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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesMostly Billy: A John Dunn story

Mostly Billy: A John Dunn story

John-Dunn-e1444853676972Millhands on our side of the river spoke of our place as ‘the doctor’s house’, and whenever they came to the office they spoke of Jim and me and Billy as ‘the doctor’s boys’. But Hannah lived with us and she was more particular. Jim was ‘Jimmy Squealer’, and I, ‘Johnny Old Grouch’, and Billy, well, Billy was different: mostly Hannah just called him ‘Little Man’. It was only because Billy was different that we learned what had happened to Mary.

Hannah was taking our prayers before bedtime, and we knelt down and started the recitation: “God bless Mom and Dad and Jim and John and Billy and Mary.”

“Where’s Mary, Hannah?” Billy interrupted.

“Oh, the poor darlin’. She lasted only eight months. A thing called erysipelas,” Hannah explained.

We looked up in astonishment at that big word.

“Your mother’s still broken-hearted about her wee girl. Even your father was powerless, and him a doctor that knows about diseases. You boys never did get to know your little sister very well, did you?”

Three heads shook in unison.

“Just remember,” Hannah cautioned. “Not a word about Mary to your mother: it would just upset her. Now, prayers again.”

By the time I was five and Bill was still only three we were used to the sounds of the doctor’s house, the telephone ringing in the night, Dad’s footsteps on the front stairs, and later the clicking of the latch and the swoosh of air as he stepped out into the night as the door swung shut again.

Those noises in the night signalled for Jim and me and Billy the mystery of life, and we expected the smell of ether that would be flooding the kitchen when we’d have our porridge at breakfast, and the cryptic comments that would pass between our parents that said that Eliza, or Jane, or Molly would be happy now that some mysterious ‘it’ was all over.

End-of-the-day enquiries at supper time, equally cryptic, brought us boys more enlightenment from the catechism on medicine.

“Did you manage to see Old Frank today?” Mother would ask.


“Is he holding on?”

“Frank died at four-thirty this afternoon.”

A patient whose name and condition had been a household word, then was no more, always spurred Billy’s curiosity.

“What did Frank die of?” he asked.

“Old Age.”

Dad smiled as he dropped the two-word name for Frank’s disease, as if he wanted us to know that Frank’s passing was not a sadness so much as a perverse kind of rejoicing, as if his final defeat were his greatest victory.

After Frank died Billy and I got the chance to go out with Dad on a few trips to Morrisseys with the horse and buggy. We took turns driving along the forced road across the Burnt Lands, and on down to the end of the twelfth line. The road stopped at Morrisseys because of a deep ravine which Morrisseys’ creek had cut across where the road would have been. On our first trip Billy and I sat on the lip of the ravine and watched a muskrat climb out of the cold water onto a fallen log and then walk the log from end to end, leaving his scent on it to mark the log out for his own.

In August we were looking down at the creek again when Dad came out of the house and began to talk to the three Morrissey men.

“How do you find him today, Doctor?” one of the men asked.

“Just a little weaker.”

“Is there anything we can do, Doctor?”

“Not really. But, it’s time to make sure of the will.”

All three boys looked down at the ground and rubbed their chins.

“Do you think we should call the priest, Doctor?” another asked.

“There’s no immediate danger. But, it’s time to make sure there’s a will.”

Billy and I didn’t get a chance to go back to Morrisseys any more after that time.

I’d got to be seven and Billy was still only five when they took out the bridge across the river near our place and started in right away to build a new bridge on the same First and Second Piers as the old had.

Billy and I marvelled at the men’s teamwork, particularly when the blacksmith would poke around in the charcoal fire with his tongs and then fling a red-hot rivet sizzling up in a curve to a catcher who’d snatch the rivet out of the air with a pail.

When the bridge was all finished they put a bronze plaque on our end of it with the names of all the councillors and the year, 1927.

Billy started to school in September of that year, and Dad got a Huppmobile sedan to replace the Gray Dort touring car.

In the spring Billy and I got a chance to go out in the car to Reuben’s place for the first time.

