(Dodging Shells gave you Tommy’s letters to his sister, from the front. Kathy’s letters in response tell of life in wartime Toronto.)
…..The mortar platoon…that is good news. The way you seem to attract every bullet and shell fragment that comes your way, I figure the farther you are from the Germans…the better. Or one of these days you might really get hurt!
…..By the way…what’s a mortar?
…..I want you to know we’ve been doing our small bit here to aid the war effort…don’t think we haven’t. The government organizes regular paper drives, to be used for shell casings as well as for wrapping supplies for overseas. And they collect kitchen fat as well – who knew it could be so deadly? In medieval times, they used to pour boiling oil down from castle walls onto the vulnerable heads of attacking soldiers. (I guess the ones who weren’t badly burnt wasted a lot of precious time cleaning up the mess.) Now they use the fat to manufacture explosives – more deadly, and you don’t need to be standing on a wall. Some of the movie theatres would even admit a kid to special Saturday afternoon shows on receipt of a two pound tin of leftover fat or grease. (That was before meat was rationed and roasts became a rarer commodity.) And I bet not a single one of those innocent little tykes would have chosen to miss a show just because their admission fee was being used to kill people.
…..Housing has become scarce since people are being brought in to Toronto to work in the munitions factories. A trailer park has sprung up right on the east side of University Avenue near the hospital! The Housing Registry has been begging people to rent any spare space to war workers and their families, and those who can are eager to oblige. It brings in extra cash, and who couldn’t use some?
…..The only room we have vacant, of course, is yours, Tommy, but they made it sound so much like our patriotic duty that we do occasionally take in a boarder. (Don’t worry…I packed all your most important things away in boxes in my own room…no matter how cramped it is for me. I found a couple of magazines….you’ll know the ones…that I decided weren’t important enough for me to inconvenience myself over, so I threw them out. Shame on you.)
…..One of these paying guests was an eccentric Englishman who was working for a while at the Inglis plant over on Strachan Avenue. (Inglis was converted early in the war and probably made the very Bren guns you’ve been using.) Stan was tall and thin, like a stork, with a mesmerizing Adam’s apple bobbing underneath a great wedge of a nose that would make the statues on Easter Island jealous. One expected him to fall flat on his face at any moment from the very weight of it. And to make things worse, he reminded me immediately of Ichabod Crane from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and nothing about him ever really contradicted that impression.
…..One evening, after dinner, Stanley had disappeared upstairs and the rest of us were relaxing in the living room when the power went out. It seemed sensible to retreat to the kitchen, where we lit a few candles and sat around the table to wait for the electric lights to go back on. There was quite enough light for me to read my book, and Mom was engrossed in a new magazine.
…..The Sunday before, Dad had been intrigued by a radio concert featuring some guy playing the saw, of all things! You know Dad…he was determined to give it a try, although he didn’t have the first idea how it might be done. Anyway, he had borrowed an old violin bow somewhere, and he decided that a blackout was as good a time as any to develop his saw-playing technique. Apparently, you can control the pitch by bending the saw blade or something, and he was eventually able to get some variation of screechy sounds from the thing, although I can’t say they were awfully melodious. Fortunately, the lights came back on before the sound became intolerable.
…..Just as we were preparing to migrate back into the living room where it was more comfortable, our boarder appeared…wrapped in a bath towel and dripping on the hall floor. All of him that we could see – and it was more than enough – was a shade of blue that’s much more becoming on a periwinkle than it was on Stanley, and he was shaking violently from his head to his skinny feet. His teeth were clenched, and it was clear that we’d have to ask the obvious question. Dad stepped into the breach.
…..“Stanley. Is there a problem?”
…..“I was having a bath.”
…..“Yes. We see that.’
…..“The lights. They went out.”
…..“That was some time ago. They’re on again now, Stanley, as you can see.”
…..“But they were off a long time,” Stanley hissed, through his chattering teeth. “It was all right at first, but the water got very cold.” The pipe from the hall stove does a pretty good job of warming upstairs – Dad had a friend install asbestos pads a couple of years ago to protect the walls from the heat – but when the bathroom door is closed, you know how cool it can get in there after a while.
…..“I imagine it did, Stanley. You mean to say you’ve been in the tub the whole time?”
…..“I’m not kidding!” Stanley summoned up enough energy to snap this out. “I’m bloody freezing.”
…..“Well, why on earth didn’t you get out of the tub and towel off?”
…..“It was dark.”
…..“Well, yes. It was dark. So what?”
…..“And there were sounds in the room”
…..“Yes. Horrible sounds. You can’t imagine…didn’t you hear the sounds?” He was whispering now.
…..“Oh. That. Well, I was playing the saw. I suppose I’m not very good at it.” I think Dad was a bit miffed that the word music had not come to Stanley’s mind.
…..“No! It was right in the bathroom”
…..Tommy, remember how we used to sit at the grating in the bathroom floor to hear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen when we were kids? It never hurt to know which of our misdeeds they were wise to. You can hear everything up there. You remember…the grating…by the bathtub.
…..“So…you just stayed in the tub.”
…..“Yes. I was terrified!” His Adam’s apple bobbed.
…..“You just stayed there and shivered.”
…..“Yes! I thought I might be safe…as long as I didn’t move. I thought they might not notice I was there.”
…..“Well…whatever was making those awful sounds.”
…..“I told you. It was me. Playing the saw. In the kitchen.”
…..Stanley stared blankly. “Playing the saw?”
…..“Never mind, Stanley. Go get dressed. It’s over now.”
…..“Come down when you’re ready,” I choked. “I’ll put on some coffee. Hot coffee will warm you up.”
…..We laughed until we nearly peed, but we didn’t dare go upstairs, and we kept well clear of the kitchen grate until we were under control…just in case.
…..I haven’t bothered to explain why Stanley is not in the armed forces. I think it’s clear why anyone with a heart would excuse him from seeking any active duty. And I just know you fellows would much prefer that he stay right here.