Montreal, a summer at the end of the ’70…
Justine is barely 5 years-old. Justine is a little girl full of life with her laughter, her jokes, her little personality and her sensibility.
Justine is alone in a big house with cats. A lot of cats. It is Summer and it’s hot. It’s so hot in this month of August that the cats have fleas. So many fleas, in fact, that even Justine gets bitten. Not a lot but it itches around her ankles and her elbows.
It’s lunch time. Justine is hungry. She would like to eat but she does not know what. She doesn’t know because all the food she took out is on the kitchen table and she cannot find anything edible. Either because it is rotting or because there are tiny little black stains in the jars. The fleas, carried by the cats, have fallen into the food. And Justine knows she does not want to eat fleas.
Yesterday, she ate a tube of cake icing. She found it at the bottom of the pantry. It was pink and it was sweet. Expect that now, it is empty.
Her “daddy she loves” isn’t there. He’s not there a lot lately. He works a lot on the “zoolimpics”, so he leaves very early in the morning and comes back very late at night. The other kids from the back-alley never come to her house. Their parents don’t like it.
Justine’s mama is there. Well, almost. She lies on her bed almost all day with a big jug that she constantly drinks from. When the jug is empty, she makes a phone call and a man brings another one. Sometimes, she gets up and walks with a bit of a stagger to the stove and puts a “TV Dinner” in the oven. She shows the clock to Justine and says: “When the hand is there, you put on the mittens; you take the “TV Dinner” out of the oven and turn the handle all the way there to turn the oven off.” She goes back to her bedroom to keep up with her drinking.
Sometimes, she calls Justine into her bedroom and when Justine goes, she talks about a lot of things that Justine does not understand. She talks about her dad, about men, about her mom, about her love, about her pain. But Justine is too little to understand it all and she would just like to go play.
But there is no one and her mama cannot play with her like before. Like the time that she had made cut-outs of “Big Bird” and “Cookie Monster” to teach how to count. For a long time now, her mama does not play anymore. She drinks her jug, cries, smokes and sleeps.
Before her mama became unable to go out, she would go out with Justine sometimes. But it wasn’t much fun. They would go to a “mister’s” place where they would make her sit in front of the TV. That, the TV, she did like because the TV at her house has not been working for a while now. Sometimes, she would see that her mama was going into the mister’s bedroom and that she was naked with him. Justine does not like that. That makes her feel extremely uncomfortable. She does not know why but she doesn’t like that, that’s all.
Justine would like to go to the daycare. But her daddy leaves too early in the morning, he forgets her at home. He says it’s too early, that the daycare isn’t open.
So, Justine is hungry, she’s alone and she’s bored. If she wants to go out to play in the yard, she has to crouch very low when she passes her mama’s bedroom or she’s going to be seen by her and called for a “chat” in her bedroom.
She wonders when things are going to change… She doesn’t know that they soon will but not for the better…
It’s now afternoon and it’s so hot. Everything sticks to Justine’s skin: cat’s hair, dirt, sweat and her clothes. She wants to have some fresh air and decide to go through the corridor on all four so that her Mama won’t call her. She gets to the door and goes out to the backyard. She keeps going all the way to the backyard’s wooden door and gets into the back alley. Other kids are playing there so she joins them. For a few hours, she doesn’t feel as alone.
She hears the church’s bells and knows that it is time to go home. She goes back discreetly but, as she enters the house, she has a feeling that something is off. She walks to her mama’s bedroom. She’s still lying down but it’s not like it usually is. Justine comes closer and sees that she’s all pale. Justine touches her but she doesn’t react. She doesn’t know why but she knows that there is a problem.
She needs an adult to help her. What to do? She decides to go to the third floor because she hears the tenant’s music. He’s a grown-up; he’ll know what to do. She knocks, he comes to the door. She looks at him and says: “My mama does not move.” He comes out quickly and accompanies her throughout the shed all the way down to her house.
He enters the house and looks for Justine’s mama. When he finds her, he talks to her, touches her shoulder but she doesn’t react. He takes the phone and speaks to someone: “It’s a woman in her thirties, she doesn’t react, it’s urgent!”.
Justine does not understand very well what is happening. She sees everything happening as if she were watching TV. Policemen arrive, another tenant, men in white and grey who put her mama on a rolling bed and strap her there. She struggles softly and screams but Justine does not understand what is going on and no one is saying a thing to her. They put the rolling bed in an ambulance and close the doors. Justine wants to follow them but the tenant who has just arrived holds her back and takes her in her arms.
The ambulance leaves and Justine stays with that tenant who is also her daddy’s cousin. She feeds her and takes care of her but the little girl would rather understand what is going on. It has been a while now since the sun has set. Justine is woken up by her daddy’s voice. He talks with his cousin, takes Justine in his arms and brings her back downstairs to her house. He puts her in her own bed. He doesn’t talk much but does it softly. That night, he sleeps in the living room.
Justine goes over her day, wonders what happened to her mama and if she will be back soon. It’s really complicated to understand the grown-ups; it’s easier to understand cats. Justine hugs her cat, Minou Gris in her arms and finally falls asleep toward another day.