“War,” by Timothy Findley
That’s my dad in the middle. We were just kids then, Bud on the right and me on the left. That was taken just before my dad went into the army.
Some day that was.
It was a Saturday, two years ago. August, 1940. I can remember I had to blow my nose just before that and I had to use my dad’s hankie because mine had a worm in it that I was saving. I can’t remember why; I mean, why I was saving that worm, but I can remember why I had to blow my nose, all right. That was because I’d had a long time crying. Not exactly because my dad was going away or anything—it was mostly because I’d done something.
I’ll tell you what in a minute, but I just want to say this first. I was ten years old then and it was sort of the end of summer. When we went back to school I was going into the fifth grade and that was pretty important, especially for me because I’d skipped Grade Four. Right now, I can’t even remember Grade Five except that I didn’t like it. I should have gone to Grade Four. In Grade Five, everyone was a genius and there was a boy called Allan McKenzie.
Anyway, now that you know how old I was and what grade I was into, I can tell you the rest.
It was the summer the war broke out and I went to stay with my friend, Arthur Robertson. Looking back on it, Arthur seems a pretty silly name for Arthur Robertson because he was so small. But he was a nice kid and his dad had the most enormous summer cottage you’ve ever seen. In Muskoka, too.
It was like those houses they have in the movies in Beverly Hills. Windows a mile long—pine trees outside and then a lake and then a red canoe tied up with a yellow rope. There was a Native man, too, who sold little boxes made of birchbark and porcupine quills. Arthur Robertson and I used to sit in the red canoe and this man would take us for a ride out to the raft and back. Then we’d go and tell Mrs. Robertson or the cook or someone how nice he was and he’d stand behind us and smile as though he didn’t understand English and then they’d have to buy a box from him. He certainly was smart, because it worked about four times. Then one day they caught on and hid the canoe.
Anyway, that’s the sort of thing we did. And we swam too, and I remember a book that Arthur Robertson’s nurse read to us. It was about dogs.
Then I had to go away because I’d only been invited for two weeks. I went on to this farm where the family took us every summer when we were children. Bud was already there, and his friend, Teddy Hartley.
I didn’t like Teddy Hartley.
It was because he had a space between his teeth and he used to spit through it. Once I saw him spit two-and-a-half yards. Bud paced it out. And then he used to whistle through it, too, that space, and it was the kind of whistling that nearly made your ears bleed. That was what I didn’t like. But it didn’t really matter, because he was Bud’s friend, not mine.
So I went by train and Mr. and Mrs. Currie met me in their truck.
It was their farm.
Mrs. Currie got me into the front with her while Mr. Currie put my stuff in the back.
“Your mum and dad aren’t here, dear, but they’ll be up tomorrow. Buddy is here—and his friend.”
Grownups were always calling Bud “Buddy.” It was all wrong.
I didn’t care too much about my parents not being there, except that I’d brought them each one of those birchbark boxes. Inside my mother’s there was a set of red stones I’d picked out from where we swam. I thought maybe she’d make a necklace out of them. In my dad’s there was an old golf ball, because he played golf. I guess you’d have to say I stole it, because I didn’t tell anyone I had it—but it was just lying there on a shelf in Mr. Robertson’s boathouse, and he never played golf. At least, I never saw him.
I had these boxes on my lap because I’d thought my mum and dad would be there to meet me, but now that they weren’t I put them into the glove compartment of the truck.
We drove to the farm.
Bud and Teddy were riding on the gate, and they waved when we drove past. I couldn’t see too well because of the dust but I could hear them shouting. It was something about my dad. I didn’t really hear exactly what it was they said, but Mrs. Currie went white as a sheet and said: “Be quiet,” to Bud.
Then we were there and the truck stopped. We went inside.
And now—this is where it begins.
After supper, the evening I arrived at the Curries’ farm, my brother Bud and his friend Teddy Hartley and I all sat on the front porch. In a hammock.
This is the conversation we had.
BUD: (to me) Are you all right? Did you have a good time at Arthur Robertson’s place? Did you swim?
ME: (to Bud) Yes.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I’ve got a feeling I don’t like Arthur Robertson.
Do I know him?
BUD: Kid at school. Neil’s age. (He said that as if it were dirty to be my age.)
TEDDY HARTLEY: Thin kid? Very small?
BUD: Thin and small—brainy type. Hey Neil, have you seen Ted spit?
ME: Yes—I have.
TEDDY HARTLEY: When did you see me spit? I never spat for you.
ME: Yes, you did. About three months ago. We were still in school.
Bud—he did too, and you walked it out, too, didn’t you?
BUD: I don’t know.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I never spat for you yet! Never!
ME: Two yards and a half.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Can’t have been me. I spit four.
ME: Four YARDS!!
TEDDY HARTLEY: Certainly.
BUD: Go ahead and show him. Over the rail.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (Standing up) Okay. Look, Neil. Now watch… Come on, WATCH!!
ME: All right—I’m watching.
(Teddy Hartley spat. It was three yards and a half by Bud’s feet.
I saw Bud mark it myself.)
BUD: Three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four yards. (Maybe his feet were smaller or something.)
BUD: Three-and-foot. Three and one foot. No, no. A half-a-one. Of a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four! Four! Four!
TEDDY HARTLEY: My dad showed me. It’s four! He showed me, and he knows. My dad knows. He’s a mathematical teacher—yes, yes, yes, he showed me how to count a yard. I saw him do it. And he knows, my dad!!
BUD: Your dad’s a crazy man. It’s three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (All red in the face and screaming) You called my dad a nut! You called my dad a crazy-man-nut-meg! Take it back, you. Bud Cable, you take that back.
BUD: Your dad is a matha-nut-ical nutmeg tree.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Then your dad’s a…your dad’s a…your dad’s an Insane!
BUD: Our dad’s joined the army.
That was how I found out.
They went on talking like that for a long time. I got up and left. I started talking to myself, which is a habit I have.
“Joined the army? Joined the army? Joined the ARMY! Our dad?”
Our dad was a salesman. I used to go to his office and watch him selling things over the phone sometimes. I always used to look for what it was, but I guess they didn’t keep it around the office. Maybe they hid it somewhere. Maybe it was too expensive to just leave lying around. But whatever it was, I knew it was important, and so that was one thing that bothered me when Bud said about the army—because I knew that in the army they wouldn’t let my dad sit and sell things over any old phone—because in the army you always went in a trench and got hurt or killed. I knew that because my dad had told me himself when my uncle died. My uncle was his brother in the first war, who got hit in his stomach and he died from it a long time afterwards. Long enough, anyway, for me to have known him. He was always in a big white bed, and he gave us candies from a glass jar. That was all I knew—except that it was because of being in the army that he died. His name was Uncle Frank.
So those were the first two things I thought of: my dad not being able to sell anything any more—and then Uncle Frank.
But then it really got bad, because I suddenly remembered that my dad had promised to teach me how to skate that year. He was going to make a rink too; in the backyard. But if he had to go off to some old trench in France, then he’d be too far away. Soldiers always went in trenches—and trenches were always in France. I remember that.
Well, I don’t know. Maybe I just couldn’t forgive him. He hadn’t even told me. He didn’t even write it in his letter that he’d sent me at Arthur Robertson’s. But he’d told Bud—he’d told Bud, but I was the one he’d promised to show how to skate. And I’d had it all planned how I’d really surprise my dad and turn out to be a skating champion and everything, and now he wouldn’t even be there to see.
All because he had to go and sit in some trench.
I don’t know how I got there, but I ended up in the barn. I was in the hayloft and I didn’t even hear them, I guess. They were looking all over the place for me, because it started to get dark.
I don’t know whether you’re afraid of the dark, but I’ll tell you right now, I am. At least, I am if I have to move around in it. If I can just sit still, then I’m all right. At least, if you sit still you know where you are. And that’s awful. You never know what you’re going to step on next and I always thought it would be a duck. I don’t like ducks—especially in the dark or if you stepped on them.
Anyway, I was in the hayloft in the barn and I heard them calling out—
”Neil, Neil”—and “Where are you?” But I made up my mind right then I wasn’t going to answer. For one thing, if I did, then I’d have to go down to them in the dark—and maybe I’d step on something. And for another, I didn’t really want to see anyone anyway.
It was then that I got this idea about my father. I thought that maybe if
I stayed hidden for long enough, then he wouldn’t join the army. Don’t ask me why—right now I couldn’t tell you that—but in those days it made sense. If I hid then he wouldn’t go away. Maybe it would be because he’d stay looking for me or something.
The trouble was that my dad wasn’t even there that night, and that meant that I either had to wait in the hayloft till he came the next day—or else that I had to go down now, and then hide again tomorrow. I decided to stay where I was because there were some ducks at the bottom of the ladder. I couldn’t see them but I could tell they were there.
I stayed there all night. I slept most of the time. Every once in a while they’d wake me up by calling out “Neil! Neil!”—but I never answered.
I never knew a night that was so long, except maybe once when I was in the hospital. When I slept I seemed to sleep for a long time, but it never came to morning. They kept waking me up but it was never time.
Then it was.
I saw that morning through a hole in the roof of the hayloft. The sunlight came in through cracks between the boards and it was all dusty; the sunlight, I mean.
They were up pretty early that morning, even for farmers. There seemed to be a lot more people than I remembered—and there were two or three cars and a truck I’d never seen before, too. And I saw Mrs. Currie holding onto Bud with one hand and Teddy Hartley with the other. I remember thinking, “If I was down there, how could she hold onto me if she’s only got two hands and Bud and Teddy Hartley to look after?” And I thought that right then she must be pretty glad I wasn’t around.
I wondered what they were all doing. Mr. Currie was standing in the middle of a lot of men and he kept pointing out the scenery around the farm. I imagined what he was saying. There was a big woods behind the house and a cherry and plum tree orchard that would be good to point out to his friends. I could tell they were his friends from the way they were listening. What I couldn’t figure out was why they were all up so early—and why they had Bud and Teddy Hartley up, too.
Then there was a police car. I suppose it came from Orillia or somewhere. That was the biggest town near where the farm was. Orillia.
When the police got out of their car, they went up to Mr. Currie. There were four of them. They all talked for quite a long time and then everyone started going out in all directions. It looked to me as though Bud and Teddy Hartley wanted to go, too, but Mrs. Currie made them go in the house. She practically had to drag Bud. It looked as if he was crying and I wondered why he should do that.
Then one of the police officers came into the barn. He was all alone. I stayed very quiet, because I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from going through with my plan about my dad. Not even a police officer.
He urinated against the wall inside the door. It was sort of funny, because he kept turning around to make sure no one saw him, and he didn’t know I was there. Then he did up his pants and stood in the middle of the floor under the haylofts.
That was the police officer.
He said it so suddenly that it scared me. I nearly fell off from where I was, it scared me so much. And I guess maybe he saw me, because he started right up the ladder at me.
“How did you know my name?”
I said that in a whisper.
“They told me.”
“Have you been here all night?”
“Don’t you realize that everyone has been looking for you all over the place? Nobody’s even been to sleep.”
That sort of frightened me—but it was all right, because he smiled when he said it.
Then he stuck his head out of this window that was there to let the air in (so that the barn wouldn’t catch on fire)—and he yelled down, “He’s all right—I’ve found him! He’s up here.”
And I said: “What did you go and do that for? Now you’ve ruined everything.”
He smiled again and said, “I had to stop them all going off to look for you. Now,”—as he sat down beside me—“do you want to tell me what is it you’re doing up here?”
I think that sort of set him back a couple of years, because he didn’t say anything for a minute—except “Oh.”
Then I thought maybe I had to have something to tell the others anyway, so I might as well make it up for him right now.
“I fell asleep,” I said.
I looked at him. I wondered if I could trust a guy who did that against walls, when all you had to do was go in the house.
“Why did you come up here in the first place?” he said. I decided I could trust him because I remembered once when I did the same thing. Against the wall.
