Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

Books. And me.

One of the things we writers will be doing on April 30, during Authors for Indies Day, is chatting with customers at our favourite bookstores. One of the things we’ll be chatting about is our favourite books.

I must admit I have some trepidation about this. I’m probably the least likely person a bookstore will want on the selling floor talking about other writers’ books. I’m woefully out of touch when it comes to contemporary writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love reading. I love books. All books. It’s just that between working full-time, and researching my own novels (I’m a stickler for facts so every historical detail in my stories will be excruciatingly correct), and writing my stories, and commuting, eating and sleeping, I honestly don’t have much time left over to catch up with the books that other people are reading and talking about.

Most of my reading these days tends to be books written in the past, because I love reading contemporary accounts of the eras that I’m writing about. For  instance, for Persistence of Memory, I sourced out a wonderful relic whose title page, inside the cover, reads: A Complete System of Cookery, on a Plan Entirely New, Consisting of Everything That is Requisite for Cooks to Know in the Kitchen Business; Containing Bills of Fare for Every Day in the Year and Directions to Dress Each Dish; Being One Year’s Work, at the Marquis of Buckingham’s, From the 1st of January, to the 31st of December, 1805. By John Simpson, Present Cook to the most Noble, The Marquis of Buckingham. London: Printed for W. Stewart, Opposite Albany, Piccadilly, 1806.

This excellent book provided me with everything I needed to know about the sorts of meals Louis Augustus Duran (The Lesser) could expect to be eating at Stoneford Manor in 1825.

For my next novel, In Loving Memory (due to be released this July by Diversion Books), my reading wasn’t so much published books as published accounts, first-hand stories from men, women and children who lived through the Blitz in London in the 1940s. And stories told to me by my mum, who was a WAAF, and my dad’s brother, a child refugee from Europe who had relocated to England with his parents. And reports. So many reports, and helpful maps and diagrams, the most brilliant of which is a detailed drawing of Balham Underground Station showing the exact layout of the northbound platform and the exact location where the bomb dropped on the night of October 14, 1940, and the exact extent of the damage to the platform where so many people were sheltering that night. That diagram, more than anything, allowed me to write, with total accuracy, the scenes where Charlie and Mr. Deeley are caught in the devastation.

For Marianne’s Memory, the third novel in my Charlie and Mr. Deeley series, which I’m just beginning to write, I’m going back to London in the 1960s. I’m old enough to remember that time – I was 10 for a good part of 1965, and turned 11 in September of that year. The year before, 1964, I had simultaneously discovered the Beatles and become aware of a world beyond the little prairie city where I was growing up. I knew that London existed, of course, because I was born there. We moved to Canada in 1957. But by 1965 I’d already been back twice, and the last visit, Christmas 1961, had made a huge and lasting impression on me.

It’s one of my regrets that I actually managed to miss London in the Swinging Sixties. I was a little too early in 1961, and although we stayed until the new year, 1962, rang in, there were no real hints about what was on the verge of happening. Other than my cousin, Angela, who was somewhat older than me, who apparently mentioned to my mum in a letter written later that year, that she quite liked a new pop group called The Beatles.

The next time we went back to London was 1968. I was 13, about to turn 14, and I had done my research. I’d seen To Sir With Love and Smashing Time. I could sing their theme songs and knew their lyrics off by heart. I was Judy Geeson’s Pamela Dare and I was Rita Tushingham’s Brenda. (Well, not really. They were far more adventurous and worldly-wise than I was. And much older.) But the important thing was, I was on a mission. I was going to experience Swinging London first hand.

Except that, by 1968, it was all over. Swinging London was reduced to vinyl Union Jack carrybags touting the slogan I’m Backing Britain, sold in stalls alongside British flag buttons and black and white postcards that looked like street signs, the most popular being Carnaby Street and Kings Road.

Ah, Carnaby Street. The centre of the Swinging London universe. Except that it all looked a bit tatty and tawdry, and tired, like an over-the-hill party girl who’s been out too late and has fallen asleep on the Underground with her eye makeup smudged and her hair a bit of a mess and her clothes dishevelled.

I was disappointed. I wanted it to be like the Carnaby Street in the films, the one I’d dreamed of.

