There was a lot to do if I was going to be settled in and ready to start work at the end of the month.
I signed a one-year lease on the house with Ron Ratzlaff, and Will kept his promise to drive me into Saskatoon, where we went to the second-hand stores and picked up a few pieces of furniture. We also looked around the car dealerships and used car lots, and eventually I bought a 1979 Chevrolet Nova – a little more car than I had been looking for, but Will immediately gave his approval; “I know it’s not a Honda or a Toyota”, he said, “but it’ll stand up pretty well to winter driving around here, especially if you do any travelling on the back roads”.
Over the next four weeks I did some driving, taking advantage of the fine summer weather to explore the country around Meadowvale. But I also spent a lot of time walking the streets of my new home town. 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 in the Oxfordshire countryside. I quickly realized, however, that rural Saskatchewan in the early 1980s was not set up for that kind of country walking; 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).
I liked exploring, and at least a couple of times a week I took a road map and a thermos of coffee and just went out for a few hours. I went to the nearby towns – Wakaw and Rosthern to the west, Birch Hills and Kinistino to the north, Melfort and St. Brieux to the east – and now and again I turned off the hard top and went down a gravel road for a while, with the fields of green, yellow and blue on either side, the farmhouses every few miles with the trees around them and the grain bins shining silver in the afternoon sunlight. I got lost a few times – the grid roads ran straight, but didn’t always meet where I thought they would, and once I ran into a creek that didn’t have a bridge over it, although I could see the road disappearing into the distance on the other side. In those situations I learned to painstakingly retrace my route until I found a familiar landmark – a wooded hill, or a distinctive farmhouse off to one side of the road – to help me get started again. And sometimes I just stopped my car out in the middle of nowhere and got out to lead against the warm hood, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the stillness and the silence. I was used to narrow English country roads, with small fields, little villages only a couple of miles apart, and a nearby horizon; the wide landscapes of Saskatchewan were intimidating by comparison, with the vast sky above filled sometimes with enormous billowing clouds, and the fields stretching off into the distance. There was a hugeness about this country that could be felt, and at times I felt it bearing down on me, on hot afternoons out in the country with the lines of trees few and far between and nothing to shelter me from the grandeur of the big sky overhead.
I got Will to sit down with me and run through the curriculum materials I would be teaching in my classes. Most of the set books were already familiar to me, but there was some Canadian content that I didn’t know at all, and so most nights I sat up late, reading and catching up. When I felt comfortable enough with the curriculum and the materials, I began to make some plans and construct some lesson outlines. I was actually feeling quite nervous about the beginning of classes; it was true that I had worked as a student teacher in three different schools in the Oxford area, but this was my first real teaching job, working in a foreign country with a culture completely different from the one I had been raised in. Of course, I kept my apprehension to myself; I wanted to give an impression of confidence and competence when I was with Will.
Most of the other teachers were still away on holiday, but during my first week Will introduced me to a couple who were relatives of his: Sally’s nephew Don Robinson, who taught social studies at the high school, and his wife Lynda, who was an elementary school teacher. “Don’s mom Rachel is my older sister”, Sally explained to me; “We’re both Wiens’ 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”.
“Someone else who came back to Meadowvale?” I replied with a grin.
“Yeah, there are a few of us!”
One evening after another barbecue on the deck, Will and I got out our guitars and jammed together for a while, 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. I had been playing guitar since my early teens, and I had been strongly influenced by some of the best fingerstyle players in the English folk revival. He listened as I played a couple of songs, and then he said, “You’re probably a better guitarist than anyone else in Meadowvale. Do you play any Simon and Garfunkel?”
“I started out with their stuff, actually. My best friend Owen Foster learned to play 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”.
“So how did you get interested in traditional folk music?”
“The link was ‘Scarborough Fair’; we both really liked it. Owen found out that Simon had learned it from Martin Carthy, so we bought some of Carthy’s records, and he always had good liner notes explaining where the songs came from. After that, it didn’t take long before we started tracking them down and learning a few of them”.
“Did you guys play in a band or something?”
“We were a band, I suppose – or a duo, anyway”.
“Did you do concerts?”
“We played at open stages, and later on we got a few gigs at cafés and pubs and little folk clubs”.
“I’m impressed. Do you still like some of that old Simon and Garfunkel stuff?”
“I know a few of their songs; would you like to try some?”
Labour Day came and the school year began, and I was immediately plunged into the busyness of being a first-year teacher in a foreign country. When I had gone to school back home we had all worn formal uniforms with jackets and ties, but here the standard uniform seemed to be old jeans and tee-shirts. This was one of the aspects of the Canadian system that I quickly came to enjoy; 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”. He himself seemed to specialize in check shirts and baggy sweaters, although occasionally he exerted himself and put on a tie.
The kids in my classes, especially in the higher grades, were not much younger than me, and 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 originally decided to become a teacher because of my admiration for George Foster, my friend Owen’s father. George had been my high school English teacher, and he was the one who had first helped me fall in love with great writers of the English language. He had a masterful way of controlling a class of teenagers, but of course he had the advantage of being many years older than me. Nevertheless, I often found myself thinking about the way he had conducted himself, and modelling my own behaviour on his. I was still in touch with him, and I wrote to him a couple of times to tell him how things were going and ask for his advice on specific subjects. He 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 more time I spent with 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 with Mennonite names like Wiens and Thiessen, Toews and Janzen, and many, many Reimers. Sally was less outgoing, but she was 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!”
