In 1973 I was ten years old and my sister Claire was eight, and our parents sent us on a train from Toronto to Winnipeg. Our grandparents lived in Winnipeg and there was to be a family wedding, and we had two younger siblings also, so my mother’s hands were full. She thought she’d send us ahead to Winnipeg. It was winter, I don’t remember the cold or anything about the weather, but I know it was winter because that wedding was in winter—December.
At Union Station my parents put Claire and me on the train, and my mother paid the porter, a black man I remember, twenty dollars, to “keep an eye” on us.
The journey was more than thirty hours long, overnight, and Claire and I slept in the narrow train bunk beds, I above her (because I was older), and during the day we played in the lounge of the train where they had board-games and cards. We ate in the dining car, although I don’t remember what the meals were. I remember at least one fight, or disagreement, with Claire—something about her not pointing out one of the specials on the menu, causing me to order something I didn’t like. Why I depended on Claire to give me this crucial information, I cannot say.
There must have been beautiful scenery—the lushed forests, iced, of northern Ontario, and frozen lakes, as the train curved. And then west and across, all snowed and flat, to the winter-white sky.
I remember that I asked the black porter how many stops in total to Winnipeg, and he laughed without answering, because there are so many, and many of them are during the night, in darkness, so it was a silly question. But I don’t think it was such a silly question. I loved numbers, so I truly wanted to know the number, and to count the stops as we went through them.
The real trouble with this story, this journey, though, as I’m telling it to you, is that it’s not my story, although I’d like it to be. It’s my husband’s story. It is he who was ten years old in 1973, whose sister was eight, and who was sent on a train journey from Toronto to Winnipeg, through a wintered landscape I wish I’d seen.
My husband has told me this story a few times, a few times over twenty-five years, and his mother has told me this story, and his sister Claire has also told this story, at different times. Each time one of them tells it, I hear another piece of it, a small detail that no-one mentioned before: tonight for instance I heard that the porter’s name was Sam. Tonight also I heard that the journey was in winter. (I didn’t know that before, and always had imagined summer and flip-flops and green through the windows.)
The most puzzling thing though is that two children travelled so far on a train with no accompanying adult. In the telling, and retelling, there is always mention of the fact that “nowadays” child protection agencies would be summoned to investigate such a happening. And then—the conversation moving on—someone will mention some other detail about the journey. (Last night my husband said the rough train blanket had on it the railway’s logo—CN Rail. But as for the blanket being “rough,” it is I who imagines that, I don’t know what my husband, or Claire, remembers about it, or how it actually was, but the blanket’s roughness is fundamentally part of the story, for me.)
I’ve spent time looking at that train’s schedule, as it is now. Some of the stops on its route are Washago, Sudbury Junction, Capreol, McKee’s Camp, Felix, Laforest, Ruel, Westree, Gogoma, Foleyet, Hornepayne, Armstrong, Allanwater Bridge, Savant Lake, Sioux Lookout, Reddit, Minaki, Ottermere, Malachi, Ophir, Elma, et cetera.
I am certain the train stopped at noon at Savant Lake, which I think was wide and grey and frozen to the sky, and I’m certain that Sudbury Junction was reached in dark-night, with the sound of trains creaking and shunting, and junctioning. McKee’s Camp must have been surrounded thickly by encroaching trees, snow-crusted—but I don’t really know.
One day, if I listen carefully enough to all the people and all the versions and all the details, I might piece it together for myself. I’ll research passenger trains from Toronto to Winnipeg in 1973, so that I can tell you what the compartment looked and felt like exactly, and its windows, its doors. I’ll know what Sam the porter was wearing and whether he spoke with a Canadian accent or a foreign one, and what the dining car looked like (I think the tablecloths must have been red). And I’ll know, then, and tell you, how it felt to be a ten-year-old boy in charge of his sister on such a long and important voyage, and how it was to be met in Winnipeg at the station by two beloved grandparents, they wearing overcoats for the cold.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her writing has appeared in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Numéro Cinq, StoryTime, SLiP (Stellenbosch Literary Project), and has been anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5, 2010 and African Roar 2012. Her debut short story collection, Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011 and was named as one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). She is writing her second book, a novel.