During the darkest days, light starved villagers struggled with a spiralling vortex of icy winds, precarious roads, avalanches and a debilitating isolation of the spirit.
The burden of dark days weighed upon assistant clerks, electricians, horse wranglers, waitresses, loggers, mechanics and general roustabouts. Winter blues plunged the hardiest of outdoorsmen and women into shadowy depressions and thigh deep snow, and who, given a choice, would rather be drunk in the bar.
Verbal outbreaks, rowdy drunkenness, silly brawls, cabin fever and its ultimate companion malaise -- ‘spring breakup’ afflicted the strong and the weak. For some, already overpowered by alcohol, experimentation with pharmaceuticals and odd smoking mixtures led to new revelations and a psychic distance from the depression at hand.
One small group of friends, Martin, Charlotte, Maggie and Simon and their coterie of village associates, staggered through their winter world at their own particular angle.
For Charlotte, winter held magical properties and engaged her aesthetic nature, at least during the earliest falls of snow. The unblemished white that blanketed the mountains and church steeple, as seen in contrast with the deep winter blue of the unfrozen lake, stirred Charlotte to charming poetic expression.
“It’s painfully picturesque,” she said.
The brief appearance of the winter sun that ducked behind Old Fox Mountain by two o’clock also received Charlotte’s literary examination. She specifically referenced the short window of time when the sun’s rays reached into the valley town. “There’s sun, then of course, phffft, it’s gone,” she said,
The nearest town with ‘amenities’ meant forty miles along the lake on elevated and significantly guard-railed roadways overhung by avalanche chutes. On that vicious road Old Healey had lost his head, literally, on a sharp sloping bend. And, a well remembered six years past, Martha’s boy, a handsome kid with long limbs, a new girlfriend and job in the mill, had gone over the side, his ‘56 Pontiac pick-up caught in a barreling avalanche of snow.
Charlotte therefore rarely made more than one trip between November and March.
Martin had to work, winter or no winter – driving one of Helmut’s brakeless logging trucks up and down the switchbacks near the top of Boiling Water Creek. “That S.O.B. put such a heap of logs on the landing before the snow, we can keep hauling ‘til spring thaw. And you gotta finesse those fuckin’ air brakes in them damn switch backs.”
If snow fell sufficiently to prevent a logging truck from getting to the landing at 3500 feet, Martin could still count on a job some interior electrical installations at a lower and warmer elevation.
For Maggie, winter presented a serious though surmountable handicap to her romantic inclinations. Her lovers, truckers all, had to cautiously navigate Dingle’s road to Maggie’s place up north of town at the base of Old Fox Mountain. With a trailer on the hook, truckers saw attending to Maggie as a challenge, though evidently a worthy one. One winter, a sharpie parked his trailer in town and just went up with the cab.
“So much for my so-called discreet love life,” Maggie observed a few days later. “That over-confident fool slid off the road just above the mill. And darned nearly everyone turned out to watch the mill crew lever his Kenworth cab out of the sawdust pile.”
Simon on the other hand, claimed winter to be his season despite an observed increase in alcoholic intake and a more promiscuous approach to the town’s willing ladies.
“Hell, I’d rather be right here than fishin’ tuna off the Alaska panhandle,” he’d say, and promptly launch into his tale of going over the stern into those frigid grey-black waters and a fortunate, sheer chance rescue. “If Oscar hadn’t turned around from the wheel just at that moment, I’d’ve been a goner. Five minutes in that water…end of story!”
Compared to the drama of commercial fishing, the valley winter had stability to it. The weather didn’t significantly affect Simon’s electrical work and he could still do a little local fishing. The lake didn’t freeze but in the bays and the rainbow trout weighed in at trophy size. A bad day on the lake merely meant a couple of six pound Dolly Varden instead of a twenty pound trout.
Despite their varying responses to winter, one challenge – the lack of novelty, received a considerable amount of attention. In a village of less than nine hundred people, everyone got fully sick of seeking the same faces day after day, and Simon, Maggie, Martin and Charlotte had begun to twitch like everyone else.
Fortunately, on a typically dark and snowy day things began to shift.
It began in the usual way with folks jawing over coffee in the Postal Code cafe. Martin and Simon each lounged loosely on the bench seats, an arm on a bench back, one big logging booted foot dangled over a knee. Across the battered table with a steamy cup of coffee beside her, Maggie flipped casually through a bunch of flyers and bills from the outside world.
“You know,” she said, “What we need around here is some new blood…someone who can turn this town on its ear.” Maggie waggled an ad flyer in the air as if to suggest the answer lay among grocery bargains and chainsaw accessories.
Simon nodded absently and looked up as Charlotte swept through the café door, little Matthew peeking from a bundle tied across her chest. Charlotte plunked herself down at the table, wrestling herself free of Matthew’s cloth sling. “What’s up? Tell me something I haven’t heard. I’m getting antsy.”
Simon pulled Matthew out of his cocoon and held him as Charlotte flung scarves and gloves onto the table. “Come on, fess up. I need a new face in my life. I’ve seen enough of some people, like those, those Milton-Stiltons.”
Maggie reached across the table to run her hand over Matthew’s fuzzy and rapidly growing hair. “We were talking about that very thing. Well, not the Milton-Stiltons exactly. But we could use some new faces around here.”
“Damn right. I’ve had enough of being stared at by strange old men, trying to keep this little guy happy and talking to myself. Not to mention the Milton-Stiltons!”
Simon nodded again and leaned back against the high backed bench seat, Matthew wriggling on his lap. “The S & M’s aside, we’re not without resources. I’m sure we can come up with something…or somebody.”
Charlotte nodded to Eileen at the counter for a tea. “Yeah sure, Simon. We’ll just invite Ravi Shankar or Paul Horn. They’re bound to wave aside international engagements for this drop in the bucket.”
Still in the after-glow of a good night, Simon embellished his idea. “Well, Burton Cummings did drop in a few years ago…Bruce Cockburn too. How about someone like that? Anything’s possible.”
Matthew’s tiny fist rose out of a bundle of clothing and rotated firmly.
“Matthew likes the idea.”
“I’d like any idea that sets that Jonathan Milton back a step,” affirmed Charlotte.
Mystified by the indefinable barrier that determined who’s in and who’s not, Charlotte and company often looked on from the fringes even when ‘new blood’ could be had.
Among the village’s share of worldly visitations there had been an odd assortment of renown: the Golden Calgarians who swooped in on an old DC3 to rock the village; Bruce Cockburn, all spiky hair and granny glasses, who sauntered through on his way to stardom, and; the Foothills Rockers from Calgary whose transcendent career promptly fizzled after their visit.
Charlotte remained incensed that she couldn’t claim the Foothills Rockers as intimate friends, or Bruce Cockburn either. Though Maggie had taken home and seduced a French horn player on a Canada Council performing arts tour.
Martin’s failure to ingratiate himself with a National Geographic article team still rankled too. “They came to do an article on the life and times of small towns in the Rocky Mountains, and they saw nothin’! They missed the major highlights. Me with my wool pants, steel-toed boots, wool plaid shirt, and suspenders…damn it…my beard, my battered tocque! It doesn’t get any better. The NG couldn’t see the quintessential mountain man.
"And…rude reality, there isn’t a Rocky Mountain within a hundred miles. These,” Martin gestured in a general way to all the mountains surrounding them, “are the Selkirk Mountains for Christ sake!”
In spite of Martin’s clear-eyed assessment, folks like the National Geographic and Bruce Cockburn drew a crowd and landed dinner invites with the local movers and shakers. The owner of the whole food store, or the group renovating the old hotel for a cultural centre…these folks made the cut. These folks had all been photographed for the National G article. When rocker Burton Cummings stopped in to do a little fishing, a cloud of people surrounded him at least three deep. Simon said he’d felt like a jumping jack, bouncing up and down on the edges to see what all the excitement was about.
That sense of miss-entitlement arced through many of their social encounters, and rocked Charlotte’s relationship with Jonathan Milton. “A golden-haired boy,” as Charlotte referred to him.
Jonathan Milton had “stressed her significantly” since he first showed up at her door with an architect and realtor in tow. She’d always felt that no one would be looking for a run-down house like hers. Of course the place had been on the market for the past six months. Now here they were, all smiles and development plans.
The house had no value of course. Charlotte’s small verandahed house, circa 1910, shifted off square by the flood of l927, rotting porch posts and all, still had some very strong attractions…location, location, location. It overlooked the delta of Boiling Water Creek and out onto the southern expanse of the lake, down the slope of blue mountains at least as far as Buck Bay. For the new owner, one J. Milton, development expert, the small lop-sided house was simply detritus, slated for removal to make way for an eight room European style Inn, each room with a lake view. The plans had been displayed in the window of his wife’s gift shop for at least a month, all fake Tyrol and window boxes.
Charlotte felt betrayed and prematurely homeless. “I love my little place,” Charlotte told her friends repeatedly. “Matthew was born there. All summer the sunrise comes over the mountains between Mount Raw Hide and Brewster Glacier. I can see the lake. I can watch the tamaracks turn colour in the fall. I’ve harvested the best tomatoes from my little garden.”
“And you can afford it,” noted the ever practical Maggie whenever this housing litany arose.
“Yes, and I can afford it. I’m still going on my grandmother’s inheritance. If I don’t spend much, I can manage for a few years yet…”
“You usually mention Sandy Milton at this point,” Maggie prompted, having followed the course of Charlotte’s thinking on more than one occasion. Maggie lit a cigarette from the end of one she’d been smoking and waited.
Charlotte’s resentment came to the fore even at a simple social event. Though Charlotte had been known to say, “There’s no such thing as a simple social event.”
Take for example the annual “Winter Soiree,” hosted by Johnathan Milton and his wife, Sandy Stilton. All were invited whose paths had intersected with the Milton-Stilton’s in the preceding months…employees, contractors, carpenters, investors, designers, village administrators, the mayor, the restoration committee, the bank manager, and a number of “sycophants and sysops” according to Charlotte’s astute perspective.
Martin’s invitation came via some framing carpentry he’d done for Jonathan, and Charlotte’s for her occasional participation in Sandy’s gift shop.
On arrival at the Milton-Stiltons, they were met by a golden haired and beaming Jonathan Milton dressed all in white cotton. “My friends, Charlotte, Martin.” Jonathan embraced the air in front of them. “So good to see you getting out occasionally.”
On the receipt of those words Martin had to twirl Charlotte quickly into a side room before she could spit. “Getting out occasionally?? Like, if we’re not here, we’re nowhere. I am going to spit!”
Martin pushed the door shut and faced Charlotte. “So he’s a jerk. We don’t have to like him to eat his ‘houver-duvers’.”
Charlotte huffed. “Oh I know. It’s not like I’m perfect, but every time that Milton and smelly Stilton is involved I can’t be responsible for my behaviour. Him and his big city ideas. Talks all about view lines, streetscapes, invested futures, economic potential, glazed surfaces. The only glazed surfaces are my eyeballs!”
Martin watched Charlotte for signs she might be running down. He opened his mouth to suggest they enter the party room and Charlotte was off again.
“And that’s not all.”
Martin didn’t think for a moment it was.
“I checked his signs. He’s a Libra with Sagittarius rising. That’s a chameleon that likes to be the centre of attention. Always right, sees money everywhere.”
“And that’s a problem?” Martin teased.
Charlotte pulled a breath through her nose that momentarily pinched her nostrils shut. “And another thing…” Martin put his hand up. “Whoa Nelly. Enough already. Either we exit this room and devastate the snack table, or we leave.”
