'Mother was waving a tiny wisp of a hand-rolled ciggie and taking little hiccupy sips' 4
IT WAS 10 o'clock at night, all was peaceful, the other members of the household were out leading their furry nocturnal lives. I was sitting at the kitchen table reading when the phone rang. It was my mother, holding the receiver too close and shouting: "You'll have to come over," she said, then burst out into inexplicable gales of laughter. "I'm at Marla's and I'm smoking dope."

Oh my God, I thought. I have to go and rescue her. And a smaller thought muttered: This I Have To See. I knew Marla from aerobics: tall, thin, late thirties, with a mane of frizzy hair which she never bothered to tie back. Mum was the aerobics teacher. She didn't even smoke. What was she playing at?

Marla was one of the few born-and-bred Canadians we knew. She was a jobless heiress with a bachelor pad on Main Street, above a row of shops. It was about two blocks away from our house, past the paint-bright wooden houses with their lawns, decks and verandahs. I went to the back door of Marla's block, framed by giant metal bins full of refuse from the Chinese takeaway.

After the utilitarian exterior, Marla's apartment was a surprise: it looked like a gentleman's club, wood-panelled, full of prints, huge armchairs and sweeping, wall-to-wall bookshelves. Mother was sitting in one of the chairs, waving a tiny wisp of a hand-rolled ciggie, and taking little hiccupy sips. Something even more startling commanded my attention, Marla's Indian neighbours. On one sofa sat a powerful man whose soft gut didn't entirely detract from the menace of his bulky chest and arms. Next to him sat his wife in miniskirt and top, with a sleeping baby. And on the other sofa sat one of the largest old women I had ever seen. Rose, George and George's mother, Florence. Little cigarettes were swiftly rolled up and handed round. "I see you know what to do," cackled Mother. Rose was very quiet, tending her baby. Marla did most of the talking and Florence brooded like a mountain. I crouched at her feet, since she took up most of the sofa. Marla had made, or bought in, a few platters of cream-cheese bites and rolled-up meats. Every few minutes Florence would nudge me with her elbow, or occasionally her toe, and growl: "Git me some more o' them liddle crackers," and I would go to the luxurious kitchen for a trayful and Florence would slowly work her way through them, her jaws clacking softly.

I sat there, silent, uncomfortable, abdicating adulthood but accepting the joints as they passed. They were so thin you had to puff furiously to keep them alight. The grass was weedy and green but it soon got my third eye open.

I felt weird, detached. "Y'know, Florence is sooo amazing," Marla was saying. "Tell them how many kids you've brought up, Florence." Flo stopped masticating long enough to spit: "Eight". "All on her own. And such great kids," Marla beamed at George. Surrounded by empty beer bottles, he maintained an unnerving calm.

Gradually, with a slow rumble like the approach of a rolling boulder, he launched into a monologue about the catastrophic effect of the white man on North America. Marla was nodding and smiling encouragingly.

He had been talking for some minutes and I could see Mother begin to get restive. "Well, that's not quite right, is it, George?" she interrupted. "I mean, you lot didn't even have any roads when you were left to your own devices..." She did not seem to be picking up on the danger signals: heavy breathing, slow clenching and unclenching of fists, menacing mutters. Marla twittered about, trying to get us all to talk about the maternal achievements of monumental Flo, but George and Mother were not to be deflected. I think she got the best of it - the last comment I can remember was: "All right then, why are you called George and not Chief Sitting Bull?"

I got up, rushed right out of the flat and the building and threw up lavishly behind the stinking slopbins. But I had to go back up to make sure she wasn't being murdered. Craven, I sat a few steps down from Marla's door, pressing my hot cheeks against the painted wall. I didn't turn round in time to see who it was that shot from her flat and into George's.

After the door-slam, everything was very quiet. Then Marla's door opened and George shambled out. He tried his door vainly and whispered: "Let me in little sugar; let me in, petal." After a pause, he coaxed: "If you don't open the door, I'll smash your pretty face in." (Well it's not my fault if emotional people talk like they're in bad plays.)

For a long time, I cowered in the darkness trying not to be seen. Finally Flo waddled along, got the door open with a brief command and they disappeared.

I tiptoed into Marla's flat, expecting to see dead bodies, but Mother and Marla were chatting amiably. "Bin sick," I mumbled, and as mothers do, she immediately sounded the My-Child-In-Danger alert, fussing and cooing and whisking me off into the night. We walked down the silent street, arm-in-arm.

"I'll tell you what," she said confidentially, "if that's marijuana, I don't reckon much to it."