Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 2

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

Catherine sat at the computer with one eye on the black plastic clock that sat under the sign, “Student Study Center, which was otherwise known as the ‘SSC’. ”

“SSC”, was short- said the polite students, the ones eager to display an indifferent wit, for “Stagnation and Servitude- Center”. Those who were less polite, but with quicker wit called it by other names.

She took a breath, and looked back at the screen. The center would close in an hour- and so far, she hadn’t progressed very far on Gwynie’s Story.

Catherine had rushed through the second draft of an essay for her English Composition Class so that she could write the first chapter of the story. She was a conscientious student- and knew that her second draft hadn’t been a great improvement over the first. But she had wanted to send Gwynie the first part of the story she had promised her and so the essay had suffered.

Catherine had thought that writing Gwynie’s Story would be quick, easy and fun- after all,  the story had been in her mind for days. Phrases and adventures- partly formed, hazy of course- but so real, had occurred to her long before she had written the promise to her little sister.

She had been confident, this was a child’s story- it should be child’s play to write. All that was necessary was to sit at the computer and type out those ideas and words. Words that had marched so confidently along when they were still in her mind. Now, after an hour and a half, she was annoyed as they slowly limped across her screen.

Now she wondered why she was making the attempt at the story, when no one had asked her to- and why had she promised Gwynie a story before she had written the first word?

She realized that she had glorified her imagined story- that she had expected to write a child’s classic – and that she had expected to write it quickly, and without pain- or much work. She pushed back her chair so she could stretch her cramped legs. She closed her eyes, and felt tired at the thought of the work ahead-surely she had enough burdens already, without adding more.

The self-pity was sapping her resolve, and even with her eyes closed she could still see the minute hand clicking along on the clock. She gave an exasperated sigh- and heard it echoed- almost in her ear.

She pushed her chair back further, and turning, she looked- really, for the first time, at the student sitting at the next computer. He was sitting forward, now that she was no longer in his way, and was reading her screen. He was so involved with his reading that he was unconsciously, sighing, and shaking his head as he read.

 He had taken the chair next to hers over an hour before.

Exactly when he had abandoned his own work and become engrossed in hers- she didn’t know- but she could see that he was absorbed and that he disapproved of what she had written.

 Catherine watched the back of his head for a moment- not knowing whether to be irritated or amused.

 “I know it isn’t very good- but it is only a first draft. Could you do better?” She asked.

His ears turned pink- and without turning- he mumbled- “Sorry… excuse me- didn’t mean to read your work.” And sliding back into his own space he opened a book, seemingly at random, and began to energetically highlight text.

“Well? She persisted.

He turned slowly, and reluctantly, mumbled something polite but incoherent, and then sat and stared at Catherine.

Catherine, young- pretty and charming was somewhat used to being stared at- and so she sat calmly, and waited for him to recover.

He started to speak- but the words turned into a cough, and that cough into a choke- that reddened his face and brought tears to his eyes.

Catherine resisted the urge to beat him on the back, and politely turned away until it sounded as if he was recuperating.

“What was the question again?” He asked, grinning weakly.

“ I asked, ‘Could you do better- are you a writer?” Catherine said, not yet smiling- but the twinkle in her eye showed that she would smile- if she was given any encouragement.

The choking showed signs of returning- but by sheer power of will, he forced it back. “No. Really. Not writer. Just reader. All my life,” he gasped, and then finished with a cough.

It sounded as if he was new to the language.

He took off his glasses and wiped them with a tissue. Then he took a deep breath and began again.

“Listen, I can speak in sentences, even paragraphs sometimes, and I usually don’t need resuscitation during conversations.” This was said quickly, to establish credibility, but was followed by a deprecating grin, so attractive, that it was devastating.

And then, “Sorry about my episode-thanks for not calling the paramedics.”

Catherine gave him an encouraging look and laughed. Just as a loud ssh- came from somewhere across the room- and caused them both to flush.

“Well, go on- what else is wrong with the story- all of those long-suffering sighs you were heaving at the computer screen must mean that it stirred up some strong feelings,” she said. 

“I shouldn’t have read it.”

“But you have read it, and seem to have some strong feelings about it. Why waste them?”

