This is a work in progress, I haven’t yet finished it, and it will probably get revised after it’s finished. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage; readers of A Time to Mend will know that it will have a sad ending, but hopefully it will be a good story.
The next few weeks were busy. I signed a one-year lease on the house, and Will kept his promise to drive me into Saskatoon to look at second-hand furniture stores. We picked up a few pieces to furnish my place, and I also bought a used 1979 Chevrolet Nova – a little more car than I had been looking for, but Will nodded his approval and said “I know it’s not a Honda or a Toyota, but it’ll stand up pretty well to winter driving around here, especially if you travel on the back roads at all”.
In those three weeks before starting work I spent a lot of time walking the streets of Meadowvale. I had always enjoyed walking, and in my teenage years and on into my university days I had been accustomed to going for long walks out in the Oxfordshire countryside. I quickly realized, however, that rural Saskatchewan in the early 1980s was not set up for country walking in quite the same way; there were no real footpaths, and if you walked along a gravel highway you got choked with dust every time a truck went by. So I took to walking around town every morning, learning to find my way around the streets, locating the grocery stores, the bank and the post office, and the coffee shops (one at the ‘greasy spoon’ on the highway, the other in the back of the Co-op store), where I had my first taste of Canadian coffee.
I also got Will to sit down with me and run through the curriculum materials I would be teaching in my classes. Some of the set books were familiar to me, but there was some Canadian literature that I didn’t know, and so most nights I sat up late, reading and catching up. When I felt familiar enough with the curriculum and the materials, I began to make some plans and construct some lesson outlines. I was actually feeling quite apprehensive about the beginning of classes: not just my first teaching job, but also in a foreign country with a culture completely different (as I was already observing) from the one I had been raised in. I kept my apprehension to myself, however, wanting to give an impression of confidence and competence when I was with Will. He also introduced me to two other teachers who were, unsurprisingly enough, relatives of his: Sally’s nephew Don Robinson, who taught at the high school, and Don’s wife Lynda, who was at the elementary school. “Don’s mom Rachel is my older sister”, Sally explained to me; “We’re both Weins’ by birth. Don’s her oldest boy; he and Lynda taught in the Arctic for five years after they finished university, but they’ve been back in Meadowvale for three years now”.
“Does everyone come back to Meadowvale?” I asked with a grin.
“We wish”, Will replied.
As Sally had suggested, Will and I got out our guitars a couple of times and jammed along with each other, getting used to each other’s styles. As he had said, he was a basic meat-and-potatoes strummer, comfortable with songs with a simple chord structure, and he also had a fine singing voice. His country repertoire was entirely new to me, but I could see right away that he got a lot of pleasure out of the songs. For myself, I had been playing guitar since my early teens and had been strongly influenced by some of the best fingerstyle players in the English folk revival – people like Nic Jones, Martin Carthy. Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. Will listened as I played a couple of songs, and then said, “You’re probably a better guitarist than anyone else in Meadowvale. Do you play any Simon and Garfunkel stuff?”
“I started out with them, actually. I’ve got a friend who learned at the same time as me, and their songs were the first ones we tried to learn. We tried really hard to sound like them, but later on we got more interested in traditional music”.
“You still like some of that Simon and Garfunkel stuff, though?”
“Right, let’s try some, then”.
And then September came; Labour Day was September 6th, and school started the week before. I was immediately plunged into the busyness of being a first-year teacher in a foreign country. In my school back home we had all worn formal uniforms with jackets and ties, but here the uniform seemed to be torn jeans and old tee-shirts. This was one aspect of the Canadian system that I actually enjoyed; I had always preferred dressing informally, and was relieved that there was no requirement that male teachers wear ties in Meadowvale School, “although you can if you want”, Will told me, “and we don’t want you wearing jeans on the job”. Will himself seemed to specialize in check shirts and baggy sweaters, although occasionally he exerted himself and put a tie on.
The kids in my classes, especially in the higher grades, were not much younger than me, and of course it was sometimes a challenge to exert discipline. In the first few weeks I often felt at a loss to know how to control them, but gradually I found my way, starting to relax a little and participate in the give and take of classroom banter. I had become an English teacher because of my admiration for George Foster, who had taught me in high school and helped me fall in love with Shakespeare and Dickens and George Eliot and Jane Austen and the classics of English literature. George had a masterful way of controlling a class, but of course he was more than a few years older than me; nonetheless, I tried to take my inspiration from the way he had conducted himself. I was still in touch with him – his son Owen was my best friend – and from time to time I wrote to tell him how things were going and to ask for his advice in certain situations. George always wrote back promptly and his letters were full of encouragement.
