Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Old Growth’
She didn’t look it. Mo threw me a concerned glance, said, “Get a glass of water,” and led Sally to a chair. I went down the hall to the washroom and came back with a paper cup. Sally drank the water and appeared to regain her spirits.
“I’d better go,” she said. “Maeve Haglund’s going to need some support.”
“Are you up to it?” asked Mo.
“I think so.” She stood up. “We can do this tomorrow, if you’re free.”
Mo said she’d be happy to come in again. We all walked out together, and soon Sally McMahon was tramping down Dunsmuir’s worn sidewalks. Mo and I stood on the corner and watched the determined swing of the woman’s little handbag match her firm steps.
“Are you sure she’s okay?” I said.
Mo shrugged. “They’re a tough breed up here. She was telling me about how when she was a little girl they’d send their men down into those filthy dangerous mines every day, never knowing if they’d ever come back to daylight again.”
I had a sudden image of Haglund’s face staring into nothing. “Jesus,” I said. “People shouldn’t have to risk dying just for a living.”
“Was it bad, the accident?” Mo asked.
“Bad enough.” I told her about the arm spinning through the air.
She winced. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Her orange Hyundai was parked across the street. It was old and developing acne from rust, but next to the Concorde it was high-class transportation. I got into the AMC, crossed my fingers, and keyed the ignition.
I took out the key, reinserted it, and tried again. I had no idea why it should make any difference, but it often did. The six-cylinder engine farted into life, and I revved it discreetly. I rolled the window down and called to Mo, “Follow me!” Then I put up the window, patted the car’s dash and said, “Sorry, old love, it’s time.”
I drove the grumbling Concorde down Dunsmuir to Fourth Street, turned left and found the road back to Courtenay. It was downhill and twisty in places, curving past the graveyard where the headstones were old enough to have settled and tilted. Then the two-lane blacktop looped around the gravel pit and cement plant and went into the woods.
It was all second growth now, fir and spruce mostly. In Sally McMahon’s great-grandfather’s time there had been big timber all over the coastal valley, from the sea right up into the foothills, including ancient cedars so massive that ten men couldn’t stretch their arms around one.
They’d taken them down at first to clear land for homes and farms, and to rough out props and joists for the mines. The men stood on boards jammed into the living wood, leaning in and out on two-handled saws, then finishing the job with double-bit axes.
By the turn of the century, they’d laid rail lines along Vancouver Island’s valley bottoms, and pocket steam engines pulled logs to the sea, where they were shipped to lumber mills as far away as China.
In the forties, with the valley floors mostly stripped, the forest companies got trucks strong enough to take the strain of hauling big timber on rough-cut roads, and truck-loggers brave enough to drive them. They started cutting the slopes that rose towards the mountains.
Now, a hundred and twenty-five years after the first steel blade had bit into a Comox Valley tree, the old growth was only a memory—except for the twenty hectares that Rod Bilder was preparing to log and build on. It was the last stand of big timber in the valley. I wondered how much it was worth.
The two-laner came out of the woods on the outskirts of Courtenay. Instead of passing through the little city and heading home to Comox, I hung a left onto Willemar Street. The Concorde beeped meditatively as I took the corner. In my rear-view mirror, I saw Mo take the corner and follow.
A half mile on, I came to Lake Trail Road, turned left at the junior high school—with yet more toots from under the hood to excite the wonder of passing pedestrians—and trundled up to Powerhouse Road, at the end of which was an auto wrecker’s yard.
I parked beside the office. Mo put her Hyundai a discreet distance away and carefully avoided looking at me. Five minutes later, I came out of the office with a borrowed screwdriver, removed the Concorde’s licence plates, took them back to the man inside, and emerged again carrying fifty dollars and a piece of paper that said the AMC was no longer mine.
I got into the passenger seat of Mo’s car and said, “Home.”
She pulled out without a word, and affected not to notice when I turned to the rear window and sneaked a last look at my faithful old companion. I knew how the kid felt in Old Yeller.
We drove through Courtenay, down Seventeenth Street to the swing bridge that would open to let fish boats come up the Puntledge River to the moorage at Green Slough, and took the dyke road along the east bank towards Comox.
High tide was just turning, so the mud flats and reed beds were submerged, but a couple of blue herons were working the shallows. I saw a dark spot out in mid stream where the fresh water met the sea. It was moving against the current, probably a harbour seal chasing salmon fingerlings.
Mo steered us up the hill into Comox, and we turned onto Back Road. A couple of minutes later, we were in my driveway—technically, “our” driveway, now that Mo had moved in.
She reached to turn off the ignition. “Wait,” I said. “Do you mind being my chauffeur a few more minutes?”
She shrugged and left the motor running. I went into the house and came out a minute later lugging my old fax machine. It was a five-year-old Savin, state of the art in its day, with all kinds of bells-and-whistles I’d never used. It was also a continuing annoyance to work with, because it printed out on rolled thermal paper. Whenever a client faxed me a lengthy document, the Savin would cover my floor with little facsimiles of the Dead Sea scrolls, which I had to uncurl, flatten out and put into order.
I stowed the fax machine on the back seat, got in beside Mo and gave her an address over on Lazo Road, north and east of the Comox town site. We were there in under ten minutes.
It was a white frame house on a five-acre parcel at the end of a mud-and-gravel driveway. Somebody in a previous generation had had ambitions in the direction of orchard-keeping, but the drive must have since leached out of the gene pool. The pear and apple trees had been left to run as wild as tame trees ever get, their roots shooting up a riot of suckers that would be draining their parents’ energies before they could make fruit.
I wasn’t interested in what might be on the trees; I had come for what was parked in the dappled shade beneath them, covered by a sheet of plastic held down by rocks and firewood.
The owner of the place was at his ease in a tubular steel and plastic chaise longue, the end of a long-necked brown bottle not far from his bottom lip. He was a little older than me, maybe forty, a former slab of muscle that was now mounding into paunch.
“That it?” he said, as I unloaded the Savin from Mo’s back seat.
“Yep,” I said. “Still want to deal?”
He up-ended the beer, then dropped the empty into a case by his side, rocked himself forward and stood. His belch made it a two-syllable word when he said, “Sure.”
I humped the fax machine into his house, hooked it up to his phone line, then used the hand-set to phone a local friend who also had a fax. I told him I was going to fax him a page and asked him to retransmit right back to me at the number I gave him.
I hung up, sent the page—it was from an old manuscript—and within a minute it was back again, unrolling out of the fax machine. I flattened it out and showed it and the original to the owner of the beer belly.
“See,” I said. “It sends and receives just fine. You can also use it to make photocopies.”
He nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll show you mine.”
Outside, he hauled the plastic cover off, and there was the Concorde’s prospective replacement. It was the same colour and roughly the same size as a pocket battleship, but with four doors and fancy hubcaps. It was hard to believe they actually used to make cars this big.
“Nineteen-seventy-seven Ford Ell-Tee-Dee Two,” said the beer belly. “Hundred and twenty thousand miles, don’t know what that is in kilometers, but it runs okay. Got a leak in the power steering pressure hose, hole in the exhaust system, otherwise she’s a beauty.”
I shook my head as if pondering weighty matters.
“Look,” he said. “Pressure hose is gonna cost you a hundred. Exhaust maybe a little more, time they bend the pipe and weld it in. But that’s it.”
I cleared my throat. Then I popped the hood, looked around the engine compartment for anything I could identify. The brake cylinder’s brassy finish stood out. Since it was one of the few components I recognized, I thumbed up the wire that held down the lid and lifted it off. The hydraulic fuel inside might have been low, or it might have been fine; it was hard to tell since the cylinder sloped to one side.
“Hmmm,” I said, and waited.
“All right, all right,” he said. “It’s a thirteen-year-old car for Chrissake! You’re probably gonna have to look at the brakes.”
“Well…” I said.
“Okay, look, I was saying the fax machine plus a hundred. Whattaya say we make it an even trade?”
