The Witness

Laura Dutton pulled out her hair in large clumps that left patchy bald spots at the top and sides of her head.

She sat next to me in the back of the classroom. In those days, the mid seventies, you were seated according to height and not because of any attention deficit or misbehavior or hearing problems.

Laura was not particularly attractive. She was too thin and her skin was egg white pale. Because she also pulled out her eyelashes, her eyes seemed rounder and darker. Her mouth had a tragedy to it, even when she smiled.

I liked Laura. While the other girls in our class were concerned with make-up and boys, Laura’s conversations were about justice and her dreams of becoming a poet.

We lived next to each other behind Howard’s Park where we would often stop by the pond on our walk home from school. Laura would take out her notebook filled with her collection of poetry. Sometimes she would read them to me but most of the time she just wrote while I would stare at the ducks in the pond.

There’s nothing in my memory of what her poems were about. I don’t recall if they rhymed or what they meant. She would read the poem and all I would say was, “Nice.” She might as well have been reading her poems to the ducks for all I understood of them.

Poetry was never my strong point. It lacked facts and proof.  I suppose this is what made me dream of becoming a detective, although in those days women weren’t admitted into the police force.

One day, early fall, when the leaves had changed colour but had not yet fallen from their branches, Laura said, “Have you ever gone all the way?”

At first, I thought it was perhaps a line or a title of one of her poems. When I realized she was asking me a real question I said, “Even if I wanted to who would there be?”

I was sixteen, as Laura was, and I had never even kissed a boy or met one that I wanted to.

“I have,” she said.

“Who with?” I asked.

“A professor at Bishop’s University. He teaches poetry. I want you to meet him.”

I didn’t really want to meet him but she seemed so excited, and I wasn’t good at saying no then.  I was afraid of letting people down.  Besides, I wanted to see for myself who this man was who would want to do it with Laura.

The next day, after school, we took the city bus downtown to a drugstore. At the back was a long counter with a row of red plastic swivel rotating stools. The waitresses were old and had hair the colour of candy floss.

“There he is,” Laura whispered, pointing to a man hunched over, reading from a newspaper spread on the counter.

His name was Brian. He was much older than I had expected. Perhaps closer to my father’s age.

In retrospect, I could see why he’d been attracted to Laura. She must have given him back some of his youth. Or at least the illusion of it. He wore black rimmed eyeglasses with thick lenses and a navy blazer with the Bishop’s University crest on its left breast pocket.
“This is my friend, Marilyn,” Laura told Brian.

He took my hand and shook it in an authoritative manner that made me feel like I was important. “Pleased to meet you,” he said and then he looked at Laura in a way that reminded me of how men in old movies looked at women they were in love with.

Laura and I ordered cokes while Brian had a black coffee. They did most of the talking, with Laura leaning against Brian and occasionally, Brian would ask me a question about school which I answered vaguely. After we finished our cokes and Brian his coffee, Laura said, “Brian and I are going to his car. I’d like you to be on the lookout for any cops. If you see any, just knock on the window.”

His car was parked in an indoor garage where it was dark and far away from other cars. I should have been angry at Laura or felt used; instead I found myself enjoying stalking the parking lot while Laura and Brian made out in the back seat of his Mustang. If I couldn’t be a real detective, then at least I could be one vicariously.

“You know he’s married,” Laura told me on our way back home.  “But he doesn’t love his wife. He’s wildly in love with me. One day he’s going to leave his wife and we’ll get married.”

Even I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that this would happen, and didn’t want to see her hurt.

“When?” I challenged her.

“As soon as I finish school.”

We had come to the entrance of Howard’s Park with its rows of green houses, and she stopped and clutched at my arm. “This is between you and me. Promise you won’t tell anyone.”

I swore that I wouldn’t.

By Forrest Cavale

By Forrest Cavale

Her life with Brian took up a lot of her time and I was busy with basketball practice and weekend games so I didn’t see Laura much. Christmas came and she went away to visit her mother’s side of the family in Northern Ontario, as she did every Christmas. When Laura didn’t return to school after the holidays I went over to her home to see if something was wrong with her.

It was a two story house made of grey stone with the backyard facing the park. I went up the front entrance and rang the doorbell.

“Hello, Marilyn,” said Mrs Dutton in a voice that was hardly audible.

“Hello,” I said. “I haven’t seen Laura at school. Is she sick?”

