Meadowvale (2016 revision): Chapter 2

Link back to Chapter 1

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 do”.

“I know a few of their songs; would you like to try some?”

“Absolutely”.

 

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”.

“A girl?”

“Yes. Her name’s Lorraine Hutchinson and she’s an artist”.

“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?”

“No”.

“Really?”

“Yes. What have you heard?”

“She’s moved to London; she and Mickey are back together”.

“You must be joking!”

“I’m not”.

“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”.

“Yeah”.

“But London – that doesn’t make sense! She was all set to start studying for her doctorate at Merton”.

“I know”.

“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?”

“London”.

“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.

Northwood, Oxfordshire

September 27th 1982

Dear Tom:

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.

With love,

Mum.

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

Dear Tom:

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,

Wendy

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.

Link to Chapter 3

Meadowvale (2016 revision): Chapter 1

I first looked down on the Canadian prairies in the summer of 1982, from a window seat in the big wide-bodied jet that was flying me from London to Saskatoon. The weather had been cloudy over the Atlantic, but it began to clear as we crossed Hudson Bay, and by the time we began our descent into Saskatoon I was looking down on a patchwork quilt of perfectly rectangular fields: deep green, golden yellow, and lavender blue. I had been brought up in the English countryside, where no road runs straight and where very few fields are regularly shaped, and what I was seeing below me was as alien as a lunar landscape.

I had spent five years at Oxford University before accepting a position as a high school English teacher in Meadowvale, a small town about eighty miles northeast of Saskatoon. When I looked up my new home town on a map I was surprised to see how isolated it was. I was used to the English countryside, where rural communities are only two or three miles apart; the prairies, as far as I could see, were wide open spaces, and distances of twenty or thirty miles between communities were common. Public transport also seemed to be rare; there was a railway line running through Meadowvale, but passenger service was non-existent, and bus schedules were very hard to discover from the other side of the ocean. Fortunately for me the principal of Meadowvale High School, Will Reimer, offered to drive down to Saskatoon and pick me up. “It won’t be a problem”, he said when we were talking on the phone a week before my flight; “I’ve got to run some errands in the city anyway, and your plane lands in the afternoon, so I’ll just go down in the morning, do the things I need to do, and then pick you up on the way home”.

“How will I know you?”

“I’m short and a little chubby, and I’ve got a thick grey beard. How about you?”

“Tall and thin, with long dark hair and a scrawny excuse for a beard. And I’ll be the one with the guitar case”.

“A guitar player, eh?”

“Yes”.

“Me too. Acoustic or electric?”

“Acoustic”.

“Right – I’ll look for the closest thing to a hippy folk musician in the airport”.

I laughed; “That sounds just about right”.

“See you next week then, Tom”.

 

He was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge after I cleared customs; as he had said, he was short and a little chubby, with thinning curly hair and a thick grey beard, wearing a short-sleeved check shirt and jeans. I approached him through the crowds, pushing a baggage cart in front of me with two suitcases and a guitar case, and he smiled and said, “Tom Masefield, the guitar-playing hippy, I presume?”

“That would be me”, I replied as we shook hands. “You must be Mr. Reimer”.

“Call me Will; I get ‘Mr. Reimer’ all year long from the kids, and since a good number of them are my relatives, it gets a little wearing after a while”.

I was surprised; “Are you from Meadowvale?”

“Born and bred; I taught someplace else first, but eventually I came home. Are you hungry?”

“Not really; they fed me well on the plane”.

“Right then, we’ll get going; it’s about an hour and fifteen minutes up to Meadowvale. We can drop your stuff off at your place, but my wife Sally’s cooking supper, and she told me to insist that you come and eat with us”.

“That’s very kind of you, but you don’t…”

He shook his head; “Like I said, she told me to insist!”

 

We emerged from the airport building into a wall of heat; I was arriving in Saskatchewan at the beginning of August, and the temperature that day was in the low thirties on the Celsius scale. “This is a bit warmer than when I left home”, I said as he led me across the road toward the parking lot.

“Did you come all the way today?”

“No, a friend drove me to Heathrow last night. It was overcast and drizzling this morning”.