“ Are you sure? You won’t get mad if I give an opinion? I mean everyone, even those whose writing is awful- are defensive about it. And almost everyone thinks that they are a writer,” he said.

Then seeing his mistake-, he rushed on. “I don’t mean that you aren’t a writer-or are awful…jeez. Silence is Golden, best words ever written. Must remember that.”

Catherine laughed, this time quietly-and then waited.

He grinned. “Well, I’ll say this quick. And then I’ll rush out of the room.”

“I’m not a writer. I’m no expert. But I am an obsessed reader. My mother is too.” He paused. “When you read good literature, sometimes, you get power mad, and think that it gives you the ability to judge good writing.”

“Mine too- Mother I mean,” Catherine said, seeming to have picked up his talent for unclear expression.

Then more clearly, “From the time I was a little kid I remember my mother going around the house with a book in her hand. Sometimes a book tucked under one arm and a dishtowel under the other. Or she had a paper back on a reading stand on the kitchen counter. Usually, there wasn’t much time for her to read-she had too much to do- but she carried that book around all day- just in case- or maybe the book was some kind of talisman-against too much reality. Talk about obsessed!”

He nodded and laughed-looking around to make sure no one was noticing, “mine too- my mother thinks that if everyone just read enough they would be kinder, full of integrity, world peace would be declared, illnesses would be cured, love would last… well, you get the picture.”

He smiled, looked around again and then went on- his voice quiet but clear.

“ Like I said. I read everything. I still like kid’s books. “Winnie The Pooh”, “Captains Courageous”, “Harry Potter” all of them, I could see that your story is a first draft. And I could see that you haven’t gotten hold of the plot or theme of the story yet. But, it is not awful!

The Study Center was beginning its pre-closing buzz as students closed down their computers and replaced reference materials. After ten minutes of frantic activity, the entire center would be silent and dark until nine a.m. the next day- but Catherine and her critic remained- a small island of serenity-still involved in their conversation.

Catherine studied him for a moment and thought, “Maybe a couple of years older than me- shy-nice- at least- he seems to be. Smart. Funny and Cute- not drop dead handsome- but really nice eyes-blue- I think. Brown hair-too bad it’s not black-I do like men with dark hair and blue eyes- still he’s got a great looking haircut. No, not exactly handsome-but … something appealing about him…nevertheless.”

What he was thinking remained a mystery- but something in Catherine’s inquiring look seemed to bring back his nervousness. He glanced around, then hurriedly began to pack up his things without giving much attention to what he packed. He had shoved two of Catherine’s books into his backpack - and would have left with them if she hadn’t stopped him.

“Sorry… what an idiot. Listen- you are Catherine Emerson aren’t you? I’m Liam Sonders,” he said, then-paused as if there was more to say.

“I know some of your friends,” he said. Then he shrugged as if not satisfied with the explanation that had seemed part introduction and part character reference.

He grinned and held out his hand- and then seemed startled when Catherine shook hands with him.

“Can I walk you home?” he asked. Then he flushed at making such an old fashioned offer.

“Yes.” Catherine said. She smiled.

They walked out of the center in silence.

Catherine was silent from not knowing what to say, and Liam Sonders seemed ready to speak every moment.

The night was chilly, and fall seemed to be going very fast. Catherine pulled her sweater around her and smothered both a yawn and a shiver.

“I’m not always this tongue-tied,” he said. 

“I hope not…” Catherine said, and then laughed.

There was something in her laugh that dissolved shyness and Liam Sonders laughed back- a happy relaxed laugh. And then he stood grinning at Catherine.

Catherine smiled and looked around her- it was the look of a writer-always noticing and sensing the world, and in that glance she saw that it wasn’t a promising night if you hated to see winter come. But that there was a beautiful, moon and that, the breeze that was rustling the leaves made even that ordinary street look mysterious.

“I’ve been- just by you or just behind you, or just across the room from you, or in the same line with you time after time since college began. I wondered when I would finally meet you.” Liam said.

“I think I’ve seen you.” Catherine said- not sounding, very sure about it.

He seemed discouraged- but then he forged ahead.

“ About the story you are writing- how old is the kid you are writing for?”

“Gwynie… Gwynie is 7 but seems much older. She is my littlest-oldest sister.”