Laura’s mother confused me. At times she was full of affection and her conversations were fun and interesting; other times she ignored me completely as if I was a stranger. I knew, as everyone else in the neighbourhood knew, that she had spent time in a psychiatric ward. I had never mentioned it to Laura for in those days psychiatry was hushed even more than it is today.

She invited me inside the entrance but no further. I heard the sound of a radio in the distance and glimpsed Mr. Dutton pass by, but he didn’t acknowledge my presence. He was a big, strong man, and although I’d only met him a few times, he frightened me.  Mrs. Dutton, I noticed, wore a summer cotton dress with a pair of socks which didn’t match.

“Laura’s gone away to a boarding school in Vermont,” Mrs. Dutton told me, sorrow floating in her eyes.  “It’s a special school for pregnant teenagers. You know she’s going to have a baby.”

I thought of Brian and his promise to marry Laura. “Is she going to keep the baby?” I asked.

Mrs. Dutton’s shook her head. “No, she’s decided to give the baby up for adoption. You know Laura herself was adopted?”

This was a surprise to me.

I wanted to reach out and place my arms around her, but didn’t know if she’d like me doing that. “When…when is she going to have it?”

I was aware that I had said it instead of baby and tried to correct my mistake, but by then it was too late.

“June. She’s due to have the baby in June,” Mrs Dutton said stressing the word baby in a tone that I could only guess as reprimand.  “You’ll come and see her, won’t you when she returns home?”

In June, when Laura finally returned home I noticed that there were new bald spots on her head. “You know it was Brian’s baby, don’t you?” she told me. It was a hot mid June afternoon and we were sitting along the bank of the pond where, across from it, gardeners were planting flowers.

“I figured that much,” I said.

“When I told him I was pregnant he wanted me to have an abortion. But I couldn’t.”

I remembered the afternoon she’d made me stake out the parking lot for cops. Hadn’t she said that Brian was wildly in love with her? That he would leave his wife to marry her? I wanted to remind Laura of this but how could I hurt her more than she already was?

“What did it feel like, giving up your baby?” I asked her.

A small moan came from her. She stared straight across the pond and said, “I think it was harder on my mother. She wanted me to keep the baby. She even said that she’d take care of it.”

“Did they know it was Brian’s baby?”

“No. I told them I didn’t know who the father was. My mother tried to draw names out of me but I refused to tell her. It didn’t matter, I told her. I wasn’t going to keep the baby anyway. And what was the point of getting a boy in trouble if he wasn’t the father.”

“What about your father?”

“He was angry but in the end he sided with me. It would have caused a scandal in his law firm.”

We saw each other a few times after that but never again mentioned the baby. I had been accepted at McGill in the sociology program, while Laura had made plans to study literature in Prince Edward Island. “I hear they have a great poetry program there,” she said.

The week before she left her father died. He was murdered. Some said that it had to do with his wife’s mental state; others said it that he’d been caught in some affair with another woman. When word got around, people said that if anyone should have been murdered in that family it should have been Laura’s mother. It just went to show, I thought, how you never really knew someone. Not that I knew Laura’s father that well. I’d only met him a few times and each time I always thought there was something cold about him that made it difficult to like him. Besides, his strong smell of alcohol repelled me.

When I graduated from McGill, I worked for a while in a community centre for the elderly. It was also around this time that women were being admitted into the police force. I applied, was accepted, and had been working as a patrol cop for a little over a year when my partner and I were sent out on a call to a bar where some scuffle in the parking lot was taking place.

A small group of people had gathered. Among the crowd I noticed Brian. After we broke up the fight, I told my partner to hold on a minute, that there was someone I wanted to talk to.

Brian didn’t recognize me, so I reminded him of that afternoon at the drugstore.

He laughed. “Laura Dutton. My God! Just the other day I was reading one of her poems in a literary magazine,” he said without a trace of remorse. “What a wonderful poet she is. I always knew there was something special about her. That’s what made me fall in love with her.”

“Fall in love with her! Make her believe that you’d marry her and then dump her as soon as you found out she was pregnant. What kind of love is that?” I said.

Brian looked confused. “Oh, I didn’t know she was pregnant. She never told me. Besides, I’m not the one who dumped Laura. She left me. It took me a long time to get over her. I’d never been as crazy about someone as I’d been over Laura.”

“That’s not quite the version Laura gave me,” I said.

“She told me that you threatened to kill her if she told your wife about the baby.”


