Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two nights, two frights

Woken suddenly from a deep sleep, I lie rubbing my eyes, my mind still half intent on catching that elusive dream salmon. What was it? Then it’s there again, BANG! And again, BANG! A sharp retort, unrecognised and yet eerily familiar all the same, an ominous sound in the dead of night.

There’s a call in the distance and then footsteps, running, coming closer. A window smashes, threats are barked out.

In the half-light I stumble out of bed and across to the window. Outside shadowy figures scuffle, no time for words now. Fists flail, weapons whirl before the combatants break in response to the growing volume of a siren approaching fast. One last sucker punch, one final swing of what looks like an iron bar and then they’re fleeing in different directions.

Within minutes the entire street outside my second floor London apartment is swarming with police cars. Groups of locals stand huddled in doorways, their faces shadows in downcast yellow of street lights, their dressing gowns evidence of a night disturbed. I crane my neck to see what has happened and further down the street I see police officers cordoning off a section of pavement where a figure lays prone on the ground. They are coaxing the people back now, into their houses, off the street, away from the scene of the crime.

Standing pyjama clad in my bedroom window for another half an hour or more, I gain no extra clue as to what has really happened. “Come back to bed,” I’m told, “You’re too nosey for your own good.” And so I retire; I lay back down, my body wanting to step back into that pool of the dream salmon but my mind has different ideas and all night I lie awake wondering, worrying, was it really gun shots that I heard?

It’s a different night but jolted from that same dream, that same stream, that same elusive salmon, by a loud crack and a scrape, I lie in the pitch darkness, a cold sweat forming on my brow. Did I hear something? Is there someone there? Can’t have been, all is silent now. But then there it is again, I hear more movement from downstairs, a heavy shuffling, CRASH, something is knocked over, a guttural groan. What the… Who the…

Urged, or rather pushed and prodded to investigate, I climb out of bed into the chilly night and blink for a moment to find my night vision. I arm myself with the heavy flashlight from my dresser drawer. The weighty metal handle feels good in my hand but my heart is still pounding, my head hot with myriad images of masked intruders, mangled bodies, all kinds of gruesome scenario gleaned from a diet of American cop dramas.

Hesitant on the wooden stairway unless a creak should give away my approach, I slowly, nervously, descend. The noises, bumps, clumps, rips and rattles still come. The intruder is either unaware or unconcerned of my impending presence.

I go to snap on the living room light but before I do I’m stopped in my tracks by a colossal figure standing at the walkout doorway. Heavy set, weighing over 400 lbs and clad in a fur coat, he turns and stares straight into my eyes for one lingering moment before going back to destroying the bird feeder out on the deck.

Two nights, two frights: how different London and Haliburton.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Driven to reflection

As I sit in the local Chevy dealership awaiting the sting in the tail - those little extras that mechanics always seem to find wrong with my aging SUV during its service – my mind wanders and I begin to marvel about driving in Canada.

Initially, ‘marvel’ is perhaps not the best verb with which to describe my thoughts because I’m recounting how many miles I’ve traveled and hence how many services my not so trusty car has had in the ten months since my arrival in Haliburton. I’ve tried to avoid these precautionary pit stops, believe me. I ignore the sticker, so kindly stuck to my windshield, which reads “next service due in … kilometres”, and I speed quickly past the dealership for fear of an accusatory finger wag from Norm and his mechanics. But, with another 10,000 kms under my fan belt, here I am sitting waiting for judgement time (receiving the bill) again.

I’ve racked up a good 50,000 kms since I moved to Haliburton. This may not sound a particularly high rate of clicks to the seasoned Canadian motorist but coming from a land where car manufacturers advise a service every 18,000 kms or once a year, which ever comes first, it’s quite an achievement. And, to a fellow who hadn’t owned a car for a decade before moving here, it may as well be to the moon and back!

You see, I believe it’s all about perceived distance: what you think is a long drive; where you think far away is; how long you’d travel for an hour’s visit with your grandma. The answers given by English and Canadian folk would be worlds apart, I guarantee.

To give an example, my mum often pops for coffee with her friends back in Blighty; it’s a five minute, 5 km drive. Popping over for a coffee with a friend in Haliburton County can mean driving 50 km each way!