“ Well, I think that it may be written a little too old even for her. And it should start with some action.”

They walked on side by side-their steps matching.

“Action…you mean like the hero choking?” Catherine teased.

To Catherine’s amusement Liam stopped on the sidewalk for a moment and silently bumped his forehead against a young tree.

`So you see, ‘”The young man said-his voice thick with emotion,” `this acquaintance, whatever it is- is doomed from the start- you’ll never think about me without remembering the choking- I’m going home.’ He croaked- hopelessly.

“ You are crazy. Stop it- this minute-you are killing that tree.”

She laughed as he looked round at her.

“ Come on, I promise to forget the choking- and that’s a shame- cause it was going to be one of my favorite memories! - But you can’t leave me now- or you’ll be responsible for Gwynie getting a story she won’t like- and kids are so honest- she will have to tell me that she doesn’t like it, and since I’m her favorite in the family- it will hurt. Both of us. So stay, and go on with your criticism.”

“ Are you sure?” And at Catherine’s nod, he took a breath and thought a moment.

“Well, I think that there is too much explaining about what everyone is thinking- just have them show what they are thinking.”

“Yes, I know-and easier said than done…but I think that there is something else…?”

“Well, nothing much… but have you thought that it might be too full of moralizing? People hate being preached at.”

Catherine’s expression grew solemn. She thought of her sister Melinda- if ever a person hated moralizing-it was Melinda. It was impossible to imagine herreading an eight- part story-heaped full of it to Gwynie. No bribe in the world would be big enough to convince her to make the sacrifice and that would lead to more fights between her sisters. Besides, Gwynie would know, well maybe not know what was wrong with the story- but know that she didn’t like it. What was worse was the idea of her own story… that she had dreamed about…and waited far too long to write, for it to end up as nothing but a sermon. She swallowed.

“In other words- boring,” she said. Her confidence suddenly, and completely collapsed. And the pride of the novice author- reasserted itself and ached to defend her writing.

“It’s awful and I better start again- just like with the painting.”

“You paint too?”

“Well, no- but I tried to paint a picture of the castle in the story for Gwynie- and the painting is awful… and that was alright- since I’m not a painter, but having the story be awful too, when I do think of myself as a future writer is worse.” Surprisingly, Catherine who was more tired than she knew, felt tears fill her eyes and heard a tremble in her voice.

Liam Sonders, his shyness entirely gone –replaced by his concern – looked determinedly ahead ignoring both tears and tremble just as Catherine wanted him to do.

“Oh no, not terrible- you have a feel for words- you know that about yourself. Now take the time and the patience to write and write- write the bad and the good and then eliminate the bad… -then your story will come. - Sorry, it’s always so easy to tell other people what to do,” he said. His voice was quiet, and he cast a hurried look at her.

Then, happily for Catherine, they found themselves in a group of students and so, for several minutes, were unable to talk. She took some deep breaths and had time to calm herself.

By the time the others had passed by, they stood in front of Catherine’s building, and she found that she could smile at him again.

“That was good advice…about the story…I’ll take it and see what happens. Sorry that I wasn’t professional about the criticism-especially after I insisted on it.”

He remained silent, seeming to study his shoes in the dim light. She went on, “This is where I live-thanks for the walk and the talk. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around campus.”

“ Could I come by sometime and help you with the painting? I’m not an artist either- and I promise not to criticize your painting. But I have had some art classes and I would be glad to help you with it-but only if you want me to.”

“Could you come tomorrow?” Catherine asked, eagerly- hoping that she didn’t sound as pushy as most of her friends did when talking to guys- but she saw a chance for some help- and if she could mail the picture off soon- it would keep Gwyn from being too disappointed.

“I work until four- could I stop by after that?” he said.

“Yes, do- and since it’s Saturday- I’ll have the day to work over the story- I guess I’ll have to do everything else on Sunday. Well, at least I had the sense to make the story a serialization- I won’t have to do it all at once. Really, I don’t know how I’m going to write it at all- so you better come help me get my confidence back.”

Saturday night found the two of them- soft drinks pushed away- and all of the signs of hours of hard work attempted and perhaps accomplished-around them.

They sat at one of two small tables of the sort that were called “dinette sets” during the 50’s. These tables served Brittany and Catherine for both eating and studying in the large dinning/kitchen area that made up the greater part of their apartment.

