In the name of democracy, they commit crimes against humanity
By Carl Dow
He looked like James Cagney. But that’s only what Helen Bell was first to notice, not what ultimately attracted her. It was his energy, his quick wit, his apparent strength and courtesy, and his dynamic public speaking.
The context wasn’t the stuff of the current Hollywood romance, where the families of white-collar workers live on a half-acre manicured estate in a twelve-room house with a live-in maid and an ageless mother/housewife who is always dressed as if she’s on her way to visit the doctor. Here was a shanty town with no running water, where unhappy, angry veterans and their new families crowded for whatever shelter they could get while a larger society was freeing itself from fighting a war and was late in fulfilling some of its promises to those who had successfully fought it. Helen was there as a freelance reporter. She saw in Ernie a story worth following, so she made it a point to get to know him.
Ernie was an active-service army veteran but not one who had gone overseas. His age, (the far side of twenty), the fact that he was fluently bilingual, his affable personality, quick smile, and quick wit to solve minor complications before they became problems, saved him from the challenge of live ammunition. His superiors found in him a man given to discretion and therefore safe enough to have around. It was not long before he was given the rank of corporal and assigned personal driver to a colonel who also would never have to duck enemy fire. The colonel was assigned to head up a camp hard by the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall, Ontario.
Ernie did as he was told quickly and efficiently. One of the things he was told most, aside from driving, was to solicit young, clean women for the pleasure of the colonel from without army ranks. Emie shrugged it off as merely meeting a man’s needs, and besides, the colonel always made sure that Ernie got a piece of the action so that when it came to women at least, it was never one but two. So who could complain?
But Emie complained very hard when the security and available resources like cars and quarters, if not high pay, were suddenly exchanged for no pay, no quarters, and no prospects. His meager discharge bundle quickly spent, soon found him in a veterans’ squatters’ settlement near the air force base. He was married to the sister of a soldier he had met briefly during the war. The soldier liked to say he was the last of the last: he was last to join, he was last to get on the ship to England, he was last to enter the landing barges that crossed the channel to Normandy, he was last to get off, and he was the last of his regiment to enter Germany. Ernie found him amusing and found his sister as charming as she was beautiful and a wonder on the dance floor. Now they had a child and were living in a fetid slum. Ernie felt outrage and he spoke out.
He went to shanty and tent and told the veterans and their wives that they were being ignored, that unless they made themselves heard they would continue to be ignored. He said the government was made of lawyers and men of commerce and that it only listened to lawyers and men of commerce — the powerful. He said that the only way the individual veteran, the jobless, and the homeless, could make themselves heard was if they formed an organization that was large enough to speak with a voice loud enough to make the government listen.
Ernie was an effective speaker one-on-one, an effective speaker in small groups, an effective speaker before an audience of hundreds and more. Although he had had only a grade eight education Ernie was well and intensely historically and currently read. Included in his reading material were both the French and English daily newspapers that totalled three in his area, and such magazines as Time, Newsweek, and US. News & World Report. Before the war, in Montreal, he had absorbed a dose of argument by the vociferous Michel Chartrand, a French-speaking Quebec leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the political party founded under the leadership of the evangelical W.S. Woodsworth. By listening, acting and reacting, Ernie became imbued with a sense of class and the need for those who worked for wage or salary to organize in their own interests.
Working her camera as well as her pencil and pad, Helen managed a few hard news and human interest stories out of the tent-and-shanty slum. For awhile it seemed as if it were becoming her unofficial beat. During this time she began to win the confidence of Ernie and the small core of veterans who had gathered around him. She knew she had to contend with a reluctance to take a woman seriously, and she did her best to play down display of gender while not deprecating her sex as did many women then in the news gathering field. It was a thin line but she succeeded. She was nicknamed, as men will nickname those they like, and it wasn’t surprising that when she appeared she would hear several for a time, but soon it settled down to something no more imaginative than “Here comes Hell’s Bell”. Because they liked what she wrote in the paper that still boasted its Liberal allegiance on the masthead, she was allowed to sit in on the sessions of the leadership council made up of the more active members of the core. That’s how she came by her scoop.
It was Ernie’s idea. His argument was simple: because airmen were headed for civvy street as fast as they could be discharged, the barracks at the air base were emptying out faster than flies at a barn fire. Why should those who needed housing deprive themselves of it? A delegation went to the Department of Defence headquarters where they were coldly received and brusquely told that their plea would be given due consideration. Ernie concluded that they could wait months, even years, before the bureaucrats would move, if ever. So at a meeting of the squatters’ council, he proposed that the next day the council should lead the charge and urge a march on the barracks to take possession.
Some argued in favour of waiting a few days, but Ernie said no. If they waited there would be the inevitable stool pigeon who would squawk and this would give the pencil pushers time to organize to prevent the occupation. He said they should go from this meeting from tent to shack throughout the compound and spread the word of the plan of action. But that this should not be done until one a.m., three hours before dawn on this June night. Helen, breaking with the theory but not the practice of the journalism of the time, asked if she should hold the story for the afternoon edition.
They all looked at Ernie. He thought but a moment and said no. It would be useful for the story to break in the morning edition. The more who knew about it the greater the strength of the squatters because they could count on the support of veterans beyond the camp, and of public sympathy for veterans who should have been better treated by the government. Anyway, the newspaper’s morning edition wouldn’t hit the streets until two hours after the occupation had begun.
Helen had a room in a centre-town rooming house. She went there to write her story, the lead of which read:
This morning 200 angry veterans frustrated by red tape marched out of their tent slum and occupied abandoned barracks at the RCAF base.
The lead was five words longer than the ideal eighteen words or less. So she worked on it for about ten minutes until she came up with what satisfied her:
This morning 200 angry, frustrated veterans and their families abandoned their tent slum and occupied empty RCAF barracks.
That’s it: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
No. That’s not it. It doesn’t say how. Back to the pad. After several attempts she sat back and read:
This morning 200 angry veterans and their families marched from their tent slum and occupied empty RCAF barracks.
Yes! That did it!
Who: 200 veterans and their families.
What: occupied empty … barracks.
Where: Local air base clearly implied.
When: This morning.
As usual, once the lead was final, the rest of the story fell into place in the traditional inverted pyramid. She began her second paragraph:
Frustrated by red tape, the veterans who have sent several delegations to both city hall and the defence department, decided that they had to act in the interests of their wives and children.
And on she went for three takes at two-hundred-and-fifty words per take. She would have liked to have written seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand words, she was so taken with the cause of the veterans, but she knew the desk would probably even cut that which she had written, even though they’d be sure to use it on the front page and maybe even as the line story. She knew she was pushing the deadline for the morning edition. She didn’t have a telephone in her room and there was none downstairs in the foyer. It was 1:15 after midnight. She had fifteen minutes left to deadline.
