What surprised her was how the burden hadn’t fallen heavily upon her heart, but had gently wrapped itself round, like a mist. She’d had a successful year in business, and was able now to give her friends this gift of a train trip through Christmas. But intuition told her that success was only one wheel of many, and some wheels turn best at the expense of others.
Of this she was certain, standing there in her red wool coat, surrounded by porters, passengers and newsies, in the frenetic motion around her on the platform, aware only of it all slowing down in that moment, nearly to a stop, as the CN Super Continental rolled into the station, the perfume of diesel filling the air. In contrast to her melancholy, this was fantasy come true, the anticipation of travel, her greatest love, and Christmas aboard this luxurious behemoth. A waking dream, in which she was absolutely lost. Until she felt someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Wakey-wakey,” the someone said, and Elinor’s dreaming moment quickly faded, along with her escape from the blues. It was her friend Margy at her side. “Time to board,” she said. “Are you coming with us?”
“Yes,” said Elinor, “Of course.” She took a ticket from her coat pocket, and held it in the air for all to see.
“You okay?” Margy asked.
Elinor quietly nodded.
And there they all were with her; Margy and Ian, Harland and Michelle, Marijus and Jennifer, Cindy and Geoff.
The Conductor and his assistants were on the platform checking tickets and directing passengers, First Class and Second, and ensuring luggage was loaded. And as the friends lined up to board their First Class car, Elinor noticed the private coach just down the way. Private, she knew, because after some consultation with the Conductor, only three people boarded. A large and dapper bearded man in a tweed overcoat and shoes with the burgundy gloss of fine leather, followed onboard by a young man and woman, equally well dressed. And that was it. No line of passengers behind them waiting to board. Only the three. And as Elinor looked on, before he boarded, the large and dapper man looked back and gave her a wink.
Elinor had seen private rail coaches before, and was glad each time to have the chance to play her own secret game of guessing, and sometimes even discovering, the identity of the grand passengers.
Once aboard, the group of friends stood a moment deciding where to sit, when greeted by a young man in a white jacket to the waist neatly fastened by a double row of polished brass buttons, and black expertly pressed pants. He bowed slightly, quietly clicking his heels and nearly smiled.
“The Warkentin party I presume,” he said, with a bored European accent difficult to place, The man’s posture, gold piping and spotless white gloves made him seem terribly important. Perhaps he thought he was.
“That’s us,” said Marijus.
“Well welcome. I am Maurice, your Car Attendant, assigned to make your journey a comfortable one. Please be seated, or explore the cars. The cocktail lounge and dining room are in that direction, but please,” he said, looking mildly repulsed, “please avoid second class.” Then changing his attitude, he said, “And please, there is a private coach. You’ll know it, if come to it, by the sign on the door. The door will be locked, naturally.”
“I think he tweezes his eye brows,” Harland whispered into Michelle’s ear. He took an unseen but expertly executed elbow to the ribs.
“Your personal accouterments have been placed in each of your sleeping compartments. I’ll take you to them for inspection as soon as I attend to another party. Are there any questions?”
“I think we’re fine for now,” said Cindy.
“But who’s in the private car?” Elinor asked.
“But one never asks that,” Maurice pointedly answered, the slick of his Brilliantined hair becoming a bit slickier. “It’s just not done. His privacy must be absolute, as with all private passengers.”
The railcar shook gently, as the trip commenced. The Christmas trip Elinor and company had planned for a year.
“Please leave your coats at the coat check,” said Maurice, guiding them, then walking away.
“Do you think he tweezes his eyebrows?“ Geoff said, as they all sat down.
“Looks like it to me,” said Ian.
“See?” Harland whispered into Michelle’s ear.
“Cocktail time, I think,” Jennifer said, as the train ran the cut through Vancouver’s east end.
“That’s a girl,” said Marijus. “Maurice pointed that way for the booze can, so let’s go.”
“Let’s go, indeed,” Cindy and Geoff said together.
At the lounge entrance, they were greeted by a gaunt and elderly man, grey and slightly stooped, who like Maurice, wore a snuggly fitted white jacket. His name tag read, Jack.
“There are nine of you,” Jack said.
“Yes,” said Elinor.
“Nine,” Jack repeated.
“I’ll have to put tables together,” he said, without budging. “I’ve the arthritis; do you know what that’s like?”
“No,” Cindy and Geoff said together. “Oh dear.”
“It aches,” said Jack. “Carrying trays is a challenge.” He was solemn. “Getting out of bed, maintaining personal hygiene. It aches.”
“Sorry about that, mate,” Harland said, “but can we be seated, please.”
“Nine,” Jack repeated. “I’ll have to put tables together.” He gazed off in the direction of the lounge. “I’ve the arthritis, you know.”
He wondered off, grimly.
