself out of work, smack in the middle of her thirties after undergoing budget-draining fertility treatments, she plumbed all her networks looking for a new job—any job—that would allow her and Tina to pay their rent and still build a nest egg for their new addition. At their last family Thanksgiving, Aunt Jo, with a wave of her magnificently bejeweled hand, offered Angela a managerial role at the shop so that she herself could “finally start phasing into retirement.” Though her experience with antiques was negligible at best, Angela was in no position to decline, and she knew Aunt Jo wouldn’t ever fire her own niece for becoming pregnant. Jo handed her the keys three days later.
On Sundays, Angela’s the sole staff member, but it’s usually a sleepy day anyway, particularly in the fall and winter months when tourism slows to a glacial crawl. After the new inventory is sorted, she moves on to the task of processing the unclaimed holds. This is one of the most frustrating chores on Angela’s list. Eight times out of ten, the furniture is reserved by an eager out-of-town “antique hunter” (usually self-proclaimed and newly minted) who journeyed into the city with rich friends on a shopping excursion. They shiver with glee at a prospective purchase, then demand a hold be placed so they can come back with a truck of appropriate size with which to haul away the object of that Saturday’s treasure hunt. And almost every time, the shopper then dodges Angela’s phone calls long enough that she releases the hold, and the would-be buyer is spared the shame of admitting the sale was a passing fancy. This process means that Angela spends a good portion of her Sunday mornings tearing pink hold stickers off the items and leaving them in their cozy corners of the shop, where they can await the next near-purchase tease, like aging orphans.
First on the list is a small three-drawer dresser. Angela knows exactly which one it is, and wanders to the very back of the shop. Approaching it, she notices the bright pink slip of paper that indicates a hold stick-tacked to the front of the top drawer. She yanks the slip of paper off, causing the dresser to lurch and the drawer to slide out a notch.
“Ah shit. Ouch!”
Coffee splashes over her hand. She licks it off, then peers through the crack, glimpsing a curious spot of white inside the darkness of the drawer. She casts her eyes around for a safe place to set her mug. She uses the pink hold slip in lieu of a coaster and places her coffee on a nearby bookshelf, then pulls open the drawer.
Just then, the bells above the door jingle, welcoming the first customer of the day. With a knot of intrigue in her stomach, Angela shuts the drawer and navigates her way back to the front, carefully stepping over and around piles of haphazardly stacked books.
“Hello!” she calls.
“Hi, there,” says a teenage girl with mousy brown hair and hunched shoulders.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” Angela asks, pulling her scarf closer around her shoulders. A wintry draft has swept in with the girl, which irritates Angela, somewhat unfairly, she knows. She wants to get back to the drawer.
“Not really. I’m just browsing, but thanks.”
“Certainly,” Angela replies. “Let me know if you need anything.”
The girl smiles vaguely and turns to inspect the nearest bookshelf. It’s the politest possible snub, but Angela takes it as a welcome dismissal. She returns to the dresser and opens the top drawer again.
Reaching in, she removes a heavy marble box and places it gently on the weathered floorboards. It was the white stone that caught her attention. Nearly all the antiques in the shop are made of some variety of wood. The rest is mostly brass and silver: tarnished picture frames with intricate Victorian scrolling, hand mirrors that call to mind Regency-era puffy hairstyles capped with lace bonnets, and collectible teaspoons with faded crests and intricate familial coats of arms.
Angela hasn’t seen anything made of marble since she began working at Thompson’s, and this is a beautiful ivory stone shot with sparkling gray ripples that some antique hunter may actually want to buy. Abandoning her lukewarm coffee, Angela carries the box to the front desk. She glances up to check the browsing status of her single patron, then perches on the bar-height stool and flips open the gold clasp of the box.
Inside is a stack of what appears to just be yellowed paper, but as she removes one of the pages, she notices the elegant cursive handwriting on the front of the top envelope.
Letters. A stack of them. Angela lifts them out one by one, counting—five letters. All old, by the look of them. Not surprising, she thinks, given that this is an antiques shop. That, and the fact that no one really sends letters much anymore. That aging, once-bustling pursuit is now undertaken solely by stubborn, overperfumed elderly ladies.
She holds one of the letters up to the light flooding in from the storefront windows. Unlike its fellows, which are naked of their former envelopes and appear to be mostly bank statements, this one is still sealed, the edge along the flap slightly bubbled, as though the glue had been wet with too much moisture. The stamp looks modern. The slanting cursive writing in the top left-hand corner of the envelope lists the return addressee as one Mrs. Frances Mitchell. It’s addressed to Ms. Nancy Mitchell, and something stirs behind Angela’s navel as she reads the address of the antiques shop.
The writing looks shaky, though Angela can tell it had, in decades long past, been beautiful, graceful penmanship.
Her heart shoots into her throat. She looks over to see the mousy-haired girl muttering an apology as she bends to scoop up a large book. Angela manages a small smile, her pulse still pounding, but the girl waves goodbye with a mumbled, “Thank you,” and the bells above the door jingle as she exits the shop, ushering in another gust of cold air.
Relieved to be alone again, Angela runs her fingers over the edge of the envelope seal, weighing her intrigue. The date stamped in red ink across the top of the envelope says the letter was posted in 2010. And yet it remained unopened. Who had it been intended for? Did the letter simply go astray from its destination? But no, the shop’s address is indeed scrawled across the front, along with the mysterious name of Nancy Mitchell.