Helen took her unlocked coaster bike from the porch and pushed the pedals hard. She was only five minutes away from the newspaper building. As she rode she approached a telephone booth and considered stopping to phone-in her story but decided against it. By the time she found a nickel, by the time the phone was answered, by the time she could talk it over the line, the fifteen minutes would be burned up and her scoop lost to the afternoon editions.
Two blocks from the newspaper her front tire popped like a slapped air-puffed paper bag. With a whimper she managed to stop without falling. She pushed the wounded vehicle against a post and ran as fast as her pumps and flared skirt would allow. She arrived on the editorial floor at 1:28, breathless but triumphant.
The night city editor, in shirt sleeves, and green light shade, looked up with bored sleepy eyes. He liked this eighteen-year-old cub reporter and had more than once told her to find an occupation more suitable to women. This business, he had said, was made up of drunks, skirt chasers, and perverts, it was no place for a decent woman. Now he looked at her like a worried father. He asked who was chasing her, what she was doing out at this ungodly hour.
She smiled in practiced deference before this icon of her chosen craft and waved her story, telling him that she had a real scoop. With an indulgent shrug of his lips he took the three takes she offered, briefly studied the lead and two or three of the ensuing paragraphs, looked at her sharply and told her the simple truth that news is not news until it happens.
Her face fell. She said she understood that; but that she just knew that it would happen. That she had been there when the decision was made. The decision was final. There would be no turning back. She just knew it. Besides, the morning edition wouldn’t be out until after it had happened. She looked at the clock: it was 1:32. The deadline had passed. She stared at the man in whose power she was and repressed the urge to get down on her knees and beg. If she missed the morning edition, her scoop would be everybody’s story by the afternoon. She argued that the story could still hold if it was rewritten to say planned — that was it! use future tense instead of past!
He shook his head, and reminded her of the deadline gone and that anyway he couldn’t send down to the stone copy that was written in pencil. He asked her why she hadn’t phoned it in, or why she hadn’t come in earlier to bang it out on a typewriter. She didn’t want to say she didn’t want anyone to squeal to the cops or anyone; she knew that would sound foolish, so she said nothing, her head hanging and her hands hanging loose by her sides.
The man studied her with only the slightest suggestion of an empathetic smile. He had not forgotten what it was like to be a young reporter. He pushed away from his desk, walked toward the table with hot coffee and cups, filled one and brought it back with milk in it and three sugar lumps in a napkin. He told her to take the coffee and go sit at an Underwood and hammer the keys. He said that to use the planned angle would only justify a couple of lines somewhere inside. What she had, when it happened, was definitely front-page, above the fold. He said her lead was good and that she should stick with it. He said that he would send a photographer and a reporter to the base at dawn and that he’d put her byline on the story as soon as she turned it in. Then he told her to hurry because he wanted to get home. She asked him if she should wait and go with the photographer.
He gave her a long stern look with admiring eyes. He told her she couldn’t be everywhere at once and gave her a lecture on learning how to pace oneself. More often than not hotshots burn out like shooting stars. If you want to stay in this business, he told her, you’ve got to learn to break `em first, break `em hard, sharpen your ear and eye so that you’ll always have new ones to break, but never forget to get your sleep and to eat well, and above all keep alcohol at arms length. Alcohol will rob you of your energy, your self-confidence; your self-respect, and your will to live. Always write sober. No one writes better when they’re drunk. Anyone who says he does is bullshitting.
She stood there holding her coffee in one hand and her pencilled papers in the other. She was amazed at the outburst. She had never heard anything from him before, other than grunts, and the occasional barked order. She knew that by saying what he had said he was giving her his approval and his encouragement to fight to stay and thrive in the newspaper business. She was glad her hands were occupied, otherwise she might not have resisted the temptation to throw her arms around his neck and hug him. He was tough/tender/intelligent, the kind of man who at once excited her mind and her libido.
She walked her bicycle home and repaired the tire before heading for bed. To her surprise she did manage to sleep until noon. She quickly worked her way through the shower down the hall and into street clothes to the nearest corner store to buy the first afternoon edition. She felt almost in another world and chilled to the roots of her hair as she saw the six-column photograph and read the bannerline in 60 bold:
Veterans abandon tent slum to occupy empty RCAF barracks
And there was her byline: By Helen Bell.
She crushed the paper with a suppressed squeal, then opened it wide again. Her mind hummed. Out of the humming came the challenge: Follow up! She dropped a dime and took three newspapers, smiling over her shoulder as the clerk offered up her penny change, telling him to keep it. Back in her room she tossed the newspapers on her bed, put a fresh film in her camera and was back on her bicycle, heading for the RCAF base.
The entrance to the base was awash with military police, the RCMP, city police, newspaper and radio reporters and photographers and a gathering crowd of all ages. Helen tried to nose her bicycle through the line of frowning uniforms but she was stopped with a huge, firm hand on her bicycle bars and told that she couldn’t pass. She said she was with the press. No she couldn’t produce a press pass but she had other identification, including a driver’s license. No good. She was aware that the pressure on the handlebars was increasing, forcing her to take a step backward.
Baffled, she complied. She knew she had been naive to think that she could just waltz into a newly, illegally occupied site. It made sense to withdraw to the periphery and develop a new plan of entry. She knew already that she had a story in the uniformed blockade but it was weak, like so? what’s new? Besides there were other reporters she knew from the three newspapers, and the photographers. Helen had been around for a year since she had been bored out of high school. She knew most of the working press. She also saw that there were busy photographers there taking plenty of shots who were dressed more like businessmen than the press.
“Helen!” came a shout. She spun on her heel. It was Ernie in a pre-war Chevy. He leaned over and opened the passenger door, beckoning her furiously. He was in his army uniform. She set her bicycle against a post and sat in the passenger seat, breathless with excitement. She was both pleased and disappointed to see Ernie. She asked him how he got out? didn’t he go in? what was he doing leaving the scene of battle?
He smiled and waved her to silence. Yes he had gone in, leading the way. The monkeys had the front gate sealed tight but the circumference of the base was full of holes, one of them large enough to even drive this car through. He said they had just got word that the Military Police and the RCMP were mustering to club their way in to arrest the leaders and force the squatters out on the street. He said he was heading for reinforcements and he knew where to find them.
At a quiet intersection in the east end Ernie stopped at the head of a convoy of what Helen was to learn were army surplus three-ton right-hand drive Ford army trucks. There were seven of them. Ernie had a quick meeting and was back in the car. Ernie was obviously preoccupied so Helen said nothing. She was right in the middle of it; she’d learn soon enough.
The parade of vehicles went from tavern to tavern. At each Ernie went inside, stood on a chair, and told those at the tables that the bulls were going to invade the squatters in force and every able bodied man was needed to stop them. Most of those soaking up beer were veterans. It wasn’t long before the trucks were filled with indignant men, some of whom were already slapping pieces of wood against open palms. Standing crowded, each truck, with their stake bodies, held about twenty-five men.
