The Kindness of Strangers

A short story by Jill Dawson

We wait at the jetty of the Powell River. Me holding our three year old, Ferdie, Alec smoking.  A small grey boat with an orange dragon painted on it materialises on the lake, a soft moan from the engine.  The boatman says his name is Roddy. He wears red braces over a naked chest.  He waits for us to step on with our black shiny city cases and then jerks the engine back into life. I love that diesel smell.

We’d heard it was the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s old house, but that was probably a lie. We’d run out of money by then –been on the islands for months – and the thing about Fiddlehead Farm was that it was some kind of left-over commune. This was 1992. You could pay your way by working. I’d teach a few yoga classes, Alec would fix things, cars, whatever.

Our room is one of the little wooden huts, dotted around the farm.  We’re introduced to Linda, the leader. She wears knee-length blue shorts, like all Canadians, her skin is brown and wrinkled like a walnut. She sits on up-turned log while she outlines the rules. Alec smokes something she offers him; listening hard. We’ve been fighting, Alec’s mood is dark. Peace and love, Linda says. I try to hide my surprise: it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone actually say this.

In the background the thud, thud of an axe against wood, like a heartbeat. Roddy, chopping. The smell of cedar chips smokes the air along with the scream of cicadas.

Before dinner Roddy takes us to Frog Lake to show us where to swim (and do laundry). Ferdie crouches at the water’s edge, staring at an enormous bull-frog with yellow buttered chin, speckled legs and bulbous peas for eyes. I float on my back in the cool green water, watching Roddy dive from a makeshift wooden raft. His hair is shaved close and his body one long lean arc. He must be my age, or slightly younger. Thirty.  Alec is watching me. Ferdie, little fists clasped, turns from the bullfrog to stare at his father.

Dinner is in a giant dining room, rows of tables and people in shorts with pony-tails. We eat squash and tomato stew, but all I taste is pumpkin seeds and afterwards – as instructed – we take our leftovers to the pigs in a big slop bucket, and Ferdie squeals with delight, watching them.  Outside the dining room is a long wooden deck with rows of shoes, piles of books and cigarettes which each party leaves outside.  Ferdie runs around, shrieking, finding a chipmunk to chase.

Alec smokes and the evening fades to black.

A night full of stars, hundreds of them. Pinpricks, diamonds in black velvet and a new moon fine as a nail-clipping. Ferdie is put to bed with several other children, in a cabin close to the dining room, and a lovely young babysitter, Mandy, appears.

‘You can leave him,’ she says.  ‘I’ve done this job for years.’  I kiss his soft blond head and as I crouch to do it get a whiff of the feet of the child next to him.  There are four mattresses and Mandy is reading a book. She’s Linda’s daughter; she gives off the same slow calm.

Alec and I head back to the main log-house for a tequila. Alec has still not spoken to me.

So, while we’re drinking, Roddy appears, carrying logs. ‘I forgot to show you the sauna’, he says.  Alec, still silent, suddenly leaves.  As if he knows how this story goes.  Except it isn’t a story, but then, you knew that, didn’t you?

‘I’ll check on Ferdie’, Alec says, over his shoulder. And leaves me alone with Roddy.

The night is studded with stars and mosquitoes.

The sauna is dark as we step inside it and Roddy doesn’t light any candles. He adds the logs he’d brought and a huge hissing sound rises. A powerful scent of cedar and sweat surges from the burning wood. He goes to sits at the top. I hear rather than see him remove his clothing.

I sit on the bench beneath him and begin talking. I tell him everything, and he just listens. I take off my shorts and vest and sit in my bra and knickers and tell him more. Yes, Alec has a temper.  Yes, he’s crazy sometimes. Yes, he’s violent: there, I’ve said it. The first time I’ve said it to anyone else. It’s got worse. It’s frightening. And for Ferdie too. We’ve been here months, just the three of us together. No one else sees it.  I think  – maybe, one day, one time, Alec might…I don’t know what to do. I want to go home. A drop of sweat slips through the gaps in the planks of wood above me and falls on my shoulder.

Roddy climbs down and kisses me. Literally the hottest kiss. The wood burns my thighs. He climbs down to my level and sweat trickles from my neck to my calf, melting me.

Later, I stumble back to our little cabin, where Ferdie has reappeared and is sleeping between us. Alec is awake. He turns on one side, brooding, heavy.

In the morning I have no idea what is coming. Breakfast we were told is served back in the big log-house.  Ferdie is outside with Mandy and the other kids, in a little area cordoned off, with basketball and a trampoline, eating a piece of folded up pancake, blueberries smeared around his face. Alec has stayed back in bed, in our cabin, pretending to sleep and after asking him a few times, I go on my own. The smell of warm, melting biscuits with butter and jam and coffee greets me.

And so I’m sitting there at the breakfast table and Roddy is somewhere in the room, tipping coffee grounds into the pig-bucket, I’m aware of him without looking for him, already the shape of him, his haircut is familiar to me.

And the door to the communal breakfast room opens and here comes Alec, roaring like some kind of lion bellows Roddy! Then yelling at everyone, swearing, cursing, raging, demented and the storm I’ve been dreading for weeks now, months, is here in full force, but not at me, for once, not at me.  And I watch astonished as Roddy leaps over benches and turns and runs….and the breakfast crockery clatters into silence and three beefy blokes take hold of Alec, hold him back and allow me to run outside.


Later, back on her up-turned log, outside near the pig pen, Linda says: ‘It’s Ok to be afraid. Look how scared Roddy was! Six foot four and he ran – you saw that, didn’t you?’

I nod. It’s true. I was shocked.  Seeing Roddy so scared was….liberating.  Alec in a temper is scary. I’d thought it was me. My fault for not being brave enough or strong enough.  There have never been witnesses before. Strangers, reflecting things accurately to me; holding a mirror.

‘You can’t do this on your own, that’s why you came to us,’ Linda says. ‘This is the magic here. Let Alec stay for a while – he can fix the truck. There are plenty of guys here to take care of him. Roddy has left.  You take your little boy back to England. We can give you the money, too. We’ve done it before.’

And Linda tells me how she left New York and set up this place for herself and Mandy for exactly the same reasons. She was fleeing someone. ‘And I gave Mandy a good life….’

Her daughter, long ponytail bouncing, star jumps on the trampoline and the children – her audience – yell their approval.

‘Roddy has left?’ I ask.

‘He took the boat this morning.  Just for a while. We’ll tell him when it’s safe for him to return.’

I never got to say goodbye.  I didn’t get to say sorry, for the embarrassment, for the drama, for the shame of it. I feel this strongly now.  I said goodbye to Alec though, and made plans to be in touch, later, from the safety of another country.  As ever, he was sorry now. As ever, he promised he’d change.


‘Desire is the answer to the question you didn’t know you were asking,’ Linda says. I try not to scoff. Peace and love.

Two frogs float on a leaf on the lake as we pass.  They look like refugees.  Ferdie chases a squirrel and squats down on the path to study a squashed slug, weeping its yellow blood, as the wheelie case rolls over it. We eat the peanut butter cookies Linda has packed for us, and the boat appears, ready to take us back to the mainland, and then to England, and then to the rest of our lives. To take us to our wide future, the good things that I had no idea were waiting for me. Home.