...the magic never ends


Downhill from Vimy is the story of find and lose love, how our best intentions get subverted by by deepest fears and how we can run away from our greatest victories, hiding in shame or regret. 

It's 1917. Imagine a Canadian soldier. He joined up for the wrong reasons and he stayed because he had no choice. he saw Vimy, Paschenndaele and the Halifax Explosion. In fact, he landed on the dock in Halifax an hour before the boats collided in the narrows setting off a blast that demolished the north end of city.   Apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, It was the greatest human made explosion over a populated city. This soldier survives, helps the wounded as best he can and then disappears. Four days later he's found in Montreal no knowing who he is or how he got there.  What happened?  You'll have to read Downhill from Vimy to find out.

Here's a the first few pages to get you started...


I always thought my great-uncle Willie had died in the First World

War. I recall my grandmother saying when she pointed to a stained

photo in her family album, “That’s your Uncle Willie [sic]. He died in

the war.” She would often continue as we sat together in her tattered

rocking chair, “We all thought he would go places and be somebody.”

When researching an article on Remembrance Day, my father told

me that my great-uncle’s name was, in fact, “Gordon.” Uncle Herb, the

family historian, added that Gordon had not died in the war at all, but

had been listed as “missing.” The official army version, in its understated

fashion, listed him as “unavailable for discharge.” Nothing more.

In fact, Gordon was wounded in Passchendaele, and a twist of fate

disembarked Gordon on Pier 7, in the early morning of December

6, 1917, the fateful day of the Halifax explosion. That’s where he

went missing.

Eventually, a war medal arrived for my great-grandmother. Too late!

She had already died of cancer complicated by a broken heart. With

neither torn body nor black-edged telegram as proof of his demise, it

was simpler for the family circle to explain that he had died in Flanders

rather than to go into the long explanation of how he had mysteriously

disappeared in Halifax. He was gone. The “how” did not matter.

Soon after Armistice, his theological college sent a note to the

family asking for the particulars of his death as they were preparing a

marble war memorial for the chapel. “Should you wish to contribute,

the cheque can be made payable to …” 

Later, a few pointed enquiries

regarding Gordon’s whereabouts came from a distant Anglican bishop.

Relayed through the local priest, the questions seemed sincere enough,

but too vague to credit. There was one final unsigned letter asking for

any information about G. Davis to be sent to a postal box in Montreal.

Gordon’s oldest sister denied to her deathbed ever receiving it. To each

and every entreaty the answer was the same. “Gordon died in the war.”

Full stop.

Not really ….


T h e C a l l

Saint John, New Brunswick: Centenary-Queen Square

United Church

Tuesday, November 17, 1992, 11:04 a.m.

Gordon is dead.

Why did he take so long? For seventy-five years he’s been a ghost, a

partial name on a nurse’s roster. Nothing more. And of all seasons, he

waits until the harbour winds blow icebox cold before exhaling one last

time. Cantankerous old captain!

Is that snow? Surely, not yet!

By all rights, I should already have started his funeral. But I wait.

It’s my prerogative, after all. We begin when I say so. Four minutes past

the hour and the needle sharp breeze is picking at the undertaker’s men

waiting by the hearse. A row of overstuffed black suits, standing by the

open door, chomping to get this one inside and over. Small pickings. No

audience, no tips. I can see their eyes pleading “Come on, padre! Let’s

start this one down the aisle.”

Only professional pride keeps them silent. In their strained patience,

I can see the mark of old man Ferguson, the local funeral home owner.

None of his men get out of line. Each day before opening, he calls them

to attention like a drill sergeant. “By God, a funeral is a funeral if there

are two or two thousand people. So you step smartly.” They laugh at him

behind his back, but they know he’s right.

Indeed, there’s not a single emotion out of place in their frostnipped

faces. I would be stomping my feet at least, trying to keep them

warm. They don’t dare even that! “Stand at attention when the hearse

door opens!” They’re all wearing that permanently fixed, warm funeral

parlour smile—affecting a gracious demeanour. Hollywood could do

no better.

Their eyes tell a different story. Underneath the mournful veneer

lurk bawdy jokes usually involving a minister, his mistresses and a coffin.

Black hearse humour is ready at hand to be used once the paying customers

are well-seated in their limos, antidotes against exposure to too

much grieving.

Once the client approaches, Ferguson rules. It’s strictly business and

that means dignity at all costs. At the old man’s rates, it costs plenty.

At five minutes past the hour, I see that I am testing even their

patience. Wiggling fingers ever so slightly to keep them from freezing,

they snatch glances at their watches, wondering “What the hell is the

minister waiting for?”

What am I waiting for? A message to make it all make sense? A telegram

telling me to hold off until Gordon’s mystery is solved or maybe a

phone call stating that an unknown heir is arriving on the next flight?

It’s as if I am watching the end of a movie and expecting the final scene

that draws it all together: the long-expected dialogue. “I do love you.

Forgive me.” “You were forgiven long ago.” Okay, there’s no final embrace.

But surely Gordon deserves more. Can’t we have a pithy line of text

scrolling down the screen, a final assessment of his miseries, giving his

life’s movie a satisfying “the End”?

Nothing. Just cold breezes freezing our hands.

Gordon’s gone. Admit it! He’s gone. No deep mystery to be solved.

He was just an old war vet who saw too much death, and didn’t have the

mental stability to come back from the edge. Dead! Let him go.

Yet how could a century of memories be snuffed out and stuffed

into a pine box? Where have they gone? Does anyone give a damn?

There are no mourners for Gordon. Not a condolence in sight. There’s a

small bouquet from my dad and his brother, sent in pity. Not they had

any real connection, apart from a nostalgic longing for an uncle of the

same name.

The flowers came with a card. “Our deepest sympathy.” To whom

are they sending it—the “sympathy” that is? I’m not sure. There’s no

family to receive it. I am the only real mourner for Gordon, and I’ve

only known him a little over a year. He’s been lost for too long to have

any friends.

I breathe deeply. No more waiting!

Giving the lads the high sign, I open the service book to a wellthumbed

page and begin Gordon’s funeral. “The Call to Worship.”

Mounting the steps to the sanctuary, the admonitions of my worship

teacher, Professor Kelly, ring in my ear, his Scots’ brogue giving his

advice divine weight. “Read the wards slowly lad. Dunna run doon the

aisle. People need time ti mourn.”

I am the resurrection and the life and he who believes in me, though he

die yet … ( John 11:25)

Toronto, Ontario: Royal Ontario Museum

Friday, April 11, 2014, 5:47 p.m.


The call came just as I was digging in Jack’s diaper bag for a baby

wipe. He’d been holding back for a few days, I think. And of course,

it’s just as he is most delicately balanced on the change table with pants

down and poop exposed that my phone rings. With my left hand on my

grandson who is quietly waiting for me to clean him up, I reach for my

iPhone with my right.


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