“I say we slip the bartender a few bucks under the table,” said Marijus. “Buy us a bottle of rye. We can go back where we came from, sit down and have a party. Maybe get some paper cups from somewhere.”
“Not so fast,” Jennifer said, nodding toward the lounge where Jack was instructing a young bar port on how to properly put tables together and place chairs, then lay on peanuts, napkins, coasters, candles and ashtrays.
“No, no, no,” Jack was saying quietly but sternly, pointing his finger here and there.
Returning to the party of nine, he said, arthritically taking nine cocktail menus from a caddy, “Please come this way.” He walked slowly, so the party of friends did too.
“Your table, ladies and gentlemen,” Jack said, “which was two tables only moments ago. Sorry to make you wait, but I’m not the young man I once was. My knees and shoulders are especially bad. But can life be any different? Please choose from our extensive list, and I’ll be back shortly. There’s aspirin behind the bar.”
“It’s retirement time for that old duffer,” Marijus said. “Needs to go somewhere nice, with a masseuse and soft food.”
When Jack returned, he had the bar port with him who’d arranged the tables into one. The nervous teen had pad and pencil in hand. “Are we ready to order?” Jack said.
“We’d like to share a bottle of wine,” Margy said. “Or at least, some of us do. Maybe a burgundy, Pinot noir? How is this Moorooduc 1961 McIntyre.”
“Disappointing, I’m afraid,” said Jack.
“Oh, then the Et Fille Heredity Pinot Noir?”
Jack shook his head, “Absolute plonk, sad to say.”
“Then what do you recommend?”
“No ma’am, the beer. It’s your safest choice.”
“Oh, I’ll have that,” Michelle said. “I like Becks.”
“Me too,” said Cindy with enthusiasm.
“Alright,” Margy said, with less enthusiasm and wondering if second class might be better, after all.
“What’s this hot rum with marzipan thing?” Ian asked.
“Rum with a stick of marzipan,” said Jack, without encouragement.
“Becks, then?” Ian said.
And so it went around the table until it was Elinor’s turn.
“Icelandic vodka and cranberry juice,” she said, in a mood that seemed low.
“Oh I’d like that instead,” Margy said.
“Me too,” said Jennifer, ”That sounds nice.”
“Yes, cross out the Becks,” Cindy said. “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“Well write down!” said Jack, rolling his eyes, scolding the bar port.
“And I’ll have that hot rum with marzipan, after all,” said Ian. “And pretzels.”
“Yeah, pretzels,” Marijus said. “Where are the gosh darn pretzels?”
Then after a moment of thought, Harland asked Jack, “What’s with that guy, Maurice?”
“We have two Maurices at work on board,” Jack said. “Do you mean the chef, or the one who tweezes his eye brows?”
Harland gave Michelle a nudge.
“Yeah,” said Marijus, “the tweezing guy, what’s with him?”
“Just don’t mention Vladivostok,” Jack said, and walked away with the bar port.
It was then that Elinor rose, and took the window seat at a table down the way, near the Christmas tree. Solitude sat quietly across from her, as she watched out the window at the snow on suburban streets, and as the distance grew between street lights. After a spell, Jennifer, Cindy, Michelle and Margy came to sit with her.
“Interesting view,” said Michelle, “too bad it’s dark.”
Dark, really? Maybe not so dark, the surface of snowy streets being known to reflect an absent light near Christmas, and cast eccentric shadows. Oh holy night…
Elinor smiled, sincerely sighed and took sip of what was left of her drink.
“All right, dearie,” Jennifer said, “what’s the matter?”
—the hushed rumble of wheels, a pianist softly playing—
“This trip, it isn’t what I expected.”
An answer inked in hurt.
“It’s only the first night,” said Cindy. “Has something happened? Another passenger say something? You better tell us so we can make it right. We still have a long way to go.”
“Was it that Maurice weirdo?” Jennifer asks. “I’ll have him put in a cage if he’s said or done something mean to you.”
“No,” said Elinor. “I like him. He doesn’t know he’s trying too hard, but I do.”
“That’s very generous,” said Michelle.
“I’ll say,” Jennifer agreed.
“No,” said Elinor. “It’s just something that hit me back on the station platform. Maybe it hit me before then, a long time ago, and I’ve just lived round it.”
“And?” someone said.
Elinor finished her cocktail.
“It’s a small thing,” she said. “Selfish and embarrassing. It’s boring, and I don’t want to talk about it. I just need some sleep.”
“It’s because it’s Christmas,” Cindy said.
“You’re trying too hard, Elinor,” said Jennifer. “You don’t know it, but we do. You’re trying too hard to keep things from your friends.”
