Last year, the Toronto International Festival of Authors commissioned award-winning author Alexander McCall Smith to write a short story with the support of the A. Charles and Marilyn Baillie Family Foundation that was then published as a limited-edition gift to patrons. McCall Smith, who is from Scotland has Canadian family connections, and the story, which the festival allowed The Globe and Mail to reprint, tells of the links between Scotland and Canada.
Imagine a photograph. Imagine five people in it, all in the formal, slightly uncomfortable clothes of the time: four adults and a boy of 11. And behind them is a small corner of Canada, somewhere not too far from Kingston. There is an outcrop of rock, and trees.
There is a woman, who is the wife of the man in the photograph. She is called Ethel and her husband, the farmer, is Thomas. Behind them are two young women who are not related to anybody in the picture.
They are Phoebe, immediately behind Ethel, and Minnie, standing behind Thomas. Everybody is smiling, except Alfie. The sun is in his eyes, perhaps, or the photographer has caught him at a moment when he simply does not feel like smiling.
Phoebe is known as the “Outside Girl” because she performs chores in the farmyard, cutting firewood, feeding the chickens, bringing in potatoes from the vegetable patch. Her hands are rough from physical work, unlike the hands of Minnie, known as the “Inside Girl” because her chores are mostly focused on the kitchen and the rest of the farmhouse.
Alfie is known simply as “The Boy,” Of his 11 years, Alfie had spent one in Canada and the first 10 in the Gorbals, a part of Glasgow noted for its cramped tenements and the reeking poverty they perpetuated and bred. He is small for his age – there are many 11-year-olds who are a good bit taller than he is – and he was beginning to show the first signs of rickets when he boarded the ship in Liverpool that was to take him to Canada with 60 other children. His rickets was caused by a lack of vitamin D, from a poor diet compounded by a lack of exposure to sunlight. Like a plant moved out of the darkness of a potting shed, he will grow in Canada, but when the photograph was taken he was still small.
His mother worked in a bakery in Glasgow. His father, a riveter in the Clyde shipyards, was violent and as often as not drunk when he made his way home from the pub he frequented, The Clock Bar, on Bedford Street. He would pick a fight with his wife – any issue, or none, would do – and the children would be woken to the sound of raised voices.
“One day you’re going to go too far, Jimmy,” people said. “You know that, don’t you?”
He did go too far, and Alfie’s mother was found by one of the children unconscious on the kitchen floor after a prolonged and brutal row with her husband. The police took the children and put them in a children’s home that the city ran for just such cases as this.
“You’re not going home,” the manager of the home said. “Your mother’s too ill. You’ll stay with us. We’ll look after you.”
He wondered what would happen to him. He did not mind the children’s home too much, although there were older boys there who bullied him. But that, he thought, was just the way the world was. The strong bullied the weak, and the weak, if they had any sense, would keep their heads down, keep out of the way.
At night, in the Home, he wept for his mother; silent tears, under the bedclothes, so that the others should not see. From the dormitory, with its row of 12 beds, he heard the ships sound their horns as they set off down the river; the sound echoing off the hills. It was the sound of the Clyde and he wondered whether his father could hear it too, in prison, in his cell. Did he remember them, he wondered; did he even remember what he had done?
A Church of Scotland minister came to see him. He was a young man with curly hair and penetrating blue eyes. He was from Barra, one of the outer islands, and spoke with a Hebridean accent. “I know some people who would like to help you,” he said. “Their job is to give children a new life.”
He listened. The minister gave him a soor plum, a rare treat, and he sucked at the sweet while he was told of what would happen.
“They’ve arranged for you to go to Canada. Have you heard of it? It’s an awfully big country next door to America.”
He was not sure. There was Australia; he had heard of that; he was not sure about Canada.
The minister reached into his bag. “Here, I’ll show you, Alfie.” He paused. “They do call you that, don’t they? Not Alfred?”
“Well, take a look at this, Alfie. See this? That’s a map of Canada. See how big it is. It goes all the way from one side … to the other.” The minister laughed as he paged through the booklet. “And you see this here – that’s a farm in Canada. See the wheat? See how it goes on forever. See that?’
“And this man here in the uniform: you know who he is? He’s a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – they call them Mounties, because they ride horses. They’re famous, you know. They say they always catch the man they’re looking for – they never fail.” He put the booklet back in his bag. “That’s Canada, you see.”
He plucked up his courage. “When will I go?”
The minister smiled. “The day after tomorrow. Wednesday.”
He was sea-sick for much of the voyage, and then Canada was suddenly there, hills in the distance, shapes that were light blue at first and then becoming darker and greener. They disembarked at Montreal, where they were met by a woman from the dispersal home. Alfie stood on the quay as a photographer recorded their arrival. He glanced about him.
Everything was bigger and brighter too. The sky was different and the air was warmer. There were gulls in the air, screeching; a train whistled somewhere. He thought of his mother. He wanted her here with him. He tried to remember what she looked like.
They were taken to a railway station and put on a train. They were given sandwiches and bottles of ginger beer. He had never tasted ginger beer before and it made his nostrils prickle. The woman who had met them came and sat beside him for a few minutes.
She said, “We’re taking you to a place called Brockville. We have a lovely home there.” She paused. You can call me Aunty Agnes, if you like.”
“Then we have arranged for you to go to live on a farm. I’m sure you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He nodded once more.
“The farmer took one of our boys last year – he said he was one of the best boys he had ever had. He was a very hard worker.”
He waited. Nobody had told him that he would be working. Had he been given a job? Was this what this was about?
Three days later the farmer came to collect him. He was a thin man wearing a collar with a stud but with no tie. He looked him up and down and said to Agnes. “He’ll do, I suppose. He looks thin, though. Undernourished, wouldn’t you say.”
She said, “You have no idea of the conditions they come from. Some of them live on the street. Proper urchins.”
She turned to Alfie. “Remember to be a credit to us, Alfie. And in return, Mr. and Mrs. Simpson will look after you well.”
The farmer was John Simpson. He had a horse and trap. They rode in silence the 12 miles to the farm. Nothing was said by John Simpson other than at one point when he pointed to a glint of water in the distance and said, “Nice lake over there. Good trout. Big ones.”
Then they arrived at the farm and he was shown to his room by Edith Simpson. She kissed him on his brow. “You poor little mite,” she said. “You should go and wash first and then I’ll give you something to eat. You can call me Auntie, by the way. That’s the easiest. And my husband you can call Mr. Simpson.”
The following morning he was woken early by John. “There’s porridge,” he said. “You Scottish boys like that, don’t you? Then there’s some grass I’d like you to cut. I’ll show you how.”
He worked all morning with the scythe. At lunchtime, John Simpson came to look at what he had done.
He looked at Alfie’s hands; the skin was red with the chaffing of the scythe handle. “Spit on them,” he said. “That’ll help them toughen up.”
Four days later, half way through the morning’s work, he suddenly felt tired. He lay down at the edge of the field and gazed up at the sky. He saw patterns in the clouds: a rabbit there, a hill, a bird perhaps. He drifted off to sleep.
John Simpson was standing over him. “What do you think you’re playing at?”
He scrambled to his feet. “I was tired.”
The farmer’s eyes widened. “Tired, were you? And you think you can go to sleep in the middle of the working day just because you’re tired?”
He picked up the scythe. “I’m sorry, Mr. Simpson.”
He had not expected the blow. It came quite suddenly, and connected with the side of his head. His ears rang.
“That’ll keep you awake,” said John Simpson, and turned to go back to the farmhouse. He watched the farmer retreating. He felt his right ear, where the blow had landed; it was singing with pain.
Two months passed. Now it was August, and the weather was sultry. One morning, John said to him, “You’re going to go over to Trotter’s Store today. You’re going to be working for him now.”