All through the late summer and early Fall, Will and Sally invited me for supper at their house at least once a week. I protested half-heartedly that they didn’t need to spoil me, but the truth was that Sally was an excellent cook and I enjoyed their company. I was getting to know them a little better now, and the better I knew them, the more I admired them. I was a mild introvert myself, but Will was a gregarious extrovert and was always introducing me to new people when we were out around town. He was especially glad to introduce me to relatives, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, most of them Mennonites with names like Wiens and Thiessen, Toews and Janzen, and many, many Reimers as well. Sally was less outgoing than Will, but just as happy to have company in their home; Will told me that she worked part time as a bookkeeper for several local businesses; “She’s pretty good with accounts and that kind of stuff”, he said with a grin, “which is lucky, because I’m not!”
Will and Sally were not just cultural Mennonites; they were believers too. I had noticed from the beginning that they always said grace at mealtimes, and from time to time they alluded to the fact that they had been to church on Sunday. I had been raised in a non-churchgoing home; my father was an atheist and my mother – though I thought she might have enjoyed going to church from time to time – would not defy his will. However, my best friend Owen was a Christian and he and I had often had conversations on the subject, so I was not put off by Will and Sally’s religious beliefs, although I never raised it with them.
And so the warm Saskatchewan summer turned to Fall, the leaves turned from green to yellow, and the farmers were frantically busy in the fields getting the crops in. One Saturday in late September Will asked me if I would like to go out with him to his brother Hugo’s farm; they were working on the harvest and could always use an extra pair of hands. Actually I realized pretty quickly that this was just another example of Will’s gregarious spirit, because he was driving the grain truck, and all I did all day long was sit beside him in the cab and listen to his stories.
I did enjoy meeting Hugo and his wife Millie, though, and their son Corey who was helping them for the day. “He’s not really a farmer any more”, Hugo told me with a smile; “He’s an accountant, but he likes coming out here and getting his hands dirty from time to time!”
Corey smiled and said, “Speaking of amateur farmers, where’s Joe, Uncle Will? Wasn’t he supposed to be out here today?”
“I guess he had a surgery of some kind come up at the last minute”, Will replied.
“Any excuse to avoid some real work, eh?” Corey said with a mischievous grin.
“Joe and Corey are cousins, but really they’re more like brothers”, Will explained to me later in the day; “They’ve been best friends since they were little boys”.
“Are they the same age, then?”
“Joe’s six months older than Corey, but they were in the same year through school, and they boarded together in university too”.
Hugo and Millie had some horses in the paddock behind their house, and Will asked me if I was a rider.
“No, never had the chance”, I replied. “I suppose you are, though?”
“I don’t ride very often these days, but when I was a kid I rode a horse to school, on account of our farm being about four miles from the schoolhouse”.
“You must have learned when you were very young, then”.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember! My kids like riding too, especially Joe and Kelly. One of these horses here is actually Kelly’s horse; she’ll likely spend some time out here when she comes home for Thanksgiving”.
“So what do you think of it so far?” Owen asked when we were talking on the phone.
“It’s all strange, but I like it”, I replied.
Owen and I had been friends since my family had moved to the village of Northwood when I was eleven. Owen had been raised in the village, and he knew all the countryside around like the back of his hand. Our friendship was first of all the friendship of two boys who liked going for bike rides and rambles out in the country; later on it also became a musical friendship, as we learned to play guitar together. In our late teens we had performed together, first at our school and later in other places, and this had continued when we had gone up to Oxford in 1977. Owen was more outgoing than me, and he was the one who first suggested that we go out to a pub to play at an open stage night. I had been dubious about it, but he was determined, and so we had taken the first step into the folk music community of Oxford. Before long we had a name, ‘Lincoln Green’, and much later we were joined by a third member, Wendy Howard, who also loved traditional folk music and had a soaring voice that audiences loved.
Owen and I had been calling each other once a week since I arrived in Meadowvale back in August; we also wrote regularly, and I had sent him some photographs of my new home town.
“Any snow yet?” he asked.
“No, in fact it’s been quite mild, although Fall is definitely progressing. Will and Sally keep warning me that one day the snow’s coming, though. How about you; what have you been up to this week?”
“Well, I met a girl I rather like, actually”.
“A girl?” I was mildly surprised; Owen was an extrovert who had many friendships, male and female, but he very rarely singled any of the girls out for special attention. He had dated from time to time in a casual manner, but as far as I knew – and we were very close friends, so I would have known – he had never had anything like a steady girlfriend.
“Yes, her name’s Lorraine Hutchinson and she’s an artist”.
Owen laughed; “Are you stuck in repetition mode today?”
“Sorry! Where did you meet her?”
“At church last Sunday, actually. She was new and she ended up accidentally sitting beside me. We got talking and I asked her out for lunch afterwards. I’ve seen her a couple of times since then; she only lives a five minute walk from me”.
“What’s she like?”
“She’s pretty, and she’s talented. She’s spent the last three years at art school in London, and now she’s moved to Oxford to live with her sister. She’s trying to make a living as a water colour artist, and meanwhile she’s working at a coffee bar in the city centre”.
“Does she like walking?”
“Yes, and music, though she doesn’t play”.
“Sounds like she’s got the potential to become a definite distraction, mister medical student”.