It was destined for this address.
Angela knows it’s technically a crime to open another person’s mail, but her curiosity has bested her moral code. She plucks the brass letter opener from the heavily ink-speckled Mason jar they use as a pen cup, slides the tip underneath the corner of the envelope flap, and, with a satisfying tear, slits it open. She pulls the letter out and unfolds it with the tips of her fingernails, as though avoiding the traces of incriminating fingerprints. The paper is heavy and lightly textured. Expensive. Purchased by someone who wrote a lot of letters and took the time to make sure they carried weight.
Intrigued, Angela begins to read, eyes darting back and forth across the page underneath her dark bangs:
It is my intent that this letter reaches you after I am gone. I instructed my lawyer Mr. Klein to post this upon my passing. I am sorry for this, and I have my reasons, but I wanted to ensure you were made aware of certain facts pertaining to your own history.
Nancy, I have loved you as much as a mother can love her daughter. I have done the best I know how, been the best mother I could. Although, my dear, I am human, and therefore imperfect.
There is no way to tell you this other than to simply write the words: your father and I are not your biological parents. We adopted you as a baby.
We tried for years, prayed hard and daily for God to send us a child, but it was not to be. And so we sought out a baby girl to adopt, and were referred by our family doctor to St. Agnes’s Home for Unwed Mothers here in Toronto.
You were born on the day you know to be your birthday: April 25th, 1961. We were told your birth mother and father were a young couple, only teenagers, who were unmarried and had lost their way. They had no money, and could not afford to raise you. They said your mother gave you up willingly for adoption, with a heavy heart and a hope that we could provide you with a brighter future than she could, young and poor as she was. Her story broke our hearts, but we thanked God for her selflessness and for bringing us this most precious gift. Our celebration was her grief.
We raised you and loved you as our own. The priest and warden at St. Agnes’s counseled us not to tell you, to simply move on as though you were our own child from God, that it would be easier for you that way. We took their advice. We believed they knew best. But not a day has gone by that I have not questioned that decision.
When we brought you home, I found a pair of yellow booties tucked deep inside the blanket they had wrapped you in. I assumed your birth mother had sent them as a gift of goodwill, but I couldn’t bear to use them, so I locked them in a safe drawer. I was afraid if I told you about her, that you would see me differently, and I couldn’t help but imagine her out there somewhere missing you terribly. I tried to rid myself of my guilt by lighting a candle at church and praying for her every year on your birthday.
But here, my darling… here is where I must beg you, with every ounce of my heart and soul, for your forgiveness.
Not long after your wedding, your father and I discovered that you were not given up for adoption willingly and with a full heart, as we had been told. We were lied to, Nancy. And we, in turn, have lied to you.
There was a story on the news about some girls who had sought refuge at St. Agnes’s, but were forced to give up their children by threat or worse. The Home was shut down not long after you were born. The people who ran it seemed to us to be good people. We wanted a child so desperately, and we believed them. We had no reason not to. We did not know. After the news story, I revisited the drawer and found the enclosed note stuffed deep inside the toe of one of the boots. You can read it for yourself, my dear.
Your father did not want to tell you, even then. And then he was gone, and still I didn’t tell you. I have no excuse for myself other than cowardice. I am so sorry, Nancy. If I have learned anything from this, it is not to keep secrets. They fester like wounds, and take even longer to heal once the damage sets in. It’s permanent, and crippling, and I want more for you than that.
Your mother’s name was Margaret Roberts. She was much younger than me when she gave birth to you, so she may still be alive. I would encourage you to seek her out, to find solace in my death by reuniting with your Other Mother, as I have called her in my mind all along. I want you to move forward, and I hope you will not hold resentment for your father or me.
I have loved you with the deepest love in my heart, my darling. And so I know how hard it may have been for your Other Mother, for Margaret. Since I read her note, I have prayed every day for her forgiveness. I have taken care of her child, my child—our child—with tenderness. But I suppose God will settle our accounts as He sees fit. It is in His hands now.
Please forgive me, dear. I pray we will meet again one day, a long time from now.
Angela places the letter down on the writing desk and reaches for a box of tissues to dab the tears that have sprung to her eyes.
She thinks of her own family, of the mother she knows as Mom, and the woman who gave birth to her, Sheila, whom she finally met five years ago. To have lived her entire life not knowing she was adopted is a foreign, devastating concept. Her heart bleeds for all three of these women: the daughter Nancy; her mother Frances, who carried the weight of this secret for so long only to have the confession go astray; and Margaret Roberts, scribbling in a hidden note that she was forced to give her baby up for adoption…
“Where is it?” Angela asks the empty store. She checks the desk, then leans down to scan the floor. When she shakes the envelope, a small piece of paper flutters onto the desk like confetti. It’s yellowed, and a bit wrinkled. One of its edges is singed, as though it were nearly burned at some point.
Angela reads the brief handwritten missive. It’s only two lines long, but she lingers on the last five words, her vision blurring.
She rereads the note several times before setting it on top of the letter. She needs advice. She reaches for her phone, cradling it in her hand as she considers whom to call first. After a quick scroll, she clicks on the name and puts the phone to her ear, wipes away a lingering tear from her cheek.
“Mom? Hi, it’s me. Do you have a minute to talk?”