Accidental Activist

The Year That Was

Here's hoping next year will be chock full of memories too.

By Ben Bull
Published December 20, 2007

As this will be my last RTH entry before the end of the year, I thought I'd do something completely original and take a look back through the year that was.

Hey! Didn't you do that before?

Who said that? Was that... Ryan?

Well, excuse me, Mr. McGreal, but if I'm not mistaken we still don't get paid for these bi-weekly contributions, do we? Even though everyone knows you're now a dot-com millionaire, hunkered down in your Meadowlands pad, drinking ice wine and polishing your fleet of SUVs on your days off...

So - screw it, I'm going to do exactly what I did last year and take a quick look back through the past year and reflect on the one or two memories that made it all worth while.

The year began in a blur. My work brought me to places like Scranton and Stellarton - and back again - often at a moment's notice. At one point, during a mad four week span back in April, I realized I'd been on the road the entire time.

This all came to a head at the Toronto Island airport at 6.30 AM one morning when I dozed off and woke up just in time for the last last call. About half an hour later, as we were heading into the clouds, I felt my left ear explode. On the way down it popped again.

I got the train home and vowed never to fly again.

My ear injury did at least allow me to savour the pleasures of VIA Rail travel. My 27 hour each way journey to Stellarton and back was punctuated with an inordinate number of stops - often in the middle of nowhere and for no apparent reason.

As I leaned out of the window during one of the late night stand-stills, one of my fellow passengers gave me her explanation for the delays: "It's so the VIA staff can take their smoke breaks" she suggested.

I remember wandering into the dining car a few minutes early and finding half the section closed. It was full of VIA Rail staff.

How many people does it take to run a train? I wondered. As I walked back to my cabin, I noticed that every sleeper car had a designated attendant whose job was to, well, what was their job exactly? I don't know. All I know is that every time I looked in on them (they had their own cabins) they were eating peanuts and reading magazines.

When I got out at one of the stations to stretch my legs I asked one of the staff what it was all about.

"It's a union thing," she explained.

Despite these little VIA nuances, the trip was a delight. It was slow, clanky, obscenely overstaffed, and if it wasn't for my expense account I could never have afforded the $850.00 fare, but it was a great experience all the same.

It's just a shame I didn't get to enjoy the whole thing. About two hours west of Halifax the train came to an unscheduled terminal stop.

"It's the bearings," the snack car guy explained, handing me a free cup of coffee. "Happens all the time."

Evidently it does as, on the way back, we were herded into buses somewhere east of Oshawa, because of a 'CN derailment'.

"It's not our fault," explained the VIA girl. "It's CN. It's always CN."

During the Stellarton trip I took the weekend off and headed up to Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail. Three memories from this trip stick out in my mind.

Firstly - I saw a bear! On the long and winding road into the majestic Meat Cove, I turned a corner and came face to face with a baby bear, standing in front of my bumper.

We stared at each other for a moment, while I fumbled for my disposable camera and then he, or she, darted off into the undergrowth. I sat there with the window down for a while taking pictures of the bear's retreating behind until it occurred to me that, where there is baby - there's Mummy Bear too...

I didn't stick around to wait for Goldilocks.

The second memory I have is of the sheer isolation. Being a Brit and, consequently, accustomed to lots of noise and lots of people, I have never experienced the kind of isolation that Nova Scotia has to offer.

I remember standing on a deserted trail, looking toward a dramatic vertical cliff reaching out into the Atlantic and thinking, 'that is the last piece of land until England'.

I may have been geographically incorrect - isn't there some poxy island halfway across? - but it was thought-provoking all the same and it taught me something simple and profound: I like to be alone. (My wife tells me she likes me to be alone too, I'm not sure what she means.)

For the last memory, well, you had to be there. As I settled down for the evening at some ridiculously picturesque little cove-based B&B, the owner mentioned that there was a Ceilidh going on at the local Community Centre. "Why don't you go?" he asked.

I didn't really have a good reason not to, so I set off for the little northern outpost of Dingwall where an assortment of Cape Breton's finest fiddlers and folk musicians were mixing it up.

I had an inkling of what set Nova Scotians and - the rest of us - apart the night before, at a bar in Port Hawkesbury. A one-man U2 cover band was belting out Bad and Sunday Bloody Sunday and not really going down too well with my Cod and chips until a group of middle aged ladies burst in and set the place alight.

Every time 'Bono Dave' burst into song, one of them would jump up, grab a random hand and bounce onto the dance floor. The rest of them would then heckle from the sidelines until they got fed up and joined in too - all the while laughing.

Here in Dingwall, the crowd was a little more subdued but the fun was just as contagious. At one point, the fiddle player began berating one of the crowd for her persistent song requests and suggested that she 'earn' the right to hear her favourite by getting up to dance.

So she did, she and a friend, doing a Michael Flatley while the rest of us clapped and hollered until we were sore and hoarse.

At one point in the evening when we were all well and truly exhausted from the foot stomping and clapping, one of the musicians dismissed the rest of the band, picked up his acoustic and introduced the next song.

"This is the most beautiful song ever written," he explained. "It's a father's love song to his son, as he heads off to war."

He then guided us gently through the chords of Danny Boy, a melancholy solo guitar version that will haunt me forever. At the end I had to agree that it probably was the finest song ever written - his version, certainly.

I'm sure the lady behind me, quietly wiping her eyes with her handkerchief, would have agreed too.

On the trip back, before we broke down again, I got to enjoy the company of Rick, from Hamilton, who taught me how to remove tattoos with a hot spoon. "You have to be careful not to leave it on too long," he explained, pointing to the burn marks all over his arms.

As I sign off on this little look back, it occurs to me that I'm only halfway through the year. What about my trip to England and the nightmarish hell that is Heathrow Airport? What about Blackpool with its pink streetcars, Polish waitresses and, erm - eclectic tourists?

What about my runners-up prize in the International Short Story contest and my first ever publishing contract?! And what about my recent writing course and the adventures of Barry The Bad Ass Snowman?

I suppose, in the end, there is just too much to tell. Besides, it's nearly bedtime and I'm already past the RTH deadline. Ryan will be sending one of his cronies along in a black SUV if I don't hurry it up.

It only remains for me to say, "Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Eid, and all the other holidays I've never heard of, and a Happy New Year."

Here's hoping next year will be chock full of memories too.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

0 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds