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.”
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?”
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.
“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.”
“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