The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 11

Chapter 11: Crossing Over

Note: this is the last instalment. I’ll leave it up for a week to give you a chance to catch up, after that all of the chapters are going back offline.

“Here goes!” Martin pushed as hard as he could but the dory would not budge. He once again but his effort had no effect whatsoever. A small crust of ice had formed all around where the dory rested on the wharf, sticking it fast to the timbers.

 “Here, let me give you a hand with that,” said Richard.

Martin stopped pushing on the dory and turned to see his friend walking out the road toward him.

“Thanks. What brings you out the road today?”

“This. Figured you would be anxious to get her back in the water now that you’re on the mend.”

“I appreciate that very much but shouldn’t you be over there?” Martin asked, pointing to the government wharf. “The steamer is due in soon.”

“I’ll go there d’rec’ly. But I figure I’ve got three quarters of an hour before she’s in,” said Richard, pointing out across the bay. “Look, she’s only just coming into view now.”

“I’ve been trying to push it off the wharf but it’s stuck fast.”

Martin stood on one side of the dory, about halfway along its length. “Doesn’t surprise me at all. First of all you’ve got to try and get it unstuck. You get over on the other side.”

Martin stood on the opposite side to Richard. “Now what?”

Richard grabbed the gunwale and began trying to rock the dory.  Nothing happened, “You do the same but be gentle. We don’t want to rip any boards on the dory or on the wharf.”

After five or six attempts the dory broke loose and began rocking. “Alright. Now we’re almost ready to launch her.”

Martin started pushing with all of his might, “It’s still stuck.”

“I allow it is, there on the dry boards. My son, one of these days you’ll get a clue I suppose. You have to find ways to make it easy on yourself. Like this.” 

Richard grabbed a bucket from beside the wharf and filled it with salt water. He emptied it over the top of the wharf. He repeated this several times until the top of the wharf was thoroughly saturated. “Now try.”

Martin gave a push and the dory started to move along the wharf. Richard joined in. “Slow down, Martin. We don’t want to push her right across the harbour.”

When the dory was almost halfway out, Richard said, “Stop. Now grab the painter.”

Martin did as he was told and Richard gave one final shove. The dory splashed into the water and began moving forward. “Keep a firm grip,” he ordered and Martin let the line out with just the right amount of tension to bring the little vessel to a stop it reached the end of the rope.

“There we go. All ready for you again. She might take on a little extra water for the next day or so because the wood is all dried out. That will take care of itself, though and she’ll tighten up again in no time.”

“Thanks!” said Martin. “Some morning, isn’t it.” 

“It is that for sure,” said Richard as he started walking up the path. “I’m heading back over. Probably see you on the wharf in a little while.”

Martin took a long look around. The day was clear, bright and cold. The easterly wind had brought with it the threat, as of yet unrealized, of snow. But the day was still young. Things would clear up. He was sure of that.

The steamer was just coming into view around the point and about to make the turn that would carry it in through the harbour. He judged that he had about a half hour before it would be tied up and ready to receive passengers. That was time enough to get done what he needed to do before bidding Anna good-bye. 

He needed to get over to the other side of the harbour. Martin looked at the dory, now bobbing gently by the wharf. I wonder if I’m strong enough to row across, Martin wondered. It only feels like a day or so but it’s been three weeks and I’m stiff from lying in bed for too long.

He turned to the road, watching Richard make his way along and wondered if he should take the slower, but safer, course of action and just walk over. One way to find out, he muttered, jumping aboard and bringing up the oars. He pulled as hard as he could on the port side and brought the bow of the dory right in line with the Government wharf.

With smooth, practiced, even strokes he began the crossing.

———

His thoughts turned inward, as they always did when he rowed.

But there was no journey back to the war. Not this time. Maybe not ever. He did travel, but not back to those fateful years spent in France. Instead, they flew ahead, to the future.

He contemplated the remaining months he had in the school year and imagined conversations he would have with his students, projects he would help them with. He was particularly excited at the notion of finally breaking out that science equipment that had lain unused for far too long.

He planned ahead for how he would handle the night school. His time in France had left him with some experience with teaching adults and he was truly looking forward to using this new venture to make his own contribution to this place which seemed to have adopted him.

He imagined himself skating, perhaps even playing some ice hockey. Surely it was not that much different from hurley!

And, of course, his thoughts circled back to what lay in store for Anna. He could see it all so very clear—the eager, skilled, principled and, above all, kind, new master teacher out there where she belonged, marking her own mark in the best possible way she could: preparing a whole new generation of teachers for what lay in store.

———

Without even needing to look, he brought the dory in to his berth at the side of the government wharf and hopped ashore. Richard, who had arrived ahead of him, was already hauling boxes out of the shed and stacking them in a neat pile at the end of the wharf, no doubt mail and other things that had to be shipped via the steamer. There was no time to wait. Richard would have to find out the news from Ellen.

Martin hurried up the path and took a few moments to try and catch his breath before knocking on the door. He’d not realized until that moment just how much the effort of crossing over had taken from him. Still, the joy of realizing he had done it far outweighed the pain he felt in his chest. That would pass.

He turned towards the door but it opened before he had the chance to knock.

“I saw you, all red faced and puffing, coming up the path,” Ellen, said putting a gentle hand on his shoulder, “You certainly seem all of a fluster this fine winter’s morning.”

“Well, the steamer is almost in and I…” 

“Over to bid her goodbye are you?”

“Well , yes but first I…”

“Shouldn’t you be down at the wharf?”

“I have some good news for you.”

Ellen took a step back from the doorway, “Come inside and we can chat about it over a cup of tea.”

“If there’s time.”

Martin sat at the table, facing the window, keeping an eye on the steamer now almost level the lighthouse. Ellen poured two cups of tea.

“So what’s all the news?”

Still breathless, Martin reached into his breast pocket and retrieved one of the two envelopes from the previous day. He passed it to Ellen. “Have a read.”

She removed the single typewritten sheet from the envelope and  scanned it. Her eyes opened wide, and she sat down, and slowly re-read it letter. “A scholarship? How, on earth, did you…”

A flood of joy ran through Martin as he started to speak. “Believe it or not some good is able to come from that time I spent in the war. My old regiment has a scholarship fund so I wrote away and inquired whether Pat might be able to make use of it. Normally it’s just for immediate family of veterans but the board decided that this was a unique case and, they made an exception.”

“It says it’s for four years, or even more, depending on her performance,” said Ellen.

“Yes, and all you have to do is get her to Dublin. Everything else is taken care of.”

“Did you say anything to Richard?”

“No, he was face and eyes into it down at the wharf and, besides, I thought that it would be best to take this to you first and let you deal with it. I know it’s a lot to consider but give it some thought.”

“Oh, this is wonderful news. It’s just that, you know, being a mother and all, I’m not too keen on the thought of sending my baby so far away from home.”

“I know,” replied Martin, “but not all trips away have to be bad ones. See, even some good was able to come from the one I took back in ‘fifteen.”

Ellen gave Martin a knowing smile. “Thank you. This is such an unexpected and precious gift. I will tell Richard later on when he finishes up. Pat will be home this this Friday or Saturday after school and we can tell her then. I am sure she will be more than thrilled.”

“She’s still in Ansauvage?”

“Well yes, where else? She needs to be in school.”

“But I’m back now.”

“Martin, who says you’re ready? You’ve been laid up for the past three weeks.”

“I’m fine and the idea of just lying around the house is not something I relish.”

“So when are you going back to work?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Oh, I see.”

“You certainly will. You’ll see me tomorrow. Spread the word.”

The steamer was almost at the wharf. “I have to go. Thanks for the tea,” he said, gulping down the last of it.

“See you tomorrow.”

By the time Martin got to the top of the path that led to the wharf Richard was tying the steamer up. Its presence had garnered considerable attention. Judging by the crowd that had gathered on the wharf, Anna would not be the only passenger who would be embarking this morning.

“Big crowd today,” he shouted over to Richard.

Richard gave him a funny look, “Always is. You mean this is the first time you’ve noticed?”

Martin laughed, “I suppose. It seems I’ve been wearing blinders since I got here. I’m trying hard to rid myself of them.”

“Always more interesting when you keep your eyes and ears open,” Richard replied, before getting back to his work.

Martin looked around for Anna. As expected, he found her right by the edge of the wharf, suitcases laid at her feet. Mr. and Mrs. Deasy were standing at her side. 

When she saw Martin coming she walked over and met him halfway across the wharf.

“I saw your dory and knew you were around somewhere.”

“I needed to speak to Ellen about Pat.”

Anna looked at him with a concerned expression and Martin added, “Oh, no it’s nothing bad.” He went on to tell her about the scholarship.

“That’s wonderful! I am sure she will be thrilled. This is the perfect opportunity for her!”

Martin nodded. He looked at his feet, wondering what next to say.

“I suppose this is it,” she said. “There’s no turning back now.”

Martin thought of his own journey away from the quay, so many years ago. He’d had the same thoughts as well.

“But this time it’s different.” he blurted out.

Anna raised one eyebrow at the outburst, “How so?”

“When I went away to the war it wasn’t fully my choice. I was caught up in something bigger than me and I left because I thought I had to. I was wrong.”

Anna smiled, “That sounds exactly like the case for me, but in reverse. Staying here was the choice I thought I had to make.”

Martin nodded.

“And I, too was wrong,” Anna added.

“Just like coming here was the right choice for me.”

Anna smiled. She put her arms around Martin and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you Martin,” she whispered. “I am so grateful for all you’ve given me.”

“And I love you too and am also so very indebted to you for all you have done. I will miss you.”

“Oh, silly, you’ll be far too busy for that,” she said, whacking him across the shoulder.

“Look who’s talking. I’ll give you until the summer. By then you’ll be running that place in there.”

Anna raised both eyebrows, tilted her head and said, “Who says I’ll stop with town?”

“Oh, one more thing I want to tell you before you go,” he said, retrieving the remaining envelope from his breast pocket. “A few weeks back I wrote to Sean. It was the first time I’d contacted him in years and I wasn’t sure how he’d respond.” He held out his hand, showing the letter, “This came while I was…”

“…out of it,” she finished. She took the letter from his outstretched hand and scanned it. “Martin, this is good news. You’re an uncle and I’d say he, too, wants to be family again.”

“Yes, like your father always says, ‘Everything happens in its own time’ and I have lots of that.”

“Time to write me a few lines every now and then as well, I hope.”

“Of course. I imagine we will both have lots to say.”

Through the corner of his eye, Martin spied Ellen, talking with Richard over by the office. She had Martin’s letter in her hand. Seeing him looking over, Richard looked back, smiled and nodded.

They walked back to where Anna’s parents were standing. They both kissed her goodbye. Anna grabbed the two suitcases and walked up the gangplank. When she reached the top she turned and waved before going inside.

Richard untied the ropes and the steamer began to pull away from the wharf. Mr. Deasy motioned to Martin to come and stand beside them.

Barrrroooommmm!

The steamer’s whistle boomed through the harbour, its sound amplified by the echo from the many surrounding hills. The children at the wharf jumped and put their hands to their ears.

Martin stood calmly, watching Richard and Ellen, now  in the motor boat, also pull away from the wharf, following just in back of its wake. He watched as the two boats headed out through the harbour and across the bay. When they reached the open water the steamer turned towards the south, heading for its next stop on its route. The motorboat continued on straight across the bay, towards Ansauvage.

Pat will be in my class tomorrow as well, Martin thought. I had better spend the rest of the day getting ready for class.

Mrs. Deasy put her arms around Martin’s waist and together, the three of them stood and watched both vessels sail away.

Martin found himself humming a song, and, without even thinking, the first bar of Pack Up Your Troubles escaped his lips, “Mm mm mm mm-mm mm-mm mm mmm-mmm mm mmmm mmmm mmmm.”

From out of nowhere, Mrs. Deasy’s voice joined in, “where the sun don’t shine.”

And then the Mr. Deasy joined her, “and quicker than a bloody wink my arse I’ll haul to a place I know that’s mine.”

Laughing, Martin joined in chorus, and all three of them strained their voices, singing, “My dory and my jigger, garden, the woods and the sea. Won’t be much longer now I figure ‘til homeward bound I’ll be.”

“Vince wrote lots of letters home,” Mr. Deasy said to Martin, “you’d be interested to learn the things he told us.”

The steamer blew its horn one more time, just before it rounded the point and headed south, continuing its run. Martin piped up with the last two verses. The Deasy’s looked at Martin, then at each other and shrugged. As he continued singing the words, committed at last solidly to memory it dawned on him that not only did he still have much to learn but, just as importantly, he had a few stories of his own.

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The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 10

Chapter 10: Awakening

At first, he drifted in and out of sleep. There was plenty of wood and he reasoned it would stay lit for at least several hours. When it died down, the cold would awaken him and he would add to the wood. 

The dreams carried him here and there.

He was back in Ireland, before the war, back to a time when he and Sean still acted as family. It was spring and the leaves were finally growing on the trees, providing shelter from the rain that fell onto the busy streets. Together, they travelled to the university, “We’re both almost finished,” said Martin. “Soon we will have the good jobs we have worked so hard to deserve.”

After class they played hurley on the field just in back. And there was always the rowing. Day by day they rowed the Liffey, one oar each, their backs straining. There was always the next big race, but each one knew he could depend on the other, no matter what.

“As a solicitor there is a lot I could do,” said Sean. “Maybe I will run for office. There’s a lot I would change, given the chance.” 

“That’s not for me,” said Martin. “I want to write.”

“About what?”

“Oh, about life. All of it!” replied Martin, quaffing the last of his pint. 

Sometimes they even took the stage and, together, sang the songs they’d learned from their parents. 

“Not those old war songs though,” their parents kept insisting. “It’s time for us all to come together, not to fight amongst ourselves.”

But they sang them anyway. They were young. What odds!

It became hot. A fire appeared between them. Where did that come from? Neither of them had lit it. As it grew larger and larger, each began blaming the other for starting it. Their voices grew to a shout as the flames grew higher and higher. Finally, neither could see the other anymore through the smoke and fire. Still they kept shouting across the ever-growing maelstrom, the noise getting so loud that neither was capable of hearing the other. Not anymore.

“Martin!”

The flames disappeared and he was on board a liner. The waters were choppy and the vessel pitched and rolled as each passing wave threaten to toss all on board into the cold, unforgiving ocean. 

“Why did you do that?” came the voices of his parents, over and over.

Martin tried to stand, to face the stern of the boat and to call out to them, no doubt standing arm in arm on the wharf. He couldn’t. He was held back by the force of some unseen hand. He tried to break free, turning this way and that, but it was no use. That which held him was much more powerful than he.

He gave up and let the engine, the wind, and the waves just carry him along.

And carry him they did; across the channel, along the rails and through the fields of France, to the trenches, to where he’d met Vince.

“Martin!”

It was Vince. He was standing at Mr. Deasy’s wharf and beckoning for him to come and join him. Martin ran to him and embraced him, crying, “I’m so very sorry.”

But Vince just smiled, “Don’t be. I made my choices. Now you have to make yours.”

“Join me,” he said and together they rowed over to the flat Island, laced up their skates and stepped out onto the pond. 

“Let me show you how to stop, first,” said Vince, turning his skates sideways, shifting his weight backwards and shooting up a cloud of snow before him. “Just like this! It’s easy.  You just have to know when it’s time.”

They each took a hockey stick and Vince dropped a puck on the ice. Together they played a game of one-on-one. 

“You’ve come a long way,” said Vince, as Martin skated effortlessly around the pond, stickhandling like a pro, then came to a sudden stop in front of the net before shooting the puck right through Vince’s legs.

“I’ve had a lot of help,” laughed Martin.

“Well then, I guess it’s time for me to go then,” said Vince, jumping into the dory and rowing away, over the ice and flying just above the trees beyond.

“Wait,” shouted Martin, “What were the last two verses of the song you used to sing back in France?”

Over the cry of the wind boomed Vince’s powerful voice as he sang the words that Martin immediately recognized from so many years before, “You can take Fritzy’s guns and bombs and shove them all…”

“No, not that one, the other one?”

“What other one?”

“The one you sang on the night before…before…”

“Before I died? Oh, I’m surprised you remember that one because I only sung it that one time. It went like this:”

And over the wind, Vince’s voice boomed:

Until that happens I’ll be keeping up my end
but I’m not in this alone.
I’m surrounded by this motley bunch that I call friends,
the finest crew I’ve known.

As for what is there before you,
nobody knows just what’s in store.
But if you work in concert with this fine crew
we’ll see vic-to-ry for sure.

“Martin!”

It was Anna. They were at the hall and she was looking at him with concern. Everyone was there, and all were, it seemed at first, looking at him. No, they were looking at someone else, too.

“What shall we do with them?” the voices were all saying.

“I’ll be alright,” he replied. “I have lots of help.”

He stood up, walked out the door and entered his office back in Dublin. The war was not yet over but his fighting days were. “Your lungs are scarred for life,” the doctors had told him, “You’re lucky to be alive at all. You are not going back to the front. Not ever. Here, mind this desk.”

Martin did as he was ordered. He crouched by the desk, hand on the trigger of the Vickers, and waited for the enemy. 

They never came. Only shadows—friend or foe, he was never sure but he stayed at the ready. It was his duty now.

Then the war ended. “The desk is fine now,” they told him, “Off you go. On your way.”

Martin drifted from place to place, spending a little time at each, and always guarding the desk. But the money and the promotions never came, and the desks never changed.

