Twenty-Eight

Whatever Happened to Mary Janeway?: A Home Child Story


 

Twenty-Eight

 

Freedom at Last

 

“During the first nine months of 1929, the great boom just kept rolling along, and people saw no reason to think that it would ever end. Public confidence was at an all-time high and manifested itself in a growing wave of instalment buying. Why wait to buy a washing machine, or one of the new batteryless radios when you could have it now with a small down-payment? And the department stores and other retail outlets, sharing this belief in tomorrow, encouraged their customers to ‘buy now, pay

 

April 1929

 

Mary found Mondays hard since she wouldn’t get to see Ross for six more days. Yesterday’s visit was fresh in her mind. They’d spent the whole afternoon together, ending up in Gore Park. Ross loved taking the streetcar and Mary enjoyed having him all to herself. She’d never get use to him calling Mrs. Harkness “Mama.” When Mary reminded him that she was his “real” mama, Ross would nod but she wondered if he truly understood.

     So far her morning hadn’t gone smoothly. Mrs. Lockwood had been late eating her breakfast and Mary was already behind. She hurried to finish the dishes so she could start the laundry. The sun was peeking out from behind a cloud and it looked like she’d be able to hang the clothes out on the line to dry.

 

That same Monday, April 8, K939 was discharged from Stony Mountain, a free man after serving four years less a week of his five-year sentence. His prison garb was exchanged for a white shirt with cuffs a little on the short side, a brown serge suit with dated lapels, a striped beige tie, dark socks, and a pair of size 8½ ill-fitting black shoes. It felt strange to be wearing street clothes. Jim had no idea what he looked like, but it didn’t matter.

     The clerk emptied the contents of a manila envelope labelled K939, which included an old black leather pocketbook, one key, a monogrammed handkerchief, and a gold pocket watch. He was told to put them in his trouser pockets. The clerk unlocked a cash box, handed him a ten-dollar bill, and recorded the date in the convict register and description book.

     Warden Meighen shook his hand and said, “You’re a free man now. I hope you learned something in here. Work hard. I never want to see you again.”

     Jim was escorted to the CNR station in Winnipeg and handed a second-class ticket to Hamilton. “Change trains in Toronto,” were the only words spoken. He boarded, turned back, and the escort was gone. Jim was on his own for the first time in four years. He took a window seat at the rear. When the train pulled out of Union Station in Winnipeg, Jim thought it was probably around five o’clock, suppertime at Stony Mountain. He’d forgotten that he had a watch.

     The CNR had two routes from Winnipeg to Capreol, a major connection point about twenty-five miles north of Sudbury Junction. The Longlac-Nakima trek headed in a northerly direction, making a stop at Sioux Lookout. The other route, the one Jim was on, headed east across the country. The train would thread its way around a series of tiny inland finger lakes and rivers, like a string of black ants playing follow-the-leader around puddles the day after a rainstorm. It was slightly longer but far more scenic.

     He watched out the window as they crossed Rainy River, passed through St. Boniface, and entered a heavily wooded area surrounding the Lake of the Woods. The train left behind the open rolling countryside that was so unique to the Prairies. Jim’s pocketbook was empty except for a card with his name and address on it and the ten-dollar bill. The key was for the front door at 167 Ottawa Street. His grandfather’s pocket watch was still running, but he doubted it was three-thirty.

     The train lurched forward and went into a bend. Jim, glad to have a window seat, watched black smoke from the locomotive curl upward and dissipate into the grey-blue sky. He caught a glimpse of the club car, two ahead of him — the car that only travelling salesmen, elderly widows, and nannies could afford to ride in. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a string of coach cars like the one he was in and several baggage cars pulling up the rear.

     Once the train straightened out again, he guessed they were going about sixty miles an hour. It had been ages since he’d had a real conversation with anyone. Jim asked the conductor for the time to set his pocket watch. It worked like a charm. He’d grown accustomed to not knowing the time of day, the day of the week, or the date. Basic routines like guard changes had only provided an approximation.

 

In the absence of calendars and clocks, the prisoner devised his own measure of time. The setting of the sun and the tolling of the bell marked another day. The fullness of the moon, a month. The slick of morning dampness on the walls of his cell meant autumn had returned. And when the water in his basin froze, he would know that winter had

 

     The railway crossed to the American side and ran through the state of Minnesota for about forty-five miles. Jim looked at the last of his belongings. He ran his fingers over the raised initials, on his linen handkerchief like a blind man reading Braille, folded it, and put it in the breast pocket of his newly acquired suit. It seemed strange not to see K939 stamped on it.

     They stopped in Minnesota long enough to pick up passengers at about half a dozen stations before crossing back to Canadian soil at Rainy River and heading to Fort Frances where the train filled its tanks from the waterspouts at the station. Jim could see the paper mill in the distance.