At the top of the hill overlooking the entrance to the base, the men debarked and formed ranks. And, by-the-left, they marched down the blacktop toward the well-guarded gate. Ernie drove ahead, Helen still with him.
With light touches of the horn, inching the car forward he drove through the parting crowd until nothing stood between its nose and the uniforms of the police and the military. Ernie shut off the car and took the key with him. He was grinning broadly as he approached a military police lieutenant. Helen stepped right with him because she didn’t want to miss a word. Ernie told the lieutenant, while a furious but silent mountie hovered at the latter’s shoulder, that he was speaking on behalf of the squatters. That the squatters were worried that there might be violence, so they were bringing in their own support to maintain the peace. With a thumb over his shoulder he indicated the two hundred in perfect formation marching down the hill toward them.
“We’ll guarantee there’ll be no trouble while we negotiate a settlement with the authorities.”
The military, RCMP, and city police leaders stepped back for a brief conference. Helen could see the fury on their faces but also that they had to acknowledge the obvious. Even with their clubs and guns they were no match for the contingent that marched toward them. This was not a mob coming; these were disciplined men trained to kill. The lieutenant returned to Ernie and, with a frozen face that barely hid his hatred, he said that the exchange of force at the gate would do for now and until tomorrow morning but then they would have to leave. Ernie wasn’t about to offer gratitude. He shrugged and said that tomorrow would be another day. At their leaders’ command the uniforms fell away from the gate and the newcomers took over. In triumph Emie drove through the gates to the cheers of his new supporters.
Helen Bell wrote her story and could hardly sleep in anticipation of the next morning’s bannerline with her byline. But hers was not the line story. She was to learn as time passed that she had already had had the last byline she’d ever get.
Mayor Claims Communist Ringleaders Behind Raid On RCAF Barracks
Helen’s scalp, neck, and ears burned with shock and indignation. The byline held the name of Bill McGraw, one of the seasoned reporters, who was old enough to be her father. She charged in on him as he sat as his typewriter, to protest, to tell him that she knew all the leaders. None were Communists. He said Communists didn’t wear announcements on their foreheads. Anyway, what did she know about Communists. Was she one?
Helen’s face fell slack. She told the McGraw not to be stupid. Of course she wasn’t a Communist! But so what if she was! The Red Army was a hero factor in the defeat of Nazi Germany. But what did he know about Communists? He said look Sister, reminded her that he was a bit longer in the tooth than she was, and did she remember how the Communists opposed the war back in 1939. They were traitors then and they were traitors now. If she knew what was good for her she should stay away from them.
Stay away from whom? she wanted to know. She insisted that the leaders of the squatters were not Communists. If Communists didn’t wear signs on their foreheads, how was she to know who was a Communist and who was not! Should she stay away from everyone who was good for a story!
She was aware that she was talking loud enough to qualify as a shouter. She looked up and away from McGraw and saw eyes throughout the newsroom quickly avert on embarrassed faces. Helen suddenly felt very alone. Trying to recover, she lamely thanked McGraw for his time and advice. As she walked toward city desk she could hear behind her the keys of his typewriter furiously clapping the paper on its roller.
At city desk she stopped to ask if there was an assignment for her. The day city editor gave her a tree planting story. She asked about following up the squatters. He shook his head without looking at her and said no, that it was being covered like a blanket, and that there was no need for her to stay with the story. She took the tree planting assignment with heavy heart and covered it the next day. She filed it and it was buried inside without her byline. She shrugged that off: it wasn’t worth a byline. She tried several human interest angles on the squatters which were accepted but never used.
Meanwhile, the squatters, with outside veteran and public support, held firm and during the ensuing days negotiations resulted in the government yielding and agreeing to allow them to remain in the barracks until suitable new veterans’ housing became available. Ernie called a press conference to announce satisfaction with the arrangement but the press, apparently content with the government handout, didn’t come. Ernie, it seemed, had suddenly become non-news.
About three weeks later, the reporter with whom she had had the argument knocked on her door at the rooming house. He apologized for approaching her unannounced but said he couldn’t find her telephone number. He said a reporter should at least have a telephone. She said she wasn’t sure she was a reporter any more. She wasn’t getting any freelance assignments, and whatever she produced wasn’t being used. He waved this away, saying that it happens, other priorities will crowd out stories; there was only so much space. He invited her to join him for a coffee. She accepted. They went in his car to a hamburg joint just outside the city nearby the falls at Hog’s Back.
Over coffee he told her that she showed promise as a good reporter and had a good future. There was a good chance she would soon be hired on staff. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she asked if he was serious. He looked very serious as he nodded and said that this is what the city editor had been saying just the other day. Well why are they giving me the cold shoulder? He shrugged again and glanced down at the flame he was putting to a cigarette. He said it was this Gouzenko thing, and everyone’s super sensitive about Communist spies. Her scoff revealed the full extent of her incredulity. She asked him if he thought she was a Communist spy. He said of course not. Neither did anyone else. Then, in a voice that suggested he was changing the subject, he said that a friend of his, a policeman, was following up the matter of the squatters’ raid on the RCAF barracks. Would she talk with him? It was just a matter of getting the facts straight for a final report. Routine. She wanted to know what kind of policeman. He shrugged and he said RCMP. She smiled and asked if he looked like Nelson Eddy. He smiled back and said as much as she looked like Jeanette MacDonald. She felt better and it was her turn to shrug. She couldn’t see what harm it would do, so she agreed. The reporter looked relieved and pleased. He said he’d set up a time and place and let her know.
A trickle of minor assignments ensued at the newspaper but Helen knew she was no longer the mascot of the oldtimers. They were busy-polite. Gone were the warm greetings and the smiles, and the invitations to coffee, lunch, and beer. Something had happened. It was difficult for her to understand; all she had done was produce a front-page scoop and argued with McCrraw. It wasn’t the first time there had been a shouting match in the newsroom; hell, there had even been fist fights and wrestling matches in anger. All those produced only friendly gossip.
Three weeks after her coffee with McGraw he turned up at her door again all serious smiles and with what her bright mind concluded was feigned affability. It made her feel uncomfortable, but she wasn’t sure why. McGraw said his friend in the RCMP would like to talk with her on Thursday, two days from now. Would she be willing to join him for dinner. Her instincts prompted her to say no; but she had already committed herself and she didn’t want to appear skittish. Her reputation as a reporter spooked the background of her mind. She felt she was allowing herself to be led into a trap. Her adrenaline soared. She felt flushed. She hoped it didn’t show. She said yes, Thursday would be fine. Where?
McGraw’s smile reflected triumph born of satisfaction that was hardly masked. He gave her the name of a restaurant in the city’s leading hotel. So expensive that before now she’d only gone there to use the posh swimming pool and sauna after being prompted by the example of her father, a blue collar worker, who went there for both, and a massage.
The facilities were intended only for hotel patrons, but no thing and no one, daunted her father. Of him, she now only had memories because in France he had caught one with his name on it.
She walked into the massive foyer of the hotel and had barely a chance to look around before a tall, burly man with a mustache, and in a business suit, approached her with an official smile. He called her Helen Bell and introduced himself as Sergeant Boivin. He said that he had a table waiting and hoped she didn’t mind that another would be sitting there with them. Helen was five-foot-four, the man seemed to be at least a foot taller. As they moved along the hallway toward the ground floor restaurant at the east side of the hotel, Helen was trembling inside. It was the result of a surge of adrenaline the manifestation of which the ignorant often mistake for fear. Helen was not afraid. Her parents had protected her innate self respect until she was old enough to look after it herself. Her self-confidence was built on the unqualified love she had from her parents, and on a myriad of victories, most of them small like term and final exam marks, and fixing her bicycle’s flat tire, to major ones like scoring a front-page bannerline scoop.
As they approached the round table with its gleaming white table cloth, polished silverware, and candleholder complete with candle and quiet yellow flame, the man at the table stood up and bent his neck toward her with the same kind of smile the first one had. His right hand kept close to his vest to prevent a napkin from falling to the floor. He also had a mustache. He was as tall as Sergeant Boivin but more narrow at the shoulders and carried less weight. He said he was Sergeant Legault. She soon learned that these men were not just RCMP. They represented the RCMP Security Service.
Since Legault was across the table she didn’t bother to hold out her hand. Boivin ushered her into a chair so located that when he sat down he was on her left and the other was on her right. She was unable to see both men at once, causing her to turn from one to the other each time she or one of them spoke. She saw it as a manipulative ploy but dismissed an impulse to disrupt it on grounds that there was little point in revealing to them the extent of her acumen.
In forced humour they joked about it not being Friday and therefore they wouldn’t have to eat fish. Legault prompted her to one of the night’s chef’s specials, filet mignon. Helen had grown up on ground beef, pork chops, and liver through the week, and on chicken every Sunday, supported by potatoes from baked-to-pancakes. This fare was supported by plenty of in-season vegetables, and oranges and grapefruit when they were available through the winter. They ate well, but not expensively. She had never even heard of filet mignon. Now she was about to eat it.
During the dinner they complimented her on her line story about the squatters. They told her she had a good future in the newspaper business. They wanted to know how many Communists were in the leadership of the squatters. What?!? You just have to give us their names, we’ll take care of them. What!?! These people are agents of Russia. No. They’re just squatters who want decent housing. That’s what they seem to be. That’s what they are! Well, if that’s what they are, tell us about them. Tell us their names and tell us what they like, what they do, what they say.
By now they were past desert to coffee. Legault had ordered cognac to go with it. Helen was furiously shaking inside. She held her hand over her coffee cup for a moment that was no longer than a just discernible pause before she picked it up. She marvelled at the fact that her hand was as still as stone. What a contrast between how she felt and how she appeared. Her father would have been proud of her. She wouldn’t let him down. She wouldn’t betray her own self-respect. These men were looking for nothing more nor less than a stool pigeon. These men wanted her to act as judge and jury on persons whom she had befriended, on persons whose confidence she had won, on persons who had learned to trust her. These men wanted her to decide on who to betray, and who not to betray.
They told her she would be well-paid. They said Sergeant Legault would be her contact. That they could meet here, in this restaurant well away from the riff-raff, once a week, at this very table, and she could report on what she heard and saw. Finally, sure that she had her voice under control, she quietly took a long breath, then said her father had fallen in France fighting Nazi Germany, that for five years she had been listening to war stories on the war and on Nazi Germany and what the Gestapo got children to do against their parents what she was now being asked to do by the RCMP. To what radios had they been listening? What propaganda had they been swallowing all this time? Hitler’s?
She saw that her challenge hardened their attitude; their thin masks of courtesy faded. They told her that our country faced a greater threat than Hitler ever was. That communism was the real enemy. They reminded her of Gouzenko and the spy ring he had exposed, and the blockade of Berlin the Russians had just imposed. Their job was to root out the Communists no matter where they are, and if she was a loyal Canadian she would do what she could to help.
Helen lost all patience. Loyal Canadian. She was sorry sick that she had been so stupid as to talk with these men. But now that she was here she told them that if they were so worried about Communists in that rat-infested squatters village, they should do what they could to find them decent housing. Why, in their minds, did protest against intolerable living conditions make people Communists? How could these poverty-stricken people be a threat to anyone!
They said nothing. She looked straight ahead, sensing that they were exchanging meaningful glances. Then Boivin spoke. He asked her if she was a Communist. Even with the level and intensity of the conversation her adrenaline level had by now subsided almost to normal but the absurdity of the question prompted such a renewed surge that she virtually bounced in her chair and looked from one to the other with mirthful contempt, as if they were standup comics making a bad joke.
Are you crazy! With all your snooping around, you must know better than that! They shrugged and told her that there were secret Communists. She could be one of them. Helen momentarily lost her capacity to speak. These were grown men, dressed like sober businessmen. Neither of them had anything to drink in her presence except for the post dinner cognac. She wasn’t drunk. How could be they! But they were talking silly. As silly as ever she did hear. Are you guys through? She told them that she wanted to leave.
Boivin asked for a couple of minutes more. She shrugged. He said if she wouldn’t tell them about the politics of the squatters, would she be willing to do that about real Communists who are hiding under the name of the Labor Progressive Party. Would she join the local branch of the LPP and tell them what was going on. She beamed at the ironic humour and told them that now they wanted her to become a Communist. It followed that if she did, then they would have proof that she was a Communist. She told them that they were sounding crazier by the word.
Legault did not look at her as he spoke, he looked directly at Boivin. She ping-ponged from one to the other and saw frustration and hatred. Legault was saying that this was no laughing matter. The Communists were planning the violent overthrow of the country, and that they were being financed by Moscow. If she wasn’t one of them, if she was a loyal Canadian, she would co-operate; if she wouldn’t co-operate, she must be one of them. And if she was one of them, that made her a security risk and the least the RCMP SS would do to her was make sure that she’d never be able to hold a full-time job.
“Go to hell,” she said, pushing her chair back as she picked up her purse from the floor and stood to leave, “You guys are trying to bribe or blackmail me into becoming a stool pigeon! You guys make me want to throw up. Go find someone else to play in your slime!”
They looked at each other. Boivin’s smile was a sneer; Legault’s chuckle was devoid of humour. They agreed without speaking that Helen Bell would go on their permanent security risk list, to be dealt with accordingly.
And so it was that Helen found the local newspapers closed to her. It was simple. The tree planting stories evolved into sorry, nothing today, accompanied by averted eyes from the city editor and others, and from still others knowing glances tinged with pity, embarrassment, or scorn. When she determined to dig on her own, producing copy that she knew, by her experience, were in keeping with the newspaper’s standards, she was told that a new policy had been ordered, payment on use, no longer on acceptance. Her stories were never used. At the other papers she couldn’t even get started. Night after night she read and reread her bylined bannerline piece and others under her name as if to draw courage from it by reminding herself that her earlier growing success was not a dream. Only her current rejection was a nightmare.
One Sunday at the park, she was sitting on a bench staring at the diamonds glittering on the surface of the ten-acre artificial lake, when her erstwhile night city editor ambled into view with his wife and three young children. The adults were carrying a lunch basket, a bag, and at least one blanket. Clearly, they had come for a picnic. Occupied as he was with his family he did not see her until she called out to him as they were passing, heading for the shade of a nearby tree. His smile was uneasy but he asked her to wait a few minutes, saying he’d like to talk with her. She shrugged as her breath caught and her pulse quickened. Ever the eternal optimist she wondered against hope that he might have some good news. She watched as he laid out the blanket and his wife knelt to open a bag with a ball and a bat and sent the children off to play. She watched as he rocked toward her, a burly man who would have looked more in place shoveling coal than at a city desk.
He didn’t waste time talking as he sat beside her. She sensed he wanted to put an arm around her but resisted with a frown. He told her he knew she was having it rough. The SS had been to the publisher and the editor and told them that upon investigation they had concluded that she was a Communist, saying that she had refused to co-operate in their investigations of her and others. The publisher didn’t want the scandal of employing a Communist so the word was out not to even use her copy, never mind hiring her.
The RCMP tell us to tell you that your work isn’t good enough for the paper. Here he paused for emphasis, and that your major problem is that you don’t get along with people.
Her mouth popped open. He held her silent with a raised hand and a look that indicated he knew full well that the accusations were false. He said no one believed them and no one was about to play parrot. He said he couldn’t tell her what to do. She knew better than anyone else what she must do. But he advised her that she might as well forget newspapering in this town because she was blacklisted and there was no point in breaking her heart by trying.
She told him she loved the business. That she wasn’t a Communist. That they wanted her to play stool pigeon but she couldn’t do that. She’d rather be dead than do that. After all, her father had given his life against that kind of thing. Despite herself she began to cry softly, not wanting to attract the attention of his wife. The children were absorbed playing tag, having abandoned the ball and bat to their incompetence and therefore to boredom. Now he did hug her as he glanced at his wife whose smile was empathetic (for she knew the story) and waved them over. He asked Helen to join them. She swiped at her tears with thumb and forefinger and looked toward his wife and saw the welcoming smile.
No thanks, she said, I’ve made fool enough of myself already. I think I’d better go home. Thanks for your advice. She picked up her bicycle and without a glance back, she headed out of the park toward home.
Helen gave up on her newspaper ambitions. She applied for work in the federal government. She wrote an exam. She was hired immediately and assigned to work in the Department of Tourism. Here she sorted forms signed by Americans who crossed into Canada. The forms simply revealed names, addresses, visit destination and planned duration of stay. She found relief at the prospect of stability given by her clerk’s income, and the companionship of those who worked with her. At noon of her ninth day in haven, her supervisor took her aside and told her that he was dismissing her because her work was too slow and she wasn’t getting along with the other employees. She felt as if a rock had suddenly appeared in her stomach. She recovered enough to take the streetcar downtown, eat an egg salad sandwich with a cup of coffee then went directly to the government hiring offices and took the test again, from personnel who happened to be other than those with whom she had dealt two weeks before. She called-in two days later, as instructed, and was told that she had been hired and that she should report to the Department of Agriculture) where she would be assigned to run an addressograph machine. With a sense of reserved triumph, she started work on a Wednesday. The following Tuesday, five-and-a-half working days later, she was taken aside by her supervisor and told that she was being dismissed because she didn’t get along with her fellow employees and because she was too slow. Her pay cheque, like the last time, was ready for her. She went to her rooming house and lay in bed for three days, too numb to even cry.
And so it went, from job to job, no matter how menial, the RCMP SS were one step behind her and she always ended up on the street.
There were other things too. She would leave her bicycle on the porch so that the front wheel was pointed toward the stairs. In the morning, she would find the front wheel pointed away from the stairs. In her room, a calendar would be moved six inches to the right or left, a photograph of her parents would be tilted one time to the right, another time to the left. A book she had left on the dresser she would find on her pillow. These events and many more like them would be exercised on each Thursday. If she remained at home on Thursday, she could count on something like this being done on the following Thursday. At first she thought she should remain in her bed for 24 hours on Thursday, but she couldn’t do this because she had to go out and find work. They were always at her in these ways, with the relentlessness of that Chinese water torture she had read about.
She knew they were trying to break her. But she knew that the price they would demand was that she should become their stool pigeon. And this she could never do. Not on my father’s grave, she would tell herself again and again. They’ll have to kill me first. It wasn’t long before she stopped confiding in friends and family. There was an anticommunist noise in the country. Those who did not join in the savagery kept quiet out of fear. While many began to avoid her, there remained a hardcore of family and friends who did not reject her. But they offered no help. She sensed that even they did not believe her complaints of systematic psychological torture that included employment deprivation. They apparently concluded that there was something wrong with her. One even suggested her complaints were like that of a paranoid-schizophrenic, and that perhaps she should seek help. They tolerated her out of sympathy and loyalty to their past relationship. Even in their company she felt very much alone.
One day, three years later, she decided to look up Ernie. She found him living with his wife in a flat that opened up onto a hardpacked dirt backyard. There was a brand new car outside the door. When she knocked, his wife came to the door and let her in. Ernie was lying on a sofa that had outlived its life, reading US News & World Report. A floor model television set was against the wall to her right as she entered. A floor lamp was over his shoulder. The floor was covered with worn but clean linoleum. His wife, looking tired and tense, excused herself and went back to finish the dishes. He didn’t ask her to sit down and lay where he was. There was no sparkle in his eyes. No humour lines on his face. He looked worn and defeated.
“I couldn’t take it any more,” he said in a flat voice with just a suggestion of a self-deprecating smile, “They wouldn’t even let me keep a job as a truck driver for the city. I couldn’t work anywhere. They removed the bolts from the front wheel of my car and I saw it rolling down the road ahead of me. I was lucky I didn’t panic. I held steady and straight and the car came to a safe stop. They were knocking on my windows at night. They drilled a hole in the bottom centre of the gas tank. I had to replace it. They drained the oil and I had to find another motor at the wreckers. They have all the power and I have nothing. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Helen had to remind herself not to allow her mouth to fall open and slack. She just stared at him saying nothing. She wanted to say, I know, Ernie, I know. She wanted to tell him what they had done to her. But she felt as if he wouldn’t be listening anyway. She would be talking to a vast empty desert that was once lush with life. He never asked her what she was doing, what was happening in her life. He only asked her if she would read to him. Unprepared, she returned a quick nod, and he gave her a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. She sat near him, in a straightback kitchen chair, in the light of the lamp, and said that she would read for ten minutes but then she would have to go. He acknowledged this with a flash of a wan smile and an almost imperceptible convulsion of his right hand. When she began reading, she felt as if she were reading to a corpse. When she left, her mind humming with shock, she wondered only briefly about the new car that was parked outside his door. She was to see Ernie only once more.
