by Wayne Curtis
I hear the
train whistle somewhere beyond the town, beyond the river. On
this snowy night of early winter forty-odd years later, there is
something still haunting in it. The Ocean Limited, which travels
through Newcastle on its way from Halifax to Montreal, is a
valuable piece of heritage that struggles now to keep its
existence, like so many other remnants from my boyhood.
I wait beneath the big awning at the train station. The two or three of us who always gather here, just to watch the train come and go, stand some distance apart, as if in a strange and poignant spell. We observe the steel giant as it labours slowly towards us; its brakes hiss and grind and the endless beams of headlamps exaggerate the storm's intensity. Little bells ring, speakers blat; a computerized voice announces destinations beyond. The people huddle and greet friends. Many are students with bright coloured duffel bags and university-crested jackets.
Then the train is gone in a lingering haze of burnt diesel oil, the red lamp at its rear eventually disappearing into the storm. Cars spin onto the street and hurry away, and like spirits of the night, the rest of us wander off in different directions.
I walk further into the town. Old buildings crowd against the otherwise vacant street, empty now as a toy warehouse on Christmas Eve. Their silence is broken only by the outside telephone of a twisted taxi stand.
I pass a store window, which displays reclining chairs and beds and think of a time when I was ten and father operated a furniture store down on Castle Street. He and one of the mattress salesmen, Stewart, took my older brother Todd and me to Montreal on the train to see the Canadiens play the Leafs.
In preparation for the long voyage, they had liquor in shopping bags and sandwiches and soft drinks for Todd and me. I remember Father's words that night as we stood on the plank platform waiting for the train, "Now boys," he told us, "what happens in Montreal stays in Montreal." He cuffed me around the ears. "Don't you lads bring home no stories."
The train ride, the big city and indeed a live hockey game would be all new to Todd and me. We sat high behind the tinted glass and gazed upon our town as it slipped into the distance, its lights hazy in the snow that melted and streamed down the glass and made the spruces along the tracks look like giant bells. Further into the night the dying lights of old farmhouses reflected off the slopes along the tracks.
"By Christ! That Mahovlich can take 'er up the ice when no one else can!" Father winked at me and dealt cards, a cigarette unattended in the side of his mouth. "Yessir! Tak'er up the ice!"
He said this for my benefit. We were Toronto fans then, and Frank Mahovlich, number twenty-seven of the Leafs, was my hero. "The Big M" we called him. (Years later, we became Detroit fans when Frank was traded to the Red Wings by Punch Imlach for three players, and later still Canadiens fans because of yet another deal.) Todd was always loyal to the Montreal Canadiens.
"Provost will keep him out of the play." Stewart read his hand. "Twenty-five, all or nothing," he sipped from a styrofoam cup, "on diamonds!"
"But he can't catch the Big M, eh Joey?" Father slapped down the five of diamonds, rocking the cardboard photograph of Peggy's Cove they had taken from the end of the coach to use for a card table. "Yer out Stewie!"
"So how many's he got Dave?" Stewart asked as he gathered the cards, tapping them square to shuffle. "How many goals has 'e got?"
"Thirty-five, thirty-six. Did he score Wednesday night in New York Joey?"
"No, just three assists," I say, pleased that the adults have brought me into the discussion.
As the train moved on in the night, it rocked and swayed. Brakes ground to a halt, drinks spilled and doors slammed with their cold gusts of frosty air each time we stopped in a town. Toward morning, more and more people were speaking only French.
"Bonjour! ...Salut, mon ami!" Meanwhile our card game went on, as did our arguing about hockey and prices of bedding, deliveries and warranties.
