July 17, 2017
We moved into the house with the milk chute after my parents’ divorce. It was an old wood-sided bungalow on Vienna Drive, painted turquoise with flaking white trim. At ten years old, I was indifferent to the house, indifferent to my new step-dad, but enchanted by the milk chute. In my mind, milk chutes could not exist in Canada; they belonged to the magical world of England, along with candy-red double-decker buses and hundred-room palaces and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, blackening shiny fingers. England: where my parents fell in love.
My mum had never said much about her life with my dad in England before my sister and I were born, but she had told us that milk was delivered to them in glass bottles, right to their very own chute, and floating at the top of each bottle was a layer of cream. Thick as butter, her guilty pleasure on Tuesday mornings. Unless, she said with a sour edge on her voice, someone else got to the cream first. My dad, sneaking out of bed before she was awake to steal the cream for himself.
I’m driving down the highway, alone and on autopilot, on a mission to get home before my eyes close for the night. The radio whispers with a lilting British accent, when milk was still delivered to homes in glass bottles … I crank the volume.
It’s a man’s voice. I’ve missed his name and his reason for being on the radio, but his voice is enough. I let him tell me a story.
A curious string of cream thefts began in England in the 1920s, he tells me. The locals of Southampton began to notice that when they fetched the freshly-delivered milk bottles from their doorsteps, the caps had been pried and the coin of floating cream had been stolen. The thefts continued for some time before a group of amateur bird-watchers finally solved the mystery. It turned out that a species of small bird called Blue Tits had somehow learned to pry the foil lids off the bottles using their skilled little beaks. Then, turning their beaks into drinking straws, they consumed the creamy skin floating atop the milk.
Our milk chute had fallen into disuse years ago. A board had been nailed over the opening on the inside of the house, and painted white to blend into the walls. My mum explained that the former owners likely boarded it up to keep out the draft, but there had probably been a wooden panel set into the wall that you could slide open to retrieve the milk bottles. At the other end of the chute, the little door that had once opened on the outside had been nailed shut as well, but the rusty handle remained – evidence that at one time, long ago, a real live milkman had opened the door every week to place his delivery inside, and at the other end, someone – perhaps even a girl, like me – had slid back the panel to find two precious milk bottles waiting, pooling condensation. She wouldn’t need to see the fingerprints still set in the frosted glass to know that someone had just been there. The same man as always, or maybe not the same man, but it made no difference. As quaint and ceremonial as the exchange seemed, it wasn’t magic. It was as real as a stranger coming into your house without saying hello, and leaving before you had a chance to think about it.
Even so, I envisioned the milk chute as a secret portal. Every afternoon when I came home from school, I passed by the little door, eyeing the rusted handle on my way to the back gate. I’d stop, creep closer, close enough to see the grain of the ancient wood, ghostly beneath layers of paint. And as I curled my fingers around the handle, I imagined the door opening into a dark world. In front of me, a narrow path blanketed in fallen pine needles. Tangled bushes and gnarled trees growing wildly on all sides, slivers of light piercing through the dense canopy above. A labyrinth, beckoning me to explore its depths.
Touching the handle always left the dirty smell of iron on my fingers.
Initially, the ornithologists who studied the Blue Tit phenomenon explained the cream-stealing behaviour through the theory of ‘observational learning’. One of the birds had, by some fluke, discovered it could pry the lids from milk bottles in the same manner it pries bark from trees to eat the insects beneath. As other birds observed the reward reaped, they began imitating the behaviour, progressively passing the knowledge from bird to bird until all the Blue Tits in the region knew the trick.
That makes sense, I say out loud as I sit waiting at a red light. But the man insists it isn’t that simple.
Blue Tits are home-loving birds, he continues. They rarely travel more than a kilometre away from their nests. The ornithologists were therefore puzzled when they discovered that cream thefts had begun occurring in other parts of Britain, in faraway cities, and even as far as Holland.
The man who became our step-dad was nothing like our real dad. Kelly’s boxes were waiting on our front step the same morning my mum took possession. He was in his twenties – eleven years younger than her. He was tall and wiry, he smoked cigarettes, wore leopard-print underwear, and laughed at everything we said, even when it wasn’t funny. He made clam linguini from scratch and taught us how to build a bonfire and watched cartoons with us on Saturday mornings. He told my mum he loved her right in front of us.
My dad refused to refer to Kelly by his name. Him, he called him, as if it didn’t matter who Kelly was. In my dad’s eyes, Kelly was every other man – an unknown man, a different man, a man who had stolen his place.
The house we grew up in, where my dad still lived, became empty, cold, as though an invisible frost was creeping over the walls, ever so slowly sealing it up like an igloo. Scars in the carpet, marking the phantom shapes of my mum’s coffee table, bookcase, night-stand. I wore socks all the time, never letting my bare feet touch the floor. My way of saying: I no longer belong here.
For many years, Kelly’s name was taboo within my dad’s house, even when our aunts came to visit for the weekend with a barrage of questions: Is he nice to you? Is he nice to Mum? Does he hit Mum? Do you call him Daddy? Does he hug you? Does he touch you? But when we left our dad’s house on Sunday night and passed through the door of the house on Vienna Drive – our house – he was Kelly once again, and there he was, smiling, pouring cream into a steaming pot of clam linguini, and we smiled back.
The year I was eleven, we had an Indian summer. It was September and warm enough to wear shorts. Dry leaves clung to branches, baking in the heat, and the rotten-sweet smell of wilting flowers hung in the air. After my first day of grade six I walked home under yellow-leaf canopies, back to our house on Vienna Drive.