Geraldine, a high school friend, had become a medical doctor. Her father was an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Health. With this connection Geraldine was assigned to an investigation of the effects of asbestos on miners. Geraldine moved to Montreal and took an apartment as her base of operations, commuting to and from the site of her research, a distance of a round trip of one hundred miles. In the interval, Geraldine met and married a high school teacher. They moved to Ottawa with a three-month possession still left on their lease.
The one bedroom apartment was empty except for a bed, a kitchen table, two chairs and a live telephone. When Helen heard about it, she asked Geraldine if she could use the apartment until the lease was up. Helen thought that by moving to Montreal she might get a fresh start in journalism. Geraldine agreed without hesitation but told her how bare it was, not even curtains. Helen packed a bedroll, a small pot, a plate, a knife, fork and spoon, then closed-out her room.
At Union Station she saw that she was being overtly followed. The RCMP Security Service were relentless in their persecution. On the train, she took time out to go to the canteen for a coffee. When she returned she saw that one of the metal clasps on her backpack had been undone. The man who was following her was in the smoking section. He stared at her face-frozen. At Central Station in Montreal she shouldered her gear and headed for the bus stop. She was familiar with Montreal. With only one transfer she found herself a block away from her destination on DeLippe Street, a block north of Shrerbrooke. In the foyer of the apartment building, smoking a cigarette as he looked at the list of residents, was the man who had been on the train. Grim-faced, Helen concluded that even here they would give her no peace.
Her apartment was on the second floor, overlooking a parking lot. As she unpacked she felt a jolt as she heard a knock on the door. She clenched her fists, took a deep breath and opened it. Looking down on her was the man on the train. The man in the foyer. He feigned surprise and said he was looking for a Miss LeBlanc, that he had come to fix her refrigerator. Yeah, sure, thought Helen. All the way from Ottawa. She said no, she wasn’t Miss LeBlanc and shut the door. She ran a tub with water as hot as she could stand it and forced herself to settle in, knowing that the heat would help her relax. She clenched her eyes as tightly as she could. It was clear that they’d never leave her alone unless she agreed to play their game, to work for them as a stool pigeon. Her head trembled with a rapid succession of tiny negative shakes. She’d rather die first. She wanted to cry but wouldn’t let herself do it. They probably had the place tapped and she wouldn’t give them that satisfaction.
The next morning she was on the telephone to the city editors of the three English language newspapers. Women in journalism, aside from characters who tried to act like men or who worked in the women’s section, were just coming over the horizon. At the Montreal Men’s Press Club in the Mount Royal Hotel, women guests were not allowed to order drinks or to stand at the bar. Helen was a little early. She was advised to call the women’s editors. She was told there were no vacancies but that she should send in a resume. Not even an interview. Helen assured herself that the brush-off had not been the work of the SS; for all their persistence they couldn’t move that fast. It had been only thirty-six hours between her moving being discussed with Geraldine and her arrival. Following her overtly and harassing her was one thing because it was routine, but blacklisting her at Montreal newspapers before she even arrived was hard to believe. And so she didn’t.
But she had to find work. She spent twenty-nine cents of her last dollar on a package of spaghetti which would be good for seven filling meals. She didn’t want to waste money on sauce so she settled for salt. So it was spaghetti for her last meal of the first day and spaghetti for breakfast: Then she walked down to St. Catherine street and the restaurants there. The downtown restaurants were employee-filled. Some took her name and telephone number; but most didn’t. She worked her way east, being rejected through the French-speaking reach of the street, until she reached Nick’s Diner, a greasy spoon by outward appearance, in the working glass district in the shadow of the giant Jacques Cartier Bridge that spanned the St. Lawrence River. It was two p.m.
There was a bar with about a dozen stools. On her right there were three booths that could, in a squeeze, seat six persons each. In the booth at the back, two men were sitting over coffee, used plates and cutlery, having an animated conversation in French. Behind the bar, mopping the top with a damp cloth, was a burly man about forty, with powerful arms. Helen asked if he needed any help. She no longer asked for work as waitress or cook; anything would do. He had glanced at her when she entered but now stared at her intently.
“What you do?” he said in a thick Slavic accent.
Helen was hungry and exhausted. She shrugged with face, head and body. Her voice was thin. “Anything you want.”
He looked at her again, locking eyes with her. “You hooker?”
His scowl softened. “Sit. You hungry.” And he indicated with his thumb over his right shoulder the menu cards edge-to-edge along the abutment that overhung the back wall against which were everything from fridge to deep fryer and stove tops.
She told him that she had no money. That she was looking for work. Did he have any? He told her gruffly to sit. First eat. Then talk. Maybe I got something for you. She hesitated. He said bacon, eggs, beans and toast. House specialty. Sit. Eat. As he was speaking he filled a cup with coffee and placed it and milk from the fridge in front of her with an index finger indicating the location of the sugar on the counter. She noticed that despite first appearances, the place was highly organized and clean. As he cooked, and then as she ate, he explained that he served two meals a day. Breakfast and lunch. The afternoon was taken up with stragglers the last of whom usually cleared out by four o’clock. Clean-up was after the main lunch crowd had gone, so that that which was necessary because of the stragglers could be dealt with by five o’clock when he turned the closed sign toward the sidewalk.
She ate quickly. He watched her with folded arms and nodded with approval. Fast eat. Fast work, he said. You have to be here by five in morning. Where you live.
She told him where. He shrugged and told her the Montreal bus system was very efficient, that she could set her watch by when the bus would be at the stop. But don’t be late, he warned her, because if she was late the bus would leave. He told her that from where she lived it would take her a half-hour to get to work. By five. Could she do it? She said she would. Good, he said. I get girls in here. They stay up all night then can’t get here in the morning. They work a few days, a week, maybe two, then they quit. My girl, today didn’t show up this morning. I was all alone. She came late for lunch. I told her to go away. I no need her. Then you came in. You look like good girl. You start tomorrow. It was more of a command than a question. She was on her second cup of coffee and she nodded with a grateful smile. He sent her home with two smokemeat sandwiches and two bus tickets.
She left Nick’s Diner in high spirits. There was something comfortable about his gruff frankness. Her elation thinned abruptly as she headed for the bus stop. Across the street from the diner were two men in an unmarked car. One of them was he who had followed her from home, on the train, intercepted her at Geraldine’s apartment building and knocked on her door. They both stared at her with smug faces. Oh God! Are they going to ruin this for me too!
She expected them outside her door when she arrived home but there was no one around. Inside she discovered that the small pot in which she had cooked the spaghetti had been moved from the stove to the table just outside the tiny kitchenette. She took another hot bath and then, exhausted, fell asleep, entirely forgetting that she had no alarm clock.
