by Diana Cranstoun
Morag woke with a start. Today was her last day in Canada. After all these years the Second World War was finally over and she was going home. She wanted to go home. Didn’t she?
Last night at the party she’d said her goodbyes to all her friends and cried as they’d filled her arms with presents to take back to the ‘old country’, a country she hardly remembered. In turn she’d given them gifts, little mementoes to remember her by when the miles and years stretched between them.
All except Auntie Jean.
She wanted to give Auntie Jean something special. Something to thank her for accepting an almost stranger into her childless home. Something to thank her for sitting on the back porch and comforting her when she’d wept her first tears of homesickness. Something for replacing the mother she’d left behind in Britain. For being there. But in the end she couldn’t think of anything special and had settled for a jar of Auntie Jean’s favourite face cream.
Morag pulled the covers up to her chin and burrowed into their warmth. Britain had been at war for almost a year before she’d left, but somehow it hadn’t seemed real. The Phoney War the papers had called it, but the Fall of France had put an end to that. Dad’s five days without food on the beaches of Dunkirk had convinced him of Hitler’s resolve to invade Britain. He’d told Mum to get out of the country, to go to Canada to stay with Jean, her older sister, the one who’d married a soldier after the last war. The war to end all wars, they’d called that one. But Mum had refused. She wasn’t going anywhere without Dad and with a baby.
Mum had sent Morag, though. At ten years of age, Morag had travelled in convoy across the U-Boat infested Atlantic, then by train, clear across a continent. Morag closed her eyes and drew the sheet over her head. She could still hear the clacking of the wheels on the rails, still see the mile upon mile of empty countryside and sky that stretched to forever. Her first impression of Canada, a country where God had forgotten to add the people.
Who’d have guessed the RAF would have held the skies above Britain and Hitler turn his army against Russia.
Morag looked around her room. This would be the last time she’d wake up to its pink floral pattern. The last time she’d be able to draw back the curtains and watch the sun paint the prairie with wide golden strokes. The last time the sizzle of pancakes would entice her downstairs on a chilly morning. The last time Chinook clouds would arc the sky. The last time magpies would caw from their favourite branch on the poplar tree in the front yard. Back home they called the front yard the front garden. She’d have to unlearn the word ‘yard’.
Sighing, Morag traced her finger across the black and white photo of her parents, baby sister and herself, which sat propped against her lamp, and traced her finger round the images of her parents, baby sister and herself. It was the last photograph they’d had taken as a family before Dad went off to France and she came to Canada. Mum had sent others since, pictures of Mary walking, Dad on a camel in Egypt, Mum in her nurse’s uniform, Mary’s first day of school, but this was the picture Morag kept by her bedside. The whole family. Together. Mum had worn her favourite blue silk dress that day. Was it still her favourite, Morag wondered, or did she have a new one by now?
And Dad. In his latest photograph he was wearing a moustache. It made him look like Clark Gable. In his letter, he said he’d grown it to cover a scar above his lip, but he’d never explained how he got the scar.
Morag looked at the infant in her mother’s arms. Mary, her baby sister. Not a baby any longer, but a school kid.
She pulled her hand back under the warmth of the covers. Schoolgirl. She’d written the word ‘kid’ in one of her letters home and Mum hadn’t liked it. Oh, in her next letter, she’d made a joke about kids being baby goats, not baby humans, but Morag could tell she wasn’t pleased. Not really.
She closed her eyes. Another word to unlearn.
The tread of familiar footsteps echoed from the hallway, followed by a gentle tap on the door.
“Morag?” Auntie Jean whispered. “Morag? Are you awake, pet?”
Morag fumbled with the covers. “Yes. I’m awake.”
The door opened with a creak and Auntie Jean tiptoed into the room, a cup of tea in her hand.
“I’ll need to get Hank to mend that door,” she muttered with a frown. “Sounds like a mouse with piles.”
Morag smiled. She was going to miss Auntie Jean’s expressions. Auntie Jean and Mum were nothing alike. Mum was always so proper and correct. Sometimes it was hard to believe they were sisters.
Auntie Jean sat down on the bed and Morag wriggled closer to the wall to make room.
“Seeing as how it’s your last day, I thought you might like a wee cup of tea in bed,” Auntie Jean said, setting the cup and saucer down beside the photograph. “Here,” she tugged at the pillows, “let me sort these out for you, make you a little more comfortable so you don’t spill anything on yourself. “
Morag pushed herself into a sitting position and leaned back against the freshly punched pillows. She felt her throat grow tight so she swallowed hard. Auntie Jean tucked a strand of Morag’s hair behind her ear and smiled, but the lines at the corner of her eyes didn’t crinkle the way they usually did. She placed the cup and saucer in Morag’s hands. “I’d have brought you up some sugar cookies too,” she said, “but they all disappeared at the party last night. Just as well I thought to bake you an extra batch and pack them in your suitcase for your trip.”
