Thursday, 23 February 2012

Letters from Afar

Chapter 7

A reply did come from South Vietnam, a small envelope with several stamps spread around the address. I studiously examined the stamps and postmarks for a few minutes to savour the moment and then wondered about the scenes depicted; a war-torn country still locked in an incomprehensible civil war. I almost did not want to tear open and destroy the envelope but I did.

Inside was a short one-page letter on green newsprint paper written entirely in French. Receiving a letter in French was not a complete surprise because in my letter I had mentioned I was originally from Montreal and did know a little French. Lien Huong apologized for not writing in English because she knew very little. She was a student and had been studying French for a number of years. I learned that Vietnam had been a colony of France and the third most commonly spoken language in Vietnam was French. Chinese was second. She enclosed a black and white postcard of a building that was known as the Cao Dai Pagoda. It was definitely Asian pagoda-like architecture but in some strange way the pagoda reminded me of the Notre Dame church facing Place d'Armes square in downtown Montreal.

I was disappointed that Lien Huong did not enclose a picture of herself but I had not sent her a photograph of me. With the help of an English-French dictionary I wrote again but in French. I told Lien Huong about Thanksgiving Day in Canada and about my plans for the approaching long weekend. Immediately afterward, I mailed my letter with the hope that another reply would soon come. 

After spending an evening digging through books at the library I discovered that either little had been written about Vietnam or little was available in the library other than left-wing anti-war protest literature. I managed to discover, however, that Cao Dai was a religion. Tay Ninh was the birthplace of the Cao Dai religion and much to my surprise, the religion was established in only 1926 by Le Van Trung. The photograph of the religion's founder portrayed a man who looked more like an elderly grandfather. This revelation thoroughly distorted my assumptions about far eastern religions being thousands of years old and steeped in generations of Asian traditions. This far eastern religion could at best only be measured in decades. Older followers and adherents could probably even personally remember their religion's founder, founding and raison d'etre.

The following evening I scribbled down some sketches for a new piano work. Although a step in a new direction, I was dissatisfied with the harmonic structure because the written music was not producing the sounds I wanted to hear. In frustration I took a few pages of the sketches with me and travelled downtown to one of the major department stores that sold pianos. While I really wanted to purchase a piano I just could not afford one now. Nonetheless, I sat down at a piano and began fiddling with my music. Wishing to avoid attracting attention right away, I moved from one piano to another to appear as if I was making comparisons. 

About half an hour later a salesman finally came over and started asking questions about my interest in music. After mentioning a few musical works to the gentlemen I quickly realized that he knew almost nothing about music dated before the 1960’s. He did not even know how to play the piano. His job I suppose was to sell pianos and not play them. I had probably overstayed my welcome there but the half-hour did allow me to hear enough of the sketches to know that revisions would have to be made. The time spent also acutely reminded me that if I was going to compose and work on music, then I was going to have to buy a piano.

Early Saturday afternoon and sixty-five minutes late, CP Rail's eastbound Canadian squealed to a stop in front of the train station at Field, British Columbia. I descended to the platform and set my pack down. For a few minutes I stood beside the steaming stainless steel streamliner that had effortlessly carried me the five hundred miles to this tiny settlement that had no reason for existence other than being a CP Rail division point, even the Trans-Canada Highway by-passed Field on the opposite side of the Kicking Horse River. The remaining sixteen miles to Lake Louise I would traverse under my own power. For many years the dream of hiking up the Big Hill and over the Great Divide of the Canadian Rockies had been one of my childhood ambitions since I first learned in school about the history of the CPR and Van Horne's building of the railway across Canada. Finally I was here to do that trek. 

Looking eastward, Kicking Horse Canyon was covered by dark grey clouds that were threatening to release a deluge of water into the canyon. I pulled a pipe out of my pack, stuffed the tobacco tighter than usual into the bowl then set it alight. Satisfied the pipe was burning well, I lifted my pack, heaved it on to my back, slipped my arms through the straps, fiddled a bit to adjust the balance of my load and headed forward in a cloud of smoke to tackle the Big Hill. Not to be outdone, the train's diesels throbbed to life and began spewing up clouds of black smoke as the Canadian pulled out of Field, also to tackle the Big Hill. CP Rail's train would make the climb in about an hour. I was hoping to do it in a day.

Leaving the railway and Field, I crossed over the river to the Trans-Canada Highway and headed eastward into the canyon. I could not have been plodding on for more than thirty or forty minutes before encountering another traveller. As I neared, he climbed the embankment from the ditch and called out, "How long since your last ride?"

"I'm not looking for any rides." I replied.

"Where did you come from?" he asked me, somewhat curious about my reply. I figured he was probably about the same age as I was although he was rather dishevelled and looked very weary. His pack was on the shoulder of the highway and he was limply holding a guitar case in his left hand.

"Over there." I answered and pointed in the direction of Field.

"I’ve been here three days and no one stops. Nights are awful cold. Should go home but goin' on to Seattle." He mumbled.

"Where are you from?" I asked inquisitively.

"Georgia. You know that place? Bad place here. No rides and too cold." he mumbled somewhat incoherently.

"What are you doing up here?" I queried further.

"Don't really know. Just travellin' but can't get outta here." he replied in frustration.

After a few more moments of conversation I surmised that he was cold, hungry, disoriented and discouraged about not being able to hitch a ride. Much of his conversation was incoherent but I was able to glean enough information to learn that he had spent three nights in the Kicking Horse Canyon sleeping under the highway bridges. He refused my offer of food. I suggested that if he was cold and desperate for shelter, then he should think about going over to the train station in town. He was surprised to learn there was a town and train station so near. I wished him well and then continued onward.

Two hours later, and now truly in the middle of nowhere, I was alone and isolated from everyone except for the people in the cars and trucks that raced by. Here I was in this craggy corner of British Columbia that I had often dreamed about one day visiting. This day had arrived but I had not expected a cool, damp, overcast October weekend because I had always visualized a warm, sunny, late August summer day. My temporary resting place was beneath the Trans-Canada Highway on the concrete bridge support footing, a sheltered front row seat facing the famed Canadian Pacific route through Kicking Horse Pass. 

The highway overpass was a perfect location to break my trek, rest and celebrate Thanksgiving Weekend with the special meal I had brought along just for this occasion. My meal consisted of English muffins, cheese slices and a tiny bottle of red wine. To provide some atmosphere of elegance, other than the scenery, I brought along a few paper cups I had picked up from train's water cooler. At least a paper cup was a step above having to drink out of the bottle. I would have preferred a hot turkey dinner with my family in Montreal, which I was certain they would be having this weekend. 

After opening the bottle of wine and filling a paper cup, I stretched out and raised my arm then exclaimed aloud, "Here's to you Canada!" and then as an afterthought added aloud, “Here's to you CPR!” 

I had officially toasted Canada, my favourite railway and the fulfillment my dream of walking through Kicking Horse Canyon and up the famous Big Hill. Pensively I devoured my humble Thanksgiving dinner amidst the stark stony silence of three towering giants, Mount Field, Mount Stephen and Cathedral Mountain, truly grateful to God for this unique Canadian experience. I was also thankful for my new friend in South Vietnam. Through dinner I had remained hopeful that a train would pass but the only entertainment was the overhead thumps and roars of cars and trucks banging over the bridge expansion joints. After my meal I packed up what was left over, climbed back up the embankment to the highway and resumed my foot-journey.

The steepest stretch Canadian Pacific Railway’s original Kicking Horse Pass alignment had been abandoned after the Spiral Tunnels were completed in 1911. Decades later the Trans-Canada Highway was constructed over most of the abandoned rail route. I was amazed to think that trains could have climbed the original route’s four and a half percent grade up to the Great Divide. Just walking with a light load in my backpack was strenuous enough. Eventually I passed a piece of the original route that had been preserved beside the highway, an aged stone bridge over one of the tumbling torrents near the source of the Kicking Horse River. 

Standing at the edge of the Trans-Canada Highway and looking at the remains of the first man-made route through these mountains, I silently wondered about the thousands of anonymous and forgotten labourers who struggled valiantly and toiled triumphantly to carve out this route for Van Horne some ninety years earlier. I wished that I could go back in time and watch the work in progress, but I would not have had the luxury of CP Rail's Canadian and the Trans-Canada Highway to allow me so easy an access.

The sky remained dark grey, overcast and periodically spit down large drops of very cold water to remind me that I was an uninvited intruder and at nature's mercy and whim. In a matter of minutes I could very easily be drenched in a flood of ice water from the hostile clouds above. Rushing to get ready and catch the train last evening, I had neglected to pack any rainwear. Whether optimist or fool, I had been expecting clear weather. Those cold wet minuscule missiles were a constant "I told you so." 

At what age does the desire for self-preservation begin to outweigh the desire for excitement and adventure? I do not know but I had not yet reached that point in life. With train travel and hiking I could still be reckless and carefree. Anyway, I had ample opportunity to contemplate the consequences of recklessness while I persisted in my trudge up that hill. My immediate concern was to reach Lake Louise before dark and hopefully dry. The train station would provide me with shelter even if I did not arrive early enough to connect with the westbound Canadian.

