T his is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. Jackson is the only passenger left, and the next stop is about twenty miles ahead. Then the stop at Ripley, then Kincardine and the lake. Already he has taken his ticket stub out of its overhead notch. He heaves his bag, and sees it land just nicely, in between the rails. He takes his chance. But the leap, the landing, disappoints him. The train is out of sight; he hears it putting on a bit of speed, clear of the curve.
He spits on his hurting hands, getting the gravel out. Then picks up his bag and starts walking back in the direction he has just covered on the train. If he followed the train he would show up at the station there well after dark. He would have been believed. Coming home from so far away, from Germany and the war, he could have got mixed up in his head. Maples, that everybody knows. The trees are just along the track, thick on the embankment, but he can see the flash of fields behind them.
Fields green or rusty or yellow. Pasture, crops, stubble. He knows just that much. And that was not true. Jackson himself was the son of a plumber. He had never been in a stable in his life or herded cows or stoked grain. Or found himself as now stumping along a railway track that seemed to have reverted from its normal purpose of carrying people and freight to become a province of wild apple trees and thorny berry bushes and trailing grapevines and crows scolding from perches you could not see.
T he little jersey, whose name was Margaret Rose, could usually be counted on to show up at the stable door for milking twice a day, morning and evening. But this morning she was too interested in something down by the dip of the pasture field, or in the trees that hid the railway tracks on the other side of the fence. But then decided to go back for another look. Well of course it was all right. Did he think she was afraid of him attacking Margaret Rose who had her horns still on?
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That was too much for Margaret Rose, she had to put on a display. Jump one way, then another. Toss of the wicked little horns. Nothing much, but jerseys can always surprise you with their speed and spurts of temper. Belle called out, to scold her and reassure him. Now she noticed the bag he had hold of. That was what had caused the trouble.
She had thought he was just out walking the tracks, but he was going somewhere. If you could just lay it down for a moment. I have to get her back towards the barn to milk her. She got Margaret Rose headed back to where the pail was, and the stool, on this side of the barn. If you wait till I get her milked I can get you some breakfast. Margaret Rose.
She was a short, sturdy woman with straight hair, gray mixed in with what was fair, and childish bangs. Or I used to be. I have porridge made, on the back of the stove. We used to keep hens but the foxes kept getting them and we just got fed up. Just get out of the way for a bit. He took himself off around the barn. It was in bad shape.
He peered between the boards to see what kind of a car she had, but all he could make out in there was an old buggy and some other wrecks of machinery. The white paint on the house was peeling and going gray. A window with boards nailed across it, where there must have been broken glass. The dilapidated henhouse where she had mentioned the foxes getting the hens. Shingles in a pile.
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There was a road running by. A small fenced field in front of the house, a dirt road. And in the field a dappled, peaceable-looking horse. A cow he could see reasons for keeping, but a horse? Even before the war people on farms were getting rid of them, tractors were the coming thing. Then it struck him. The buggy in the barn. It was no relic, it was all she had. The road rose up a hill, and from over that hill came a clip-clop, clip-clop.
Along with the clip-clop some little tinkle or whistling. Now then. Over the hill came a box on wheels, being pulled by two quite small horses. Smaller than the ones in the field but no end livelier. And in the box sat a half dozen or so little men. All dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads. The sound was coming from them. It was singing.
Discrete high-pitched little voices, as sweet as could be. They never looked at him as they went by.
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They walked on planks laid over an uneven dirt floor, in a darkness provided by the boarded-up window. He had wakened again and again, trying to scrunch himself into a position where he could stay warm. She poured the fresh milk into a basin and covered it with a piece of cheesecloth she kept by, then led him into the main part of the house. The windows there had no curtains, so the light was coming in. Also the woodstove had been in use. There was a sink with a hand-pump, a table with oilcloth on it worn in some places to shreds, and a couch covered with a patchy old quilt.
So far, not so bad, though old and shabby. There was a use for everything you could see. But raise your eyes and up there on shelves was pile on pile of newspapers or magazines or just some kind of papers, up to the ceiling. I mean, I sleep here and everything. A couple of times it got too hot and I just threw some baking powder on it.
Nothing to it. I had her cot in here. I kept an eye on everything. She died in May. Just when the weather got decent. She lived to hear about the end of the war on the radio. She understood perfectly. She lost her speech a long time ago but she could understand. If it comes to that why not drink hot water? We did run out when the weather got so bad last winter. The hydro gave out and the radio gave out and the sea gave out. I had a rope round the back door to hang on to when I went out to milk.
Anyway she survived. We all survived. Were they sitting? It must have been the little Mennonite boys. They drive their cart to church and they sing all the way. The girls have to go in the buggy but they let the boys ride in the cart. I used to say to Mother that we lived on the right road because we were just like the Mennonites. The horse and buggy and we drink our milk unpasteurized but the only thing is, neither one of us can sing.
What this involved was actually making a new horse trough, and in order to do that he had to hunt around for any materials and tools he could find. It took him all day, and she served him pancakes and Mennonite maple syrup for supper. She picked the wild berries growing along the railway track.
