This short story came about from a challenge by a former colleague. I think he knew I could not resist. And he was right! After many attempts, here is my humble offering. I expect to follow it up with something more poetic in the near future. It’s the kind of medicine I require to ward off covid fatigue. Take care everyone and stay safe!
Similar to shadows of a dirty shirt, black cumulus clouds, abounding with rain, hangs fat across land and final hours of this train trip. An old match with a long history is playing out.
Don’s thoughts drift to a panorama passing by. “Amazing!”
“Look through our window. Mountains,” Don said, “snow still caps its tops.”
“Hmm…Not bad!” A grin forms. “Downpour too distracting for you? Al slid his rook into position. “Kontrola!”
“Rain sounds similar to buckshot.” Don slips slightly forward to scratch his back. “Do you want to do that with your rook? Think it out.”
Don shrugs. “Okay.” His knight took Al’s rook. “Party going on in adjoining train car, singing, piano, lots of fun by how it sounds. What do you think?”
“I’m a dingbat! That’s what I think. I must watch what I’m doing.” Arms on his lap, his mind thought through what to do. Finally, Al slid his bishop into position.
Don took his comb out to tidy his thick auburn hair and with a sigh, slid his knight into attack. “I win!”
Both shook hands and put Don’s dad’s wood carvings into its carton.
“You shouldn’t box your king in,” Don said. “Anyway, not important. Good playing you. You know, my dad would jump up and down with joy to know I was still using his wood carvings.”
“I miss him. Good man. How long ago?”
Don thought. “Six…”
“Sand runs out fast in… hourglass.” Looking away, Al said nothing.
“Unhappy?” Don said. “Don’t. Think only happy thoughts. That is what my dad would say…Sounds raucous in that adjoining car. Want to go?”
Swish! Door shut tight at Al’s and Don’s back; room’s air was thick with carbon smog. Piano-rag had this party hopping, party animals all.
“Join us!” A salutation from a burly barman who pours two scotch at his bar.
“I’m Virginia. And you?” Passing scotch to Al and Don. “This is Sara, my sis.”
Words that got lost in a soup of booming honky-tonk and hoots from partying all around. But it was not important. Swirling to music, two pairs joyfully laughing ring out, oblivious to all in train’s car as hours fly past smoothly.
With a nod, and an invitation and drinks in hand, Al, Sara, Don and Virginia sought tranquility, privacy in a dissimilar car without a hitch.
Talking is what all four sought away from that cacophonous ‘jam.’ Soon it was known, all four want it to last.
Storytelling for me represents an act of gratitude to the books and people who have shaped my life. As a writer I feel more akin to a ‘test pilot’ who is never quite sure whether the plane will either get off the ground or return safely, but would never give up that moment to do anything else. “Success” according to Winston Churchill, “is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I heartily agree.
My first venture into publication was as co-author for the first mathematics series for Prentice-Hall Canada. My degrees in mathematics and education were leading me down a different path until a friend encouraged me to try out for an acting role in a local theatre group. I think my interest in writing really took hold while learning how to transform to a character and interact with other characters within a play. The tools I learned during the thespian stage of my life I continue to apply in my writing now.
When ‘the rubber met the road’ was when I published my first novel, Betrayal of Trust, in 2012. It was shortly after that I turned my attention to short story writing.
Short story writing affords me an opportunity to experiment with my literary voice, different ideas, styles, and approaches to writing. The stories come from a variety of sources: life experiences, photos, a variety of articles, songs, on-line courses. In other words, anything that captures my interest usually ends up in one of my short stories. They are a depository for future novels.
One five-part, short story series I wrote, entitled, The Murder of Arthur Brodley, became the seed for my new novel, Angel Maker. The idea for the opening chapter came from an article I read of the murder of a young child in northern England in 1948.
My decision to begin my first chapter with the graphic murder of Rebecca Grynberg was not taken lightly. I wanted the evil of the man, and the Nazi regime he represented, to be seared into the mind of the reader. The ‘no holds barred’ first chapter went through several drafts and many consultations before I finally agreed to the final version.
Inspector Alexander Collier’s investigation into the gruesome murder of Rebecca Grynberg soon places his family in jeopardy. Several seemingly unconnected murders propel him into a world of espionage and spies as he seeks the psychopathic killer responsible for her death. To help him, Inspector Collier joins forces with an unlikely group of people that includes a psychic medium, a NKVD Soviet agent, and a British agent with a prosthetic leg she calls “Cuthbert.”
You will meet Collier’s son, Richard, and learn about the strained relationship between them; his son’s fiancée, Elsa, and her Jewish family and their attempt to escape the clutches of Nazi Germany. You will also meet the inspector’s wife, Lila, and experience the deep love and affection between them.
A historical spy thriller, Angel Maker will take you into the murderous mind of a psychopathic child killer. And if, as a writer, I have done my job correctly, the reader will meet evil, impossible to forget. So, hold on to your pages, things will go bump in the dark.
A lot of research has gone into creating a sense of the period for the reader. Many of the events did happen, but some timelines were adjusted to fit in with the story. Angel Maker is a page turner, difficult to put down. And I should know, because I read it through several times before handing it over for publication. I hope, after the final page is read, the reader will step out of their time bubble, and reflect on the present times we live in. As an educator, I could not resist an attempt to teach. What was taught only the reader can decide.
One of my goals is for Angel Maker to be part of a series. Presently, I am working on the next book in that series as well as a novel entitled, Sunnyvale, and my book of short stories, Welcome to My Garden. Anything beyond that will be icing on the cake.
The key is to keep challenging myself; to continue to push the envelope. An example of what I mean is Aidan, the early draft of a fantasy novel. The first drafts of anything I am working on may be found at www.wrightba.com, just tap on the CB app.
I will end with one of my favorite quotes from the ‘Four Quartets’ by T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Poetry is an essential resource in any writer’s toolbox. In my youth I would never have said that. Maturity has opened my mind and made me, dare I say, sage in my viewpoint. I sure hope so.
Angel Maker is suitable for youth to adult, and may be bought at:
It is I who is to blame. AYOH, the land of my ancestors, burns. Screams of my subjects still assail my ears. Their ghosts continue to ride the late night air. I am haunted by their unyielding reach.
I can see the fear in Ennea’s face through my tear-filled eyes. She cradles Alyakim, our daughter. Between us, wrapped in the hide of the Great Olaffub are the few possessions we had time to gather. My spear and knife lie easily within reach.
Since the moon first awoke, Eoz, my faithful servant, and I have paddled. Its yellow globe travels to its resting place under the sky. Our journey is guided by THRON, the brightest star in the heavens. Behind us, the night is clear and crisp, the water still. Ahead, a strange mist rises like a wall; I can hear its energy within.
I have travelled in this direction because of stories my father, Suesdama, related to me in my youth and also from the teachings of the Wise Men. The survival of our bloodline depends on me. It may be our only hope.
The spirit of my father lies strong within me. I wear his ring.
Why had I not listened to the Wise Men of my kingdom? Their tubes with glass at either end had seen IT coming. But, IT’s Ambassador, Ikkin, had already spun his sorcery. I began to see conspiracies where there were none. Ikkin’s tongue and mind, well oiled in deceit, had blinded me and I did not seek counsel, where I always have, with the Wise Men of my realm.
The army of IT arrived without mercy. Their machinery of war was like nothing ever seen before. And, like a scythe through a wheat field, their armies laid waste to the land.
The suns Gorbut and Siotra passed over head 30 times before the city walls fell. Traitors within our ranks betrayed us.
Pleas from the living and the dying torment me. They have become nightmares haunting my existence, tearing my heart and soul apart.
I must save what I can.
The boat cleaves the low lying thick curtain of mist.
To ward off the chill, I wrapped myself in a blanket my wife, Eanne, had made for me. I cannot help but feel a growing foreboding as the icy coldness of the mist digs its tentacles in deeper. And I dare myself to confront the shadow-ghosts in its midst.
Above, THRON remained visible to reassuringly point the way.
My troubled thoughts consume me; I am unaware that time has slipped into another dimension.
The water became angry. I fell back in the canoe as its speed picked up. “Eanne!” I shouted, alarmed for her safety. But she had already prepared. Noticing the increased energy of the water, she had secured herself and Alyakim and our meager belongings in the boat.
Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, the water’s fury pounced upon us. It scooped in, clawing at us, trying to rip us from the bowels of our boat. Eoz and I struggled to keep our boat afloat and away from smashing against the menacing rocky shoreline. The roar was deafening. Focused, we did not feel the pain our efforts must have inflicted. I have no idea how long this lasted. For us, time had become immeasurable.
Without warning, our canoe shot out of the mist and into surreal tranquility. Nothing moved but us. We floated upon an oasis of quietude.
Once Eanne assured me that all was well, Eoz and I laid our paddles across the canoe and rested.
The water gently lapped against our hull. Its regularity was soothing and hypnotizing. Unaware that we had fallen asleep, our boat drifted.
When we awoke, night’s curtain was beginning to draw open to the day. In one horizon the brow of the sun, Gorbut, painted the sky in rainbow while in the other, Siotra had not yet awakened.
I was troubled.
“Is there something wrong, Neas?” my wife, Ennea, asked. She held our child closer to her bosum.
“THORN should be there,” I replied, pointing to its region in the sky. “It has gone…disappeared.”
“Master! Land!” Eoz yelled. His voice echoed many times before it fell into an eerie silence.
Dipping our paddles into the water, we moved tentatively forward.
Gold colored pebbles below the water’s surface scratched against our hull as we slid into shore. Eoz and I immediately jumped into the water and pulled the canoe onto higher ground.
Eoz deposited Ennea and Alyakim onto the sandy portion of the shore and watched as Neas and his family advanced to the edge of the jewel-toned arboretum that stretched full up the slope in front of them. Ensuring that our boat was secured, Eoz lingered awhile, attracted by the gold colored stone. Crouching down, he scooped some into his hand to examine them. It was then he realized they were shells not stones. An odor of putrefied flesh simmered above his collection. The longer he held them the more offensive the smell. He tried to wash them off. Some shells fell away while the others closest to his skin resisted, fixed in place by fleshy extrusions. Their size expanded as they began to crawl up his arm.
“MASTER! HELP ME!” he screamed.
Knife drawn, I turned back. Reaching across the divide that separated sand from stone, I pulled Eoz across to me. The flesh eating shells fell away and became rocks at his feet. Magically, Eoz’s bloodied arm transitioned to normal.
“What is this place?” Eoz whispered, examining his arm and hand in disbelief.
Considering what had just occurred, I could find nothing reassuring to say to Eoz. I too was thunderstruck. My teachings had not prepared me for this.
“Listen,” I said.
“I wish I could. My heart is still pounding heavily in my ears.” replied Eoz.
“There is no sound. It’s as if nature has been swallowed up.” I grasped my spear tightly and moved in front of my child and wife. Turning to Eanne, I said: “Stay behind me. Eoz will protect you. We must move carefully forward.”
I had barely begun my upward climb when an arrow slammed into the tree beside me. Then another arrow implanted itself at the very edge of my toe.
“I have come in peace. I am the son of Suedama. I seek Aidan.” My voice echoed and repeated several times before diminishing to the silence of infinity.
The air was sweet and refreshing.
Silence hung like a heavy wet blanket upon the forest.
When the voice spoke, it carried wisdom and strength.
“I know who you are. And why you have come. Our Teachers told us of your coming long before you were born. Our past, present and future are now joined as one. Turn and observe the mist on the lake. You have not come alone.”
Warriors of IT emerged in three strange, long craft. They hovered above the water’s surface. Suddenly, the water below them bubbled to frenzy then rose and separated. When the water began to settle the craft were gone. Only frothy burps marked their grave-site until its surface shone like glass again.
“More will arrive soon. You must follow me.”
“But, where are you?” I asked.
Giggling erupted around us. But I saw nothing. It sounded like mischievous children at play.
“WE encircle you but, I am here.”
A figure wrapped in a hooded skin stepped out several paces ahead of me and waved us forward. “You must hurry. Time is of the essence.”
Could it be? I thought
Cautiously, our spears at the ready, Eoz and I moved forward. Eanne with Alyakim remained at my back.
When the hood dropped back, the large hazel eyes that met us were warm, inviting and filled with strength and determination. I detected not a hint of malice from her. At her midriff she wore a wide black leather belt; its buckle was the largest and strangest looking buckle I had ever seen.
She pointed to two slots on the buckle. “Neas insert your father’s ring into this slot and turn to the right.”
“How do you know my name?” To say I was astonished that she knew my name did not do justice to my present state of mind especially when I noticed she wore a ring similar to mine. “Who are you?”
Briefly, her gaze cut through me. I sensed her power. She was examining my soul. Our minds were locked in battle until she let go.
Finally, she said: “Patience is a virtue. All will be known in its proper time.” Then she continued in earnest. “We must leave this location immediately.”
I became convinced she had a window into the future.
She inserted her ring into the slot on her buckle and waited for me to do the same in the other slot. “Neas, it is time. Trust your instincts.”
I inserted my ring and turned it to the right as she had instructed and watched as she turned hers to the left.
“Hold hands tightly and breathe in unison with me,” she instructed.
“Where are we going?” I asked
“To the Land of WE,” she replied.
In the blink of an eye, my world transformed.
Aidan: The Revelation
Lightheaded and confused, I steadied myself. My hand was wet against the mountain’s surface. I refreshed my palate from the cool rivulets of sweetly welcomed tears that flowed down the craggy mountain face and encouraged Ennea and Eoz to quench their thirst too. The watery courses formed numerous ephemeral shallow pools along the base of the cliff before stretching out along self-imposed, predetermined tentacular channels. Like miniature waterfalls the assorted sizes of clear fluid cascaded into the valley to nourish its terraced slopes. The deeply eroded and what would have been impassable crevices that scarred our pathway were spanned by wooden bridges. Several young women led the way while the one who transported us to this location attended to Ennea and my crying daughter, Alyakim. “Who are you?” I asked. But she did not answer.
“Alyakim is hungry,” Ennea said. “I must feed her.”
“We must keep moving,” the young woman said.
“Surely, we can make time for my wife to bare her breast to feed my daughter,” I replied.
Her hazel eyes fixed on me then gazed at the sky. In a language I had never heard before, she shouted, “Bub coola alaki, nowa, et swata.” And the others in her group stopped in their place and sat. “It can only be for a few minutes,” she said to me. Then she pointed to the sky. “We must be in Hanidam la Maalas before the smaller, second sun reaches its zenith.”
She must have noticed my puzzled expression because she said, “In your language it means City of Peace.”
I did not ask her why we had to be in Hanidam la Maalas before the appointed time because I could see that she had entered a pensive state. I glanced at Eoz. His face reflected the dubiety I felt within me. When Alyakim became quiet with sleep our journey proceeded apace. Ennea had trouble keeping pace. I, alongside Eoz, fell back to support her. Eoz lifted the Great Olaffub hide from her shoulders while I carried Alyakim. Our spears were now the only items Ennea needed to carry.
The air grew warmer and more humid as we descended. Then I stopped in awe. Spread out below me was the site of their grand metropolis. Constructed in a series of nested concentric circles, each was ringed with bricked walls. The city was teaming with people.
Again, I asked the young women who led us, “Who are you? What is your name.”
She motioned to her team to continue and strode back to me. Her gaze like piercing arrows. “I am Htebazile, daughter of Aidan, son of your father, Suedama.” Her arm swept across the spectacular city of Hanidam la Maalas from north to south as she continued to speak. “Your great-grandfather, Disabba, envisioned the idea while your grandfather, Cibara, brought it to fruition.” She peered up at the sky. “Hurray. We have little time left.”
Dumbstruck, I was unable to move. I watched Htebazile disappear into the thicket ahead. I barely heard Eoz’s plea. My mind had taken flight to another time and place when as a child I sat at my father’s feet and had listened to stories I did not understand. “Explorers we all are,” he had said, “who return to see where they had started for the first time.” A voice, earnest in its intent, reached in and pulled me out and into the present by its exhortations.
“Master, we must go,” Eoz pleaded, extending his hand.
Alyakim moved restlessly in my arms and I held her tighter, while I followed Eoz and Ennea. Htebazile had waited beyond the thicket to escort us into the grand city. Not without anxiety, I followed her lead and wondered what the future had in store for us.
He showed up at my back door looking for food about eight years ago. His demeanour was quite pleasant, and his eyes had a magnetic playfulness about them. Briefly, I listened to his woeful account of tough times, though I must admit, I did not understand a word that he said. Not wanting to encourage such a beggar-like theme on my property nor be swayed by his gentle persuasive nature, I mustered up my best empathetic smile, shook my head, and gently closed the door and returned to reading the local paper. But the rascal would not leave. He had settled his rump down on the top step and appeared to be settling in for a sustained vigilance. That is when a pang of guilt slowly edged its way into my conscience. I have plenty of food to share, I thought. He is young and without. Surely, I can give him something. Against my wife’s better judgement, I went to the fridge and assembled what I thought would be a great meal. When I opened the door and offered him this treat, he graciously took it and inhaled the contents of the bowl in a heartbeat. Ten minutes later, to my great relief, he was gone.
Two weeks later, my son and his family arrived from Edmonton on their way to their new home in Ottawa. Unfortunately, because of the demands of his job and the necessity of overseeing house renovations, my son could only stay a few days. This left my wife and I with the pleasant task of taking care of his family. Since the government agency my daughter-in-law worked for allowed her to perform her responsibilities remotely, I had set up an office for that express purpose on the second floor. That left the fun part for us, namely taking care of the grandchildren. Our granddaughter was three and her brother was five. An integral part of our responsibility, other than finding distractions to entertain them, was to ensure that they did not make too many demands on their mom during the time she worked between nine to five each day, Monday to Friday.
It was during the morning of the first Monday that I got a surprise. Maybe a better word is shock. Weeks before their arrival I had built a sandbox and the kids were all excited to put their engineering skills to practice. So, my wife and I gathered the plastic shovels, buckets and other paraphernalia and headed outside trailing closely behind them. Though there was an occasional outburst of sibling discontent with the other, for the most part, they played well. Mind you, an imaginary line had been drawn in the sand by us. On one side I occupied my grandson’s attention while on the other grandma kept the granddaughter suitably engaged. When I glanced at the little tyke, I noticed that the cheerful smile pasted on her face moments before had turned to fear. I followed her line of sight to a point behind and slightly to my left. “Geeze!!” The stranger whom I thought I would never see again was boldly gracing us with his presence. He must have recognized my displeasure because he immediately backed off a discrete distance. My granddaughter at that moment threw her shovel and pail down, rose and tore off to the house screaming while grandma followed in hot pursuit. I took a quick glance at the stranger and was unable to decipher anything that might have been deemed menacing in his demeanor. Still, the echoing crescendo of shrill fear from my granddaughter told a different story.
“Did you see what you have done?” I yelled, pointing to the house. “Where did you come from anyway? Certainly, you must know that you are not welcome.” His reply was unintelligible to me, yet I was sure I discerned a hint of sadness in his intelligent eyes, and from his tone and mien.
“He came from the barn, grandpa,” my grandson said, and gestured with his hand for the visitor to approach. “He’s cool. What’s his name?
“I don’t know. He arrived on my doorstep two weeks back hungry and speaking gibberish.”
“What does gib…gibber…What does it mean?” my grandson asked.
“Let’s just say I didn’t understand a thing he said.” It was quite evident to me that the two had taken to each other. “Maybe we should go in and see how your sister is doing. Hmm?” I figuratively crossed my fingers.
“Naw, she’ll be alright. She’s just strange, scaredy-cat about most things.”
My granddaughter never came near the sandbox during the rest of her stay while Sid was nearby.
Other than the days when we took day trips, my grandson and the interloper were inseparable. One morning while playing with him in the sandbox, he peered up at me and said, “I’ve decided to call him Sid.”
“Call who?” I replied, knowing full well whom he meant.
He cocked his head and stared at me. “Oh, grandpa, silly grandpa, you know who…don’t you?”
“I do. And yes, grandpa was just being silly.” I dumped the damp sand from the pail and began to construct one wall of the sandcastle. “Has he taken to his name?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” my grandson asked, joining his portion of the sandcastle to mine.
“Well…when you call me, you get my immediate attention. Do you get the same from him?”
He scratched his head and appeared to be thinking about it. “Not at first.” He shoveled sand into his bucket and leveled it before turning it over to form a corner tower.
“And now?” I asked
“I…think…so. Hey Sid! Yipe! He does, grandpa. He knows his name.”
I turned and saw Sid leaving the barn at top speed and making a beeline for my grandson. “Huh! That’s cool.”
“It sure is. You know grandpa, maybe we should call him McCool. Sid McCool. It makes him sound Scottish just like our family.”
“I guess it does. Then that’s what we’ll call him.”
Over the ensuing weeks I, too, got to like Sid. An occasional invite to the farm door for supper quickly graduated to a daily occurrence. Strange though it may sound, when we accompanied the grandchildren and their mother to Ottawa to support them in the final stages of moving into to their new home, I missed him. Sid had been promoted from an unwelcome to a welcome guest on the property.
When my wife and I returned to the farm two weeks later, Sid had gone. I must admit I felt a deep pitted loneliness with that realisation. There was no doubt in my mind that he had weaseled his way into my heart. On the Thursday of that week my wife drove to the city to attend a two-day conference. After I waved goodbye, I headed to my office to write and take care of some general farm business. Work did not go easily, thoughts of Sid darted in and out of my mind throughout the process. I lost count of the number of times I must have gone to the door or peered out the living-room window searching for him.
