Ilze Berzins

Chapter 1


They say you never know what’s around the next corner, and they are right. But back then, in the fall of 2005, I knew what was around the next corner. Nothing was around the next corner, or the next, or the one after that. Nothing else was ever going to happen to me. Nothing good, that is. Disasters would continue, though, dropped at my doorstep as if I had a lifetime subscription.

I had no way of knowing then that life was merely holding back, waiting to spring a mega surprise. Perhaps that was the plan. To creep up on me surreptitiously and hit me over the head when I least expected it.

Why couldn’t life have just announced itself, let me know that what I had so fervently wished for was indeed around the next corner? That is the mystery. I had to wait for that one momentous moment—that moment when the heavens aligned, and when those two ships that would have passed in the dark had come to a stop beside each other. And when a letter arrived.

That letter was left in my mother’s mailbox, which was attached to a very inconspicuous split-level bungalow on Emery Court in suburban Ottawa. Melodramatic as it sounds, I know for sure that, had the letter not arrived when it did, I’d soon have found myself six feet under or, at the very least, permanently off my rocker.

It was a bleak November morning which I remember as vividly as if it had been yesterday. I had a mountain of chores ahead of me and certainly no clue that anything special was coming. I would go on looking after my newly widowed ninety-three-year-old mother, and things would just continue as they had. I would get older. Then, soon enough, I would be alone.

Still, I did have a purpose in life. I had my writing, my dog and cat, the house, the garden, and the myriad little adventures that I shared with my mother.

As I did each morning, I cracked open the front door just enough to stretch out my hand and retrieve what the postman had delivered.  At that moment I was conscious only of the cold wind, heard only my mother’s voice and realized that I should have put on a dressing gown. Closing the door I flipped through ads, some bills, then seized upon a few letters addressed to me that I hoped contained book orders.  I had just put my most recent novel, Ghosts & Shadows, to bed and was waiting for my faithful readers, mostly elderly Latvian ladies, to request a copy.

“Anything interesting?” my mother called from her usual chair in her favourite corner of the living room.

“Oh, you know…” I replied dismissively. Since my father’s death in July, very little mail came addressed to my mother. My father had been the letter writer and assiduous card sender.

Clutching my letters (there were only two) I scurried upstairs to my writing room, which had been my father’s study. One letter was predictably Latvian Lady, the other was puzzling. It was the name of the sender that was peculiar. Not Latvian and not a lady. Perhaps a gent wishing to order the book as a gift? Yes, please, I said to myself, as I did every time a letter arrived. At this point my writing career was fast becoming a life jacket, and I eagerly welcomed any sign of interest to keep me afloat.

My father had been the muzhik of our family. Muzhik is Russian for a tough, single-minded man with conservative ideas who dominates his household. I survived this muzhik, yet I loved him too. My mother mourned him endlessly. After his death I moved into the family home because my mother needed looking after and did not want to be placed in a nursing home.

Since leaving their native Latvia in 1944, along with my two-week-old brother and two-year-old me, my parents had lived in dozens of homes, both as refugees in post-war Germany and as immigrants in Canada. In 1949 they settled in Montreal, and then retired to suburban Ottawa.

This house is where my story begins. At the time the suburb was called Nepean, but, some years later, Ottawa amalgamated and it became a part of Ottawa, while still remaining a burb.

A flat region of split-level bungalows and manicured lawns, it was great for conventional  children and tired pensioners, but it was also a place so tight-assed that even cats had to be licensed, never mind dogs. Any dog larger than a toy poodle was considered a killing machine.

I was well aware that elsewhere in Canada, people living in Ottawa had a certain reputation. They have no souls was the consensus. When I lived in Nova Scotia, I wondered what these soulless people looked like. Were they like zombies or vampires out of horror movies?

Once I came to live in Ottawa I found them to be far less colourful than anything Frankenstein might have invented.  Securely ensconced in their well-paid civil service jobs, bland, tight-lipped, cold-hearted, they were intolerant of anyone not exactly like themselves. In fact they were afraid of the unknown.   Bedwetters, I came to call them, borrowing the word from American political commentator Ann Coulter.

Coulter came to Ottawa to give a talk to the local university but was warned beforehand by the rector to watch her language. Not one to be censored, she pocketed her ten grand speaker’s fee and never spoke—other than commenting, “Ottawa, the Indian name for The Land of Bedwetters.”

I was no Ann Coulter, and soon enough I became the unknown in this neighbourhood of Babbits, Stepford Wives, and Bedwetters. There were no friendly same-sex couples in those days. No blacks or visible ethnics. Only WASPS—my least favourite brand.

Life with my mother followed a pattern. We had our rituals and traditions. We had pets. Zola the tortoise shell cat, declawed but still so wild she’d kill baby rabbits and leave them for us as a treat. And then there was Clyde, my old shepherd mix.

Dinner in the summertime was grilled on a hibachi in the backyard. We both loved lamb and indulged. My father had had an aversion to lamb for some bizarre reason, as he had with many foods, so my mother had been deprived. Now she ate what she liked—lamb, spareribs, crab legs, smoked salmon, and even the great delicacy of her youth—caviar.

Drinks were important. We enjoyed a nice glass of Fat Bastard before dinner and then some more after. Later in the evening I was in the habit of taking Clyde for a walk through the neighbourhood. Okay, so he was off leash. So what? He was so old and so gentle that I hadn’t the heart to drag him along behind me. A lot of people in life just do what they want to. And nobody challenges them. But that wasn’t my case.

How was I to know that this simple stroll through darkened streets would soon land me face down, handcuffed, and in police custody?










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