Reuben had diabetes, and Billy and I knew that diabetes was a hopeless disease. Oh, not hopeless like raging consumption that sometimes would wipe out a whole family. Diabetes was hopeless only for the person that caught it, but it was not contagious. Just bad luck.

We didn’t know any other person named Reuben either, and wondered how bad luck could strike anyone with a name out of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. But, diabetes was like that. We wondered too if there might be other members of the family with names from the Old Testament, perhaps Jacob, Rachel, Simeon, Levi, or Judah. But no, it turned out Reuben was the only son of his parents, and he had diabetes.

Reuben’s place had cows and pigs and horses and chickens, but best of all it had a duck pond, and fourteen ducks that steamed back and forth on the water, stately as battleships, and just out of reach.

When Dad came out of the house at last, a man in overalls and a woman wiping her hands on an apron came with him to the steps of the verandah.

“How do you find Reuben today, Doctor?” the man asked.

“Not much change. A little weaker, perhaps, that’s all.”

Reuben’s father nodded his head up and down in an understanding way, as if the physician’s observations confirmed what he had seen himself in his son.

“And there’s no hope, doctor?” Reuben’s mother asked.

“None at all, so far as we know now. It’s best to be reconciled to that, although there’s no immediate danger.”

Reuben’s mother wrung here hands behind her apron.

“How long…..” Reuben’s father began and stopped.

“Perhaps four to six weeks, two months at most.”

Silence fell behind the screen door.

“He’ll feel tired often, and lose weight,” Dad explained. “Near the end his pulse will become shallow. He’ll be drowsy and he’ll want to sleep a lot.”

Reuben’s parents nodded, mute as the ox and the cow in the byre in the Christmas crib scene.

“Near the end he’ll drift into coma. That will last a week or ten days, and he’ll just drift away.”

Billy and I watched a blue hornet that buzzed at the screen door trying to find a break in the screening so that it could get inside.

“Will he suffer much, doctor?” Reuben’s mother asked.

“Not at all. Diabetes is a wasting disease. Its victims just wither and waste. But they don’t suffer: they’re no pain.”

“That’s some consolation,” Reuben’s father commented.

“We can thank Providence for that,” his mother added.

The conversation drifted away from Reuben to Billy and me.

“These your boys, doctor?” the farmer asked.

“Yes, John and Billy. Billy’s the youngest of the three boys.”

“They’re different, aren’t they?”

“Billy’s different. Fair-haired and blue-eyed. Jim and John are brown-haired and brown-eyed. Ant then, Billy asks questions.”

Billy laughed at that.

A month went by until one evening the discussion around the supper table was all from the chapter on diabetes.

“How do you find Reuben today?”

“He’s in coma. His condition is very weak. The end can’t be far off. A week, perhaps, at the most.”

But Reuben clung to life.

Before supper the next day, a strange meeting took place in the inside office. All three doctors of the town met there to put their heads together. Billy and I heard clipped words drifting out from under the velour curtain at the entry to Dad’s inside office, and then “Reuben”. The conversation from the other side of the curtain had an urgent tone, and Billy and I just stopped outside to listen.

“What do we know about insulin?”

“Only what we’ve heard and read about the work in Toronto.”

“Are there side effects to insulin?”

“We have no experience at first hand.”

“Yet it’s a matter of days, perhaps hours, for Reuben.”

“Yes, at most.”

“Then we have nothing to lose by trying insulin?”

“Do the parents agree?”


“Are we agreed then?”



“Then there is no time to lose.”

With those words Dad picked up the telephone and Billy and I listened as he called for Long Distance.

“Operator, hello, hello, I want to get the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto. Queen’s Park, in Toronto. Yes, I’ll wait.”

“It may be closed at this time,” a colleague stated.

“Still, being a research place, it’s possible someone is there after five.”

“It’s ringing,” Dad announced.

“Hello, hello. Yes, all right, I’ll wait.”

“The janitor,” Dad explained. “He’s gone to see if the doctor might still be there.”

Minutes passed. Utter quiet captured the inside office. Then someone answered.

Out came the diagnosis in stabbing notes: “Yes, yes, three doctors. Yes, all agree. Patient is a young man, twenty-six years of age. No, a farmer’s son. Condition worsened three months ago. All agree, diabetes. Symptoms? Eyes glazed, drowsiness, albumen in urine, loss of weight. Now in coma. Condition today? ‘In extremis.’ Death imminent, a few days at most.”

