Winding the Watch

While sitting in church a few months ago, attending the funeral service for a former colleague, I beheld a curious sight.

During the eulogy, delivered by the minister in his solemn, stentorian tone, a man sitting one pew ahead of me began to polish his glasses.  Slowly, assiduously, he wiped the front and back of each lens.  In between wipes, he held them up to the stained-glass window off to one side, as if expecting a divine ray of light to beam down upon him through the glass.

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Such a commonplace exercise; and yet, I thought, so seemingly out of place in that crowded church.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was paying attention to the words being spoken.  Or was he as distracted by his little task as I was?

When he had finished the job to his own satisfaction, he replaced his glasses, smoothed the hair over his ears, and settled back to listen to the rest of the funereal tribute.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

But the episode took me back a long, long way—back to when I was a small boy, attending church with my grandparents.  We used to go regularly—to a huge, cathedral-like edifice with o’er-vaulting arches, windows that turned the sun’s beams to every colour in the spectrum as they streamed through the glass, massive stone walls, and aged oaken altar.  Every time I entered, experiencing as if for the first time the great hush that filled the soaring space, I felt small and awed by its majesty.

Everyone spoke to my grandfather, a rector’s warden for many years, and to my grandmother, a pillar of the ladies’ auxiliary.  They spoke to me, too, usually while ruffling the auburn curls I wore back then.  I smiled forbearingly through it all.

I used to enjoy being there, though, because I loved the tremendous, swelling music of the massive pipe organ, and the grand singing of the choir.  To this day, the sound of the old hymns sends a shiver through me—A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; Abide With Me; O God, Our Help In Ages Past; Blessed Assurance; and so many more.

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But I always dreaded the point during the service when the minister would climb high into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.  Not that his messages were inappropriate; I was probably too young to understand them, anyway.

No, I dreaded it because my grandfather would always take that time—when there was no sound in all that hushed hall, save the minister’s voice—to wind his watch.  To my cocked ears, sitting right alongside him, that winding was louder than the most thundering organ oratorio.

Once a week, without fail, he would wind his watch.  And I, in my childish way, was mortified that he should choose to do it there.  And amazed that I seemed to be the only one who noticed.

Today, as a grandfather myself, I see it a little differently—as an analogy of sorts.  I’ve come to believe that, just as he wound the watch to keep good time through the following week, so, too, was he rewinding his spirit, sitting there in church, to see him safely through the week to come.

I have that watch now, still on one end of the gold chain he wore across the front of his waistcoat, with a weighted fob at the other end.  It sits in a drawer in my bedroom, and I take it out from time to time.  Even after all these years, it keeps good time—when I wind it.

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Seeing that man in church the other day, wiping his glasses so diligently, I remembered my grandfather.  I could almost hear the sound that used to embarrass me so—and I’m embarrassed now that I was embarrassed then.

I still miss him.  I wish he could be sitting there beside me once again, smelling comfortingly of bay-rum after-shave and pipe tobacco.

And winding his watch.

Girl Missing, Girl Murdered

A young Indigenous woman is brutally murdered in Toronto, her body left in a back-alley garbage dumpster by her indifferent killers.

Another statistic in a tragic tale of girls gone missing, her death comes under scrutiny seven years later by the nation-wide Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, which is holding local hearings in Port Huntington, a small resort town on the shores of Georgian Bay.   

Even as the MMIWG committee is doing its work, a second murder is discovered, and yet another young woman goes missing.  Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan, long-time residents of the town, become directly involved in the ensuing police investigation, which unearths one surprise after another.

As the hunt for the guilty party narrows its focus, Maggie and Derek find they, too, are in danger from the deranged predator who is determined to escape justice.

Girl Missing, Girl Murdered is the fifth novel in my Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime series.  It is a gripping story, told in riveting fashion, sure to entertain readers who enjoy murder mysteries. 

The book is expected to be available online in time for Christmas shopping.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this excerpt from the working draft—

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Melanie Garland underestimated both the threat and her ability to counter it, a mistake that cost her dearly.  When she came out of the cottage to put a bag of household garbage in the trunk of her car, and to close the convertible top, she heard a vehicle approaching.  She watched warily as it pulled up behind her.

She knew right away what he was after, of course.  No surprise, given their earlier conversation.  But he adopted an air of unexpected nonchalance at first, probably trying to catch her off guard.