I suppose that’s why I’ve decided to send Charlie and Mr. Deeley back to 1965. They’re living the dream I had imagined. And perhaps they might, along the way, discover that it wasn’t quite the idyllic time my 11-year-old brain had conjured up. But they’ll have quite a romp in the process.

But back, now, to my original thoughts about books. I’ve just done a count, and in my 820 square foot flat, I have 16 bookcases. It’s fair to say that bookcases comprise probably 75% of the furniture in the flat. There are 2 in the main bedroom, 4 in the second bedroom (which is actually an office), one in the hallway, and 9 in the living room, and they’re all crammed with books. The biggest one in the living room is ceiling-to-floor and takes up an entire end wall.

Looking at the books occupying the shelves is like looking at snapshots of my life. At some point I tried to organize them by theme or author, but abandoned the idea as I kept running out of room. So now they’re a higgledy piggledy of collections. All of my textbooks from my BA in English, serious volumes about literary criticism and the discovery of deeper meaning in Milton, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Shakespeare… and most of their published works. All of the novels written by John Galsworthy and Monica Dickens and Ian Fleming and John le Carre. Spy stories and trash stories, popular fiction and unpopular fiction, old medical encyclopedias, how to make macrame plant hangers, how to play the guitar, the history of London’s Underground, assorted A to Z map books, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

All of these predate e-books, of course. I have a growing collection of digital books too though. Like many people I love the smell and the tactile feel of a real book, and I freely admit to dog-earing pages, because I believe if you turn down the corner of a page, it’s a love-sign, not a defacement.

But I also love the versatility of e-books, and the instant-ness of being able to buy and download them. And their biggest advantages for me – I can read them while I’m lying in bed in the dark without turning on a light, and I can read them while I’m waiting in doctor and dentist offices, just by taking out my phone.

I began this blog worrying about chatting to customers about favourite reads on Authors for Indies Day on April 30. I’m still a bit nervous…but you never know…perhaps I’ll find a few people who share my love of books from the past. It won’t be very helpful for all the new books on the shelves, waiting to be bought. But I can, at least, point them in that direction while I’m waxing lyrical about the joys of John Galsworthy’s Forsytes, or Monica Dickens’ The Listeners, probably the favourite of all my books.

Oh…and in case you were curious, the header photo on this Blog is a picture of one of my bookshelves (the one in the hallway). The same photo is the header on my Facebook Writer page .

And another one of my bookshelves (the ceiling-to-floor one in the living room) is the cover image on my personal Facebook page.

 

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Filed under Authors for Indies Day, Miscellaneous Musings, My novels, Other Writers, Things About Me

Authors for Indies Day

So now I can confirm I’m taking part in a very neat event that’s happening on April 30 – Authors for Indies – which you can read all about here: http://www.authorsforindies.com
Basically, on Authors for Indies Day, we Canadian authors show our appreciation for independent bookstores (indies) by volunteering as guest booksellers. We’ll be chatting with customers, recommending books, and helping everyone appreciate the importance of indie bookstores to our communities and our cultural lives. It’s not about promoting ourselves, it’s about raising awareness of Canada’s independent bookstores.
I’ll be at the UBC Bookstore (at the main UBC Point Grey Campus in Vancouver)…not sure of my hours yet and not sure what, exactly, they’ll want me to do yet… but if you’re in Vancouver on April 30 and you’d like to pop in and say hello ….I’d love to see you!
Watch this space!

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Filed under Authors for Indies Day, Miscellaneous Musings, Things About Me, Uncategorized

My Friend Nola

This is a blog about someone who’s died. I promise it won’t be maudlin or depressing. And it definitely won’t be mournful.

I’ve just come back from a “Celebration of Life” for a lady who was my good friend for nearly 10 years. She was also my writing partner for a handful of feature-length screenplays, a couple of one-hour tv pilots and a “lifestyle & cooking show”.

Only the first two episodes of the cooking show ever made it into production, and were ultimately shown on Community Television here in Vancouver. The potential was there. The money, alas, was not. The same is true of the tv pilots. And three of our screenplays were optioned. But, as is typical of 95% of all optioned scripts, they were never produced.

As a mutual friend of ours, a film producer, remarked to me at the reception after the church service, “It’s a terrible, terrible business to try and be successful in.”