Quiet came down again as the notes of diagnosis were examined. Then the conversation swung to practical necessities, and the need to get insulin to Reuben in time.

“If you could take it to the CPR Express and put it on the midnight train for Ottawa. It will arrive here on the Chalk River local at ten in the morning. We will administer immediately.”

Two days later, Dad returned for supper, full of wonder and disbelief. No need for the catechetical method that evening.

“The strangest thing,” he began. “We administered insulin at ten-thirty and waited. About four o’clock Reuben stirred in his sleep, opened his eyes for a moment, and then went back to sleep. We took a chance and administered more insulin. At eight o’clock he opened his eyes and smiled wanly as he recognized his father and mother standing at the foot of the bed. He even tried to sit up, but was too weak for it.”

“Reuben,” his mother said, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“My mouth seems awfully dry,” he replied. “Could I have a cup of tea?”

“Of course we agreed, and his mother flew downstairs scarce believing her eyes.”

Hannah and Mother and Jim and Billy and I listened in amazement.

“It’s like a miracle,” Mother said.

“The working of Providence, that’s certain,” Hannah added.

“Insulin is a remarkable discovery,” Dad said.

A month later when Billy and I were getting ready to start back to school, we got a chance to go out to Reuben’s place one more time. The ducks still kept their distance, but when we heard the click of the screen door of the verandah we ran back to be ready for the return trip. Dad and Reuben’s father and mother stood there on the step, but a young man was with them also. All were smiling.

“You’ll enjoy getting out in the sun for a change, won’t you Reuben?” Dad asked.

“Oh my, yes, it is nice to get out of the house,” the young man replied.

Dad swung on Billy and me.

“You see this man?”

It was not so much a question he put to us as a command. His tone carried the same urgency as he used on the telephone to the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto.

Billy and I looked up and saw a young man, thin and pale under a farmer’s wide-brimmed straw hat. He wore a pair of trousers that hung loosely over his hips and which would certainly have fallen down except for a pair of Police galluses that held them up with authority.

Pointing to the young man, Dad said to Billy and me: “This man is like Lazarus; he’s just come back from the grave.”

Reuben’s head dropped, and he looked away, abashed at the attention now focused on him. Reaching out with one foot he began to trace half-moons in the dust of the farmyard with the toe of his boot.

As we drove out of the laneway in the Huppmobile, Reuben turned and waved back to Billy and me.

When we went back to school I was in Senior Second and Billy was in Senior First.

Right after Christmas the hard cold frosts froze the river solid from the new bridge almost to the lip of the first falls. Then when Easter came in March we looked for the massive ice-pans that would come down the river under the heaving of the swelling current. In April when Billy and I were on the way home after four o’clock we saw an ice-pan moving ever so slowly, and we climbed up on the railing of the bridge to wait for it to come, swinging down on the current to smash and splinter against the sharp prows of the first and second piers.

“I don’t think I’ll wait for it. I’m going on ahead up home,” Billy said.

When it came time for supper, Mother asked: “Where’s Billy? Wasn’t he out playing with you?”

“No, he said he didn’t want to.”

“My goodness,” Hannah said, “I remember seeing The Little Man come in. He went upstairs. Now that I think of it, I didn’t see him come back down. I’ll go up and see if he’s there.”

Hannah returned in a few minutes, escorting Billy in triumph.

“The Little Man must have been tired from a hard day in Senior First. He was having a little nap before supper, weren’t you?”

Billy laughed, a bit sheepishly.

“Were you tired, Billy?” Mother asked.

Billy didn’t get a chance to answer.

“He shouldn’t be tired,” Dad said.

Mother and Hannah stopped in their tracks, and looked wonderingly at Dad. “Not at his age,” Dad continued, by way of explanation.

“You don’t suppose…..?” Mother’s eyes focused on the doctor at the head of the table.

“You never know,” the doctor replied. “Diabetes can strike anytime and at any age. Can you arrange to get a sample tomorrow?”

Dad’s words to Reuben’s parents the year before as they stood on the step of the verandah came shouting back at me:

“He’ll feel tired and lose weight. He’ll want to sleep a lot.”

Dad was late coming out to supper from his office the next evening. When he did, he sat down quietly.

Mother and Hannah stopped what they were doing and waited.

“There’s albumen in the urine.” He spoke the words very slowly and in a low voice.

Terror rushed in and stalked the kitchen openly.

Hannah’s hands searched for her open, and she walked into the pantry with her head down.

“But he’s so young,” Mother pleaded.

“Of course, and that’s in our favour. Besides, now there’s insulin,” Dad said. “First though, we’ll be careful with diet, starting today.”

Hannah came back from the pantry, picked up an apple pie from the table, and took it over to the table beside the stove and tried to hide it, being elaborately casual about covering the cache with a tea towel.

Conversation was unusually light that evening. Neither Jim nor I seemed to want apple pie anyways.

It was a heart-scalding shock that lasted a week before more calm realization took over that diabetes had successfully invaded the very kitchen of the doctor’s house and had seized the youngest of the doctor’s boys as a victim.

At breakfast time Jim and I continued to sit on one side of the table, and Billy continued to sit opposite us. The fumes of ether still smothered the kitchen at times, and cryptic allusions to new arrivals during the night passed between our parents.

Hannah still ladled out the porridge; however, she now did so with a convict’s fervour of innocence, as if she were determined to prove that a little thing like albumen in the urine was a shadow, and would blow away in time. She spooned out the oatmeal with a ritualistic chant:

“A big bowl of porridge for Jimmy Squealer,

An ordinary bowl for Jimmy Old Grouch,

And a little bowl for The Little Man.”

Then she flounced around the end of the table to pass the sugar bowl for Jim and me behind her back, and, as a magician flips away the silk scarf to show a live rabbit, she whisked a tea towel over Billy’s bowl and sprinkled a few grains of salt down into his porridge. Hannah’s dramatics amused Billy, but Jim and I could only marvel at Billy’s heroism, eating porridge with a sprinkle of salt in place of sugar. And without a murmur of complaint.

For the evening meal, however, Billy’s disability brought about a new ritual. A medical alert came right into the kitchen. Dad brought test tubes and an alcohol lamp into the kitchen, and every second day before the evening meal we watched him plunge the test tube with its amber-coloured sample into the blue flame of the alcohol lamp. Holding it with the spring test tube gripper, he moved it up and down in the fire spreading the heat evenly, and we watched for change in the colour of litmus. Sometimes he dropped a small pill in the sample, and we watched more closely, hoping not to see the cloudiness come in the sample, for that cloudiness, the fateful sign of albumen in the urine, hovered over Billy like a star-crossed evil that now linked Reuben and Billy in the bonds of diabetic comradeship.

June came, glorious and immortal, bringing the promise of eternal summer holidays and every day swimming at the First Pier. Two of the boys from the Junior Third boasted, even before school was out for the summer, that they’d already been in the river. We could hardly wait for our chance.

One day after leaving the house by the side door to return to school, Billy ran across the lawn to meet one of his chums at the street. Millhands and carters with wagons were on the move back to work.

“Let’s climb on the back of that wagon,” Billy’s chum said, and, suiting action to the words, they climbed up on the horse-drawn wagon and sat with their legs dangling down at the back.

Then the wagon crossed the ridge-plate at the Second Pier and moved on to the First.

“Let’s watch the boys in swimming,” Billy’s chum shouted and scurried across the roadway to the bridge. Billy followed.


A gasp.

Thud, a second time.

The yellow-spoked wheel of a Chevrolet Four-Ninety lifted and dropped as if it had just run over a stick in the road. Horror froze the face of the man at the wheel, and horror-struck millworkers stopped on the bridge and stood transfixed, frozen into immobility.

Billy lay on the roadway at First Pier, limp as a glove.

Two men, one a giant, the other thin and wiry, leaped out and crouched beside Billy.

“Get the doctor,” thin and wiry commanded.

“Isn’t it one of the doctor’s boys?” asked the giant.

“You’re right: it’s Billy,” said thin and wiry.