He waved goodbye to his parents as they sailed away forever. They did not want to go but they too were in the grip of a force much greater than they were. Sean was there as well but the fire still burned between them and the voices still could not carry over it.

“Martin!”

Richard called to him from the forest and Martin helped him carry out the firewood wood. “You’re doing a lot better now than when you came, still you still have a lot to learn,” he said, watching Martin try to fillet the fish he’d just caught. “Perhaps next year you’ll even be fit to take hunting,” he added, laughing.

“Yes, but first we’ll do a bit of reading together,” he replied, holding up a book he’d brought along.

“We’d all like it if you’d show us to read as well,” said the voices from just downstairs as, one by one, they came to visit. “How’s he doing?” they chanted before leaving.

And in the silence they left behind Martin rowed slowly around and around the harbour. 

Sometimes the sun would be out, warming his heart, lightening the weight of the oars. Other times wind and rain stirred the water, dampening his spirits. From time to time he rowed by the light of the moon, its pale glow, barely hiding the ghosts of those he’d lost, observing from just beyond the meadows and gardens that lined the edges of this little haven of humanity; this sacred space that all seemed so bent on hanging on to. 

The light faded and then there was complete darkness. He rowed blind, guided only by the ripple of the tide and the sound of the boats squeaking against their wharves.

“Martin!”

He stopped rowing, feeling his heart race. Where was that voice coming from? He could not make out anyone in the darkness.

“Martin!” the voice called again. It was Ellen.

The dory vanished. He was warm and comfortable, in bed. He opened his eyes to find Ellen sitting in a rocking chair just at the foot of the bed. He looked around. All four walls were papered with white flowers, with green leaves and gold-coloured stems, all set on a black background. 

Where had he seen that paper before? The sight of it calmed him, reminding him of when he had arrived and, for the first time in so many years, felt hope and a sense of belonging. He was not at home but this place was so familiar. He racked his brain trying to recall where he had seen it before. Then it dawned on him. He was in Pat’s room.

He tried to stir but found it difficult, even painful.

“Don’t move too fast,” Ellen said, “You’ve been laid up for a long time.”

 “What am I doing here?” he asked.

“Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“You almost died.”

Martin tried to recall how he got there. The flat island. The dory. Something about skating, perhaps? Yes, that was it. The snow squall. “The last thing I remember was lighting a fire and waiting for daylight.”

“We brought you to our house shortly after we found you. You’ve been here ever since. You’ve mostly been asleep but every now and then you’d wake up and we’d get a bit of food in you but the talk and such you were getting on with made no sense. And that cough. It was awful.”

“I had my all lungs scarred up in the war. I was gassed.”

“I figured something was up with all that hacking and barking you’d do from time to time,” she said, “but I didn’t want to ask. You didn’t seem to want to talk much about your past.”

“The past is gone,” escaped his lips, involuntarily, as if he’d been rehearsing it the past few weeks. “How long have I been here?”

Ellen hesitated before answering, “Three weeks.”

“I’ll get Richard,” she said. “I’ll be right back. Don’t try to get up.”

She padded downstairs and Martin heard the door opening and closing. Get up? Martin doubted he could. He could barely move. He was sore all over and strangely tired. Just what had happened, and why was he here?

The door opened and soon Martin heard several voices talking downstairs. Shortly afterward, Richard and Ellen came into his room. Ellen resumed her place in the rocking chair, and Richard sat at the end of the bed.

“How did I get here?” Martin asked.

“Don’t you recall what happened?” asked Richard.

“Some of it. There was a sudden storm. We barely made it back to the flat island. I made a shelter and lit a fire. That’s all.”

“We became worried when Pat didn’t get back before dark,” Ellen said, “Not that it was completely unusual as sometimes it happens. But when it was time for the concert, and she still wasn’t here we knew something was up. We went over to the hall to see if she’d gone directly there but found out she hadn’t. Some of the people said that she’d gone fishing after skating with them, so we became concerned for her safety.”

Nobody missed me, Martin thought. I really do need to be less of a loner around here.

Ellen continued, “We organized a search party but it wasn’t very hard to find you. The first thing we came across was the motor boat, empty and adrift. It was out of fuel. From there we could see a huge fire lighting up the sky over the flat Island so we all went there right away. When we arrived we found the two of you in a shelter, both of you near death.”

“Good thing we arrived when we did,” Richard interjected, “The fire had caught to your load of wood. What a bonfire you had going! It would have likely burned the whole island if we’d not been there to put it out.”

“Yes, but without the fire we might not have found you in time,” said Ellen. “We put you both in a motor boat and went first to the hall, because we knew it was warm there. After that, we brought you back here and you’ve been here in the bed ever since”

“Pat?” Martin asked.

Ellen looked at Richard. Both looked down. 

In the silence, Martin’s heart began racing.

Ellen started slowly, “Pat’s gone…”

Martin closed his eyes, “Another lost friend,” was all he could think.

Ellen continued, “She left for Ansauvage to continue her schooling. With you here sick in bed for the past three weeks there’s been nobody to take your place. We were going to put you in one of the spare bedrooms but Pat insisted you stay here because this room is warmer. With all that coughing and hacking you’ve been doing we weren’t sure you’d ever some out of it.”

A wave of relief spread over Martin.

“That’s enough for now,” said Ellen. “Let me get you some soup.”

She went downstairs and, shortly after, reappeared with a small bowl. Martin sat up in the bed and drank it. He put it down on the chair next to the bed. “Got any tea?” he asked.

Richard smiled, “Tea? You must be coming around. Let me get it. Extra lassy today.”

He came back up with the cup and Martin sipped away at it.

When he was done Ellen said, “Now go rest a bit more. Let’s see if we can get you up out of bed tomorrow.”

The next morning, when Martin awoke, he felt much stronger. He washed up, dressed using the clothes that had been left out for him, and went downstairs. “Mm, toutons! I haven’t had them since you made them way back in August.”

“I made them just for you.” replied Ellen. “You have to get your strength back.”

Martin took up several and sat at the table. “These just might be my favourite food. If I could have them every morning before school I’d probably be a better teacher.”

He turned to Ellen, “What day is it? Should I be at school?”

She laughed, “It’s January the ninth and it’s a Saturday so, no, you don’t have to be in school today.”

“And neither do I,” she added.

Martin looked at her quizzically? “You? At school?”

“Yes, I’m your new colleague. I just started full time last Monday. And I might say it was pretty quiet with nobody in the next room. I will be happy when you are strong enough come back.”

“Then Anna…”

“…is leaving for town tomorrow,” Ellen finished.

“So she’s taking the job?”

“Yes, as far as I am concerned there was never any doubt,” said Ellen. “That new position is just perfect for her and she’s paid her dues here to this community. It’s time for Anna to cross over and see what’s next for her.”

“It’s just that I…” began Martin.

“Oh you don’t have to explain it to me. I know how it is between the two of you. She’s brought you to the point where you’re now an excellent teacher for our students and you, in turn, helped her to find the strength and courage to do what she must.”

Martin nodded, “But I’ll still miss her. I have to say goodbye before she leaves.”

“Well you missed your chance to do it in style,” Ellen responded.

“What do you mean?”

“Just last night we had a farewell party for her up at the hall. Almost everyone from the community was there and we all had a grand time. It pretty much made up for the concert you and Pat went and ruined on us just before Christmas!” she said, smiling all the while.

“I bet it was the only time she ever attended here that she didn’t organize herself!” said Martin. “I suppose the rest of us will have to step up now.”

“That we will!” Ellen assured him. “She’s taught us all well.”

“I think I will head over and check on my place,” said Martin.

“It’s in good shape. Richard’s been looking in on it like he always did.”

Martin went to the closet and found his long rubbers. He looked up on the shelf and found his woolen cap, mittens and socks placed there in a box. He looked out through the window and saw the snow on the ground, “I imagine I’ll really need these now,” he said.

“You should probably take your time walking over there today,” said Ellen, “You still don’t know how much strength you have.”

“The dory, is it okay?”

“Yes, it was just about filled with water when we found it. We still don’t know how you had the strength to row it to the island like that. We went back a few days later, bailed it out and towed it back. We also found a pair of skates in a box in the shelter. They’re over in the house.”

Martin felt relieved. He did not want to lose the skates. Not those ones.

“We hauled the dory up on to your wharf, too, because we didn’t know how long you would be like that,” Ellen said, pointing upstairs. “Richard can help you launch it again when you’re ready.”

“Thanks!” said Martin. “Thanks for everything. You and Richard are such wonderful friends.”

“Our pleasure,” said Ellen, getting ready to close the door. She suddenly stopped, turned around and went to the kitchen. “Wait, I have some mail for you.” She returned with two letters and placed them in Martin’s hand.

“Thanks, again.”

Martin slowly walked back to his house. When he arrived he was pleased to find a huge pile of firewood, all cut up and neatly stacked on the woodpile next to his house. It was much more than he had cut.

Not that my bonfire likely left much of that, he laughed to himself. Still he felt grateful to whomever had placed it there.

He went inside and found still more wood stacked up in the box next to the stove. He soon had a fire going.

He was tired out. I am finally grateful for the daybed, he thought as he laid back and let the fire warm him up. He had a mind to get out a book but found it more interesting to, instead, just look out the window at the harbour and watch the comings and goings of the livyers as they went about their ordinary Saturday routines.

Funny, he thought, I’d never really taken much notice before, but now it was all so interesting. He looked. The children, sledding on the hill beside the school. The older ones, heading out in the boats, no doubt to do some skating or maybe even play some hockey, over on the flat island. The adults heading out, then coming back, the boats laden with fish or wood. The people simply walking back and forth and giving a nod upon seeing Martin peering out the window.

Time passed. The shadows lengthened until, finally, the sun went down behind the Tolt.

I guess I’ll soon have to get up and cook something, Martin thought. But what? After three weeks, he realized he had no idea of what was left in the cupboard. Besides, the thought of having to go the bother of actually cooking something did not exactly excite him. It was all he could do to get up, every so often, and replenish the wood in the fire.

“It would be nice if Ellen would drop by with a few more toutons,” he mused.

A movement down by his wharf caught his eye. A motorboat had crossed the harbour and was now tying up to his wharf. He sat up higher on the daybed and strained his eyes to see what it was. Nobody but him ever used the wharf! Who could it be? It was low tide, though, and he simply could not see.

Mrs. Deasy?

And Mr. Deasy.

And Anna!

The three of them were coming up the path to his house. Martin got up as quickly as he dared and, in a sudden panic, looked around the soon to see how presentable the place was. All good. He resolved to thank Richard and Ellen later for that.

A knock. Of course. It was, after all, Anna. He opened the door.

“We heard you were up and around and wanted to pay you a visit,” she said.

“Please, come in!”

“Lovely heat you’ve got on here,” said Anna, “looks like you don’t restrict the bonfires to the flat island.”

“I try.”

“We brought our welcome,” said Mrs. Deasy. “Would you care for some supper?”

“I’m famished!” Martin hadn’t realized how quickly the time had passed.

Mrs. Deasy spread out the food. Roast duck, boiled salt beef, bread pudding, vegetables and a pot of gravy, which she warmed on the stove. Martin pulled out the table from the wall and fetched two extra chairs from the bedroom. Mr. Deasy lit the lamp and they all sat down together.

“This is the first time I’ve had anyone over for supper,” Martin offered.

“Well, hopefully it won’t be the last,” replied Mrs. Deasy, and we hope you won’t be shy in joining us over at our place from time to time. Maybe we could even make a regular thing of it now that…”

“…Now that I won’t be around for you to tend on anymore,” Anna laughed.

“Martin, you had us all very worried,” said Mr. Deasy. “We were afraid we were going to lose you. And especially now that I’d finally gotten used to having you hanging around the shop every Saturday.

“Yes, the whole community came together to try and help out. At least to do the few things that Richard and Ellen would let us do. Those two! They seem to have a real soft spot for you,” said Anna. “They all helped with the wood, and you’ll find your cupboard very well stocked. Don’t be surprised if you get a few more visits like this one, too. There are a lot of people who would really like to get to know you and this is a nice way to do it, wouldn’t you say?”

They sat and ate; most of the talk during supper was of the day-to-day variety. After supper, Anna insisted on washing the dishes. She filled the pan with hot water from the kettle and went to work while the others lingered at the table.

“So you’re leaving tomorrow,” Martin said to Anna.

“Yes, they said I could start at any time and just into the new year seemed to be a good time to make the change.”

“But why didn’t you leave last week when the Christmas break was over?”

Anna stopped what she was doing, put the cloth down by her side and turned to face Martin, “Because I…” 

She stopped and looked down. She stood in silence for a few seconds, then lifted her head and tried again, “Because I just could not bear the thought of losing you and being so far away from you if you, if you…” 

She trailed off and started again, “Look, nine years ago, my brother died, alone, all the way over in France and I was not there to be with him when he needed me most. I was not prepared to lose you that same way. Since he’s been gone you’re the closest thing to a brother I have had. …ever will have.”

Her shoulders drooped. Martin could see she was fighting back tears. It got quiet.

“Vince didn’t die alone,” Martin’s gentle voice broke the silence. “I was there.”

Anna went white. She wavered and steadied herself against the wash stand. It looked like she was about to fall, but she just dropped the cloth and made her way over to the table and sat back in the chair. “What did you just say?”

Martin took a deep breath and then let it all out. He started by telling of how he’d met Vince, just after training. He went on to tell her of how they’d grown as friends as they served together and how Vince had almost single-handedly maintained the morale of the entire platoon through his stories and songs of life back home. He went on to tell them of the skilful, effective sergeant he’d become and of how he’d served with bravery and honour.

Martin finished with, “Vince died right by my side. I had his head in my lap the whole time. In all honesty I can tell you that his friendship was the one good thing that happened to me during the war.”

They all sat in silence for a while. 

Finally Anna, who had been looking straight ahead, out the window, tilted her head to look at Martin, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“I wanted to. Lots of times. It never seemed to be the right time to bring it up and, as time went on, it just became harder and harder.”

“And it took my moving away to get it out of you. We would never have known.”

Martin hung his head. He had no further words. He wanted to be away. In the boat. On the island. Even up in his empty classroom. Anywhere but right here, right now.

Mr. Deasy cleared his throat the way he did when he wanted everyone to listen. He reached inside the breast pocket of his coat and retrieved a battered envelope. From it he withdrew several sheets of letterhead that Martin recognized. He spread the sheets out on the table and pointed to the last line of the last sheet. “This is you.”

Martin looked where he was pointing. It was his signature. It was the letter he’d written to Vince’s parents, who he now knew as Mr. and Mrs. Deasy.

“Yes, I wrote that letter. It was my first one and it was probably the hardest thing I ever did.” He stopped, almost choking on his words. “Vince was my friend. My only friend.”

“I figured it out shortly after you arrived. You see, you were not the only one who wrote home. I kept all the letters. He considered you his best friend too.”

Anna looked at her father with a mixture of anger and hurt. Everyone heard the question. She didn’t need to ask it out loud.

“Because everything happens in its own time,” was all he said.

“I think it’s time to head home for the night,” said Mrs. Deasy. Looking at Anna she continued, “You have a big day tomorrow and need to get some rest.”

They all got up to leave. “Thank you for everything,” Martin offered, as they left the step and turned to walk down the path.

All three turned to look at Martin. Anna spoke for them all, “No, thank you, Martin. For everything.”

Martin went back inside, and turned down the light in the lamp. He watched the boat cross the harbour. He observed as all three got out at Mr. Deasy’s wharf and walked to their house. He kept looking out at the harbour for a long time afterward.

The fire died down, but before Martin went to bed he wrote in his journal.

Jan. 7: Awoke today after a long sleep. Despite my recent illness, I confess to feeling more alive than I have in a very long time.

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Twenty Twenty Won

Such relief when 2020 finally was done
‘til it dawned on me that this one’s “2020 won.”
And I’d look forward to also bidding this one fair adieu
‘cept for the fact that next year will be “2020 too.” 😉

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Cormorants Don’t Give a…

While out upon my daily jaunt
I came upon these cormorants.
I wondered briefly what was their plan,
then as is my custom I began
spreading around handfuls of seed
for all the birdies to have a feed.
Except for the newcomers who simply stayed
upon their rocks, their wings full splayed.
Their going hungry left me appalled
so I got their attention and to them called,
“Have some seeds from my well-filled bag.”
They ignored me, giving not one full shag. 😀

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The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 9

Chapter 9: Fortune

Another first, and I thank my good fortune for them. Martin thought to himself, looking at the wooden box, containing a pair of ice skates, carefully placed on the bottom of the dory, right at his feet. This will certainly be another memorable day. Hopefully I won’t get too banged up while I learn how to do this.

Just the previous day, when getting supplies at the shop, he’d looked out the window to see several motorboats, each containing several young men and women, leaving the harbour. “Where are they going?” he wondered. They were not dressed for fishing and, if there was some sort of time in any of the nearby communities he’d not heard of it.

“They are most likely going ice skating. It’s a fine day for it and with all the frost we’ve had the past two weeks no doubt the ponds are all safe enough.” It was Mr. Deasy. Martin hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud.

“Funny thing. I’ve heard a lot about skating and I was thinking about ordering myself a pair of skates from the catalogue. It looks like an interesting pastime and now, with winter setting in, it will give me something else to do on the weekends.”