It was, in fact, that mutual friend who brought Nola and I together. I was fresh from a writing program at film school. I was in my early 50’s, so I can’t honestly claim that I was fresh at life – though it could be argued that my life up to that point had been a bit on the sheltered side.

I’d written a screenplay. It was my first, and it was about a chap who worked on a cruise ship in Alaska. It was my main project at film school. I’d entered it in a local screenwriting contest, and although I wasn’t one of the winners, I’d caught the attention of one of the judges, a producer. He’d contacted me to let me know he wanted to produce my script. It was, he promised, going to be a major Canadian film. We’d find a way to shoot it cheaply. I would be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. His company had a dozen films in development, and mine would be the most important, the highest profile, the project that would catapult us both into fame and fortune.

Just one catch – it needed to be rewritten. And he graciously offered to help with that, lending his years of production experience and his knowledge of what would make a dynamite film.

And so, every Saturday, we met up, usually in a coffee shop in West Vancouver, sometimes at his cottage, which was close by the sea. We worked on the main character, the storyline, the supporting characters, the storyline, the main character again, the storyline, a different storyline, another different storyline, the main character again….

It seemed, in fact, that every time I went home with notes and rewrote the script, paying strict and scrupulous attention to what we’d discussed, the following week none of it mattered anymore, and we were off on another tangent, exploring yet another treatment of the first act.

It seemed, in fact, that we never actually got past the first act.

It all ended badly, as these things sometimes do. The story descended into chaos, a second writer was brought in, our initial meeting resulted in a falling out on all sides. I went home to attempt a full rewrite on my own, only to be invited back to the cottage by the sea, to be metaphorically impaled on a pin, like a captured butterfly, and torn to bits by Mr. Producer.

I went home again, vowing to have nothing more with the film business. In spite of trying to remain professional at all times, I was emotionally and creatively destroyed. I reckoned I had nothing left to lose. And so I wrote A Letter.

Emails of the type I wrote should never be sent immediately. In fact, they should probably never be sent at all.

I waited a day.

I let it gel. And ferment. And percolate.

I made a few revisions.

I added an email address to the “cc:” line.

And then, I pressed “Send”.

Goodbye to my short-lived screenwriting career, I thought, as I watched it go. Goodbye to all those amazing golden-carrot-dangling-at-the-end-of-a-fishing-line dreams.

A day later I received an email. It wasn’t from Mr. Producer. It was from the lady I’d cc’d my message to. The reason I’d included her was because Mr. Producer had introduced me to her: his on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend. She’d seemed nice. Much nicer than he was. A sensible woman, a woman with empathy and understanding, a woman who’d connected with me the instant her eyes had met mine.

I’d cc’d her because I wanted a witness to my thoughts. I didn’t want my message to be dismissed and deleted. I wanted someone to know.

“I’m just curious,” Nola wrote, “whether he’s treated you very badly. Because he’s certainly treated me very badly. And I absolutely love that you called him a Fuckwit. Here’s my phone number….”

I picked up the phone immediately. “Listen,” I said. “We need to talk.”

We met up that Saturday and wow, did we talk. She was at her wit’s end with Mr. Producer. I told her about the rambling, never-resolved scriptwriting shipwreck I’d been a part of. She told me we’d been the unwitting subjects of his erratic and psychologically fragile ego. She was of the considered opinion we’d both been screwed – she, literally; me, metaphorically.

“You know what?” I said. “We should write about this. We need to get him out of our systems.”

“I can’t believe you called him a Fuckwit,” Nola said again. “I was killing myself with laughter. He so deserved that.”

Thus began a wonderful, amazing friendship. We met at her house every weekend, sitting across from one another on sofas, a coffee table between us. I had my laptop, and we just…wrote.

I’d never collaborated before. Whatever we had together just worked. We tried out dialogue, we acted out scenes. We argued over whether our character would do or say something, and what our other characters would do or say in response.

We finished the script, and at the end of it, we were both convinced that we’d done more for ourselves than any therapist could have accomplished. We’d exorcised our demon.

