It’s 1942, and the Nazi Juggernaut continues to crush Europe, while on the island of Newfoundland the loss of a generation awaits. Two girls who are best friends heading into their last year of high school visit a local park—and their lives are changed forever. The beautiful, talented Angela faces loss and then a darkness, a darkness so shameful that she cannot share it with anyone, not even her best friend. Dorothy faces the prospect of becoming the island’s first “lady lawyer,” one who offers hope for women seeking salvation from the chauvinism that dominates domestic life. A fearless examination of the monumental barriers that have stood in the way of women, My Best Friend Was Angela Bennett is a story of how a friendship endures through the most difficult of times.
“With searing clarity and poignant insight, Suzanne Hillier takes readers deep into one woman’s personal hell. My Best Friend Was Angela Bennett is a transformational exploration of abuse, sadism, shame, entrapment, and injustice. This tragic account of why one woman stays sheds light on the psychological and physical horrors of domestic violence. A truly harrowing journey.”
—Angie Abdou, author of The Bone Cage
“If you’re always looking for another book to read, as I am, this is a brilliant choice. What engaging storytelling! Suzanne Hillier is overdue to burst on the literary scene.”
—Adair Lara, former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle
“Suzanne Hillier’s My Best Friend Was Angela Bennett is a fierce, provocative novel about love, loyalty, and survival. With exacting, often witty prose, Hillier explores a time and place of narrow expectations for women and the chasm spousal abuse creates between friends. This novel is harrowing, funny, tender, unforgettable. It will stay with you.”
—Libby Creelman, author of Walking in Paradise
“An unflinching, often searing, account of two women’s lives and enduring friendship in Smallwood-era Newfoundland.”
—Ed Riche, author of Rare Birds
18. Creating a Precedent
In September 1946, Wills and I were admitted to Dalhousie law school. I was the only woman in a class of fifty men. “I want you to remember, gentlemen, that there is now a lady in our midst. I would caution you to watch your language at all times.” Professor Dryden had authored the well-respected Dryden on Contracts, which he had taught at the university for fifteen years. There were general snickers around the class, and I felt my face burn. Next to me Wills was shaking in his seat with barely contained laughter.
“Arsehole,” I hissed and kicked him as hard as I could on his good leg.
“She’s a Newfoundlander,” croaked a voice from the back.
“Am I to surmise that this disentitles her to the label of ‘lady’?” scolded Dryden. “And am I to conclude that Newfoundland women tolerate swearing?” This produced another even louder snicker from my male colleagues.
They called me Lady Campbell for the next two months, then Lady, and finally Campbell Two. Wills was Campbell One. He was really popular. I led the class in contracts, which should have sent a message to everyone, including Professor Dryden, and certainly Wills, who ended up with a B minus.
We went home for Christmas in time to see Angie’s new baby boy, a beautiful child with Angie’s face. Edgar for once was pleasant and civil to us when we attended the reception following the christening.
“I hope,” I whispered to Angie, “the empty pocket is filled.” I went home 1947 to work in Pop’s law office for the summer. Wills was doing a two-month stint with the Justice Department. In the summer of 1947, politics, the island’s favourite blood sport continued to heat up, as it had since the establishing of a National Convention the previous year. The choices of the future electorate were an independent island, called Responsible Government; a continuation of Commission of Government, which neither the British or the Newfoundlanders wanted; or even an economic union with the United States. The island’s love affair with the Americans—or Yanks—was ongoing, as not only had their bases provided employment, but they had married thousands of local girls. But another option was surfacing.
Joey Smallwood—five-foot-four and one hundred and thirty pounds, complete with bowtie and owl-like glasses; a failed businessman but successful journalist and spellbinding speaker—was everywhere. His radio show, known as The Barrelman, had reached all corners of the island, an island he was now bombarding with ceaseless propaganda on the benefits of Confederation and the necessity of adding it as an alternative to the National Convention’s choices. In some ways, he was right. Poverty would be eradicated—but at a price. The islanders were reluctant to lose their unique identity.
“If they gave you an enema, they’d bury you in a shoebox,” croaked one phone-in listener to Joey on his radio show, sick to death of listening to him. The comment sent Pop into paroxysms of laughter when he repeated it at dinner.
I visited Angie during lunch hours, at times when she told me Edgar was not coming home, and even briefly in the mornings, when I noticed Edgar had left for work. I did not want to visit when he was home. Angie was always so nervous, and I saw that he was always hovering, listening to our conversation so I had to be careful what I said. I knew he resented my visits. In the mornings, I watched as Angie poured our tea, noting her fragile, pale hands as she held the china teapot and the mauve smudges under her eyes. I ached with concern for her.