Mr. Deasy said nothing. He went through the door in the back leaving Martin alone and worrying just what he had done to offend the shopkeeper. When he reappeared, several minutes later, Martin started to offer an apology, but stopped when he saw that Mr. Deasy was carrying a wooden biscuit box with a lid on it. He laid it on the counter and motioned to Martin to come over. 

When Martin arrived at the counter Mr. Deasy lifted the lid, revealing a pair of dusty ice skates. He took one out, wiped it gently with a cloth to remove the cover of dust, and handed it to Martin. He then wiped the dust from the second skate and replaced it in the box.

Martin examined it. The boot was brown in colour and made of hard leather. The top of the boot would reach midway up his ankles. Long laces were used to tighten them around the foot. A steel blade about a foot long that was screwed to the boot. Martin ran his fingers along the blade. It was not what he had expected. He knew skates needed to be sharp but this was different. Rather than being sharpened to a single knife edge, he could sense, running his fingers along the blade, that the two edges of it were sharp but between those two edges the blade bent upward, presenting a concave, double-edged surface to the ice.

There was not a shred of rust on the blade, likely owing to the thin film of oil he could feel between his fingers.

“Try them on.”

“Here? Won’t it spoil the floor?”

“Just sit over there,” Mr. Deasy said, pointing to a stool by the stove. “You’re just seeing if they fit. I don’t suppose you will be skating in here.”

Martin sat down, put them on, and laced them up. He tried to stand but found himself wobbly on his feet. The extra height afforded by the blades, coupled by the fact that he was essentially balancing himself on two pieces of steel, felt awkward.

“How’s the fit?”

“Not bad. I would say they’re just a bit too big. Not much, just a bit.”

“Nothing a pair or two of vamps won’t fix. Besides they will help keep your feet warm. Ice happens to be cold in case you haven’t already noticed,” Mr. Deasy said, his face breaking into a broad smile and the skin at the edges of his eyes crinkling.

Martin laughed, “I hear it’s hard too. I wonder how many bruises I’ll get before I get the hang of it.”

Mr. Deasy nodded. “Everything happens in its own time.”

Martin took off the skates and laid them carefully back in the box. He laid it back on the counter, “How much?”

There was an uncomfortable silence for a while. Both men spent the time looking down at the skates. At length Mr. Deasy said softly, “No charge. Martin, they are for you. Please, just enjoy them.”

“But?”

“They were my son’s and he doesn’t need them anymore. Now they’re yours. Just take good care of them.”

Martin nodded, “I will,” he said choking back a lump in his throat.

“Keep a few drops of oil on the blade when you put them away and use that to help keep them sharp.” He pointed to a small tool in the bottom of the box. Martin looked. It was made of steel and cylindrical in shape, about an inch long and with a diameter of about a half inch. There were slots running the length on two opposite sides.

Mr. Deasy picked up a skate in one hand and the tool in his other. He fitted the blade in the slot and ran the tool back and forth along the blade. “This is a special file for sharpening the skates. It works fairly well. Run it along the blade each time you use then and it will help to keep the blade sharp. Any time you go to town, take the skates along with you to get them sharpened properly.”

“Thank you.” was all Martin was able to say. This gift, the first he’d received in years, meant more to him that anyone could ever suspect.

That was yesterday.

And now, Martin was heading out to the flat Island on a sunny, calm Sunday morning. He was going to try out the skates for the first time. 

“Another day of change,” he said aloud. He was looking forward to this. It would provide a welcome break from the daily routines. Besides, he had a lot on his mind and this would prove a welcome distraction from some of it. The thought of doing the night school in the new year was causing him some concern, but the thoughts of Anna going away, just when their friendship had entered a place of mutual support and trust was especially hard to take.

Loss was something he’d never grown accustomed to. There had been a lot. His parents, Vince, those awful months of attrition when, one by one, he’d lost comrades.  And then that fateful day when he’d lost just about everything.

———

“It’s finally begun in earnest,” Martin muttered to himself. For hours now there had been sporadic bouts of machine gun fire from the enemy side, a thing that he had ordered his own men to answer in kind.

“Looks like they’re getting more serious, Sergeant,” said Tim. “Now they’ve opened up on us with the artillery.”

“Yes, and their aim is getting better. The first few were off the mark but that last one blasted away the last of our barbed wire.”

Martin docked to avoid the shower of mud and rocks as yet another shell landed close to the machine gun nest. Too close. “They’ll be landing in the trench soon enough. We have to stand firm. It’s only a matter of time before the charge comes.”

“You check the two guns that way,” said Martin, pointing left down the trench. “I’ll do the fourth one. Meet me back in two minutes.”

Martin left the nest he’d been observing from and ran down to the next trench. To his horror he found it silent, all four men bloodied and broken. He checked. All four were dead. The sand bags were blasted every which way and a ten-foot crater stood in front of the gun, which was still in place. The sandbags had done some of their work, at least. He jumped back down and ran back to meet Tim.

“The two guns are in working order and are firing. Each one has three boxes of ammunition left. We’ve lost two men in one nest and one man in the other,” said Tim. “We’ve been lucky here at this one. No hits and four boxes of ammunition.”

“The nest I checked was hit by artillery fire and all the men are dead. The Vickers is still operational though. Run and get some of the riflemen and assign them to the nests you checked to replace the dead men. I am going to do the same for the other gun.”

Martin ran toward the gun he’d checked but was blown backward by the force of a shell that exploded ahead of him, just around a bend. He sat up and was relieved to find he was not injured. He got back on his feet, his ears ringing, and pressed on. He rounded the corner to the sight of a dozen men, all bloodied and covered in mud. He checked each one and found that three were already dead. The awful cries from four more told him that they would soon join the other three. Of the five that remained, two were still fit to fight, and he brought them to the Vickers. He crawled out onto No Man’s Land and started piling the sandbags back in front of the gun while the two men set the gun back up. Four boxes of ammunition. Good.

“Hold your fire, men. Save your bullets for the charge.”

The big guns from Martin’s side were busily returning fire. No doubt the enemy soldiers were facing much the same.

He ran back, only to find Tim hunched over just beside the gun. His shoulder was covered in blood. Martin cut the sleeve from his uniform and examined the wound. The bullet had passed clean through. “You will be alright. I will get the medic to stitch it.” 

Martin left him and ran back along the trench, only to find the medic dead along with several others. Another shell must have found its mark as well. He returned to find Tim behind the Vickers, operating the gun but with nobody to feed the bullets. “Hold your fire for now,” he ordered. “The artillery had stopped but I am sure there’s a charge coming.”

He used the binoculars, but still could see nobody approaching from No Man’s Land. He was sure it was only a matter of time before the enemy would come over the top and charge. When it happened, his crews would be the last line of defence. Martin ran and checked all four guns. Two more men were dead and he moved two more infantry men to the nests. Back at the nest that Tim was holding down two others had volunteered and were now in place.

After a short lull, the bombardment resumed.

But now it was different. Martin was not used to the sound. It was more muted. He panned the binoculars to see what was happening. Clouds of black smoke were drifting toward the trench.

“What the…?”

“Gas!” Tim shouted.

“The Masks! Fit your masks!” Martin grabbed his, put it on, and began running through the trench ordering the men to do the same.

The shells had landed erratically. Some had landed outside the trench, some inside. In places there was almost none of it but in others it was so thick Martin could scarce see his way as he went.

For some it was too late. Martin rounded a corner just past the last gun to his right and gazed in horror at three dead men, lying in the mud; their skin burned a horrible red and covered in claw marks where they’d tried, vainly, to get the gas-soaked clothes away from their skin.

Waves of men began pouring out of the opposing trenches. “Fire!” shouted Martin and machine gun crews did their best. Boxes of ammo. Containers full of water. They poured everything they had at the enemy.

Martin even saw one crew, one by one, pissing in the water can, which had boiled dry.

Mercifully, after about half an hour, the wind shifted and the gas slowly dissipated. Still, hand to hand fighting continued. Here and there, all along the trenches, where the enemy had breached but the trench was still theirs. For bow.

Night fell and with it came torrential rain, which brought a temporary halt to the fighting. Martin’s comrades did their best to regroup and tend to the wounded. Martin took stock. Out of the twenty machine gunners he had that morning, now only nine of the original were fit for duty, and many of them were scarred by the gas or injured by shrapnel, which had been flying from all directions.

He made it his first priority to ensure that all of the guns were fully manned that that all of the ammunition boxes they had on hand were distributed evenly. Five boxes per gun. It was not a lot but it would have to do. 

Martin counted himself lucky. Thus far he’d avoided injury. For the most part the mask had done its work, though he did feel a certain thickening in his chest. He passed it off.

When dawn broke, the rain stopped and all was quiet for a while. After about an hour it started all over again. 

Barrrroooommmm!

One hundred feet to Martin’s right a shower of mud, sandbags and broken men flew through the air. The Viickers’ gun barrel, the water can and the tripod all went flying, separately, and landed fifty feet behind the trench.

Barrrroooommmm!

The very same happened one hundred feet to Martin’s left. Two gun crews wiped out, just like that. The enemy artillery crew had done their homework well.

Martin ran to the gun on the far right, hoping that its position was still unknown to the enemy. To his relief he found it still operational and all four men accounted for. “Hold your fire until they charge, but do not wait for my order when they do!” he commanded.

He did the same for the gun at the far left. Good, he still had an interlocking field of fire as long as the guns remained undetected.

Whump! The dull thud meant the gas was back.

“The masks!” he yelled to his men, while running along the trench. He coughed. He tasted blood. No time to waste. He kept going.

The shelling persisted, and the gas got worse. Martin looked over the top. All he could see was a huge cloud of black smoke advancing toward his trench. Did he see soldiers behind it? No way to tell. He ordered his crews to fire anyway. He found that now he could hardly shout. Each time he tried he could get that same dreadful taste of blood in his mouth. Breathing was more and more difficult. He felt a gurgling in his chest.

The gas rolled into the trench. Martin’s mask held, somewhat, though he could taste something acrid and cold. Many were not so lucky. Not all of the masks worked, and here and there, Martin could see men clawing them off, their faces burnt blood red, mouths foaming white.

“They’re coming!” was the last thing he heard as an invisible hand lifted him and tossed him, arse over kettle, into the mud at the bottom of the trench.

———

“That’s a lot of boats,” thought Martin as he approached the beach of the flat island. There was barely enough room left for him to haul his dory ashore. “It looks like I’ll have company today.”

He took the skates, slung them over his shoulder the way he’d seen others do, and walked the path to the sandy pond. He arrived to the sight of some thirty or so people, mostly younger than him. Most were skating but a few had cut holes in the ice and were standing over them tending fishing lines.

Ah, so that’s what ice fishing looks like, Martin thought. He imagined Vince being one of the ones tending the lines and smiled to himself.

Several had what he knew to be hockey sticks. They were not playing a game but were, instead, skating around with a black rubber disk, Martin assumed that it was a puck, and passing it back and forth.

Martin sat on a log and put on the skates, being careful to tighten the laces the way Mr. Deasy had shown him before he’d left the shop. He stood and walked gingerly to the edge of the ice. He put one foot on the ice, then the other.

And promptly found himself on his backside. 

“At least you didn’t strike your head.” It was Pat, who’d skated up and stopped right in front of hm. 

Martin tried to sit up, “My elbows!” He’d used them to break his fall, apparently. “They’ll both be bruised tomorrow.”

“First thing you need to learn is how to fall. You will do that a lot. The main thing is to not hit your knees, elbows or your head. Try to land as softly as you can.”

“I will try, but I can’t make any promises.”

“Here use this for a while. It will help you keep your balance.” She handed him her hockey stick.

“Thanks.” Martin rose unsteadily and using the stick as a crutch he tried to walk on the ice. He shuffled his feet back and forth, all the while wondering why he wasn’t moving ahead.

“Not like that. You have to learn how to push off and glide. Like this.” she demonstrated how to do it and Martin watched carefully.

He tried to copy her and fell right back down. 

“Oh, and try and not fall on your hip like that,” she said. “That hurts too.”

“Now you tell me.” Martin, said, getting back up, leaning all the while on the stick. He tried again and made a few strides before falling down again. This time he managed not to hurt himself. He got up, dusted off the snow from his clothes and tried again.

And again.

Each time he fell, Martin looked around, wondering just what kind of a spectacle he was creating. He imagined the other skaters must find the sight of this clumsy Irishman to be highly amusing.

To his surprise, though, nobody was paying him much heed. That, at least, came as a relief.

“Nobody’s laughing at me,” said Martin to Pat, as she skated by.

She laughed, “Oh I’m sure they notice you. It’s just that they’ve all got more important things on their minds.”

She skated on, and Martin looked around noticing, for the first time, that there were distinct groups on the ice. Here and there couples skated side-by-side. Elsewhere, the focus seemed to be on the hockey puck.

After about an hour Martin felt he was getting better at it. He was actually able to get around the pond several times now without stumbling. His ankles started to get sore so he decided to stop for a rest. 

“Not too bad for a beginner,” remarked Pat. “Next time you’ll have to learn how to stop. Maybe next week.”

“It’s a lot harder than I thought.”

“Yes but you will get the hang of it if you keep practicing,” said Pat, as she took off her skates. 

“Leaving so soon?” asked Martin, noting that she was using both hands, and that her cast was finally off.

“Yes. I have a lot to do. I plan to do some fishing first and then I have to get ready for the concert tonight. My arm is a little stiff, so I want to get some extra practice with the accordion before everything starts.”

The concert? Martin had almost forgotten about it. There was only one week left now before the Christmas break. Not even a week, just three more days of school, after which he would get two whole weeks to himself. He was looking forward to it.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

“Yes!” Having said it Martin realized she was referring to the concert, and not the break. He recovered, “It will be a nice way to get ready for the holidays.”

“I expect that just about everyone will be there tonight. Out of all the concerts and times this one is always the best attended. Everybody dresses in their best clothes too.”

Martin laughed, “And I suppose that you have bought something just for this.”

“Well, of course. It came on the last steamer and I can’t wait to try it on.”

“What is it?” asked Martin. He had no idea what to expect. A tuxedo and a fedora, perhaps?

“A choche hat and a beaded evening dress. I will be just like a flapper!”

“You? A Flapper? What does your mom think of that?” Martin was horrified.

“Mom has one just like it. We ordered ours together. You should have seen the look on Dad’s face when we both tried them on!”

Anna will be there, too, thought Martin. This will be one of the last chances I will get to chat with her before she leaves.

Martin stood up, “I think I will practice a bit more before calling it a day.”

“Not too long, I think the wind is coming up,” said Pat as she turned to leave.

But Martin didn’t hear. He was, instead, focused on getting his stride right. Stopping would be for another day.

Time passed and Martin hardly took notice as, one by one, the others left in little groups. Besides trying to learn how to skate he found his thoughts drifting back to Anna. He was still trying to get to the bottom of how he felt. It was not the possibility of a romantic involvement that he we would miss. That was not at all what was between them. No, it was something else; a feeling of support maybe? No, maybe that was not all of it either. Trust maybe? Yes, but more.

What odds. Like he’d concluded before, there was no point thinking of it. And, yes, he did like it. And, yes, he would miss her when she left.

It was the sound of the wind that finally brought him back to the present. Despite the shelter of the trees it whipped his scarf, almost causing him to lose his balance. He looked around and upon finding himself alone, decided it was time to go.

He took off his skates, being careful to wipe them off and return them to the safety of the biscuit box. He then returned to the dory, stored the skates safely away and pushed off. The sea was quite choppy and he found himself straining against the wind. Earlier this year he might not have been able to make headway, but the constant exercise had made him stronger. Better yet, he was now much more able to control his breathing.

He looked around. Not a single other boat was in sight. No, wrong, just one. It was Pat and she too, was making for home. Upon closer inspection he could see that she was waving frantically at him and pointing south, down the bay. He looked. All he could see was a large black cloud below which everything was white. 

A snow squall and it was approaching fast! This was not a good time to be in a small boat out in the bay. A sudden gust of wind struck the dory, almost capsizing it. Martin leaned hard in the opposite direction to recover and began rowing faster. It won’t be good to be caught in this, he thought. He scanned the water and found Pat in the motorboat. She, too, was heading directly for the harbour.

A fiercer gust struck, almost knocking Martin over. This time the dory tipped so far over that it took on water. Bailing was a waste of time in this wind and flying spry so he didn’t bother even trying. Besides, he needed all of his skill just to keep the dory upright and under control. Again Martin leaned hard to right the dory and he continued rowing as hard as he could. His arms ached and his chest felt like it was in fire. He was closer to Pat’s motor boat now, and it was not hard to see the look of grim determination on her face as she held fiercely to the tiller.

The snow began in earnest. Driven by a gale force wind, it stung Martin‘s face and eyes. He could now only barely see ahead of him but he continued rowing, using the barely-visible shape of the flat island, directly behind him, as a guide. To his disappointment, he realized it was still disconcertingly close.

He heard a scream. He turned and through a break in the snow, he managed to see Pat’s motorboat being tossed high by a huge wave. He continued watching and rowing, and when the next break came, the motorboat was going in circles but Pat was nowhere to be seen. He tried to stand and managed to do it for just a few seconds and was able to scan the motorboat. It was empty.

He looked all around, but could not see her anywhere. His vision was limited to only about a hundred feet so he began rowing in circles around where he judged the motorboat had been when it had been tossed.

“Help!” He heard her voice shouting.

“Where are you? I can’t see you!”