As Todd and I sat facing each other, trying to fall asleep, I imagined what the big city and the Montreal Forum would be like. I had seen the Forum only on our snowy twenty-one inch Marconi TV in black and white. Would I hear the voice of Danny Gallivan, "Good evening hockey fans in Canada and the United States . . .?" I recalled the oval Esso signs, the mileage tips from the uniformed Murray Westgate, the interviews - Ward Cornell with coaches Toe Blake and Punch Imlach. It seemed almost impossible that we were going to the place we had seen so often on "Hockey Night in Canada." We were already different people - more sophisticated than when we played on the river ice, two on a side, the heel of a rubber boot for a puck, a kinked alder for a hockey stick, wearing the skates father had bought for us at Dalton's second-hand store on the wharf in Newcastle. I see Todd now, standing off to the side, holding a stick and calling the play by play, "It's big Beliveau over to Richard, a two on one breakaway! Back to Beliveau! To Richard! He shoots! He scores!" Even on the river ice, we could hear Danny Gallivan, the voice of the Canadiens - the fans, the organ; we felt the intensity.
We dozed in our seats; the distorted train sounds off in the distance. Even the fiddling and singing by a group from Cape Breton that partied at the far end of the coach seemed distant as I woke from a light sleep long enough to read the town names at each stop: Joliette, Levis, Trois-Rivieres.
"Je cherche une femme aux yeux bleus avec des beaux grands cheveux blonds j'la prendrai dans mes bras et je lui dirais tout bas je cherche une."
The card game continued without us. They pounded the table, whooped and hollered declarations, and "thirty-for-sixty-all-or-nothing" throughout the night.
In the cold early morning, the train slowed and we could see Montreal in the distance, giant cubes and spires of grey concrete and glass rising out of the flats across the St. Lawrence, a cross on the mountain beyond. The snow fell lightly now, and I couldn't take my eyes from the view. The train crawled across the bridge and under the city, beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Then we were standing and being pushed off the train by the crowd, half-running along the miles of cement and marble, amid exotic smells and intriguing sounds.
"Eh maudit qu'il fait fraite!"
"Oui! En bapteme! D'ou viens-tu?"
A man from Bathurst in conversation with one of the trainmen, is suddenly someone from down home.
We followed Father and Stewart, slipping along the snowy sidewalks of Saint Catherine Street to explore the city. We returned to the Queen Elizabeth and the station, not wanting to stray too far from our point of departure. We hung out there, mostly in restaurants, drinking colas, eating hamburgers and french fries. Father and Stewart drank coffee upon coffee to kill the time. And we frequented the steel and porcelain public washrooms. Todd and I were fascinated with the coloured television sets in gift shops and on display in the hotel lobby.
In the early evening Father and Stewart went down the hall, into a bar. Todd and I sat watching Animal Kingdom on the coloured TV that featured a documentary about wolves in Canada's North.
I wanted to change into clean clothes before the game so I headed down the corridor to search for a men's room. A door had Toiletry written on it, so I went in. Inside it was more like a store with cartons of soap, floor polishes and tissues. There was a urinal and a boxed-in toilet in the far corner.
"You're not supposed to be in here kid!" A big man wearing green work clothes was staring down at me. I had seen him somewhere before that day. Tall, red-faced with a brush cut, he was very close to me and his breath smelled like lemon extract.
"Oh, I'm sorry sir, I didn't..."
"Lookin' to steal somethin' were you? Caught ya in here looking to steal. I'll have to turn you over to security!"
"No, please! I don't want anything. Look, I'm leaving. I was just looking for a place to change my clothes."
"To change? No, ya was stealin'!"
"No! To change . . . my pants and shirt . . . before the game . . . Honest!" I was frightened now.
"It's not that easy, kid. If I let you go, they could have my job if they found out you was in here and I didn't say nothin'."
"But I didn't know, I won't say anything if you . . . "
"I don't know who you are. How can I trust you,"
"I'm Joey McCall. You can trust me."
"Look kid, here's what we'll do. You just go ahead and change. If someone comes, I'll cover for you. I'll just say you was with me, kinda helpin' me. Go ahead now and change, quick."
"Thank you sir, but it's okay. I just wanna go. I didn't know. I don't need to change anyway."
"Don't need to change? Then you lied! Now if the security people see you leavin' here and they know I saw you, and you was stealin' and lyin' and I didn't say nothin' we both could be . . ."
"What can I do?" My head was aching now, my face burning.
"Go ahead and change is the best thing. Like I said, I'll cover you."
"Okay, okay, I'll change." I hurried into the stall and bolted the door.
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