My English friends gasp when I tell them of traveling 230 kms into Toronto for a meeting. They practically call me a lair when I state that it takes over a day to drive west out of Ontario. They can’t imagine the 4400 km schlep from Toronto to Vancouver. Why? Because it’s further than driving the entire length of the UK, three times. That’s why!

English folks, you see, picture English distances when talking about driving. They also think of English traffic, which never bodes well for pleasant discussion. The UK is a small island with far too many folks living on it. Every one of them seems to own a couple of cars and has the ability to drive both at the same time, or so it seems on highways overflowing with traffic.

It’s a fact that in London the average speed of motorised vehicles is 6 km/h, and I’m not talking about golf carts. Every road trip from my London apartment was an ordeal. With gritted teeth and furrowed brow, I’d slide reluctantly into the driving seat of my rental car and no sooner had I reached the end of my road than the first fist waving obscenity strewn interaction with another similarly embattled driver would take place. No one gives an inch in London, let alone offers to allow you to turn in front of them into the crawling line of traffic: no matter that cyclists sail past the almost stationary cars and a pensioner walking an aging three legged terrier has just overtaken them.

There are good roads in the UK. Beautiful twisting turning lanes amidst patchworks of quintessentially English countryside: hedges and trees growing tall either side, sometimes curving over to create sun dappled tunnels of foliage. The trouble is they are few and far between and to get there you inevitably have had to negotiate a spider’s web of traffic clogged suburban streets while verbally abusing every second driver you have had the displeasure of making eye contact with.

In contrast, here in Canada driving is a pleasure from the moment I leave my driveway and that’s a good job too because there’s a hell of a lot of driving to do. I am still getting used to ‘distance’ and Canadian ideas of what it constitutes, though, so don’t be surprised if I turn up for that quick coffee with you, suitcase and sleeping bag in hand!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Footsteps in the snow

So beautiful after it’s just fallen, a pristine white blanket of snow is something that no artist could capture the full beauty of, no writer could describe with any real justice. So, why the hell am I trying? Hmmm…

But the fields, shrouded in twinkling white crystals, untouched, unsullied, don’t stay that way for long. Before a night has passed there are telltale reminders of the nature that we live amongst. Tiny and not so small footprints crisscross the fields, gardens and laneways. They come out of the bush, seemingly out of thin air, and melt away again not with the thaw but through and between low-slung branches, thickets of thorns, places where all but the most intrepid of naturalist sleuth would baulk at following.

And, it is these magical, mysterious night-time visitors that have so captured my eye in my first real winter in Haliburton. While walking the streets of London had its own moments of investigation for an inquisitive tracker: the telltale pools of vomit from bar exit to home doorstep; the trail of garbage and kebab meat scraps left by after-pub feeders; even the hoots and hollers of teenagers in heat, there wasn’t much that could be described as anything other than the detritus of human society.

Here, on the other hand, the opposite is true. Yes, I see the tracks of skidoo enthusiasts weaving curvaceous patterns across the lakes. Yes, I see the enthusiastic treads and subsequent down-hearted shuffles of the ice fishermen (as so eloquently described recently by a fellow columnist); yes, I witness the slithered slides of cross country skiers moments before excitedly glimpsing such an athlete and then being rebuked for walking on the ski trail! But these human interventions are a mere sideshow to the myriad evidence of nature in beautiful Haliburton County. Tracks, tail drags, wing beats, delightful frolics and deadly encounters, all are captured and preserved in ice cold imprints.

And, it was these animal tracks that had me in their spell early one morning as I padded round my garden testing out – for ‘testing out’ read ‘stumbling around in’ – my new snow shoes. Amidst the dawn mist were signs of a visit by two deer. The muskrats had been busy scuttling along the shoreline; their tiny footmarks divided by the drag line of a scaly tail. A mob of those unruly blue jays had left quite a scrum of prints around the deer food. And, our friend Nutkin the squirrel had been busy too, his bounding hops dot-to-dotting patterns between the spruce trees.

And it was then that I saw them. Big tracks. A trail close into the bush at the bottom of the garden. Paw prints, really fresh and of such a size that my heart pounded suddenly faster and my head spun round instinctively looking for their maker. My brain had already gone into overdrive; one part of it conjuring all kinds if red in tooth and claw scenarios, another telling me to calm down because hardly anyone ever sees a wolf.