“Over here,” came a voice from somewhere behind him.

He turned but still could see nothing. He rowed as hard as he could towards the voice.

“I still can’t see you,” he shouted, almost erupting into a fit of coughing.

“I’m here,” said the voice, though much lower.

“Pat!” he called. 

But there was no response. Martin continued rowing towards where he thought she was, doing his level best not to erupt in a fit of coughing.

As suddenly as it had started the snow stopped. The wind died down too. Martin scanned the water. 

He saw her straight ahead, trying to tread water. All but her face was submerged and it, too, was bobbing under as the waves washed across her. She spat water. With just a few strokes he was alongside. He grabbed her hand and pulled as hard as he could. The dory almost tipped over. Martin lost his balance and fell backwards, striking his head on the opposite gunwale. A shower of lights exploded all around and he felt giddy. The dory started to right itself. Pat grabbed the gunwale and hung on. 

“I don’t know if I can get you aboard. It will tip over the dory,” he shouted. “I will try and row for shore.”

Martin grabbed the oars and began rowing as hard as he could. A minute. Then another. He looked behind him. The flat island seemed no closer.

“I can’t hang on any longer,” said Pat. Her hands began slipping.

“Here goes,” thought Martin. He grabbed her hands, braced himself on the opposite side of the dory and pulled as hard as he could. The gunwale on Pat’s side want down low and the dory began taking on water. Between his pulling and Pat scrambling, she managed to fall inside the dory, which slowly righted itself.

Martin looked around in panic. The dory had about six inches of water in it. Pat was trying to pick herself up off the bottom of it. What should he do? Return to the flat island? It was about a thousand feet away. Try to board the motorboat? It was about three hundred feet distant and going around in large circles. Continue to Rougille? It was still about a mile distant. Towards the south, Martin could see yet another squall was on the way.

Martin made a choice, “We have to go back to the island. There’s no way we can make it home and we can’t risk trying to get in the motorboat.”

Pat nodded weakly, “I’m freezing.” 

Martin pulled as hard as he could on the oars. The little craft cut through the swell, rocking, tipping and taking on more and more water as the waves washed over the bow.  The flat island drew closer and closer. Eight hundred feet. Five hundred feet. Martin’s arms felt heavy as lead, and something gurgled in his chest, but he persisted. Pull on the oar, lift it out of the water. Dip it back down. Over and over until he felt he could go no more. Scrape! He almost fell backward as the dory came to a sudden stop. Martin turned around. They were beached on the flat island. Martin leapt from the dory, and hauled it as far as he could up on the beach, then tied it on.

“We have got to get some shelter,” he said to Pat as he helped her from the dory. Together they stumbled to the large clearing where the wood was set out to dry.

Looks like that field craft training will finally come to some use, thought Martin as he set about making a lean to. The cut sticks and discarded boughs came in handy and in a matter of minutes Martin had a shelter prepared that would offer protection from the wind and snow.

He helped Pat get inside of it. Her clothes were completely saturated. Her face had a bluish cast to it, and she was shaking.

“We will need a fire,” he said. “We have to try and dry off our clothes.”

“It’s alright. I’m not cold at all anymore,” she replied.

Martin set to work all the faster. He knew the difference. Back in France when they’d been hit with the unexpected heavy frost, he’d come to know that the men most in danger of freezing to death would all say they were warm. Some would even strip off their outer coats, if them had them, saying they were overheated, and would have to be restrained. Pat did not have much time.

Once again the cut sticks and boughs proved useful and it was no time before Martin had things ready to light. He reached in his pocket and retrieved his matches. Upon opening the box he discovered he had three. Just three. Should have checked before I left, he thought. He struck the first and held it to a blasty bough. It caught, but a gust of wind blew it out.

Martin cupped his hands as best he could around the second match as he struck it. He held it to the blasty bough and watched with disappointment as the wind also extinguished the faint fire.

One left. He held it in his shaking hands and prepared to strike it against the box. A stray gust of wind whipped Martin’s face. He knew it would be no use and he put the match back in the box. There had to be a better way.

Perhaps Richard had left some petrol. Martin searched the clearing, and upon finding none, ran down by the beach, just in case. To his disappointment there was none there either. He returned to the clearing and looked all around in the hope that he would find something, anything that could be used to help start the fire. 

Out of the corner of his eye something yellow was blowing in the breeze. He turned to see what it was and his heart raced. Goowiddy! Of course! He grabbed the handful that was growing on the tree and scanned the clearing for more. To his relief he noticed it on many of the older trees that Richard had left standing to provide shelter. He ran from tree to tree and collected as much as he could. After several minutes he had all he could carry and he added it to the fire.

He struck the last match and, sheltering it as best he could in his shaking hands, he held it to the yellow fibres. A gust blew it out and Martin’s shoulders slumped in defeat. 

Now what? His mind raced.

He smelled an acrid smoke and watched as a tiny ember flared up and enveloped the entire mass of sticks. It had worked! Soon the fire was roaring and crackling and Martin could feel the radiant heat all the way through his damp clothes.  He piled on as many sticks as he dared soon had a roaring bonfire. 

Darkness had now set in. He could see the stars above. It seemed that the snow squalls had ended.  The wind had almost abated, and Martin briefly considered making another try in the dory. No. He knew they would not get far even if they tried. He was exhausted. He looked at Pat. Judging by her shallow breathing he could tell she was almost in shock.

The skates! He ran back to the dory and fetched them. With some sense of relief he noticed that the biscuit box had done a good job of protecting them and was floating in the water that had collected in the bottom of the dory. He grabbed it and held it tight to his chest. A promise was a promise.

When he returned, he found Pat barely conscious. He added a few more sticks on the fire and climbed inside the shelter. The fire was doing its work. Pat’s clothes were already partially dry.

There was nothing left to do now but wait. Wait for their clothes to dry. Wait for them to warm up. Wait for daylight.

Martin stared out at the roaring fire. He thought of his journal and his fountain pen and wondered what he would write in it if he had them. Maybe something about needing to pay more attention to what was around him, and learning to appreciate the people in his life? Or, perhaps, about spending less time thinking about the past and more on planning for the future? Yes, that was it, but there were still lessons to be learned from the past. He just had to open himself to all of it. 

The fire brightened. Martin could see it reflected on the clouds above. It would do its job. A sense of warmth began spreading over his body, lulling him to sleep.

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The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 8

Chapter 8: Decisions

Brrr. Good thing I ordered those woollen long johns from the catalog, Martin thought, looking at the three pairs of woollen underwear he had placed at the top of the closet. I am glad I listened to Richard. They will come in handy today.

It was cold; colder than he’d experienced in a long while. That Saturday morning Martin had awakened to the sight of frost on his windows. Though he’d seen it in picture books, nothing prepared him for the beauty of the intricate patterns that lined the edges of the glass panes. They interrupted his morning routines. On closer inspection the elaborately intertwined ridges of frost reminded him of the forest.

That, in turn, reminded him of the chat he’s had with Richard the previous day.

“That’s not enough, my son,” Richard had said, looking at pile of wood Martin had proudly displayed, stacked in a neat pile next to the house.

“But you said I’d need a couple of cords of wood and that’s what I have,” Martin protested. “See, about four feet high, and eight feet in length and the sticks are all about eight feet long.”

“I’m sorry, Martin, I should have done a better job of answering your question when you asked me. What you have is about two cords and that’s not bad for a small house like yours but I think it is going to be a cold winter so to be on the safe side you’d be better off getting another one. Besides you have enough heat in the evenings to skin you alive so you might burn more than I expect.”

“I’ll have to cut some more, I suppose.”

“Sure you must have that much left over on the flat Island! I saw it the other day pied right next to mine. At least a cord and a half.”

“Yes, but I wanted to have some more drying over there, just in case.”

“It’s up to you, of course, but I think you should bring over some more. We’re going to get a hard frost tonight and this is only the end of November. There’s a lot more of that cold weather on the way, mark my words.”

“How much do you use?”

“I go through four cords most winters but I start off with five. That’s what I have now and there’s still two left over on the flat Island.”

“I’ll take your advice. You’ve never set me wrong.”

“You might see us over there tomorrow. I plan on cutting some more, too.”

Wood it is, then, thought Martin. The weather seems fine enough.

He pulled on a pair of the new long johns, finished dressing and ate, not bothering to light the stove, despite the chill. He had no time to waste, especially now that the days were growing ever shorter. He needed to be back well before suppertime, else he’d be stacking the wood in the dark.

He stepped outside and breathed deeply the chilly morning air. It stung and he suppressed the urge to cough. He’d been warned about this. “Make sure you breathe through your nose when it’s cold,” they’d told him before he came over here. Lesson learned.

The dory was bobbing gently against the wharf and Martin climbed aboard, being careful not to slip on the ice covered wood. I will have to take it easy today, he thought as he rowed out through the harbour toward the flat island.

He was especially glad for the woollen gloves, socks and cap he’d recently bought at Deasy’s shop. They were a lot like the ones Vince had given him, but with a few new twists. The gloves were of an unusual, yet practical, design. Unlike the ones he’d had before these were made from two, not one, layers of wool. They extended about two inches beyond the wrist and had separate places for the thumb, the index finger and the three remaining fingers. Trigger Mitts, the were called, and the spot for the index finger meant you could fire a gun without having to take them off—a thing that would have been useful back in France. 

Vamps, he was finally used to calling his woollen socks by that name. He wore them over his regular cotton ones and they provided extra insulation inside his rubber boots. They also wicked away any moisture that might, somehow, get inside the boots. No danger of trench foot now! The stocking knit cap as it was known, was a simple affair, dome shaped, it covered his whole head, leaving only his face exposed. 

Useful inventions, Martin thought to himself as he rowed out across the slight swell.

———

There were quite a few new inventions being introduced at the front. On a regular basis Martin would either see, or at least hear of the new weapons designed to kill or destroy with ever-more effectiveness. 

The by-now familiar buzzing droning sound got louder and louder. Off in the distance Martin could see a large dot in the sky coming diagonally towards them from the opposing side.

“Is it one of ours?” 

Martin raised the binoculars to his eyes. He could just make out the red, white and blue roundel painted on the side. “Yes. Probably coming back from reconnaissance. Lucky for us. We are seeing more and more of these aeroplanes lately, and the enemy is getting bolder and bolder. Many of them are now armed.”

“Yes it used to be that the worst we could expect was a stray shot from the observer’s rifle or the pilot’s sidearm but now they have been fitted with machine guns that can shoot right through the propeller blades so the pilot can aim the whole aeroplane like a gun.”

“That would be a deadly weapon if it attacked us here in the trench,” agreed Martin.

“And the observers also have a machine gun so they can shoot in all directions. Many of them even carry bombs they can drop right into the trench.”

“You certainly know your aeroplanes, Tim,” said Martin. “That will be useful. At least this time it’s one of ours so we won’t have to face any of that.”

“What about that one?” Tim pointed and, squinting, Martin could just make up a second dot behind the first one and moving along the same path.

“You have better eyes than me. I missed that one,” said Martin. He handed him the binoculars. “Perhaps you should do it. Look for the iron cross.”

“I see it! On the fuselage and on the wings!” shouted Tim. “It’s an albatross. Gun in the front, shooting through the prop, and the observer also has a machine gun. It probably has bombs on board as well. Looks like he’s after our aeroplane, but ours is not armed. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Lads, that’s a German fighter,” Martin shouted to the crew manning the Vickers. “Let’s give him a suitable welcome.”

The crew opened fire at the airplane, but to no effect. Closer and closer it got until, just when Martin could make out the German roundel it turned away from the aeroplane it was pursuing and turned its attention to them, returning fire, strafing the trench. Martin could see the line of bullet holes moving almost directly toward the machine gun nest.

“Keep firing,” Martin commanded, hoping that those would not be his last words.

With a roar the biplane passed overhead. The line of bullets missed them all by mere feet.

“Bomb!” shouted the man next to Martin.

Luckily it exploded behind the trench. Bullets kept zinging all around.

“That’s the observer’s gun. He’s also got more bombs.”

“And he’s coming around for another pass. Look out!”

The gun crew swung the Vickers around and continued firing as the biplane continued turning. They were now on the second box of ammunition and had not scored even a single hit.

“Not like that, lads. Don’t fire right at the aeroplane,” Martin shouted at the gunner, “Remember what I said when we trained for this. Lead the plane. Fire in front of it so that the bullet has time to get there.”

“Yes Sergeant!”

The plane was now turned around and headed back to the trench. Martin could see the line of bullets in the dirt and this time they were headed straight for them.

“Lead the aircraft, Man!”

The line of bullets abruptly stopped about thirty feet from the trench. The sound of the engine died as well. A brilliant flash of fire lit up the sky as the engine caught fire. Another flash, and the aeroplane exploded and broke into two pieces, each one in flames. They struck the ground with a mighty thump about five hundred feet in front of the trench. There were two more explosions and all that was left was a small pile of burning debris.

“Good job lads. Looks like you hit the engine and the bomb tubes,” said Martin.

A cheer went up and the nearby soldiers congratulated the gun crew.

“Was anyone hit?” asked Martin.

Luckily, there were no casualties on Martin’s side. He turned away from the sight of the burning wreckage, his head down. Someone not too different from him would now have the grim task of notifying two families that their sons would not be coming home.

Later that day the Major briefed all of the sergeants on some new developments.

“Besides that aeroplane that attacked us today there are new things the men need to be made aware of. The first one is about a new type of weapon currently being tested in England. They’re called land ships but most of the people call them tanks,” said the Major as he showed the Sergeants several pictures. “They are being deployed by our side. Any day at all we may see them here.”

“How do they work?” asked Martin

Look closely, said the Major, “They are mounted on moving tracks. They can carry several six-pounder guns as well as two to four machines guns.”

“You would not want to tangle with that.”

“And it’s heavily armoured so it would likely take a direct hit from an artillery piece to stop it.”

“That is an unusual shape,” said Martin. “It’s a rhomboid. I wonder why they chose that.”

“With that very steep front, and the tracks running along it that way, it can cross trenches.”

“When they arrive, maybe all of this will be obsolete,” said Martin, waving his hand at the trench he was in.

“Yes, maybe we will bring an end to this stalemate. And now, more importantly there is the poison gas. The enemy has a huge stockpile of chlorine as well as something new called phosgene and they have been loading it in artillery shells.”

“Fritzy must be getting desperate,” said one of the men.

“It’s not just the Germans. We are doing it too,” said the Major. “When the artillery shell lands the gas escapes and it looks like a black and green cloud. It will blister your skin. It will also cut up your lungs and throat if you breathe it in.”

“That’s a bad way to die,” said Martin.

“Not everyone dies right away, either. I have been told it can be a slow, lingering death.”

“Is there any defense against it?”

“Yes. These.” The major held up a strange looking hood with a glass-like window near the top. He beckoned to Martin. “Sergeant, I will put it on you to demonstrate how it works.”

Martin stepped forward and the major draped the heavy cloth hood over his head. It covered everything down to his mid-chest. It was harder to breathe inside it and it was difficult to see through the glass. It was also harder to hear so he listened closely as the major continued.

“This is a gas mask. It is doused with chemicals that will help against the poison. Each man is to be issued one and it is your duty to see that they know how to use it and that they keep it close at all times. You can take yours off now Sergeant.”

Martin removed his mask and breathed deeply of the fresh air.

The major pointed to several crates stacked nearby. “Our supply is there. Take one and get the job done. I must also say that I am particularly proud to say that these were invented by a fellow Newfoundlander, Doctor Cluny Macpherson.”

Vince would have been so proud too, thought Martin. And the job of training the men should have been his.

“Alright, men. Dismissed.”

The days passed. Even though everyone doubted they would be needed, Martin drilled his platoon on how to fit the masks and he even held several live fire drills, with the soldiers firing the guns while wearing the clumsy and often poorly made devices.

Martin tried hard not to think of any of the terrifying consequences associated with the use of these new weapons. He focused, instead, on the jobs at hand.

There were many. Several times now the enemy had gone over the top and had charged the trenches. Each time the machine guns and rifles had repelled the attack before it reached even the barbed wire. Even though they stayed inside the protective confines of the trench there were still casualties. Artillery shells sometimes landed inside the trench, spraying everything with deadly shrapnel. The enemy’s machine gun bullets often found their targets when they provided covering fire for their soldier’s charges. 

This, along with occasional artillery bombardments of the machine gun nests, and attacks from the air, also meant that the defences had to be continuously repaired and upgraded. 

While Martin was growing with the role of sergeant, becoming more confident and strong in his decisions, and steadily gaining the trust and admiration of his troops, it was still taking a toll. 

“Sergeant, we are getting very low on ammunition,” said one of the machine gunners.

“How many boxes do you have?”

“Four.”

That’s about the same as the rest of the guns, Martin thought. It won’t be enough if there’s another attack. “We will have to make do.” He said aloud. “There are no shipments of ammunition expected right now.”

“Food is getting short as well. We need to get more supplies soon. The men are getting sick and that with the rain that’s been falling for the past week more and more of the men are suffering from pneumonia and trench foot. If this keeps up we won’t be able to put up much of a fight if there’s another attack.”

“We have showed them how Vince used to keep his feet dry to prevent trench foot, and how he kept and himself clean using a helmet filled with water. That helps keep away the pneumonia and the bloody lice. Other than that, there is nothing I can do right now. We just have to wait for more to come. At least we can gather some of that rain water.”

