Here is Part Two of Paul’s backstory from the previous post. Your comments are much appreciated.
Paul crossed Rue Saint-Joseph, normally abuzz with all the hotels, restaurants, shops, and lively cabarets, which now seemed abandoned with the prohibition of all gatherings and crowds. The few strollers he saw were mostly window shoppers who chatted through their protective masks of cloth. He paused at the corner to stare up at Salle Frontenac alongside Place Jacques Cartier where he had met Rose for the first time.
The building housed a covered market on the ground floor with a cultural center where the local youths gathered to play card games and Jeu de dames on the top floor. The twin Brault brothers had been the undisputed champions of Cinq-cents until Thomas left for the war. Paul was left without a partner, so his good buddy Gilles suggested he team up with Rose who had just joined the card group that week. So when Paul looked up to wait for his new partner’s bid and noticed the stunning, olive-skinned beauty studying her cards across from him, he felt his heart race and forgot all about the intricate strategies he had planned for the cards he held in his own hand. Rose placed her card trick on the table and glanced up at him, an expectant look in her eyes. He fumbled, and laid down his hold hand before his opponent had a chance to bid. He had lost the game and his reputation as a card shark, but he had won her heart. She loved the earthy smell of trees in his hair and the way he stood, tall and firm like the mountains protecting the small village she came from. Her dark eyes and gentle smile stirred the deep recess of his soul and awakened in him the need to always have her by his side.
They met every evening after she came back from her nursing training until he left for the logging camp in the late fall. Rose’s aunt Lea who lived in the Irish district of Saint-Roch, made a habit of never giving her Paul’s letters until she had at least finished washing the supper dishes and tucked her two young cousins in the bed she shared with them. Three years later when the lilacs bloomed in the wealthy gardens of upper Quebec City, Paul had managed to save enough money to buy a proper ring and a wedding dress for Rose, and they married, moving in with Paul’s parents.
Seeing Salle Frontenac always triggered ambivalent emotions for Paul. A slow ache tugged at his heart for the many happy hours spent here playing cards with Thomas before the war, and … after he was gone … that floating, light-hearted sensation of meeting up with Rose during their courting years. Overshadowing these tender feelings was the painful memory of the last spring’s Easter riots here that had forever widened the cultural gap between the English and the French.
On that fatal evening of Easter Sunday, Federal troops had opened fire on the anti-conscription protesters with their Lewis guns, the same machine guns used to kill Germans on the western battlefields. Four innocent bystanders were gunned down, one of them a fourteen year old crossing Place Jacques Cartier on his way home from church. Paul’s good friend Gilles had been one of the 70 wounded in the shootings, and had died two days later from the infection caused by the explosive bullets used by the soldiers. Paul felt his stomach heave the next morning wondering if some of the chunks of human flesh clinging to the wire fence alongside Place Jacques Cartier belonged to his childhood friend. His teeth clenched as he glared at the soldiers armed with long rifles patrol the streets of his hometown. War had come to Canada after all. Quebec was now under martial law—a land occupied by their own countrymen—and would remain so until the Great War ended in November of that year.
He continued down the narrow streets towards the industrial district where all the tanneries and shoe factories were scattered. His parents lived not far from there, in walking distance to the old shipyards where most of the Irish immigrant families had settled years ago. After 4 years of working at the logging camps, Paul knew he wasn’t always going to be a lumberjack. He enjoyed working surrounded with nature with the sweet smell of cut wood, and being with a group of guys who became family after living so close together in the shanty from late autumn to the spring thaw in the spring. The loggers arrived with the first signs of snow in the fall to build the shanty and outdoor toilettes. Tree felling could only start once the shanty was completed and the rugged roads needed to lug in the equipment and supplies as well as haul the logs to the rivers and streams in the spring were cleared. Their living area was cramped with the foreman’s office in the corner, a section of a wall reserved near the stove with protruding nails near the top to hang the bucksaws and lean the axes on the bottom, the cooking area with a long, roughly built, wooden table for meals, large barrels of melted snow for wash water near the kitchen area, and the bunk beds lined with straw where the men slept with their clothes on because of the cold wind blowing through the crevasses in the walls and ceiling. Lice and ticks were an everyday occurrence, and mice were quick to locate the bags of provisions. The cook didn’t have a big variety of food to serve them: beans, porridge and bread for breakfast; beans, salt pork with turnips for lunch; and fish with potatoes for supper. On the rare occasions when the cook received a letter from home, there’d be apple pie or cake to go with their tea.
Paul sometimes lay awake nights imagining how to make life a little easier for the loggers. On the stormy days, when the blowing snow made it impossible to cut trees, he’d sometimes help the foreman—who was anxious to join the guys howling with laughter as the cards scraped across the rough table—take care of all the forms and calculations needed to run the outfit. He learned the tricks of balancing books, the cost of provisions and equipment, and the names of the logging companies who hired contractors like his boss to cut the trees in specified areas of the Canadian forests. His most valuable lesson was discovering that contractors could still make a profit without cutting back on food and housing for the men.
The anticipation of seeing how much bébé Janette had grown since he had left in mid-October made him quicken his steps. Rose had written that the tip of their baby’s first front teeth were showing, and Paul’s heart almost exploded when she added that Papa was the very first word Janette had pronounced loud and clear. She was the most beautiful baby Paul had ever set his eyes upon with big brown eyes and a thick head of black curls like her mother. He’d have to remember to wash his hands before taking her in his arms. Rose had been strict about that since the second wave of Spanish flu scare had started up again earlier in the fall. Just a few weeks ago, hearses were so hard to get, closed coffins had to be loaded on streetcars to transport them as close as possible to the cemetery. Calgary had run out of coffins and his boss had obtained another urgent order for pine logs. When Paul first started at the camps, the loggers were felling trees for the British shipyards; now each tree they cut down was destined to become someone’s casket. More people were dying from this flu than the tens of thousands of soldiers who were killed by mustard gas or bullets in the Great War. Paul’s stomach turned rock hard at the possibility that his family might fall victim to this killer disease. So far there had been the sad story of his two young cousins who had been placed in the same pine box because of lack of money, and then the mother’s own coffin nailed shut and buried the very next day.
He could hardly wait to tell Rose his good news. Living with his parents hadn’t been easy for her and the baby, but he had enough money saved up now to afford the furniture they needed for them to get their own place to live. She’d be able to look around the stores when he returned to the logging camp in two weeks, and they’d buy what they needed when he came back in the spring. There would be enough construction jobs for him during the summer to keep a salary coming in until the logging camps opened again in the fall.
A light snowfall had fallen earlier and Paul’s work boots left a lone trail of wide prints behind him on the sidewalk along the row of three-story brick tenements where his parents lived. By the light of the dim streetlights he could see that several other footprints, some just as large as his, had crisscrossed the thin coat of snow on the front porch of the first-storey flat. He straddled the steps two at a time and came to an abrupt stop in front of the front door. Someone had left it ajar, something that never happened during the cold weather in this house. The flat was so drafty that Anne had to tuck old blankets at the base of each door and window to block the cold air from entering. Anyone who didn’t make sure to stuff the blanket back into place after entering would get an earful from her. Something was definitely wrong. Paul felt a tingling in his chest and his hand trembled as he nudged the door open. The strong smell of disinfectant and camphor took his breath away. He reached back to close the door and kicked the old blanket back with his heel.
“Leave it open a crack, son. We have to clear the air in here.” Anne was standing near the opening of the kitchen at the end of the darkened hallway. She wore a thick wool sweater buttoned up to her neck and a rosary dangled from her fingers. She didn’t rush to greet him as she usually did, but huddled her small frame against the wall and clutched her rosary to her chest. “It happened … so fast. The priest got here just in time to—”
“The priest? Paul blurted out. “What are you trying to say, Maman? ” His heart was pounding so hard his breath came out in gasps. He glanced at the bedroom door he shared with Rose and the baby and noticed the plain wooden rosary hanging from the doorknob. “Non … pas bébé Janette?” He bolted down the hall, shoved the door open and glanced around in a panic. The smell of disinfectant was stronger than in the hallway, and the baby’s crib was missing. He screamed out his daughter’s name. “Where is she, Maman? Is she at the hospital?”
“Please … pour l’amour du bon Dieu … don’t touch anything, Paul.” Anne stood behind him in the doorway, tears running down her cheeks. Her words came out slowly, laden with pain. “Rose came home from work yesterday morning…the poor girl looked so tired … she … told me to stay away … and … to take the baby to the emergency nursery.”
“Why the nursery? Isn’t that only for … ” He swerved towards the open window. A prickly wave of cold sweat surged from his shoulders down to his lower back. “Non … pas ça Jésus … pas nôtre Rose.” The sheets and blankets had been stripped off the bed and their pillow was nowhere to be seen. He turned towards Anne. “Where did they take her, Maman?”
Anne shook her head and lowered her gaze. “She didn’t … last 24 hours, son. The priest came just in time this morning … for the Last Rites. They … took her right away… that poor girl … not even a church funeral. Your father has gone with them to … help bring her to the ceme—”
Paul didn’t wait for his mother to finish and hurtled out the front door towards the church grounds. By the time he reached the corner of the cemetery reserved for the flu victims, the priest and the caretaker were just leaving, and Roger was staring down at the wooden cross rising from the soft ground where Rose’s pine box had just been buried. For the first time since Paul was a toddler, Roger reached over and placed his arms around, letting his son’s tears soak into the fur collar of the tweed coat he always reserved for Sunday Mass. It would be their last time together. Roger woke up next morning, his pillow stained from a violent nosebleed, and his throat too sore to call out his wife’s name. Paul planted his father’s cross the very next day, only a few feet from where Roger himself had hollowed out the soil to place Rose’s own wooden marker.
Paul felt an urgent need to escape the greyness of city life with its crumbling sidewalks, the suffocating pollution from the towering chimneys of factories and mills, and the nauseous gas fumes and deafening noise of all the street traffic which seemed to worsen with each one of his visits. War and disease had stripped him of any sense of belonging here. He had come to associate death and sorrow with the hometown that had once housed all his loved ones. A troubling thought surfaced as he lowered his father’s pine casket into the freshly dug soil of the cemetery. Death had visited his loved ones so often that he wondered if he had somehow done something to offend the laws of the universe that governed such things.
He left his daughter in his mother’s care and returned to his refuge in the sanctity of the pristine pine forests of northern Quebec only returning to Saint-Roch for the important events in Janette’s life. He wrapped Rose’s letters with soft green lace of cedar leaves and stored them in a small pine box he kept under his cot. When the other loggers would see him tuck the box under his arm and walk out the door of the cabin towards the thickest part of the woods they knew he wouldn’t be back until well after sunset.
He’d share the occasional letter he now received in his mother’s arthritic handwriting with the loggers at the dinner table and to smile with pride as she updated his daughter’s progress. Although many tried, no woman was able to mend the deep crevice Rose had engraved in his heart. Rose would often visit his dreams, usually standing among the trees that had stood guard over her in her youth, always with her gentle smile and that dark, sad look in her eyes. Paul would reach out then, but as soon as his hand was about to touch her, he’d jolt awake to find himself in the darkened cabin amidst a clamour of snoring loggers. It came to him one day that if he wanted to keep Rose coming back to him in his dreams, he’d have to remain living among the trees that she had loved so much.