Nick was as busy as the proverbial one-armed juggler when she arrived, two hours late. With faint heart and wide-eyed embarrassment she started to explain but he abruptly waved away the excuses, telling her to put on an apron and assigning her to take a tray to one of the tables by the window. Her heart in her throat, breath short, she obeyed and remained sharply alert for what remained of the breakfast rush. At least I’ll get some pay for today, she told herself, putting a positive spin on the disaster. Until noon she covered the cash, the coffee stragglers, and the coffee breakers, leaving Nick to make preparations for the lunch crowd. She worked anxiously, while trying to remember to smile at the customers. Nick worked methodically at what he could do in his sleep. Except for what was necessary for the functioning of the diner, Nick didn’t speak to her until they were wrapping up for the day.
“Here,” he said, holding a large brown paper bag out to her, “eat supper and be on time tomorrow.”
Knowing that she was not to be replaced, at least not tomorrow, she gave him a quick smile of gratitude and took the bag. It was only on the bus that she looked in the bag and saw that aside from two smoked meat sandwiches and two dill pickles wrapped in wax paper, there was an alarm clock with a terse note: “She be old but she be work.”
When she got to her apartment door, she tensed against the expectation that her tormentors had been here while she was at work but she saw that there was no sign of surreptitious entry. She ate her meal and took a warm bath. She went immediately to bed and glanced out at the parking lot which never seemed full. Most residents, she decided took advantage of the city’s excellent urban transit system and the proximity of the building to the downtown night life. Why support a car when you don’t need one? As she curled up on the bed and again glanced at the window she also decided that she’d buy some curtains for the window, even if she was only to stay here for three months. However, as tired as she was, her sleep was at first fitful because she learned to her chagrin that her bedroom wall was against both the stairwell and the elevator shaft, and that there seemed to be no sound insulation against both. She was to learn later that the same was true of the one above, and that there was none to speak of between her bedroom and the one directly above.
The alarm clock worked and so did Helen. By Friday afternoon they were a happy couple. But the good feeling between them remained strictly Platonic. Helen was relieved that he was satisfied to keep it that way, not because of his age, he being at least old enough to be her father, but because she was afraid another kind of relationship could endanger this island of peace and security she had finally found. Still, if his friendliness had become warmer, she fancied she might give herself to him not only out of gratitude but because she was sure she could find pleasure in yielding to his gentle, good humoured combination of strength and tenderness. However, he never put her in a position of having to make a decision and they moved from day to day and week to week and month to month in a working relationship that grew in mutual confidence and respect.
Meanwhile, the RCMP SS attacks on her peace of mind continued systematically. Once a week, always on a Thursday, they would enter her apartment while she was at work and leave evidence that they were there. Nothing new. Just more of the same. The invasion, the injustice, the cruelty, the malice, took its toll. For several days before the scheduled attack she would steel herself for it; for several days afterward, she would work to get rid of the tension. Hot baths helped. Crying helped, but never at home because she was sure her place was wired and she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But she was determined never to surrender. She would lose all her self-respect if she did. Let them do their worst. At least she’d be able to look at herself in the mirror with pride.
One snowy day during the post lunch lull, about an hour before closing, the man who had openly harassed her on the train and later, came into the diner and sat at one of the stools, ordering a coffee with a patronizing mien. Helen had had her back to the counter so she hadn’t seen him come in. On hearing his call for coffee, she reached for a cup and saucer and filled the cup. When she turned she was so startled by his near presence that she paled as if she had been struck and dropped the cup and saucer, making a mess on the floor. Nick had been watching. He paid the man no attention, and sent Helen to the back and out of sight on an errand that would keep her there for about fifteen minutes. He served the man his coffee and cleaned up the mess. The man took about ten minutes to finish the coffee, left a tip the size of the price and took his exit.
Nick cleaned up and shut down by himself. When he was done he went into the back and found Helen sitting on a box her face filled with sorrow and tear stained. When she saw Nick she made a helpless gesture with her arms and said she was sorry for making a scene. Nick was direct and wanted to know why the man had disturbed her. Helen, even though fearful that he would react the way others had done, concluding that she was mentally ill, poured out her heart and life story. Nick was silent throughout except when she faltered. Then he encouraged her to go on. I won’t play their game, she said finally. I won’t be their stool pigeon. My father gave his life so we could be free, and yet these bastards on government payroll want to take my freedom away and make me betray my friends, people who trust me.
“Summonabitch,” Nick growled in his thick accent. It was the first time she had heard him swear. “Go sleep, Helena. Next time he come. I fix.”
He came one week later at the same time. Nick took off his apron while telling Helen to watch the cash. He walked around the counter and jabbed his forefinger at the man’s shoulder. “You come outside,” he said.
The man flexed his shoulder. “I came for a cup of coffee. You don’t serve me you break the law.”
Helen saw Nick’s face transform from impassive to fury. With a roundhouse slap, he hit the man’s shoulder, causing him to swivel on his seat and face Nick. Nick seized him by the collar and lifted him out of his seat and hurled him against the door. As the man fell back stunned, Nick yanked him aside, opened the door, and pushed him out without letting go. The man, who was a head taller than Nick, tried to fight back but in blinding movements of hands and arms, Nick caused his would-be adversary considerable damage and left him a crumpled, writhing, whining heap on the sidewalk slush.
“You never come back shveenya! You come back I kill you!”
The man was loud in impotent rage, “You broke my arm you son of a bitch! I’ll get you for this you son of a bitch! You can’t do this to me you son of a bitch!”
Nick was steady, breathing easy, feet set apart, left slightly forward of the right, ready to handle any counter attack. “I kill plenty Germans in war. I kill you if you bother girl again! You stinkin’ bum. You should be shame youself. Go now or I give you more!” Snuffling with rage, the man twisted to his feet, his right arm hanging. A man across the street in a parked car got out and started toward them. Nick, his voice in a huge bellow of fierce taunting, asked him if wanted his share. If so, come and get it. But the man had seen what had happened to his companion and came only so far as to help the latter to get into the car. Once both were in, they sped off Helen was amazed. She reminded him that only he of all the people to whom she had told her story of systematic persecution had acted on her behalf. Most shunned her. Those that didn’t concluded that she simply paranoid. The kinds of things she complained about were symptomatic of a paranoid schizophrenic. And anyway, the RCMP were above that kind of behaviour. Why, she asked Nick, after they had settled down for a coffee when the diner was closed for the day, did others not offer to help in any way, never mind by the example he had just set. He shrugged.
“Most people scared. They think you crazy. They no have to help. Then they have no guilt. They think you crazy, they sleep at night. They eat well. They think you not crazy, then they feel guilt. They feel shame. But they still scared. It just like that.”
She cried a little. He told her that not everyone had the strength she had. Some people are born frontline fighters, just like her father, just like her. Some people could be trained. But most people just don’t have it. So you take from them whatever support you can get, even if they prefer to think you’re crazy. Some help is better than nothing.
She asked him if he was not afraid they would harm him because of what he had done. He said he was caught in England when the war with Hitler broke out. He joined the British Commandos. He was well-trained and during raids across the channel and points along the Mediterranean, including his homeland, Yugoslavia, he had killed more than a dozen Germans in hand-to-hand combat. He was not afraid. He was sure the RCMP SS would not take him to court because, if they did, the man he’d beaten would have to explain why he was in the diner, to say nothing of where he worked. He said men who did such work were born cowards and bullies. There was no difference between the RCMP SS and the Hitler SS. They just have that kind of mind. Anyway, he said with a chuckle, I carry lots of insurance. If they were to kill me it would make my wife and kids very happy. She knew he was joking and she came to him crying and laughing and put her arms firmly around his neck.
Helen worked at the diner for the next two years. She was well liked and well tipped. Nick gave her a better than average salary for her work. Altogether she was able to make enough money to renew the lease on the apartment in her name and to supplement the sparse furnishings with things that pleased her eye, including new curtains. She got used to the noise from the stairwell and the elevator through her bedroom wall. After all, the stairs weren’t used all that much, and most of the elevator traffic in this adult building was over before midnight as working people went to sleep. She was never again bothered at work. And the man Nick had beaten never pressed charges. The systematic psychological torture, however, continued at her apartment, once a week, always on Thursday while she was at work. In time she began to harden to it, so that the apprehension she felt lessened along with the time of concern before and after the inevitable day. She deeply resented it though and wrote letters to the Solicitor General and to members of parliament she thought might be sympathetic. But all she got in return were letters saying that a check with the RCMP SS confirmed that there was no foundation to her claims. Liars! Of course I don’t expect them to admit it! But why don’t they stop it! Is it wrong to refuse to be a stool pigeon? Does this make me a security risk?
The psychological torture continued relentless as time and the tide – every Thursday while she was away at work. On one Thursday when she was down with a cold and close to bed, they came at night and flashed a light three times at her window and then with a sweep against her bedroom curtains as soon as she shut off the light to go to sleep. She lay back clenching her fists. They’ll go away soon and I’ll have peace for another six days. Meanwhile, she wrote letters to the city editors of the newspapers but got no reply; when she followed up with a phone call she was cold-shouldered. She managed to find some magazine freelance work but these were hard to do because of the hours of her day job. Besides the twenty-five dollars she’d get for each would not be enough to live on.
When Nick announced that he was selling the diner and moving back to Yugoslavia with his family, she thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. The new owners had other ideas for the location and their ideas did not include her. Helen found herself out on the street, cut off from her haven. It was a hot July night when a forlorn Helen waved goodbye to Nick and his family from the berth where the ocean liner was docked. She had lost the best friend she’d ever had. He had asked her to go with them. She thanked him for the offer but she didn’t want to leave her native land. She promised to write.
Feeling more alone than ever before, she spent the next few days wandering around the city so full of life, but having no life for her. On Thursday, she was steeled for another attack but none came. She decided that she would not look for work until Monday. She wrote another letter of application for work as a reporter. This time she sent it to the managing editor of the afternoon daily, pointing out that she was writing to him because she had failed again and again with the city editor, saying that she would be happy for any kind of work, even as office boy. It was Tuesday when she mailed the letter.
Sunday evening she read in bed for a couple of hours and then turned off the lights. She cuddled herself and was settling in to sleep when the elevator started up. She knew it had to be about one in the morning. Must be someone drunk coming home late. She waited for it to stop. But it didn’t stop. It went to the top, stopping at each floor. Then came back down the same way. And up again. And down. Up. Down. Then on the other side of the wall at the stairwell opposite where her head lay, she heard a harsh, metalic ratchet sound. Something that pulsated like a jack hammer but not nearly so loud was being pressed against the wall. It stopped. Then just when she thought they’d gone away, it started again. And so it continued. The ratchet. Silence. The ratchet. Silence. The ratchet … It was paced so that each time she had hope that it was over the grating sound was repeated. She could hear a man in the apartment above her roll over in his bed with a muttering of curses. Then it stopped for longer than the usual set of time. She waited twice as long and then allowed herself to become convinced that they had gone for good as the elevator fell silent. So this was their new game. She shook her head in disbelief and anger but finally went to sleep.
Helen knew from years of experience that the RCMP SS attacks were regular. It was not difficult to conclude that she was only one among many who were persecuted in this way. These attacks were thought out and controlled. After all, a force could not have their agents performing acts of systematic psychological torture whenever they pleased. Talk about an oxymoron. There had to be discipline. There had to be a pattern. Timing, like the Chinese water torture, was fundamental to the process. She braced herself for the next night but nothing happened. So she concluded that, if they’re not going to do it daily, then they must plan on doing it on a weekly basis. That would mean that they would be back next Sunday night. Sunday afternoon she went down to the concierge’s office and politely complained that on Saturday night, after midnight, some kids got into the elevator and were running it up and down. The concierge said he would put a guard on it tonight.
Helen read until past one in the morning. She turned the light out but instead of getting into bed, she moved in the blackness of her room to her window. She had shut the curtain in such a way that there was a gap between it and the window support. Through it she had a good view of the parking lot and of the back entrance to the building, which was a set of about a dozen stairs well lit by an overhead light. In the black and gray of the parking lot she could see someone get out of the passenger side of a car parked several rows back of the building near the swimming pool. The man, who walked quickly toward the entrance, had a familiar gait. When he started down the steps in the full glare of the light, Helen’s eyes widened in stark disbelief. It was Ernie, still looking like James Cagney, but pale, grim, and haunted. Within thirty seconds, Ernie came back out, obviously after having observed the guard by the elevator, and walked quickly up the steps. In the palm of his left hand, now fully exposed to her, was a ball the colour of stainless steel. The ratchet! It saddened her to know that it was Ernie whom they had broken to the extent that they could force him to do their dirty work against her. How devoid of any human feeling he must be to have surrendered himself to this role.
“Oh Ernie!” she said, pity rising from the depths of her soul, “What have they done to you!”
This story is fiction but is based on facts as revealed by victimes of RCMP Security Service activities conducted entirely contrary to the letter and spirit of Canadian law and tradition.
In 1984, the Fedreal Government under Prime Minister Pierre Elliot trudeau, against a background of exposed dirty tricks by the Security Service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), passed an Act of Parliament that removed intelligence activities from the RCMP.
This story is only one of 11 included in Carl Dow’s collection of short stories and novelettes, The Old Man’s Last Sauna, which is available in both print and e-book editions.
Until December 24th, 2020, a signed copy of the first edition is available for only $10 (plus shipping). For those living in the Ottawa area, free delivery may be available. Please click here to buy a copy or to learn more.