I had almost arrived at Wapta Lake when a car stopped. The driver asked me if I wanted a ride as far as Calgary. I have no idea what compelled the driver to stop because I had not made any attempt at hitchhiking. Of course my instinctive first response was to say no, but I accepted his offer for a ride only as far as Lake Louise. An easy minute later we skirted around the northern side of Wapta Lake. The Van Horne Route curved away from the Trans-Canada Highway and around the lake along the opposite shore. Wapta Lake was more like a large pond than a lake, although a very deep one. The lake's surface was grey and choppy instead of the tranquil mirror-smooth turquoise shade that I remembered seeing on a previous journey. As the car topped the Big Hill and passed by the large sign welcoming us into Alberta, the sky finally made good on its threat and released a heavy deluge of rain.

By the time we arrived at Lake Louise, the rain had stopped. Grateful for a dry arrival, I thanked the motorist for his kindness, said good-bye and then headed toward the train station. CP Rail's Lake Louise station is a beautiful large building constructed entirely from logs. Inside was a massive red brick fireplace. The hearth’s perimeter was made with a discarded track rail that had been bent into a semi-circle. Benches faced the fire place and I chose the spot nearest the hearth. The hearth was spotless and had probably not seen a fire in many years. I imagined scenes of long ago when cold and weary travellers in the dead of winter huddled around the fireplace for warmth while waiting for trains delayed by snow and avalanches. The station had seen busier times in an earlier era but today the building was only a silent empty shell. I was the lone would-be passenger with the entire building to myself. The Canadian was not due for at least an hour and that was assuming the train would arrive on time. While waiting, I wrote to Lien Huong and told her about my journey on the train and my trek up the Big Hill. I also shared with her the two lessons I had learned from my foolhardiness; prepare for all types of weather and start a hike at the top of a hill rather than at the bottom.

Another envelope arrived a few weeks later. This letter was longer than the first and was written in English, a very fractured English. I realized that Lien Huong’s knowledge of my language was limited and she appeared to have laboured just to write the two short pages. Some sentences were challenging because I had difficulty interpreting and understanding their meaning, but I certainly was not going to complain or make any comments in my reply. I was gratefully pleased that someone was taking the time to write to me, even if she was half a world away. Friends that I had left behind in eastern Canada had forgotten how to write.

We exchanged several letters during the next few weeks but after reading the latest letter I was surprised when she asked me,

"Why you write Lien Huong? My name not Lien Huong. Lien my friend. My name is Vinh thi Phi Bang. You write to me please. Lien have too many friends to write to. She gave your letter to me to write to friend in Canada. Please don’t be angry for that change."

Phi Bang apologized because she must have thought I would not have written if I had known that someone else rather than Lien Huong was writing the letters. Phi Bang went on to explain that Lien Huong had received many letters from all over the world and was not able to reply to all of them. Lien Huong had chosen to pass some of the letters on to her friends and Phi Bang had been given my second letter. Phi Bang had continued replying to my letters. No, I was not angry about the change because I was grateful that someone was writing to me. Phi Bang’s explanation answered one aspect that I had been curious about; the handwriting in all the letters had differed from the first. Now I understood why.

I replied and told Phi Bang that it did not matter to me if I was writing to her and not to Lien Huong. I promised Phi Bang that I would continue to write to her if she would continue to write to me. After completing my letter, I darted up the hill to the box to mail the letter and then headed over to Kitsilano Beach for a leisurely stroll along the waterfront. 

After returning from my visit to the beach I sat down at the desk and re-read Phi Bang's letter. Placing her letter aside, I picked up the new CP Rail timetable that had taken effect with the change to Standard Time at the end of October. Reading a new timetable was often akin to reading the obituary page in a newspaper. Who died? In this case, which passenger train service had passed away into history and was absent from the new schedule?

Phi Bang's following letter contained a pleasant surprise, a photograph of her. In the photo, Phi Bang was standing beneath tall trees that resembled pine trees. The background behind her was still water like a pond or lake. She told me that the photo had been taken when she had visited Dalat. Phi Bang mentioned that Dalat was very beautiful and her favourite place. The scene portrayed a peaceful tranquil park and did not in any way betray the reality of a war ravaged country. Phi Bang also told me she was seventeen years old. As far as I was concerned, the photo pictured a very pretty young woman rather than a teenager. I placed Phi Bang's photo on my desk, standing the photo up against the backs of the music books. I wondered, “Why on earth would a pretty young lady on the far side of the world be interested in writing to me?” 

The following Tuesday was one of those rare November evenings in Vancouver that I had learned to be grateful for, wet but not raining. Time to do the laundry. More than the usual accumulation of clothing was in need of washing and the bulky load had reached the limit of what I could comfortably carry. The steep uphill walk along Arbutus Street from First to Fourth Avenue was a chore in itself while carrying an awkward load. Arbutus Street was deserted and I deliberately walked slower than normal, pausing occasionally to glance at the sky. Stars were not visible but I was certain the clouds were clearing out.

I was not paying all that much attention to the sidewalk but something had caught my attention, a dollar bill. I stopped and picked it up. The banknote was almost new and had been perfectly double-folded into fourths. The person who lost the money had very carefully folded it in this manner. Perhaps my find was a child's allowance that had inadvertently been dropped. I would preferred to have been able to return my find to the rightful owner, but doing so was impossible. While continuing up the hill I thought about the dollar. It certainly would not buy me very much so I decided to save it, determined to make that particular dollar the symbolic first dollar in my savings for travel to a far distant place some day. Perhaps the resources would eventually be necessary.

Later, I was opening the door to my three-room closet when the telephone started ringing. "Oh no." I groaned aloud.

Throwing the laundry bags on to the couch I grabbed the telephone receiver before the caller gave up, and I half shouted, "Yes?"

"Is that any way to answer the phone?" Martha admonished.

"Martha, I'm sorry.” I said.

"Did I get you at the wrong time?" she asked.

"No. I just got back from the Laundromat, and of course the phone started ringing as soon as I put the key in the lock." I said.

"You sound as if you're expecting another caller." she commented.

"No. I was expecting you to be another one of the those contest callers.” I stated.

“Did you win anything?” Martha asked, sounding very curious.

“About two weeks ago someone called me and told me that if I could correctly answer a skill testing question I would win six weeks of free dance lessons at some dance studio.” I revealed.

“Really? Did you win?” she asked

“I deliberately answered the question wrong and I still won.” I admitted.

“Great! When do you start?” Martha asked sounding rather excited.

“I refused the prize." I said.

"What? You should have taken it!" Martha commented in a tone that betrayed a trace of disdain for my decision.

"Actually, I did accept it after some badgering from the caller and they mailed me a certificate." I said. 

"So what happened?" Martha asked, now sounding very curious.

I went there out of curiosity, but after taking one look I handed the envelope to the receptionist and ran out." I confessed.

"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed.

"That was really not for me." I emphasized. 

How are you ever going to meet anyone, especially that special person you keep telling me you hope to find?" she asked.

"There’re other ways than at a dance studio. Six weeks free and then what? They’d have pestered me to no end just to sign me up for six months of expensive dance lessons.” I answered.

“It might have been fun.” she interjected.

“Yeah! Sure! About as much fun as an encyclopedia salesman pushing you to buy the whole set after you have taken Volume One for free. I don't need that kind of nonsense." I pointed out.

“You should have given dancing a try.” She insisted.

"Martha, I don't know how to dance. I don’t even like it." I protested. 

"Anyway, I called you to find out what you've been up to. We haven't seen you or heard from you for a while." Martha stated.

"I visited Field and Lake Louise at Thanksgiving." I mentioned.

"Where’s Field?" she asked.

"In the middle of nowhere." I replied informatively.

"Oh? Sounds exciting...I just wanted to know that everything’s okay with you.” she explained.

"It is, but I've been busy." I assured her.

"Doing what? Did you find a girlfriend?" Martha probed in staccato succession.

"No. I began working on a new composition. Something different from what I’ve done before but I need a piano to develop it further." I revealed hesitantly.

"You can go to Mom's place anytime to do that." Martha pointed out.

"Yeah, I know, but I also know your mom doesn't want to hear me plinking way at the keyboard all the time I'm there." I replied.

"Have you had any hot dates since the last time we talked?" Martha threw at me.

"What?... No!” I replied, obviously sounding flustered.

“Too bad, but I keep hoping for you.” She remarked.

“Martha, there’re times when you can ask the most unexpected questions when they’re least expected." I commented in exasperation.

"Well that's why they're unexpected." she quipped without missing a beat.

"I’ve also been doing some research at the library." I added hoping to redirect the conversation.

"Have you tried asking someone out?" she questioned, ignoring my comment about the library.

"Martha, have you ever found yourself searching for something but not knowing what it is you’re searching for, yet if you ever found it, you’d know right away that it’s exactly what you’ve been searching for?" I asked in a somewhat hypothetical manner and not really expecting her to give me an answer.

"What are you talking about now?” Martha wondered. 

“That special person I've been looking for.” I commented.

"Did you finally meet someone?" Martha probed, now sounding very interested.

"No. I've just been having those strange dreams again...about meeting a Chinese girl." I revealed.

“Is that why you've been at the library?” she asked.

"No. I've been trying to find out more about South Vietnam." I stated flatly.

"Vietnam? All you have to do is read the newspapers or turn on the TV if you want to know about Vietnam." she stated informatively.

"No, I don't mean the war. I want to know more about the people and their country. There’s surprisingly little information available in the library and yet the country has dominated the news headlines for so many years." I mentioned.

"Does this have anything to do with your music?" Martha inquired.

"It sort of does now that you mention it." I answered while thinking about my new composition in progress and glancing at the photograph of Phi Bang on the desk.

"I'm going to Mom's on Saturday afternoon. Why don't you plan to go too and we can talk more there. I'll even stay quiet long enough to listen to your new music. I promise!" she offered.

"Yeah...alright...I could use some critical input." I responded thoughtfully.

"You forgot! I don't know anything about music." Martha responded facetiously.

"I could use some critical input from a music critic that doesn't know anything about music." I commented light-heartedly.

"With a compliment like that coming from you, maybe I should become a professional music critic. What do the real one's know anyway? I'll see you Saturday." Martha countered.

"You might have something there. Anyway, thanks for calling and I’ll see you Saturday." I said, and then hung up the phone.

Again, I stared at the photograph of Phi Bang then said aloud, "Maybe on Saturday I'll tell Martha about you. Why am I talking to you? You can't even hear me. What am I doing?"

I picked Phi Bang's photo up off the desk, looked at her closely for a moment, and then returned the photo to the envelope with her letter and then challenged myself again, " What am I doing?"

One early December evening I had just finished trudging home in the darkness and rain after another frustrating day at work. My umbrella had been placed into dutiful active service but a slight breeze had been blowing against the direction I had to travel. The result left me soaked from my waist down. Only silence and darkness greeted me upon arrival at my living quarters, dreary and depressing to say the least. Removing the photo once more from the envelope, I again stood Phi Bang's photo against the backs of the books on my desk. Arriving home to a silent photo was better than arriving home to nothing at all. Before changing into dry clothes I first filled a pot with water and set it on the stove to boil to make coffee.

Upstairs in the foyer another letter from Phi Bang was waiting for me. At that moment her letter truly felt like a badly needed moment of sunshine in a discouraging day that had rained continuously from the dark of morning through to the dark of night. Inside the envelope was a lengthy letter. Hidden among the pages was another photo and a strange looking leaf, which Phi Bang explained, was a Salon leaf. The leaf had been changed by first placing it in mud for several weeks. Later, the mud had been washed off and with it the decayed parts of the leaf were washed away, leaving behind only the stem and the network of veins. 

This second image of Phi Bang was a black and white school photo. She detailed in her letter that she was wearing white in the photo because her mother had died. I wondered if her mother had been a war casualty, but in reading on I learned that her mother had died from stomach cancer. I also learned that Phi Bang came from a large family and was the second eldest of ten children. She had two sisters and seven brothers, but sadly her youngest brother had died at birth.

Phi Bang also revealed to me that she desired to continue her studies but expressed a concern that she was uncertain if she would be able to. She did not state any reasons why. She also talked about improving her English language skills but I already knew from her letters that she wrote in English with difficulty. In turn I acknowledged that I could not speak even so much as a single word in Vietnamese. In fact, I had never heard spoken Vietnamese.

The following evening after work, I stopped in at one of my favourite bookstores to see if I could find an easy-to-understand English grammar book that I could send to Phi Bang. After browsing around for an hour or so, I chose two books. One dealt with English grammar and the other only with vocabulary. Christmas was only four weeks away and I was hoping that Phi Bang would receive the books before Christmas.

The Oddblock Station Agent

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Last Weekend of Summer

Chapter 6

On Sunday afternoon I was scanning the classified advertisements in the newspapers hoping to find a reasonably priced, good condition piano for sale. By chance a different advertisement had caught my attention. It read, "Men and women around the world seeking friendship and romance through correspondence. For details send $20.00 in United States funds to Mercury..." The address was in Europe. 

"Is this for real?" I wondered aloud. 

An interesting name though, was not Mercury the mythological Roman messenger? Try as I might to ignore it, the advertisement in the newspaper had captured my imagination and somehow seemed to be offering me a possible way out of the quagmire of solitude and silence I disliked but was very reluctantly living nonetheless. The advertisement inspired an introverted unspoken debate. Was I going to be stupid enough send $20.00 to a box address in Europe? Was I so desperate that I had finally sunk to this level? Or would writing letters provide me with a means that would be more to my liking, a style that I could possibly be more comfortable with? Both arguments were inconclusive. I clipped the advertisement out and set it aside on the bed, my usual filing place, to return to later. No further thought was given to finding a piano and having finished with the newspapers I placed them aside. Most of the afternoon had been frittered away and I wanted to take a walk along the shores of Kitsilano Beach before sunset.

The Kitsilano waterfront had become my favourite retreat at any time. Going there did not solve my problems but walking and thinking would put me in a better frame of mind to deal with them. Upon reaching the highest bluffs along the point I stood and gazed out toward the farthest limit of the horizon. Across English Bay the coastal mountains slowly but constantly changed in appearance as the sun moved and shadows shifted. Even from quite a distance I noticed a lot of smoke rising from one of the treed slopes. Soon an aircraft began circling and shortly afterward it dropped a load of what appeared to be water. The aircraft made several more trips and the smoke began to slowly dissipate. I later heard on the radio news about a small forest fire and what I had witnessed was the airborne part of the fight against the flames. 

Far out in the bay ocean freighters were anchored waiting to be berthed to load or unload their cargo. Some days English Bay looked like a parking lot for ships. Later in the afternoon a small powered white boat resembling a lifeboat slowly made its way shoreward. As the vessel passed near the shoreline on its way into the False Creek channel beneath Burrard Bridge I could see that boat was filled with people. Not to be outdone by the drone of the motor, shouts of men talking to each other could be heard. I did not know what language they were speaking but it definitely was not English. The passengers were probably from one of the freighters, crewmembers going ashore for a visit in Vancouver. The small vessel continued inward and slowly disappeared from sight.

Water began to cover the lower rocks on the point as the tide moved in. Compared to the tides of the Atlantic shores of eastern Canada Vancouver does not have much of a tide, but the rising and receding is noticeable when one takes the time to watch and observe. Small pieces of wood that had been driven ashore by the waves were bouncing against the rocks. Seeing this made me recall having read somewhere, that centuries ago off the northwestern island coast of Scotland, my ancestors were shipwrecked and saved from drowning by clinging to pieces of wood and drifting ashore.

Perhaps an innate inherited trait of highland ancestry from the Hebrides attracted me to the edge of the sea in this mountainous province. I loved walking along the beach and shoreline at any hour in all seasons and any type of weather, the windier, the better, the stormier, all the more alluring. Finding one of my favourite spots vacant that calm day, I rested upon a large boulder near the shoreline intent upon staying for a long visit.

The evening air remained unusually warm even after the sun had disappeared and the horizons made their eye soothing transitions from pale yellow, to fiery orange, to burning red, to dark purple, and finally to black. This was Labour Day weekend and the first weekend of September. I had always regarded the first weekend of September as the last weekend of summer because school always unfailingly resumed after Labour Day. The weather always seemed different after this particular weekend. Maybe the reason was the promise of cooler autumn temperatures that September’s first weekend heralded. September had always been my favourite month and with a trace of respect, I silently greeted, "Aye, this is September and here's to it!"

Spending the late afternoon and evening watching couples strolling along the walkway made me jealously conscious about being alone. My thoughts shifted back to the advertisement I had seen and cut out of the newspaper. Using advertisements in newspapers to make contacts with other people was a practice unheard of here in Canada but not completely unfamiliar to me. I had first seen these types of advertisements in the German newspapers that I used to have to read once in a while when I was studying German. Those ads had seemed bizarre and I dismissed them as perhaps a cultural difference unique to Germans. But the more I thought about the means, the less ridiculous the idea seemed.

As Watson may have written about what Holmes might have remarked, I imagined, "This is a three-pipe problem."

The idea was probably going to take me a few pipes more than three to think through as I commenced stuffing the bowl of my favourite bent pipe with a mixture of pungent Latakia tobacco, and suitably, the mixture had been imported from Great Britain. After lighting the pipe and puffing away like a steam engine with a full head of steam, I vacated my seat on the rocks at the water's edge and slowly ambled back toward home, deep in thought about the advertisement and wondering about the possibilities I thought letter writing could provide me with. 

By the time I had reached the entrance to my humble three-room closet I had made up my mind to risk the twenty dollars. During Tuesday’s lunch hour I would visit the post office and purchase a money order. Surprisingly enough, only a single pipe was needed to decide. "Holmes would have been pleased." I thought smugly, but reconsidering, wondered, "Would he?"

Tuesday evening I placed my letter and money order into an envelope and sealed it. Not allowing myself any more time to think it over again and possibly change my mind, I immediately walked along West 1st Avenue to the box on the corner to mail the letter. At the letterbox I paused momentarily with a last thought about what I was doing, and then thrust the envelope in to end any further indecision. The proverbial first die was cast.

Within two weeks an anonymous looking envelope arrived in the mail. The small package was post-marked from Europe. Inside was a magazine-like booklet that contained pages and pages of photographs of women and men, young and old, from many countries all around the world. Under each photo was the person's name and address together with a list of code numbers. The purpose of the code numbers was to list the person's interests in short-form. From the information contained on the inside cover; which doubled as an advertisement, it was apparent that every person who was pictured and listed in the magazine had paid for their entry. 

Mercury's magazine was not what I had expected but then I had not really known what to expect. I was dumbfounded! So many attractive looking young ladies of every nationality from every country imaginable were seeking correspondence with other people. My guess had been that almost seventy-five percent of the listings were young ladies. Why? Had I stumbled through the entranceway to a completely different world previously unknown to me? Were there really so many other people out there, all over the world, as lonely as I was? I had no way of knowing but I am certain that if told, every story would have been different.