“We could use the rain; the ground’s pretty dry, and the crops are suffering from it”.

“Is it always this hot?” I asked as he led me down between the rows of cars and trucks.

“Quite often – our weather tends to be very hot in summer, and very cold in winter. It’s dry, though, as you can tell”.

He led me to what looked like an enormous car, although I realized later that it was actually only mid-sized compared to some of the vehicles on the road in Saskatchewan in 1982. It was a station wagon, and he opened up the tailgate and stowed my suitcases and my guitar case in the back with plenty of room to spare, even though he already had a few boxes and packages of his own. “Right”, he said with a grin, “Climb aboard, and we’ll be on our way”.

Inside the car the temperature was stiflingly hot, and we quickly rolled down the windows. “The air conditioning will kick in pretty quick”, he said as he started the engine; “By the time we get out of town it’ll be more comfortable in here. What time is it back in England right now?”

I glanced at my watch; “Almost ten o’clock at night”.

“You might want to catch a nap before supper, then – or even on the road, maybe! Is there anyone you need to call?”

“No; I’ll ring my mum tomorrow to let her know I got here safely; she’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of person, so she’ll probably be getting ready for bed just about now”.

He pulled out of the parking spot and steered toward the exit. “What family do you have?”

“Father and mother, one brother and one sister”.

“Do they all live pretty close?”

“My sister’s twelve years younger than me, so she’s still at home with my parents. My brother’s a student at Oxford”.

“You’re the oldest?”

“Yes. How about you?”

He grinned; “I’m one of eight”.

Eight?

“Yeah, we had big families in the old days. Sally’s one of seven, so family gatherings are pretty enormous”.

“Have you got children?”

“We’ve got three. Our oldest is Joe; he came back to Meadowvale last year to work as a vet. Kelly’s our second; she finished her nursing training a year ago and she’s working in Jasper now”.

“Is that close?”

“No, it’s in Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains”. He stopped at the exit, paid for his parking with a smile at the attendant, and then pulled out onto the road. “It’s a little different from this”, he said, gesturing with his hand at the big prairie sky. “It’s about a ten or eleven-hour drive from Meadowvale”.

“A ten or eleven-hour drive in England would take you the length of the whole country!”

“Things are a little more spread out here”.

“You said you had three children?”

“My youngest daughter Krista’s just started working on her master’s degree in Edmonton, at the University of Alberta; she wants to be a wildlife biologist. But right now she’s working for Parks Canada in Jasper for the summer and staying with Kelly. How about your brother; what’s he studying?”

“Law; he’s following in my father’s footsteps”.

“A lawyer, eh?”

“I’m afraid so”.

“You weren’t tempted yourself?”

I shook my head; “It never interested me”.

He gave me a sideways glance as he pulled out onto a major road. After a moment he said, “The airport’s on the north side of the city, so we have to go around Circle Drive to the east side and then take the highway northeast toward Meadowvale”.

“How big a city is this?” I asked, grateful that he had changed the subject.

“About a hundred and sixty thousand”.

“Is it the capital of Saskatchewan?”

“No, that would be Regina. There’s a fair amount of rivalry between them, as you can imagine. I went to university here, so of course I’m partial to Saskatoon”.

“Is it the usual thing in Canada for people to go to the nearest university?”

“Not always, but it is pretty common. You went close to home too, right?”

“Yes. I was actually born in north Oxford, but when I was eleven we moved out to a village south of the city. I liked Oxford, though, and I always wanted to go to university there”.

“It must have been hard to get in; Oxford’s one of the top universities in the world”.

“I was lucky, I suppose”.

He grinned across at me. “Luck had nothing to do with it, Tom Masefield; I’ve seen your academic records!”

“I suppose you have”, I replied awkwardly.

“It’s not every day that a little country town like Meadowvale lands a teacher from Oxford University; you’ve caused quite a stir on the staff”.

I shook my head; “I hope not”.

“You’ll be fine; we’re just pleased that you agreed to come”.

 

We followed Circle Drive around the city, headed east on College Drive, and then turned northeast. The landscape was more open than anything I had ever seen in my life; not flat exactly, but wide and spacious under an enormous blue sky. We passed huge fields with crops that I would later come to know as wheat, barley, canola, and flax, with farmhouses and farm buildings surrounded by stands of trees. “Windbreaks”, Will explained when I asked him; “The original settlers probably planted them. The wind can blow pretty cold in the winter time”.

“How cold does it get?”

“Occasionally we’ll get down to minus forty. Usually it sits around minus twenty”.

I stared at him; “How on earth do you survive?”

“We live in warm insulated houses, and we drive cars with good heaters. It’s not like the old days!”

“What did you do in the old days?”

“When I was a kid growing up in Spruce Creek, we drove cutters in the wintertime – horse-drawn sleds. We wore the warmest clothes we had, with blankets over our legs and feet, and we warmed up stones on the wood stove and wrapped them up in blankets to put on the bottom of the cutter to keep our feet warm”.

“Where’s Spruce Creek?”

“It’s a district about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale. My parents were Mennonites who came here from Russia in the 1920s. The Mennonites tended to keep themselves to themselves; they spoke their own language, ran their own schools and so on, so they all settled around Spruce Creek. I went to school in a one-room log schoolhouse out there during the war. I’ve still got relatives who farm there”.

“How old is Meadowvale?”

“Not very old, by your standards. Oxford dates back a long way, I expect”.

“Nobody really knows how old; my college was founded in 1427”.

“Yeah, well, Meadowvale’s not quite that old. The first homesteaders settled in the area around 1908, we think, although there were trappers and missionaries travelling through before that. The village was officially founded in 1922 and it became a town in 1928”.

“Where did the settlers come from?”

“Britain and France at first, although the Metis had been travelling around in the area for a long time before them. Like I said, the Mennonites started arriving in the early 1920s, and after that there were Ukrainians and Polish and Chinese and others. It’s a real melting pot”.

“How big is it?”

“Depends how you count. You could just count the people who live in town, but then you’d be missing out a whole other group that live out on the farms in the R.M.”

“R.M.?”

“Regional Municipality”.

“Right. So how many…?”

“About two thousand in town, and maybe another three or four thousand on the farms around. They all shop in town, and the kids come in to the schools and play hockey on the local teams, so we count them as being part of Meadowvale”.

“Hockey?”

“Canada’s national winter sport”.

“Ah – ice hockey”.

“Right – you have field hockey in the old country, don’t you?”

“We do – it’s a girl’s sport”.

“Our hockey is definitely a guys’ sport”.

“No girls allowed?”

“Well, there are girls’ teams in some places, but that’s a little adventurous for a town like Meadowvale”.

 

I fell asleep about twenty minutes into the trip, and I didn’t wake up until I felt the car beginning to slow. The front seat was a bench seat without much of a headrest, and my neck was stiff. “Ouch”, I said as I sat up.

“A little sore?”

“My neck. How long did I sleep?”

“About fifty minutes. We’re just getting to Meadowvale now”.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and squinted ahead. About half a mile down the road I saw three grain elevators standing tall against the clear blue sky with a railway line running beside them. Between the elevators and the highway was an Esso station with its distinctive oval sign, and just beyond it I could see a car dealership, its parking lot full of half-ton trucks. Off to the left I could see houses under the trees.

“So this is Meadowvale?”

“Welcome to your new home”.

“Does every town on the prairies have these grain elevators?”

“Every town on a railway line does”.

“Why a railway line?”

“Farmers truck their grain into town and sell it to the grain companies that run the elevators. After that it’s shipped out by rail”.

“Oh, right”.

“Those are the old style elevators, made of wood. We’re starting to see some bigger ones in some places, concrete ones, grain terminals they call them. There’s one a few miles west of here, run by Cargill; that’s an American company. I expect in a few years these old wooden elevators will be a thing of the past”.

“They look quite impressive”.

“Yeah, I’m kind of partial to them myself”.

He steered the car left off the highway onto a service road leading into Meadowvale, passing the Esso station on our right. “There’s a greasy spoon joint by the Esso”, he said; “That’s where people go for coffee and the occasional meal out”.

“A ‘greasy spoon joint’?”

“Trust me, your arteries will feel the impact for hours afterwards. Do you want me to take you straight to your place, or would you like to drive around for a few minutes?”

“I wouldn’t mind a drive around, if you’ve got time”.

“All the time in the world; I’m a school principal in the middle of the summer break!”

We crossed the railway tracks, turned right, and then left again onto what was obviously the main street. The buildings were low and flat-roofed, with signs I didn’t recognize: ‘Fields’, ‘Zellers’, ‘McLeod’s’, ‘Blackie’s General Store’. We passed a bank and a post office on our left. “Is there just one bank in town?” I asked.

“A bank and a credit union, which is a prairie socialist version of the same idea”.

I grinned at him; “Are you a prairie socialist?”

“Now, now, Tom; you’ve only known me for an hour and you’re already asking me questions about my politics?”

“Well, you asked me about my family!”

“True enough! Well, I suppose I am something of a prairie socialist. The prairie socialists were in power in Saskatchewan until May, but we just elected a Conservative government, which some people in town seem to think is a good thing. Perhaps you do too?”

“I couldn’t really say; I do know that I’m no big Margaret Thatcher fan”.

“The Iron Lady’s not your cup of tea, eh?”

“Not really”.

“Here’s the elementary school on our right; our school’s a bit further along, just beyond the playing field”.

The elementary school was an older building with grey siding and a flat roof. The high school, in contrast, was a smart looking two-storey brick building with large windows, its roof sloping to one side. “That looks new”, I said.

“Five years old; it replaced a frame building that nearly blew down in a blizzard a few years ago”.

“Pretty old, was it?”

“By our standards; it was built in 1946, in the worst of the postwar construction era. This one was built by prairie socialists, though, so it might not do much better, so the local Tories say”.

“It looks pretty good to me”.

“I’m glad you approve. Your classroom’s on the ground floor, over on the west corner there”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

“Probably not tonight though, eh? Are you just about ready to have a look at your new home?”

“I think so”.

We drove around several blocks of comfortable looking houses sitting on spacious treed lots with colourful gardens. “This looks pretty smart”, I said.

“Well, it’s the nice part of town. There are some poorer streets, but overall we can’t complain. Our place is over on the west side of town, just before the little creek that we dignify with the name of the Welsh River”.

“The Welsh River?”

“Yeah. One of the earliest settlers was from Wales, and he named it, so we’ve been told. It runs down the west side of town, then bends around to the east, runs under the railway tracks and the highway, and empties into Robert’s Lake – which some local folk call Welshman’s Lake, on account of the fact that Robert Williams – that early settler – had his homestead on the north side of the lake. Also, sadly, he drowned in that lake, which is quite an achievement given that it’s only three feet deep”.

“How can you drown in a lake that’s only three feet deep?”

He grinned mischievously as he turned a corner to the right. “Well, bear in mind that this happened in 1935, when I was all of four years old, and the story’s had forty-seven years of embellishment since then. Still, my dad used to say that Robert and his wife had been fighting, and he was drinking it off with a friend. Old Robert had a little sailboat, which was considered to be very eccentric around these parts, and he and his friend went out on the lake and then got into an argument. A few punches were landed, and then they got to wrestling, and they capsized the boat. The other guy made it to the shore, which wasn’t hard in three feet of water, even if it was muddy on the bottom, but old Robert was as drunk as a skunk, so he drowned. So I’ve been told, anyway”.

“Are there lots more stories where that one came from?”

“You don’t believe me? I’m mortified!”

I laughed. “Oh no, I believe you! It just strikes me that small towns are the same the world over; they’re full of real characters and unlikely stories”.

“Isn’t that the truth? Well, here’s your place”.

 

We pulled up in front of a small single-storey bungalow with off-white wooden siding, a shingled roof with a brick chimney, a small porch on one end and a free-standing garage at the other. There were two white-framed windows at the front of the house; I knew from the floor plan he had sent me that one was in the living room and the other in the kitchen.

“Want to come in?” he asked.

“Absolutely”.

We got out of the car, and I realized immediately that the air conditioning had hidden the fact that it was still stiflingly hot. We got my suitcases and guitar out of the back, and then he led me up the path to the house. Unlocking the door, he led the way inside, through the porch and into the small kitchen; it had yellow-painted walls and white cupboards, with counter space on the front wall, a sink under the window, a stove and refrigerator. “There’s a small basement downstairs with a freezer in it”, he said.

“This looks pretty nice”.

“Not bad, eh?”

We passed through into the living room; it had blue walls and a carpeted floor, furnished with a chesterfield, a recliner, and a coffee table under the window.

“I thought you told me it was unfurnished?”

“Well, it is, but we thought you’d need a few days to get yourself some furniture, so Sally and I asked around”.

“That was very thoughtful of you”.

“It’s no trouble. When you get your own stuff, the owners will be glad to take these things back”.

He showed me the two bedrooms and the bathroom; the place had obviously been refinished recently, and it was spotlessly clean.

“So who owns this house?”

“Ron Ratzlaff; he’s married to my cousin Margaret. It used to be Ron’s mom’s place, and since she passed away five years ago he hasn’t had the heart to sell it. Actually, your predecessor rented from him as well”.

“Really? That’s a coincidence!”

“You could say that, or you could say it’s all part of the Meadowvale hospitality”.

I shook my head slowly. “This is amazing, Will; you’ve gone far beyond the call of duty here”.

“Well, it’s not every day that little old Meadowvale gets a teacher straight from Oxford; we’ve got to do our best to make you welcome”.

“You’ve certainly done that”.

“There are a few basic foodstuffs in the cupboard and the fridge, and Sally told me to tell you that tomorrow after you’ve unpacked she’ll be glad to show you the grocery stores and give you some advice about shopping in Meadowvale”. He looked at me seriously; “If you don’t mind me asking, are you okay for cash? I know moving’s expensive, and your first pay cheque won’t come until the end of September”.

“I’m fine, thanks; I worked at the village pub through the month of July, which earned me a bit of money. And then, my dad’s not short of two pennies to rub together, as the Irish say”.

“He gave you a little help, then?”

“In a manner of speaking”.

“Well, I’ll leave you to settle in and get unpacked”. He glanced at his watch; “Four-thirty. Shall I pick you up at six for supper?”

“Please, I don’t want to impose…”

He shook his head; “Sally told me to insist, and I’ve learned that the wisest thing is just to go along with what she wants!”

“Alright; thank you very much”.

“Not at all. See you in a while”.

 

Sally Reimer turned out to be every bit as warm and friendly as her husband. She was a little taller than him, with a thin face and blonde hair streaked with grey, and when I followed Will into her kitchen she greeted me with a smile and took my hand in both of hers. “You must be exhausted; did you have a nap?”

“I did, actually; I unpacked one suitcase, but then I sat down in the chair and closed my eyes, and woke up when Will knocked on the door”.

“Never mind; we won’t make you stay late. I just thought that after a long flight it would be so much better if you didn’t have to cook for yourself”.

“Thank you; I hope you didn’t go to a lot of trouble”.

“No trouble at all; I just made a couple of salads, and Will’s going to barbecue us some chicken. It’s still warm, so we can eat out on the deck if you like?”

“That would be great”.

“Right, I’ve got some coffee made, Will’s put some beer in the fridge, and there must be a couple of bottles of wine around here somewhere. What would you like?”

I laughed; “I think coffee might be useful right now, since I’m only half awake, but I’ll reserve the right to accept that beer with supper if I may?”

“Of course”, Will replied with a grin; “Grab yourself a coffee, and let’s go out the back and get the barbecue going”.

 

They had a spacious back yard, with a wooden deck behind the house and a large vegetable garden in one corner. We ate on a picnic table on the deck, with a big poplar tree giving us shade from the evening sun. Sally had made a potato salad and a green salad, Will had barbecued chicken, and there were fresh raspberries with ice cream for dessert. When we were finished Will went into the house and brought out a second round of beers, and we sat back in our seats, feeling pleasantly full. “Thank you”, I said; “That was just perfect”.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it”, Sally replied. “We like having company, and now that the kids are all grown up and gone we don’t get to share as often as we’d like”.