The two girls lived up the stairs in a dingy, disheveled looking, 30’s era house with dirt for a front lawn, and a few weeds for landscaping. The house had been remodeled and refashioned over the years. Unfortunately, none of the remodeling had been professional- and it showed up in obvious and unattractive ways.

The front door of their apartment seemed to thrust newcomers, “ready or not” into the tiny living room. There they must make the abrupt choice of either turning left into the dinning room/study area or of immediately taking a seat on a wicker love seat – or on a small ancient, and uncomfortable looking sofa. The entrance did not help the room feel comfortable, but the girls had- by adding a brass clock- some rose and teal colored pillows and an umbrella stand.

The tables in the dinning room had the convenience of being placed beneath two antique light fixtures. - One fixture in the wall over each table- furnished adequate lighting, and gave the ugly tables the feel of being in an old and intimate restaurant- on the few occasions when they were used for more than a fast breakfast or a hurried lunch. The rest of the kitchen was plain and painted a hard white enamel- but with a few posters, it had a welcoming appearance.

Further back was an awkward window lined room that was narrow for even one bedroom- but had been fixed to serve as two. Two narrow beds were placed under the windows on either side of the room- between them- ran a heavy striped curtain- to divide them – hospital fashion. All that was left was a dark and inconvenient bathroom- that served well for two girls as long as they were on different schedules.

The apartment was ancient and too expensive for her budget- but Catherine gloried in the privacy of her first place- and was glad to be out of the chaotic dorms.

“Look Catherine. I think that I’ve gotten the turrets straight on the castle- they still look like spires on a cathedral- not like strong castle turrets- but they look ok.”

Catherine looked and admired.

Liam was right, the turrets did look like spires- but he had somehow straightened them and so taken away the top heavy look- that had made her castle look as if it were going to topple over- with its turrets/spires buried in the ground.

“ That’s good- you straightened the turrets- or did you cover them with clouds? - I love the clouds.”

“ A little of both- and you picked a good color for the sky -I can’t tell whether it is dawn or dusk in the painting.”

“Me either. And I still don’t know- because I’m not sure what artists do to show the difference. But it’s early evening- I think. What else should be done to it?”

“I think we should just leave it alone - if I try to improve it anymore- I’ll destroy all of your work–which wasn’t that bad. This way- it’s still your work with a little visual editing from me.”

Catherine looked at the castle, and at the “visual editor”, with real appreciation. She knew from experience that few men- young or old were able to respect a woman’s work enough not to improve it. As for the work itself-, while far from perfect- it was pleasing.

On the table before her, painted on a piece of thin wood, stood a small castle. The color- was somewhere between gold and sand, and the turrets were a sort of darkish maroon. The castle was surrounded by a bright green lawn- the color of shamrocks. The background was a blue sky full of white clouds touched with bits of blue and pink-as if they were caught in either the first or the last rays of the sun. There were dots, which were supposed to be stars and one star with a comet like appearance. The moon looked like a capital C-as she had wanted it to.

“It’s good! Gwynie will like it!”

“The story is coming along too- maybe I can get the first part ready to go out- if I go to the SSC and type all of Monday evening.”

Liam glanced at the computer that stood on the edge of the other table. Catherine followed his glance, and said, “ That is my room-mate’s. Believe me- I get tempted- she never uses it, and wouldn’t care if I did. But, when we moved in here together- we promised to respect each other’s belongings- and I’m sticking by it. If you start changing the rules- things get complicated.”

He stood up, stretched and yawned- then glanced at the clock over the table.

“Where did the night go- I’ve got to get back to my room and get some sleep-I’ve got to work tomorrow. Early-too.”

“Sunday?” Catherine said.

She felt a guilty pang at the thought that he had been sitting at that table for five hours- except for a few short breaks, and had eaten a piece of warmed up pizza for dinner.

“ Yes, another job that I have- Sunday paper delivery. It’s a small rural route, and it doesn’t take long- so other than the getting up early- it’s not bad.”

“Catering, and paper delivery- I’d say my life has no where to go – but up- from here.”

Catherine smiled-“Do you ever wonder if we are crazy-working so hard?”