From the hundreds of possible candidates to choose from I thought choosing would have been easy. It wasn't. The booklet was literally a catalogue, and instead of being a list of articles, it was a list of people. Picking people out of a catalogue seemed so cold and impersonal yet strangely enough there would be no hurt feelings. After hours of looking and wondering, I narrowed down my selection of possible candidates to three people and in the end chose to write to a young lady in South Vietnam. 

Having finally made my decision, I had no guarantee I would ever receive a reply. Even though this was only a catalogue of photographs, I still felt a twinge of guilt eliminating the other possible future friends, and having done so, would never know if my choice had been right or wrong. I do not know why I decided to write to someone in South Vietnam. Perhaps the reason was because recently the conflict there had dominated the news stories here. The young lady's name was Tran thi Lien Huong. The booklet said Lien Huong was 18 years of age, a student and lived in a city or town called Tay Ninh. I had no idea where Tay Ninh was other than it was in South Vietnam.

Making up my mind about who to write to was confusing enough, but sitting down and actually writing was far more difficult. After writing my name, address and date at the top of the page I was stuck. I spent a long time looking at an almost blank page. After many starts and numerous revisions, I had managed to write a complete paragraph. Trying to write to a complete stranger in another country, a person who may or may not know much English, was different and certainly not the same as writing home.

"What do I write about?" I wondered. 

Mercury's booklet offered no advice at all. Already after midnight I was still stuck at the end of the first paragraph. In frustration I tore the sheet from the pad, crumpled it tightly into a ball and threw it into the basket. That projectile followed a dozen or more previous attempts at writing a letter. Giving up, I placed the booklet and pad aside and turned in for the night. Tomorrow, I always had tomorrow evening to try again.

On my way home from work the following evening I detoured to a bookstore and purchased a world atlas. The previous evening's experience showed me how little I knew about the world and how unfamiliar I was with geographic locations. I figured the atlas would prove useful for locating some of the countries and cities where all the people in Mercury's catalogue lived. If nothing else, I was determined to obtain a lesson in geography. The map of Indochina was tiny but Tay Ninh was important enough to be shown. From the data given, my guess was that Tay Ninh was situated about fifty miles northwest of Saigon and near the border with Cambodia.

Following a second detour that developed into a lengthy walk along Kitsilano Beach I returned with a determination to sit down, write a complete letter and have it ready to mail the next morning. Again I faced an almost blank sheet of paper. Writing was not much easier than talking but the medium did allow me to see and change my words before they were given out. While words on paper did reveal a certain amount about who I was and what I thought, writing also permitted me a certain degree of safety behind a wall of anonymity. Several agonizing hours later I had actually managed to write a two-page letter. I was pleased with my small accomplishment and rather than wait for morning, I mailed the letter right away. The second proverbial second die was cast and all that remained now was to wait and hope that a reply would come.

The Oddblock Station Agent

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Hopes and Fears

Chapter 5

That Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm. Feeling a restless need to escape the confines of my basement apartment, I walked over to Stanley Park. Vancouver had now been my newly adopted home city for nearly six months but in that time all I had seen of the famed park was what could be seen from a car. The road merely skirted the perimeter of the park along the shore but I had noticed numerous trails leading into the forested sections. Sighting the trails had been enough to hook my curiosity. Ages had passed since I last hiked through any treed area and I was longing to do so again.

Mature western red cedar trees are taller than any tree that grows in eastern Canada and the cedars in the protected areas of park were exceptionally tall. Nature's silent stately sentinels stand defiant against that encroaching concrete and steel jungle called Vancouver. I stood at the base of a cluster of those defiant cedar trees and gazed upward. The towering conifers certainly made me feel very small and insignificant compared to their stature. Away from the trails I discovered a quiet spot that was secluded enough to block out most of the sounds of civilization. Direct sunlight was completely obliterated by the dense grove and the forest floor was cool, dark and damp. I rested on a large rock and enjoyed the moments of silence and then noticed that my seat was a large jagged chunk of granite. As I stared pensively at the black and white speckles I thought about how similar the granite here was to the granite on Megantic Mountain. Remembering my hike across the peaks of Megantic Mountain made me yearn and ache for the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

After my meditation upon the rock I continued exploring the meandering footpaths eventually locating the famed Stanley Park Beaver Lake. Water lilies and pads are always a favourite subject for photographers and several people with sophisticated looking cameras were busily taking pictures. The pond's surface was motionless and perfectly reflected the blue sky and the dark greens of the towering western red cedars. Had not so many people been present the lagoon truly would have been a scene of tranquility. I coursed a route around the land-locked water and paused occasionally to enjoy nature's beauty. Repeatedly I encountered couples and longingly wished that one day someone special would accompany me on slow walks in a place like this.

The beach areas were crowded but few people were venturing into the water. Pacific waters were probably still frigid this late in spring or this early in summer depending upon how one perceived late May in Vancouver. I kept hoping to meet someone, if only by chance, but that was highly unlikely. Crowded areas made me uncomfortable so I avoided them. Chance encounters were not my style. If anyone was not likely to have a chance meeting with a complete stranger, then I was that person. My nature was reserved silent shyness and that meant conversation usually came awkwardly if ever at all.

My trek homeward was via the Burrard Street Bridge. Upon reaching the center span at the summit of the bridge, I paused briefly to look out toward English Bay, knocked the dregs out of the bottom of my pipe and watched the cinders blow away. I reloaded the little hand-stove and, in spite of the breezes actively encouraging me to quit smoking, managed to get a good fire going after a few wasted matches. At that moment I recalled the comment Curtis had made quite a few weeks ago and then mused, "Maybe I have walked over this bridge once too often." 

Tomorrow. Always tomorrow, and perhaps also a chance to meet that once-in-a-lifetime one special person I was longing for and hoping to find. But how? How was I going to find her? And who? Who was she? And When? When would I meet her? And where? Where did not matter. Anywhere was fine with me. And why? I already knew the answer to why. At least I thought I did. And what? The what seemed irrelevant because what was what I was hoping for. Here they were, the famous five W's. "

But why doesn't how start with a W?" I questioned, clueless about how love relationships germinate.

The how appeared to be the block that was holding up everything. 

"How do I to find her?" I silently questioned, wondering if that magical moment would ever happen for me.

English is a quirky language. In my case perhaps there should have been a sixth W. Possibly for whoa, what's the rush or woe for not enough whoa, or whatever. Regardless, tomorrow was back to work and work would for a while take my mind off the subject.

The Claims Department is where I worked. Before joining Canadian Pacific I had never even heard of a Claims Department. My ambition had been to work on the trains but no opportunities existed there. I visited the employment office two or three times a week hoping to be there at the right moment if a vacancy in the Transportation Department opened up. My plan had half-worked because CPR’s employment office steered me to the first job that became available. That was okay though because at least my employment was with the company that I had always wanted to join. My reasoning was that if I worked hard, stayed quiet and followed direction without question, then just maybe, an opportunity would come along to allow me to move into one of transportation departments. Hard work and dedication was expected and was implicitly demanded. The office where I worked was not even in sight of trains but nonetheless I felt a certain pride to see the familiar CP multi-mark logo outside the door upon arriving for work in the mornings and knowing that I was a part of that company. 

Mail Clerk. That was my job title and one the responsibilities was to open and sort all the papers after the mail bag came in. History reveals that N. R. Crump started as an engine wiper in a prairie-town roundhouse and he worked his way upward through the ranks to eventually become the president. At least my foot was in the proverbial door and handling mail was cleaner than soot, grime and ashes. My ambitions though were not as lofty. I would have been content only to have had the privilege of earning my living by piloting five thousand tons of freight on trains over the steel highways. 

I was surprised by how much mail could come in from all over western Canada that dealt only with freight claims against the company. Days came when the mailbag was too heavy to lift. Those days were usually Mondays. The Claims Department was staffed by people who seemed to be extremely knowledgeable about the business of freight transportation in Canada. Some of my colleagues had more than a quarter-century of service with the company. I quickly learned where the different documents went but I still questioned why some of them were even necessary. If I was going to impress the management with hard work, dedication and knowledge, then I would have to do it exceptionally well, recalling my first week at the office.

Much to my surprise, several people in the office were pipe smokers, so at first, I confidently joined in when the others lit up their pipes during the coffee break.

"What the hell is that awful stink!?" Mr. Douglas, the Claims Manager, hollered from inside his office. 

Mr. Douglas was in charge and no one ever called him by his first name, he was simply, "Mr. Douglas". He came storming out of his office cursing about the aroma. Someone pointed in my direction and Mr. Douglas came over to my work area, demanding, "How long have you been puffing away on that stinking coal kettle of yours?"

"A couple of years, I guess." I replied meekly, wondering what was to follow.

"Smells like it too. What kind of used rope are you cremating in it?" he demanded further.

"It's a British mixture with Latakia tobacco in it." I answered, trying to sound like a sophisticated tobacco connoisseur.

"Really? Any good?" he asked, now sounding as if he was interested.

"I think so." I replied with timid conviction.

"I'll tell you what. The next time I go back to Winnipeg for a visit, I'll bring you back a box of prairie shag." Mr. Douglas offered generously.

"What's that?" I asked out of curiosity.

"You’ve never heard of prairie shag?" he inquired in a manner that implied everyone should have known what prairie shag was.

"No. I've never heard of it." I replied naively.