Charlotte puffed her cheeks and released a flood of air. “Okay, okay. But Mr. Milton and smelly Stilton better not treat me like a single mom, wasted hippy, back-to-the-lander who can’t rub two nickels together.”
“Even if you are,” Martin offered.
“Even if I am.”
With that, Martin swung the door open and gestured gallantly. Charlotte spun past him into a large high ceilinged room awhirl with golden people. Charlotte grinned with her lips pressed together, reached for a drink and put a thumb through the center of a hors d'oeuvre, or as Martin would say a houver-douver. She glanced around the room as she devoured, from the end of her thumb, a fancy bacon wrapped scallop. And tapped her toe as she did so.
For this particular remembrance, Charlotte found herself momentarily far from the local café with a blueberry muffin in hand to which she returned without a pause.
“Yeah,” said Charlotte, “In addition I can’t believe Sandy’s Sand Box rejected my dried flower bouquets. I thought they were so cute tucked into a simple clay pot. Have you seen what Sandy has in her shop now? Needlepoint coasters and macramé tea cozies!”
Maggie blew smoke out of the corner of her mouth and looked at Charlotte. “She always displays some of your stuff. I’ve always thought your bark wall sconces were a serious decorator item.”
“You don’t need to be sarcastic Maggie. I’ve heard plenty of bellyaching about all the extra paperwork Jonathan is generating for you, not to mention Sandy’s squawking about sidewalk repairs.”
“Touché. We used to have a nice quiet little village, with a nice quiet little village office. One or two rezoning proposals a year. Now I’m processing four, and Jonathan’s Delta View Inn requires a whole batch of development reviews, water and sewage applications, and a possible archeological survey. And that’s just the beginning. My boss is beside herself, trying to figure out what to do with Mrs. Moxley’s remains among other major village management decisions.”
Maggie set her coffee mug down and carefully centred it in an existing coffee ring. “You know, maybe we do need a change of pace. I think we might follow up on Simon’s idea. Get someone to make some waves in this town. Flip someone the bird at least,” Maggie added, as her eyes followed a big freight-liner downshifting on the hill across the bay.
And so it came to pass. On one of those cold, dark, snow-heavy valley evenings when the streetlights in the village cast only the palest glow, Maggie invited her friends to a potluck dinner. Out of the indigo shadows, the four friends gathered with lentil stew and vegetarian lasagna that filled Maggie’s ancient house with good smells.
Simon brought frozen kokanee that he pan fried in butter as Maggie laid out some cutlery and condiments, and Martin and Charlotte snuggled on the couch.
Later, suitably full and cozy, they followed dinner with a living room sprawl and idle chatter.
Maggie watched her cat wind itself through their legs, mugs and bottles scattered across the wooden floor. “James. I think his name should be James.”
“James?” Simon pulled a beer bottle away from his mouth. “Who’s James?”
“My cat, but also our imaginary but oh so amusing friend.”
Martin snorted, “Imaginary friend? I thought you were too old for imaginary friends.”
“I’m never too old for a bit of fun,” responded Maggie. “There’s no reason we need a real person.”
“What are you talking about, Maggie?” asked Charlotte, who giggled from under Martin’s arm.
“I’m talking about the new blood we’ve been craving. Someone to shake things up a bit. We don’t need a real person for that. We could create someone.”
There was silence in the room, save for the sound of a ticking clock, a licking cat and snowflakes hitting a window.
“Okay,” said Simon slowly, “I’m with you now, but let’s call him James William, after my cat William.”
Simon put the bottle back to his lips and spoke into the neck. “Still needs another name though. We gotta give this guy a serious name if he’s gonna be someone folks will take notice of.”
Leaning on cushions and each other, legs and socked feet outstretched, they pondered the need for a more complex name for James William. Except for the sound of beer bottles being raised and lowered, a thinking silence filled the room. Charlotte looked out the window. She watched snowflakes fall in feathery bundles lit by light from the room.
“White,” she said, “Something white… as in snow white.”
A burst of laughter startled James the cat, who skittered around a couple of socked feet and disappeared into the kitchen.
Maggie waved a match in front of a cigarette. “Well, White, maybe Whitehouse, or, Whitechapel. Or how about Whitecastle? You decide this one, Martin.”
“I’d go with Whitecastle. Sounds classy.”
Maggie blew a cloud of smoke into the room and agreed. “Whitecastle he is. We’re now the proud progenitors of a totally functional fictional human being, James William Whitecastle.” Maggie raised a bottle of golden liquid to the light.
Beverage containers rose in salute. “To James!”
The racket drove James the cat behind the fridge and far from the madness of restless creatives.
Martin pulled his suspenders back onto his shoulders. “Well, that’s enough for me. Gotta get going early. Helmut wants me to take a truck up to the landing for another load of logs. Fucking stupid if the snow doesn’t let up.”
Charlotte rummaged in her oversized bag for a pair of gloves. “Me too. I left Matthew with Penny. I don’t want to leave him too long.”
The group began to pull their legs in and push themselves upright. Empty bottles clattered into a waiting carton, and Maggie tipped an overflowing ashtray into a coffee tin.
Maggie handed Simon his jacket. “I think I could develop a real fondness for James William. I see him as tall and slim. Graying a little."
"Ever the romantic, eh Maggie. Our pal James could be one of those distinguished guys with lots of charm. Used to being prime animal.”
Charlotte swung a scarf around her neck and flipped her long hair out over it. “I want him to be someone who can turn a few folks on their ass. Someone who could put that fancy-dancy Jonathan in his place. Whatever that takes!” She flipped her hair back again and glared.
Maggie turned on the porch light illuminating the caps of snow balanced on her bedraggled flowerpots. “I can see James William will have his work cut out for him. Catch you later.”
When next the conspirators met for a beer and a chinwag, Charlotte wanted to put their James plan in motion. She seemed to see James William Whitecastle as knight errant, jousting and winning against all comers.