Morag took a sip of tea. She’d never drunk tea until she came to Canada. Mum didn’t think it was a suitable drink for children. Same with coffee. Uncle Hank always said that Limeys hadn’t a clue how to make coffee. He reckoned it tasted more like pig swill than anything else. Auntie Jean had once said that the first thing she learned as a new bride in Canada, was how to make coffee, black and strong.
Morag’s hand trembled as she set the cup back on the saucer. Just yesterday morning, Morag had watched Auntie Jean pack a tin of coffee for Morag to take home, along with the sugar and stockings and soap and talcum powder she knew were scarce in post-war Britain.
“Cold?” Auntie Jean asked.
Morag shook her head.
Auntie Jean took Morag’s hand. “I’m not going to pretend it’s going to be easy for you at home, Morag,” she said, “but you’ll cope. Just the same way you coped when you came here. Remember, you’re going back to people who love you. When you came to Canada, you didn’t know anything about me, or Uncle Hank, or Canada. For heaven’s sakes, we might have been monsters and you were going to have to live with us for who knows how long. You didn’t even know if you’d even be able to go back home. Everybody thought Hitler was going to win.” Her grip tightened. “But we weren’t monsters… I don’t think.” She smiled, and this time it did reach her eyes. “Even though you probably thought so when Uncle Hank bullied you into learning how to ice skate and wouldn’t let you quit when you kept falling on your bottom. You did cope – with everything. And Hitler didn’t win.”
Morag squeezed Auntie Jean’s hand. “The kids here called me a bomb dodger.”
“And more than likely you’ll get called that again when you go back to Britain – at first – but it won’t last for ever.”
“I got teased about my accent when I came here.”
“And I’m sure you’ll get teased about your Canadian one when you go back.”
“Do you think Mum and Dad will let me wear lipstick on weekends and date the way you do?”
Auntie Jean drew her hand away and fussed with the bedcovers. “I don’t know about that. Your Mum might take a while to get used to the idea that you’re all grown up now, but I don’t think she’ll stop you from writing to Brad.” She smiled. “Just think, you’ll have to get used to wearing a school uniform again. Wouldn’t Brad just love a picture of you in that.
Morag groaned. “I’ll have to wear a tie. And a beret.”
Morag reached for her tea and took another sip. “I was put up a grade when I came to Canada. Most British kids were. I won’t get put down a class at home, will I? I couldn’t stand being in a class with fourteen year-olds. They giggle whenever a boy winks at them.”
The bedsprings creaked as Auntie Jean stood up. “No point wasting energy worrying about things that might never happen, Miss Worrywart.” She planted a kiss on Morag’s forehead. “Now, finish your tea and I’ll go downstairs and get breakfast ready. Waffles, bacon and maple syrup. I thought you’d like that. “
Waffles, bacon and maple syrup. Her favourite. “Thanks.”
Auntie Jean reached for the door handle, then turned and looked back. There was a catch in her voice as she spoke. “I’m going to miss you, Morag. This old house is going to be awfully empty without you, but it’s time you went back to your Mum.” Auntie Jean swiped at her eye. “Sounds like a mouse with piles,” she muttered as she closed the squeaky door behind her.
Morag watched her robe swing gently backwards and forwards on the door hook. It’s time you went back to your Mum. She swallowed down the rest of her tea then pulled her journal from beneath her pillows. Mum had given her a hard-backed notebook as a going away present and told her to write in it every day. When she got back they would read it together so they’d be able to account for every day they’d spent apart. She was on her fifth journal now. She flipped through the pages. This and the other books recorded her first cavity, her first ice skates, her first Halloween pumpkin, her first period, her first nylons, her first hamburger, her first Hershey bar, her first kiss.
Maybe she should tear out the page about the kiss.
A dried flower slid from between the pages. Morag picked it up and held it gently between her fingers. A forget-me-not. The blue of its petals was faded now, the leaves brittle and fragile. She and Mum had been sitting in the garden that last day, the bees humming around the roses and iris, when Mum had picked that tiny blue flower from the rockery and placed it in Morag’s palm.
“Forget-me- not, Morag,” Mum had said.
The scent was gone now, but the memory of that day was still there. The day she’d said Goodbye to Mum, not knowing if she’d ever see her again. She fingered its delicate stem and smiled. A Forget-me-not from her garden back home. She’d give it to Auntie Jean as a reminder, the way Mum had given it to her all those summers ago.
She’d said it right. Garden, not yard.
She was going home. She wanted to go home. Mum and Dad and Mary would be glad to have her back.