I pitched it to production companies. It was read very seriously. We were told some Very Big Names in Canadian Television loved it. But, alas, it would not be taken into development. It had nothing to do with Mr. Producer (who, we’d discovered, really wasn’t all that well-connected, and certainly held no sway over my screenwriting future). It had everything to do with the way Canadian films and tv shows are financed and developed. It’s a very small slice of pie, rationed out in spoonfuls to a very small community of writers and producers.

And so, Nola and I wrote another screenplay. And another. And a pilot for a tv series. And another pilot for another tv series. And a cooking show. Two cooking shows.

In between the bouts of writing, we became very good friends.

I’m a solitary soul. All through my childhood and teenage years, and into adulthood, I’ve really only had room in my life for one or two close friends, never any more. But my friendships were – and are – intense; and Nola was no different.

We connected. I listened to her stories, her adventures, her troubles, her good times. She listened to mine. She was nearly eight years older than me and we consoled one another, offered advice and accepted it. We enjoyed sharing stories of our lives. And we had lunch together.  A lot.

This was our favourite hangout: The MarinaSide Grill, down by the waterfront in North Vancouver. We’d sit outside on the deck, under a huge umbrella, with yachts and motorboats docked in the harbour below, cars speeding over the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge above, and freight trains clanking behind us. And it was there that we discussed our worlds, our scripts, our plans for our glorious screenwriting future, our lives.

Because writing wasn’t our main occupation.

It was my dream, and it was something I’d pursued since childhood, first with fiction, and now with film. But I also had a full-time job. Film school had been an interesting one-year interlude in my life, undertaken after a buyout from a telecommunications firm where I’d worked for 18 years. I was back working full-time again, at the University of British Columbia. I was writing on the side – as a lot of us do, driven by passion and need.

Nola’d had a history of interesting occupations, was a self-admitted party girl, and had been in AA for about 10 years when I met her. She told me once that she was different from a lot of AA members, in that she had “outside” friends. I was one of the outsiders, but she loved me as much as she loved her friends on the “inside”. She also taught yoga, and was passionate about it. Yoga infused her life. It was the basis of her outlook, her spirituality, and her reason for being.

She tried to teach me yoga at one point, but it was a hopeless proposition. My sinuses filled up every time I put my head down. My body was lopsided and I had no sense of balance. We decided it would be best if we didn’t pursue it.

And as for her AA friends… I recall being invited to a get-together of her “regulars” one evening. A dozen very well-dressed, well-coiffed women in their sixties, all of whom I’d describe as sophisticated, smart and respectable. And what did they talk about? The nights they’d spent in jail, after being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour, or impaired driving, or other gross misbehaviours. 

Nola took great pains to explain how she’d come out of a bar, completely sozzled, with her refilled martini glass, climbed into her car, made sure her drink was secure, and then promptly backed into a police cruiser. We later used that scene to open a tv script we were working on.

She also shared how, again, completely sozzled, she’d stripped off all of her clothes one New Year’s Eve and gone skinny dipping in Georgia Strait. She’d been rescued before hypothermia had claimed her. But that was Nola.

What else can I say about my friend? She loved gardening, and always had the most amazing flowers. She loved life. She loved me. She really did. We always ended each lunch meeting, each writing session, with a hug, and those words: “I love you.”

Later on, after we’d stopped writing screenplays, she used to email me and say, “Come and have lunch with me, I need my Winona fix.”

When we stopped writing together, it seemed to be a natural thing to do. It seemed to be a pause that asked to be made.  I needed to get back to writing long fiction, my first passion.

And Nola had developed a cancer in her colon. It had been operated on, and she was in the clear. No chemo, no radiation. The doctors were confident they’d got it all. A piece of her colon was taken out, but other than that, her life was back to normal. She was going to travel. Europe. She’d never seen the world and her friend, Anne, was going to take her on an adventure.

“I’m going to Paris,” she said (knowing I used to be a travel agent). “Do you have any advice?”

“Watch out for pickpockets,” I said, “and don’t eat unrefrigerated seafood salad in the Moulin Rouge.”

About a year ago, around the same time I published Cold Play (a novel about a chap who works on board a cruise ship in Alaska….), my lovely friend began to suffer from unexplained pains and anomalies in her body. She went for tests. Tests were delayed,  cancelled. Diagnoses were made, and then changed. Nobody could tell her what was definitively wrong.

