A sealed envelope addressed to Reverend Obadiah Collins, Catalina, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, lay on the kitchen table. When Grace came home she found her mother sitting at the table, her hands folded, about eighteen inches from the envelope. Her gaze was fixed on it.
Grace didn’t know, as she crossed the kitchen, that it was a telegram. She came through the door telling her mother that Mrs. Snelgrove had stopped by the school to pick up the little ones and told Grace to tell her mother she couldn’t be at the WPA executive meeting this evening. “She said to say she was sorry, hoped it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience—” Grace stopped short of trying to convey the undercurrent of nervousness in Mrs. Snelgrove’s tone: the women of Catalina did not lightly tell Mrs. Reverend Collins that they could not attend a meeting. Then she realized her mother wasn’t listening, saw what she was staring at.
“When did it come?”
“An hour ago.”
Grace drew her fingers over the unopened white envelope as if she could break a spell by touching it. She wondered how long her mother had sat here looking at the envelope. She would never have admitted to needing her daughter or her husband with her when she opened and read the telegram. But she had not opened it herself.
“Should we wait for the Reverend?” Grace asked. She and Charley, when very young, had picked up their mother’s habit of referring to their father by his title: Mother never called him Obadiah, only the Reverend, and his children said Papa or Father only when speaking directly to him. In the third person he was always the Reverend.
Her mother said nothing. She had not even looked up to meet Grace’s eyes; it was as if by looking at the envelope she could will the news inside to be something other than what it must be. Good news never came by telegram, not in the spring of 1917. Not to a family with a boy overseas. The best you could hope for was wounded but recovering in an army hospital in England. Out of harm’s way. Some perfect injury, severe enough to send him home for the duration of the war, yet light enough not to blight his future.
If Grace had the power to bend fate, she would sacrifice Charley’s arm or Charley’s leg or even one of his eyes to buy his life. Would her mother make the same exchange? Grace thought so, but it was, like so many other questions, something she could not ask.
She took the envelope, turned it in her hands. She would go to get a letter opener. No, she would go to get her father. He was either at the church or over at port Union. The church was right across the road from the manse; he might be preparing Sunday’s sermon. Perhaps if he was in the middle of opening the Word of God, he could call on divine power to change the words on the inside of the envelope.
“We should read it first. Then I’ll go find Father.”
Her mother made no move. Grace opened the envelope, read the words first silently, then aloud, as if they were lines in a play. As if they had no connection to her, to her mother, to her laughing older brother who had gone away just a year ago, looking oddly mature and serious in his uniform. She reached across the table but her mother pulled her hands away. “Excuse me, I—I need to be alone,” she said. “Find the Reverend and tell him.” Her voice broke on Reverend and she hurried out of the room. Why today, of all days, would she not say “your father” or even “Obadiah”? Why was it essential that she leave the room before Grace could see her cry? Shouldn’t they be crying in each other’s arms?
Grace searched her memory for a time when she was in her mother’s arms, cuddled and petted, crying after a fall or a disappointment. She remembered words instead: “Don’t make a big fuss over such a little thing.” “You must be brave; don’t complain.” But this was not a little thing, not a skinned knee or an unkind taunt.Grace thought of following her mother upstairs. What would she say?
Instead, she left the telegram on the table, went out of the house. A mild April day with sun trying to break through the overcast sky. She practiced as she walked over the road to the church, tried to imagine what to say to her father. Could she say, with a steady voice and dry eyes, “Father, there’s been a telegram. Charley has been killed in action”? Or would she say, “There’s bad news—you’d better come home and read it for yourself”?
The church was empty. These days, if her father was not at home or in the church, he was often over at the Fisherman’s Union site on the south side of the harbour, visiting Mr. Coaker. She left the church and climbed the path to the little graveyard, perched on the hill looking down towards the water. It was a sunny day, the clear blue sky making the air crisp and cold even for April: she shivered and wrapped her coat closer around her. There was a stone here in memory of one Catalina boy already: George Snelgrove died last year in the terrible July drive. Charley was one of scores of boys from all around Trinity Bay who had enlisted after hearing about those losses: as if every time a boy was cut down in the bloody soil of France, another had to be uprooted from a Newfoundland Bay and planted over there in his place.
She could see late-afternoon sunlight dancing on the water, and boats in the harbour—no fishing boats out yet, far too early in the year for that. She could see, distantly across the harbour, the skeletons of new buildings going up in Mr. Coaker’s town. She couldn’t hear the ringing hammers from here, but she knew from experience that if she took the path that led to the bridge over to the south side, within fifteen minutes of walking she’d be close enough to hear that sound.
A boy, a young man, ran down the road below her, towards her house, and for a moment Grace thought it was Charley. It was Jack Perry, Charley’s best pal. Charley and Jack had talked about joining up together last summer, but Jack’s mother had convinced him to go back to college in Canada instead. He was the youngest of four sons and the other Perry boys all worked in the family business: Jack was studying to be a doctor up in Montreal. He had just come home for his holidays.
“Jack!” her voice steered him away from the manse; he bounded up the hill to the graveyard.
“Is everything all right? Mother saw the boy from the telegraph office going up your lane.”
Grace shook her head. “I think…I think my father must be over visiting with Mr. Coaker. Can you go find him? Tell him to come home.”
“Was it…?” Jack left the two words hanging: adding more would, Grace thought, make it more real. She shook her head again, then nodded, and tears came, finally. And there was, after all, someone who would take her in his arms and stroke her hair while she cried—not her mother but Jack Perry, her brother’s friend, a boy she barely knew. She pressed her face into the rough cotton of his work shirt and felt his body rock a little from side to side.
When she drew away they both stumbled back a step. Jack handed her a big white handkerchief and she dabbed at her eyes and then blew her nose hard. He said, “I’m sorry,” at the same moment she said, “Tank you,” so the words got jumbled and it was impossible to tell for a moment who was sorry and who was grateful, and for what.
“I’ll go find your father,” he said. “You go on home, I’m sure your mother needs you.”
Does she? Grace thought. If she did, Grace had no idea what kind of help to offer.
“Should I tell him?” Jack said. “Or just say there’s been a telegram and he should go home?”
“No, tell him.” Then I won’t have to say the words. Maybe she would never have to say, “My brother is dead,” and it would never be quite real. Especially if, like so many, he was buried over there in France somewhere. It would be as if he had simply gone away. Even after the war ended—if it ever did—it would be as if Charley had survived all the battles, married a Frenchwoman, and stayed there, and somehow forgot ever to write a letter home.
Jack went over the road toward the south side of the harbour, and Grace walked back to the manse. It was the maid’s half-day off and the house was like a mausoleum. Somewhere upstairs, Lily Hunt Collins lay, or sat, behind a closed door, mourning her son. Her daughter walked half-way up the stairs, looked at Lily’s bedroom door, then went back down to the kitchen and picked up the telegram on the table. She waited for her father to come home.
A Sudden Sun
by Trudy Morgan-Cole
$19.95, paperback, 384 pp.
Breakwater Books, September 2014