Yes, that’s it, Elinor thought. Clever Cindy/clever Jennifer, or maybe it’s something completely different. Oh too bad, Jennifer/Cindy, looks like you’ve both missed the mark—
It’s when her brakes fail one more time, and in her mind, she screeches to a stop at the gate. The gate that opens with a creak, so she can’t ignore it, and she sees it from her side of the picket fence. A momentary summer, a familiar child, warm in the yard. The kitchen door’s open, but the screen door’s closed. The little girl with a ragdoll. But Elinor can never hold on to it. What she sees always vanishes, but somehow she knows the grass keeps growing.
“I left my childhood somewhere,” she whispers. To hell with them, the whisper belongs to her. Then not much louder, “And I can’t find her. My responsibility, but one day she just wasn’t there. Lost on a sidewalk or at a bus stop somewhere nearby, but invisible. And she took so many memories with her, the feelings and flavours. How I saw things through those eyes; it’s all gone. And she took some of the people I loved most with her, the brat. I don’t know why it’s all coming out now.”
“It happens to us all,” said Cindy, as the ceiling lights dimmed, and a waitress lit a candle on their table. Formal dining begins soon.
“Yeah, Elinor,” Jennifer said. “Everyone.”
“Is that what this journey’s about?” Margy asks.
You’re doomed, Baby Jesus. Run like hell as soon as you’ve got the legs for it, the world can’t leave itself alone. The stars are brightly shining.
“I’m getting out in Winnipeg,” said Elinor. “Renting a car, driving home to Grunthal.”
This was unexpected. There are seconds of surprise, a quickly evolving empathy. Heads tilted ever so slightly.
“I think you’re expecting too much of that little town,” Jennifer said, “if you’re going there for what I think you are. Grunthal’s not your home anymore. You know that, right? I mean, sure, get out at Winnipeg. Rent a car, by all means. Drive there and visit. Give everyone lots of hugs. Hell, hug ‘em all for me. But go there for family, not to break your own heart.”
“The Grunthal you grew up in is gone,” said Michelle. “All you’ll find there is the person we’re talking to right now. Come back and sit with us.”
Elinor wants another drink. She wants to say, “Line ‘em up.” But instead, she said, “I’m going for a walk,” and stands up.“ I want to check out second class. I’ll be back in a while.” But she knew that wasn’t true.
It was time for her and the private car to meet.
The Coach wasn’t difficult to find, at the end of the long of line of cars. It had been a miracle of unlocked doorways, even through the luggage car. And when she arrived, it was just how Maurice had said, the brass sign on the door said, Private, go away. But the door was unlocked when she turned the nob, leaving the question: should she enter or go away? But walking away would ensure the melancholy she’d brought with her on the journey would remain. To enter, however, would be a fantastic distraction. Perhaps a solution to an unconscious yearning, an operatic climax caused by the crime of trespass. Just what she needed. She opened the door and stepped over the threshold.
The scents of sandalwood and cinnamon greeted her as she entered the car, and the pale chiming of tiny bells. The walls were panelled in dark mahogany, and lined with shelves, floor to ceiling, each filled with ancient leather bond tomes and stacks of pulpy paperback detective novels, each row of books punctuated by small Baroque and Renaissance figurines and exquisitely carved statuettes of Shiva, Buddha and Ganesha, making each shelf an avenue of silver and gold, marble and teak, and hundreds books.
The coach was dim, though. The bulbs in wall sconces turned low, while the lighted candles set in strangely designed candelabras did little to compensate. From somewhere out of sight came the voice of Blossom Dearie singing Comment allez-vous, and in a far corner stood a tall sparkle-lit Christmas tree. Enchantment surrounded her.
Further into the coach, she found another floor to ceiling item, a cabinet topped with a brilliant dome of stained glass. Behind its bevel glass doors were shelves crowded with age-old toys, dolls with untidy hair and fixed gazing eyes, and other toys, fading tin cars and soldiers, slightly dilapidated dollhouses once crafted with care, cowboys hats and cap-guns, and more. Each, she was certain, having once belonged to a child long passed away. It was a museum. She touched the glass, wanting to know the stories.
Then down the way she saw what she hadn’t before, a sliver of light escaping from a door slightly ajar. Now nothing else mattered. She was overwhelmed with curiosity. She’d come this far, just a little further might answer every question. She stepped up the door, and opened it a little more. And peeking in with one eye, she saw him, the large man, a little on the fat-side she decided, and now up close, a little white around the beard.
He sat at a table in his shirt sleeves and red socks, with the young man and woman who’d boarded with him, each of the two pale with white hair and sapphire eyes. All three were making notes as they scanned ledgers. And without looking up or turning round to look, the big man said, “You must be Elinor, that clutter woman.” Then he turned a page in his ledger.
