Beyond the Pale

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Beyond the Pale is a novel about a middle-aged woman in financial straits who chooses to become involved in drug trafficking and then must cope with the consequences. It poses questions of morality and legality that go to the heart of the creative interaction between individual liberties and social cohesion. What truly is going ‘beyond the pale?’, going beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior?

Woods claims the novel is not autobiographical, and that she obtained her material from stories told to her while she lived in Rochdale College (a notorious haven for druggies of all persuasions) in the early ’70s. Whatever her sources, the result is an absorbing story of a woman testing her limits.

Woods has long written in favour of legalizing, regulating, and licensing recreational drug use. Read her brief to the Senate’s Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, “Why criminal sanctions against recreational drug use are unconstitutional,” which was also forwarded with a letter to the Supreme Court of Canada regarding its 2003 decision upholding the government’s right to criminalize drug use. For a detailed argument against the Court’s decision, “A Citizen’s Response”.

Excerpt: from Chapter 1

Caitlin had been gone for an hour, and I was still sitting in front of the fire, trying to decide if her proposal was an invitation to folly, or an opportunity for a richer, more adventurous life. When she’d suggested that I go to work for a friend of hers who dealt in large quantities of marijuana and hashish, my initial response had been that she was crazy; my second, that it might be fun; my third, that it was undoubtedly dangerous; and my fourth, and current, that I was definitely curious. How great was the risk? How great the reward? And who, exactly, was Caitlin’s friend?

Certainly, it was the only offer of employment I’d had since receiving Harry’s letter, over a month ago now, which had informed me that, due to bankruptcy, my ex-husband would no longer be making his quarterly payments on the money he still owed me for my share of the bookstore we’d once owned together-and that I had managed while Harry pursued his vocation of buying, and (occasionally) selling, the incunabula and other ancient volumes which were his first and only real passion. (The debt had been secured (if that’s the word) by the divorce order and a promissory note.)

Of course, the payments would have ended eventually, but that had been years away, far enough in the future that I’d never thought about what I would do when the money ran out. Now I suddenly faced the possibility of having to get a job. The prospect appalled me. To put off thinking about it, I went back to the letter.

Harry hadn’t shared every detail, but the gist of his story was that after his second wife, Helen, had had two children in two years, she’d left the bookstore entirely to Harry’s supervision. Never the best of businessmen, and having been spoiled for years by his two efficient (but dumb) wives, he was sadly out of practice. Between incompetence, indifference, and absent-mindedness, he had let the store slip first into debt, and then into receivership, as the economy slipped further into recession. He’d been forced to sell most of his collection to satisfy his bankers (an action that must have cost him a great deal of pain, although, to his credit, he said nothing about that part of it), but his friends and rivals in the antiquarian book trade were rallying around, planning to help him set up as a consultant, complete with a new computer and an impressive data base. Exactly what he would do, and who would pay him for doing it, remained vague, at least to me. What was clear was that I wouldn’t be getting any more money from him.

Considering his predicament, Harry’s letter had been a cheerful one, full of his plans to work out of the house that Helen had insisted he buy (in her name, I assumed) before their elder son was born. Despite understanding, and even sympathizing with, Harry’s yearning to found a dynasty, I was still a little bitter at having been sloughed off as speedily as he could arrange it, once he’d succeeded in impregnating someone else. The wound, though narrow, went deep, only partly assuaged by the extra share of the business his haste had garnered me; a gain which was now proving to be illusory.

Harry concluded his letter by repeating how sorry he was about my loss of income while being “completely confident you will cope with this problem as competently as you cope with everything else,” a sentence which amused me with its adroit combination of compliment and sly dig wrapped up in wishful thinking.

Well, I’d thought dazedly, folding the pages and slipping them back into the envelope, what do I do now? Presumably, I could sue Harry for my share of the sale of the assets, but the thought of the wrangling that would have to be endured for the sake of an extremely problematic outcome, effectively deterred me. The only people who would prosper would be the lawyers.

The awful truth reasserted itself. If I wasn’t going to court, I’d have to go to work, and the sooner the better. I wasn’t an extravagant spender, but I wasn’t much of a saver, either, and had only enough money in the bank to cover the next few months’ mortgage payments and living expenses. British Columbia was knee-deep in unemployed workers, and even openings for waitresses were scarce. (I’d never done it, but waitressing had always seemed one of the three ultimate fall-back professions, cab-driving being the second-which was not an option for me since I couldn’t drive, and didn’t want to learn.)

Since I hadn’t had a job for years, I naturally had no unemployment insurance, and I’d have to go on welfare if my money ran out before I found something. My pride didn’t suffer at the thought of being on the dole because I didn’t figure I’d be there long, but having to explain my situation to some stony-faced bureaucrat whose primary function (since the government, true to its own peculiar logic, was cutting back on services to the poor just when they were needed most) would be to find an excuse to deny benefits, rather than a reason to grant them, was distasteful enough to make Caitlin’s suggestion a potentially attractive alternative.

When she’d dropped in tonight I’d been job hunting for weeks and the word ‘depression’ had gained fresh meaning. As I read the Help Wanted ads in the Vancouver Sun day after day, I grew more resigned by the column inch to the fact that, with my MA in Fine Arts, I was either wildly overqualified or woefully under-skilled for everything listed. I’d already phoned every bookstore and art gallery in town, but the ones that weren’t going out of business were hanging on by laying off staff, not hiring them. And temporary help agencies wouldn’t take me because I knew nothing about computers.

There were other difficulties. One chain store had refused to hire me as a stock-person because the personnel manager ‘knew’ I wouldn’t be content to remain in the position for as long as the company would want me to stay there, rejecting my pitch that I was willing to start at the bottom and work my way up. Without exactly saying so, she clearly conveyed the message that at my age (fifty-three), there was no ‘up’ to aspire to. (It was hard to tell when my age was a factor when I wasn’t offered a job, but as the number of non-offers grew, it was impossible not to feel, if only in self-defense, that it counted far too often.)

My lack of success would have bothered me more if I’d really wanted any of the jobs I didn’t get, but every time I was passed over, I felt a sneaking sense of relief. Since moving to Vancouver I’d been trying to paint again, struggling, without much success, with how to translate from brain to hand to canvas, the beauties beheld in the mind’s eye. My technique had been shot to hell from years of neglect, but with practice I was getting it back, and had begun to wrestle with deeper, more elusive, problems. I hated the thought of wasting large chunks of my time doing someone else’s bidding. This was a drawback to Caitlin’s proposition, too, of course, but at least with that job I’d make a bunch of money fairly quickly (or for sure I wouldn’t do it), which I could then live on for a few years while getting eye and hand together.

I’d confessed my lack of genuine interest in employment to Caitlin as we sat at my kitchen table, drinking wine and gazing out at the quick pink sunset, skeined like stained glass by the black lightning angles of the maple tree in my back yard. The lean silhouettes of winter were dissolving as the new leaves unfurled.

“Nine-to-five is a bitch,” Caitlin had sympathized. She was rolling a joint and eyed me over it as she licked and sealed the paper. “I know of a job you might like.”

She spoke so casually I wasn’t sure if she were serious. Stalling for time, for even a job sponsored by Caitlin triggered a spasm of temporal claustrophobia, I suggested that we move into the living room where a fire was laid ready in the grate.

Slouched in my chair, the soft wavering light caressing my old and comfortable furniture, my rowdy plants, my dog-eared books, and my sleeping cat, the possibility that I might have to move because I could no longer afford the mortgage seemed, simultaneously, all too likely, and as remote as a dream. I loved my home; I couldn’t lose it. But I was unable to ignore the fact that hordes of hapless home-lovers have been, justly or otherwise, evicted down the centuries, and that my feelings for the place were irrelevant, except as a spur to earn some money.

Resigned, I asked, passing the joint back, “What’s this job you mentioned?”

“The guy who owns ‘Sweetmeats’,” referring to the chain of confectionery shops that Caitlin managed, “is looking for someone to open an art gallery and run it for him. Among other things.”

I shifted somewhat more erect. “Say that again.”

She said it again.

“Sounds too good to be true. What ‘other things’?”

“He wants to use it as cover for part of his cannabis-smuggling enterprise, and he needs someone to run errands of various kinds. There’s no end of useful things for someone who’s reliable to do.”

Hadn’t I said it was too good to be true? Although I wasn’t surprised at the nature of the catch; Caitlin always had high-grade grass on hand (I obtained my own modest supplies through her) and I’d long since assumed that dealing at some level was at least partly the source of her by-now considerable income. Since she’d never mentioned the subject, I hadn’t either; the less I knew about it, the better.

“How would it be used as a cover?” I felt a thrill of fear as I asked; play fear, like the rush of adrenaline on a Ferris-wheel.

“I’d rather you got all that from him.”

“Who is ‘he’, anyhow?” I’d known, of course, that Caitlin had an absentee boss, or patron; a person so invisible I’d never previously wondered about him.

“I told you, my boss. The guy who used to own the ice cream store at Rochdale.”

“That den of iniquity! Can you trust him?”

“Absolutely. And he’s very smart, very careful.” She shrugged, “What else can I say that won’t sound like a sales pitch? You’ll have to meet him, and judge for yourself.”

Stalling again, I sat forward and monkeyed with the fire, using the poker to shift the logs into a more efficient heap as I attempted to weigh all the pros and cons. At a deeper level, I knew the exercise was futile. Whatever decided me to go ahead, or not, it wouldn’t be based on rational arguments alone.

“Isn’t it risky?”

“I don’t do any actual smuggling, and neither would you. In fact, you’d rarely be doing anything that was illegal in itself. The danger is a criminal conspiracy charge. That’s the risk you’d be paid for.”

I knew I’d forgotten something vital. “What kind of money could I make?”

“You’d have to talk to him about that. Enough to make it worth your while. His philosophy (he’s very interested in things like philosophy) is that the easiest way to make money himself is to make sure everyone around him is making money, too. So don’t be shy about asking for what you want, and stick to your guns until you get it.”

“How do I decide how much I should want?”

“How much is the risk worth to you? That’s what you have to think about. It’s worth a lot to me.”

I wanted to ask her exactly how much, but that would have been tacky. “I guess I’ll have to think about that for awhile. If I think about it at all.”

“It’s a good way to make a living,” Caitlin said judiciously, “but even so, no one in their right mind would do it, if it didn’t pay extraordinarily well.”

“Well, of course,” I concurred, not revealing that what attracted me, almost as much as the money, was the pleasing image of myself as a swashbuckling adventurer.