“Race up to the doctor’s house: I’ll bring Billy,” said the giant.

Reaching under shoulders and knees, he scooped Billy up and ran after thin and wiry, who, like the Precursor admonished people to make way for him who followed: “Clear the way! Move back! There’s been an accident!”

But rumour had scurried up the hill to the doctor’s house even faster than the Precursor, because the front door was open and the doctor was out at the sidewalk.

“It’s Billy, doctor: an accident on the bridge,” the Precursor announced.

“Bring him straight through here.”

The stethoscope was already out.

The velour curtain swung back.

“Set him on the couch.”

The giant’s hands lowered Billy, and hung then by their owner’s sides, helpless in inaction.

I crouched outside the curtain by the front stairway and watched the diaphragm of the stethoscope probe quickly under Billy’s shirt, here, there, over, under, back again, searching, searching.

Women from the neighbourhood crowded into the house and surrounded Mother like a protecting flock in the front hall. Fear, stark, nameless, and gnawing, lined their faces.

“What happened?” Mother cried. “Is it Billy? Is he hurt?”

I nodded.

“Oh, oh,” she moaned, and would have collapsed except for the women who supported her.

In the inside office the stethoscope moved more slowly now, searching a small area over the chest cavity. Dad’s head sank sideways lower and lower until his ear was brushing Billy’s face.

Fifteen minutes passed before the stethoscope stopped and lifted. Dad’s head came up, and he carefully rearranged Billy’s shirt the way it had been. Taking the stethoscope from his ears he shoved the instrument into his jacket pocket, and, pushing back the velour curtain, he came out into the front hall from the inside office.

“Is he…..?” Mother got no further.

“Yes. Billy’s gone.”

The cry of women went up, high, piercing, a primitive wail, timeless and unbroken, a cry naked and chill, the cry of Rachel mourning for her children and would not be comforted. A mother’s cry for Billy, her boy-child.

Terror now stalked through the whole of the doctor’s house, openly triumphant. First Mary, now Billy.

Dad walked to the front door and just stood there, alone, staring out through the stained glass window. The diaphragm of the stethoscope hung out limp and still over the edge of his suit coat pocket. He grieved in silence, and alone.

I felt I should be alone too, but didn’t know why. Quietly I walked out through the kitchen into the woodshed adjoining the harness room of the driveshed, where everything was quiet. No one else was there. Chips of maple cordwood from the winter still lay strewn about the sawhorse and the chopping block.

I sat down on the chopping block and kicked at the chips and bark, and screwed my eyes to make them bring up tears, but no tears came. Billy’s heroism with porridge stood out too strong in my mind.

After supper Mother was wholly distraught, and Hannah again took the prayers for Jim and me in the kitchen.

We began as usual: “God bless Mom and Dad and Jim and John and Billy and Mary.”

Hannah stopped, overcome, and began sobbing openly.

Jim and I waited for her to go on with the prayers.

“Are you crying, Hannah?” I asked.

“Ah, my poor Little Man. Heaven hold him now.”

Hannah wept even more. “First Mary, and now Billy. I know it’s the will of Providence, but it’s too hard, it’s very hard.”

My eyes began to fill too. Tears came to the top and washed right over.

“And you, Old Grouch, are you crying too?” Hannah asked.

I nodded.

“Cause of Billy?” she asked.

“Mostly Billy,” I said.

John Dunn

December, 1980

Note added 15 Aug 2006

In the primer class at St. Mary’s school, desks were two-scholar affairs, twinned. On the first day of school that morning the teacher, a young nun just beginning teaching, had placed Billy and Jim Scissons in the desk at the front.

When the bell rang for the afternoon session, all the primer class took their assigned seats, except Billy. Jim remembers afternoon that first day. “Our teacher was a young nun. That afternoon Sister didn’t teach us a single thing – she couldn’t. She cried all afternoon. She brought a crucifix to my desk and set it down on the desk where Billy would have been. I didn’t know what a crucifix was all about, and I wondered all afternoon how a man had got into such terrible torture, to be nailed to a cross. Sister cried, all afternoon. I’ll never forget. I sure do remember Billy.”




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