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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“…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.
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.
And Mr. Deasy.
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.”
“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.