The Railway Journal, Part 2
by dm gillis
read part 1 here
read the rewrite of the entire story here
Langdale, BC 1953
The vessel shook, as the Black Ball ferry entered the slip. Isaac Brunel had arrived. He could see nothing through the passenger lounge window except trees and misty low cloud. Supposedly, there was a town out there in the mix. He picked up his army surplus duffle bag and marched to the exit. There were incoherent announcements coming over the intercom. A ramp that lead onto the wharf was being secured by two untidy men. The rain was still falling.
“Have a nice stay,” said one of the ramp men to Isaac Brunel, as he disembarked. Brunel was an obvious tourist.
Smiling grimly, he walked off between the two men. There were mumbled words and snickers behind him. Perhaps the crisp new Burberry pea coat and rust coloured cashmere turtle neck were a bit much, now that he thought of it. But a man must dress for the climate, and must never apologise for it. Olivier certainly wouldn’t. But then, Sir Laurence would never find himself here, in the rain, on a wharf, in Langdale.
He stopped at the top of yet another ramp that lead down, off of the wharf. In the parking lot below was a knot of expectant persons, greeting his fellow passengers with laughter, hugs and slaps on the back. It occurred to him once more that he’d done very little to inform the people on this side when he would arrive. An avoidance maneuver, he thought with mild panic. Isaac had been uneasy from the start about who might greet him here. He steeled himself and descended, and immediately thought about a car. He’d need one. How was that done in this place? He’d called ahead, but there was no agency.
As he stepped off of the ramp, he saw a lone Chevrolet with wooden sides at the far end of the parking lot. It had the word Taxi hand painted on its side. That was it. No line of them round the block, and no Porter to take his bag and place it in the boot. This was the new world. He put his head down and began to walk into the wind and rain.
“Hey mister,” said someone off to his left. He ignored whoever it was. “Hey! Mister! You from London?”
Isaac Brunel stopped and looked over his shoulder at a young woman under the overhanging eaves of a shed.
“’Cause you kinda look like you’re from there.”
She had a pleasant round face, and wore a blue wool car coat. The hem of a floral dress was visible emerging at the bottom. There was a worn baseball cap on her head, and saddle shoes with perfect white bobby socks on her feet. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and a black patent leather purse hung from her wrist. She was moving up and down – heel to toe, heel to toe – to stay warm.
“Are you Isaac Brunel?” she said.
He stood in the rain, and said, “Yes.”
“Well hello,” she said. “I’m Mary Brunel. Your cousin. Gosh, I’ve been coming here a week, waiting for you. Your cable was scarce on information. But Granny Wilhelmina said I had to. She said you was polite company and we had to treat you with kid gloves. But you look like anyone else I ever seen. ‘Cept you’re real wet, right now. Granny Wilhelmina says you London Brunels’ll break like China dolls. Is that true?”
“Do you have a dry cigarette?” he said.
“Care to share?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Mary Brunel. Her pronunciation was short and clipped. She pulled a pack of Players from her handbag.
He walked over to the shed and ducked under the dripping eaves. She offered him the deck, and he took one. She lit his and her own with battered Zippo lighter. Isaac looked at her carefully now, for the first time.
“You’re an Indian,” he said, like she might not already know. It was an involuntary observation. A curse of fatigue or a hitherto unknown prejudice. He sounded surprised, and was immediately ashamed.
“Shíshálh,” she said, nonchalantly, as she smoked. “Welcome to our land.”
“I’m sorry, I….”
“Maybe you haven’t gotten to that part of great Granddad’s journal,” said Mary Brunel. “So, you didn’t know. White folk think the whole goddamn world is white. And what ain’t, should be. It’s not, but I guess you’ll adjust.”
“Yes,” he said, looking at the pavement.
“So, let’s forget it.”
She was right. For all of the importance he’d placed in investigating the journal, and what it meant, he’d neglected reading it seriously and in depth. He’d been carelessly relying on his visit to supply the questions and their answers.
He was startled when she suddenly whistled. She seemed too small for it. It was the whistle of a London hooligan, loud and piercing. She waved at the taxi, and the driver started the engine.
“That’s Roger, driving the cab,” Mary said. “He’s a little rough, and a little stupid. But he’s our only ride to the house. Just ignore anything he says. I’ll make sure he don’t deviate from the directest route. You’re paying. Don’t tip too much.”