“Yes, but I don’t see much of an alternative- I could probably live entirely on financial aid if I made the effort, but I won’t. Stubborn of me- probably even stupid- but I hate everything about it. I hate student loans too- but I have to have those.”

“It sounds like we are in the same boat. I don’t see an alternative either- but I don’t always have a good attitude about all of the work.”

“Listen, I need sleep- so do you- and I don’t feel like waiting around and meeting your room mate- so I’ll be going,” Liam said, and then with a quick touch of his hand on hers, and a quiet -”goodbye,” he was gone.

Catherine felt tired in every inch of her body. She quickly straightened the room thinking, “sleep wonderful sleep.” But before she took her bath she looked at the painting once more, and smiled. It was much improved, and so was the story.

Liam had helped her.

Things didn’t look as impossible as they had the night before- and for a moment she even considered painting a rainbow across the cloud-covered sky of the painting. “No, no more work, just leave “good enough” alone.” She warned herself, and then went humming in to her bath.

A few days later Gwynie’s father carried in the mail, and brought a large brown mailing envelope in to Gwyn where she sat at the kitchen table staring, listlessly, at a book.

“What is it?” She asked- green eyes wide.

And then when her father stood smiling at her, “Who is it for?”

“Let’s see, it says to Miss Gwyn Emerson.” I believe that’s you ma’am.”

“Something new for me? -Is it from you- Daddy?”

“You ninny, can’t you see that it’s from Catherine?” Melinda who had been trying to remove burned on peas from her mother’s favorite pot- was not in a happy frame of mind.

Their father gave Melinda a look, and then kindly pointed out the return address to Gwynie- whose happy look had disappeared with Melinda’s words.

“That’s the return address- up here in the edge of the mailing envelope- see- it says, `Catherine Emerson’, and it has her address-the place where she lives. That way- if she had not written our correct address the envelope would be returned to Cath- and she could try to mail it again. Now, why not open it?”

Gwynie smiled again and after tugging a bit she carefully opened the envelope. Of course, she had received birthday cards in the mail, and one or two letters from Catherine, but this was the first package that had ever been addressed just to her and she wanted to save the envelope to show her mother.

The three of them stood looking down at a little painting. It showed a building that could have been a church or a castle, painted on wood. The sky was a brilliant blue- full of clouds that were tinged as if by a sunset. There were words on the top- painted carefully- but looking different than most printing that Gwyn was used to.

“Welcome to our little castle in the city!” Her sister read, and instantly all three of them knew that the castle in the picture stood for their own house.

“Oh look, there’s even a wire on the back so that it can be hung up!” Gwynie said, as she picked up the picture and turned it around.

“Here is a note-I suppose that I have to read it,” Melinda said.

“It would be a change, Melinda-if just for once, you would do something without making a big deal out of it,” her father said.

“Yes, read it” Gwynie said- feeling too important, and liking the picture too much to worry about the note or Melinda’s martyred tone.

`Hi Gwyn,

I just have time to write you that this little picture is for you. I painted it- but with some help from a friend.

Of course, it stands for our house, but also for the pretend castle that will be in your story. The picture is yours- you can hang it on your wall or put it away with your special things.

The first part of the story that I promised you will be there in a few days. For now, you have the picture that goes with it.

Please notice the moon in the picture- it looks like a big C- that is also my signature as the artist. C- Catherine. But C is also the first letter in the word courage- something that we all need when we are afraid.

So, remember that the -C in the moon –stands for both courage, and for Catherine.

And as always,

Courage and Love, from “your own-Catherine”

As soon as Melinda had read the note, she returned to scrubbing the pan.

Gwynie smiled at her father and silently gathered her envelopes, letter and picture and then quickly left the room- to steal away to the “Queen’s Parlor”- their living room, and to sit and hug her treasures.

After she had left the room, the girls’ father remained sitting at the kitchen table- studying his middle daughter’s back as she stood at the sink.

“Melin- little one… I didn’t mean to be angry… come sit and talk with your grouchy old man.”

“Can’t Popsie- I’ve got things to do,” she said.

She straightened her shoulders, and he could tell that she would not sit with him because she was fighting back tears.