I saw Angie, the perfect mother, with a son, Robert Edgar, who was perhaps not as perfect. “He’s only now rolling over and sitting up, and he’s nine months old. I’ve seen a physiotherapist and read books to help me learn how to strengthen his muscles.” Her devotion was endless: focused and all-consuming. Edgar, on the other hand, had gone back to his usual scowling self.
“We won’t be held responsible for this,” Hettie hissed to me. “Edgar has two cousins severely retarded, and his sister’s strange and had to go to a special school. If I’d known, I’d have stopped the marriage. I could have, you know. Angie was never that anxious to marry; she just sort of went along with it because he kept pressuring her. He refers to little Bobby as Dud or Dumbo—a horrible man. Poor Angela. And she stayed in bed for nine months to have the child.” Hettie was on the right side for once. I watched her with this still, beautiful child, finally sitting up, and always with a smile. She played with him, using soft toys to hide and then pop up and tracing little circles in his palm. She tickled his arms with her fingers, which then ran up like mice and settled under his arm. She’d do anything to encourage a little animation. For the first time, I liked her. And it was sad: her only grandchild. There would be no more. The Montreal neurologist and a geneticist had cautioned Angie that similar problems could happen with any future children—not that Angie could carry another.
“Mom’s so good with Bobby,” said Angie. “She’s read up on treatment for slow children, and she’s so devoted.” I noted the word slow rather than retarded or handicapped, which Bobby assuredly was. I thought of how Edgar calling the child Dud and Dumbo must hurt her.
“Look at him! He’s trying to crawl,” Angie lilted one afternoon. “He’s such a good boy.” It was after five o’clock in August, and I was back from Pop’s office. I thought I’d drop in, hoping Edgar would be late from his printing shop, but in he came, scowling as usual.
“Have we been so busy with Dumbo that we haven’t made dinner?”
A shadow passed over Angie’s face. Conscious of my presence, she said brightly, “Not to worry, there’s a casserole in the oven.”
“She’s making the Dud into a little suck,” he complained. “If he was normal, he’d be a genius by now.” He averted his eyes from Bobby and told Angie he’d be taking his dinner in the dining room.
“I have to leave,” I said. “I have to help Ma with dinner. It’s unfair to have her serve two extra every night.”
“You don’t have to go,” Angie pleaded. “Let me get you a drink. Edgar always has lots of booze around.” She lit a cigarette and I noticed a slight tremor in her hand.
>“I really can’t, luv,” I said. “Bobby’s really making progress, and it’s all due to your efforts.” I kissed her. She smelled of cigarettes and sadness.
“And Mom’s,” she said.
“He even resents that sweet little boy,” I later stormed at the dinner table. “He calls him ugly names and resents the fact that Angie’s devoting her life to helping him.”
“She should have left him after the honeymoon. That should have been enough,” Wills growled. I saw Ma’s face and knew she was bursting to know what had happened on the honeymoon.
“I never liked him, Dottie. He was always such an odd duck. The way he used to watch little Angie …”
”Now that it looks like we might be joining Canada, she can get a divorce someday,” said Pop. “We’ll all be dumping our old harps after Confederation—won’t we, Lil?” Ma merely gave him a blank look, as if being compared to an aged female seal were an everyday occurrence.
“I was thinking of dumping Dot,” added Wills. “Can’t have a wife getting better marks than her husband in her law exams; it’s crushing to the male ego.”
Everyone hooted. Pop was very proud of me. If you had to have a daughter, at least you could take pride in the fact that she was smart enough to become a lawyer and to marry a guy you could have a few laughs with.
Before I left for second year I went over to say goodbye. The early fall sun poured through the windows of Angie’s living room and illuminated the face of Bobby, who was now crawling on the thick floor rug. Angie was wearing a sleeveless blouse, and I could see that her arms were white and thin. I rubbed her upper arm and felt its coolness through my fingertips. I felt a sense of sadness, an urge to protect her, and a sense of frustration at what I feared to be my own lack of action. “You were going to leave,” I whispered, although we were alone. “You even saw a lawyer. You weren’t going to back down—you promised. And I wanted to help. Now you never mention it.”
“Dr. Cam died, and other things happened. I still want to leave, but now it’s more difficult. Perhaps when you become a lawyer you can help.”
I said, “Oh Angie,” and placed my arms around her. It was like embracing a statue. I felt she was frozen in some sort of time warp, where she remained remote. Then I felt her sobbing against me, and I felt the same futility I’d felt after her honeymoon. “You must,” I said, no longer whispering, “let me help. I know things are going on, bad things, things you don’t want to share. But I can’t help unless you let me.”
She didn’t answer. She only looked at me with tear-filled eyes, and said softly, “I’ll miss you, Dottie.”