Careful, girl.  Don’t let this go too far.

It didn’t take long for him to get to the point, and as his manner changed, she felt an inkling of danger.  He was not-so-subtly eyeing the scant clothing she was wearing—a denim skirt and faded Queen’s tank-top, neither of which did much to conceal her obvious assets.

Experience had taught her the best way to cut off an aggressive man was to confront him directly—especially this one.  Slamming the trunk lid, she pointed a finger in his face, demanded he leave immediately.  Otherwise, she warned him, she’d call the police—although, belatedly, she remembered leaving her cellphone on the kitchen table.

When he responded with a slow grin, as if amused by her threat, she spun on her heel and headed for the cottage.  Without warning, he grabbed her roughly by the wrist, bringing her up short.  Angered now, and more than a little fearful, she wrenched her arm free and smacked him across the face.  Putting everything into it.

He responded so fast, she didn’t have time to flinch.  His backhand caught the side of her face, driving her against the side of her car.  Leaning into the back seat—stunned, gasping, but infuriated by the blow—she grabbed the first thing she saw lying there, a nine-iron she’d been practising with earlier.

With a primal scream, she swung it full-force at him.  Ducking sideways, arms raised to protect his face, he took the head of the club across his ribs.  As he stumbled to one knee, she dropped it and took off for the cottage.

Get away!  He’s crazy!  Get the phone! 

Halfway to the door, she was felled by a massive blow to the back of her head.  Her legs collapsed, the ground rushed up to smash her face.  Warm blood oozed from the back of her skull, trickling behind her ears.  She could taste a metallic tang in her mouth.

Oh fuck, I’m hurt!  I’m hurt!

She felt herself being rolled on her back, but her eyes wouldn’t focus.  She saw a blurry figure looming above her…heard him wailing…felt a weight pressing on her chest, over and over.  She was sure she was going to die.

No…no…no…

And then, blackness.

When he left, panting from his exertions—utterly astonished and distraught by the violence he’d committed—he didn’t  remember to take the golf club.

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There was no one there to see a different vehicle approach the cottage twenty minutes later, an hour or so before sunset; no one to observe its driver fearfully approach her motionless body; no one to hear his anguished cry, or the scratchy sound of retching as he crouched beside her.

No one else was there to detect her whispered, anguished murmurs for help; nor to notice small bubbles of blood forming at her mouth; nor to spy the fragile fluttering of her eyelids; no one to see him discover the bloodied nine-iron.

And there was no one to watch the man stand up, finally, the club in his hand; no one to witness the sudden, savage blows he rained down on her; no one to shrink from the rage in his voice as he cursed her.

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No one at all was there to see the car spraying gravel as it left in a frantic hurry moments later; no one to mourn her brutal killing.

It would be four days before anyone else discovered the decomposing body.

 

The Forest

A close friend posted a picture online recently, accompanied by a passage from John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and author.  It read …and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

On this past weekend, our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, two of my sisters went camping with their families, braving the October temperatures in the boreal forest of Algonquin Park.  They also posted online, pictures and messages, waxing eloquently on the beauty and serenity of the wilderness world around them.

I have long believed there is no more beautiful place to be in the world than Ontario in the splendor of October—when the green forest recasts itself in glorious hues of scarlet red, bright yellow, incandescent orange, and intense burgundy.  The sun, lower in the sky, shines through them, and they glow as if afire.

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We lived on a lake in the north for a long time—a long time ago.  One of our favourite October pastimes was walking the solitary cottage roads after all the seasonal vacationers had headed home.  Smelling the wood smoke from chimneys of the few year-round homes, kicking the wind-strewn piles of fallen leaves, breathing in the nippy harbingers of winter borne on the autumn breezes.

Occasionally, late in the month, we’d even get the first falls of snow, blown hither and yon before melting away in the late October sunshine.

The forest was a refuge, a release, a reminder that life, once upon a time, was simpler and elemental.

Sixty years ago, I spent a summer planting trees on the slopes of a valley, formerly the rocky, infertile fields of a pioneer farming family.  A lovely, clean river meandered its way along the valley floor.  We worked in pairs, one with the spade, the other with the bag of saplings, and we traded places every half-hour, or so.  I remember it as hard work, dirty work, thirsty work, to be sure.  But I know now it was glorious work, where we were (to steal from the 1965 novel by Peter Matthiessen), at play in the fields of the Lord.

