Saturday, September 6, 2008

Innocents Aloft

It was now eleven, and fully dark. Howe Sound was quiet, but then it had been quiet all day, as Toby well knew, because he'd been on the same beach, a little further south, in the afternoon. There was only a small breeze sometimes riffling in the alders that grew just above the high tide line of driftwood, and now that it was dark, no traffic on the Squamish highway, up the bank above the beach. The only regular sound was the little lap of the tiny waves lapping on the sand below their blankets. Otherwise, it was quiet, a very nice quiet at the end of a very nice day. It was Sunday, and the day had begun with Mass, as Sunday had been doing now for months, in fact for almost a year, and then it had moved on before lunch to the beach at Lions Bay, with the girl he was less than a month away from marrying, and her high school friend and the lad the friend was going to marry. They had come in the lad's car because Toby didn't own a car anymore. The other lad owned a car very naturally, as he was a Porsch mechanic. He was also German, and his father had been in the Wermacht. Toby's father had been in the Canadian army. The two young men had shaken hands when they first met, grinned, and Toby, who was quick with words, said that with lineage like that he hoped there wouldn't be another war for a long time. They had all enjoyed the drive from Point Grey, and then enjoyed the water and the beach and the sun and the picnic and then drove back to Point Grey. They had dropped Toby off first because the two girls still wanted to talk about the old days and the changing days to come. Toby wanted to get back to his writing. It had been an hour or two short of supper and he could still get some good time at the typewriter with the novel he was trying to finish before he got married. This novel was the second run at the first long story he'd ever written, but not the same story as he'd got some nice remarks about a year earlier from a Toronto editor, and he was feeling hopeful. All the last year he'd said "Twenty-two, and nothing done." Now he was twenty-three, and that might be a good sign. Also, he'd done a lot of studying and joined the Church between the two books.
But he hadn't written a word when he got home. He hadn't even taken the cover off his old tractor down in his basement room. When he'd walked in the front door, they'd been sitting on the couch, Gabriel and Willow, side by side, like two children waiting to be taken to the fair, but not at all confident that it would happen.
"Toby! Thank God you're here!" said Willow.
"We've been waiting for an hour," said Gabriel.
"We want to climb the Lions," Willow said. "We plan to drive to Lions Bay tonight, sleep on the beach, and go up in the morning. Gabe knows of a logging road that can take us a long way in, and if we have any luck we can be up to the top and back down before dark. I've got the food picked out and everything. It'll be great fun. My last chance to hike before I got to San Francisco and Gabe has to back to the boat on Tuesday. He won't be back in town for days. But Dad says we can't go just by ourselves. You have to come too."
Gabe nodded, grinning. The word chaperon was not used, but it hung in the air and Toby had got the picture. They were each three different religions, Unitarian, Anglican, and Catholic, and the old standards mattered. The chances of trouble were profoundly slim, for not only did the other two behave themselves, they were not even in love with each other, as far as Toby could see. It was just student friendship, built around passion for similar interests, such as hiking and literature and amazing conversations, and not around a passion for nonsense. But the sensibilities of parents had to mean something. And the opportunity was certainly there. Willow was wonderfully attractive to anything in pants and Gabe was a handsome and abundantly lively fellow in his own right. He could feel two discomforts. Mr. MacBride's, for his beautiful daughter, and his own, for lack of the clacking typewriter.
He had obviously sighed and registered the loss of the writing time. And there was the question of too much leisure for himself. He'd already been to Lions Bay and had a lovely afternoon. Was he entitled to yet another day? Their faces had begun to register sheer apprehensions, and not without reason. He was, after all, the most disciplined son-of-a-bitch in all of the circles they'd ever known, although there was always the hope that since he was close to finishing his book he might be able to loosen up a little. More than once Gabriel had told him that he worked too hard, and didn't let things sit long enough.
"Okay. I'll do it. I'd feel better about it if Jelena could come too, but she has to work tomorrow, of course. If you bring the Coleman, I'll cook breakfast on the beach, and brag about the twenty course meals I could cook in the bush with two Colemans." He laughed, and it seemed all right.