And then, this past December, a dreaded email. Nola told me she’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It had come back. And this time it was in her omentum, which I had to look up. She was going to have chemo, which would hopefully shrink the tumours, and then an operation to remove them.

I had absolutely no doubt Nola would beat the cancer. She was strong mentally, spriritually, emotionally…but physically, not so much. She hid it well. Her years of yoga training gave her strength, inside and out.

I met up with her a few times, and we went for lunch. She was in a lot of pain and had major drugs to help combat it. She drove to the drugstore to pick up her prescription, and on the way back she said, “Oops, I nearly went through that Stop sign, didn’t I.”

“You did,” I said. And then: “You’re completely zooed on drugs, aren’t you?”

“Yup,” she said, completely unabashedly.

If I’d known, I’d have offered to drive her to the pharmacy. But that was Nola. She played the bad stuff down. She embraced life, wholeheartedly, and with gusto.

I last saw her in May. Her chemo was making her ill, and so every two weeks she checked into the BC Cancer Hospital and stayed for a few days while she recovered from the latest infusion of poison.

I asked her how many more rounds of chemo she had left. She said she didn’t know. But she was making plans for another trip to Europe with Anne.

I spent the afternoon with her. We sat outside on the hospital’s sun deck, and talked for hours. We visited a family of Canada geese who’d nested in the shrubbery along the perimeter. We went back inside and did walking circuits of the ward, because she felt restless and needed some exercise. She gave me a popsicle – she had a box of them in the patients’ fridge but couldn’t eat them herself – they made her feel sick.

I never once saw hopelessness in her eyes. I’ve seen it in others – in people who’ve been told they’re terminally ill or have a serious medical condition from which they won’t recover. I saw it in my dad’s eyes weeks before he died from a massive heart attack in his sleep. I saw it in his sister’s eyes when her breast cancer had spread and overwhelmed her body. It’s an absence of a sense of future.

Nola’s eyes always sparkled and looked forward to what would come next.

It was totally within her character not to tell me how seriously ill she was, not to tell me when there was nothing else the doctors could do for her.

She said to me earlier this year, “Sometimes I feel like I’m dying.”

“You’re not going to die,” I said to her. And I believed it completely. I think she recognized that I believed it completely, and perhaps that’s why she didn’t want to tell me the bad news, that I was completely wrong.

A few weeks ago I was alarmed that I couldn’t reach her. There were no answers to emails, and no returned phonecalls from voice messages I’d left. I tried the hospital. Yes, she was there, but she was busy, she was asleep, she wasn’t taking phonecalls right now. I tried a number of times, left a number of messages. Nothing.

I wondered if she was angry with me. But no, it wasn’t in her nature to be like that. I emailed one of her AA friends that I’d met, who I knew was her sponsor and very close to her. And I was put in touch with Anne, the lady who’d travelled with Nola, and who was a nurse.

It was the worst possible news. My friend was fading, was near death. Her pain was horrible, but they were trying to manage it. She was being taken to palliative care.

She was surrounded by her family and by some very close friends.

“Please tell her I love her,” I said, “and my thoughts are with her on her journey. And please tell her, if you can, that I’m dedicating my next novel to her. She was always so enthusiastic about Persistence of Memory. She always had faith in me and my writing.”

Persistence of Memory was a screenplay that I wrote by myself, in between the co-writing projects we were working on. It’s an accidental time-jump story, a historical romance.

Nola had read the script and absolutely loved it. “Where did this come from?” she asked, in amazement. She thought it was the best thing I’d ever written.

I was never able to get it into development, though it was pitched everywhere. Everywhere.

And so, last year, I turned it into a novel. And it’s being published this year, by Fable Press. The first of a fresh, new series.

Anne wrote back to me the next day. “I was with Nola last evening and passed on your message, and she smiled.”

I smiled. We’d often talked about what happens when you die, and we both believed, in our own ways, that your spirit lives on. And that your spirit doesn’t leave, if those who love you want you to stay close by.

So I’d said my goodbye, and I knew that when the end finally came – as it did, a few days later – my friend wouldn’t really be gone. She’d just be in another room, and she’d always know everything that I wanted to share with her.

