There is a kind of fog in this city that seems to put everyone on edge. Sometimes too there is a cold hard rain, and not just in the winter months. Between the fog and the rain it can be hard to see the shape of things. You walk down the slope from your boarding house, looking for the lights of the train station, but you might end up at the front doors of a private club of some kind.
It was wartime, and the city was under wraps. In the newspapers they just called it an East Coast Port. There were posters on the corners telling people to watch what they said. Report strangers. Loose lips sink ships.
I was still working, but I knew my days were numbered. My supervisor had told me I would have to go. Not because of the work I was doing. He said it was good, and I already had my name on two research papers. Getting some recognition, as part of a team, that’s the way it goes in the sciences. Not bad for somebody who had just finished a bachelor’s degree.
But the war was changing ideas about what was worth doing, and I couldn’t disagree. We all knew, in my crowd at least, that fascism would have to be stopped. After all, we had marched and shouted and raised money for Spain, and when the famous doctor visited the college and told us what he had seen with his own eyes and what he had done with own hands, we were ready to sign up. Not so fast, he told us. Spain is almost over. There will be more to come. Finish your studies. Get ready.
As they say in the histories, it was a confusing time. Too much over-thinking and you could call it a phoney war or somebody else’s war or even an imperialist war. My friend Don found it all too hard to stomach. He left on a steamer and signed up in the British army, under his mother’s name.
The next night, I was sitting alone at the kitchen table, just peering out the window into the rain. I heard steps in the street. They sounded loud and heavy, probably because the house was so quiet, though they say sounds carry louder in the wet air. The steps came closer. I looked out doubtfully and saw that it was a man in uniform. He stuffed an envelope through the mail slot and turned around and walked away.
I knew I was under some kind of surveillance. Not all that surprising. I was an outsider. Wrong name, wrong background, wrong friends, wrong city. I knew Charlie had been arrested for keeping on with his union work with the fishermen down the south shore. He came from a prominent Presbyterian family, but it didn’t stop them putting a heavy hand on his shoulder and taking him away, just as he was getting into a car to take his wife to the hospital.
In those days, nothing would surprise me. But I wasn’t doing anything. Just going to the lab and talking to the comrades in the Chinese restaurant and hanging around in coffee shops. Waiting on the next turn of events. Writing notes. I even sent a few stories and poems to Toronto and Montreal but nothing was being published. Everyone waiting.
I picked up the damp envelope from the floor and opened it. There was just a single sheet there, a typed letter from Time magazine, addressed to me! What was this about? My mind was racing. I never wrote anything for them. I never sent them anything. Why would I? But for some reason they were writing to me, my name and address.
Dear Sir, it said, and went something like this: Thank you for your story about the conditions in your city. We have read it and would like to publish it. However, keeping in mind the current state of war in your country, we believe this to be inadvisable for security reasons.
I was used to rejection letters. Usually shorter than this. Sometimes only a checked box. Too many submissions. Read with interest. Not suited to our needs at this time. No encouragement, or discouragement. Suit yourself.
This had to be a trap. A copy of the letter was probably sitting in my police file already. A security violation. I would be picked up soon.
I knew what I had to do. Take a lunchbucket and overalls and walk down the slope through the night fog to the train station. Duck through the pillars into the lobby and buy a ticket. But don’t sit on the passenger benches there. Walk in with the railway men changing shift. Stay with them there in the freight yard until they can put you on the morning train.
Morris Alexander is a Canadian writer.