“Get real Charlotte,” Martin cautioned. “We’re talking about an imaginary guy. Imaginary. As in, doesn’t-really-exist.”
“Oh, I know, but we can still have some fun, set something up. We could arrange it so it looks like James comes to town, causes a little ripple among the rabble. James has some entertainment potential at least.”
Discussed at length over many a coffee and quite likely as many beers, the James plan became complex and convoluted. In other words, James became an ideal winter diversion. Upon their imaginary friend, James William Whitecastle, they bestowed a directorship of the Vancouver based Lumiere Mime and Pantomime Troop, a background in documentary film and improv theatre, and a fascination with puppetry. Over time, James acquired a publishing career, a National Film Board documentary and an occasional command performance, all to exceptional reviews.
On the ground in real time, sort of, the plans for his deployment evolved. A proposed advert in the local advertising flyer Dollar Wise, with posters tacked up at the post office, would announce that a remarkable fellow with an outstanding repertoire of internationally recognized accomplishments, would be arriving on such and such a date -- to perform, give a lecture, search for the lost Bear Mine, bedazzle with a talent display – a benefit for… well, they’d think of something. The details would inevitably develop as the nights grew longer and colder.
Even so, not fully satisfied with the stew they had concocted, the conspirators thickened the broth even further. Just before the arrival of their personal VIP, James would be abruptly, and magically, whisked away to perform his artistry at a benefit performance in London, “England” Simon insisted. According to the imagined plan, the conspirators would boldly write CANCELLED across the posters. Several weeks later a small announcement would appear in local papers. “James William Whitecastle regrets any disappointment occasioned by his abrupt cancellation of his recent concert. Watch for a future performance date, TBA.”
That huge holes existed in this plan from the “get-go”, as Martin repeatedly pointed out, bothered no one. “Imaginary friends can have imaginary plans and they can be cancelled or go-ahead,” was Charlotte’s philosophical reply.
This remarkable quality of the ‘imaginary friend’ left room for further embellishment. Perhaps a week or so after the ignominious cancellation, another small announcement would appear in the Dollar Wise social notes. “James William Whitecastle, on his return from his triumphant performance in London, negotiated a brief hiatus from his other commitments to spend a quiet evening in town with friends. Special thanks to Maggie, Martin, Charlotte and Simon for a lovely evening.”
As with all good ideas, this one fell down in the execution department. After spending a goodly number of evenings plotting and planning, nothing much happened. James William Whitecastle dropped into a dustbin of winter novelties that helped carry sensitive people through dark days.
As winter days shifted from deep and dark to merely dark, the conspiracy functioned mostly in the way of background hum, a gently shared amusement that could be brought out when other resources faltered.
By late March, James had begun to fade from the scene. In fact, he had rarely rated a serious mention since late February.
Now the streets ran with water and the gravel slurry of melting plow heaps. On March fifth, the tinsel laden tree that someone had plunged into the center snow pile on Main Street toppled over as the snow beneath it melted. A warm wind full of alpine aromas and negative ions blew gently down the lake from Boiling Water Creek and off the aging snow pack of the Selkirk Mountains.
On such a day, Charlotte considered removing the storm windows, storing away the heaviest of winter clothes, or rotating her canning on the pantry shelves. Instead, she simply made herself a cup of tea, doodled in her sketchbook and entertained Matthew, by now a somewhat ambulatory and ambitious ten month old.
Charlotte was thus engaged when Maggie banged through her back door followed by a gust of moist spring air.
“Hey Char, you’ve got to come up to the bar. You’ve got to meet this guy.”
Charlotte felt warm and disinclined to move.
“No, no, you’ve got to. Come on!!” Maggie pulled at Charlotte’s arm and tugged her to her feet. “Come on!” She tossed a shawl toward her, wrapped Matthew in the crook of her arm and towed Charlotte out the door.
Within minutes, they’d driven the four blocks to the pub and rushed inside. “There!” said Maggie as she gestured across the room.
“There,” lit by the picture windows and the reflected light of lake and mountains sat a curious sight. A small form leaned against the head-high dark wood wainscoting, one arm on the orange terry cloth table top, one holding a golden brew glass against his chest.
“Oh my,” said Charlotte.
“Oh my indeed,” said Maggie still holding Matthew who gurgled a similar sentiment.
The small man gestured toward Maggie and they wound their way to his table.
“Hi James, this is Charlotte, and Matthew of course.”
“Ahh, enchanted,” said James as he quickly rose to his feet and bowed slightly.
Charlotte bowed awkwardly and speechlessly. The little man before her exhibited none of the behaviour or clothing choices familiar to Charlotte.
Slightly shorter than Charlotte, the long white hair of this strange apparition fell in beautiful soft waves from both sides of a centre part, cascading into an equally soft wavy beard. Golden brown eyes looked from a warm kindhearted face. When he put his hand out to clasp Charlotte’s, his hand slid from a deep cuff in a soft beige shirt, bloused beyond the cuffs all the way to the shoulders, completed by a wide collar and a dark leather vest laced across his chest.
As James stepped graciously forward, Charlotte’s eyes took in the rest of his attire – a pair of reddish brown jodhpurs flared wide at the hips that disappeared into high leather boots laced from ankle to knee.
“Enchanted,” James said again tenderly taking Charlotte’s hand. Rather than shaking it, he merely held it for a moment and looked into her eyes. “Please join me.”
A few hours later Martin accosted Charlotte as she strolled down Main Street with an ever-attentive Matthew peeking from his snuggly sling. “Charlotte! What’s this about some guy James? And what’s he doing in your back bedroom?”
“Don’t get your shirt in a knot, Martin. Maggie met him in the bar.”
“This is news?”
“He’s not one of her guys, Martin.”
“I’m supposed to feel better? Whose guy is he?”