"Is that right? Has a unique flavour but you'll like it…it's a lot like that leather scrap you're burning.” He remarked.

“Thank you.” I said, wondering if he really would remember.

“Do you know that prairie shag is made from buffalo chips?” he asked, sounding as if he was wondering whether or not I knew what he was talking about.

"No. What are buffalo chips?" I asked innocently.

He looked at me, then looked at Curtis and said, "Curtis, you tell him." and Mr. Douglas walked back to his office chuckling.

"Buffalo chips come from the tail end of a buffalo." Curtis advised, doubling over in laughter.

Curtis was one of the claims adjusters. As long as the subject was not work, he was always willing to talk about anything, everything and anyone, and especially so at the Jack of Spades. Curtis was a wealth of information about the people working for the company.

"Is that the A end or B end?" Harvey asked, joining in and ignoring for a moment the stacks of claim files on his desk. 

Harvey was another claims adjuster and he was the most absent-minded person I had ever met. He was always losing his pens and seemed to spend half of the day shifting piles of files from one corner of his desk to the other, trying to find missing pens and muttering about gremlins. Oddly enough, Harvey could recite from memory, word for word, pages of rules and items from the freight tariffs and if he could not remember the wording, he knew exactly where to locate the particular rule or item in the binders that looked like an encyclopedia set.

"Mr. Douglas didn't say a boxcar of prairie shag. He said a box." Travis corrected, joining in also. 

Travis was the junior claims adjuster. Daily he was always at least five minutes late for work and seemed to spend most of the morning doing little except trying to stay awake. Occasions came when Travis would actually be asleep at his desk and someone in the office would ring the telephone on his desk just to wake him up. In spite of this Travis seemed to get more work done than the other two claims adjusters.

"Oh. Not very generous, but buffalo chips come from the B end." Harvey deadpanned and then returned to shuffling through the files looking for the pens he could never seem to find.

"There's no B end on a Buffalo." Travis bantered.

"There isn't? Harvey asked, looking up and sounding as if he was hearing this tidbit of information for the first time

“No.” Travis reaffirmed.

“Then what end does BS come from?" Harvey asked.

"Never mind! I've got the picture." I interrupted, feeling somewhat insulted but more like an idiot.

"Don't mind Mr. Douglas. He quit smoking about nine months ago." Curtis said, "If he's yelling and cursing, then everything’s alright. If he quietly calls you into his office, then it’s time to worry."

"Thanks, but what about this?" I asked, holding up the offending pipe.

"Go ahead. Don't worry about it. Half the big-wigs upstairs smoke pipes, and believe me, some of their tobacco stinks even worse than yours." Curtis replied.

"Alright you clowns! Get back to work!" Mr. Douglas hollered from inside his office. 

During my first six months on the job I witnessed quite a few changes. Harvey departed at the end of March, having accepted an early retirement offer. No one knew if he remembered to take his pens with him or if he ever found them. About a month later, after a heated argument with Mr. Douglas, Curtis went out to the Jack of Spades for lunch and never returned. The rest of us had known there was friction between Curtis and Mr. Douglas but we never knew what the cause was. On Friday afternoon that same week, several positions in the department were eliminated. A re-organization had diverted much of the workload to a central location in eastern Canada. Thanks to the pride of others I was spared from unemployment because none of the persons whose positions had been abolished wanted to step downward to the lowly position of mail clerk. I was grateful for their lack of humility.

While some of the work had disappeared with the changes, the fewer of us who remained there had more to do. One positive aspect derived from the upheaval was the effect the changes had on Mr. Douglas. The corporation's changes changed his attitude toward those of us who worked for him. He began to value our contribution to getting the job done and he began to tell us as much.

Added to the burden of wanting to find that one special person was now the ever-lurking prospect of facing unemployment. Intentionally, I walked home from work more often to alleviate stress, to think through problems but mostly to avoid arriving at the silence of my three-room closet any earlier than necessary. Many days upon arriving at my abode I would silently ask, "Oh God, will a day ever come when I arrive here and find her here instead of this silent emptiness?"  

Silence was the only reply.

A letter had arrived from home and, in this case, home meant Montreal. My brother Ted was planning to visit Vancouver. Ted was going to drive a car as far as Winnipeg but his departure date was uncertain because departure was dependent upon when the car would be ready. After delivering the car, Ted's plan was to hitch-hike from Winnipeg. The route he would take was unknown; therefore his expected arrival was equally unpredictable.

The news in Mom’s letter was probably the first good news I had received since I had moved to Vancouver. I was excited and looking forward to having someone come and visit. To be ready for Ted's unpredictable arrival, the bed was cleaned off and the huge collection of unread newspapers was thrown away. The myriad of clippings and piles of other papers that had accumulated were quickly filed in random order into a large box and I promised myself to sort it all out later.

Several days later Mom telephoned to inform me that she had heard from Ted when he had reached Calgary. I was surprised to learn he was already on the way. Ted had changed his plan and decided to go north to Edmonton. From that bit of information I was wondering if he was intent upon looking up Susan, an old flame of his. Even after the passing of several years I suspected that Ted had not let go and forgotten about her. Sometimes I thought Ted's tenacity for holding on to a lost cause and refusing to let go was as unwavering as mine. 

Distance between the West and eastern Canada allowed me to yield and release my hold on events from my past, but if not, then I truly wanted to believe I had let go. My situation now was that I did not know how to go on and take that next step. That was not true. I did know but was afraid, afraid of reaching out and more afraid of experiencing the pain of rejection. To me, Ted had always seemed tougher and more resilient, but was he? For the first time I wondered if he really was as fragile as I was.

Ted finally arrived in Vancouver a week after he left Calgary. He had visited Edmonton but did not reveal much about his stopover there, other than to confirm he did visit Susan. Ted did engage us in a few hard to believe tales about encountering man-eating bears and climbing a few mountains between Jasper and Vancouver. Knowing Ted's manner for slightly exaggerating facts, I figured this time a considerable bit more of the usual fiction was mixed in. 

One memorable warm summer Saturday evening I joined a group at a popular restaurant in Gastown. With its partly re-cobbled streets, quasi-quaint exotic shops, and unusual eateries with fancier names than their fare, Gastown was that area of refurbished older buildings in what was probably the oldest part of downtown Vancouver. Martha had spontaneously organized this outing, inviting any friend and acquaintance she could think of at the moment, and then scrambled to make the arrangements. Martha was always arranging last-minute group outings to unusual locations and establishments. Often asked to tag along, I was grateful to be included. I also wondered if she was deliberately trying to introduce me to some of her friends. 

Martha was several months younger than I was. Our mothers are sisters and that is probably where our similarities ended. Martha was as bold and outgoing as I was shy and reserved but she was someone I could talk to and she was usually willing to listen.

The restaurant's atmosphere was that of one huge party. The floor of the eatery was littered with peanut shells. Like a game, people were randomly tossing around peanut shells and an occasional peanut too. Shortly after arriving I was introduced to Laura, a friend Martha had known from school. Laura was attractive and almost as tall as I was; she turned men's heads when she walked by. She was also confident, lively, outgoing, gregarious and able to have a good time in a carefree manner. She possessed every positive trait that I lacked and wished I had except that I did not want to turn men's heads when I walked by. By chance, by luck, or by Martha, Laura and I ended up seated beside each other. We spent time talking to each other and we seemed to hit it off right. Once in a while she would pause, give a vigorous throw over her shoulder to release a generous handful of peanut shells and oblivious to whomever was seated behind us.

After dinner, the other members in our party vacated the table in pairs for the dance floor. Laura and I remained behind and continued talking to each other. I thought about asking her to dance but I did not know how to dance. Anyway I was too shy to ask and take the risk of making a fool of myself by trying to dance.

Laura did not wait very long before asking me to dance with her. Somewhat taken aback, I replied, "I really don't know how to dance but I'm willing to try if you’re willing to risk bruised toes."

Laura looked at me for a moment as if she was trying to decide whether or not I was sincere or if I was only trying to politely dismiss her overture. Then with a laugh she said, "Alright! But wait. I'll let you know when the best time to learn comes along."

Now it was my turn to wonder if she was sincere or only kindly putting me off but Laura kept her word and asked me to dance with her when the disc jockey finally selected music with a slow tempo minus the severe thumping beat of disco music. For a moment I ignored my inhibitions and held her close to me. Holding someone close to me was a wonderful feeling but as soon as I was conscious of what I was doing I accidentally stepped on her foot, stopped dancing and drew back feeling very embarrassed.

"Why did you stop?" she asked, and continued,” You’re supposed to keep time with the music.”

"Well...ah...the truth never learned how to dance." I sputtered, trying to regain my composure. 

Keeping time with the music was not my problem. The feeling of holding someone close to me, a feeling I was unfamiliar with, had distracted me. 

"I'm really not very good at this." I added to my feeble attempt at an answer and felt my face turning redder.

"Let's go back and sit down. You can buy me a drink, and then we can talk and throw a few more peanut shells." Laura offered tactfully, rescuing me from myself.

"Thanks, but I think you've been doing most of the shelling that’s been going on." I commented as we returned to our table.

"Are all you French guys in Quebec as shy and nervous as you are?" Laura asked.

"What?" I asked, taken completely by surprise by her question.

"Martha told me that you’re her cousin from Montreal and you recently moved to Vancouver.” She revealed.

“Yeah. That’s me” I interjected. 

“We've been talking for a while and I can't detect any trace of a French accent." she said and sounding puzzled. 

"Really?" I responded, wondering what was next. 

"I must admit you speak very good English for a Frenchie." Laura stated.

"Merci." I replied, and then burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

"What's so funny?" Laura asked in a tone that indicated that she had not deliberately intended to be funny.

"Yes, I'm from Montreal but I'm not any more French than you are." I answered.

"You're not?" she questioned in astonishment.

"No." I replied, strongly emphasizing the no.

"Oh!" she paused, "I'm sorry. I just thought everyone who lives in Quebec is French."

"I'm not surprised though. That's the impression some of those idiots in Quebec City would like people outside La Belle Province to believe" I answered.

“So you’re really not French?” Laura commented in a questioning manner, and almost sounding disappointed.

About fifteen percent of the population there is non-French and I’m from that fifteen percent. Sorry to disappoint you but I’m not French." I stated.

"I'm not disappointed. It's just that I've never met a French-Canadian before." Laura mentioned

"I guess you'll have to wait a little bit longer." I pointed out.

"You must think I’m asking you some stupid questions." Laura deferred.

"No they're not stupid but they're certainly different from the one's I've been asked so far. Anyway, no one has ever complimented me about my spoken English before and I have to thank you for that.” I replied.

“I feel so stupid.” She remarked sheepishly.

“Don’t. You should’ve heard all the giggles when Martha and the others heard my renditions of names like Nanaimo and Esquimalt.” I admitted.

“Nana-imo and Es-key-mo, I suppose?” Laura asked in a tone that indicated she had heard these renditions before.

“I guess I’ve gone on a bit too long." I concluded.

"Why did you come to Vancouver?" she questioned.

"There’ve been times I’ve wondered myself, but things are changing in Quebec and people like me will never fit in or belong there." I replied.

"But weren't you born there?" Laura probed.

"Yes, and that's the tragedy." I sighed.

"Why do you say tragedy?" she probed further.

"I never learned any more French than was necessary to get out of high school with a diploma.” I admitted.

“Too bad. You should’ve studied here. You don’t even have to take French.” Laura explained, and then asked again, “So why did you come to Vancouver?”

“I was certain Vancouver was the promised-land...that far end of the rainbow." I replied. 

"You don't think so now?" She asked, probably noticing that I was sounding less than certain. 

"When I left home I was convinced. But today I don't even know why I’m here." I admitted. 

"Most of us don't know why we're here." Laura interjected, for an instant sounding very philosophical. 

"I don't mean in that sense, but that doesn't mean I don't like Vancouver because I do." I added. 

"Well you're here now aren't you?" Laura commented, reminding me of the obvious. 

"I don't really want to live in Quebec, but sometimes I do and want to go back there, but I won't. Not after that incident in October 1970.” I tried to explain.

“What incident?” Laura interjected. The expression on her face told me that she did not know what I was talking about.

“The separatists. The kidnappings…when Trudeau called in the army.” I elaborated succinctly.

“Oh that. I never understood what that fuss was all about.”  She said dismissively.

“I don’t know if anyone really knows the truth behind those events.” I commented.

“Does it matter?” She asked?

“No. Not really.” I answered.

“Then leave it alone because people here in the West don’t want to hear about Quebec. We’re fed up with hearing about Quebec. We’re fed up with French being rammed down our throats. What does Quebec want anyway?” Laura commented, revealing the typical anti-Quebec hostility that I often encountered in Vancouver when people discovered I was from Quebec.

"I don’t know. Everything just suddenly changed. Believe me, if the changes there continue, I’ll just have been the first of many to leave. Does any of this make sense?" I ended, aware that I had been rambling on about Quebec, a Quebec that most western Canadians did not understand and did not want to hear about.

"It sort of does if you mean that you want to live in both places but don't want to." she summarized.

"No, that's not what I mean but I suppose that’s what I said. I can't even explain my feelings about Quebec to myself when I think about it so how can I explain to anyone else?" I said.

"It's okay. I wasn't really looking for anything deep and profound." Laura assured me and then asked, "Did you leave anyone behind?"

"My family still lives there. I came alone." I replied.

"I mean, did you leave your girlfriend there?" she asked.

"No. No girlfriend. No special person in my life was left behind." I answered.

"Oh, I'm sorry." she said softly.

"Don't be. Having no one special made leaving easier." I stated.

We talked long into the evening and ignored most of the antics that were going on around us. Laura was not shy or bashful about asking questions and she asked me quite a few questions that I would not have dared to ask her. Inwardly I was glad she had a long list of questions. During the course of the evening though, I learned that Laura had finished high school and was working through the summer at her first full time job, a clerical position with a mining company. At the present time she was undecided about whether or not to continue with her studies. She mentioned she thought about studying to become a nurse but was not certain enough now to go ahead and do it. Since she started work and had experienced life in the business world, she was thinking instead about business studies. No doubt in my mind, she would do well in whatever direction she would eventually choose. While she did not say so exactly I figured she revealed enough clues to indicate to me that she was not involved in a relationship with anyone special.

As with all things though, the evening had to come to an end and Laura told me she had to go. I would certainly have offered to take her home if I owned a car, but I did not. I did not even know how to drive. Laura had her own car anyway. For a moment I thought about asking her to give me a ride home so we could talk a little bit longer but Ted was with me and I had also promised Martha that I would go home with her so she would not have to travel alone. I asked Laura if I could see her again and she agreed to meet with me tomorrow afternoon. I could have asked Ted to take Martha home but Laura was gone by the time that idea had occurred to me.

We did meet the next day. Laura had a friend from out of town visiting with her so I asked Ted to join us. The four of us met at Queen Elizabeth Park, a beautiful location for strolling that should have been conducive for inspiring witty and intelligent conversation. While we spent the afternoon together looking at the various flower gardens and talking, I sensed that some of the magic of last night had been lost and I did not know how to go about finding it again. Laura also seemed distant, as if her thoughts and attention were elsewhere. She was not asking me a lot of questions as she did last night. She was not asking me any questions. I was trying to encourage conversation by asking her questions but the art of small talk was not my strong suit. I was desperately grasping. I think she could sense my awkwardness and fumbling for things to say. By the end of late afternoon we went our separate ways but not before I promised her that I would telephone her later in the week. Laura was noncommittal in her response to me.

The following evening when I arrived home after work I found the previous day’s dishes still piled high in the sink waiting for some attention. I had assumed Ted would do them if he was not doing anything but he had been asleep. He had been asleep all day and my opening the door had awakened him. A few times Ted had mentioned he was going to find a job so he could stay in Vancouver but so far I did not think he was really interested in finding work. He had not even tried. Anyway, I was attempting to find a larger place for the two of us to live but nothing even remotely affordable was available. I was annoyed about the whole situation. Ted must have realized as much and was quick to distract me from the situation at hand.

"Have you heard from Laura?" Ted asked sleepily.

"No. Did she call here?" I asked, probably sounding desperate.

"No, the phone didn't ring all day." Ted informed me.

"How would you know? You were asleep all day." I argued.

"I would have heard it ring." Ted insisted.

"Never mind. She won't call. She doesn't have the number." I answered, realizing that Laura did not have my telephone number nor had I even thought to give it to her.

"Do you have her number?" Ted asked.

"Yeah. I do. Yesterday I promised to call her later in the week. Should I wait for later in the week? I answered, probably sounding uncertain.

“Isn’t that what you said you’d do?" Ted replied in his often rhetorical manner.

“How late is later in the week?” I wondered aloud.

“Call now. It’s already later in the week.” Ted responded, reminding me of the obvious.

“What should I do now?" I asked, but not really expecting an answer. I was facing an unfamiliar situation and had no idea about how to proceed. Ted probably had no idea either but I wanted a second opinion anyway.

"I dunno." Ted replied first, and then suggested, "Why don't you send her flowers?"

"Flowers?" I questioned. That answer had not been expected.

"That's what that guy Doug did for Martha." Ted pointed out.

Ted and I had been present when the box was delivered to Martha. I vividly remembered her reaction when she opened the box and found it filled with roses. She had been so very surprised and yet at the same time she seemed to be ecstatic.

After thinking about Ted’s suggestion I then asked, "Do you think roses are the right type of flower to send?"

"I dunno. Never thought about it before." Ted replied while he fiddled with the cigarette he was rolling.

"Neither have I, but maybe I should.” I commented somewhat absentmindedly while trying to imagine how Laura might react if I sent her roses.

"Why do you want to send her flowers?" Ted questioned.

"You just suggested it!" I exclaimed.

"That doesn't mean you should." Ted answered.

"I really don't know. I just want to thank her for being there when I needed someone at that particular moment." I said.

"She may not see things the same way." Ted commented. 

"Well she gave me a reason to believe that all was not completely hopeless." I replied pensively and, after pausing, continued, "Perhaps I will find the right person. I can’t say that I have but I can’t say that I haven’t.”

"I don't think so." Ted stated.

"What makes you say that?" I challenged and silently worried that he just may have been right.

"I dunno, but I can tell you I just don't think so, especially after yesterday afternoon's walk in that park." Ted said in his manner that indicated that he was certain about what he was telling me. He then added, "That doesn't mean you shouldn't waste the bucks on the flowers. Do it and you'll know for sure."

I thought about Ted's suggestion and his comments. Some of them made sense to me. If nothing else, I rationalized, doing something would certainly let me know where I stood in Laura's world, if anywhere.

The following morning Ted left on a camping trip to Garibaldi and I was stuck in the office. I had difficulty keeping my mind on work. Distracted, I thought more about Laura, about the past weekend, and wrestled with Ted's suggestion. By noon I decided what I was going to do. The boss's office was vacant after he left for lunch, so I sneaked in unobserved, closed the door and called the first florist I found listed in the telephone book. The last thing I wanted was for my colleagues at work to overhear what I was doing. The price quoted for delivering a dozen roses was far higher than my expectations had been but then what did I know about prices for flowers from a florist? Regardless of the price I went ahead with the plan. 

That evening I was expecting the telephone to ring and to hear a happy voice on the other end of the line. As always, the telephone was deadly silent. Not even a wrong number called as I waited through the entire evening. "Maybe the roses didn't get delivered." I dejectedly hoped.

The following morning I checked with the florist about the delivery. Yes. The roses had been delivered yesterday in the afternoon just as I had requested. I was somewhat surprised because I had been desperately hoping that perhaps the florist had overlooked a delivery.

Again during the following evening the telephone remained silent. "Ring!" I half demanded and half pleaded out loud. Silence. I wanted to pick the telephone up and call but was afraid to.

I had taken this long to realize that Laura still did not know my telephone number. Then again, she could have easily obtained my telephone number from Martha. No longer could I wait and suffer through more of this self-inflicted torture of wondering and waiting. I had to find out. Nervously I picked up the receiver and dialed the number Laura had given to me. The telephone at the other end seemed to ring quite a few times. The time may have been later than I realized.

“Hi Laura.” I greeted, trying to sound as happy and as confident as possible.

“I’m not Laura.” A man’s voice answered and then added, “Just a minute.”

I waited nervously while she came to the phone. Inwardly I was trembling timidly. My hands and forehead were wet with perspiration from anxiety.

"Hi Laura!" I greeted again, again trying to sound positive and confident.

An exceedingly long pause ensued and then she said, "I'm sorry but I’m not ready for this. Please don’t call me again."

Stunned, I said nothing and another uncomfortably long silence followed. Before I could collect my thoughts and respond, she hung up on me. She had offered no excuses, no explanations and no acknowledgement about the flowers. Just nothing. I was not ready for this either. 

Slowly I replaced the receiver, wondering if this was really the same person I had seen only last weekend. "Did I dial the right number?" I asked myself in disbelief. Yes, I had, and without a doubt. While the situation was a disheartening slap in the face it was one that I was familiar with and had lived through before. Nonetheless I felt like a failure condemned to that terrible fate of never finding the right person. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to escape and retreat to bandage my wounded pride. Kitsilano Beach was my usual place of refuge.

The entire waterfront area was deserted as far as I could determine. No one else would venture out to this place in the dark in the wee hours just past midnight but if so, it did not matter anyway. I was grateful that Ted had gone camping for a few days and wasn't around to witness what had occurred. Alone-ness was becoming my horrible and seemingly inseparable shadow.

"What went wrong?" I silently asked myself, and then followed with, "Did I miss something out somewhere?" 

Standing at the shore and listening to the little lapping waves incessantly rising and falling against the rocks, I faced the edge of what appeared to be a huge black void. It was really known as the Pacific Ocean. At night the ocean did not look very different from the sky except for the absence of stars. Inside of me were silent anger and a rage of helplessness. My thoughts and feelings were confused turmoil; desperately wanting some way to change my nature but not having any idea how to change it and yet at the same time not knowing if I really did want to change my nature. In frustration I picked up a stone and hurled it out as far as I could and listened to it splash into the water. Then I picked up another stone and did the same, and then another and another and continued until losing count of the number of stones that had been relocated. My anger subsided but the despair did not.

Choosing what appeared to be the most hospitable, I slumped down on top of one of the large rocks and listened to the ocean for a while. That may have been quite a while. Eventually I asked aloud, "God, are the most desperately urgent and pleading prayers from the desperately lonely heart of a desperately miserable young man at a desperately difficult time those that you truly want to hear?"

I heard no answer but no one else was there to hear my words as I continued talking. 

Having finished saying what I felt had to be said I remained perched upon the rock and continued listening to the sounds of the ocean. The water was ceaseless motion and, after a time, became somewhat soothing. I pulled my pipe and pouch out of a pocket and began the habitual ritual that always started with knocking the dottles and cinders from the previous burning out of the bowl. Satisfied the pipe was cleared out, I commenced stuffing the bowl with tobacco. Packed tightly enough to burn well but not too tightly to make drawing on it a chore. With the little stove well stoked I set it afire and soon had clouds of smoke heading skyward as well as every other direction the breezes would carry it.

As I remained there staring out across the water, I recalled a television documentary I had watched several years earlier about the space program. One scholarly professor interviewed said nothing about space but gave an outline of what he called "50-40-10". His idea was that fifty percent of energies and resources should be directed into simply defining what the goals are or should be. Having defined an objective, the next forty percent of energies and resources should be spent deciding upon how to reach that defined objective. Afterward, the final ten percent of energies and resources should be utilized implementing the how to achieve the what. To me the theory was common sense that could apply to almost any human endeavour and that was probably the reason I recalled his talk. Perhaps half of my problem was that I had not yet clarified in my own thoughts what any of my goals or objectives were or should have been.

During that post-midnight meditation I asked myself a lot of searching questions about why I was miserable. This embarrassing latest fiasco was not the reason but was enough of a jolt to be the catalyst that drove me to search deeper for answers. Slowly I realized that I really did not want to change my nature. That would have meant changing who I was, and while I may not have liked the manner in which my nature had conditioned me to respond, I detested any thought about trying to be someone I was not. 

Consumed by a desperate obsession of searching for the right person to share my life with, I never gave any consideration to who that person may eventually be or possibly should be. Rejections and disappointments had become so much of an obstacle that I lost sight of the possibility of actually finding her. And, if I was fortunate enough to find her, then what? I never thought to look beyond at what may have to follow afterward. 

What did I truly want? I finally knew! I wanted someone to share my life with but not with any insincere, halfhearted measures. I wanted a complete and genuine commitment like a carefully calculated high stakes risking of everything for winning an even greater reward. My commitment to love would have to be all or nothing at all and she would have to want and demand the same from me. But who was she? Where was she? So far, all I had was the nothing at all nowhere at all. 

After spending a few hours in silent reflective thinking the rock had become too uncomfortable for me to endure any more sitting. I took this signal as my time to leave and head home. I picked up one more stone and hurled it out over the water. Instead of the expected splash, I heard an unexpected clunk as the stone bounced off a floating log. As large as the ocean was, I had managed to miss it. Defiantly, I faced the ocean, raised my right arm with a clenched fist and then looked skyward. With a momentary new found determination and a defiant refusal to give up, I vowed out loud, half shouting, "Okay God. If I have to cross the Pacific Ocean to find her, I’ll do it!"

Several days later Martha asked me to stop in for dinner and a visit.

As I saw it, her situation was not all that much different from mine but she did not see her situation that way. Martha did not have anyone special in her life but she did not seem all that concerned about it either. She did not have to be. She was attractive and someone was always asking her to go out on a date.

"How's work going?" She asked, poking her head around the doorway to the kitchen.

"Work’s fine. It's outside of work that's not so good." I complained.

"Like what?" Martha asked.

"At times I don’t think I’ll ever meet the right person." I answered rather sullenly.

"What's the rush? There’s plenty of time." she assured me as she fiddled with the pot on the stove.

"That's easy for you to say. You’re not in a rush.” I remarked.

“So now you’re in a rush to meet someone?” she asked, answering my question with a question.

“No…not rush. Maybe impatient is a better word.” I said.

“Then what’s the rush?” Martha asked again. 

“I seem to have such a difficult time understanding what people are saying when they’re not saying anything even though they’re trying to say something." I remarked while I paced around at the doorway.

"What on earth are you talking about?" Martha asked.

“Nothing really.” I said meaninglessly.

“Dinner will be ready in a few more minutes. Would you like a beer? I’ve got some of those imported German beers you like." She offered. 

"Great!" I exclaimed and took a beer out of the refrigerator. I continued pacing and went on, "I mean, why can't people say what they mean?”

“Or mean what they say?” Martha interjected.

“Exactly! But I suppose I'm one of the worst offenders now that I mention it.” I continued.

"Opener’s in the drawer beside the sink.” She said while pointing.

“Thanks.” I replied habitually.

“For someone who doesn't say very much you certainly had a lot of nothing to say.” She commented.

“Really?” I asked in a tone of mock-seriousness.

“Why don't you just get to the point?" Martha remarked.

"Our society has declined to the point that we now live in an age when it’s necessary for people to explain why yes might mean no…except when no should be yes…but maybe not yes because it might not mean yes if it means no…and could also mean yes if it isn't certain the actual no was a yes that should’ve meant no in the first place. Right??" I spouted out in frustration and then quickly added, "And don't ask me to repeat it"

Dumbfounded, Martha just looked at me for a moment and then laughed. "I can't believe I just heard all that."

"I can't believe I just said it." I conceded, although I did not intend to sound so ridiculous. "Yeah, I suppose that did sound kind of mixed up. Have you received any more roses from Doug?" I asked in an attempt to change the direction of the subject.

"No. I’m not seeing him anymore." she stated flatly and then asked, pointing at the bottle I was holding, "Would you like a glass for that?"

