Here is the first installment of my Backstories. I’m presenting Paul in two parts because of the length–the original version was much longer. I’ll be posting part two next week. Remember this character appears in my work in progress, but most of this will only serve to build him up behind the scenes. I wish I had known him in person. Please post your thoughts–they will guide me.
Saint-Roch, Québec 1918
Paul Brault lowers his gauze mask and hops down from the train at the Saint-Roch station of lower Quebec City. The late afternoon winter sky has already started to darken. He glances around a few times, puzzled. Rose isn’t there to greet him. Four years now that he’s been riding the train to the logging camps, and not once has she missed his train arrival.
The few people standing around or sitting on benches, as well as the ticket agents behind the counters, all have cloth masks covering their mouth and nose. He drags his feet towards the exit, an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. In the few months he’s been away at the camp, the Spanish flu scare has managed to reach his hometown. Since the Great War finally ended in November, all those recruiting posters that had instilled fear in the heart of everybody in his neighbourhood for the last four years were now plastered over with ones warning against the deadly epidemic.
He had just read a newspaper story on the train about a San Francisco health officer who had shot a shoer in the downtown area for refusing to put on his influenza mask. He shakes his head thinking how fear always brings out the worse in people. The Spanish flu scare had the same effect on the minds of decent folk as the Great War had—driving normally honourable men to do the most despicable acts. Life seems to him just a continuous reaction to fear of some kind. A heaviness settles in his stomach as he steps out of the station without Rose’s delicate hand tucked into his. He sighs and starts the long trek down to his parents’ home in the lower part of Saint-Roch—a walk that always flew by at a gallop with Rose chatting beside him.
Rose likes to wear her best outfit to meet him at the train—usually something borrowed from her Aunt Lea who works as a seamstress from her Saint-Roch flat. Her wealthy English customers from uptown sometimes decide the finished dress isn’t exactly to their liking, so Aunt Lea sells it to someone else. Unlike her local customers who can only pay her a few coins each week—the uptown ones pay up front, so Lea never comes up short and is happy to let her favourite niece borrow a dress anytime she fancies one.
Paul smiles softly remembering how elegant Rose looked the last time she met him at the station. The loose one-piece frock of beige charmeuse with a short vest front of light brown crepe that stopped just above her ankles had taken his breath away. The matching veiled hat enhanced Rose’s dark hair and eyes, and when she took his arm and beamed up at him, he felt his chest swell.
Rose had written in her last letter that their eight-month old daughter Janette had been coughing a lot. Maybe the baby’s illness had kept Rose from coming to meet him, although his mother Ann is always there to watch the child. Rose finished her nursing training last month, so she wouldn’t panic over a simple cold. Anybody who coughs or has a fever these days instantly thinks they’re going to die of Spanish flu. Paul quickens his step. If the child is still sick, he’ll get a doctor to come to the house. Bringing her to the hospital is too risky. Flu patients are corded like rotting logs in hallways and empty spaces
Except for the odd person passing by him on the street, the neighbourhood seems quiet for a Christmas Eve. Public gatherings have been banned everywhere, so churches, schools, theatres and taverns are all closed until the Spanish flu is under control. The big department stores and banks that he passes are still open but their employees are all wearing gauze masks. He glances up the street expecting to see Rose running up to meet him. She’s probably so busy with the Christmas preparations that she forgot till the last moment that he was coming home. They’d laugh about this when they eventually met somewhere along the way. Unless … she was still upset about him not making it back in time.
Janette was born during the busy spring drive when loggers work non-stop to float the logs down the river to the mills, and he wasn’t able to take time off to be with Rose.
“Once you plant your seed in a woman, she leaves her old self behind. Forget that silly girl who smiled at your every word, and embrace the strong woman who will nurture your child.” Anne rarely gave her opinion about things, but when she did, Paul paid attention.
Thinking back, he could’ve risked trekking in the woods that followed the muddy road to town, but it was a six-hour walk through hard terrain with hungry black bears roaming around at that time of year. Had she expected him to come home at all cost? His mother and her aunt Lea had never left her side during the long agonizing hours of childbirth, and the doctor had arrived just as she gave the final push. Her cries of pain would’ve paralyzed him, making him no help to her at all. No mention was made in the days and weeks that followed about the slight fissure that had formed in their young relationship, and Paul spent the rest of the summer working at construction jobs and making sure he took an active part in his role as husband and father. When he left again in the fall, he swore to her on his grandmother’s grave that he’d be with her and Janette for their first Christmas as a family. He promised her to only return to the logging camp after the New Year, in time to haul the logs to the banks of the river to be ready for the spring thaw.
Rose started nursing at Hôtel-Dieu Hospital right after she received her diploma. With all the excitement of starting her new job and taking care of the baby, she might have gotten confused about his train arrival. The kerosene lamps used at the logging camp hung around the kitchen area and over the long rough pine table where they sat drinking tea and playing cards at night. Paul didn’t like having the guys hovering over his shoulder and commenting on everything he wrote to Rose; so he sat on the edge of his cot where the lighting wasn’t too good. He might have jotted down the wrong arrival time on his letter; the guys were always haggling him to stop writing his dirty letters and come join them at cards.
Only two trains ran from Montreal to Saint-Roch per day, the early one at nine in the morning, and the next one at four o’clock in the afternoon. Rose knew that if he had missed the morning one, he’d be on the later one. No matter the weather, she was always there to greet him with that broad smile of hers. It gave her the chance to take a break from his father Roger’s constant grumblings. Janette was a happy, curious child, and had started crawling earlier than most babies her age. Roger would often look down from his rocking chair to see her little fingers plucking at his shoelaces and shoving them in her mouth. He’d roar at Anne then—well aware that Rose was working at the hospital and wouldn’t hear his offensive words.
Roger hadn’t been any easier on his own two boys when they were toddlers. There was something about sticky little fingers clutching onto his pant legs, and the twins’ disgusting habit of rubbing their snotty nose on the sleeve of his Sunday shirt that turned Roger off. He tolerated them better when they were old enough to sit quietly at Mass without tugging on Anne’s rosary and scattering the beads on the church’s ceramic floor.
Paul and his twin brother Thomas had started working as shoe buffers in the factories at thirteen to help the family make ends meet. They’d spend 12 hours a day, six days a week, sanding the leather soles before the shoes were then sent to the next group responsible for polishing. Their father, who should’ve been a foreman by then after spending most of his young manhood breathing in the woody residue of tannic acid used to transform animal skins into leather, worked the same long hours snipping the heavy leather hides into shoe parts in the cutting room on the first floor, stopping only to share his lunch with his boys when the dinner bell rang.
In most factories, hard workers who spoke both English and French had a better chance of being promoted to factory foreman. The average workers on the assembly line were usually French speaking, but English was the language of money and power. It was uncommon for a foreman with a French family name to be considered for any executive position—these decision-making jobs were normally filled by the English. The French-Canadian who happened to operate a successful business in Saint-Roch would eventually move his family up the hill to the wealthier part of Quebec City where all the English upper class lived among the tree-lined, wide avenues and well-kept parks.
Roger, like most working class French-Canadians boys, had started working long hours in the factories at 12 years old. There was no time, nor the need, to learn a second language. English was never heard at the local Sunday Mass gatherings, or at the pool halls and bowling alleys where the youth met on Saturday evenings, nor in the drafty classrooms and grimy playgrounds of poor districts like Saint-Roch. It was, however, the dominate language in large department stores, the cinema, fancy restaurants, bars, and at all the large companies of upper-town Quebec City. To be served in their own language at those places was something French-Canadians had to insist upon, even to employees who were fluent in both languages.
Paul could still remember the fumes from the glue and the shoe polish in the factory. It permeated the workers’ hair and clothes. A film of acrid residue from the dust of the sanding machines coated the inside of their mouth and made their eyes water. The smell of unwashed bodies and tobacco smoke on the hot days of summer contributed to the insufferable working conditions. The foreman would lock the doors during the day so the employees wouldn’t waste time going outside for a breath of fresh air, or vomit behind the garbage bins. The pay was low, but it covered the rent and the children’s contribution helped put meat on the table a bit more often. When Paul kissed his mother on the cheek and proudly slipped his first week’s pay into the pocket of her apron, she leaned forward at the kitchen table where she was peeling potatoes and sobbed. Accepting her son’s small contribution to the family meant closing the door on his childhood. Thomas, who was never far behind his brother, ruffled her hair and pressed his meagre pay into her closed fist. She pulled out her handkerchief from inside the sleeve of her sweater, and wiped her eyes before reaching for her paring knife. There was chicken stew and dumplings that week for dinner after Sunday Mass.
It was three years later in the autumn of 1914, that the Federal recruiters came to Paul’s part of town. England had declared war on Germany and Canada, being part of the great British Empire, had no choice but to follow. Prime Minister Borden only called for volunteers and promised Canadians never to impose conscription. Rumours that it would be a short war, possibly over before Christmas, inspired some of the unemployed in his neighbourhood to enlist right from the start.