     At four o’clock Tuesday morning they arrived in the “twin cities” of Port Arthur and Fort Williams (Thunder Bay today). He’d slept for a good portion of the last three hundred miles but woke up as soon as the gentle swaying of the train stopped. Jim was confused and uncertain where he was. There was no cell, bars, or graffiti on the walls, just brakemen in raincoats waving lanterns back and forth in the darkness, and then he remembered.

     The train followed the shoreline past Black Bay and Nipigon Bay, skirting Lake Helen heading north toward Lake Nipigon and inland to the Longlac Station. From here they struck out in a southeastern direction. Jim began counting the number of stops as they were announced. “Hornepayne, Oba, Peterbell, and Gogama.” After a while he lost count, but he figured once they got to Capreol, he was over halfway.

     It was dusk by the time the train arrived in Capreol, an important divisional point on the CNR. The stop was longer in order to take on fuel and water as well as accommodate a number of passengers. They made a brief stop at the Sudbury Junction, at which point Jim dozed off. He vaguely remembered stopping at Parry Sound and Orillia.

     The train lumbered into Toronto Union Station, a grey, ominous, tunnel-like structure at four o’clock Wednesday morning. “Last Stop! Union Station! Downtown Toronto! Union Station!” Jim began to feel anxious as he got off the train and found a bench near the empty depot marked “Hamilton.” People seemed to be in a great hurry as indistinguishable announcements boomed over the loudspeakers.

     The train arrived shortly and Jim boarded, along with a handful of others. It was the last leg of his journey. He found another window seat near the back. The train slowly crawled out of Union Station. It skirted around the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition and crossed the Humber River. Just before Port Credit, Jim could see the rifle ranges used by the military forces of Toronto, immediately to the left of the railway. The tracks followed Lake Ontario’s shoreline, a route that was remarkably flat yet very fertile, judging by the number of fruit-bearing orchards that flanked the railway. They made stops at Clarkson, Oakville, the fishing village of Bronte, and Burlington. As the sun came up, he noticed several fine looking golf links and clubhouses.

     The choppy blue water of the Burlington Bay came into view. A freighter was in the harbour, probably full of coal from the Appalachian areas of Pennsylvania or delivering a load of iron ore. His surroundings were starting to look familiar. Jim knew that he was less than fifteen minutes from home when he saw the blast furnaces of the Steel Company. Home … what a strange sounding word.

     He stared out the window, trying to take in as much as he could as the train quickly approached the steel city. It looked bigger than he’d remembered. A very tall building caught his eye. Jim had no idea that it was the Pigott Building, the newest, most impressive acquisition in the city, and Hamilton’s first skyscraper. The train slowed down, seeming to be in no hurry. It made him feel impatient. He’d waited so long for this day to arrive. At 7:00 a.m. it sluggishly pulled into the Hamilton Station, braked several times, and finally came to a halt. There was a loud, steamy hissing sound, followed by silence.

 

Mary woke from a fitful broken sleep. She had relived the past three decades of her life, condensing them into the time frame of one night. It wasn’t any wonder she still felt tired. She glanced at the clock, concerned that she’d overslept. Mrs. Lockwood wouldn’t be very understanding if she arrived late and her morning routines were broken. She claimed that it put her “out of kilter” for the rest of the day.

     Mary pushed back her comforter and leaned over to close the window. Mr. Morton was already tinkering in his garage and it was only just seven. The sky looked overcast and cloudy so she decided to take her umbrella to be on the safe side. With any luck she’d catch a streetcar right away. Mrs. Lockwood liked her to be there no later than eight o’clock to serve breakfast.

     Every Wednesday the ironing had to be done before picking up groceries. She insisted on everything being fresh, which meant shopping three times a week. Mary didn’t mind at all. When she was downtown she’d look for something for Ross. She had three more days, not counting today, until she got to see him again. She used to buy him socks or underwear, but he preferred a toy or a sweet. His favourite was “Bertie,” a character made entirely from the individual candy pieces found in a bag of Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts. Mary tried not to take candy every week, sometimes choosing an inexpensive little toy at Woolworth’s instead. He’d be seven this summer and she didn’t want to ruin his permanent teeth.

     It was one of those mornings that she had trouble getting out of bed. If she got behind with her chores, she’d be rushed all day. Mrs. Lockwood’s evening meal had to be on the table at five o’clock sharp. Mary could never understand why ten minutes either way was so important.

     Already running late, she dragged herself out of bed. Mary didn’t have a good feeling about those dark clouds and wondered what the day would bring.

 

Jim gazed out the train window but all he could see was his own reflection in the glass. It was the first time he’d seen himself in four years. He took a good hard look, touching his unshaven face and wondered if she’d think he looked older. He quietly whispered, “I’m coming home Mary, I’m finally coming home.”

     It didn’t take long for Jim to find out where she lived. For weeks he waited at Mary’s bus stop when she returned home from work and begged her to take him back. She never did. After awhile he gave up hope and stopped waiting.