Sunday Stories features original fiction every weekend by Langley writers.
The Armature Winder’s Daughter
Written by John Hurst
(continued from previous publication on Sunday, March 8. Read last week’s installment here)
Meeting Some Real Ghosts
Old Fort Niagara is a vast stone fortress on the American bank of the Niagara River, just where it flows grandly into Lake Ontario. The French built the place 400 years ago and it had the reputation of being haunted. Unimpressed, my kids called it “Fort Nigeria”. I learned otherwise.
The fort’s promotional literature told of a famous ghost that rose nightly from a stone well, searching for its lost head. Or was it a lost love? The well was located near a Catholic chapel inside the fort’s main building. To me, it sounded Halloweenish, right out of high school.
As soon as I entered the main fort building, that resembled more a stone chateau than a castle, I found myself in a 17th Century trading post. There were fur pelts, barrels and Hudson Bay blankets stacked on the shelves. But as I walked slowly along a wooden trading counter, I could distinctly feel people pulling at me, from every which way. But I could see no one.
I was dressed in the clothing of a private in the 64th Regiment of Foot, the North Staffordshire, “the Prince of Wales’s Own”, a redcoat regiment that had fought in many battles of the U.S. War of Independence, had never surrendered and had returned to England with its battle colors intact. Ahead of me were soldiers in many famous recreated units – the Black Watch, The King’s 8th and Rogers Rangers.
The weather of the 1700s at Fort Niagara was just the same as it is now. The summers are hot and muggy and the winters offer a new kind of pleasantry – driving you slowly into madness as the waves of Lake Ontario repeatedly smash huge ice floes against the stone walls for weeks at a time. Ghosts in a well may make good reading, but the grim fates of soldiers stationed there are just too sad to write down. No wonder they pulled at my sleeves and garters in the trading post. I must have seemed to them a long-lost friend.
We drilled and fought battles outside on a huge, grassy common in front of the chateau. The huge walls had block houses at several points and they all echoed back the shrill sounds of fifes, the clatter of drums and the cries of sergeants. Officers lounged over champagne and orange juice in a late breakfast. Duets of bagpipes skirled away and across the Niagara River.
One bright occasion was a wedding. Two members of our living history units were being married and all of us were drawn up in ranks in friendly witness. The groom emerged from the chateau in the garb of a captain in Gordon’s Highlanders and the bride…was Theoline Notker. I had no chance to speak with her this time, but she was dressed so wonderfully well that I dreamed of her for ages after that.
The real slice of cake was her brother, Ignaz Notker, who had shown up for the occasion in period uniform. This was our Nutsy, from the old days at Dunnville High School, but as usual, he was not as welcome as we were.
Nutsy walked alone among our ranks carrying a World War II submachine gun. He wore the summer khakis and beret of a private in the British SAS – Strategic Air Services. He was left alone; we were too polite to evict him. He was a soldier to be sure, but a damning sight and a blot on the military landscape. It was an unpleasant symbol – of death and the madness that underlay all war.
“What ho, Nutsy,” I cried as I sidled up to him.
“Begone Hurstie,” he hissed. “You smell like something crawled up your nose and died.”
Little Old New York
As a public relations editor with Eastman Kodak Company, I got to travel a bit. One of my favorite places was New York City and I went there on business with our biggest advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. We spent millions enacting their ideas and this time, I was invited to an opening party at the Kodak Gallery in downtown Manhattan. It was the spring of 1984.
I met Beau Milliard, a popular attorney, in the ante room of the men’s washroom of the gallery. While an attendant whisked the lint from our cuffs and collars, I introduced myself to Beau, because he was the Scots officer who had married Theoline Notker at Fort Niagara. From him, I quickly learned that she had fled the marriage and was now located somewhere on the West Coast. They had only five years together. No children. I apologized.
“Steer well away from her,” Beau said. “You’ll be better off.”
I watched Beau, realizing I would never see him again. He left the gallery on the arm of a stunning woman and I didn’t learn until later that he would ascend to power in later years as a state attorney and a two-term congressman.
“How does Theoline manage to meet such men?” I stammered to myself. I assumed that it was the age-old stratagem of lapping from the same waterholes that rich people did.
The Girl of the Golden West
I was on the bum again, sending out resumes and hoping my decades of success in journalism would land me a plum job in Vancouver. It came close, but no cigar. I was in my 40s and growing less and less hireable, day by day. There were two kids at home, growing like weeds and getting smarter all the time.
A letter arrived from the provincial welfare department, that winter of 1988. My chances of regaining full employment stood a better go if I attended a Job Club for welfare recipients. It was mandatory if our welfare checks continued, but it would give us refresher training on how to get jobs. Deep down, it felt like the best thing to come along since I was laid off at Kodak with 3,000 other worker bees.
Since my kids and I arrived in White Rock, B.C. aboard a Greyhound bus, our lives had generally been stress free. I slept in most mornings until 9 a.m., when the kids began school, and after lunch I walked around a lot. The Job Club meant I had to turn out of bed at 6:30 a.m., much more like regular folk, and I had to shave again. I had been able to get two suits, two shirts and a tie free, from our local food bank, and I was ready to work again.
Almost. In my first sessions at the Job Club, Mondays through Fridays, I discovered that I had let a few things slip. Remembering work assignments was one of the initial obstacles I had to overcome, along with accuracy, facts and how these were related. But all those things came back.
One day, our class was told that some high-ranking welfare officials would be visiting us in an assessment tour of Job Club classes around the province of British Columbia. These dignitaries arrived in mid-morning, men and women in grey suits and baleful gazes. Striding in behind them was their supervisor, a taller and wiser woman with long, blonde hair. I ducked.
Theoline beckoned to our own facilitator and told him she had a letter for me. I just swallowed. She turned, took a good, smiling look at me and walked out the door to the parking lot.
The letter read: “Dear John:
“I was hoping you would join our club. Sorry about the Kodak job and what losing it cost you. Your home, your cars, your swimming pool, your wife in that order, and yes, six nice new suits. I really do remember you and wish you would get writing again.
“My suggestion: focus on northern British Columbia, away from the lotus fields of Vancouver, and get yourself a good, industrial job. I know of one that opens soon in Kitimat. Go for broke.
For the next few weeks, I scoured all the ‘help wanted” ads in the Vancouver daily newspapers and finally spotted the one for Kitimat. There were two public relations openings at the local aluminum smelter and right away, I knew I could do both very well. I applied and a few weeks later, I was interviewed and on my way to Kitimat. I got the newspaper editing job and shortly after that, my kids and I were flown north to our new home. It would last us for nearly 10 years.
“But how did Theoline know all those things?”
To be continued… The next installment of The Armature Winder’s Daughter by John Hurst will be published by the Langley Advance Times, Sunday, March 22.