He stared uncomprehendingly.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Get your things.”
He was driven to the village in the cart and deposited at the general store. “Here’s the boy,” said John Simpson.
He followed the storekeeper into the store, where he was led upstairs to a bedroom at the back of the building.
“Work hard and you’ll be fine,” said the storekeeper. “Don’t steal. Don’t answer back to the customers. Understand?”
He nodded. He was frightened of Trotter. He was frightened of Canada. He had been working in the store for six months when Ethel McGregor came in one afternoon to buy clothes pegs and rope for a washing line. Alfie came out to help her; he had been making up small bags of flour from a large sack and his hands were white, as was the front of his shirt.
“My,” exclaimed Ethel. “You could be a ghost, you’re that white!”
“Flour,” he said.
“I guessed so,” said Ethel. “And I hear you can cut off a length of rope for me. And find me some pegs while you’re about it.”
He led her to a section of the store, at the back, where they kept line of various thicknesses. She chose what she wanted, and he cut it for her with the open knife they kept for the purpose. As he did so, his hand slipped and the blade cut into his finger. Immediately, there was blood, mingling with the dusting of flour still on his hands.
Ethel let out a cry of alarm. She took a handkerchief from her purse and wrapped it round the cut finger.
“That’s a nasty cut,” she said. “Can you put some gentian violet on it?”
He looked away. He felt foolish.
“I asked you,” she said. “Gentian violet? Is there any?”
He pointed upstairs. “In the closet.”
He led her to the stairs and they went up together. He was still pressing the handkerchief to the cut. It was stained red now, although the stinging had stopped. He showed her the cupboard in the upstairs hall where he knew various remedies were kept. Mrs. Trotter was a hypochondriac and there was an array of patent medicines on the shelf. She quickly found a bottle of gentian violet, and a bandage too. She dabbed the purple liquid on the cut before applying a small bandage. “This stuff kills infection,” she said. “Some people don’t believe in it, but I do.”
He thanked her, and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I slipped.”
She put an arm about his shoulder. “You’re sorry? You don’t need to say sorry.” She drew back and looked at him. “How about you tell me your name?”
He told her. She said, “How long have you been working here in the store? And how old are you anyway?”
He replied that it was six months. He gave her his age.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re 11? 11?”
“And what do they pay you?”
“They don’t pay me a whole lot. Not for the last two months, anyway. I broke some dishes and they’ve been taking money for that. And my keep – they say that costs almost as much as I earn.”
She looked about her and saw a chair that she could sit down on. She led him over and put him on her lap. He did not mind. He liked her friendly expression and the smell of the cologne she wore.
She said, “I want you to tell me about yourself. I want to hear everything. Where you come from, how you got here – everything.”
Since he had arrived in Canada he had told nobody about what had happened to his mother. Now he did. Through his tears, he told her about the children’s home in Glasgow and the voyage from Liverpool. He told her about the farm and about how the farmer had beaten him more than five times – usually for things he had not done.
She had her arms around him as he spoke. When he had finished, she brushed his cheek gently with the back of her hand. He did not mind her touching him like this. Nor did he mind when she planted a kiss on his brow, as if somehow to kiss him better.
She whispered, “Listen to me very carefully, Alfie. Can you get out of the house at night? Without anybody trying to stop you?”
“All right,” she said. “Tonight. At 11 o’clock, behind the bank – you know that empty lot? There’ll be a man with a beard called Thomas MacGregor. He’s my husband. He’ll be there with a car – a Model T. You’ve seen them? He’ll pick you up and bring you back to our farm.”
He was silent, and she guessed the reason why. “Don’t be frightened,” she said. “This will not be like the other farm you were on. I can promise you that. This will be different.”
He hesitated, and then said, “Yes. I’ll come.”