Today, at Nola’s Celebration of Life, some of her friends and family stood up to share stories about my wonderful friend. It wasn’t sad. It wasn’t mournful. It was truly a celebration of a wonderful lady’s life. And I learned so much more about her than I’d known before.

Anne spoke about their trip to Europe. She said, “And Nola loved everything about Paris. Even the pickpockets. She pointed at them – ” (and here she pointed in the definitive, exclamatory way that Nola had) “- and said, Oh no you don’t!’ By the end of the trip, they were waving at her every time we walked by.”

Nola has a son, Mark, who’s employed in the film industry, painting sets. He stood at the front of the church, and began by telling the hundreds of people assembled in front of him that he was imagining us all naked. Uproarious laughter.

He then went on to mention all of the things that his mum loved to do. He included scriptwriting. I think that must have been a revelation to many, who mostly knew Nola from her yoga, and from her AA activities. I was happy that he’d mentioned it though, and felt Nola’s smile beside me as I was sitting alone in the pew at the back of the church.

Mark ended with a little story that he promised would be upbeat. He talked about how, four or five days before she died, his mum was sleeping. He was sitting beside her hospital bed, and she woke up, and said, very faintly, “I think I’m going to die today.”

He then said a little later there was a knock at the door to the room. It was one of his mum’s friends, and she said, “I have a secret to tell Nola.”

Mark let her in, and the friend sat down beside the bed. Nola had gone back to sleep, and the friend leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I have a secret to tell you!”

Nola – who loved gossip more than anything – opened her eyes wide to listen.

Then she turned to Mark and said, “Nope! Not going to die today!”

There was more wonderful laughter in the church, and applause as Mark stepped down. I was so glad.

Afterwards there was a reception at the Lawn Bowling Club. Nola had planned this for us. There was wine (red and white) for all her drinking friends. And lots of coffee and water and juice for her non-drinking friends. There were strawberries dipped in chocolate, and little sandwiches with exotic fillings, and sweets of all sorts.

The first person I recognized was Mr. Producer.

I knew from speaking to Nola that he’d straightened himself out. She’d always shared little tidbits of news about him with me, although she’d resolved not to become involved with him again.

I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around, and his face broke into a broad grin. He gave me a hug – a genuine, warm, bearhug. Both arms, which I reciprocated. Genuinely.

“Winona!” he exclaimed. “How did I know you’d be here?”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” I replied. “How did I know you’d be here too?”

We laughed. I told him that our disastrous cruise ship script had been successfully published as an e-book last year.

“Yes,” he said. “I tried to read it but I found I was quite technologically unable to process or download it.”

Typical. I don’t think he wanted to read it, really.

I’ll forgive him.

And so, an amazing period in my life has come to a close. It began… and it ended, rather fittingly, I think…with Mr. Producer.

I stayed for a few more minutes, and then I left.

Today was beautiful and sunny.

And I know my friend Nola is smiling.

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Sister Mary Rose

When I was eleven, I decided I would set fire to the Cathedral.

I would walk into the church – which was cavernous and cool, and smelled of frankincense and the dark red powder janitors used to sweep floors – and I would take the glittering glass cups that contained the flickering candles, and I would hide them in places that would burn. Under the wooden pews. Inside the confessionals. Beneath the altar, where the flames could lick at the starched white cloth and race up towards God, and the wooden crucifix that was hung with the agonized body of his son, to the hovering tabernacle that housed the Holy Ghost.

I decided I would do this, because God knew everything, and my nightly plea to him to stop the bullies from throwing dog shit at me on the way home – to stop them from cornering me in the schoolyard and stealing my mittens, my jacket, my notebook, my yo-yo and whatever else they could lay their hands on; to stop them from threatening to cut my throat with a penknife if I ever told on them – was evidently falling on deaf ears. God did not care that I had spent Thursday morning having my lower spine x-rayed because on Wednesday afternoon I’d been deliberately tripped on the ice.

God was as big a bully as the girls who attended Confession on Wednesdays, shoplifted lipstick and nail polish from Pinder’s Drugs on Thursdays, pursued me with the pointed ends of their compasses on Fridays, and sat in the front pews with their families during Mass on Sundays.

God deserved to be taught a lesson.

The day someone else set the Cathedral on fire, I was in school. From the classroom windows I could see the double silver spires and, between them, a terrible beauty – a soft, rolling cloud of red-grey, black-grey, brown-grey – plumes of dense, toxic fury, spewing out of shattered stained glass windows, competing with the steeples for God’s immediate attention.

I was glad.

The faithful were sent elsewhere to confess and pray. The doors and lower windows of the soot-blackened Cathedral were boarded over until money could be raised to rebuild what had burned inside. But if you knew where to look and how to do it, you could pull away a piece of the plywood, and you could crawl through the small gap. You could trespass.

Which I did, when I needed somewhere to hide, after Joan McIntyre warned me that Margaret McDonald and Mary O’Brien were going to wait for me after school and beat me with their brothers’ hockey sticks.

I pulled away the plank, and slipped myself in.

The Cathedral was built of brick and stone and concrete, and its shell was intact. The flames had stripped away the interior – the green carpet leading up to the altar – though the altar itself was marble, and still stood. The cloth at the altar rail, the doors to the confessionals, the first few rows of pews. The heat had shattered the glass cups that held the votive candles before the statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The statues themselves were streaked with grime, but their eyes still stared out into the semi-darkness. Their outstretched hands still coaxed the weak and the helpless to believe.

As I stood in the charred remains, waiting for my eyes to get used to the lack of sun, I heard a noise. I looked, and saw two others. They were sitting in the pews at the back, in a place the flames had not touched. One was Father Wasylenko, a young priest who heard our Confessions, and said Mass on days when Father Murray was indisposed. The other was Sister Mary Rose, who taught Grade Three.

Father Wasylenko’s white collar shone in the blackness as Sister Mary Rose removed her veil and wimple. Her blonde hair was cut short and raggedy, and her face made me think of a small, frightened child.

They spoke for a few moments more, earnestly and passionately. They kissed. Earnestly. Passionately.

I crept away.

Margaret McDonald and Mary O’Brien were waiting for me in the back lane a block away from my house. And they were indeed armed with their brothers’ hockey sticks, though one broke in half immediately and Mary O’Brien tripped over hers when Mrs. Houston, who was the President of the Catholic Women’s League, came out onto her porch and demanded to know what the hell was going on.

The next day at school, during recess, in the middle of the playground, I aimed my yo-yo at Margaret McDonald, and shot it out, spinning, on the end of its string. I whacked her smack in the jaw. The other children were transfixed.

Mary O’Brien ran to the Principal.

I was marched into Mr. Halter’s office and given the strap.

I went back last year. The school was closed, and there were plans to tear it down. The Cathedral was still there, though, and it looked the same – at least on the outside.

Inside, the lights were on, and the atmosphere was warm and golden. The dark walnut pews had been replaced with pale, bleached seats. The statues had vanished, as had the tormented crucifix. And the altar was a simple table, facing the congregation, surrounded by hanging fabric panels decorated in brilliant purple, crimson, teal, and jade.

A woman was sitting near the front, and although she was older, I recognized her elfin face and cropped blonde hair. She was wearing a simple grey dress.

“Sister Mary Rose,” I said.

She looked at me, startled, and then she, too, recognized me, reaching over the chasm of forty years.

She remembered I had attended the school, and she remembered I had been bullied.

“But I couldn’t do anything,” she said, “because we were encouraged not to get involved unless the parents complained.”

I told her I had fantasies about setting fire to the Cathedral.

She laughed. “I did, too.”

“And then it really happened.”

Sister Mary Rose looked at me, and smiled.

I asked if she was still a nun.

She shook her head. “In a way, I think it was you who made up my mind for me. I was desperate in those days. I didn’t have the courage to leave the convent and renounce my vows. I was afraid of what God would think. And then I saw you in the playground that day. You finally hit back. I thought that showed such immense courage….”

I sat down next to Sister Mary Rose – her real first name was Jackie, though she never told me her last name – and we talked for a while. Neither of us believed anymore in the things we had been taught. But we had both been drawn to the Cathedral at that moment, on that day.

Perhaps God had decided to listen, after all.
————
The above was a writing assignment for one of my classes at Vancouver Film School in 2003.
Some of it is true.

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