Friday morning was a sunny and warm September day. I had had breakfast early, watched the news, and settled into my office for what I thought would be a productive day. At eleven I ventured out of my self-imposed exile to stretch and obtain a snack. Soon my partner in life would be home. On the back deck, lounging in a large splash of sun, was Sid. I felt like a child rippling with excitement who was about to open the largest gift-wrapped box under the Christmas tree. When I opened the door and called his name the quickness in his step made me think that he was pleased to see me too. That was the first day I invited him.
Sid strode about the farmhouse and peered into each room. Then, without so much as a please and thankyou, he headed upstairs to the bedrooms. A few minutes later he came downstairs and sat on the floor opposite me.
“Well? What do you think? Do you want to stay?” These words dropped out of my mouth with nary a thought. I had not discussed it with my wife. But I will leave that part of the story for another day.
James W. Howell glanced up at the tall building. At one time he had occupied one of the corner offices at the top. He pulled up the collar of his well-worn overcoat to ward off the chill in the air. People brushed by him as if he did not exist. For the twenty years he had walked Wall Street there had been much fanfare. Now nothing. He had risen to the top of the corporate ladder. Once his word had been gold. Lots of money had been invested and exchanged when he spoke. The reflection in the glass window looking back at him caused him to wither. Youthfulness now spent, he appeared haggard and much older than his years. When did the hair at my temples turn white? He thought. Clothes once top of the town and envied by many, now just well-worn threads hanging loosely from his waist where once they were tight. The fall from his success on Wall Street had been swift and hard when the crash of ’29 humbled a nation and the world at large. Three years had passed since that black Tuesday day and he reminisced of a time when he had lived in a grand home with his family. Now he slept under a bridge, alone, and in a cardboard box. Hunger constantly stabbed him, a daily routine, though not two hours before he had stood in a soap kitchen line to get his first feed. He rifled his pockets for change. What little money he had he earned playing piano at a local speakeasy, behind a restaurant called Toby’s, three days a week.
James placed his last dime on the counter to pay for his gravied pot-roast dinner with potatoes and beets. Toby Carmichael slid the money into his chubby palm. A few minutes later he returned with a stein of his best suds, his forehead glistening with sweat. Sparse, greasy spaghetti strands of hair covered the lid over the friendly glow on his moon-shaped face.
Toby asked, beginning to frown, “How are you my friend? In all the years that you have come here I’ve never asked where you sleep.”
James gulped down halfway the golden liquid in the stein and placed it on the table. “Ah…good ale as usual.”
“Only the best for you,” replied Toby.
“You remember where I used to live?” Toby nodded. “I’m not far from there. As for my family, my wife and two kids are living with her aunt.”
“And where would that be?” Toby replied.
James scooped up a forkful of mashed potato and dipped it in the gravy before putting it in his mouth. “West coast…outside of L.A. Damn good supper!”
Toby raised an eyebrow then two. “You know James I never thanked you.”
“I wouldn’t have this place without you.”
James glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s not far off eight. And I will soon be descending to your back room with haste.” The legitimate clientele ate front room while others tapped a code on the door off the alley. “I can’t play piano on an empty stomach and I’m sure you’ve got better things to do with your time than sit here with me.”
“I expect it will be sparse this evening.”
“Isn’t it normally on a Thursday evening?” James replied. “As long as I make my usual tips, I’ll be okay. Why such a sombre expression?”
“Have you looked outside? The rain is coming down cats and dogs.” Toby stood up and with a deep sigh said, “Per usual, I told Jake to serve you only the best.”
“I appreciate that,” James replied, returning his attention to finishing his meal. He peered up long enough to watch Toby disappear behind the swinging doors to the kitchen. How long have I known him? Maybe twenty years. Yes! That’s just about right. We were young men back then; each at the start of a dream that stretched out for miles and full of much might. His clothes have filled out while mine, he mused with silent laughter, are far from tight.
Ten minutes later, he descended the stairs. At the end of a long silver chain, he held his key tightly in hand. The dank winding corridor was barely with light, at its end was the door through which he would begin his night. Only he and Toby entered and left by this means while others tapped code in the alley and were seen.
A thick padded cushion had been strategically placed on the piano bench and James nodded his appreciation to Jake. Before opening the lid to reveal the keys, he placed a bright rose-colored jar for tips on the piano for all to see. Once he was comfortably ensconced on the cushion, he slid back the lid and his fingers began to dance along the ebony and white keys. By the time he had struck up the third in a series of tunes, a two-fingered whiskey had been placed where he pleased.
At nine the regular crowd shuffled in. The weather had cleared, and the tempo picked up. As the evening marched on and the rose jar grew green and silver petals, James knew he had set the melodies right and everyone was feelin’ alright. Near him sat a man who appeared familiar, making love to his gin-tonic and occasionally flashing a gold toothed grin.
“Do you remember me, James,” the man said leaning in. “I’m Timothy O’Rourke. Our houses were side by side when we were boys.”
James finished his tune and caught Jake’s attention and held up two fingers for another whiskey and rye. “I do remember. You had a sister, Liz, and a brother, Tom. How are they?”
“They are well.”
James sipped his whiskey, feeling good to see an old friend. “And your parents, how are they?”
“My father died five years ago. But my mum’s okay. Just as cantankerous and high-spirited as when you knew her back then.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “The O’Rourke’s never forgot your generosity. Without it we would have lost our home, who knows where we would have been.” He reached into his pocket and gave him a crisp, new, five-dollar bill. “When does your break end?”
“Jake, over there, signals when it begins and ends. What time is it?
“It’s a quarter to ten. Tuck the bill I just gave you deep in the jar and close it off.”
“Ten is when I start again.”
Timothy drew him closer and surreptitiously flipped to the back of his lapel.
“You’re a cop!” James whispered, recoiling away at the sight of the badge. His eyes frantically scanning the room as the panic inside him surged to bloom. “Gees Tim. These folks are only here to forget about life for awhile. They’re good people. You must know that. This piano…when I tinkle the ivory, it brings them joy because I make it sound like a carnival for them.”
“You do James. That you do. But you must get hold of yourself. You’ll do nobody any good in the back of a paddywagon on your way to jail. Grab your rose-colored jar and leave right away. At ten the door onto the alley will come down. Wait for me at the park where we used to play.”
“But what about them?” His eyes searched the room. For a moment, his gaze lingered on the waitress practicing politics between tables.
Tim followed his gaze. “By morning most will be out on bail. And some will get away. Now go! We’ll meet once I have finished here.”
James wrapped his overcoat tightly round him to ward off the damply cold. He was in the park alone. The clock tower chimed once to herald one in the morn. Eye lids heavy, he curled fetal-like on the park bench, rubied flesh peeked through the swiss cheese soles at his feet, and drifted off to a restless sleep full of forlorn mourn. He had no idea how long he had slept when he felt a push and a shove, then again and again. The face that peered down was a friendly one, it was Timothy O’Rourke and he had brought someone along. “Judith?” With questioning eyes, tears bubbling at their rims, he sat up and glanced at Tim again.
“As I told you earlier, the O’Rourke’s never forgot your kindness. Though you no longer lived in the neighborhood, I followed your progress.” He sat beside James and with an encouraging pat of the space beside him, Judith, the speakeasy waitress, sat down. “I was heartbroken when I heard that your wife, son, and aunt perished in that fire. It was a blessing from above or shear luck, call it what you may, that your daughter was in hospital when it all happened. But why did you put her up for adoption?”
“I didn’t think I was worthy enough.” James sighed as he stared at Judith. He struggled with the knot in his throat that attempted to strangle what little words he felt. “I blamed myself. I should have been home. Instead, I chose to be on a business trip. I chose!”
“But you couldn’t’ve known, James!” Tim adamantly replied.
“You don’t understand,” James cried, glancing away, speaking in waves of sombrely sobs. “I knew about the gas leak. I thought it small and inconsequential. I should have had someone attend to it. But thought it could wait until my return.” He turned to face Judith. “I played piano to be near you. I have never been far away. I watched you grow to the woman you are now and hope you will stay.” Her hands caressed his, not a word did she say, but he could see her compassion and forgiveness and the hopes that they shared.
She stared at her father and with great earnest she asked, “How did you know where to find me?”
“In a word, and thankful I am,” he replied, “Friends.”
The azure sky and the heat from the blistering sun at his back was a welcome blessing and felt good. He stretched every part of his body that he could while he examined the hull of the Nervana. His schooner was forced out of necessity to dock at this small port of West Bay, Nova Scotia. He feared repairs would be less than the standard he expected, and the time spent longer than he wished. Five days max, he thought, as he searched the dockyard to negotiate with tradesmen skilled enough to do the job.
“Ye’ve got quite a swagger there, young fella. I ain’t seen someone like ye in these parts in a long time.” He scratched the side of his weather-beaten face with the stem of his corncob pipe. “It looks like ye and yer crew ran into some rough weather.” The front legs of his wooden chair slammed down on the asphalt surface.
“Two weeks out. A living hell. Lucky to be alive.”
“The ordeal’s still written all over yer face. What’s your name?”
“You remind me a bit like me, James Stirling, not now, mind you, but when I was your age. Though, I’ll give ye it, you’re a lot better looking than I was. I’m Jake, Jake Weathersley. Let me guess, twenty-four or there ‘bouts?”
“Actually, thirty-five, old-timer,” he replied with a tetchy chuckle. “But I’m looking for craftsmen, skilled, to repair my boat. And if you know of a place with good grub and where to bunk down, me and my crew would appreciate that too.”
“I can see yer in a hurry. Let me talk to the fellas,” Jake replied, thumbing toward the red-brick garage behind him. “In the meantime, you and your crew can unwind at the Grace to Glory. About half mile that way. Good grub and whiskey. I’ll come git ye when I’ve got wha’ ye need. Tell Bess I sent ye. Tell her I said to take good care of ye and yer crew.”
“How will I know who she is,” he replied, as he watched Jake disappear into the darkness of the garage. He heard him laugh. “Ye’ll know. Trust me,” Jake shouted back.
Not an empty table was in sight. The chatter in the room stopped as the collective gaze of the patrons of the Grace and Glory fell on them. James stared back; a kink began to form in the back of his neck. The server layin’ whiskey down at one of the tables, placed her tray aside and approached him.
“You look like a deer in headlights, sailor,” she chortled. “No one will bite ye here.” She turned round to the men at the tables and with a scolding expression said, “All you leathernecks, get on about yer business and leave these gents to settle in.”
The chatter quickly turned to homes owned and sold and catches when fish once ran plentiful. While at other tables the call came for her to fetch another round.
When she turned her attention to him, James was drawn in by the shining beauty of her face and eyes capable of capturing the very soul of a sailor and plucking him from the sea.
“The lot of ye will be needin’ a table,” she said softly.
“Ye-yes,” James stammered. What he felt in that moment he sensed she felt too, a surreal exchange where the world stood still, and nothing existed except the two of them. Time stretched long and meaty and evaporated with the blink of an eye. “Jake… sent us. He said…you’d take good care of us.”
