Portrait of an imperfect family places third in NCWC writing contest

By Bradley Turcotte –

[Bonus content for web readers: scroll to the end of this article to read Palmer’s story.]

Kitchissippi resident and real estate agent James Palmer exposes the façade of idyllic family life with Birthday, which placed third in the Canadian Authors Association-National Capital Region’s 28th annual National Capital Writing Contest (NCWC).

Set in the 1980s, Birthday is told from the point of view of a father who becomes intrigued by a family across the street. Palmer’s prose tackles several societal issues including gender roles and gossip.

 Kitchissippi resident James Palmer ?divides his time between real estate and prose. Photo by Bradley Turcotte.
Kitchissippi resident James Palmer ?divides his time between real estate and prose. Photo by Bradley Turcotte.

“The narrator promises at the outset that this will not be an easy story, and this promise is kept,” Matthew Bin, National Chair for the Canadian Authors Association, says of Birthday. “At best we can come up with theories about others, the author seems to say, even those who live right across the street from us. Birthday is a suburban tale, and it deals with all the issues that exist among neighbours subtly and deftly.”

“It’s not that I want to tell you but there’s something about this that I need to tell,” Palmer explains. “It’s not just pleasant gossip. It’s a painful story.”

Recognition for his writing is something Palmer maintains he “isn’t that used to,” however he has placed in several Ottawa Public Library writing competitions.

Palmer read Birthday aloud at the awards ceremony, held May 12. The author enjoyed the evening, while adding jovially, “I thought I should have won first.”

Each year the NCWC offers prizes, ranging from $100 to $300, in the poetry and short story categories.

Contest coordinator Sherrill Wark says this year they received a “healthy number of entries,” adding that the organization made the decision to discontinue the youth category due to low submission rates.

Selling and leasing real estate in Ottawa for over three decades, Palmer says his professional interactions have informed his writing and Birthday is no exception. From ambassadors to politicians, Palmer has peeked into the private lives of high-profile individuals and divulges that the placid front these families present usually masks chaos hidden under the surface.

“In the real estate business one of the fascinating things is you get to see what life is like behind the counter,” Palmer explains. “If you have ever worked at a retail store you know how the customers are treated. Behind the counter you see how the staff treats itself. It’s different. That was part of it, the idea of something being somewhat secret. You see people with their persona and then you see something in their life that is a bit unusual.”

A successful real estate agent who moonlights as a writer may seem unusual to some, but the importance of writing was instilled in Palmer early on. His mother Elizabeth was a writer who ran in the same circles as Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence, Palmer says, and she encouraged him to put pen to paper. Palmer won several writing awards as a youth and attended the Banff School during the summer of 1967.

Stopping short of citing them as influences, Palmer’s favourite authors include James Salter and Richard Ford, but as a youth a certain classic opened his eyes to what modern literature could be.

“I was probably 9 or 10 and I found a copy of Huckleberry Finn. I can understand why Hemingway said that was the beginning of all great American literature. It was an absolutely fascinating book. It’s really sad that it’s been quarantined in so many schools because of the racial thing. Huck’s revelation is that people are people.”

Palmer says he has a couple of novels completed, one being stuck at “175 pages for too long,” and will continue to shop his work around to agents and enter literary competitions, yet his career in real estate takes precedent.
“I don’t write that much. I’d love to do more if I had the time to do it.”

For information about the CAA, go to ?canauthors-ottawa.org.


Birthday, by James Palmer

I was there when it happened, and now I have the need to tell. I said “need” not “want”. This will not be an easy story.
We – that is my wife, Georgette and I- would never have met the Cunninghams if they had not moved in across the street. We socialized in different circles: they went to church, we did not. We had lived in our downtown neighbourhood for years before it became upscale; and they moved in when it started to get that way. And, they were much more politically attuned, better dressed, and drove European cars.

But, we are both of the same age – early thirties -, and each of us had had our first child: a boy for us named John, of four; and their girl, Daphne, who was slightly older and precocious. As parents learn, children bring adults together, and that is how we came to know the Cunninghams. We might have had nothing but a nodding acquaintanceship – a wave to each other after picking up our morning newspapers – had we both not had children of about four, and if, – on Daphne’s fifth-, John had not been invited to the birthday party.

Lisa Cunningham favoured navy blue suits tailored smartly to follow the outline of her body without ever hugging it, and now given the chance to recollect, we never would have had the chance to wave to her, at least, in the morning. She would have been at the gym before returning to get Daphne for school, in the hand-off from her husband, Paul, after breakfast. If she received a newspaper, it would have been folded on the tray at her desk with black coffee and a muffin. If she picked it up and read it, she would do so before the telephones began to ring. She was counsel at a well-known legal firm where she supervised and negotiated real estate sales and leases for national companies and governments. In the glass and concrete tower where she worked, her firm’s floor was designed and decorated – as they are – like a movie set, and she had a corner office. This I heard from a gossip. We did not know Lisa professionally; the only property we owned was the house on our tree-lined street. I could call Lisa by her first name. As could everyone but Daphne and the neighbourhood children. To them she was “Mother” and “Mrs. Cunningham” respectively. And to us, at first, it carried a certain aura of gentility or charm that respect for her was so implicit. Children don’t seem to be so respectful these days. The lives they live are so much more comfortable, or careless.