They 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, and my father was vocal about his atheism. However, my friend Owen was a Christian, and he and I had sometimes had conversations on the subject, especially in the last couple of years as I had gradually come to realize that I was finding atheism a completely unsatisfying philosophy of life. I was far from being a Christian, but I was curious, and I had to admit that I found Will and Sally’s Mennonite faith interesting, although I never asked them about it.
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 older brother Hugo’s farm; they were working on the harvest and could always use an extra pair of hands. Actually I realized very 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.
Hugo’s farm was about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale, just north of the narrow Spruce Creek. The farmhouse was a spacious two-story building with red siding, and barns and other sheds behind it. Hugo was taller and more wiry than Will, but he had the same curly hair and grey beard; his son Corey was helping with the harvest too, but I saw immediately that although he had his father’s looks, he did not have his big farmer’s hands. “He’s not really a farmer any more”, Hugo told me with a mischievous grin; “He’s an accountant. Still, 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? He told me he was going to be out here today”.
“I guess he had a surgery of some kind come up at the last minute”.
“Any excuse to avoid some real work, eh?”
“Spoken by the guy who sits in front of a calculator all day long!”
“Dad’s finances would be in bad shape if I didn’t!”
“True enough”, Hugo agreed; “I’ve never been able to make those numbers do what I want them to do”.
At noon we all went back to the farmhouse for a soup and sandwich lunch prepared for us by Hugo’s wife Millie. I noticed that there were some horses out in the paddock behind the house. Will saw me looking at them; “Are you a rider?” he asked.
“No, never had the chance. 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”.
“I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t ride. My kids like it too, especially Joe and Kelly. One of those horses over there is actually Kelly’s horse; she’ll likely spend some time out here when she comes home for Thanksgiving”.
“Does Hugo have other children too?”
“He’s got four, but his daughter Brenda lives down in Saskatoon; she and Kelly are pretty close. Donny’s the youngest – you know him from school, of course”.
“Yes, he’s in one of my English classes”.
“That’s right. The oldest is Erika; she’s married to John Rempel. Their farm’s about four miles from here; I’m guessing they’re busy with the harvest today too”.
“What about Corey; does he live in Meadowvale?”
“Yeah, he started his own business in town a year or two ago; Sally helps him out from time to time. He and Joe are cousins, but really they’re more like brothers; 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 high school, and they shared an apartment when they were in university too”.
“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”.
Owen and I had been friends since my family had moved to the village of Northwood when I was eleven; he had been raised in the village, and he knew all the countryside around like the back of his hand. Our friendship started out as 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 began to perform together, first at our school and later in other places, and this continued when we went up to university in 1977. He 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 was dubious, but he was determined, and so we took 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, another traditional folk singer with a soaring voice that audiences loved.
Owen and I had been calling each other once a week since I arrived in Meadowvale; 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”.
“Yes. Her name’s Lorraine Hutchinson and she’s an artist”.
He laughed; “Stuck in repetition mode this week, are we?”
“Sorry! Where did you meet her?”
“At church last Sunday; 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 here”.
“What’s she like?”
“Pretty, and 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, too, although she doesn’t play”.
“Sounds like she’s got the potential to become a definite distraction, mister medical student”.
“Don’t worry, I’m not getting seriously distracted”.
“Have you heard from Wendy?”
There was silence for a moment, and then he said, “Haven’t you?”
“Yes. What have you heard?”
“She’s moved to London; she and Mickey are back together”.
“You must be joking!”
“Did you hear that from her?”
“No, I haven’t been in touch with her since you left. I got it from Sue Morris”.
“Well, she would know”.
“I’m really surprised you haven’t heard from her”.
“I wrote to her, but she hasn’t replied. But you know how things were between us”.
“But London – that doesn’t make sense! She was all set to start studying for her doctorate at Merton”.
“What else did Sue say?”
“Not much, actually; I bumped into her on the High one day, but we only talked for a couple of minutes”.
“Is she still in Oxford?”
“No, she was just back in town for a couple of days”.
“Where’s she living now?”
“Right; I think I remember her saying she was going to do her doctorate at King’s”.
“That’s what she told me”.
“I can’t believe Wendy and Mickey are back together – not after all that happened between them”.
“I know; I was surprised too”.
The next day, a Monday, I stopped at the post office on the way home from school and found two letters in my box. When I got back to my house I made myself a cup of coffee, took it into the living room, and 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; well, 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 it’s worse for Becca. Yes, she has 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 don’t believe 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’s still very angry, and he hasn’t mentioned you at all since the day you left, although he has read your letters. 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 is very hard for me to watch, because I love you both. He knows I’m writing to you, and I think that secretly he’s glad 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. As far as I know he’s still seeing Alyson, but she hasn’t been out here with him for a few weeks.
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 dad 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. 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 looked at the photograph for a minute, and then 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 an addict and I should steer clear of him. But he’s changed, Tom; he’s not using 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; 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,
I read the letter through again, then folded it and put it down on the coffee table. I sat there 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 eighteen months when we had made music together, with Owen and I playing guitar, Wendy singing the lead, and the two of us harmonizing for her. I glanced across at the photographs on the wall again; there was one of the three of us, taken after an open stage at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub, where Owen and I had first met her almost exactly two years ago.
Eventually I got up, crossed the room to the shelf where I kept my LPs, took out a record from my collection, and put it on my player. It was one of Wendy’s favourite records, the first solo album by Anne Briggs, and as her clear unaccompanied voice began to sing, I wandered out to the kitchen, took some food from the fridge and began slowly preparing supper for myself.