“Oh, he did, did he?” she said, hands mounted at her waist.
Her smile would brighten the dullest of rooms. No exceptions, James thought. And he felt relief by her reaction.
She cleared a table, and the men who once sat there were vociferous in their reluctance to leave as they staggered passed him with a sneer. But before they went out the door, they took time to wish Bess a fond farewell.
Time was spent easily while he ate, drank, and watched her move from table to table. When he told her his story of the past two weeks, all ears listened in. There was a crescendo of “ayes” from the knowledgeable lot when he described the rise and fall of the ocean in all its raging glory. His gaze never left her as he played out each harrowing plot.
By the time the evening came to an end, and the glad-handing had stopped, many stories had been shared, some humorous, some not. As James and his crew listened, they learned about the kindness, generosity, and compassion that lied within this isolated community.
James watched the comical efforts as each member of his crew was helped to their feet and draped across a shoulder or two. He knew their path home would be wobbly and long, but at least each would have lodging for the duration of their stay. He peered at Bess who was cleaning up at the bar. “Seein’ the time, I don’t think Jake is coming,” he said, scratching the side of his head.
“There’s no need,” she replied, counting the receipts. “I won’t be long, and you can walk me home.”
Except for the click and scuff of their shoes, the town was silent. His hand deliberately brushed against hers.
“If yer thinkin’ you want to hold my hand, I’m okay with that,” she said. A stiff breeze wound up and filled out her red hair.
Hand in hand they walked without saying a word, each comfortable in their state of quietude.
At the end of town, they came to a 2-storey home fronted by a white picket fence.
“This is where I live and where you will stay until your boat is seaworthy again,” she said.
“Is that wise?” James replied, feeling awkward. “I mean, the town’s people…”
“Shush! This is what me father had planned for ye.”
“Jake. I’m his daughter.”
Five days turned into ten, then twenty. The trope ‘love at first sight’ held as much truth for James as it did for Bess. But he had become restless and knew he could not stay.
One evening, after a long embrace, they sat on the porch swing, like many nights before.
“Ye appear troubled?” she said, grasping his hand tightly.
He sighed. And reaching into his jacket pocket he handed her a blue box with gold scroll on it.
“What is this?” she asked unable to hide her excitement.
“Open and see.”
Inside was a locket at the end of a braided chain made of the finest silver.”
“I bought that in Spain,” he said. “On the back I had it engraved right here in town.”
She turned the locket over and read what it said, From James with Love. “Oh, I must put it on. Help me.” When it hung off her neck, she hugged and kissed him. “I must show da.”
“Wait!” Her alarmed expression froze his next words.
“What’s wrong, James!”
“We must talk but I don’t know how to start,” he replied. She sat patiently facing him squeezing his hands. “No harbor was ever my home until…I can’t stay Bess. It would not be fair to you. The sea runs through my veins…its been my life, my lover, my lady too long. Its who I am.” He could see tears forming at the corner of her eyes.
“I think I understand,” she replied. She snuggled into him. “I lost two brothers to the sea. And they spoke much the same as ye. Must you go now?”
“Soon. A couple of days at most.” He stroked her long red hair. “Oh Bess, what a good wife you would be. But not to the likes of me.”
Bess never married. She bore a child nine months after James left. She called her daughter Jamie. Bess tended bar at the Grace and Glory until she was too old to complete the walk from the home she had shared with her father. Jamie studied medicine and returned to the community to set up her practice. Bess died in Jamie’s arms while holding the locket. The last name Bess said was “James.”
Note: My novels in progress can now be easily followed at Chapterbuzz.com/stories/all. Just click on the CB symbol at the upper right of this page.
Here is my partial reading list for 2020. Generally, I have at least two books on the go, often an on-line course, while I pump out a chapter each week for my recent novel “Angel Maker.” As well, you will find teasers of my upcoming novels.
Hopefully, you will find some books below of interest to place on your bookshelf.
The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haas
A World in Disarray by Richard Haas
No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Another favorite author)
The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria
The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business by Nelson D. Schwartz
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
The Square & The Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson
The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett
Winter of the World: The Century Trilogy, Book 2 by Ken Follett
Edge of Eternity: The Century Trilogy, Book 3 by Ken Follett
The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper
Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith
View from the Ashes by Cindy Davis
Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain between the Wars by Richard Overy
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epock 1793-1933 by Amos Elon
I remember thinking those very words, hours, maybe minutes, maybe even seconds after I first met her. I was engaged at the time and comfortably secure in the direction my world was heading. But, unbeknown to me, I was about to learn an important life lesson.
This story begins two years before I met her because, as it turned out, I had to meet someone else first.
After I graduated from high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. My dad had died two years earlier after a lengthy illness and, quite honestly, there wasn’t a lot of money. My mom worked for Murray Printing and I worked part-time packing groceries for customers at Loblaw’s.
By the end of that first summer after graduating from high school, I had managed to land a full-time job working for Canadian Kodak. How that came about surprises me to this day because the Company was known to rarely hire outside the family members of their employees. During my first year there, I was trained on five different jobs. The one job I enjoyed most was working in the Film Processing Department in the testing lab alongside an ex-vet, Gord Kee, who trained me. Fondly, I can still smell his steaks cooking on the hot-plate every Friday evening during cleanup.
I had better not digress too much here except to say that Gord was an endearing individual whose wife worked on the same floor as us except in Film Finishing. I mention this in passing because the person I was to eventually meet also worked there during the summer while a student. Her father, I learned later, was the superintendent of Film Emulsion located in a different building.