He laughed; “Don’t worry, I’m not getting seriously distracted”.
“Have you heard from Wendy?”
He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Haven’t you?”
“Well, I heard from someone else at Merton that she’s moved to London and that she and Mickey are back together”.
I was astounded; “You must be joking!” I exclaimed.
“I’m not; I had it from Sue Morris”.
“Well, Sue would know”.
“I’m surprised that you haven’t heard from her, though”.
“I wrote to her, but she hasn’t replied. That doesn’t surprise me, though; you know how things were between us”.
“But London, Owen – that doesn’t make sense! She was all set to start studying for her doctorate at Merton”.
“I know; I found it hard to believe, too”.
The next day, a Monday, I walked down to the post office after school and picked up my mail, where I found two letters waiting. I took them home, made myself a cup of coffee, and took it into the living room, where I sat down to read.
The first letter was from my mother.
September 27th 1982
Thank you for your letter of September 19th that I received yesterday. Letters seem to be taking about a week to get here; I assume it’s the same in the other direction as well?
I’m glad that school is going well and that you’re enjoying the new friends you’re making. I was glad to hear your stories about the Reimers and it really does seem as if you’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive principal. I was also very glad to receive the photographs you sent; they give me something to visualize about your new life.
You asked after Becca; what can I say? She’s still very, very hurt, Tom; hurt that you planned this move for so long without telling her, when she looked up to you so much and loved you so very dearly. Of course, your dad and I are still hurting from that as well, but I think it’s worse for Becca. Yes, she’s received your letters, but she hasn’t read them; she tore them up and threw them away. I know it will be painful for you to hear this, because, unlike your dad, I do not believe that you did all this specifically to hurt us, and I know you well enough to be sure that your little sister is still very special to you. But you need to know how things stand. By all means continue to write to her, and I’ll pass on your news as well, but don’t expect to hear back from her, at least, not in the short term.
As for your dad, he hasn’t mentioned you since the day you left. I know that what he did to you the last time you saw each other will make it very, very difficult for either of you ever to be reconciled to each other. This breaks my heart, because I love you both. He knows I’m writing to you, and I think that secretly he’s happy to have news of you. But I don’t think you’ll hear from him yourself.
Rick is fine and very busy; the new term at Oxford has just started and it looks like he’ll have a lot to do. He moved back into college last week, and he stayed in town last weekend to get some work done.
I bumped into Owen in town last week and he was kind enough to invite me out for a cup of coffee. He told me that he hears from you and that you talk on the phone regularly. I was very glad to see him and I’m glad that the two of you are keeping in touch – not that I didn’t think you would, of course. I’m sure you know how lucky you are to have such a friend.
Well, I’m writing this in the kitchen and your father will be home from work soon, so I’d better close and start getting the dinner ready. God bless you, my dear son, and keep you safe in that faraway land. Write soon, please, and tell me everything that’s going on.
I put the letter down on the coffee table beside me, took a sip of my coffee, and then got up from my seat and went over to the far wall, where I had hung a couple of framed photographs. One of them was of my sister Becca, twelve years younger than me, who was just starting high school this Fall. She had long dark hair and blue eyes, and she had a cheeky grin on her face as she looked up at the camera. I had taken the photograph myself a few months ago, before I had broken the news to the family that I was moving to Canada.
I went back to my chair, sat down again, and opened the second letter; it was from Wendy Howard.
Camden Town, London
September 26th 1982
Your letter has been forwarded to my new address here in London. I know you’ll be surprised to hear that I’m back at University College. I’d been planning to study for my doctorate at Merton, as you know, but a couple of circumstances intruded, and I made the decision to change my plans and come back here.
You’ll be even more surprised to hear that I’m back with Mickey and we’re living together. I know, you’ll want to give me a lecture about how he’s a junkie and I should steer clear of him. But he’s changed, Tom, he really has; he’s not doing drugs any more, and he’s really cut back on his drinking. He’s got a good job as a photographer with the Daily Telegraph, and he’s playing music a couple of nights a week as well. The long and the short of it is, I still love him, and I’m glad we’ve worked things out.
But that means I need to apologize to you, Tom; you were so kind to me when Mickey and I broke up, and I think I may have led you on a little. I don’t know whether or not you were feeling anything for me, but if I misled you, I’m truly sorry. I’ll always be glad that we were friends.
I’m glad Canada is working out well for you; it sounds very exciting.
Love and best wishes from your friend,
After I finished reading the letter I sat in silence for a long time, sipping my coffee and remembering the many long conversations Wendy and I had enjoyed in my flat in Oxford back in the spring, as well as the two years we had played music together, Owen and I playing guitar, Wendy singing the lead and the two of us harmonizing for her. Eventually I got up, took out a record from my collection, and put it on my record player; it was Anne Briggs’ solo album, and as her clear unaccompanied voice began to sing, I wandered out to the kitchen, took out some food from the fridge and began to make myself some supper.