“Your son lives in town, you said?”

Will nodded; “He finished vet school last year and came back here to work. When he was a kid he used to hang around with Ivor Greenslade, our town vet; Ivor always said he’d be glad to take Joe on when he finished his training. So that’s what happened; there are actually three of them working there now, and they’ll probably be looking for another one before too long, because Ivor’s just about ready to retire”.

“So Joe would be a couple of years older than me, then?”

“He’s twenty-six”, Sally replied. “He’s just got engaged, actually, to a girl he met in Saskatoon”. She smiled at me; “What about you, have you left a girl back home?”

I shook my head; “I like them, but I don’t seem to be able to get them to like me”.

“I’m sure that’ll change as time goes on”.

Will took a sip of his beer. “What sort of music do you play? Are you into this punk rock stuff?”

I laughed. “No – it’s popular back home, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m more of a traditional folk musician; I play old folk songs, from generations gone by”.

“A little older than Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, then?”

“Dylan actually learned some traditional songs from Martin Carthy, back in the sixties in London. So did Paul Simon; he picked up ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Carthy”.

Will nodded; “I know a few traditional songs, actually; wasn’t there one that Traffic did – ‘John Barleycorn’, or something like that?”

“Yes, and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ was based on another traditional song called ‘Lord Franklin’”.

“You must bring your guitar over and play us some of these songs, Tom”, said Sally. “Will loves getting together and jamming with other musicians”.

“Tom’s probably a much better guitarist than me”, said Will; “I’m just a meat and potatoes strummer”.

“What sort of music do you play?” I asked.

“I like old fashioned country songs, although I can manage hymns and classic rock songs too, at a stretch”.

“I’ve never heard of hymns being played on guitar”.

“Well, they probably don’t sound very good, unless they’re old gospel songs, but my mom plays the piano a little and she likes hymns. She likes it when I play along with her, so I learned a few to make her happy. And I like old fashioned mountain music – stuff like the early Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie songs. Doc Watson played traditional songs, too – I’ll bet some of them were from the old country, like the stuff you play”.

“I’ve never heard of him”.

“He’s more of a flat picker, although he can finger pick, too”.

We were silent for a moment; I was beginning to feel very weary, and I knew that after I finished my beer I was going to have a hard time staying awake. I glanced at Will; “So, what’s the schedule for the start of school?”

“Well, you’ve got about four weeks to settle in before we get the staff together to start the year. Are you going to get yourself a car?”

“It looks like I’m going to need one”.

“You’re looking for something used, probably?”

“Yes – I’ve got some money, but not a lot”.

“Well, you can pick something up at the Ford dealer on the highway, but you’d probably get a better deal in the city. I could run you in to have a look, if you like; I could borrow Joe’s truck and we could go look at some second hand furniture stores too”.

I shook my head; “You don’t have to do all this, Will…”

Sally laughed; “He loves company, Tom, and he likes making road trips, too”.

“Well, that’s true”, Will agreed. “I do think you’d be better looking for a car in the city. Henry Pickering’s the Ford dealer here, but he mainly carries half ton trucks, plus a few big eight-cylinder gas guzzlers. You’ve got the look of a guy who might like a slightly smaller car”.

“I’m not used to big cars”.

“I guess not. Be careful, though; don’t get something too small, because the roads here get pretty bumpy, especially on the gravel, and really small cars tend to get shaken to bits on them”.

I yawned; “I should probably take another look at the curriculum, too”.

“We can do that any time you like”.

I put my half-empty beer glass down on the picnic table. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t finish this. You folks are starting to swim across my field of vision!”

“Take him home, Will!” said Sally. “I’ll take him shopping in the morning!”

“No, really!” I protested; “I’ll be fine”.

“You’d be better off just to do as she says”, Will replied; “she’s a pretty smart shopper and she knows where to get all the good deals”.

I shook my head as I got to my feet; “You people are amazing!”

Sally smiled at me. “We aim to please! See you in the morning, Tom; thanks for coming over”.

“No”, I replied; “Thank you!”

Link to Chapter 2