They sat on kitchen chairs outside the back door until after the sun went down. She was telling him something about how she came to be here and he was listening, but not paying full attention because he was looking around and thinking how this place was on its last legs but not absolutely hopeless, if somebody wanted to settle down and fix things up.
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A certain investment of money was needed, but a greater investment of time and energy. It could be a challenge. He could almost bring himself to regret that he was moving on. He could work anywhere, because he made his living with a column for the Toronto Telegram. Jackson just for a second embarrassingly pictured this as a real column holding or helping to hold up a building. The mailman took what was written and it was sent off on the train. Her mother might have been the reason they stayed year round. She had caught the terrible flu of in which so many people died, and when she came out of it she was a mute.
Not really, because she could make sounds all right, but she seemed to have lost words. Or they had lost her. She had to learn all over again to feed herself and go to the bathroom but one thing she never learned was to keep her clothes on in the hot weather.
Belle was away at a school in the winters. It took him a little effort to realize that what she referred to as Bishop Strawn was a school. It was full of rich girls but also had girls like herself who got special money from relations or wills to go there. It taught her to be rather snooty, she said. But that was all settled for her by the accident. Walking along the railway track, as he often liked to do on a summer evening, her father was hit by a train.
She and her mother had already gone to bed when it happened and Belle thought it must be a farm animal loose on the tracks, but her mother was moaning dreadfully and seemed to know first thing. Sometimes a girl she had been friends with at school would write to ask her what on earth she could find to do up there, but little did they know. There was milking and cooking and taking care of her mother and she had the hens at that time as well. She learned how to cut up potatoes so each part has an eye, and plant them and dig them up the next summer.
The Mennonites let her have a horse that was not good for farmwork anymore, and one of them taught her how to harness and drive it. One of the old friends came up to visit her and thought the way she was living was a hoot. She wanted her to go back to Toronto but what about her mother? Her mother was a lot quieter now and kept her clothes on, also enjoyed listening to the radio, the opera on Saturday afternoons. Or maybe it was herself she was talking about, who was scared of uproot. T he first thing he had to do was to make some rooms other than the kitchen fit to sleep in, come the cold weather.
He had some mice to get rid of and even some rats, now coming in from the cooling weather. He kept a sharp ear open for the snap of the traps, and got rid of them before she knew what had happened. Then he lectured about the papers filling up the kitchen, the firetrap problem, and she agreed to move them, if the front room could be got free of damp. That became his main job. He invested in a heater and repaired the walls, and persuaded her to spend the better part of a month climbing down and getting the papers, rereading and reorganizing them and fitting them on the shelves he had made. Sometimes she called it a novel.
He did not think to ask anything about it but one day she told him it was about two people named Matilda and Stephen. A historical novel. In his final year, anyway, all you could think about was that you were going to the war. English history, anyway. She said that Stephen had been a hero. A man of honor, far too good for his times. Consequently and finally he was not a success. And then Matilda. She was a straight descendant of William the Conqueror and as cruel and haughty as you might expect.
Though there might be people stupid enough to defend her because she was a woman. He knew that books existed because people sat down and wrote them. But why, was the question. There were books already in existence, plenty of them.
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Two of which he had to read at school. A Tale of Two Cities and Huckleberry Finn, each of them with language that wore you down, though in different ways. And that was understandable. They were written in the past. Anyway, now that this room was livable his mind was on the roof. No use to fix up a room and have the state of the roof render it unlivable again in a year or two.
He had managed to patch the roof so that it would do her a couple more winters but he could not guarantee more than that. And he still planned to be on his way by Christmas. The Mennonite families on the next farm ran to older girls and the younger boys he had seen, not strong enough yet to take on heavier chores.
Jackson had been able to hire himself out to them during the fall harvest. He had been brought in to eat with the others and to his surprise found that the girls behaved giddily as they served him, they were not at all mute as he had expected. The mothers kept an eye on them, he noticed, and the fathers kept an eye on him. All safe. And of course with Belle not a thing had to be spoken of. To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything. She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.
T he town where they shopped, when they needed to, was called Oriole. It was in the opposite direction from the town where he had grown up. He tied up the horse in the United Church shed there, since there were of course no hitching posts left on the main street. At first he was leery of the hardware store and the barbershop. But soon he realized something about small towns which he should have realized just from growing up in one. They did not have much to do with each other, unless it was for games run off in the ballpark or the hockey arena, where all was a fervent made-up sort of hostility.
When people needed to shop for something their own stores could not supply they went to a city. The same when they wanted to consult a doctor other than the ones their own town could offer. In the winter months, not even that, because the back roads were not plowed and people taking their milk to the creamery or eggs to the grocery had to make do with horses. Belle always stopped to see what movie was on though she had no intention of going to see any of them. Her knowledge of movies and movie stars was extensive but came from some years back.
For instance she could tell you whom Clark Gable was married to in real life before he became Rhett Butler. Soon Jackson was going to get his hair cut when he needed to and buying his tobacco when he ran out. He smoked now like a farmer, rolling his own and never lighting up indoors. The horse Freckles was God knows how old and stubborn on any sort of hill.
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