“When did you get so possessive?”
“Okay, okay, let’s slow down a bit. Last I heard you were a single Mom living on her own. Emphasis…on her own. Sometimes things around here change too fast for me.”
“Will you just shut up? James is this amazing guy.”
“You got that right! He moves faster than Frank on a Friday night!”
“Look here. Maggie met him in the bar and thought I, we, all of us should meet him. He’s an artist among other things. He’s traveling, looking for a commune. Someone in Montreal sent him this way.”
“So what’s he doing in your bedroom?"
“Back bedroom, Martin. He needs a place to stay for a few days while he looks around. And he’s going to pay.”
“Well, that really makes me feel better.”
“That sounded sarcastic Martin.”
“Yeah! I guess I think about you and I as an ‘us’ sometimes. I just couldn’t believe some other guy slipped in when I wasn’t looking.”
“Martin, we’re talking about two different things. James is one thing and you and I are another thing… and I’m not always sure what that is.”
Charlotte shifted Matthew around so he could look at Martin. Martin reached out and touched his wispy crop of hair.
“Okay, I can take a hint. But what makes you think this guy will be a good roommate?”
“He’s gentle, he’s interesting and he’s paying. He’s also offered to do some work around my place. I can use some help getting the garden cleaned up, there’s a couple of rotting fence posts to replace, and I’ve been wanting to get more shakes split for the shed roof. If I don’t get tossed out in the next few days of course.”
“Alright, alright! But I can help with some of those things too you know.”
Matthew’s eye’s widened at this news and looked up at his mom.
“Martin, let’s get something straight. You are not going to do any of those things. You have work to do. So let’s not be silly about it.”
“Ahh Charlotte, you always tell it like it is, even when I’d rather not hear it. Okay, so you’ve got some strange guy in your bedroom for a few days. I can live with that.”
“I hope so. James is really something else. You’ve got to meet him. He speaks several languages.”
“…like I’ll be able to talk to him in Urdu.”
“There has been a rumor that sometimes you barely speak English.”
“That’s only when I’ve had too much to drink.”
Charlotte gave his arm a squeeze. “You’re okay you know, but I’ve got to get home. Matthew could use a snack and a change. And I’ve gotta tidy up a bit before James arrives.”
“Okay.” With his hands shoved into his jean pockets, elbows locked, Martin watched Charlotte and Matthew sway down the street and a shared household.
As a resident of Charlotte’s back bedroom, James projected the very best in roommate manners. “He gets up before me,” she told Maggie at their usual coffee stop. “It’s been so quiet I don’t even know he’s there. I sneaked a peek into his room though. He’s there all right, sitting cross-legged, meditating. An hour at least every morning.”
“James seems to be full of surprises,” Maggie responded in her usual off-hand way, a cigarette burning between cocked fingers. “How’s he with the rake and hoe?”
“Well, despite his white hair, he’s really vigorous. He’s going to be very helpful.”
“More help is good,” said Maggie.
“And you know, I’m enjoying his company. Yesterday at breakfast, he told me he’s a surrealist painter, kinda like Dali. He’s had shows in Rome, Alexandria that’s Egypt, and Haifa.”
“Israel,” added Maggie.
“Yeah, Israel. And he speaks Hebrew, French, some Russian, and…”
“English,” Maggie plugged in the obvious.
“Well, actually, I think there was another language too. James is very unusual.”
Maggie tapped an ash from her cigarette. “I thought his apparel suggested something out of the ordinary. If he continues to exhibit exceptional talents, we may have to start calling him James William Whitecastle.”
“It’s funny you should say that. You know his last name?”
“Right! In Arabic, Califa means “of the royal house.”
“And how did you get that piece of information?”
“Oh, that’s the other language James speaks. Arabic. I asked him what Califa means. There’s a whole bunch of related words like caliphate meaning ‘royal state or royal territory’.”
Maggie shook another cigarette from her pack and held it. She raised an eyebrow at Charlotte. “So now we have James of-the-royal-house?”
“Don’t you get it Maggie? James Whitecastle, James of the Royal House. We’ve got a James, a James Royal House person.”
“Mmmm, interesting co-incidence.”
They had been sitting at their favourite table at the Postal Code Cafe, Matthew asleep in a basket in the corner.
They sat quietly for a moment. The café windows dripped with cooking moisture. Cinnamon bun aromas, the fresh from the oven kind, mixed with coffee smells, wafted through the warm room. The usual collection of roustabouts, single moms and sensitive logger types hunkered over their tables. Rumour and gossip moved as freely as the moist air and coffee aromas.
Charlotte and Maggie pondered their own thoughts until Simon stepped in for a break. He flung himself down at Maggie and Charlotte’s table and dropped his head.
“I gotta wire a garage this afternoon. They want a 220 service. I’ve never done that before, at least not by myself and Carmine won’t be back till Monday. What am I going to do?” Simon put his hands to the side of his head and slumped further down. “Damn, I’m in trouble here!”
Before Maggie and Charlotte could begin to reassure Simon, before they could get into it at all, James Califa came through the café door. They slid apart to make room. James listened easily to Simon’s distress. He put a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “Would it help if I came with you? I’ve done some wiring in my day.”
Less than two hours later they returned, glad-handing and all smiles. “Damn it man, this guy is really cool. He knew exactly what to do. A breeze. Real pretty work too.”
Charlotte glanced at Maggie. Maggie rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
The strange co-incidences and odd talents of James Califa continued to accumulate. One afternoon with spring breezes and the cottonwoods pushing their leaves into the sky, Charlotte entertained James with a tour of the little town. With Matthew along for the ride in his sling, they ambled toward the beach in comfortable companionship.
Chatting easily, Charlotte and James wandered onto the sandy beachfront arena where each June a logging sports competition rang with the sound of polished axes biting hard wood. They strolled by the pilings where the sturgeon twisted in and out among the poles that Charlotte had yet to see because she was afraid to swim out that far.