I chewed my lip a little just to make it convincing, then said, “Deal,” and shook his hammy hand. We went inside and filled in the government forms.
When I climbed back into Mo’s car, she said, “You’re not really going to drive that.”
“It’s a classic,” I said.
She snorted. “You’re going to need one of those ‘wide load’ signs.”
“Ho ho,” I said.
“And maybe a man with a red flag to walk ahead so you don’t scare the horses.”
I looked back at the LTD as we headed down the driveway to Lazo and off to transfer the vehicle’s title. “They were pretty good cars,” I said.
“You know as much about cars as I know about…” But she couldn’t think of anything she knew that little about.
“Come on,” I said. “Think how much fun we’ll have bringing back all the old jokes. Like, ‘I don’t need a spare; I just keep a Honda in the trunk.’“
We tooled up Lazo, past the stony beach south of Point Holmes. A bald eagle was planing low over the beach like a special effect.
“How many cars do you see these days that can land small aircraft on the hood?” I said.
“Uh huh,” she said. “Why not buy something a little more dependable?”
“I like cars with character,” I said. “Besides, I’m cheap.”
“No kidding,” she said.
An hour later, I had the LTD re-registered, with new plates and insurance papers. I dropped them off at the Anchor Garage down at the foot of Church Street and arranged for them to tow the car in, check it over, and fix everything up to a limit of five hundred.
Mo and I went home. As we eased along Comox Avenue to Back Road, she reached into a bag on the floor behind the passenger seat. “Here,” she said.
She dropped it into my lap. It was a nicely bound book, the dust jacket showing a portrait in pastels of a youngish man with a scarf tied around his neck. Above the face was the title: Ginger— The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin.
“We’ve done this,” I said.
“It won’t hurt you to read it.”
“I don’t want to write another movie.”
“Tell me that after you’ve read the book.”
I opened it, riffled the pages. There were photos in the middle, black and white snaps of Cumberland a hundred years or so ago. Shacks and mine works; mine owners, serious, prosperous and upright in stiff collars; and miners, hard faces under old-fashioned hats as they crowded up to the bar at a tiny saloon.
And a gravestone, rough-hewn, and on it the words, LEST WE FORGET, GINGER GOODWIN, SHOT JULY 26th 1918, A WORKERS FRIEND.
“Is this up in the Cumberland cemetery?” I asked.
“I’ve seen it,” said Mo.
“I don’t want to write any more movies,” I said.
“You’ve got to do something.”
“I thought I was.”
She said nothing, but I knew that her silences could be very well-spoken.
“I don’t want to fight,” I said.
“We’re not fighting.”
Not yet, I said to myself.
We had wound our way down Back Road to the turn-off to our house. A purple and white car was sitting in the driveway, and an RCMP corporal in the black and khaki working uniform was rapping on our front door.
He turned as we drove in and parked beside the police cruiser, waiting as we mounted the front steps. He was middle-aged with a military moustache, one of those career noncoms who live up to the image of the “we-always-get-our-man” Mounties. “Mr. Sid Rafferty?” he said.
“Corporal Mikhailovsky. I wonder if I could ask you about what you saw this afternoon in Cumberland.”
I invited him in and we sat in the kitchen while Mo made tea. He put his hat on the table, then opened his notebook.
“How well did you know Mr. Haglund?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Why were you there?”
I explained about going to meet Bilder and his not showing up.
“Would you tell me what you saw?”
I told him. He interrupted occasionally to ask for amplification—how far away was I, did I see anyone else in the area—until there wasn’t anything left unsaid. I could recognize a trained interviewer when I saw one.
“That’s what happened,” I finished. “It was a straight-out accident. He fell and the tree got him.”
“It was no accident,” he said.
“I saw it,” I said.
“But you didn’t see this,” he said, and produced a coil of colourless nylon fish line. “There were lengths of this stuff strung all over the area. Trip wires. We’re investigating Mr. Haglund’s death as at least manslaughter, perhaps murder.”
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