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One of us would cut a T-shaped slice in the ground with the spade, then pry it up, splitting apart the base of the T.  The other would gently place a sapling, each about six inches high, in the crevice, and press the ground back together around the fragile stem.  When we finished a row, we’d retrace our path, pouring water from a bucket on each new plant.

I’ve lost track of how many trees we planted in a morning, or a day, or over the entire summer.  But it had to be a lot.  Hundreds.  We’d never heard the phrase paying it forward…it hadn’t even been coined back then, I imagine.  But that’s what we—such callow, carefree boys—were doing.

I had occasion some time back to drive through that same valley, not too far north of Toronto, and I stopped to look at the fields where we had laboured—private property now, far across the river on the opposite slopes.  To my chagrin, I couldn’t see them at first.  And then the astounding reality struck home.  The fields were still there, but the green canopy of a forest covered them—a forest—shielding them from my view.

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Our forest!  Our trees!

I couldn’t walk through that forest, of course—touching the trees, remembering them in their infancy, as they passed from my hands to the soil that embraced them.  Nor, truth be told, did I really need to.  It was enough to recall those barren fields as they were, and compare them to what they became after we were there.

As I think back on that long-ago summer, I know I left things behind—sweat, friends, youth.  Lost now in the mists of time.

But, as Muir so eloquently wrote, I found my soul.

Bearing Arms

When I was about ten years old, a long time ago now, my father gave me some needed advice to deal with bullies at school.  The ones who could outrun me.

“Don’t run away,” he said.  “That’s what they want, and they’ll keep coming after you.  It’ll never stop.”

I asked what I should do, instead.  “Hit them,” he said without hesitation.

When I pointed out that such a response might result in a worse beating than usual, he said, “Maybe.  But if you land one good punch, right in the schnozz, for example, they’ll think twice the next time.  Bullies don’t like to get hurt.”

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I honestly don’t know if that was wise counsel or not.  But I remember ending up in a few fights for awhile afterwards, often enough that my mother spoke to my father about his advice.  For her, fighting was never the answer.  Talking through a problem was always the preferable option.

I’ve been an adult for quite a long time since then.  And there have been occasions through the years when I felt put upon unfairly by someone—not physically, perhaps, but in a bullying manner.  And I’ve wondered what would have happened at those times if I had continued to follow my father’s advice.

Don’t like somebody’s behaviour?  Hit him!

I suspect I might have been charged with assault, my only defense being that I was following a strategy that was, perhaps, legitimate once upon a time—but no longer.

It reminds me of the tragic situations I read about too often, it seems, in the great republic to the south of us, the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave.

In 1791, more than 225 years ago, the American government adopted an amendment to their constitution, which had been ratified two years earlier.  That amendment bestowed upon every citizen the right to keep and bear arms.  The arms in question in the eighteenth century, of course, bore little resemblance to the guns available today—some of which constitute weapons of mass destruction, by any reasonable definition.

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As recently as last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:  …the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding; and further, that its protection is not limited to …only those weapons useful in warfare.

According to the New York Times, more Americans “…have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.”

Data from the National Vital Statistics System of the U. S. Centers for Disease Control, through 2015, show that—

  • on average, there are 12,000 gun homicides every year in the U.S.;
  • seven children are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day;
  • America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other nations.

A list of firearm fatalities in the U.S. since 1999 yields more than 440,000 killed, including the awful massacres of school children in Columbine, Colorado in 1999, and in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

And this past week, of course, the lives of fifty-eight innocent souls were snuffed out in Las Vegas, Nevada by a deranged killer with an arsenal of military-grade, automatic weapons at his disposal.  All legally purchased.

As has been noted many times elsewhere, shocked politicians offer their thoughts and prayers every time to the grieving families.  Far fewer of them, however, think to call for an end to the madness.  Apparently, the slaughter of American children has become something that can be tolerated in the name of preserving the sanctity of the Second Amendment.

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That provision may have been acceptable, even advisable, when it was ratified those many years ago.  Today, however, a nation’s fawning adherence to it strikes me as being even less wise than a decision on my part to follow my father’s long-ago advice into adulthood.

When—if ever, I wonder—will that gloriously-blessed, yet grievously-afflicted nation grow up?