Eventually the two explorers finally arrived back ‘up town,’ where they looked across the street toward an old two-story brick building, it’s construction date bricked into a curved panel above the top floor.
“We call it the ‘1894’ building,” Charlotte said, “for obvious reasons. It’s been a lot of things, falling down is what some folks used to call it, but friends of mine bought it a few years ago and fixed it up. Let’s drop in.”
Charlotte loved Deb and Dave, two kindred spirits full of mischief and fun. D & D, as they were affectionately known, bought old buildings for a song, restored them beautifully, rented them out, and sold them when the real estate market rose sufficiently to make a few bucks.
“A few bucks?” Maggie often asked in a rising tone. But Charlotte ignored the fiscal criticism and simply found D & D delightful. Rarely a week passed without a visit.
Therefore Charlotte and James ascended the long dark stairwell that took them to the upper level of the “1894 Building.” As expected, Deb welcomed their arrival without ruffle and superficially at any rate, appeared unconcerned by Charlotte’s companion, perhaps relieved that he was more presentable than some of Charlotte’s friends.
“Lovely to meet you James, and my fuzzy-wuzzy little friend Matthew.” Deb reached forward to muss a tuft of Matthew’s tousled hair and pretend tug his little nose.
“Please join me for tea, and I’d like to hear what’s happening. But first a tour. I’ve been decorating.” The tour took mere moments in the high ceiling, brick-walled second floor apartment where a newly painted wall offered a warm golden glow. From the narrow windows they had a spectacular view of the lake, a beached paddlewheel steamer and the ranks of mountain ramparts marching into the distance.
James however, seemed most taken with the piano set snug against a brick wall and over-hung with the large leaves of an out of control dieffenbachia plant.
“May I play?” he asked.
“By all means, be my guest!” Deb enthused.
Without pause, James pulled out the piano bench, sat down, ran his fingers lightly over the keys, adjusted his position a little and began to play.
Deb, who had gone to put a kettle on…listened for a few minutes, perhaps only a second or two. She walked around the corner to lean against the wall next to the piano.
She closed her eyes and gently nodded to the tempo. Then she pointed her toe and swung her leg to and fro, then her arms. Next she pirouetted into the center of the room, flying in circles and dipping and bowing and turning.
Charlotte watched this performance until she tucked Matthew into a big soft armchair; rose slowly, closed her eyes and she too danced.
Charlotte and Deb spun and swooped, laughing, occasionally colliding, then swooping apart again in happy delight.
After a final dervish-like glissando, James concluded his performance. The dancers collapsed onto the couch. “My god,” said Deb, “We’ve been blessed! Our very own concert, and concert quality at that! Schubert, Ravel, Chopin, Scriabin, Glazunov. Without sheet music! Wonderful! Too wonderful!!” Deb lay back against the couch cushions, limp with joyful exhaustion. “Absolutely astonishing! Bravo my new friend!”
“My, my, my” Deb continued to repeat. A knowledgeable musician herself, Deb had danced professionally and her father anchored first violin in an east coast symphony. Russian music had always been a family passion.
When late afternoon sun streaked across the lake and onto the lower slopes of the east facing shore, the three companions still shared a lively tea, talk of music, the politics of Eastern Europe and finding home. Matthew slept in oblivious baby sleep through all their deep discussions.
The following day James and Charlotte began the work in Char’s back garden. “Here’s a scuffing-about shirt and some gloves, and you can pull on these old jeans. I don’t know what we can do about your boots though.”
James shrugged. “They’re fine. They’re work boots really. Maybe they look unfamiliar here. I’ll wipe them off when I’m done.”
Charlotte’s gardening outfit on the other hand, included an old scarf tied side ways around her head, a big knot over her right ear and lots of loose hair escaping all round. Instead of her usual cotton gingham, Charlotte had substituted an old woollen dress from the United Church Thrift. Work gloves and muddy gumboots completed her costume.
Before they began Charlotte deposited the bundled Matthew into the playpen on the back deck. Matthew pulled himself up the side of the pen, his large round eyes peering through the side rails.
James and Charlotte followed Matthews gaze to survey the rather sad expanse that Charlotte called her back garden.
“I know it isn’t much, but I’ve always wanted somewhere to grow my own food and…I love flowers and tomatoes. I have a patch of dahlias over there and mauve Columbines come up further down. That pathetic tangle by the side fence is my herb garden. Don’t laugh! I think the rosemary is taking over.”
“I wouldn’t laugh,” said James. “It is sometimes hard for plants to grow. In many places I have lived it is nearly impossible. But this is rich soil with much rain. Our work today will have an impact.”
Glancing at the clouds shifting overhead, James took a rake and shovel and walked toward the jungle at the back fence. He stood for a moment, one hand on hip, the other wrapped around the shovel handle.
The scene filled Charlotte with joy. A man about to work (a novelty in her books), the old fence, stained and leaning at all odd angles, the goat pens and log house across the lane, the shimmering mountain tops hovering over all.
“Magnificent!” Charlotte called down the yard. “Magnificent.”
James turned and grinned. “Indeed!” he called back, and with that he canted the shovel against the earth and began digging at wilted brambles and ancient grasses.
They worked in silence for several hours, Charlotte stopping frequently to check Matthew, until he settled into a blanket and slept. Charlotte smiled happily.
As it drew near to lunch Charlotte glanced down the yard. James called to her. “Do you want more of the brambles out? I will need to dig deeper around the roots.”
Charlotte laughed. “They can be tenacious little beggars! Dig as much as you need to.” When Charlotte looked again, James had stopped digging. He was scrunched down, his left hand steadying the shovel, his right hand deep in the soil.
“Really hard to get them all isn’t it?” Charlotte called again.
James shifted and put the shovel down. Both hands went into the ground. He heaved back and a ball of roots came up with runners tugging through the weeds in every direction.
James laid the root ball aside, and, after brushing some gravel from in front of him, got down on his knees and reached into the ground.
He sat back on his heels holding something in his hand.
“What's that James?” Charlotte asked as she walked down the yard toward him. James continued turning a small object over in his hand. He held it up.
“We have something very special here, “ James said. “Look.” He opened his hand. A small stone, milky green, polished facets reflecting the sky, lay across his palm.
Charlotte bent forward and James carefully lifted and turned the stone so she could see both sides.
“It’s beautiful! But what is it?”
“It’s a tool, a stone tool. See, these are the worked edges where small chips have been broken away. It’s quite sharp still.” James took Charlotte’s hand and encouraged her to run a finger along the edge of the stone. “And if you put your thumb right here, the sharp edge is in the exact position to cut or scrape. It is a scraper of some kind, from the ancients.”
James bent down again and pushed more earth aside. “There is more. I’ll move the earth carefully. It is important not to damage anything or disturb the earth. Here,” he leaned in further, “is another tool. A point, possibly chalcedony, although I don’t know the stone that would have been used here.”
Charlotte kneeled down beside James. He gently scooped more earth out of the way. “I think there may be many other tools. I see also a piece of bone.” James pointed then shifted back. “It may be that these things have been washed down from above when the river flooded, or they may be part of a camp or ritual site that existed in this place.”
Charlotte pressed some earth back and stared down. “I’ve seen markings on the other side of the lake, on those granite bluffs you can see from the front porch. Simon knows about them. He took me other there fishing. I’ve seen stick figures and a sun.”
“Pictographs,” James said. “More evidence that this might be a very important site in your local history.” James quiet tone and serious demeanour indicated that he viewed this discovery as very important.
“We must not disturb anything further. In Israel I have worked on a tell and other archeological sites. It is important to proceed cautiously. I will cover this for now and put this big rock to show us where to be cautious in the garden.”
Charlotte stood. “It’s time to quit anyway. Matthew will be waking up soon.”
She felt awkward. “What is going on here James? What have we done?”
James stopped her gently with a hand on her arm. “We have done nothing. That is why I have covered things again. But we have much to discuss. I have several stories that will be of interest.”
James did have interesting stories to share, and in true Charlotte and Maggie fashion, they were shared to a sprawl of bodies on a living room floor. As soon as Charlotte understood the importance of what James wanted to say, the usual group had been convened. They ate and drank and took turns holding Matthew, then retired to their usual choice of floor space or chair.
Martin leaned against the day bed couch, its plaid blanket cover blending with his red plaid shirt. Simon sat cross-legged, a beer on the floor by his knee. Maggie reclined in a large wicker chair, one leg over the other, a pack of cigarettes in hand. Charlotte found a place beside Martin, slid Matthew into nursing position and tucked her legs under an old comforter.
James stood until everyone settled, then lowered himself into the soft cushions of an old green armchair and nearly disappeared. Into the expectant silence James spoke.
“You have told me about my name sake James William Whitecastle. This is synchronicity. Forgive me if I must be pedantic for a moment, but ‘synchronicity’ is from the word ‘synchronous’ which can be said to be is the quality of having mutual vibrations. That is, objects or processes or events that have the same phase of oscillation or cyclical movement.
“I have always been fascinated by the unexpected that is not unexpected, by events that cannot be explained, by synchronicity, the quality of mutual vibration. It is as we are, you and I, or have been…at one time widely separated but having similar thoughts. How could it not be so? How could it be that I am your James William Whitecastle? We are a coincidence of events that appear to have a significance beyond our expectations.”
Matthew wriggled in his mother’s arms but no one else moved so much as a toe.
“This is what we have, you and I. Synchronicity.” James waved his hand to include them all.
“Now, I am going to tell you a story about synchronicity.”
Martin shifted into a more comfortable position, and silence fell over the room.
“I, James Califa, am a child of Algiers, born to a poor family in Oran. Yes, that is the city of Camus’ plague. And yes, Oran city did have such a plague during my youth, but that is not what my story is about.
“I had an uncomplicated childhood, or as uncomplicated as it could be for an Algerian Jewish boy in a country colonized by France. As I reached manhood, the second Great War, or as you call it World War Two, had torn into the heart of our colonists home country. There was much tragedy in Europe. I was of an age to enlist, though in truth I was conscripted as a simple sailor, a ‘matelot,’ stationed with the French navy in Marsailles, the great naval base on the Mediterranean.
“I will not tell you about the war. That was and always will be an ugly business. But within that ugliness I met a beautiful woman with a beautiful name, Annette Bocuse.
“Annette and I loved each other very much. To find such love in the depths of war….” James raised his hands and let them fall. “Annette was a great passion for me, and her passion was an equal to mine.” James touched his heart with both hands. He took a breath and exhaled. He raised his head…looked closely at each of them and continued.
“We met as often as we could. We often met at a small cafe and then went into the hills near Allauch. That was our privacy.”
“Sadly the war was not the only difficulty. As you know, Germany had occupied all but a small part of France by 1942. You must also remember that I am an Algerian Jew. Annette’s family did not want such a person in her life.
"One day when we had arranged to meet, I waited and waited. She did not arrive at the café. I had many fearful thoughts. But it was not the war that delayed Annette. Her brothers had taken her into hiding in the mountains near Chamonix. We did not see each other again.”
Charlotte gasped and shook her head. “Never?”
James nodded. “That is so. I never saw Annette again.”
No one spoke. Charlotte dropped her head and then raised it with tears on her cheeks. “Oh James, that is such a sad story. So sad.”
“Yes, it was a great sadness for me. I have never had such a passion again. But I have had a very interesting life and I have done many things. When the war ended I followed others to Israel. I again became a soldier. As kibbutzim, I fought in the border war of 1947, The War of Independence. Although not like love, no, very not like love, there was again a great passion, a great sense of comradeship.”