So I told him.
“I want to hide on my dad,” I said.
“Why do you want to do that? And besides, Mrs. Currie said your parents weren’t even here.”
“Yes, but he’s coming today.”
“But why hide on him? Don’t you like him, or something?”
“Sure I do,” I said.
I thought about it.
“But he’s…he’s…Do you know if it’s true, my dad’s joined the army?”
“I dunno. Maybe. There’s a war on, you know.”
“Well, that’s why I hid.”
But he laughed.
“Is that why you hid? Because of the war?”
“Because of my dad.”
“You don’t need to hide because of the war—the Germans aren’t coming over here, you know.”
“But it’s not that. It’s my dad.” I could have told you he wouldn’t understand.
I was trying to think of what to say next when Mrs. Currie came into the barn. She stood down below.
“Is he up there, officer? Is he all right?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ve got him. He’s fine.”
“Neil dear, what happened? Why don’t you come down and tell us what happened to you?”
Then I decided that I’d really go all out. I had to, because I could tell they weren’t going to—it was just obvious that these people weren’t going to understand me and take my story about my dad and the army and everything.
“Somebody chased me.”
The police officer looked sort of shocked and I could hear Mrs. Currie take in her breath.
“Somebody chased you, eh?”
I had to think fast.
“Some man. But he’s gone now.”
I thought I’d better say he was gone, so that they wouldn’t start worrying.
“Officer, why don’t you bring him down here? Then we can talk.”
“All right, ma’am. Come on, Neil, we’ll go down and have some breakfast.”
They didn’t seem to believe me about that man I made up.
We went over to the ladder.
I looked down. A lot of hay stuck out so that I couldn’t see the floor.
“Are there any ducks down there?”
“No, dear, you can come down—it’s all right.”
She was lying, though. There was a great big duck right next to her. I think it’s awfully silly to tell a lie like that. I mean, if the duck is standing right there it doesn’t even make sense, does it?
But I went down anyway and she made the duck go away.
When we went out, the police officer held my hand. His hand had some sweat on it but it was a nice hand, with hair on the back. I liked that. My dad didn’t have that on his hand.
Then we ate breakfast with all those people who’d come to look for me. At least, they ate. I just sat.
After breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Currie took me upstairs to the sitting room. It was upstairs because the kitchen was in the cellar.
All I remember about that was a vase that had a potted plant in it. This vase was made of putty and into the putty Mrs. Currie had stuck all kinds of stones and pennies and old bits of glass and things. You could look at this for hours and never see the same kind of stone or glass twice. I don’t remember the plant.
All I remember about what they said was that they told me I should never do it again. That routine.
Then they told me my mother and my dad would be up that day around lunch time.
What they were really sore about was losing their sleep, and then all those people coming. I was sorry about that—but you can’t very well go down and make an announcement about it, so I didn’t.
At twelve o’clock, I went and sat in Mr. Currie’s truck. It was in the barn. I took out those two boxes I’d put in the glove compartment and looked at them. I tried to figure out what my dad would do with an old box like that in the army. And he’d probably never play another game of golf as long as he lived. Not in the army, anyway. Maybe he’d use the box for his bullets or something.
Then I counted the red stones I was going to give my mother. I kept seeing them around her neck and how pretty they’d be. She had a dress they’d be just perfect with. Blue. The only thing I was worried about was how to get a hole in them so you could put them on a string. There wasn’t much sense in having beads without a string—not if you were going to wear them, anyway—or your mother was.
And it was then that they came.
I heard their car drive up outside and I went and looked from behind the barn door. My father wasn’t wearing a uniform yet like I’d thought he would be. I began to think maybe he really didn’t want me to know about it. I mean, he hadn’t written or anything, and now he was just wearing an old blazer and some grey pants. It made me remember.
I went back and sat down in the truck again. I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there with those stones in my hand.
Then I heard someone shout, “Neil!”
I went and looked. Mr. and Mrs. Currie were standing with my parents by the car—and I saw Bud come running out of the house, and then Teddy Hartley. Teddy Hartley sort of hung back, though. He was the kind of person who’s only polite if there are grownups around him. He sure knew how to pull the wool over their eyes, because he’d even combed his hair. Wildroot-cream-oil-Charlie.
Then I noticed that they were talking very seriously and my mother put her hand above her eyes and looked around. I guess she was looking for me. Then my dad started toward the barn.
I went and hid behind the truck. I wasn’t quite sure yet what I was going to do, but I certainly wasn’t going to go up and throw my arms around his neck or anything.
“Neil. Are you in there, son?”
My dad spoke that very quietly. Then I heard the door being pushed open, and some chicken had to get out of the way, because I heard it making that awful noise chickens make when you surprise them doing something. They sure can get excited over nothing—chickens.
I took a quick look behind me. There was a door there that led into the part of the barn where the haylofts were and where I’d been all night. I decided to make a dash for it. But I had to ward off my father first—and so I threw that stone.
I suppose I’ll have to admit that I meant to hit him. It wouldn’t be much sense if I tried to fool you about that. I wanted to hit him because when I stood up behind the truck and saw him then I suddenly got mad. I thought about how he hadn’t written me, or anything.
It hit him on the hand.
He turned right around because he wasn’t sure what it was or where it came from. And before I ran, I just caught a glimpse of his face. He’d seen me and he sure looked peculiar. I guess that now I’ll never forget his face and how he looked at me right then. I think it was that he looked as though he might cry or something. But I knew he wouldn’t do that, because he never did.
Then I ran.
From the loft I watched them in the yard. My dad was rubbing his hands together and I guess maybe where I’d hit him it was pretty sore. My mother took off her handkerchief that she had round her neck and put it on his hand. Then I guess he’d told them what I’d done, because this time they all started toward the barn.
I didn’t know what to do then. I counted out the stones I had left and there were about fifteen of them. There was the golf ball, too.
I didn’t want to throw stones at all of them. I certainly didn’t want to hit my mother—and I hoped that they wouldn’t send her in first. I thought then how I’d be all right if they sent in Teddy Hartley first. I didn’t mind the thought of throwing at him, I’ll tell you that much.
But my dad came first.
I had a good view of where he came from. He came in through the part where the truck was parked, because I guess he thought I was still there. And then he came on into the part where I was now—in the hayloft.
He stood by the door.
I could only just see his head and shoulders—the rest of him was hidden by the edge of the loft.
“Neil, aren’t you even going to explain what you’re angry about?”
I thought for a minute and then I didn’t answer him after all. I looked at
him, though. He looked worried.
“What do you want us to do?”
I sat still.
Since I didn’t answer, he started back out the door—I guess to talk to my mother or someone.
I hit his back with another stone. I had to make sure he knew I was there. He turned around at me.
“Neil, what’s the matter? I want to know what’s the matter.”
He almost fooled me, but not quite. I thought that perhaps he really didn’t know for a minute—but after taking a look at him I decided that he did know, all right. I mean, there he was in that blue blazer and everything—just as if he hadn’t joined the army at all.
So I threw again and this time it really hit him in the face.
He didn’t do anything—he just stood there. It really scared me. Then my mother came in, but he made her go back.
I thought about my rink, and how I wouldn’t have it. I thought about being in the fifth grade that year and how I’d skipped from Grade Three. And I thought about the Native man who’d sold those boxes that I had down in the truck.
“Neil—I’m going to come up.”
You could tell he really would, too, from his voice.
I got the golf ball ready.
To get to me he had to disappear for a minute while he crossed under the loft and then when he climbed the ladder. I decided to change my place while he was out of sight. I began to think that was pretty clever and that maybe I’d be pretty good at that war stuff myself. Field Marshal Cable.
I put myself into a little trench of hay and piled some up in front of me. When my dad came up over the top of the ladder, he wouldn’t even see me and then I’d have a good chance to aim at him.
The funny thing was that at that moment I’d forgotten why I was against him. I got so mixed up in all that Field Marshal stuff that I really forgot all about my dad and the army and everything. I was just trying to figure out how I could get him before he saw me—and that was all.