When I finally left, I was feeling disgusted with human nature. Rubbing shoulders with criminals day in and day out isn’t anything to heighten one’s morale, but listening to Brian’s shameless denial left a raw bitterness in my gut that I couldn’t rationalize away.

The incident haunted me, and I finally decided to search for Laura Dutton at the university and read her poems.

The incident haunted me, and I finally decided to search for Laura Dutton at the university and read her poems. She wrote of darkness, of the pain of childhood, the confusion and alienation of growing up in a world where she didn’t know what love was.

I forgot about Laura, and then in the summer of 1990 I was called on a family violence case. The man of the house answered the door and tried to assure us that nothing was wrong. “Must be some kind of mistake. A Joke,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything funny about family violence,” I told him.

In the kitchen, his wife sat with her head bent over a cup of tea. There was an empty bottle of scotch. Then, I noticed a young girl standing in a doorway that must have been her bedroom. I went up to her and said, “Is everything alright?”

She looked furtively at her father and bent her head.  I noticed a bald spot on the top of her head about the size of her own knee cap. By then, I had learned that the pulling of hair was a disorder called trichotillomania that often signaled a state of distress.  I thought of Laura. It saddened me that I hadn’t recognized this distress in her when we were teenagers.

A sick feeling grew inside me. I needed to see Laura. I had some free days coming up and took a flight to PEI.

Laura was happy to see me. She was living with another woman in a small house overlooking sand dunes and ocean. Her hair no longer had bald spots and she wore it long and tied back with a ribbon. Her companion, Mary, was a painter, and they settled me in a bedroom upstairs with the sea on the walls.

“I ran into Brian,” I told Laura, when just the two of us went for a walk along the beach. “He told me that he didn’t know you were pregnant.”

She kept walking and didn’t say anything.

My ears filled with the sound of the waves coming and going.

Finally she said, “You remember that day I asked you to keep a lookout in the parking lot.”

How could I forget?  I know it’s irrational, but I often thought that had I not taken part that day I might have saved Laura from becoming pregnant.

“I wanted a witness. I was already pregnant but not with Brian’s baby. I was looking for a father and Brian was perfect. He was married.”

I didn’t have to ask her whose baby it was. The hair pulling, giving up a baby when she had been adopted. It all became clear. “Why did you protect your father?”

She turned to look at me and I could see a glimpse of hatred in her eyes. “It wasn’t my father I was protecting,” she said. Then in a voice filled with tenderness she said, “It was my mother. It would have hurt her too deeply to know about the abuse.”

I thought about the day Mrs. Dutton told me that Laura was pregnant and how sad she looked.  “Brian told me that he was in love with you.”

“I always felt bad about that. I didn’t count on that happening. He was willing to leave his wife for me. I kept telling him to wait.”

“And you weren’t crazy about him?”

“No. I didn’t feel anything for him. I’ve never had any feelings for a man. Maybe my father destroyed that in me.”

“So your mother never found out? About your father and you?”

A cloud passed by and our long shadows were projected on the wet sand in front of us like thin elongated bodies of Edvard Munch paintings.

“My father ended up telling my mother the truth. It was just a few days before I was to leave for university. My father had gotten drunk and my mother was on the verge of one of her delusional states. He told my mother that the baby was his.”

The waves hit our ankles, but by now my feet were used to the cold water.

“I hated my father for telling my mother. She was the one person who really cared about me and I had betrayed her. My father called out to me and told me to tell my mother that it was true we were having sex with each other. I was crying and in a panic.”

Her face contorted but then became serene again. “My mother left the room and came back with my father’s gun. I knew that she was going to shoot my father. I could have stopped her but I didn’t. I wanted her to shoot him. Had she not done it, I would have done it myself.”

For a fraction of a second, my detective instincts wondered if perhaps Laura had shot her father and I wanted to accuse her of murder. But the truth of her abuse slammed that door shut. After Mr. Dutton’s murder, her mother had been placed in a hospital for the mentally insane.

We never spoke of the murder nor the baby again. I left PEI a few days after and although I have often thought about Laura, I haven’t seen her since. Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a journal and find one of her poems in it. I’m always hoping to find some joyful poem. But I never do.

Carol Balawyder has a BA in education and an MSc in criminology. Her fiction has appeared in The Anthology of Canadian Authors Association, Room Magazine, Entre Les Lignes and Her novel, The Protectors, was long listed for the 2014 Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award.