One day, I met a student who was on his work term from the University of Waterloo. His program rotated through four months of study and four months of job experience until graduation, roughly five years. During our conversations, I learned that University of Waterloo was the pioneer for this Co-Op program in Ontario. Based on his description, I liked ‘the sound’ of the University. So that got me thinking. Until then I had only considered University of Toronto. Since I had had extensive training at Kodak I thought I would have a secure money source between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. And, if I majored in chemistry, all indicators pointed to Kodak hiring me full-time after graduation. I thought my future was securely fixed. So, I applied to their Science Program and forewent the Co-Op program.
Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned. Helen Keller had it right when she said: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
My choice, and circumstances outside my control, sent me along a different path.
During my first year at the University of Waterloo, and I must admit largely due to my instructor, Peter Brillinger, I discovered that I preferred to study mathematics. To all you ‘ughers’ reading this, mathematics is quite a creative field. Really! Anyway, what can I say? I’m a nerd and damn proud of it. The other drawing card for my decision was the newly constructed Faculty of Mathematics, fondly known as the Fortress or The Stanton Building (after one of its founders). It was the very first in Canada. Graduates would receive the unique degree of Bachelor of Mathematics. That uniqueness clinched my decision to transfer from the Faculty of Science to Mathematics.
My choice was not well received in the Testing Department at Kodak. Also, unexpectedly, Union negotiations with Kodak changed everything for students. How you may ask? It meant that all students would not be considered for employment until sometime in July (much too late for students like me) and there would be a dearth of overtime. Needless-to-say with that new information I had to change gears quickly.
I don’t remember how it all came about but I landed a position working for Loblaw’s between school terms at their egg packing warehouse at the bottom of Bathurst Street, near the waterfront. Part of my job was to ensure there were no broken eggs in the carton before packing them; if the egg carton had been compromised I removed it and placed the unbroken eggs into a new carton. Egg cartons which passed inspection were then packed in a box ready for shipping. In a nutshell (or should I say, “an egg shell?”) the job was super boring. I was the only guy, youngster, and a pampered one at that, on the line. To break the tedium, I would from time to time let the cartons jam on the conveyor belt so that I could dive in for the rescue. Most times my ‘egg carton rescues’ were successful. But when they weren’t…well…to everyone’s chagrin, the machine had to be stopped to clean up the mess.
The Floor Manager, Bob, was a tall, lean, discerning Eastern European. His eyes had a tendency to send well-deserved butterflies into a frantic frenzy in my tummy. Though I could not have used the descriptive then I would describe his eyes now as ‘Putin eyes.’ There was no hiding anything from him. He knew exactly what I had been up to. Unobtrusively, he pulled me aside to have a chat. I neither remember him ever raising his voice in anger nor mincing his words. Stern, his message was clear and succinct. Though the women on the line reminded more of my mother, he always referred to them as ‘his girls.’
“The girls’ livelihood depends on that line running,” I remember him saying. “Most are the only breadwinners for their family. There’s a quota set every day that must be met. Too many missed quotas mean someone on the line loses their job.”
His pinching words had severely bruised my conscience. Simply put, I felt terrible. And, he knew it.
Shortly after cleaning up the mess which I created, the egg department closed for an hour’s lunch.
Guilt ridden, I felt a great need for privacy to wallow in my embarrassment. But, here is where logic somehow got misplaced. I trudged off, lunch bag in hand, to the least likely place to get it, the lunchroom four floors above my work area.
I must add that before the summer was finished Bob and I often played chess during lunchtime breaks. During those special moments, he chatted about his homeland, Poland, and his studies to become a medical doctor. When he immigrated to Canada his medical degree was not recognized; with no money and a family to support, his life took him to this place. What amazed me was he held no discernible bitterness. His focus was on his son and daughter and helping them to achieve goals that he was prevented from reaching.
Why I decided to go the lunchroom on that day of all days, I did not have a clue. Perhaps I thought I could hide in one of its dark corner pockets that did not exist. Whatever the reason, it all came down to feeling sorry for myself.
Behind the lunch counter was a very attractive young girl taking orders. I had never seen her before. She had full lips and, according to regulation, her auburn hair was contained in a netted hat. As I remember it, her welcoming demeanor and smile added sunshine to the day.
My decision to dissolve into a corner quickly dissipated. I glanced around for the nearest receptacle and, finding one, I surreptitiously dropped my lunch bag into it before joining the line to place my order.
Mired in what felt like thick molasses, me, time, and the others trudged forward. Friendly chatter made it bearable. Most of it, though, was directed at her. “How are you doin’, Sheila?” “Hey, Sheila, have you heard this joke?” And on it would go. At least now I knew her name.
When I arrived to place my order, I was speechless. Words on a dove, so to speak, that had flown the coop. I’m sure I must have had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.
I glanced quickly at the menu on the wall behind her and ordered a lettuce-cheese-tomato sandwich, exactly what I had just thrown out.
By the time she had made my sandwich and I had paid her, I had learned through my awkward attempt at casual conversation that she was a student at the University of Toronto, studying History.
Unfortunately, time does fly and this was no exception. My hour had come and gone. After a quick goodbye and glancing back to ensure she didn’t see me, the sandwich she had made joined my lunch bag as I rushed pass the receptacle.
Breathless, I arrived at my position on the assembly line before the bell rang to herald start-up in the Egg Department.
Careful not to become overly consumed with my thoughts, I schemed how I was going to meet Sheila again.