I took the path on the side of the house like always, habitually reaching out to pull on the milk chute’s handle. But when I felt for the cool metal, it wasn’t there. The old milk chute door was gone. In its place was an open space, filled with nothing but air. I peered through the opening. I could see a banister and a staircase, each step edged with gold, peeking out at me. At the base of the staircase was figure, fully cloaked in black, extending a single green arm. Inside was stillness. For a brief moment, I was staring into a parallel universe, about to reach through the space between this world and another. I would only need to hold my breath, step through the portal, and climb the staircase to see how life could be completely different.
And then I realized: I was looking at our banister, our staircase. Kelly’s black ski jacket hung on the end of the banister, one sleeve pulled inside and dangling out the unzipped front, baring the coat’s green fleece lining. I had not discovered a portal; it was only an empty space – a hole in the wall of our house.
The back door was propped open with my mum’s potted geranium. I thought first of the cats, pictured them scurrying down the alley, afraid of their freedom. I wondered what Kelly could be doing that warranted knocking out the milk chute and leaving the door wide open. Not until I ventured inside did I consider the possibility that someone else, a stranger, could have been responsible.
The house was silent. Closets open, linens torn out and hanging like limp flags. A jar of change, knocked over on the kitchen floor, pennies strewn in a wide arc. Our TV lay smashed on its face at the bottom of the basement stairs. Dusty boot-prints stamped into the hardwood. I tiptoed room to room, through the evidence, hearing echoes of what had happened.
“Get out of there,” my mum said over the phone. “Now. Go to the neighbours’. I’m calling the police.”
I hung up and ran, through the backyard and across the alley and into the neighbours’ yard, all the time telling myself not to look behind me. What would have happened if I’d seen the thieves, there, in our house, stomping on our floors, rooting through our things? It was possible, even probable, that only a small window of time had passed from the robbery to the point of my arrival. A space of mere moments between me and the faceless thieves.
I sit in the car on the driveway of my house, watching snowflakes melt on the windshield. I’m cold with the heat off, but unable to tear myself from the story on the radio. It takes me forward, to 1939, when Britain entered World War II and all milk delivery ceased as part of the national rationing effort. This made milk, and especially the luscious cream floating at the top of the bottle, a luxury for humans and a legend for the Blue Tit. Since they only live for a year or two on average, and the harsh winters of the ’40s ensured that none could survive past this expectation, all the Blue Tits who had learned to open milk bottles would have died during the war, giving way to a new generation of birds who had never known the taste of stolen cream.
But when the war ended and milk delivery was briefly revived, the new generation of Blue Tits once again began stealing cream. To make matters more puzzling, the rate at which the birds were learning to steal was exponentially higher than what it had been before. It seemed that almost instantly, all the Blue Tits knew how to perform the trick, and an epidemic of cream thefts erupted.
My sister and I stayed at the neighbours’ house until evening, when my mum came to the door wrapped in a pink blanket, glowing against the dark night, her face drawn and flushed. She looked like a victim of fire rather than robbery. She told Stan she was grateful he could watch us, explained that the robbers had broken in through the old milk chute, could he believe it?
“Crazy,” Stan agreed. “I mean, a milk chute – they’re not very wide. I’m sure the guy had a helluva time squeezing himself through.”
I imagined a skinny man in ripped black jeans and a black leather jacket, a lit cigarette drooping from his thin lips. He slid into the opening with arms stretched above his head, his shoulders butting up against the sides. Twisting his whole body, leather squeaking on the chute’s glossy white paint, he squeezed in, millimetre by millimetre. His bones scraped the wood edge, but he kept writhing, drawing shoulders in to chest, sucking in his breath, thinking so close, just a little further, and then – pop – he was in. His ribs grated the lip of the chute as he pulled his torso through, feet dangling for a moment before he dipped to the floor and slithered in with the skilled silence of a professional prowler.
I had never imagined a robbery so elegant. I saw the thief using a laser to carefully cut the hole in the chute, burning through each nail all along the edges until the door fell right out, emitting little wisps of smoke as if to signal its defeat.
Later that night, we all sat in the living room, listing what was missing, sipping hot chocolate.
“Who would do such a thing?” my mum kept asking. “Why would they choose us? And leave the TV, for godsake …”
She didn’t say it, but we knew what she was thinking. She was wondering if the robbers knew us. If they were out to get us. Maybe they weren’t strangers at all.
“I bet they were kids,” Kelly said. “Just some idiot kids out for a thrill.”
It was then that I realized that the image I’d created of the robber, the man I kept picturing over and over again, squeezing his way through our milk chute, looked exactly like Kelly.
We had another break-in at our house, one week later. This time, the thieves had bashed in the front door. They hadn’t taken anything. They left a cigarette stub smushed into the floor and a small black hole beneath, burned into the wood like a calling card. In the kitchen, a muffin, removed from the plastic package in the breadbox, sat on the countertop with one clean bite missing from its crusty brown top.
Instead of sharing my mum’s horror – Was it them again? The same people? What did they want? – I felt nothing. It didn’t matter who the thieves were. Thieves were thieves. Could you even call them thieves, I wondered, when our house was still the same, everything in its place? They were here, and now they were gone. And soon after, we got a new door to cover the open space they had made.
“Sturdier than the old one,” my mum said, “and it’ll keep the draft out.” A new door to cover the evidence that our house was not secure, but permeable. Walls like sieves, find a hole and enter.