Roger drove his taxi in an unnecessarily wide arc round the perimeter of the parking lot to get to them. He rolled down his window when he arrived, and a cloud of stale cigarette smoke curled out.
“Where to, yous two?” he said, getting out and putting Isaac’s duffle in the trunk. His face was pale and pockmarked, and his hair vampire black. It was held in place with that week’s application of Brylcreem. He wore a leather biker jacket and engineer boots.
“Granny’s house,” said Mary Brunel. “Straight up the highway to Gibson’s, and right on Stewart Road, to the end.”
“I know a better way,” Roger said.
“The hell you do,” said Mary Brunel. “Just go the way I say.”
Mary and Isaac got in, and Roger headed for the highway. As he drove, he looked in the rear view.
“Who’s the chump?” he said.
“My cousin, Isaac.”
“That’s Isaac?” Roger said. “The fella everyone’s so up in the air about?”
“Don’t talk about him like he ain’t here, Roger.”
“Looks like a bit of a fag,” Roger said. “To me, anyways.”
He lit another cigarette off one already dying in his mouth.
Isaac raised an eyebrow, and speculated.
“Everyone looks like a fag to you and your Legion buddies,” Mary said.
“You fight in the war?” said Roger. “I fought in the war. Seaforth Highlanders. Went to Vancouver to sign up. Lied ‘bout my age. Wasn’t eighteen yet. Landed on the beach, day after D Day. We went in on the seventh, not the sixth. But I still almost go my ass shot off a dozen times. Saw a lot of my pals die, liberating England.”
“We weren’t occupied,” said Isaac. “We didn’t need liberating.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I was too young to fight in the war,” said Isaac. “I was only a child.”
Roger made a quiet, self-satisfied ha! sound.
“I lived in a terrace in London that was bombed,” Isaac said. “My parents and little sister were killed, and our house destroyed. The whole neighbourhood was destroyed.”
Roger shrugged and went quiet.
Isaac had never seen so many trees, not even in Scotland. And the road was unpaved. Roger turned right at Stewart as instructed, and drove down the potholed lane. It came to a sudden end, where a large and unexpected house stood. It was well kept, in spite of its location and age. The large front yard had well-tended, winter-dormant gardens and a tire hanging from a rope tied to one of the many leafless deciduous trees.
Roger stopped, and said, “That’ll be five bucks, mister.” He hadn’t engaged the metre. Maybe he was right.
“Roger…,” Mary said.
“Okay, $3.50,” he said. “I was just roundin’ up for wear and tear.”
“Keep it,” Isaac said, handing over $6.00. He knew from living in London the value in keeping cab drivers happy. All the more so in this case, where there might not be an alternative.
“Thanks, mate,” Roger said, smiling in the rear view mirror. Three of his front teeth were missing. He was a vampire approaching toothlessness.
As Roger retrieved Isaac’s luggage from the trunk, the front door of the house opened and a young aboriginal man emerged, followed by an excited mutt.
“That’s Nathan,” Mary said. “Another of your cousins. He’s my brother.”
Nathan was tall, young, and handsome. Isaac guessed he was about 20 years old. He came the remaining few feet to stand and look Isaac over. Then he held out his hand.
“I’m assuming you’re the London Brunel,” he said. The mutt danced and sniffed Isaac’s shoes.
“I’ve come to understand that that’s how I’m known round here,” Isaac said. “And that I might break like a China doll.”
“I further assume,” said Nathan, “that you’d rather be referred to by your proper name.”
“Yes,” said Isaac, as he shook Nathan’s hand.
“I’ll pass that along.”
Isaac decided he like him.
The young man hoisted the duffle, and said, “Let’s head on in, then. Granny Wilhelmina awaits, like a Buddha on a pedestal in an antiques emporium. She’s been speaking your name for weeks now.”
In the entrance of the house was a small cloakroom, with friendly hats on shelves and many coats. As Nathan took his pea coat, Isaac couldn’t help noticing him sneak a peek at the label and give an approving nod.
Then he said, “Come along.”
They entered the parlour and there she was. The matriarch of the Sun Shine Coast Brunels. Wearing a snugly fitted red and white polka dot dress over her vast girth. The room truly did resemble a well-kept antique shop. It wasn’t what he expected from a Native Indian home, if he’d expected anything. Wilhelmina Brunel had a tea cup in her chubby fingers. To Isaac, she looked like an enormous, jovial ghost from a Dickens novel.
“Fill me up, Mary dear,” Granny Wilhelmina said, and Mary Brunel rushed to fill her empty tea cup. Then Granny Wilhelmina watched as Mary dropped in cubes of sugar, a splash of milk, and then stirred with a tiny spoon.
“This is Isaac Brunel,” Mary said as she stirred.
“You can call me Granny Wilhelmina, boy,” she said to Isaac. “Pardon me if I don’t get up. It’s a goddam chore moving this fat old body, let me tell you. Come over here and shake my hand.”
Isaac did. Wilhelmina’s hand was warm and moist.
“You’ve read the whole journal I sent to you?” she said.
So, it was her who sent it.
“I only scanned it. It was a busy season. I have the volumes with me.”
“You didn’t know you’re related to Indians, then.”
“No,” said Isaac.
“Does it matter to you?”
“No, not especially.”
“Ha!” Wilhelmina said, looking at Nathan and Mary in turn. “…not especially. The boy talks like a goddam book. What’d I tell ya?” She paused then for the sake of gravity. “But you know Mad Granddad Leo came here to build a railroad.”
“Don’t know why he ever thought it was needed round abouts,” said the big woman. “Turns out it never was. Turns out a gravel road’s all we need round here. The train’s lost in the bush now. It broke the old man’s heart. He died angry as hell. Sad, too. I guess them two things go together, don’t they? Nathan can take you to see parts of it. But it’s just a lot of rusty rails, rotten ties and a few beat up old depots where the raccoons sleep now. Why the hell you come all this way to see that?”
“It’s difficult to explain.” Isaac faltered a moment “Leopold’s family. You’re family. What he did here was amazing, even if it didn’t work out in the end. I haven’t seen it or fully read about it in his journal yet. I don’t understand it. But I know it must be wonderful. Maybe I’ll write about it. Besides, you sent the journal to me. You must have expected some kind of response.”
“Don’t know what I expected,” Wilhelmina said. “I thought you was an actor, not a writer.”
“I am an actor. But maybe I can write, too.”
“Maybe,” Wilhelmina said. “I like them Harlequin romances, myself. Why don’t you sit down? Mary, make the boy some fresh tea. I ‘spect the boy knows his tea inside out.”
“He’s not a boy, Granny,” said Mary as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Wilhelmina’s eyes were hazel and bright. She was a zealot, for something. Isaac didn’t know what. Maybe she didn’t, either.
“So,” Wilhelmina said. “I’ll start the story of Mad Granddad Leo’s railroad in a minute. But first you have to understand that there’s a big difference between what I have to tell you, and what’s in them diaries. A man like Leo tends to glamorize and exaggerate a bit. Men do in general. The truth always comes down through the women. You with me so far?”
“Yes, Granny Wilhelmina.”
She paused for a moment and smiled. Granny Wilhelmina sounded mighty fine when spoken with an educated English accent.
“Good,” she said. “I ain’t in no mood to debate that last point. Fact is men play fast and loose with the truth. It’s in their blood.”
Mary came back into the parlour with slices of cake. She placed one onto a side plate along with a fork, and handed it to Wilhelmina.
“Tea’ll be ready soon,” she said.
“Now,” said Wilhelmina. “I suppose you know that there’s insanity in the family.”
“No,” Isaac said. “I mean, I know there are rumours.”
“Well, there is. And Leopold Liberty Brunel may have been crazier than all of us put together. That’s where the Mad Granddad Leo bit comes from. He talked to a ghost named Imelda. At least some said she was a ghost, since she wasn’t there for them to see. And Imelda was the one, far as I can tell, that pushed him on the whole railroad idea. Then she ridiculed him for his failings. She also might have been the one that drove him to suicide.”
Wilhelmina stopped there, and had a bite of cake.
“Mmm,” she said. “Raisins.”
“Suicide?” Isaac said.
“Yessiree,” said Wilhelmina, chewing and sucking the cake raisins. “Hung himself from a rafter in his office. His farewell note’s in the back of the last diary,”
“I had no idea.”
“Well, it ain’t his suicide that’s interestin’, I figure. It’s what lead up to it. Now get comfortable, sit still and listen….”