"No?" I asked, somewhat surprised and added, "but then I haven't been over to visit your Mom for the last few weeks and I haven't heard any of the latest news items. No glass, I'll drink it out of the bottle."

"Mom doesn't know anything about Doug. I only dated him a few times so I never told Mom about him." Martha admitted.

“Is there supposed to be a meaning behind giving someone roses?" I questioned.

Martha laughed in disbelief at my question and then asked, "Are you serious?"

"I'm not sure what the real meaning is but I could make an educated guess.” I commented plainly.

"I can't believe it!" she exclaimed. "They’re a symbol of love. Roses say: I love you.”

"I can believe it.” I muttered. 

Martha's revelation surprised me and also made me aware of the wrong message I had very loudly and clearly, albeit unintentionally, conveyed to Laura.

Martha gave me a puzzled look for a moment and then asked, "Are you the one?"

"The one what?" I asked, feeling as if my foolishness had just been found out.

"The one who sent Laura the roses.” She continued.

“Who said anything about Laura?” I asked defensively.

“Well you brought up the subject of roses.” Martha reminded me.

“So?” I asked, deliberately playing dumb.

“Laura's sister told me that some guy Laura just met sent her a dozen roses. It's not that hard to put two and two together." Martha surmised.

"Yeah, I'm the idiot but I’d rather not think about it." I confessed in embarrassment and wishing I could hide.

"Why did you send roses?" Martha asked, sounding incredulous.

"She made quite an impression on me and it seemed like a good idea at the time." I replied.

“Really?” She admonished.

“To tell the truth, I didn’t know what I was doing.” I admitted.

“I can see that. Laura’s a person who loves to have a good time but with her it’s never anything more than that” Martha said.

“Well she fooled me” I commented.

“You're not the first to be smitten." Martha revealed, and then continued, "Did I ever tell you about the guy she met in Europe last summer?" 

"No" I answered, wondering what was next.

"They must have made quite an impression on each other. After she came back they wrote letters to each other for nearly six months." Martha revealed. 

"I've heard of people doing that but I've also wondered if it's real." I commented.

"You mean romance by mail?" Martha asked, maybe to confirm that we were talking about the same subject.

"Yeah, but what happened after six months?" I wondered.

"That guy immigrated to Canada! He came to Vancouver hoping to marry Laura. I don't know what happened but she turned him down." Martha stated.

"Wow! I had no idea." Was all I could muster and very surprised by this revelation.

"So she got to you too, eh?" Martha commiserated.

"Nah. Not that much." I answered, realizing that she never gave me the chance.
"You need to do more dating." Martha advised me.

"It's not my style." I retorted dismissively.

"You'll never meet anyone if you don't." she cautioned.

"You're probably right, but I always feel as if I am on display or under examination. Here! Try me! No obligation! If you’re not completely satisfied, then just return... I hate it!" I declared emphatically.

"Nonsense! You haven't done it enough to know." Martha countered.

"Enough? I've had more than enough." I guffawed.

"When was the last time you went on a date?" she asked.

"Last week... if that walk in the park counts" I answered.

"No! Before that." she said.

"Last summer." I admitted.

"When was the last time you had a steady girl friend?" she probed further.

I did not reply.

"Well?" she asked, to push the issue farther.

"About four years ago." I conceded.

"Four years! You definitely need to do more dating.” She concluded with conviction.

"No. I don't want any more frivolous nights out on the town. I want something else. I want something deeper and long lasting. I want someone I could give my life for; to live for and die for." I stated.

"You can't run before you walk." Martha quipped.

"I don't want to walk. I don't even want to run. I just want to fly!" I declared and spread my arms out like wings to emphasize my point.

"And you'll probably crash land." she said solemnly. 

"I think I just did." I said, letting my arms drop and feeling deflated after hearing her remark.

"Think about it. You really should for your own good." Martha replied with a tone of concern in her voice.

"I will." I promised, knowing that I would probably think about her advice and then ignore it anyway.

Laura was a lesson never forgotten. Yes, the wrong message was clearly conveyed but how could Laura have known? A few times I thought about calling her to try and explain my intentions but then thought otherwise. What was done was not going to be undone by a lot of difficult to express words and there was no point trying to explain my actions. Anyway, Laura's message had been clear to me, she wasn't interested. For a while I wondered if a slower more cautious approach would have made any difference in the outcome. Is the anguish of longing and doing nothing worse than the despair of reaching out and being rebuffed and rejected? No, because the anguish is the same. But who cares? I should have sent the roses anonymously to Karen McLennan.

Ted finally returned from his camping trip and announced that he had enough of Vancouver and British Columbia. Ted had made up his mind to return home to Montreal. For a while he had talked about finding a job and staying in Vancouver. I liked the idea but soon realized that for Ted staying was nothing more than an idea. He had been enjoying a long vacation and was never really interested in finding employment and living in Vancouver. While Ted was definitely not the easiest person to share living quarters with I was very disappointed he was leaving.

When the call came, passengers started filing through the gate and down the stairs to the train. I said good-bye to Ted and he too disappeared down the stairs. I remained to witness the departure of "The Canadian" as it began another 2889-mile journey eastward to Montreal. I envied Ted because he was taking the train trip across Canada that I wished I could take. Ted was going home to Quebec and I was going back to work tomorrow morning. The stainless steel streamliner quickly vanished and I walked home via the Burrard Bridge. I finally realized that Quebec was not the wrong end of the rainbow but the far end of the rainbow. My real home felt so very far away.

Slouching down in the chair in front of the desk I stared at the backs of the music books. I picked up the CP Rail timetable that was still parked beside the pipe tin. Looking at the time table and checking my watch I mentally noted that Ted would be east of Mission City if the train was keeping reasonably close to the schedule. Tossing it back beside the tin, I did not feel like looking at the timetable either. Listening to a recording of Beethoven's third Rasumovsky string quartet, the mournful, almost painful strains of the second movement accurately reflected my feelings while I stared up at the ceiling. For a few weeks Ted's presence had stifled the silence, but now, as before, the silence was again stifling. I wished that Ted had stayed longer but he was gone and I was alone again. My interrupted unimportant routines would return to normal, the usual normal drudgery. The return to silence was depressing. Sleep would be a welcome relief when it came to end the day. 

Always I have dismissed dreams as nothing more than meaningless nonsense and that was if I could even remember them.

One specific, haunting dream I did remember because it was so very different from anything that I could recall having ever dreamed about before. Fragments were so vivid and startlingly too real that I was unable to put the visions out of my thoughts. I had dreamed that I was married. That in itself was not so unusual; however the lady I had married was Chinese. I saw her face. She had an Asian-shaped face, beautiful dark brown Asian eyes and Chinese black hair. No doubt in my mind; she was definitely Chinese. She was also very beautiful and told me that she loved me.

Startled, I awoke yet wished I had not. That dream was disturbing and confusing yet at the same time was strangely encouraging. Awake or in a dream, no woman had ever told me that she loved me.

Never before had I ever thought it possible that the person of my heart's desires may be of another nationality. I contemplated and prayed about that possibility over the next few days. Perhaps those hours had altered my perspectives. Anyway I tried to keep an open mind and at the same time dismissed the probability of that possibility as not likely to ever happen.

If I could not understand the opposite sex of my own kind, how could I possibly fare any better with the opposite sex of another race? If I was a failure when it came to meeting women from my own nationality, how could there be any possibility of meeting a woman from any other culture?

Crossing those barriers was just too far-fetched a notion to ever occur but the few scenes I could recall from that dream had seemed hauntingly too real and too detailed. 

"Who was you? Where was you?" I wondered in confusion.

Several days had passed and I was still unable to dismiss the images that haunted me, images that I wondered if the future could bring. As I sat and stared at the backs of the music books on my desk, I asked, “God, is this really possible?”

To settle the matter and find peace, I decided to visit Chinatown. I did not know anyone Chinese and I did not know anything about the Chinese. If nothing else, a visit would allow me a closer look at Chinese people.

My first visit was at a small shop that sold Chinese foodstuffs. Most of the fruits and vegetables I had never seen before and so very little in the shop was even vaguely familiar. A few patrons were talking in Chinese to the owner as if he was an old friend. He probably was. I felt so very obviously and visibly out of place. Of course. I was. After a few more uncomfortable moments of looking around I left the store. 

Undeterred, I decided to try a visit to one more store, a book store. Ninety-nine percent of the materials were written in Chinese script. I wandered around, pausing to look at a book here and there trying not to look out of place. Who was I fooling? 

Eventually an elderly lady came over to me and asked me if she could help me. She did not seem to speak very much English but had no difficulty understanding me. Totally confused and feeling very awkward in definitely the wrong place, I asked her if there were any music books. Much to my surprise there were and she showed me a full display. I picked one off the shelf and opened it up. The musical writing was very similar to a Schirmer or Peters publication. I took a few more music books from the shelf and purchased them even though I had no idea what the Chinese titles meant. I paid for my purchases and quickly left the store and Chinatown. 

Without even leaving the country I had just experienced my first taste of east-west culture shock. That little expression I sometimes heard but gave no thought to jumped to mind. "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet." Did someone tell this to Christopher Columbus when he put forward the theory that the earth was round? Or when he set sail? Or was this expression translated from Chinese? Or did someone else arrive at this conclusion after a visit to Chinatown somewhere? The origin did not matter because there was absolutely no possible way that I would ever have a Chinese wife. Dreams are definitely the stuff nonsense is made from.

The Oddblock Station Agent