from A Squandered Life / Flight Out '68

So Long and Thanks....

While I was working in Jerome's crusty dusty cellar, he happened to visit with Irene and a woman friend of hers. I could see them peering through the swirling clouds of aerial debris, clearly aghast at the mess I appeared to be making. As I stood there in my dirty sweaty T shirt with a bandana over my mouth and nose, I had no idea that Irene's friend, introduced to me as Berta, was getting turned on. She was a small pale dark haired beauty of Polish extraction and immediately struck me as attractive, older, and well out of my league. Jerome huffed and puffed a bit as if the mess was of my making when clearly it was his accumulated rubbish and neglect I was dealing with. The women just seemed saddened by my plight.

Berta appeared on and off throughout the rest of my stay in Montreal, either at Jerome's or at Irene's or our place, but always in Irene's company. We had on and off chats and I grew to like her quiet wit and charm. I told her I was going back to St John's in a few days, not to return to university but to see friends and then fly on to Europe. After a few encounters, in a rare moment of being alone together, I jokingly suggested she should hitch-hike with me to Newfoundland and then fly back. To my utter astonishment, she agreed. I simply couldn't believe this shining heart thumping blessed good fortune, but she appeared to be serious. She worked as a librarian in a local university and next time we met quietly informed me that she had arranged some time off. I was absolutely giddy with delight and anticipation.

In due course, amid suggestive winks and comments from Henry and Jerome, Berta and I set off for the east coast. It was already November so it was getting cold and the daylight was getting short. We took an overnight train as far as Quebec City, and planned to get on the road in the early morning to maximise day time usage. Up to this point, we hadn't even kissed. Apart from the fact that we hardly knew each other, it wasn't something either of us felt comfortable doing in the presence of friends and family at home, and the overnight train wasn't a sleeper. We just sat up and talked about everything but what we both knew would be the inevitable outcome – a warm and naked embrace in a hotel bed somewhere down the line.

Hitching for a man is always easier in the company of a woman. With Berta it was a breeze. We made good progress across southern Quebec and into the Maritimes. In some town somewhere we found ourselves in a darkened square with the snow falling gently. We went into a hotel on the square and proceeded to sign in. I'd never signed in with a woman before and suddenly realised I hadn't a clue as to the legalities. Would they kick us out if we weren't married? I bumbled and with a short sideways glance to Berta I fluffed through signing us in as, yes, Mr and Mrs Smith. Why does my mind always abandon ship when its presence is most needed?

Ensconced in our room, alone in private for the first time, we flopped on to the bed and kissed and embraced and fiddled with each other's clothes. “Just a moment” she said and disappeared into the en suite. Moments later she reappeared completely naked and proceeded to divest me and drag me under the sheets. “You've no idea how much I've wanted this.” she said but I was certain it couldn't have been more than I did. She was a little disappointed that I was still relying on good old “withdrawal” but, that apart, it was a blissful night and a long morning before we checked out.

The hitching became even more fun as we now had full license to kiss and embrace and generally grope each other between rides. Our “young love” must have been infectious. A truck driver asked for permission to raise “a personal question” and, having received bemused clearance from us, further enquired, “Are you two running away?” Berta said, “No, we're just on a short holiday”, but I couldn't resist asking him how old he thought we might be. “I would say you're about 20 and she's about 18,” he replied. “Close,” I said as Berta, who was just under forty, quietly glowed with delight. He felt very protective and urged us to “be careful” when he dropped us off at the turn off for Cape Breton Island.

Our next ride took us to the northern tip of Cape Breton and, as the ferry port at North Sidney hove into view, I had a familiar rush of recognition. We clambered aboard and prepared for the crossing by finding a row of sit up seats and spreading out sleeping bags. It was a rollicking ride and Berta struggled through that winter voyage on the verge of sea-sickness. But despite the sleepless night we made it across intact and negotiated a ride shortly after we put in at Porte aux Basques. We set off in a small van full of fish nets and lobster pots by a small wizened man through a grey rising dawn with snow piled high on the road sides.