Charlotte rocked Matthew and looked up at James. “Did you remain a soldier in Israel?”
James shook his head. “In Israel at that time, we were all soldiers. But later I became involved with the history, as an archeologist. We investigated many sites which we call ‘tells’. That is, many cities built on top of one another as is customary in that part of the world. This history is very important. Later I also became an artist and a musician. I have traveled widely.”
James didn’t speak for a few minutes and each listener moved only slightly. Matthew slept in relaxed abandon in his mother’s arms. Simon took a swig of beer. Martin put his head back and stared at the ceiling, and Charlotte continued to look steadily at James.
“What is the synchronicity James? Where is that?”
“I have not forgotten. Synchronicity is all part of this story.
“After many years and, in a way, many lifetimes, I began my recent travels. I have been searching for a community, a commune -- a place that might require my skills and that will provide a safe home for an aging man. That search brings me to your town. But the first synchronicity…that occurred in Vancouver.
“There I walked in that city’s famous Stanley Park. I walked on the seawall where artists set up their easels. I talked to an artist whose work appealed to me.
As travellers and artists we had much in common. He graciously invited me to a gathering. It was at there that I met someone unexpected.”
“Who?” Charlotte burst out. “Who did you meet?”
“Lalou,” James paused, “Annette’s brother.”
“Annette’s brother? No, you must be joking!”
“Just the same, it is so. Annette’s brother, her youngest.”
Charlotte handed the sleeping Matthew to Martin, and slid forward until she sat at James knees. She grasped at his hands. “What happened to Annette? You must have asked.”
“Of course. Annette is well. She married and had four children and remains at her home in Avignon.”
“And Lalou? Do you hate him?”
“No. Feelings of anger and betrayal have not been part of my life for many years. Lalou and I spoke as men who have lived a long time in a turbulent world. There is an understanding in that.”
“And Annette? What of her life?”
“Annette married as I said. She raised a family in the mountains, in Chamonix. Her husband is dead now. For many years she has kept a small pension, a guesthouse, in Avignon. Her children live nearby; two are married and have children of their own. A son is in the Navy. The eldest, a daughter, Perotte, is an artist.”
Charlotte gasped and sprang to her feet, her hands to her mouth. “Is it possible that Perotte is your daughter?”
James smiled. “Yes, that is possible. Indeed likely. Lalou told me that Annette was expecting a child when they took her away.”
Again, the group responded with silence.
James sensed their unease. “This, my friends, this is the synchronicity. I have learned of Annette in an unexpected way. I am an artist. My daughter is an artist. I made this journey to learn of that, and to find friends among whom I can share my story…among friends who anticipated me. This is the quality of mutual vibration is it not?”
The group continued to sit in silence, slowly absorbing the strange synchronicity of James William Whitecastle and James Califa in their small lives, of war, romance, loss and reunion.
He’s gone!” Charlotte cried as she flew through the café door and grabbed at Martin’s sleeve.
“Gone, who’s gone?” Asked Martin, turning a chair around for Charlotte as they joined Maggie and Simon at a table in the centre of the cafe.
“James. He’s gone!”
“Can’t be! I just saw him yesterday. We talked outside the village hall.”
Maggie put down her coffee cup. “Yup. He’d just been at the village office. James put the wheels in motion for a full-scale archeological survey of Charlotte’s place. It sounded like he pulled some strings. James has serious connections in the archeology world. In the meantime no one, I mean no one can do anything. Ergo, no development for the time being.”
They all stared at Maggie. “In fact, from what James told me there may be no development at all. It’s possible that Charlotte’s place is an important ritual site.”
The group sat in shocked silence.
“But James is gone!” insisted Charlotte. “He’s not there. Everything is gone from his room. I can’t believe he left, just up and went. Gone!”
“So, no one in the back bed room?” asked Martin hopefully.
Charlotte gave Martin a dark look and continued. “No, not anywhere. I miss him already.”
Charlotte did miss James. Simon missed James. They all missed James. “Even Matthew misses him,” said Charlotte.
James had brought more light and life into the valley than a whole Burton Cummings, the Guess Who, Bruce Cockburn and a Festival Train rolled into one.
After a few days, everyone returned to his or her usual activities. Mail days brought everyone to the post office followed by a coffee stop either at the Postal Code café or the Steak and Ribs down the block. Weekends began to open up with a bit more fishing.
Charlotte continued to work in her garden. In the evenings everyone often just hung out on someone’s front porch to enjoy the longer evenings.
The Milton-Stiltons became tied up in a legal battle over the archeological survey on Charlotte place. The survey, as predicted, had turned up evidence of a major aboriginal encampment that appeared to have been occupied back into the mists of time. The Milton-Stiltons became additionally hamstrung by a caveat that prevented a sale of the property until the future of the site could be determined. This appeared to involve half a dozen governments departments, two museums, several First Nation communities and at least one irate tribal chief…that meant, Martin said, “When hell freezes over.”
Charlotte whispered a thank you to James every day and especially when she went into the garden, now an ebullient show of colour and shiny vegetable leaves.
About a month after James had departed, Charlotte found an odd postcard in her mailbox. The word Patagonia marked the base of some extremely sharp peaked mountains.
On the reverse, “To my very gracious Charlotte. My heart thanks you for your loving hospitality. I am now on a new journey. I wish to tell you that I will always treasure my sojourn in your special valley, with you and your friends. James”
In the fall, the tamaracks began to turn on the upper slopes of the mountains across the lake. Life went on. A few weeks into November Charlotte received another curious postcard.
Standing among the clatter of mailboxes and post office chatter, she held a colourful image, a painting, all bright swirls and bold brush strokes. On the reverse, a few spare words. “My dear Charlotte, I reside now in Avignon. Votre ami, James."
Copyright, Dianne Bersea, April 2, 2018