“Well, come in.” He pushed the heavy book away, and looked at her peeking in. “You’ve found us now, so come in and stop your spying. You two,” he said to the pale man and woman, “it’s break time.” They stood and walked away.
“They call me Sam,” he said, holding out a hand to shake, so they shook, Elinor seeing a fine kindness in his eyes.
“It’s a couple of days early, but I’m glad you came,” he said taking a key from his pocket, “and since we won’t meet again, I’ll give you the gift I have for you.”
Sam escorted Elinor out of the room with ledgers, and to the cabinet of toys.
“All so wonderful,” he said, smiling, seeming deeply move as he looked through the glass. Then, sighing, he said, “Each has come back to me all on its own.” He unlocked and opened the cabinet and took out a small wooden horse. It stood on a small wheeled platform, that had allowed it to gallop through many-an-adventure. He put it into Elinor’s hand, and said, “Go ahead, turn it over and take a look.”
She did, and saw, written in fountain pen ink, in a very serious child’s hand, a name so familiar to her. The name of her grandfather, Peter Klassen.
“Sometimes a toy will find its way back to me,” said Sam. “Part of its journey, you might say. It belonged to Peter. It was a Christmas gift. He loved it for a long time, but grew up. The way children do, and he didn’t love it anymore. So, it came to me to stand in my little museum. Now it’s yours. He’d want you to have it.” It was yellow, with a blue mane and tail, faded and a little scratched.
“How can this be possible? I don’t believe you.” She wanted to throw in to the floor, but couldn’t.
“He’d a green thumb, sat at your beside and told the most wonderful stories. Some called him Watermelon Klassen. That’s just a bit of the man, of course. There’s an entire universe more.”
“This is cruel.” Elinor handed it back, but he wouldn’t take it. “Who have you been talking to, getting this information from? One of my friends I bet. The joke’s on me.”
“Do any of them know about your grandfather?”
“No,” she said. But was she wrong?
“You believe me though, don’t you. Like anyone else, you can’t help it.”
She wouldn’t, and mustn’t. How dare he. But with holding the little toy horse came feelings, remembered times. If this was magic, then it was too much at once.
“Please keep it,” Sam said, the kindness shining in his eyes. “It’s yours now. Remember it’s on a journey. You’re only one stop along its way.”
From somewhere unseen, there was a click and a plop, the sound of a wax disc dropping onto another on a turntable. The one playing Blossom Dearie when she entered the coach, and then something after that, that she couldn’t remember. Now, after a scratchy wax intro, Sarah Vaughan began to sing It Might as Well Be Spring.
“Ah, Sarah,” he said, whimsically.
“You’re him!” said Elinor.
“Or some fraud who likes to play him.”
“We believe what we must,” Sam said, “but that’s all beside the point. Just remember this, a toy once loved never lies.”
* * * * *
Later in her sleeping compartment, warm in the soft lamplight, she looked once more at the wooden toy on the shelf next her bed. She’d taken it from Sam, the old fraud, and not left it behind, to not break his heart, but she’d wonder if that was true if she looked deeply inside of herself. Then against her better judgement, she took it from the shelf, and gave it another good look before holding it to her heart and closing her eyes. And then like a theatre gone dark, and a motion picture just beginning, what was once lost was found again, as vivid visions of childhood flickered on a screen, summer after summer, Christmas after Christmas, and wonderful story after wonderful story, until morning, the morning of Christmas Eve.
Waking, Elinor quickly dressed and rushed through the cars to the private coach. She didn’t even know why. To thank him? But thanking Sam would be like accepting the magic as real, not a dream, not merely suggested. But she’d decide what to say when she met him again.
Now she was at the door of the coach and pushed it open, and when she did, she saw the walls were bare, the avenues of books and statues, silver and gold, marble and teak were gone. The toy museum, vanished. The Coach was bare of furniture and the Christmas tree.
She found Maurice in the little room at the back, wearing his immaculate costume, supervising a cleaning lady washing the floor. Nothing of the table, chairs or ledgers remained. There was an unplugged Hoover just outside of the door.
“Where is he?” she said, nearly shouting.
“Sam, you mean?”
“Yes, damn it, Sam.”
“He’s gone, of course.”
“Gone where, how? The train hasn’t stopped all night.”
“Well, it’s a busy day for him,” said Maurice. “He can’t loiter to say his farewells.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Maurice just shrugged, and directed the cleaning lady to a spot she’d missed.
It had been a slow walk back to the seat at a window Elinor now occupied, with a cup of coffee. The sun had come out, to shine on the snowy white landscape, and she smiled between sips of coffee. She’d searched every seat in every car for him, but he was absolutely gone. They’d be rolling in to Winnipeg soon, where she’d step off the train long enough to make a Merry Christmas phone call to family and friends in Grunthal, then board the CN Super Continental for the rest of the journey.