It’s the people. Passing through people’s lives. Pausing for infinite possibilities of friendship. But sometimes we pass in the blink of an eye, their life is but a minute moment marked on my memory. Like Walt. He was sitting in Tim Hortons with a large coffee alone but scanning with his playful smile. He had some banter with a foursome of elderly couples who had maybe been out on a senior’s date. As they got up to go they passed some pleasantries in a cheery sort of way. He was leaning back across the sofa by the faux fireplace as if at home but not really because this was a fake home. Adorned with homely paraphernalia to make us feel welcome. For Walt it could have been home. He was portly with unkempt hair, unshaven and wearing a black suit with a white shirt, not dressed for the City but maybe dressed by its hand me downs. What did I know about Walt? Nothing. Only that he had that playful smile and I expect if I sat on that sofa he could, and would, tell me more. But I was gone, coffee collected to go I was back in the car heading away. The next morning, we took the transit bus downtown and as we had breakfast I looked out on a passing world. People going about their daily lives. Some rich with opportunities but others on the sidewalk asking for handouts. For them seeking small opportunities, maybe a dollar to get a coffee. This was the place where the extremes clashed. The veterans with their signs, the not so able with their sticks, and there, just in the corner of my eye, Walt wandering up through the people with that playful smile and in his suit. Not going to work not coming from an early morning business meeting, Walt wandering wistfully. From one end of the town to the next he travels. Looking for possibilities of friendship.
At Hilltop Motel people come and go. While some stay. The Frenchman across the way lives out his life from the motel. Each day he departs to work in construction and each evening he opens a beer, or more, and has his BBQ. He plays prog rock tunes and Jim, the motel worker, asks him to turn down the volume. But I kinda like the intrusion. Jim walks from room to room clearing away the sheets from another late night arriving early morning leaving guest. He sits on the porch swing and passes the day with breaks for conversation with passing neighbours cigarette in hand. The man with the little dog that snaps. And so Jim goes past our room again as we sit outside enjoying the evening warm air. Yesterday was his birthday he tells us. 56 and he has a dodgy hip. Now I can see a slight shuffle as he wanders off and now I can see Jim ‘ain’t jumpin no more’ but wandering from place to place on this small plot. He returns to tell us stories about the groundhog and the time that baby raccoons got stuck in the waste bin and he had to put a pole in for them to shimmy up and back out to freedom. All the while mum looking on. That sums up Jim, trustworthy and pleased to help out. Before we move on Jim pauses for a picture on his swing chair so we can capture something of the moment he slid through our lives.
It’s in Montreal that we inhabit, for the shortest of time, a house on Sherbrook down by La Fontaine Park a stone’s throw from the gay and Latin quarters. In the this multi-lingual and ethnic house French, Japanese, Indian, and Argentinian mingle, brushing shoulders. Alongside Canadians. And it’s here that stories of hope endure. The fighter who hopes to be a world champion contender, with his coach who professes he is a better coach than a fighter. The French republican who quizzes us about our royalty and maybe hopes one day we will have the glorious revolution he is so proud of. The Canadian, with the deep resonating vocal cords who tells us he is between places. A failed or misguided affair that should have taken him to Europe for the girl of his dreams but instead left him stranded in his own country. Sleeping on friends couches between hostel cheap rooms. Hoping that one day it will turn out ok but I am not so sure. While on the streets the busy French people of Montreal pass us by. Just another city with its landmarks, bars, galleries and International Jazz festival. For a treasured time, the tales we tell each other can be buoyant. It is as if there are so many people in the city you can whither, bob up and down on the wave of their stories, or be overwhelmed by the current, pulled away from your own landmarks or worst still, sunk to the bottom with the heavy weight of story sodden clothes. We looked in on Montreal and got a glimpse but we hunger for those small townships again. Local people. Local places because when it’s all so big you need a beacon.