Paul appeared to live a life of extravagant leisure, but it may have been that he worked very hard to make his life seem so relaxed. He was a professor of economics and even at his age had adopted the manner of a genteel sage who indulged us all with the good humour of his intellect. He had studied at prestigious schools; I could guess that there was family money. We could not hold it against him; he had made the most of it, but he seemed to take his good fortune for granted, or as nothing less than what he deserved.

When I walked John across the street that day, leaves skittered on the pavement in the autumn wind.

My little boy held Daphne’s present, boxed and gift-wrapped, with a bow tied by his mother, in two fists against his chest. Paul greeted us at the Cunninghams’ door. I stepped into the warm foyer. I could see children gathered in the living room in cliques, girls like bouquets of artificial flowers in frilly party dresses, no boys apparently. I wore a toque and a lumberman’s jacket. The party would give me time to rake the yard. I gave John that double push to the bum that children know is the signal to go have fun, and then I paused to say a few words to Paul, but he did not have a few words to spare. “I’ll pick him up at 4:30.” I said “After I rake the lawn.” I turned with my head down, and an older woman I had not heard behind me, was there with a small boy blocking my way out. She was perfectly coiffed with hair so white it seemed illuminated. We shared a “shall we dance?” moment, we smiled, and then I recognized her.

She saw that I did, but she did not confirm my knowing her with a greeting of any sort. She said just “Dropping off my grandson.” and something about the weather. She turned – her head down, too, – to avoid discussion, or to feign humility. Anybody would have known her. Her family’s business was generational, and she was featured often in the city paper for the time and money she spent philanthropically.

I walked across the street and started raking my yard and piling up leaves as I watched strange cars arrive to drop off children delivered brusquely – or efficiently, if you wish – to the Cunningham’s door.

Paul greeted the children and their parents enthusiastically by name, and ushered the children inside. The parents rushed back to their waiting cars hugging their coat collars. Every one of them possessed clothes sense; they had taken the time to put themselves together well before dropping their kids off.

I finished raking the leaves and bagging them, and was inside watching football with a mug of tea when 4:30 rolled around. Georgette had taken the time to go Christmas shopping. It’s a big holiday for her and she likes to get it done early. I was in no hurry to bump into the other parents at the Cunninghams’ so I didn’t rush over there to pick up John. I went to the window and watched until the coast was clear.

I don’t know now if ‘loot bags’ are still a big thing, but they were then. The idea that children would get presents from the birthday child still seems odd to me, and a bad deal for the parents; but the Cunninghams went with the trend. When I went to retrieve John, he was by the door with a multi-coloured paper bag hanging off the end of his arm. Paul was there with him but Lisa was not. Daphne sat on a chair in the living room in her party dress glaring at John, but when she saw me stood up and greeted me with a smile as though she had been instructed to. We knew better than to open the loot bag there. Paul said,”Lisa’s not feeling well. She’s had to go upstairs and lie down.”

“We’ll let you attend to her.” I said. “We’d like to thank you for the party.” John understood, and said “Thank you for the party Mr. Cunningham.” and walked out the door with me and across the street holding my hand. I asked John if he had had fun. He said “yeah.” When we got home I draped his jacket on the newel post, and sat down on the stairs. Then I rubbed my hands together fast, and said “So what did you get?”

John was not as excited as I was trying to be. “Hand it over, big guy!” I said to him. The bag was decorated in rainbow colours and shapes, and seemed packed full. “Any candy? Any chocolate?”

Inside the bag I found a Rubik’s Cube, a Transformer, a pair of playfully coloured socks, and what I thought at first was a Polaroid picture. On the back of it was printed “And the best present of all. My friends, very best friends, should be the first to know. I’m getting a baby brother. Signed, Daphne” On the front of the card was a sonogram of a foetus.

You can bet that Georgette and I discussed that when she got home and John was in bed. The next day Paul’s car was gone from the Cunninghams’ driveway, and the gossip told us that she had seen him packing suitcases into it around midnight before he drove off. It‘s months since this occurred. Daphne and Lisa come and go without talking to us, and no one has seen Paul. My wife has imagined that: 1. He had had a vasectomy, and Lisa an affair; 2. Paul was impotent, and without his knowledge, Lisa had been artificially inseminated; 3. The baby picture was from the surrogate mother living in the Philippines; 4. The photo was from Paul’s secret lover; 5. Lisa had found out. 6. There’s more: It was part of a plot by Daphne.

The female mind seeks relevance in drama.

I do not have the answer. But, like you, I know that a line had been crossed, and that that was the end of the Cunninghams. I was there when it happened, but I lived across the street.

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