“Aeroplane!” Tim pointed to a dot in the sky. Martin handed him the binoculars. “Another albatross!”

“Take aim, but hold your fire until he gets closer,” ordered Martin. “We have no bullets to waste.”

The aeroplane drew closer and closer but did not open fire on the trench. The man behind the Vickers kept his hands on the wooden handles and his thumb near the trigger.

Martin felt a bead of sweat running down his brow. “Steady,” he shouted at the men, wondering what the pilot was doing.

There seemed to be some movement near the cockpit and Martin braced himself to give the order to fire. “What’s that?” he asked Tim as a cloud of something began falling downward. “Is it gas?”

“Sergeant, I don’t think it’s gas. It’s small pieces of something.”

“Pass me the binoculars, please. Let me take a look.” Martin looked closely but he was none the wiser. He handed them back. “Your eyes are better than mine. Keep looking.”

The aeroplane tuned away and flew back towards its own side. The wind carried whatever it was closer and closer. Perhaps I should get the men to put the masks on anyway, Martin thought.

“Sergeant, it’s pieces of paper!” Tim finally said.

Martin let out a pent up lungful of air. “Thank God! Probably more propaganda.”

The sheets of paper continued fluttering in the air and a breeze carried them toward the trenches. Soon they began falling all around. Martin picked one up. It said: Irishmen, do you know your fellow countrymen are rebelling against the English in Dublin? Right now your own army is slaughtering your family. Is that what you want to be fighting for?

Martin knew that this was an attempt to lessen the morale among the soldiers of his whole regiment, most of who were from Ireland. He also knew it was probably true; the rumoured rebellion had begun. He hoped that Sean would not be involved or, worse, be a casualty of it. His thoughts drifted back to the evenings, so long ago, when he and his brother would share a laugh and a story over a pint of ale. It was do different then, so much better back when they were on the same side. How did it come to this?

And, at Martin’s location in France, the casualties mounted, on both sides. Just about every evening he found himself writing one more letter to yet another unlucky family. Sometimes more. All the while, he hoped, with all his heart that it was not the same at home.

———

A lull in the wind brought Martin back to the present. He stopped rowing and turned around. He was now almost to the flat island and could be ashore in a matter of minutes. Looking around he saw that several other boats were out on the water.

Pat was the lone occupant of the nearest one. She waved at Martin, and he rowed over, stopping when only a few feet away.

“Out in the boat and your arm broken. Aren’t you worried?”

“What’s to worry about? I am used to this. Besides Mom and Dad are here too.”

Pat was the only occupant of the boat. Ellen and Richard were not in any of the other boats he could see. He stared at Pat, his head tilted to one side.

“What?”

“Where are they?”

“Over cutting some more wood.”

Of course. Martin recalled his previous conversation with Richard.

“It can’t be easy for you with the cast.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. I just have to be extra careful starting the engine.” Pat gave a laugh, “Too bad I didn’t take my own advice a couple of weeks back.”

“So why are you out here?”

“I’m saving for school. Mom and Dad can’t afford to send me away. Besides I really enjoy fishing.”

“Even on a cold day like this?”

“You just have to dress for it. Sure look at you. You’re nice and warm, aren’t you?”

“I am, thanks to advice from your parents. So, this is what fishing is like.” To his surprise Martin realized that, out of all of the times he’d been out in the dory he’d never bothered to go fishing, or, for that matter, even to find out how he would go about it himself.

“Have you ever tried jigging?” she asked.

“No, I’ve heard the name but you’re the first person I’ve seen doing it.”

“It’s easy. Do you want to learn how it’s done?”

That’s a change in roles, Martin thought. His first instinct was to say no, and offer as an excuse, the fact that he had little time and needed to get a load of wood. A brief recollection of his recent chats with Anna made him decide otherwise. She was right. He needed to stop trying to do it all himself.

“Sure. I’ll give it a try,” he said, while briefly wondering how things were going with Anna’s trip.

“Here, take this,” said Pat as she tossed something aboard Martin’s dory.

“What is it?” he asked, picking up the object, which consisted of a wooden frame around which was wrapped some heavy line. At the end of the line was metal piece made up of a series of hooks, arranged in a circle and topped by a lead weight.

“It’s a jigger. Unwind the line and lower the end down into the water.”

Martin did that. “When do I stop?”

“When you feel the line go slack. That means the jigger is on the bottom.”

Martin had some doubt that he would know when that happened but, sure enough, after about one-third of the line was let out he did, indeed, sense less weight on it. “What now?”

“Do this.” Pat took her line and hauled in some of it. “I’m bringing the hook a foot or so off of the bottom. That is where the cod are.” She then gave it a sharp pull and let the jigger fall back down until the line went taut again. She gave it another pull, then another, repeating the routine.

“The cod thinks the hook and the lead weight are food so they go after it. If it is biting it or even close when I pull on it the hook will set. Give it a try.” 

Martin did. “That’s not so hard. How do I know when I have a fish?”

Pat laughed, “Oh, you’ll know.”

Martin didn’t really know what to say, although he did have his doubts. He kept on repeating the motion, though, since Pat was doing the same.

Nothing happened for a minute or so and, all the while Martin wondered if he’d already caught something. “Should I haul it up anyway to see if there’s a fish?”

“Trust me. You will know when you have one!”

Suddenly the line went tighter. Martin hauled harder and felt some resistance. The line started to shake.

Pat noticed that Martin had stopped jigging. “Giving up?”

“No, I think I might have something.”

“Haul it in!” 

Martin picked up the wooden frame and started winding the line around it again.

Pat laughed, “Not like that! You’ll lose the fish that way. Do it like this!” She demonstrated by quickly hauling in the line, hand over hand, cast and all, and just letting the slack fall into the boat.

Martin copied her and soon the hook, with a fish attached, came to the surface.

“Haul it aboard!” shouted Pat.

Martin did and the grey fish, about a yard long, began flopping around in the bottom of the dory.

“It’s a cod. Get the hook out.”

Martin took off his gloves and tried to pick up the fish. It was no use. The skin was far too slippery and the fish thrashed around too much. Repeatedly he tried to pick it up, and all the while Pat was laughing uproariously at the spectacle.

Finally the fish stopped and Martin was able to dislodge the hook.

“That’s a fine fish,” said Pat. “Do you know how to clean it?”

Martin shook his head, “No.”

“Tell you what. I’ll give you a hand with it when you get back home. Want to try for another?”

“Not right now. I really have to get at the wood. I want to get a load back home by dark.”

“I can give you a hand with that if you like. When I’m done fishing.”

“With your cast?” I don’t think that even possible!”

“No. It’s fine, see?” she said, waving her arm about, “It no longer hurts. I’ll be getting it off in a few days.”

Thanks, but I’ll be fine, I’m sure,” said Martin. I really appreciate you showing me how to catch a fish, though.”

“You’re welcome. And you can keep that jigger if you want. I have a few.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said Martin, thinking furiously of how he could return the favour.

“Good luck with the wood,” said Pat as she resumed her fishing.

A few minutes later Martin was ashore and had the dory hauled up on the beach. He tied the painter to a stout tree growing by the edge of the beach. He figured he had a few hours to carry some wood down and stow it away in the dory. He had never taken a heavy load before but today would be different. He planned to take as much as the boat would safely hold.

He carried the first few sticks down to the boat and put them aboard, resting them across the two thwarts. He stepped away, looked at it with some doubt and then turned to go get some more.

He almost ran right into Richard, who was coming down the path with two sticks of his own. Ellen was right behind him carrying two more. 

“That’s not the best way to do it,” said Richard, with no more ado than that. “You’d be better off if you cut them smaller. Just like the ones you have at home. Eight feet is long enough.”

He reached into the dory, removed the two thwarts and then cut the sticks in half. They then fit easily down in the bottom of the boat. “See? Like this.  You just need to make sure that you can fit the thwart back in place, so you can sit on it to row home.

The next two hours were spent in cutting sticks in half, bringing them to the dory and then loading them carefully aboard.

With the job almost done Martin decided to light a fire and cook some dinner. He lit the first using some driftwood as well as some of his own wood. Presently he heard the familiar sound of a make-andbreak engine. It was Pat. She came ashore and tied up her motor boat next to Martin’s.

“Warming yourself, are you?” she asked, holding her hands out to the fire. “I’m frozen!”

To his surprise Martin realized he was not cold at all even though the temperatures had stayed below freezing all day. “The work and the clothes kept me warm. I’m just making some tea. Want some?”

“Yes, and I have some lassie buns to go with it. Hey, want to cook that fish? There’s a frying pan in the boat.”

To his surprise Martin found himself saying yes.

“Let me show you how to clean the fish,” said Pat after she returned with the frying pan, some fat pork and a long slender knife.

“You came prepared.”

“Always am. You have to be when you go out in the boat. You never know what will happen.”

She showed Martin how to clean the fish and soon several pieces were sizzling in the pan. 

Ellen and Richard came out of the woods and joined them at the fire. 

“We smelled fish and thought we would have a look,” said Richard, eyeing the frying pan.

“Sir caught that one himself,” said Pat. “It’s a fine sized fish. Way more than we will eat.”

Pat put the remaining pieces of uncooked fish in a bucket of water and handed the bucket to Martin. “Put them in salt when you get back. Oh wait, you don’t have a salt pound. I’ll do it for you.” She took the bucket back and placed it to one side. “I’ll give them back to you when they’re ready.”

“Too bad we don’t have something nice to go with that fish,” remarked Ellen. “We hadn’t planned to stay this long because we both have work to do back home.”

“I brought some lassie buns,” said Pat, holding out a biscuit tin, and removing the lid to reveal several large muffins. “Does anybody want one?”

“My favourite.” said Richard.

“Ah! Molasses bun!” said Martin. Richard’s favourite. Of course.

Pat handed around some plates and everyone took some of the fish from the pan. Everyone sat down and began to eat.

“Pat showed me how to fish, today. She also taught me how to clean it.”

“So who’s the teacher now?” asked Richard.

“I think you made a fine teacher,” said Martin to Pat. She beamed. 

Looking at Ellen, Martin continued, “And speaking of which, you handled yourself really well all week.”

“Oh, thank you. It’s not my first time in the classroom. I taught school here for a few years before I was married, remember? It’s also not my first time filling in for Anna, though it’s not often I’ve done it for two whole weeks. Usually it’s just a day here or a day there if she’s sick or has to go away for some meeting or another.”

“We spoke just before she left, and I figured she was just going for the weekend,” said Martin.

“I think that was the plan at first, but something must have come up. She wired over that she needed to stay for an extra two weeks but didn’t say why.”

“Will she be back for this week?” Martin asked. Even though they didn’t talk all that frequently, he missed her company. The conversations they did have were enjoyable, even comforting, but he knew he did not need to have those each day. Her steadfast, competent, positive presence in the next room, though, was something he dearly missed.

He wondered how it would be if she did decide to take that new position far away in town. What would he do?

After they’d eaten, Pat said, “I’m off for a look at the sandy pond.”

“What pond?”

“The one just over the hill there. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it before. It’s not that far.”

Another realization, the second one today, struck him. Not only had he not bothered learning anything at all about fishing, but he’d not ventured much around this island at all. Strange, given that he visited it so often.

“I need to pay more attention to what’s before me,” he muttered to himself.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing. I think I’ll take a quick look at the pond too.”

He followed Pat and Richard, and soon they arrived. Martin could see immediately why he’d missed it. The pond was not large, roughly oval in shape and measuring around three hundred feet by one hundred fifty feet at the widest points. It had a sandy beach that extended all around it and was completely enclosed, and sheltered by the surrounding trees. They could not see it until they were right upon it. Today it was ice-covered and as smooth as glass.

“Why come here?” Martin asked.

“Lots of reasons. There are some trout in it and you could catch a few if you had a pole. In summertime we sometimes come over and swim. In winter I like to skate here.”

“Skate on it? Here? Is it safe?”

“Not today, I figure there’s only five or six inches there. But it soon will be. That’s what I came to check, with dad’s help.”

Richard tapped the ice with the axe and, judging it to be strong enough to hold his weight he stepped out about two feet from the edge and began chopping a hole. After several minutes of this the axe broke through and the hole he’d cut quickly filled up. He reached out and with the axe held upside down, inserted the handle into the hole in the ice. He then retrieved it and said, “Hmmm about six inches. Not bad. Another day or so of this and it will eight or nine inches and it will be safe enough for skating.”

They walked back. Ellen said, “We’re going to load up the boat now and head back. The steamer is due in later on tonight and Richard always likes to be there well in advance so he can have everything ready. He’s kind of fussy like that!” She smiled and pointed in the direction of the dory, “Don’t forget to secure the load of wood before heading out.”

“I won’t be long here either,” replied Martin,’ “Good luck.”

He went back to his work. He decided to cut a few more sticks and put them out to dry. Shortly thereafter he heard the Putt-Putt-Putt of the motor boat as it left. “That’s enough for me, too. Time to go,” thought Martin. 

He sized up the load in the dory, remembering that Ellen said to secure it. He wondered what she had meant by that. Well, it looked secure enough resting on the bottom of the boat, which was by then, loaded as full as he dared. The tide had risen sufficiently now to float the stern, even with the load on. Martin got aboard, shoved off and began to row.

The going was slow. The dory was awkwardly laden, with most of the weight in the back. The bow was riding very high. This, coupled with the added weight, made it difficult to make any headway. Martin looked behind him. The sun was just above the Tolt on Rougille and would be setting soon. He was unlikely to make it in before dark.

He put his back into it and rowed as hard as he dared. It was still slow. He looked again. The flat island was not that much further away and he started to regret not having left with the others.

A sudden gust hit the boat broadside. The wind was coming up. Wonderful, he thought. This can’t get much worse.

Another gust hit the dory, tipping it hard to Port. Several of the sticks shifted and began rolling toward the port side. The dory listed badly, with the gunwale coming dangerously close to the water. Martin stopped rowing, hauled in the oars, and frantically grabbed for the sticks. He managed to shove them back across to the starboard side and the dory righted itself. He breathed a sigh of relief and retrieved the oars.

It happened again. This time even more sticks shifted. Once more, Martin did what he could to right the dory. He started to panic. There was no way he could keep the load balanced and row at the same time. He decided to jettison the sticks. “What a complete waste of a day!” he said out loud as he grabbed the first stick he could reach and prepared to heave it over the side.

“Martin!” It was Ellen. “We’re coming!”

Martin looked behind him. He could see the motor boat coming right for him. 

A few minutes later it was alongside. 

“I am so glad to see you,” said Martin. “For a while there I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

“We were almost home when that wind came up,” said Richard. “Something told me that you would find it hard getting back in that wind se we turned around.”

Ellen looked into the dory and frowned at Martin. “It’s a good thing we did. Your load has shifted all over the place. I warned you to secure the load. It’s a wonder you weren’t swamped!”

“But I sized it up before I left. I had it all tucked away and as low as I could get it. It looked secure enough.”

“That’s not what I meant when I said it had to be secured. It has to be tied down so it can’t shift,” admonished Ellen.

Richard jumped aboard the dory and Martin felt his face turn red with shame. I have to get used to asking more questions, he thought.

“Here take the end,” said Richard, handing Martin some line. “Tie it there,” he said, waving at the stringer on the port side. He moved the pieces closer to the bow and then tied the rope all around the sticks and fastened the other end to a stringer on the starboard side so that the sticks were no longer free to roll. “All tied down and now she’s riding flatter in the water. That will do it,” he said, jumping back in the motor boat.

Martin took the thwart and replaced it. He tried to sit but, with the sticks now moved up forward his knees were almost level with his chin. He felt foolish. It would be a long row back home like this.

“Get in the boat you silly thing,” laughed Ellen. “We’re towing you in.”

Now fully red-faced, Martin did as he was told. Richard started up the engine and they all set for home. The wind died down somewhat but It took longer than usual. Finally they were tied up at Martin’s wharf. Richard and Martin brought the wood up to the house and stacked it while Ellen and Pat brought the motor boat back to its own berth.

“That’s almost another cord,” said Martin. “Thanks to you. I was about to throw it all overboard just before you came back for me. I feel like such an omadhaun.”

“Like a what?” asked Richard.

“An omadhaun. It means a fool.”

“Omadhaun! Now there’s a word for you. My son, you crowd from away have some strange way of taking with all of your made up words like that!”

Martin smiled broadly. The feeling was mutual.

“Quite the day.” remarked Richard.

“It certainly was. I really appreciate your help.”

“That’s how it is,” said Richard. “Things go better when we help each other out.”

Martin couldn’t agree more.

A series of ripples began to run by the wharf. They both looked out at the bay and saw the steamer edging in through the harbour.

“It’s an hour early,” said Richard. “I have to get to work!”

“I’ll bring you over,” offered Martin.

“Thanks. That will save time.”

With both of them rowing they easily got to the wharf ahead of the steamer. Richard went ashore and tied up the steamer. Martin made as if to go but something on board the steamer caught his eye. He turned his head for a closer look. It was Anna, and she was waving to him. Martin returned to the wharf and went ashore.

Anna was coming down the gangplank, the lines of her dress flowing in time with her hair. She looked radiant.

“You’re back. How was the trip?”

“Oh it went well! After the interview, they wanted me to join them and do some planning for some changes they want to enact in the next few years. It was wonderful! I got to reacquaint myself with some old friends and I made some new ones.”

“Any men among them?” Martin asked with a laugh.

“Not exactly, but I did meet one very nice person in particular,” she said raising one eyebrow in that way he’d seen Mr. Deasy do from time to time.

To his surprise Martin did not feel jealous. He shook his head. He still hadn’t sorted out how he felt toward Anna.

“What’s with that?” asked Anna, noticing what Martin had done.

Martin hesitated, “Um, did they offer you the job?”

“Yes they did. It’s permanent, and they said I can start any time I want to.”

“And will you? Take it, I mean.”

Anna let out a long sigh.

Richard arrived, carrying her suitcase. “Need a hand?”

“No, it’s fine,” she replied, taking it from his hand and looking toward the small crowd that had gathered at the wharf, as was the custom in the community. “You have a lot more to do I imagine.”

She started walking toward her house. 

Martin realized that he was getting no answer to that question. “There’s something else, by the way.”

She turned and answered, somewhat tiredly, “What is it?”

Martin knew he was pushing his luck but something made him persist. Perhaps he just wanted to enjoy a few more minutes of her company, after that long absence. He didn’t know. “Remember a few weeks ago when you said there was something I could do to support the community? You never did say what it was.”

She didn’t move, “Oh, right. We never did get back to that, did we? Oh my, part of me wants to put you off for later when we have more time to talk about it, but I suppose you’ve waited long enough.”

She put down the suitcase. “A few weeks back at one of our meetings it came up that it would be a good idea to set up a night school here in the community.”

“Night school?” Martin asked.

“Yes, quite a few of the adults in this community can neither read nor write and we were thinking it would a good idea to hold a night school a couple of evenings a week over the coming winter. There’s not much work for the people to do that time of the year and we thought this might be a good time. I would love to do it myself but in all honesty I don’t have the time.

“And you’ll probably be gone anyway,” Martin thought to himself.

Anna continued, “I thought that you’d be a perfect fit for it.”

Martin was taken aback. He had been wondering what it was she was going to ask. He had thought that maybe she wanted him to join one of the groups she met with, or maybe even join up with the men’s’ club in the community. Those were two things he certainly did not want to do. This was something completely different. He had to admit that it didn’t sound all that bad.

“So I could do it at the school?”

“Well you could either do it at the school or at the hall, but if you did it at the school you would have the books right there and you would also have the chaulkboard.”

“The desks might be a bit small but I suppose if there’s one thing I’ve learned here it’s…”

Anna finished the sentence for him, “…You work with what you have.”

Martin smiled, “That does not sound all that bad. Besides it would give me something useful to do in the cold winter evenings.”

“Yes evenings when you would otherwise be stuck all by yourself over there in the bungalow.”

Still, if the past ten years had thought him one thing, it was that unexpected events rarely brought happiness. He’d learned, the hard way, not to like surprises.

“Let me give it some thought,” he said.

“That’s all I ask.” She gave a faint smile, “I’m tired from the long trip. A good night’s sleep is what I want now. See you Monday.”

“Monday,” Martin replied. “I will have your answer then.”

He returned to his dory, said good night to Richard, who was just finishing up unloading some cargo from the steamer, then rowed back home.

It was getting late. Martin was cold and hungry. He lit the stove and, as the fragrant spruce, the slightly green wood he’d cut just a few months earlier, warmed his place, he cooked supper.

Afterwards he sat at the table and wrote in his journal.

Nov. 28: Winter seems to have begun. It’s getting cold and frosty here. I almost lost a boatload of wood today, or maybe even worse, if not for the help of some very dear friends. Very much afraid I may lose yet another very dear friend sometime soon. Also have a decision to make regarding whether I want to start up a night school. 

He put the pen away and, as was becoming his custom, he took up one of the books he’d brought home from school and began reading it. The warm light from the candle just to his right lit the pages from one side and the pale light of the moon over the harbour, streaming through the kitchen window, lit the pages from the other.

After about an hour, the moon went behind a cloud and the light dimmed. He put the book down. As an afterthought he retrieved the journal and pen. He continued writing: 

Think I will write away and order myself a pair of ice skates

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The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 7

Chapter 7: Letters

No sign of the coastal boat yet, thought Martin, the next morning. No need to rush. 

Martin shivered in the calm morning air as he stood on his wharf looking across the bay. A nice, hot cup of tea would be ideal to drive away the chill. The sun had just risen and the light frost that had settled at the top of the Tolt was receding. Thank God there was no fog. Martin could see all the way across the bay to Ansauvage. Other than the ones tied up in the harbour, there was not a single boat to be seen out on the water.

Shortly after he had finally left the daybed and gone to bed the previous night the wind had strengthened, enough to rattle the kitchen windows, enough that the seas in the bay were still rough even though the wind had since died down. The steamer’s captain may have decided to wait it out.

At any rate he was fine for the next couple of hours so he went back to the house and cooked breakfast before heading off for the day. He made sure to take the two letters he’d written the night before. 

For the first time since he’d arrived Martin had something to post. For the first time in a long time he was feeling hopeful and optimistic. “Pack up your troubles…” he sang as he crossed over, the strokes of his oars keeping time to the melody. 

———

“The mail’s here.”

Martin groaned inwardly, “Anything for me?”

The man handed him a letter. Martin looked at the return address. It was from home, of course.

“Do you have anything for me today?” the man asked Martin.

“Not today,” said Martin, dreading the thought of having to reply to what he was sure was not good news.

The man nodded and left.

For the soldiers, mail, both sent and received, was taken to be a positive thing. Those who could write made an effort to keep in touch with family, so far away. In the few quiet moments the war allowed, the chance to sit with pen and paper offered an opportunity for escape, even if for just a few minutes. It was not possible to give details about the war, the censor saw to that, lest a letter fell into the wrong hands.  It was, none the less, perfectly fine to let loved ones know about their health, their thoughts on personal matters and, of course, to ask about things back at home. 

To receive a letter from home was an even greater joy, a chance to lose oneself in anticipation of the comfort and liberties they’d been assured they were fighting for. Except not for Martin. 

The last letter he received from home had not brought good news. His parents had written it in early March, about a month ago, and it had arrived last week. While they did inquire about Martin and mentioned that they hoped he’d remain safe, most of the news was about Sean. Reading between the lines in the vague language he’d come to recognize from his parents—the censors did, after all, read everything—it was clear to him that Sean was following a quite different path from Martin. One sentence in particular made it clear: “We’re sorry to tell you that he’s off to pursue his own interests.” 

To the censors this would be innocent enough—a son leaving home and not following in his father’s steps. Martin knew different. His parents were telling him that Sean had joined up with the Irish Citizen Army, just like he’d feared. While there had been no outright fighting in the streets of home as of yet, he knew that it would be only a matter of time before his brother took up arms against the British. Against him, in effect.

He opened the letter. There was some good news: “Your mother and I are doing well. There’s still lots of work and the pay is good so we are getting ahead, finally.” There was some uninteresting news, “Your aunt Isabelle, who still lives in the north, is now a grandmother. Both mom and baby are doing well.” And there was the news he dreaded, “Still no word from Sean. He’s been away now from several weeks and that business of his is more of a sure thing.”

So, an uprising at home was imminent. Martin wished to God that his brother would not be a casualty of that war, while he gritted his own teeth in frustration. Sean was now very much the enemy.

“I’m to give these to you.”

“Err, what’s that?” Martin put down the letter and looked up. It was the man who had delivered the mail. He had a stack of paper in his hand.

Martin took it, “Thank you.” He scanned through the pile. It was mostly blank form letters from the records office to be used to inform the families of the deceased. Each sheet had spaces at the top for him to write in the name of the recipient, the name of the deceased, as well and the date and place that they had died. The rest of the letter consisted of a few words expressing sympathy, on behalf of the crown. There were several plain sheets as well, and the last sheet in the pile was a list of the people to which they would be sent. Vince’s name was on it. Martin’s eyes stung. He shut them tight.

“Sergeant?”

Martin wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket and looked up, “I am sorry to keep you like that. I wanted to see what this was first.”

“So when will you have them, Sergeant?”

“Have what?”

 “The letters. The Major sent me to get you to do them. He wants them done today.”

“Thank-you. I will get started right away and should have them done in a few hours. Would you pass that along to the Major for me?”

“Yes Sergeant.” The man didn’t leave.

Martin tilted his head. It was something he did instinctively whenever he had a question. “Is there something else?”

“Yes Sergeant. There’s something I have been meaning to tell you.”

“What is it?”

“Well the lads have been talking and I think you should know that we all appreciate the way you have been since you have been promoted. We are used to being shouted at, even cursed at, especially when something goes wrong but you are not like that at all. Take right now. Instead of just barking at me to go tell the Major you said it with respect and I really appreciate that.”

“That is good to hear.”

“It’s not like you need to ask and we will all do what we are told but it is so nice to be treated like a human being. You always seem to put the men before yourself.”

“I try. I had a good teacher.”

“Yes, Vince. He was a good soldier and we all miss him terribly,” said the man as he turned and left.

Sergeant, thought Martin as he ran his hand down the stripes of his uniform. I suppose my education counted for something after all.

Martin listened. Nothing. The guns had mostly been silent ever since the firefight that had killed Vince. While the distant artillery and small arms fire was still there at night, only flares were being fired from his side and from that of the nearby enemy. Since both sides were now singularly intent on ensuring that their defences were solid, the principal activities were in maintaining the barbed wire and in moving the machine guns regularly. No doubt they’d both soon be targets.

Martin placed the stack of form letters on the plank. He picked up a rounded stone from the bottom of the trench and, using one of the plain sheets, wiped the mud off and placed it on the stack as a paperweight. What could he use for a desk? He looked around and, presently, found a short piece of plank about two feet by one foot. It would do. He used another blank sheet wiping it off. He placed the plank on his knee and retrieved the fountain pen and ink from his kit bag. As he filled it his thoughts ran back to the day Sean had presented it to him, a gift commemorating his graduation from college. Never, ever, had he thought it would be used for this.

He set to work. This would require his best handwriting so he wrote slowly and carefully, one precious name at a time, saving Vince’s for last. He had to do that one over, owing to the drops of water that fell from his eyes, leaving small indents on the paper and, here and there, smearing the ink.

He took the small pile of completed letters, gathered them together and tapped them on the plank, bringing them all in line. He carefully folded them into three equal parts, separated them and then put each one into its own envelope after writing the address on the outside. After an hour it was done.

It was done but Martin was not finished. He opened Vince’s letter and re-read it. Everything was in order, the handwriting was flawless and there were no unwanted creases or blemishes on the paper. Everything was there, but it still said nothing. Martin put it back in the envelope and then took a plain sheet of paper from the stack he had been given.

He stared off at the mud-lined wall of the trench for several minutes, not moving at all. He then lifted his pen and began to write. It all came out. How he had met Vince while on the way to the front. How they had become friends. How Vince had contributed, through the stories he told and the songs he sung, to the morale of the whole platoon. How he brought hope for the future. 

Martin wrote about how Vince’s courage and strength served as an inspiration. He assured the family that Vince had been loved and admired by all who had served with him. He closed the letter on a personal note, saying that he’d been with Vince until the end and that it had been an honour to serve with him.

He signed his name to the bottom of the sheet, folded it, and placed it in the envelope with the form.

He was just in time, “I am here to collect them,” said the man, who had dropped off the forms earlier that day.

“Here you go. I just finished the last one,” said Martin, handing over the stack of envelopes.

“Thank you Sergeant.”

“Corporal?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Martin shifted on his plank, the discomfort from his bottom matching the shame at the question he was about to ask, “Err, we have known each other for months now but I have always referred to you as Corporal. I admit that I have never learned your name.”

“It’s Timothy, Sergeant. But everyone calls me Tim.”

“Thank, you, Tim. It’s good to finally meet you.” Martin nodded and waited for the man to leave. He laid his makeshift desk on his bunk, placed the fountain pen back in his kit bag and laid back on his bunk to rest his eyes. The task had taken more out of him than had any other he’d completed to date. He started drifting off. 

“Err, Sergeant?” 

Martin opened his eyes. The man was back. “Yes, what is it, Tim?” he said through the fog of sleep.

“The Major wants to see you.”

“Thank you.” Martin shook himself awake, swung his legs back to the ground and stood up. He walked down to where the Major was and waited for him to speak.

“What is the meaning of this?” The major held out the letter that Martin had just written.

“Sir, Vince was important to me and I wanted to do right by him.”

“We do not do this. If we do it for one, we will have to do it for all. Imagine what will happen if this gets out.”

“I understand, Sir. But…”

“Yes, I know, Vince was important to you.” The Major folded the latter and laid it on his lap, “Sergeant, the fact is that all of our men are important and we do whatever we can for them, even under circumstances such as ours. We still have to be fair, though. And more importantly we have to be seen as fair. We can’t just single out some of them more than others.”

“Yes sir, I understand.”

The Major picked up the envelope and read it. “Newfoundland? The rest of you are from Dublin. How did this happen, I had no idea. He sounded like one of you?”

Martin explained how Vince had become attached to his regiment and, as he did, the Major’s countenance softened somewhat.

“Well, given where it is going, I suppose the likelihood of his getting out is not that great so I will allow it this one time. Just once. Do you understand, Sergeant?”

“Yes sir.” A wave of relief washed over Martin.

“That is where I am from too.” The Major gave a slight, brief smile. “Very well, then. You are dismissed.”

Martin saluted and walked back to his bunk. He did not know how to feel about all of this. He knew full well this letter, though special, would not be the last one he would have to send in the weeks and months to come.

———

After tying up the dory Martin dropped the two letters in the slot set into the wall of the small office by the wharf. He looked out across the bay and saw, over by Ansauvage, the tell-tale puff of black smoke. The steamer was on the way and would be at Rougille within the hour. 

He proceeded on to school. After hanging up his coat and lighting the stove he knocked at Anna’s doorway.

“Good morning. Fine fall morning, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Martin, I could almost feel the frost in the air. I believe that winter will be arriving early this time around.”

“Got a few minutes for me?”

Anna waved him to a nearby chair. 

Martin sat, his backside barely fitting the tiny seat and his thighs tilted upward. It felt like sitting on the chamber pot. “It’s a little small for me.”

“Around here the key to success in in learning to work with what you have.”

“Anna, this past week I have made quite a few mistakes and I need a little help in working through some of it.”

Martin went on to tell her about the incident with Pat the previous week, then about his visit with Ellen. He finished by relating what had happened between himself and Richard the previous evening. All the while Anna sat and listened without interrupting. He finished with, “I’m not quite sure about what to do next.”

Anna paused for a while before responding, “Pat was my student for six years and my experience with her was completely different. She did very well in all subjects and was a wonderful help here in my classroom. I am sure that the teacher she first had when she went to the high school felt the same way. For the past two years, though, she was with another teacher who’s gone now but I can’t see her changing all that much, especially when I know all she’s doing for the young ones down at the hall after school.”

“What was it like here for the past two years? What was the teacher who came before me like?”

“From town. He mostly kept to himself. I suppose he was like you in that way. I never got to know him very well. He would arrive here just in time for class and would leave right afterwards. He never spoke with me at all like you do.”

“But what was it like in his class?” Martin persisted.

“I can’t say for sure because we usen’t to talk. I do know that he kept his classroom door shut, unlike us, and there always seemed to be yelling coming from his class.”

“What used the students say?”

“Oh, Martin, you know I don’t like having that sort of conversation. I’m no gossip.”

“Please, Anna, I’m not looking for small talk. I want to know what the classroom has been like for the past few years, what it’s been like for the students. It’s important to me. I just want to, to, to …do better.”

She relented and looking through the door at the back of the room she said, almost in a whisper, “I can’t say for sure but I’d guess that the students had a poor time of it for the past two years. I doubt that the teacher did much more than make the students do all of the work on their own. They’re probably used to that now.”

“That explains why they seem reluctant to ask me any questions.”

“It might also explain why you feel you’re having trouble with Pat.”

Martin looked at her, “How so?”

“Oh come on, it’s obvious! The one single thing you need to know about Pat is that she just wants to help out, whether it’s at home, down at the hall, or at school. For the past two years, she’s the closest thing that classroom has had to an actual teacher. She’s used to lighting the fire, to sweeping up and, most importantly, to helping her classmates with their studies.”

Martin sat forward in the chair, elbows on knees, face in hands. He thought for a long while.

Finally he sat up straighter and looked at Anna, “But now I’m the teacher, not her.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Martin looked at her, “I don’t follow.”

“You think you are the teacher. What do the rest of the students see you as?”

Martin started to answer but Anna waved him off, “Martin, please don’t try to answer that right now. Give it time. Look around. Really look around, I mean. Sleep on it. And, Martin…”

“What?”

“It’s not me that you need to give that answer to.”

Martin returned to his classroom and got on with preparing for the day. When the bell rang the students filed in, and he began the morning session as usual. As the students began retrieving their books, papers and such, he tried something different. He made a point of saying something to each person in the class. 

He found it a bit awkward. Most of the students, he found, were extremely shy and unable to say much to him. To his shame he realized he even had to fumble with their names, even though he was used to saying them each day he called attendance. But this, of course, was different.

Martin gave the students their work for the morning and they began working quietly on it. Including Pat, who was seated in her usual place, and trying hard to write with her left hand.

Martin took his chair and sat by her. She didn’t look up.

“Finding it hard to write with your left hand?”

She nodded, still not looking up.

“How much longer will you have that cast?”

“Might be another month. Maybe even six weeks.”

“I see. Maybe we should try something different.”

Pat looked at him. “Different, how?”

“I’m not completely sure. What I do know is that you’re not going to get much out of school like this.”

Martin continued, “Before you broke your arm I noticed that you spent a lot of time going from desk to desk. You didn’t seem to write much but you were doing very well, judging by how you did on the tests I gave you.”

“Yes, I find it helpful explaining things to others. It helps me think things through, especially with mathematics. It’s way more helpful to me to show someone how to do something than it is to do it myself.”

“Then, maybe that’s what you should keep doing,” said Martin.

“But you made it clear to me that you didn’t want that,” she responded.

“Perhaps I was wrong.”

The room grew silent. Martin looked around to see thirteen pairs of eyes on him. The whole class had been listening.

He stood up.

“Let’s try something a little different for the next while,” he said to everyone. “Let’s rearrange the room so that people can work together.’

“I like working by myself,” piped up one of the children.

“Me, too,” said another.

Martin resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Fine. Let’s try this. If you want to work with someone else then move your desk over by them. If you’re fine by yourself then stay by yourself.

Martin waited for a while as the students moved about. It took a few minutes and, at one point, he saw Anna at the door looking in, no doubt curious as to what was the commotion.

At length, the class was rearranged. For the most part they’d grouped themselves by age. Two students, the ones who’d spoken up, had put themselves a bit away from the others.

“Comfortably close to the stove,” Martin noted to himself, with some amusement. He’d best ensure that they didn’t fall asleep that afternoon.

“Let’s get on with it, then.”

So it went for the next few days. Martin was mostly satisfied with the new arrangement, although the increased amount of chatter did cause him some initial concern. He decided to at least give it a try and see what would be the result when the next few tests and pieces of written work came in for grading.

A week passed, with both Martin and his students becoming more comfortable. On Friday, Martin had just finished grading some work when he heard a knock at his door.

“Got a minute?” It was Anna.

“Come on in,” he said, without looking up

She came in and approached his desk. “Yes we’ve both been busier than usual lately.”

Martin finished the test he was grading and looked up. Anna looked stunning. Her hair, just released from the clips that ordinarily held it in a bun, was loose and flowing. She had forsaken her normal style, her ‘teaching clothes’, as she referred to them, for a more formal dress. Something was on the go.

“Care to sit down?”

Anna looked at the nearby desks and decided that they would simply not work with the dress. She walked into the room at the back and reappeared with the chair from the desk in there. She sat down at the side of Martin’s desk.

Martin smiled, “A friend of mine recently reminded me that, ‘around here the key to success in in learning to work with what you have.’” 

“Ah, so you do listen sometimes.”

“You look wonderful.”

“Thank you.”

“Why are you all dressed up like that?”

“The steamer is due in shortly and I am going to town for a few days,” she said, gathering her hair into a ponytail.

“Town? Now? Why?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Remember the talk we had a few weeks back, the one on the wharf?”

Martin flinched. He’d mostly put the whole thing out of his mind. He had been focusing instead on improving his relationship with Pat, hoping to make things up with Richard and Ellen and trying to get his class working better. It had been almost two weeks and neither of them had spoken since.

“I am sorry for how I behaved when I heard the guns firing, Anna. I…”

She interrupted, “That’s not what I’m talking about. Remember how I said I want to leave?”

Martin nodded, “Of course.”

“Well, I wrote away to some friends in town and it turns out that there are some possibilities for me there.”

“Possibilities? Like what?”

“Well, for one, I have a friend in government who is keen to hear more of what I had learned from Harriet Mills. There’s interest in setting up some of it in a few schools.”

Martin pointed towards her classroom and smiled, “In other words they’d like to try out some of the things you’ve been doing here the past few years.”

“Right.”

“That’s wonderful. You must be excited.”

“I am. And then there’s this.” She handed him over a letter.

Martin took it and read through it carefully. Parts of it caught his attention more than others, “We are pleased to offer you… You will be partially responsible for the preparation of teachers of our young children… This is a highly responsible position and we are happy that… We would be delighted if you would be available to start in the new year…”

He came to the end of the letter and knew she was awaiting a response from him. He did not want to say what came immediately to mind, pleading, “Don’t leave me here by myself,” was not the best he could do. He therefore made a big deal of appearing to read the letter a second time, all the while, searching for the best response.

He stuck with, “This is a very exciting opportunity. It looks like a perfect job for you.”

He hadn’t seen the return address and he’d not recognized the signature, “Who is this you’d be working for?” he asked.

“They’re associated with the church,” was all she said. 

He felt she wanted it left just there and, though he didn’t know why, he knew it was best not to pursue that line. Instead, he asked, “How do you feel about it?”

“That’s really why I am here, Martin. I am of two minds. On the one hand, yes, it’s just what I am looking for, but on the other, it would mean I would have to leave here, leave my family and leave all the work I have been doing here.”

“Yes, that’s true,” said Martin, “but I’m sure that your family would be happy for you and very proud that, out of all the people they could have hired, they chose you.”

“Yes, but still there’s so much to be done here in the community. There are many problems here. You don’t get to see them because it’s mostly only the children from the better-off families who are in your class. You don’t get to see the ones from the poor families, the ones who’ve lost a mother or a father, or both, the ones affected by the drinking and the fighting at home. It’s…”

Martin interjected, “But Anna, surely, this is not all on you.”

A smile crossed her lips, “So you are saying that I should just stop taking myself so seriously.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“But there’s truth in it, and, besides, I won’t stop doing that work, just doing it differently and somewhere else.”

“So what’s the trip about?”

“I’m travelling to town to meet with the board. They want to get to know me.” She added as is an afterthought, “To see if I’m fit to work with, I suppose.”

Martin stood up, “You are more than that and you will do just fine.”

Anna stood as well, “The steamer will be in soon. I should get going.”

“Yes, I suppose you will need to pack your things.”

“All my things are ready for the weekend. I just need to stop off at home and get my suitcase.”

“I’ll walk down there with you,” offered Martin, getting his coat.

The steamer was just passing the lighthouse, on the way in to the wharf. “It looks like you’re right on time, and the tide is in so you can join the boat right there at the wharf. You’ve just got enough time to get your luggage. Do you want me to wait for you?”

“No, I imagine Mother and Father will want to see me off.”

“I bet they are very proud of you.”

“I hope so.” Anna smiled at him, squeezed his hand, and turned to take the short path that led to her house.

Martin walked down to the wharf. Richard was there, getting ready to receive the coastal boat. Martin had not spoken with him since they’d had the argument several weeks earlier, He had no idea what to expect. He couldn’t just get in the dory and leave. He had to say something.

“Need a hand?” he called to Richard, who was standing at the end of the wharf, watching the boat which was now getting ready to dock.

“No, I just have to tie her on,” he replied. 

“At least I tried,” Martin thought, turning towards where his dory was tied on.

“Oh wait,” Richard called back, “If you want, you can give me some help with the mail and freight. Seems like there’s more than usual.”

Martin saw the olive branch. He took it. Together, he and Richard helped unload the freight. Afterwards he helped Richard stow it away in the shed. When the job was finished and Martin turned to go Richard said, “Care to come to the house for supper? Ellen has extra on.”

“I would love to.”

“Ellen and Pat would love to have you over too.”

Martin felt relieved. Perhaps the changes he’d made were making a difference.

When they reached Richard’s house Martin turned and looked back toward the wharf. Anna was walking up the ramp, suitcase in hand. When she reached the top she turned and waved to her parents, standing arm in arm, on the wharf. They waved back. She went inside but the Deasys stayed on the wharf.

He went inside the house. Ellen greeted him warmly. He washed up and took a seat at the table. He could see the coastal boat pulling away from the wharf. The Deasys were still on the dock, standing together and looking out as it steamed across the bay.

Ellen placed a heaping plate of boiled salt fish and potatoes before him. Martin dug in. “I never had salt fish before coming here but I have developed a real taste for it.”

“Here, have some of this drawn butter,” said Ellen.

Martin poured it all over everything. 

“You’re worse than Richard!”

“I love this.”

“Didn’t you ever have it before?”

“Sort of, but we just call it white sauce. Where’s Pat? Isn’t she having supper?”

“Can’t you guess where she is?” asked Richard.

“I would say either at the hall or out in your motorboat.”

“Right both times, but she is in the motorboat right now.”

“With the cast on?”

Richard shook his head, “There’s no use talking to her. She figures she has to do this. You should have seen her starting the engine with her left hand!”

“I was frightened to death. Just imagine if she broke that one too!” said Ellen.

“I’m keeping an eye out,” said Richard. “If she’s not back soon I will probably borrow your dory and go after her.”

“No need,” said Ellen, “There she comes now.”

Martin looked and, sure enough, Pat was coming in through the harbour, “Looks like she has some fish on board.”

“I’d better help her with that,” said Richard. He gulped down the last of his supper and hurried down to the wharf.

“It worries me having her going out in the boat, especially with that broken arm, but she is a stubborn one,” said Ellen. “I suppose it runs in the family. She is a lot like me that way. Once she commits to something she will not let anything stop her.”

“That’s admirable,” said Martin. “It is good to see that she has ambition.”

“That may be so but, her plans to go away to college when she finishes school will be hard because Richard and I don’t have much money. We have some, but not enough. That’s why she goes out in the boat, you know. She is making money for school.”

“You should be very proud of her and I am sure everything will be fine,” said Martin. “Whenever there’s a need there’s always a way. You will see.”

“I hope you are right.”

Martin brought over his dishes and placed them beside the stand. He got the kettle from the stove and poured a mix of hot and cold water in the pan and washed the supper dishes while Ellen looked out the window.

“Richard’s helping her clean the fish. It would be hard to do that one-handed.”

“I should get him to show me how to do that. It would come in handy.”

“I think you’re a bit too late for that tonight. They’re almost finished.”

“Speaking of which, it’s time for me to head home. I have a few things to do before bed. Thanks for supper!”

Martin left and walked down to the government wharf. On the way he waved to Richard and Pat, who were carrying the split fish inside Richard’s fishing shed to be placed in the salt pound. It was so strange to see Richard’s motorboat tied up to his own wharf.

He untied his dory and began rowing home. Martin found himself again humming Vince’s song, “You can take Fritzy’s guns and bombs and shove them all…” It never failed to rouse his spirits. When he reached the end of the first two verses he tried, once again, to recall the remaining two. Over and over again he hummed the melody. The first verse was to the tune of “Pack up your Troubles” and the second was to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Of that he was sure. He just could not find the words again, no matter how hard he tried. 

“Oh, well, someday they’ll come to me,” he consoled himself.

After arriving home for the night he lit the stove and the lamp. It’s too late to saw up the wood like I planned, he thought. He sat at the kitchen table and read for a while.

His eyes became tired and he began nodding off. Time for bed. But first…

Nov. 13: Reached out, after far too long, to important people in my life. Been making some changes and things seem to be improving. Looking forward to making a few more changes in the days ahead. Feel that the worst is over. Learned today that my closest colleague is considering a job elsewhere.

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Christmas Recitation: Two Visits from The Big Fellow

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Christmas “Recitation” 2020

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The Ones You Meet Crossing Over 6

Copyright © 2019 Maurice Barry

Chapter 6: Over the Top

“Ugh. That’s a whole week in a row.”

It was the same every morning. It would start from across the bay. First it would shroud the surrounding hills, leaving visible only the harbour and the houses closest to it, while blocking out the sun, still sitting low in the early morning sky. Then, as the harbour cooled in the ensuing gloomy light, ever further downward it would creep until all was enveloped.

“I hate the fog. I hate everything about it! Everything is so cold and unpleasant to the touch.”

He was soaked to the skin. Martin picked the damp coat away from the shirt below, He had a fleeting thought of doing exactly that most evenings when he’d awaken on the plank, that filthy, splintery cold excuse he had for a bed back in France.

He hated the fact that he could only see about a hundred feet in front of him, making it risky, if not downright dangerous, to venture beyond the confines of the harbour. 

Most of all, he hated what the fog did to him. It smothered him. The cold opaque vapours had the most unpleasant knack for settling into the deepest confines of his chest, making it hard to breathe and virtually impossible to do anything strenuous. He doubted it was a thing he would ever come to accept or ever become acclimated to.

“At least I won’t make it any worse,” Martin thought to himself as he set off across the harbour. The incident at school with Pat, followed by his failure to recognize her as the accordionist the night before, had been weighing on his mind. He decided it would be best to pay a visit to Ellen and Richard and try to clear the air.

He’d waited until the early afternoon, hoping the fog would have burned off by then. Besides, dropping by earlier, while getting the business over with early in the day, might result in an invitation to Sunday dinner, a thing that, all things considered, he didn’t want to face right now.

———

Going over the top and stepping out onto No Man’s Land was something neither he nor anyone else wanted to face either. Nonetheless it had to be done, and on a regular basis. Whenever possible those forays were done at night when the relative darkness would provide some protection from the snipers and the machine gun teams in the enemy trenches.

Sometimes even this failed. The moon might unexpectedly appear from behind a cloud—something that was thoroughly avoidable. Enemy flares, though, were not.

Change was now the rule. Each passing day, it seemed, brought with it the very real possibility of one unwelcome surprise after another. Just last fortnight there had been the long cold snap. 

“And once again I am thanking you for my feet,” said Martin.

“Heavy frost like that is not unusual back home. We can get it at night any time from late August right up until the middle of June, so we always make sure we never travel without those,” said Vince pointing to the woollen socks and mittens in his kit bag.

“Well I am lucky you had two sets and very grateful that you shared with me. If not I might not have been so lucky.”

“Mother still finds ways to look out for me, even from thousands of miles away. She knitted them herself and put them in the mail. They got here just in time. Yes, quite a few men had to be sent home”

“Losing fingers and feet like that is hard. Just as bad as trench foot, if you ask me. And, really so unnecessary. We don’t need to be losing men like that.”

“And we have been lucky I suppose. Most of our casualties so far have been through trench foot and frostbite but that will change soon.”

Martin took the periscope and looked over the top, “They have been busy over there. They have been building new trenches and they are a lot closer to us. So it’s true, then. We are about to muster for an attack.”

“Not quite. There has been no talk of that but judging by the looks of it, they are getting ready. Have you been keeping track of them?”

Martin patted his pocket, “Every evening and every morning. The map is as detailed as I know how to make it.”

“And the machine gun nests?”

“You know I pay particular attention to them. Like us, they move them around, but I know what to look for, things like disturbed ground and new piles of sand bags.”

Vince nodded, “Good. The major appreciated the copy you made for him. Don’t be too surprised if you also wind up with an extra stripe soon.”

“Two is fine. I would rather be taking orders than receiving them. You know that.”

“Which is one reason you would be good at it. You know what they say, ‘no one securely commands, save they who have learned well to obey.””

A cold gust of wind whipped through the trench. “Well with that in mind, go and assemble the men. It’s getting cold and we shouldn’t be just standing around. It’s time to get on with the night’s work.”

“Yes, sergeant,” said Martin, as he turned and went to get the rest of the men.

“The Major says the defenses need to be beefed up so we have to go and replace the barbed wire tonight. There’s been too many holes blasted in it where they can get through if they charge,” Vince announced to the men Martin had gathered around.

“Yes Sergeant,” the men replied, almost in union.

Sergeant. It was no longer appropriate to use his first name, Martin thought to himself, feeling no small amount of pride in his friend’s good fortune. Though Vince had been promoted almost a month earlier Martin still found himself slipping up from time to time when they were talking.

“Don’t worry about it. We are friends after all,” Vince had reassured him, “Just try not to do it when the other men are around or I might get accused of playing favourites.”

Which, of course, was certainly not the case. Vince was nothing if not fair and respectful. The promotion had been to nobody’s surprise. With his positive, unflappable demeanour and his clear sense of what needed to be done at any given time, he had been an obvious choice. Martin felt sorry to see him leave his team, but he took comfort knowing Vince was still assigned to Martin’s platoon. While it had placed limits on the amount of time they could now spend conversing and working together it had not dulled the sense of loyalty and mutual respect between them.

“You will still have to teach me the two last verses of the song,” said Martin.

“I will, but first we have work to do,” replied Vince.

Night had fallen and it was time to get to work.

Vince selected two teams of two. “The barbed wire that we have in front of the trench has had too many holes blasted in it and we will set a new one all along. Each pair of you will take a roll of wire and crawl out there one hundred feet from the trench. Set it along where the old wire was located. Wait until I give the signal before you begin. Understood?”

“Yes sergeant,” they replied.

He turned to Martin’s crew, “Your gun will provide covering fire, if necessary. You do not need to wait for my command. Have you ensured that you have sufficient ammunition?”

“Yes, Sergeant. We have four boxes already in place. The Vickers is cleaned and ready,” said Martin.

“At your stations then.”

Martin and his crew went to the nest they had just completed the previous night and waited. Martin re-checked the gun, ensured that the water can was full and that the four ammunition boxes were within easy reach of the man to his right. He took his place behind the Vickers and reached inside his breast pocket to retrieve the latest copy of his map, showing the last-known positions of the enemy’s machine guns. Using his compass he located those spots in the enemy trenches. One by one he took aim at the supposed location and placed a small stone on the sandbag in front of him, right in line with the gun barrel to provide an easy way to locate them later should the need arise.  He then took a deep breath, wrapped his hands firmly around the two wooden handles and positioned his thumb an inch from the trigger, the way he had done hundreds of times already. 

He selected one of the targets, the one his gut told him was the closest to his current position and most likely to fire upon the work detail, and took aim.

The only sound was that of his own breathing. It escaped his nose in a small fog which quickly dissipated in the dry night air. His eyes darted between the target and the barbed wire. Vince had given the signal and the two pairs of men had crawled over the top, carrying two rolls of wire along with various tools and, of course their rifles. Being careful to keep as close to the ground as possible, they inched their way along over bare, black earth. Minutes passed with not a sound from either side. All along his trench Martin could see men waiting, peeking over the top and their rifles aimed at the enemy.

One hundred feet out. Finally. It seemed a lifetime. Martin checked his watch. Thirty minutes. The men began to separate, each one holding an end of wire. Still not a sound.

Without warning a flash lit up the night sky and Martin saw three of the men tossed like rag dolls, each away from the other. As their broken bodies tumbled, end over end, amid the shower of rocks, gravel and mud, the force of the blast rocked him backwards, temporarily deafening him.

Instinctively his thumb closed on the trigger and he felt the gun pulse. Dicka-dicka-dicka he heard, dimly, through the ringing in his ears. He saw the strobing flash from the opposite side as the opposing gun opened against him. Bullets zinged all around him but he kept his thumb down and the man beside him ensured that the cloth belt kept feeding his own answer to the enemy. The zinging stopped, as did the muzzle flashes from the other side. He’d silenced that one. One rock, the one he had used for aiming the first time, was dead on.

He took a quick glance to his left and in the light of a flare that someone had just fired he could see the scattered remains of three of the men. They’d stood no chance at all. The fourth, however, had been working at the far end of the fence and did not receive the full force of the blast. Martin could see that he was still alive, though injured, probably from shrapnel. 

Firing started up again from the other side. Bullets began striking all around while the injured man attempted to crawl back to their trench. Martin aimed his gun above the rock is assumed matched this next nest and returned fire.

A movement to his left caught his eye and he halted firing for a moment to see what was happening. It was Vince. He was lying as flat as he could against the ground while crawling out to get the injured man. One box of ammo was spent, then another. Martin continued firing until that second nest was silenced. 

Bullets were still ploughing into the dirt around the injured man. The machine guns were silenced, at least for the moment but the rifles from the enemy infantry were still active. The firing was coming from everywhere and there was no one target to hit. Martin continued anyway, in bursts of a few seconds at a time. But it was no longer effective. Martin was firing at ghosts.

Vince had reached the injured man and was now dragging him back. Sixty feet, now forty feet. Twenty feet. The flare was almost gone out.

Another box of bullets was gone. There was one left. The gun barrel got too hot and his team replaced it. It took about two minutes and then he resumed firing. Vince was now almost back and Martin figured he had about a minute to go. Fine, then. There was also one minute of ammo left. Martin pushed the trigger with all his might and held it in as if, somehow, this would make his own response that much more effective. Back and forth he swept the enemy trench with deadly fire until, bereft of ammunition the gun fell silent. 

The flare went out and the enemy had stopped firing. Either he’d silenced it or the enemy had decided that was enough for the night. For just a moment he rested his face on the handles, loosed his grip and closed his eyes.

“Vince!”

Martin leapt from the nest and ran to where Vince and the injured man were trying to climb back down. He and the rest of his team helped the two back into the trench. The medic saw to the injured man.

“Well done sergeant!” Martin was about to slap his friend on the back when he saw the large red stain on the back of Vince’s uniform. Vince slumped down on the ground. Martin carried him over to the wood platform and examined the wound. The large, rapidly growing red stain began overflowing across the wood and dripping to the ground below. Martin yelled for the medic but he was already tending to the other man’s injuries and could not answer. 

Martin sat down on the platform and cradled Vince’s head on his lap. Vince forced a smile and tried to talk, “Martin, I never got to teach you that song. The one I said I would.” 

“Sing it later when you’re better.”

Vince tried anyway, “Until that happens I’ll be keeping up my end but I’m not in this alone…”

Vince’s voice trailed off. He was too weak. Martin reached behind Vince’s back and pressed hard on the wound in an effort to stem the bleeding. 

“Hang on. It will be okay. Just lie still and the medic will be here shortly once he’s finished with the man you saved.”

Over and over he reassured Vince that it would be okay.

The medic arrived, “Well that took long enough,” said Martin. His voice softened somewhat, “How was that other man?”

“He has a lot of shrapnel wounds and has lost blood but I think at least he will make it.”

“Well don’t waste time talking. Get to work on the sergeant!”

The medic just stood in place and looked helplessly at Martin.

“Well come on. The sergeant needs attention too. He’s been hit. Bad.”

Still the medic did nothing. He just looked at Martin with a blank expression.

“Move, man! There’s very little time. Look, here’s the wound. I have been covering it to try and stop the bleeding.” Martin turned back to Vince to show the medic where it was.

And then the realization set in. Vince was gone.

“I am so sorry, Martin. I know he was your friend but there’s nothing I could have done. That bullet was deep in his chest and probably struck his heart.”

Martin didn’t reply. He just sat there, holding his friend.

“Here, let me dshelp you with his body,” said the medic.

“No leave him for now. Go and tend to the other man. I will look after Vince in the meantime.”

His heart, of all things. The irony. Martin felt his arms go limp and his back fell against the side of the trench. His head fell forward, onto his chest and he stared at Vince’s face. He looked so peaceful in death.

Martin sat and wept, Vince’s head resting on his lap, until first light.

———

He knocked on the door. Ellen answered, “Oh, good day, Martin, what brings you here?” She seemed surprised.

“Oh, I just stopped by for a chat. Can I come in?”

“Certainly. I have the kettle on. Would you care for some tea?

“I’d love a cup. Where is everyone?”

“Richard and Pat went off in the motorboat. They’re gone for a load of wood.”

Martin felt was somewhat relieved that Pat was not around. It would be easier for him that way.

“Got something on your mind? You look a little bothered,” said Ellen as she filled Martin’s cup.

“Yes, I wanted to speak to you about Pat. Last night, I really meant no offence when I referred to her as a young lad.”

Ellen smiled, “No worries, it’s happened before, especially when she dresses like that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. Pat’s her own person and she knows who she is and if that’s what she wants then so be it.”

Ellen laughed quietly, “That get-up arrived the same day as you did.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pat had been fishing and helping Richard all summer. She keeps a separate account with Mr. Deasy and she settled it up at the end of the last school year. She used some of her savings and ordered the suit, the cap and the shoes from the catalogue. They came in the mail the same day you did. They would have been right there in the dory with you when you arrived.”

“Yes, I thought that mail bag looked kind of full and that it held more than just a few letters,” said Martin.

“That’s how we get a lot of our stuff. The Deasys try to carry the main things we need but the little extras have to come some other way. If one of us makes a trip to town we can go looking for them, but we only do that once or twice a year. Mostly we use the mail order.”

“We didn’t have that in Ireland.”

“You didn’t need it. We do. I have a spare catalog. Would you like it?”

“I would.”

“It’s here under the day-bed,” said Ellen, reaching under the couch by the winter.

“Ah, so that’s what it’s called,” said Martin, “I can see where the name comes from. It’s a great place to take a nap during the day, not that I get to do it on weekdays.”

“I like to read in it when I get a chance, not that it happens much this time of the year,” said Ellen. “Later on in the winter when I don’t have to do the gardening, I manage to make some time. Richard doesn’t read much; he finds it hard, but Pat loves to read, too. Even more than me. Every spare minute, when she’s not working or helping out in the community she has her backside plopped down on the daybed and her nose stuck in a book.”

“She certainly is a fine musician too,” Martin offered.

“That’s for certain. She picked it all up on her own. And she’s so good with the young ones. You saw how she got them all to perform.” 

Martin nodded.

Ellen continued, “And she’s great with the older ones too. It gives her such great pleasure working with them, helping them.”

Once again Martin nodded his head.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Ellen said. “I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here just for that.”

Martin took a deep breath. “No, there’s more.” He told her about his difficult relationship with Pat, starting with how, since school began, she would not work quietly, and ending with how she’d refused to stay after school on Friday. 

Ellen listened quietly until Martin finished. “I see. Well, that is cause for concern. Richard is not going to like this at all. I will speak with them both as soon as they get back.

She stood up, “Now, if there’s nothing else, I have some things that need taking care of.”

Martin took his cue and left.

Pat was not in class on Monday. Martin started with reading but nobody really wanted to read aloud. He picked several students but, nobody got very far. They stumbled over words, words that Pat would often just call out, just based on the classmate’s first one or two attempts.

Mathematics class was almost as bad with nobody getting very far. The students were stuck on just about every exercise and Martin found himself moving from seat to seat to seat all through the period. Every single student, it seemed, had multiple questions. Why today, Martin wondered. Class usually goes a lot more smoothly than this.

Martin was exhausted when lunchtime came. He just sat quietly in his seat and even sneaked in a short nap before the students returned.

After dinner, in catechism class, things went quietly. Nobody spoke for the whole time and every student had their head down looking at opened books at their desks. When the day finally came to an end, all of the students were yawning and stretching as Martin led them in prayer.

Martin felt a guilty sense of relief as they finally filed out the door.

He went home shortly afterwards and spent the evening reading on the daybed. He fell asleep and, upon awakening at some point, dressed, and went to bed. Martin slept uneasily. He tossed and turned in the bed, all night long, and it was with a sense of relief that he greeted the sun when it finally rose.

Finally, no fog for a change, he thought as he rowed across the calm water of the harbour towards the government wharf. As he walked to the school he saw Richard and Ellen down at the Deasy’s wharf but they looked the other way as he passed by. They did not call out a greeting to him as they would have normally.

All students were present, including Pat, and something was obviously quite wrong. Her right forearm was wrapped in a plaster cast and held up in a sling. She was also not her usual active self, choosing, instead, to remain seated at her desk for the entire morning, except for at recess, when she hastily grabbed her coat and went outside until be bell rang.

She did the same thing when lunch time came, and was the last to return for the afternoon session. Again, she sat quietly and did not move from her chair until it was time to go home for the day.

“What happened to your arm?” Martin asked as she tried to put on her coat.

“Uh, it’s broken.”

“Can I help you with the coat?”

“No I’m fine,” she said, with the broken arm just inside the folds of the coat and her left hand fumbling with the buttons.

“I don’t mind helping.”

“No! I said I’m fine.” She turned to leave.

“How did it get broken?”

“It was nothing. Just an accident.”

“An accident?”

“Yes. An accident.”

“How on earth did that happen?”

“I said it was nothing. Look, I have to go. The others are waiting for me at the hall.”

And with that she was gone.

Martin thought about pursuing her, about finding out just what had happened. He looked out and saw that she’d reached the hall and was going inside. He decided that he didn’t need to make a scene so he turned around and tried to do his correcting and planning, same as he always did.

It didn’t work. He couldn’t get his mind off Pat. No matter how many times he tried focusing on the work before him his thoughts drifted back to the sight of her, huddled down in the seat, holding her broken arm close to her chest and looking so very, very tiny. Without doubt something terrible had happened and he was afraid that his visit had caused it.

Two hours passed that way with him accomplishing essentially nothing. He made up his mind, he’d have to go back to visit Pat’s parents. He put on his clothes and walked over to her house. He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

There was no answer.

He looked around. There was no sign of either Ellen or Richard.

Martin saw no point in going back to school. He knew he would be incapable of getting any work done. He headed for the wharf. A nice evening row in the dory would do him good. He cast off and turned the bow for the mouth of the harbour. 

A movement over at his wharf caught his eye. He looked closer. It was Richard. He was sitting there, waiting. So that was it. Martin made for the wharf. When he arrived, Richard held out his hand for Martin to toss him the painter. Martin had not expected that. He’d expected, rather, to be greeted by some angry comment or other. Despite his unexpected presence there at the wharf, Richard was quiet. That was strange. So why was he there?

Martin jumped ashore.

“I came to talk to you about Pat,” he said.

“Yes, that’s a good thing,” Martin replied. “I am very worried. What happened to her arm?”

“An accident. It’s not really any of your concern. I’m here because…”

“Not of my concern?” Martin interrupted. “It most definitely is of my concern.” Martin could feel his temper rising.

“No, it isn’t. Look I just came here to…”

Martin couldn’t contain himself any longer. He raised his voice, “See here, when I dropped by the other day it was just to have a civilized talk with you and Ellen about Pat’s behaviour. I figured you would just have a chat with her and try to get her to come around and to stop talking and moving around so much in class and to instead focus on quiet study and reading. I never figured you to be a violent man.”

“You think that I…”

But Martin wouldn’t let him speak. He was just too angry. He was, after all there to help the students, not to put them in harm’s way.

He couldn’t stop himself, “There’s absolutely no excuse for this. It doesn’t matter how upset you get you always have to keep some control.”

Richard stared back at him, incredulously.

The irony of Martin’s own words floored him. He choked on them and that same old cough came back. He doubled over, coughing uncontrollably. It finally stopped and, on his knees, he leaned against the upright at the edge of the wharf, breathing deeply, where his dory was tied on.

After a while silence returned. Martin finally stood up again and turned toward Richard.

“It was the engine. She kicked back,” Richard said quietly.

Martin felt his face go red. He hung his head in shame. Of course, Richard had already warned him of how it could happen when starting the make and break.

“We’d put a load of wood in the boat, and we were both pretty much all-in from the effort. Pat went to start the motor, but, where her arms were tired, she didn’t do it right, and the engine kicked back. I got the engine going and we came home. Yesterday her arm was all swollen so we went across the bay to the hospital. The doctor said it was broken, and he put it in a cast.”

“Then why didn’t she just tell me that when I asked her what happened?”

“First off, she’s embarrassed. Breaking her arm like that is a careless mistake, a thing that happens to people who just don’t listen.” Richard’s eyes glared at Martin. Though he didn’t say it out loud, Martin distinctly got the implication, “…like you.”

“And that’s not all of it,” Richard continued, “now she can’t write for the next month or so and that means that her studies will be affected. What’s more she can’t fish, so she is worried there won’t be enough money for her to go away to school next year. She’s got a lot on her mind.”

“I see,” said Martin.

“That’s what I came here to tell you. Or at least to try to tell you but you were in no mood to listen to me as you had your mind already made up about all of it.”

Martin sat down on an old wooden crate that was on the wharf. He looked out across the harbour toward Richard’s house, imagining Pat, inside and reading on the couch.

“I am sorry, Richard,” said Martin. “I was wrong.”

“It strikes me that you’re wrong about a lot of things,” said Richard.

“What do you mean?”

“Well let’s just think about it. You say she won’t sit quietly in her seat but that instead she keeps moving around.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that sitting quietly is not for everyone?”

“I suppose, but…”

This time it was Richard’s turn to interrupt, “Not everyone likes to be a loner like you. Some people are better when they can talk to others. And what do you think she does when she’s moving around?”

“Oh chatting, I suppose. And keeping others from doing their work.”

“Did it ever occur to you that she’s just trying to help? That’s what she’s like. All she ever wants to do is help out.”

Martin didn’t bother to mention that he didn’t want her help but he saw no point. He was done arguing.

So was Richard. “I’ve said my piece,” and with that he turned and headed for home.

Martin got back in the dory and began rowing toward the harbour mouth.

It was growing dark. The sun had already disappeared behind the Tolt and the tiny crescent moon was just about to set as well. He knew he shouldn’t go far since the cloudy sky would afford little light after the sun went down.

He didn’t care. He just needed an out.

He rowed as hard as he dared, keeping attuned to his breathing and to the rhythm of the oars in the water. He kept his eyes on the little triangle formed by the school, the church and the hall. For some reason the sight of that triangle getting smaller and smaller as he rowed gave him some small sense of control, of satisfaction. He only stopped when the heavy lop from the bay made it difficult maintain his seating on the thwart.

He looked around, but there wasn’t much to see. Night had fallen and what light remained only allowed him to make out the bare outlines of the Island. 

The dory slowly turned in circles as the wind, tide and waves carried it along. The lights in the windows of the community helped make it stand out from the darker headlands surrounding it. He could see, here and there, the subdued pools of light, likely from other nearby communities. 

And then there was the glow from the lighthouse on Rougille point. 

It was, perhaps, the main reason why Martin had come this far. On and off, at regular intervals, it’s beacon not only warning of the danger from the rocks it guarded but also beckoning to the warmth and safety of the harbour just beyond. 

One only had to know which was which.

Martin shook his head, sometimes it was so hard to tell.

“So where’s my beacon?” Martin said out loud.

But there was no response, only the slop, slop, slop as the dory rose and fell set against the all-encompassing roar as the southwest wind blew up the bay.

He turned for home and rowed towards where he knew the harbour would be. He knew enough to find his way safely home. He thought, perhaps, if he planned his actions a little better maybe he could learn to do the same in other ways as well.

It was very late by the time he got back. There was not a single light to be seen from any window. 

Still, he was not tired, just cold and hungry. He lit the oil lamp and the woodstove, despite the late hour and, as the stove warmed up the house, cooked a late supper.

It gave him time to reflect and to give some attention to his journal.

Oct. 20: Terrible day, for the most part. Been quarrelling with people with whom I should not. Came to a realization: I am the source of much of my own difficulty. I need to make some changes and I plan to, starting now.

He put away the journal, took out some sheets of letterhead and wrote two letters, the first correspondence he’d written since he’d arrived here. The first was addressed to Sean and asking for forgiveness, and the second was to an old friend from his regiment, asking for a favour.

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