Cast adrift in the wilderness we head for a place on the map in the middle of nowhere, nestled on a lake in a place where there seems to be a thousand lakes. Departing from the highway we cruise down roads that stretch out endlessly in front of us. Tyres rumbling on the tarmac in quiet isolation as other vehicles are so few. Stopping in a little hamlet called Athens, mums and dads ferrying small children back from soccer school and you catch bits of the conversations and it makes you realise we are but a shadow in their lives. At the grocery store we fumble around the shelves looking for a few provisions and the mum and her three children passes a comment. As we dash back and forth from the check out for forgotten items. She remarks that we shop like she does. She (the checkout girl) knows what I am like, always something else to get. Always forgetting what I came in for. So the lady with the three children with the stroller that could have been from ‘Dollarama’, who looks too thin, opens a window to her world. And we are gone. I am not sure how we appear to people but they have a propensity to open doors. But why. What kind of strangers are we, or what kind of place is this? Heading from Athens we finally land in Westport. This busy little place that stands at 700 locals but swells to 7000 in the summer. It is a picture postcard town. You can eat at Kelly’s dinner where the locals gather each morning. You can go to one of 4 or is it 5 churches and apparently one that meets in a house. You can take in coffee on main street alongside local characters like the ‘Senior of the Year’. Given the award for commitment to town volunteering. You can read the sign that says “we thank our volunteers”. And as it is Canada independence Day you can join the celebrations. And as we do, we can feel a small part of this community. Down at the beach on the lake we take in the Doherty Brothers music set. We might not be a real part of this little place with its perfect disposition. But we get to peep. We get to talk with Trevor who offers me a beer and Stan helping on the hot dog stall. We pass on the periphery of their vision. Sometimes a place feels so right and the people seem so right you can’t help think what might be wrong. Infinite preposterous possibilities lay in those passing smiles, or so you can imagine.
So as we travel people come and go. Some stay longer. Like Josh. The little Indian boy whose parents came here from Punjab some 40 years ago. He is a few months younger than Fred but has a frailty and smallness that makes him look younger. Skinny and wispy. He seems to always be asking for something to eat. He struggles to navigate the intricacies of the blow up boat in the water that we bought down at the beach. He spent all day with us yesterday and is with us now as we lounge in the sun by the lake. Since arriving Fred and Josh have been inseparable. At the motel they act out cops and robber play. They exchange stories. They draw together. Josh says he has no friends. School has broken up and Fred is an interlude in his apparent forced separation from other children as they go about their school vacation he wanders alone day to day the motel. Josh jostles for a part in our lives. Up at the crack of dawn he waits patiently for us to emerge from a perfect slumber. From kindness or gratitude that we welcome her child into our plans she prepares boiled eggs on the first morning. In the evening she prepares us pasta that we can eat on the motel porch. She gives Fred and Josh hot dogs and they escape to the shade by the swings. I guess Josh escapes for a moment. In this deserted summer for a few days he might be filled with companionship. We will be blessed by his shy smile, the slight stammer and his joyful disposition. We don’t pass by but hesitate, enough to prompt fantasies that he will grow up and maybe, just maybe, one day come and stay with us. So we can return something of the kindness of his family and that little bit of his world he opened up to us. Even though, when you hesitate and stay a while you generate a tear.
Canada has some 35 million people. It is a vast, massive seemingly endless country. We transverse long highways across big open spaces through small townships and hamlets. Scattered along the road side the cute clapperboard houses and big barn structures made from endless movie sets we have come to know with a strange familiarity. The names are strikingly familiar too. Newcastle, Whitby, Brighton, Grimsby, Athens, Perth, Sunderland. It goes on. Then the not so familiar. The names from the 1st nation inhabitants, as they refer to them. The indigenous population. The ones wiped out by our diseases and our guns as the early pioneers made this land ‘’our’’ land! I guess Canada has tried to come to terms with this and maybe as result reaches out now to others less fortunate. It airlifted some 25,000 Syrians out of war zones and poverty. It’s about the 2nd largest number taken in by a developed nation, after the USA. However, most refugees languish in under developed countries with far less capacity than the rich West to look after them. Poor countries are taking in the poor whilst most of the rich turn their backs. Canada is an exception. This act of kindness is reported by the press as supported by the general population. The polls here suggest a favourable outlook on immigration and Canada ranks 2nd in the world on the Social Progress Scale. I don’t know where the UK is but it is not near the top.
So what of these people. Socially progressive? Tolerant towards other less fortunate. I can see Walt wandering the streets of London. All rich nations alike have that cross to bear. As we gather ourselves from one stop to the other the people leave a mark. Those that we engage and hear snippets of their lives and outlook on the world, to those that leave just a trace. Those that are just a trace on my retina but leave endless possibilities for one’s imagination. To those who stop and stay a short while. Like little lovable Josh. Passing through is not always the easiest thing to do.
I retired about 5 years ago. I had been in the Mental health industry for my whole working life. I put my spare time into art, writing and photography with mixed success. I found that I had a great capacity to be idle and I would love to teach this to other people. The opportunity to spend this amount of time together as family in these modern times is rare. I will miss my older kids and Buddy and my close friends.