The journey did not take long. At the other end, Ethel met them when the car was parked in the shed. She put her arms about him and led him into the house. There were lamps on the kitchen table, throwing their light over the range and the pots shining on the shelves. There was a plate with a large iced cake on it and several smaller plates stacked up beside it. His eye fell on the two young women, who were standing in the shadows. They stepped forward and smiled at him while Ethel introduced him.
“You’ll be tired” said Ethel. “Minnie made a cake for you.”
Minnie moved forward to cut it. “Biggest piece for you,” she said. “To welcome you.”
“And then Minnie will show you your room,” Ethel continued. “She’s spent the last three hours getting it ready.”
“I helped,” said Phoebe.
“Of course you did,” said Ethel. “Everybody helps round here.”
Minnie said to him in the upstairs corridor that led to his room at the back of the house, “You’re going to be happy here, you know.”
“Thank you.” His voice was small.
Minnie said, “They told me you’re only 10. And you’re an orphan.”
He nodded. There were some orphans, he realized, who could still be orphans even if they had one parent left. He was not sure how that worked, but that seemed to be one of her rules.
“I am too,” said Minnie. “But I was born here in Canada – not like you. I’ve been here since I was 13. I’m 20 now. And you know something? I hope I never have to leave this farm, although if a fellow comes along and ask me to marry him, then I’m not going to say no.”
She laughed. “But that fellow hasn’t come calling yet.” She looked at him. “That’s about all, Alfred. Or do we call you Alfie?”
She smiled. “Sweet dreams, Alfie. Don’t forget to say your prayers. Remember, God Bless Minnie and Phoebe and Mr. and Mrs. MacGregor – but especially Minnie. That’s how it goes.”
They both laughed.
The farm was one of the largest in the area and one of the most prosperous. Thomas had money from a childless uncle in Ottawa, who had made money from a building firm. He had used this to buy land and equip it well. There were five hired men in the summer and fall; two stayed the whole year.
He had cried a lot. Now the crying stopped. He went to school and made friends. He worked at his letters, copying them carefully, sucking the top of his pencil as he planned the next attempt to write a perfect B or K. Minnie helped him. “You’ll be top of the class in writing,” she said. “I feel it in my bones. Top – and not all that long away.”
They took him to the doctor, who examined him and looked at his legs. “Those children,” he said to Ethel. “A lot of the children they send out are very poor physical specimens. This one … well, he’s not doing too badly. The rickets have been nipped in the bud, I hope. A few years longer back there in Scotland and …” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s never too late to improve things.”
She agreed. “It isn’t. It’s never too late.”
The doctor stood up. “You’re doing a fine thing, Mrs. MacGregor. You and your husband. A fine thing by that lad.”
They found out it was his birthday. Minnie made a cake, iced with red and yellow icing. They gave him a clockwork train with a small circle of track. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever possessed. He said, “I love this train. I love it.”
Ethel said, “Well, we love you too, Alfie. You know that, don’t you?”
He hesitated. Then he said, “Yes. I know that.” He hardly dared say more, in case his happiness should fade away. They ate the cake, and drank tea. Then a young man who had called to see Minnie said that he had a camera and would take their photograph. They went outside, where he had set up his apparatus. They sat with some rocks behind them.
“You could smile if you like,” said the young man.
“Won’t do nobody any harm.”
They grinned. Alfie did not, as he was thinking of something. But after the plate had been exposed and the photograph taken, he looked up at the sky and smiled.
About the Author
Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved authors. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles, short-story collections and a number of immensely popular children’s books.
His various series of books have been translated into 46 languages and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has now sold more than 20 million copies in the English language alone. McCall Smith has received numerous awards for his writing, and received a CBE in 2007 for services to literature and was honoured by the President of Botswana for services through literature to the country in 2011.
About the Festival
The Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) is Canada’s largest and longest running literary festival. It is a charitable, cultural organization mandated to inspire and empower audiences and visitors with a breadth of bold, ambitious, accessible and engaging literary experiences.
A Special Commission for the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Copyright © 2020, Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved
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