I got further down in the hay and then he was there.
He was out of breath and his face was all sweaty, and where I’d hit him there was blood. And then he put his hand with my mother’s hankie up to his face to wipe it. And he sort of bit it (the handkerchief). It was as if he was confused or something. I remember thinking he looked then just like I’d felt my face go when Bud had said our dad had joined the army. You know how you look around with your eyes from side to side as though maybe you’ll find the answer to it somewhere near you? You never do find it, but you always look anyway, just in case.
Anyway, that’s how he was just then, and it sort of threw me. I had that feeling again that maybe he didn’t know what this was all about. But then, he had to know, didn’t he? Because he’d done it.
I had the golf ball ready in my right hand and one of those stones in the other. He walked toward me.
I missed with the golf ball and got him with the stone.
And he fell down. He really fell down. He didn’t say anything—he didn’t even say “ouch,” like I would have—he just fell down.
In the hay.
I didn’t go out just yet. I sat and looked at him. And I listened.
Do you know, there wasn’t a sound in that whole place? It was as if everything had stopped because they knew what had happened.
My dad just lay there and we waited for what would happen next. It was me.
I mean, I made the first noise.
I said: “Dad?”
But nobody answered—not even my mother.
So I said it louder. “Dad?”
It was just as if they’d all gone away and left me with him, all alone.
He sure looked strange lying there—so quiet and everything. I didn’t know what to do.
I went over on my hands and knees.
Then suddenly they all came in. I just did what I thought of first. I guess it was because they scared me—coming like that when it was so quiet.
I got all the stones out of my pockets and threw them, one by one, as they came through the door. I stood up to do it. I saw them all running through the door, and I threw every stone, even at my mother.
And then I fell down. I fell down beside my dad and pushed him over on his back because he’d fallen on his stomach. It was like he was asleep.
They came up then and I don’t remember much of that. Somebody picked me up, and there was the smell of perfume and my eyes hurt and I got something in my throat and nearly choked to death and I could hear a lot of talking. And somebody was whispering, too. And then I felt myself being carried down and there was the smell of oil and gasoline and some chickens had to be got out of the way again and then there was sunlight.
Then my mother just sat with me, and I guess I cried for a long time. In the cherry and plum tree orchard—and she seemed to understand because she said that he would tell me all about it and that he hadn’t written me because he didn’t want to scare me when I was all alone at Arthur Robertson’s.
And then Bud came.
My mother said that he should go away for a while. But he said: “I brought something” and she said: “What is it, then?” and now I remember where I got that worm in my handkerchief that I told you about.
It was from Bud.
He said to me that if I wanted to, he’d take me fishing on the lake just before the sun went down. He said that was a good time. And he gave me that worm because he’d found it.
So my mother took it and put it in my hankie and Bud looked at me for a minute and then went away.
The worst part was when I saw my dad again.
My mother took me to the place where he was sitting in the sun and we just watched each other for a long time.
Then he said: “Neil, your mother wants to take our picture because I’m going away tomorrow to Ottawa for a couple of weeks, and she thought I’d like a picture to take with me.”
He lit a cigarette and then he said: “I would, too, you know, like that picture.”
And I sort of said: “All right.”
So they called to Bud, and my mother went to get her camera.
But before Bud came and before my mother got back, we were alone for about ten hours. It was awful.
I couldn’t think of anything and I guess he couldn’t either. I had a good look at him, though.
He looked just like he does right there in that picture. You can see where the stone hit him on his right cheek—and the one that knocked him out is the one over the eye.
Right then the thing never got settled. Not in words, anyway. I was still thinking about that rink and everything—and my dad hadn’t said anything about the army yet.
I wish I hadn’t done it. Thrown those stones and everything. It wasn’t his fault he had to go.
For another thing, I was sorry about the stones because I knew I wouldn’t find any more like them—but I did throw them, and that’s that.
They both got those little boxes, though—I made sure of that. And in one there was a string of red beads from Orillia and in the other there was a photograph.
There still is. ◆