The weather worsened by the time we found ourselves looking for our next ride much later in the day. Snow was falling quite heavily in a darkening muted world. Traffic was thin and rides hard to come by but we eventually got a lift from a single woman in a large car full of children and baggage. “Can you drive?” she asked, so I got behind the wheel in the front while Berta climbed into the back. The car reeked of that slightly greasy aroma one associates with impoverished households blended with hints of child poop, but it was a ride and it was warm.

Too warm as it turned out. I found myself driving through the muffled hinterland with increasingly heavy eye lids. The warmth of the car, the rhythmic sweep of the wiper blades, and the sleepless night on the ferry were conspiring against me. The conversation petered out as everyone else appeared slowly to doze off. I fought my concrete lids until I saw an idyllically cosy-looking snow covered cabin with small golden glowing windows across an expanse of virgin white pasture. I was just beginning to wonder how I could get across that pasture when I heard my name being called and awoke with such a jolt that I hit my head on the roof of the car. I desperately grappled with the wheel as the car swerved and swung back and forth across the dark and soundless road. With adrenalin ripping copiously through my veins I brought the car under control and slowly realised what had happened. I'd been momentarily fast asleep and Berta, watching me from the back seat, had grabbed my shoulder and called my name. With my heart thudding like a series of doors slamming, I took stock. We were still on the winter road. The woman and her children were still fast asleep. Berta and I made eye contact through the rear view mirror, our respective expressions of horror clearly visible to each other. Fortunately, that jolt kept me effortlessly awake for the rest of the ride and we were able safely to hand command of the vehicle back to the now waking mother as the forgiving dawn began to break to the east.

We carried on through that day's winterscape without further mishap and stopped the following night at a motel for another night of sin and relaxation. A few good rides the next day and we were standing in front of a hotel in central St John's. We checked in and left our bags and I then dragged Berta through the familiar haunts of the harbour and the town. We went up to the university and strolled through the corridors. I occasionally saw acquaintances and nodded but, in that short span, I didn't come across any of my friends. Later, back in the town, we bumped into Hardy Sparks and John Kelly, older graduate students from Doyle, who wondered where I'd been for a year. We had drinks and they invited us up to their flat but we opted for going back to the hotel. Berta was flying back to Montreal the next day and we wanted to max our time together.

In the morning I awoke to an empty bed. My first thought was that Berta had slipped away to get to the airport on her own, but her bag was still there. Moments later the door opened and there she stood with a tray of tea and toast and candles and a wrapped present. She came into the room smiling and quietly singing “happy birthday”. Sure enough, she'd checked my passport and I was officially 21 that morning. I felt so at home and comfortable in that hotel room with Berta that I couldn't bear the thought of leaving. But the clock ticked inexorably and before long we were in a taxi to the airport. Such sweet sorrow as they say, but it ain't funny. I stayed near her as long as I could, and then stood like a fool waving to the unresponsive plane as it taxied out on to the runway and reached for the sky. She flew out of my life like a visiting angel on a brief mission of redemption.

I stayed that night at John and Hardy's flat. “How old was she?” asked Hardy. “Guess”, I said. “She looked about 19 or 20, but I couldn't tell”, he responded with a glance towards John. “Well she's older than you Hardy”, I said, feeling vaguely pleased but at the same time sick to my stomach as I imagined the next few days without her.

I hung around the town and the campus for the next couple of days, finding some old buddies and not finding others. I had a long chat with Drinkwater, my old swimming coach, who it transpired had since married the ice beauty proctor of the Bowater women's residence. He counselled me against taking another year off. “You'll never come back,” he said, “You'll never finish your degree.”

With these words ringing In my ears, I went back to the airport the next day, destined for the far flung Isles of Britain. As I was swept upwards through a heavy mist, I watched the snow and Newfoundland and Canada and my idiot Canadian boyhood drop away further and further below the wings of that charmed and silvery craft.

© 2012 Deacon Martin

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