Thomas jumped on the chance to escape the slave labour of the factories by secretly enlisting in the army. He was mesmerized by the maze of colourful recruiting posters attached to billboards and electric tramways, hanging on the sides of tall buildings, clipped to telephone poles and on restaurant walls. He didn’t quite understand the words on the English posters, but he admired the images of the brave soldier in full army attire holding a rifle over his shoulder with a huge Union Jack in the background. He didn’t feel the urge to fight for a country whose imperial arm had dominated his people for centuries, but he found the lure of heroism hard to ignore. The poster that finally convinced him to jump ship from his boring factory job was one written in his own language. Two soldiers stood proudly with an arm resting on each other’s shoulder: a Canadian infantry soldier in his smart khaki regalia, and a French soldier in his dapper blue jacket and bright red pants casually standing both rifles on the ground like they were baseball bats. The poster alluded to the legendary French military hero, Marquis de Montcalm, who was killed in the 1759 battle to defend Quebec against British attackers. Although France had completely forgotten that Quebec even existed since then, the thought of foreigners invading the country of his ancestors prompted him to step up to the recruiting desk and lie about his age.
He towered over the recruiters, and the doctor declared him fit enough to go into battle. Although his boyish grin and teenage acne were a sure indication that he was under the minimum age requirement to carry a gun, the army was more than willing to let him borrow one to protect himself against assault and injury. The recruiters turned a blind eye on his peach fuzz and the large infantile way he signed his name on his enlistment papers. All the forms were written entirely in English. The recruiters simply pointed at the blank spaces and told him what to write, and he was good to go.
His parents, as did many French-Canadians Paul knew, openly opposed fighting for a British war. Apart from unemployed workers, a good majority of English-Canadians who lined up to enlist at the start of the war were British born and their loyalty to their homeland was still heartfelt. French-Canadians felt neither affinity for France, nor any kind of allegiance to Britain. Quebec wasn’t the only province to resist the lure of the imperial war. Farmers from across Canada needed their sons to help with the farm work. If they were to produce wheat for the British, they needed to keep their farm labourers at home. Immigrant and religious groups in the other provinces were unbending in their staunch resistance to the frantic call to arms.
Thomas kept his plans secret and continued to work in the factory beside his brother until the very last minute. Paul woke up one morning to see the gray wool blanket on his brother’s narrow bed neatly tucked under his mattress, and his most prized possession—his 1911 Imperial Tobacco hockey card of Eddie Oatman with the Quebec Bulldogs—placed on top of the rickety dresser separating their cots. Thomas had penciled over Eddie Oatman’s hockey stick to make it look like a rifle. Paul felt a painful tightening in his throat with the knowledge that he would never see his twin brother again. His knees buckled and he lowered himself back down on the edge of the bed, gasping for breath as the hatred of those who had just sent to slaughter the only one who had ever owned his heart and soul, penetrate every cell of his body. He swore never to participate in a war that depended on the spilling of blood to win, and if conscription would one day come to pass, he would rather hang from the imperial gallows or be shot on the spot with his head held high than to be part of these killing games.
In October of 1914, Thomas was part of the First Canadian Troops to arrive in Britain. The news that his son had boarded a warship sailing for England enraged Roger. Paul had waited until the ship left port before saying anything to his parents who were confused about his sudden disappearance. He knew Thomas well enough that once his mind was made up there was no stopping him. He would’ve found a way to climb aboard that warship no matter what.
Paul, who had always worked alongside his brother, couldn’t get used to having a stranger share the same cloud of brown leather dust at the sanding station, so when the cold and snow hardened the ground in November he shook the foreman’s hand and joined the group of lumberjacks travelling to the logging camps of northern Quebec. Strong and robust like all the Brault men of his family, his large boned hands made him a welcome candidate with the axe men who stripped the bark from the heavy logs and squared them to make them easier to transport. The pay wasn’t any better than factory work, but the air was fresh, and for the first time in his life he found a sense of freedom and camaraderie with these woodsmen who spoke his language and shared the same background.
When Thomas’s postcard arrived 6 months later showing him smiling knee deep in mud on the training fields of Salisbury Plain of Northern England, he was already buried in French soil. Anne emptied out the cracked cup half-full of coins from her laundry jobs and asked the priest to hold a Mass for her dead son, thanking Jésus that, at least, Thomas was resting in the land of their ancestors. She pinned his postcard on the wall beside her bed along with a rosary blessed by the priest from the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré where healed pilgrims leave their crutches and braces as proof that miracles do happen. Not that Anne expected her Thomas to rise up from his shallow grave, but that his spirit would stop his surviving twin from joining the senseless carnage overseas.
Paul’s young age had saved him from enlisting until the spring of 1918. Prime Minister Borden’s Military Service Act of the year before had cancelled all previous exemptions to the draft. Married males between the ages of 20 to 45, and the sons of farmers needed to work the land were no longer exempt and were to register for the selection process. Local Tribunals were set up to decide whether a Certificate of Exemption could be issued for special cases. Spotters, Dominion Police hired by the Ottawa government, were sent out across the countryside to arrest any male who couldn’t produce exemption papers. Only certain religious pacifists could now claim exemptions.