He got up and went to the door of the hallway that led to his office- he meant to walk briskly on and leave Melinda to deal with her tears and her troubles alone- but there was something about the set of her shoulders that touched him.

“We don’t have to talk about the picture if you don’t want to…” he said.  But he waited.

Melinda turned again as if she needed something out of the spice cupboard, and so that her face was better hidden from her father’s view.

“I don’t care about the stupid picture,” she said.

“I know that you don’t,” he said. And then determinedly went on, “ Do you remember when Gwynie was about two or three?” Do you remember how territorial and possessive she got about everything?”

`Mine, Mine, or Gwynie wants own-cookie’ or whatever it was, for about 8 or 9 months that is all we heard. It was one of those times your mother started agonizing about Gwynie’s `social development’ – and I had to soothe Manna, and get stern with Gwynie. And woe to me if I got mixed up as to whom to soothe or to be stern with.”

“I would never have believed then that Gwyn would have turned out to be so compliant- at least compliant in this stage of her development. But do you remember?”

“Yes, I remember…” Melinda said. He could tell that she was beginning to smile.

“ Do you remember how competitive the two of you were for Catherine’s attention?”

He laughed. “It was one of the many uncomfortable, times of family life- which, by the way, I sometimes think is vastly over-rated.”

“Yes, I know you do, everyone can see that you can’t stand your family.”

“Just like you got “stern” with Gwynie. You can’t manage stern- Popsie- you can only imitate it,” Melinda said. And finally- she gave him a brief but tight hug.

“But that wasn’t all of my story- a bit more respect my girl,” he said. He smoothed the hair that she had ruffled.

“ It was a terrible Sunday morning- for some reason all of our crises were happening on Sunday mornings then- now they seem to occur on Mondays.”

He stood pondering a moment, and then went on with his story.

“Gwynie had claimed nearly all of the property in the house as “MINE” that morning… and had cried if anyone looked at her wrong. She wanted a cookie, and you offered her a bite of your toast to calm her. She demanded, ‘Gwynie wants own cookie!’ You persisted with the toast and she grabbed it and pitched it at Catherine’s cat.”

“Then you and Catherine wanted to step out to your mother’s writing room without her and she threw the worst tantrum that I’ve ever seen… and I’ve seen some in my days with four women to contend with.”

He dodged Melinda’s fake jab.

“And as you left, Gwynie screamed, `Cathenon, Cathenon!’ as if she had just stepped onto the stage of some hysterical opera…and she became almost unmanageable for a while. After you came in and she was sitting in Catherine’s lap- she looked sweet as an angel- but she gave a little sob- either for effect or because she was still shaken up by her scene.”

“Well, then what?”

“You really don’t remember?” He smiled, reminiscently.

“Well-Catherine, of course, melted, and asked a foolish question, `Why did you cry so hard-Baby?’

“Which could have started the whole production over again. But Gwynie was satisfied because she had Catherine’s attention again and so she actually answered her.”

“`Cathenon go away!’ She lisped. “

“`Catherine had to go with Melinda.’ “Catherine said- still trying to reason with the kid.”

“`No!’ Gwynie said. `Cathenon mine.’”

“`But Baby, I’m Melin’s sister too.’ “Your foolish sister said- and I braced myself for another tantrum”

“But Gwynie sat thinking for a minute, and then she said, `Gwynie wants her own Cathenon.’ “

“And so that’s why Catherine signs everything to Gwynie- `from your own Catherine.’ – I was so used to it- that I hadn’t thought why she did it,” Melinda said.

“Yup, that’s why. But I think the battle for Catherine’s affection continues - doesn’t it?”

Melinda didn’t answer. She hated wondering why people, herself included, did or felt certain ways. She hated psychology, She hated pondering her own heart or trying to understand others. As far as she could see- people did not make much sense and it was too hard to keep trying to figure them out.

Her father, seeing by the stubborn set of her chin that he would get nothing more out of her that night-went on to his office.

And in the living room, Gwynie- sat -fighting the urge to turn on the lamp and dispel the darkness.

“C is for Catherine,” she said.

She heard her mother’s car turn into the driveway- but still she sat- staring into the depths of the shadows.

“C is for courage,” she whispered. 

She sat still and held tight to her picture until, at last, her mother turned on the light, blinked and then grinned at her.