DOWNHILL FROM VIMY
Downhill from Vimy is the story of honesty...how 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...
AU THOR’S NO T E
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
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.”
Not really ….
CHA P T E R ONE
T h e C a l l
Saint John, New Brunswick: Centenary-Queen Square
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
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
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
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
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.