I stood up straight and smiled, my breathing slowing to its regular pattern: “Like following the spots of blood after that fight in London,” I chuckled to myself, reminded of a time past when that same heady cocktail of fear and excitement had gripped me. And it was then, just then, that said cocktail came flooding back. Ahead, just 40 feet perhaps I spotted a large shape through the alder brush.

I stopped in my tracks – those tell tale tennis racket shaped ones, interspaced with large hollows and flailings where I’d fallen over – and so did the creature I shared this early morning with. I couldn’t make out its features clearly. I couldn’t do anything. I simply stood rooted to the spot staring, my breathing sounding like a steam train in my ears, my heart beating a tattoo in my chest.

Then it moved. It came at me, bounding through the alder thicket. I tried to turn and stepped backwards, which is always a mistake in snow shoes, and promptly fell over. Panicking, I struggled on to my back and came face to face with the wet muzzle of our next door neighbour’s German Shepherd, Brewzer!         

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Home and away

The Outsider is back ‘outside’, so to speak: currently returned in the land of my birth, doing my duty and taking little Z to see his grandparents. And, as was to be expected we are being right royally fussed over. "Another cup of tea, slice of cake, dear? Is it warm enough for Little Z? Do you want me to make you a sandwich? Should we put a sweater on him, or take one off? How about another cup of tea…" and so it goes on.

Families are wonderful things, even if we don’t realise it or appreciate it at times. And, undoubtedly the hardest thing about my upping sticks and moving to Canada was the decision to leave family, and to wrench a grandson away from his then newly infatuated grandparents. However, family bonds are strong: VERY STRONG! Both sets of grandparents have already visited us in our new home. These trips, I wholeheartedly encouraged in order that they could experience just why we felt the need to fly so far from the coop. But grandma, give your newly Canadian son-in-law a break! I’ve seen more of the mother and father in-law since we absconded than I did when we lived virtually next door to them in Blighty.

Our trip is predominantly one of family time: shuttling between grandmas’ homes, being smothered in the type of hospitality that only ladies of a certain age can muster. But, in anticipation of and as an antidote to said family love, our vacation is bookended with stays with the Londinium sophisticates, the friends we left behind when clearing out after 15 years in the metropolis.

And, as the saying goes, ‘when in Rome…’ We’ve already dined in a ridiculously expensive restaurant, the proprietor of which now makes his living swearing on TV. We’ve sampled wines so smooth and complex that a country as young as Canada can not hope to produce something as refined, just yet. And, the cheeses, oh the cheeses. The pungency of these soft slices of soured milk, the aroma wafting from the fromagerie door… Most were French, I admit, but purchased in a deli local to a chum’s doorstep. I almost wept at their taste. We’ll visit museums, too, and perhaps take in the theatre. Oh, and we’ll shop: tis a vice that my lovely wife succumbs to when afflicted by any large city.

However, as we relax after a hard day enjoying ourselves - slumped in a stupor, part alcohol induced, part knackered from chasing Little Z around the Tate Modern attempting to ensure he didn’t add a mark of his own to the Rothkos, Twomblys and Hirsts - I can not help but think of the fields and forests of Haliburton, bundled in a thick fluffy quilt of snow. I miss the growing familiarity I enjoy with Haliburton Village and its friendly inhabitants. Most of all I yearn for the view across the Burnt River that I stand gazing upon each morning when I rise in my Canadian home.

Love it as I do, London and England can not compete with the more rough-and-ready charms of Canada and Haliburton County. Your wine may not be as refined as the European vintages and the good cheeses in Canadian stores – the speciality ones, not the giant slabs of fluorescent plastic that masquerade as my favourite sandwich filling – are more expensive than gold but these are small prices to pay for the fresh air that I taste each morning when I wake in Haliburton; the view from my window; the opportunities to sit in a small hut on an icy lake and catch nothing… OK I kid about that last one.

I’m enjoying seeing my family, reacquainting myself with British friends and sampling the delights that only a city like London can offer. But amidst it all I look forward to returning to the freezing temperatures and warm hearts of Canada.

See you all soon.