So they had gathered their stuff and hit the road, Toby and the grateful pair, with Willow moving like a rocket before he changed his mind. Willow drove, through town and the park, over the Lions Gate bridge and on to the Upper Levels highway. To Toby's surprise, it all seemed fresh again, even though he'd only done the route a few hours before. He fell to thinking about the philosophers he was always reading now, the old and new Scholastics, with Aquinas heading the list, and when they reached a point in the road where it starts to turn fully into the view of the sound, under the setting sun, his soul went very still, so that he understood that all the world was his apple, and a very good apple to have. He was sitting in the back seat, on the left side, so he could look out over English Bay and the rest of the strait. It had all been his water for so long, with so many bays and coves, channel and islands and beaches, speaking to him as the Aegean had spoken to Homer, as far as the poetry was concerned, and ladling up as many adventures, but he'd yet to find the words to put it all down. On the other hand, in almost everything he read, he almost never found experiences of the mind like that which he was having at the moment. He studied the backs of his companions heads, and was very happy they made had him into a chaperon.
By the time they reached the beach and pulled off the highway down the road to the sand and the row of driftwood, it was dusk. The sun had gone down behind Bowen Island, and the high loom of Gambier rose up to the north of Bowen, mysterious as always to his imagination. He had been on Bowen, he had spent wonderful times at two camps on the Gibson shore beyond Gambier and perhaps even greater times up the Sechelt region, but he had never been on Gambier.
They had spread their sleeping stuff, fairly close to the water because the depth of the sand increased the further you got from the driftwood. Some of the driftwood lay on gravel. "Toby, is this tide coming in or going out?" Gabe said.
Toby thought for a bit. "It was coming in this afternoon, but that was almost six hours ago so it must be going out."
"Are you sure?"
"Why are you sure?"
"I've had a lot to do with tides and that's what I figure. When I was ten and we lived on Lasqueti I used to read the tidebook like the Bible, and my Grandpop on the Inlet is always battling with low tide because he bought his place in January when the tides are really high and now in the summer he has a lot of mud flat. And I've hunted oysters and clams. Once on Lennie's Lagoon we almost got stranded in the high tide. Is that enough?" He had felt profoundly well documented.
"Maybe." Gabe also knew about tides, but, according to Toby, only from the decks of his coastal freighters.
They had crawled into their blankets, the men on the outside gallantly protecting Willow in the middle. And they talked. Gabe was still thinking out the trio's relation to the characters in "The Sun Also Rises". On a previous ramble, over on Hollyburn, with no interest in any lofty summits like the Lions, they had argued over who was what. Willow of course was Lady Brett. But Gabe had said he would be Jake Barnes and Toby could be Robert Cohn. Toby had no objection to being Jewish, because every Jewish girl he knew at UBC was very good looking as well as talented and bright, but Cohn was obviously a jerk. Gabe had pointed out that he should remember that from the point of view of manhood he, Gabe, had made a great sacrifice by taking the role of Jake. Right, Toby agreed, and wished that Hemingway hadn't created so many losers.He had said this out loud and then he added, "Why is it that a guy who writes so well about nature and things has most of his people going around on crutches? I speak symbolically,of course."
"I bet you do," Willow had said, laughing gaily. "Otherwise Jelena wouldn't have you in the house." Everyone knew about their first argument, over symbols in literature. Jelena then had assumed she was going to be an English professor, and Toby at that point was finding himself suspcious of a lot of literary theories, even though in the months long before the argument, before they had met, he had loved everything he'd read about the Greeks. He'd stood on the foredeck of the ferry heading for Gibsons, on his way to visit his grandparents on Sechelt Inlet before he headed off for his marvellous summer in the woods two years ago, with Francis Ferguson in his hand and Aeschylus and Homer in his head and the sound of his own Aegean in his ears. Now he had learned how Agamemnon Channel, up at the top of the Inlet, had got its name.
And they they grew quiet, and closer to sleep. They had to keep a lid on the chat, sweet as it always was, because tomorrow would be a long and arduous day.
He'd never been to the actual top of a high mountain. Standing in the snow on the summit of an eight thousand foot ridge in the Niutes was as close as he'd come, two summers previous. But that had been one hell of an adventure. Not the climb, which was just up and steady in perfect weather, and the same back down, but all of a sudden, half way between the bare rock and the far edge of the snow comb, he'd realized that if he and his partner had kept going they could have fallen through an overhanging lip of snow, five hundred feet into the valley below. "Carl!" he had yelled to the boy ahead. Carl had turned back, no more than twenty feet from the edge of the snow. It was funny to see the foot marks stop before the end and return. Funny and frightening. He could still shake just thinking about it, sometimes. At other times it made a good story.
The summits of the Lions would be three thousand feet lower than the ridge in the Niutes, yet every foot of the way would be from sea level, and it was still a good hike. Going up the slope to the ridge he and Carl had started at around two thousand feet in altitude. Perfect weather, but he'd been a little disappointed that he had not been able to see the water at the Coast. By the time of the climb, well into July, he'd been pretty certain he was going to come back to UBC instead of heading off to Toronto to try his hand at journalism, and it would have been nice to see the real coastline, if only to spur the anticipation of returning. But he'd had to wait for that anticipation until they'd actually left the Homathko system, flying out in September under a blazing blue sky to Campbell River, bussing to Nanaimo, riding one of the CPR ships to Vancouver, sailing into the harbour at evening under a sky that at least to him seemed to be on fire. Four months away from the city, his pants filthy from the woods, his shouldered duffle bag the same, striding down the gangplank like Ulysses come back to Ithica. There'd even been a Penelope of sorts waiting too, but that had come to end and then there was Jelena and life really began all over again. No wonder intuition had told him to give his alma mater one more chance, to come back as a kind of graduate student and experience some of the campus life he hadn't taken on in his first four years. Well, three and something. In the fourth year he'd quit early to study on his own, and then work when he ran out of money, although he kept on reading well, and then for the first time in his life write with the best hours of the day. No more of writing in the evening after a full day of school.
The thoughts of morning writing had been different. More real, although of course he was older, and better read, than when he'd first run characters and dialogue through a typewriter. But there were no escapes into happy fantasy for the slicks, or pessimistic fantasy, for the little magazines.
That morning writing had been honest, from memory as best as he could do it, given certain limitations he had put upon himself. Then, two years ago, he would not even think about religious questions when he wrote. He was full of philosophical and religious questions whenever he was not at his typewriter. But at the machine of his chosen profession they were always set aside, until recently. It had been some sort of deal with God. All that stuff was to come later, when he could be sure he knew what he was talking about, and really had the words for it. And now he had some of the words, and probably more real experience than he could handle, but he had very little in the way of characters or plot. That's why he'd had to fall back on the old story of the yacht cruise, which was working, to some degree, but still was miles away from what he really knew.
It had been quiet for a couple of minutes. Maybe five minutes. And then Gabriel Franklin said, "Skinner, I have to tell you, you're dead wrong about these tides. There's water in the tip of my blankets." Toby sat up. There wasn't much light, but he could see what Gabe meant. The tide had indeed come in, and Gabe, being the furthest down the beach for some reason, had had the waves licking at his toes. His tall form was already out of the blankets and pulling them back up the beach to safer ground. Willow and Toby began following suit. Willow was laughing. Toby felt stupid. He could not remember ever in his life making a mistake about tides before. "Oh, God. I'm sorry. You're absolutely right. I must have misunderstood what was going on this afternoon."
"You deserve to be left to drown," Gabe said cheerfully. "But if I let you drown then you wouldn't finish your book and I wouldn't have any reason to write your biography."
"Are you telling me I don't have a life apart from my writing?" Toby was now laughing as well, thinking of his conviction that his life was now and had always been much more significant than what he could set down on paper.
"We know you do, but who else does? That's why you have to write about it. I can only become famous if you become famous first. That's why I have to keep you alive. So don't make it difficult for me."
"I'm moving, I'm moving. My Dad won't believe this. He used to get me to check the tide tables when we had to do something with the good old salt water ebb and flow."
"That was before you were a chaperon. Obviously the responsibility has addled your brains. Now go to sleep. We'll need your path-finding abilities tomorrow."
"Help. I thought you knew the way in. I've never even thought of climbing the Lions. And the last time I was in this neck of the woods, except for this afternoon, we came by boat. Union Steamship, all the way to Britannia Beach. There was no road after Horseshoe Bay."
"I'm talking about chosing the routes after we leave the logging road. There will be some tricky choices until we get above the timberline. That was the other excuse for bringing you. You've actually spent more time as a surveyor than the rest of us. You should be good at scouting out the lay of the land."
"Thank you for those ego-restoring assurances," Toby said. "Indeed, you have made it possible for me to go to sleep."
"Stop talking, you two." Willow was settling into her relocated blankets. "You're not making it possible for me to go to sleep."
The boys did as they were told.

No comments: