The Writers’ Circle
This page features work by the Writers’ Circle, which which meets on the third Tuesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. Members and guests with an interest in writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama are welcome. Please check the LAMPSletter and calendar to see whether they are taking place at the Club or over Zoom. To be put on the contact list email Martin Jones.
These four new works by members were posted as of April 25, 2022. Use the buttons, below to jump to a piece of writing.
(Previously published by the Heliconian Club in Musings: An Anthology, 2021; the Arts and Letters Club library has accepted a copy of the anthology.)
“I like walk,” says Shih.
Earth, moon, space, planet, night are printed across the classroom chalkboard’s entire width.
“You like to walk at night?” I point to the end word, hoping my expression stays as serious and earnest as those facing me. To other groups, I’d admit my stab in the dark, and we’d smile together. These students don’t know enough English.
“Yes, Miss. Dark nice.”
Most in this large high school English as a Second Language class are good attenders, conscientious about assignments. Notebooks are open, word lists ready, sentences created for homework visible underneath. Silently, Shih picks up his awkward metal chair-desk, sets it down to abut Mei-Ling’s. She moves her binder so he can also see it. He was absent yesterday.
We’re reviewing vocabulary before today’s quiz. Our text is a puny pamphlet, a tale of a man who soars into space instead of going to bed, and talks the friendly aliens he meets into bringing him home to Earth before daybreak. It was the only reading material in the storeroom easy enough and with copies for all. The plot is ridiculous, illustrations juvenile.
On the board, below each target word, classmates have chalked sentences using it. Most are about the solar system. One, for space, concerns crowds on Toronto’s subway in the morning.
“Shih, you can write I like to walk outside at night,” I tell him.
He pauses for help with outside.
Sentence complete, Armando says, “Me, too. Alone very late. Three o’clock is beautiful.”
Armando has spread his arms wide. Shih faces his classmate, lifts a hand toward the windows. They’re sharing a secret passion.
Into my head strolls a shadowy male form. Crossing a street under a moonless sky, the figure gets flattened by a delivery van. The body could be Armando, Shih, any of the other fellows. Not waiting to see who might speak next, I put beautiful, stars, black, on the board, then add safe, using the side of the chalk to make its four letters large and thick.
“How,” I ask, “do you stay safe outside, alone at night?”
In halting English, class members explain about lights, main streets, 24-hour shops. I ask if it’s okay for a girl to enjoy the wee hours by herself. Everyone agrees it’s not. It can be unsafe for a solitary guy, they also agree. Watching them write their quiz, I’m glad for the silly little book about the space travel fantasy.
They read more of the story as I mark and return their papers. Nearly all pass, two-thirds with 100 percent. Shih failed. He even missed “night.”
He always sits beside Mei-Ling. She’s in class almost every day; he comes three or four times a week. Her first language is also Mandarin. Once in a while he says a word or two to her, muting his resonant baritone. Sometimes she points to something in her binder for him.
I want him to know his presence is valuable, help him match his marks to the worth of his words in our class conversations. I want to know why he appears so irregularly. His marks, hardly any passing, none high, may be discouraging or confusing him. Lesson finished, I start a chat. He seems to listen but doesn’t reply. Maybe he thinks I’m criticizing.
Others in this group pair with classmates of the same gender. Mei-Ling is eighteen, older than all but Shih. Perhaps the two are friends, or cousins. They might be a couple. I don’t dare ask.
Some ESL teachers insist on calling students by the names in our records. Some give English-language names to those without. My students may do as they wish. A number don’t change. Others switch to English names, often experimenting with a variety. Homonyms and names already popular are common inspirations. Curious over their decisions, I inquire. Understanding bursts in eyes, and a young person’s words come in response.
In mid-September, Varvara becomes Barbara, then Barb. “Friends said, Miss.”
The next week, Kathy explains, “Kanakapriya too long, Miss.”
In early October, what work Shih hands in is labelled Geode.
Pointing to his name on the list, I ask, “Geordie?” I write the nickname on a bit of scrap paper for him to see.
He shakes his head back and forth.
“Geode, Miss, Geode,” is all he says, turning it into three syllables. He’s too polite to say “no” to a teacher, but my error is clear.
“Why Geode?” I ask. “Like the sparkly quartz inside a rock?”
He says, “School today, Miss.” He hasn’t understood.
The next week, the only day he comes, he brings his paper to my desk, writes Shih, points to his name, says, “Stone, Miss,” and then writes Geode underneath.
“Your name means ‘stone ’,” I say. I nod, tap his names on his paper, beam at him, doing everything I can think of to show him I’m happy for his explanation. His choice of name is the most unusual any of my students has ever made. He’s giving me another chance to learn his reason for it.
“Why did you choose Geode, not Stone?”
He taps his paper, copying my motions, nods and smiles at me. The subtlety of my question is too much for him. The reason behind his choice remains a sparkle concealed.
At the start of November, Mei-Ling chooses her English name.
To “Poppy?” she says, “Flower, Miss. Pretty.”
When a classmate shows the red poppy on his jacket, we discuss Remembrance Day, coming next week. In the midst of a micro-review of a few colours—red, green, black—Geode raises his hand, announces, “Red. Blood. War. White. Peace.” My lesson plan surrenders. Comrades in arms, we conquer concepts together, parading among ideas his words inspire.
He’s twenty. He can stay in public high school through the year he turns twenty-one. He’ll have to find an adult education program subsequently, if he wants to.
The second time he misses more than a week, I embolden myself and ask Poppy.
His family might be relying on his help. Or he might be a refugee, on his own. Maybe employment is a recent necessity. My learning details could help him in my class.
At his return, I ask what he does when he’s not at school.
The young man says the word slowly. Each syllable is distinct. I request details, catch nothing but “hot pot.”
I want to see him in action, smell and taste whatever’s on offer. I don’t try explaining. All I say is, “May I go?”
He writes the address. Last year at a student’s workplace on Queen West one holiday morning, my husband and I were served soft scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast, and cinnamony baked apple slices. The year before in the Beach, where a different student worked, a friend and I lunched one weekend on tender gnocchi in tomato-basil sauce. Meeting my students where they’re confident and respected gives us conversation topics, encourages them to work harder in class.
The hot-pot restaurant, on Spadina, is small. It’s jammed with long tables covered in white cloths. Between them, rows of back-to-back chairs touch. Plenty of seats are taken. As we manoeuvre to vacant places opposite one another, I spot Geode. He’s negotiating the aisle by the far wall at top speed, a tray laden with stacks of clattering plates balanced on a shoulder.
He sees us, slips his tray onto a stand, and strides over. Instead of the jeans and grey hooded sweatshirt he has on in class, he’s wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, and black slacks, vest, and bow tie. He raises an arm to gesture toward the other servers the way he had us look outdoors in class, says, “Many our school.”
A girl who’s not been in any of my classes waves, says, “Hi, Miss,” keeps walking.
Geode lopes back to his tray. The plates ring against one another as he stashes them in a sideboard. Someone else turns on the hot pot between us and brings us a platter of vegetable, meat, and seafood tidbits. My student has disappeared.
Our chopstick clumsiness turns the process of selecting, immersing, and retrieving each morsel from stock simmering in front of us into an achievement. Other diners come and go. Nobody rushes us. At the end of our meal, we savour what the broth has become. Our evening of bright warmth has been welcome in December.
The next time Geode attends class, I extol his workplace. His deep “Thank you, Miss,” reverberates off the classroom walls. I don’t jeopardize my elation by re-questioning him about why he chose his name.
On our last exam prep day, in January, the group learns to play Hangman with terms we’re reviewing. Among the leaders, with immigrant, beautiful, restaurant, is Geode. Most binders are opened to handouts or homework. His desk is clear. He ignores Poppy’s binder. At praise for his memory, he straightens his shoulders. When asked if he has his returned assignments and quizzes to study, he doesn’t answer.
With a passing grade in this course, he would progress to the next ESL level. I’ll need to decide whether his classroom contributions have shown he can succeed in that course, if his exam is decent.
It’s a fail.
As I key class members’ results into the school district’s marks program, dejection makes my fingers pause. Whenever he came, the class sparkled, but he didn’t benefit. I want him to continue in our school, want to see him stride through the halls as he did in the restaurant.
His school success might mean more to me than to him. Supposing he arrived enthusiastic in September and his priorities changed because of my class, makes me feel even worse.
I wonder about his future. Perhaps he’ll choose to become a restaurateur, perhaps find another path. Maybe his English will improve over time. Now I can’t even let him know the value of his presence in my room. Just as I never found out the rationale behind the sparkle of his name, any sparkle in his future will remain sealed to me, inside the rock-hard casing of his failure in my class.
It happened five days ago, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.
Not a big deal, maybe to you at least, especially in view of what is happening in our crazy world these days, but for some reason it meant a lot to me, and I am simply unable to forget it.
To back track briefly, last week I took an Amtrak train trip from Chicago to San Francisco (on the “California Zephyr”) and then onward from San Francisco up to Seattle (on the “Coastal Starlight”).
It was a nice trip, but that is not what I am writing about today.
I then spent a nice day touring the interesting city of Seattle and began my return home the next day with a short flight to Vancouver where I was then transferring to a longer flight back to Toronto.
Upon reaching Vancouver, I had a couple hours layover until my Toronto flight departed.
I took myself to a food court to get some lunch, and took my overpriced and undercooked meal to a secluded seat in the food court to consume my meal.
As I was leisurely eating, I was startled to see a small bird – a sparrow I think – land on the floor under a table, looking, I would assume, for food scraps.
How did this little creature get into this enclosed terminal building? I could only guess. I felt very sorry for it.
But more important, how would this imprisoned and likely very scared tiny bird get out of this enclosed terminal building?
I didn’t see any others of its kind in the vicinity and wondered how long it had been in the building and how it would possibly survive. Where would it find water, or sufficient food to stay alive.
And even if it did survive, for however long, what kind of life would it have. It would have no other birds to flock with, and no opportunity to find a mate, build a nest, and raise offspring.
I watched as it flew all around, landing here and there, finding crumbs of bread or whatever in the process.
Eventually it flew away to another part of the terminal, I would assume desperately looking for a way to escape to outdoor freedom.
As I said, it has been 5 days since I saw this little bird and I am still wondering, and hoping, that he managed to find a way out of his imprisonment.
I know, I should be more concerned with the innocent people who have lost their lives or their homes in Ukraine. I am concerned about them, as we all are, but I don’t know any of them, and I can’t see them with my own eyes.
I did however see this little scared bird and that makes it somewhat personal, to me at least, and for 5 days I have not been able to get that forlorn bird out of my mind.
A Sometime Husband
The Opening Chapter to a Novel
“I don’t want to go!” George refused to get into the back seat of his mother’s car.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, why ever not?”
“It’s boring,” George muttered this between his teeth. “Old ladies sit around and talk about flowers and cooking and stuff and grumble about their husbands …”
“That’s enough!” His mother had heard. Then, softening her voice she said, “We can drive to the farm afterward. You can look at it, maybe walk over it.”
George slid into the back seat of the family’s old Chevy and said nothing until his mother drew up to a rambling wooden building at the junction of the main road and one that ribboned itself up into the hills. “I’ll stay in the car,” he said.
“No you won’t. You’ll get out and come in with me. Stand up straight.”
But George remained slouching in the driveway to the hall, hands in his pockets while kicking gravel with his school shoes.
“Irma, why did you bring the boy?” Several grey heads looked his way as George sulked behind his mother.
“I can’t leave him at home alone. Not a boy like him.”
A boy like him – What did she mean? But George knew. Over months and even years, he’d heard voices whispering about the house, the shop, the teachers at school. The boy needs his routines. After all that’s happened, you don’t ever want to surprise him. He needs to know in advance what he has to do.
At this moment, George looked about for his chance to escape the pitying eyes of women who gathered every month in this drafty old hall. The Women’s Institute, they called it. His thoughts raced: he could hide behind the parked cars. Make a dash for the road that ran past the petrol station. Take a short cut through the gully and so get to the farm. Twenty minutes would do it if he ran fast. And in his mind, he was already roaming with his brothers and the dogs over hills and valleys between Uncle Bruce’s farm and theirs, chasing each other across the creek, climbing macrocapa trees.
“Oh, here you are George. How are you, young man?”
George looked up, to find himself on a cold Saturday afternoon, back in the hall’s pebbled driveway, a lone boy among a bunch of nodding farmers’ wives.
“Well, little man.” At the particular inflection, George stuffed his hands tightly in his pockets. Little man? Why do grown-ups call a boy a little man? He was eleven years old, and right now he would give up everything he valued to actually be a young man and escape all this: his mother, his brothers, the butcher shop, this bunch of fussy women who seemed only to talk in banalities: “How are you? Oh, you know.” Sighs followed complaints about husbands, about badly-behaved children, about the new teacher’s demands and the upcoming autumn fair. About the quality of linen. About recipes.
“Do men have meetings to go too?” He heard his voice, high and scratchy.
Only to the beer hall.” Someone laughed.
“Here’s Kath!” His mother’s voice bounced loud in the echoing space of the community hall, and into it stepped a woman unlike any George had ever seen, unlike any of the women chatting in groups near the stage. Tiny, dressed in blues the colour of forget-me-nots, scarves the colour of a fiery sunset, she seemed to appear out of nowhere – and then she was gone – gone as though she’d never been.
At this moment, his mother’s voice jolted him.
“George, it’s rude to stare! Kathleen has come from Hamilton to talk to us about interior design and how to decorate our houses. Heaven knows I could do with the help. And you: you might learn something useful which is why I brought you.” She smiled at him briefly. “About colours and such things.”
It was not his mother’s voice he heard, but the strange woman’s fluting one, a voice that surely could silence nightingales, her smile light up a dungeon. He hung about her as the women chatted, smoked, laughed, as they gossiped and complained some more about their husbands.
Kath spread out coloured cloth and paint samples on tables, a jumble of home decorating books beside them.
“Kath, do come home with me for dinner. It will be just me, my husband and the boys – oh, and my brother-in-law Bruce. You’re not in a hurry to get back to the city, are you?”
And that was how Aunt Kath met George’s bachelor Uncle Bruce.
Piglet in Benaulim
If, like me you have wondered at George Orwell’s choice of pigs as the replacement masters in Animal Farm, wonder no more. It was not a random choice, and nor was he the first to think along these lines, he had been preceded by ancient Italians. Apparently, while working for the BBC in 1941, Orwell came across a book of Italian Folk tales in the Mother Corporation’s Library. The book included a story very similar to the plot charted in Animal Farm, which also starred pigs taking over as masters. In light of my occasional encounters with pigs, I can vouch for the astuteness of the old Italians, as well as of Orwell in having chosen pigs as the lead characters.
My first conscious experience with a pig was in Lucknow, when I was around 10 years old. While out playing in a park near home, us children were drawn to a high pitched, piteous squealing coming from the ruins of an Awadh era mansion, located in the middle of the park. The ruins consisted of tumbling down outer walls, which surrounded a courtyard full of debris, centered by stumps of walls, that marked the remains of long disappeared rooms. The most prominent feature in the ruins was the still standing dilapidated central staircase, pocked with yawning holes in its risers and landings. Sheltering in the opening under the staircase was a sow with a newly delivered litter. On the staircase stood a neighbourhood ne’er do well, armed with a heavy bamboo staff.
The tableau vivant was composed of the man coming down the steps to poke and push the litter around with his staff, this would animate the mother sow to charge towards charge towards attacker, who would turn the staff on her, while scampering back up the stairs. The pathetic scenario kept being repeated, the helpless Sow desperately alternating between protecting her litter, and trying to eliminate the threat. I can still sense the palpable frustration, and helplessness of the pitiable sow. The inevitable happened not soon enough. Bleeding from the nose and mouth the sow was forced to reluctantly slink away, turning to look back at the litter every step of the way. Witnessing the pathos of the scene, before I knew I had burst into tears, much to the derisive amusement of my playfellows. The staff wielding guy came down triumphantly, gathered up the litter in a gunny sack, and took off, perhaps to sell the litter to a butcher. He didn’t look starved, so he must have used the money for movie tickets, or a bottle.
My next close encounter with pigs took place a few years ago while on a holiday in Benaulim, a coastal village in South Goa, as opposed to North Goa, which is unofficially reserved for the young. Benaulim is a charming little sleepy village, sitting around the crossroads of two rural streets, whose intersection was occupied by two general stores, selling regular general products such as milk, pop, tea, basic medication, etc. as well as recharge of cell phone minutes. A travel agent, renting out mopeds, took up the third corner, with a small Chai shop taking up the final corner. The beach was a 5 minute walk west from the crossroads, passing a few modest rundown mansions, as well as two 3 storey buildings housing 6 tourist apartments each, and that was about it.
Our resort itself sat a 5-minute walk on the road running South from the crossroads. The eastern side of the road was lined with Dhabas – makeshift restaurants – outside the resort gates. The other side was littered with bright colorful little temporary stalls, either on the ground or on bicycle wheels, depending on the vendor’s prosperity. The stalls were stacked with all kinds of cheap, trinkets, glass bangles, obscene do dads, wooden and plastic toys, scarves, and other, similar, touristy junk. At first sight, in sunlight, the stalls presented a riot of incomprehensible, colours. under the sun. After sundown the stalls were lit by Petromax and Hurricane lanterns, giving the little market the feel of a village fair. During our stay we actually noticed a couple of new stalls come up in the last of the empty spaces, proving once again that nature abhors a vacuum.
On the second last day of our stay, as usual we started out for the beach after breakfast. Walking towards the crossroads, passing the closed stalls, we were assailed with a godawful caterwauling of men shouting, dogs barking, and a high-pitched squealing, coming from somewhere behind the stalls. The noise was so unusual that I couldn’t stop myself from entering a gap in the stalls, and rush west to investigate.
A few yards beyond the stalls stood a line of trees, which turned out to be sheltering an open-air soccer pitch. The pitch was ringed by a 2 feet high brick fence meant, I supposed, to double as spectator seating. If not for the cacophony it would have been quite a bucolic sight. Instead, the scene was comprised of a ‘pre-teen’ piglet, trapped in the netting of the near goalposts, squealing away helplessly. Four dogs had surrounded the goalposts and were running around barking their heads off with stupid abandon. A local, dressed in a lungi, was yelling at the dogs to be quiet and, at the same time, trying to free the piglet by attacking the netting with an ineffective knife. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say neither the knife, nor its wielder were the sharpest tools in the drawer. On the other side of the goalpost was Mama Pig waddling off towards the brick fence, followed by the remaining brood of 5 piglets.
Just as Mama Pig reached the gap in the brick fence she hesitated, looked back, then turned around and started locomoting towards the goalposts and the trapped piglet. The litter stopped, turned around in a circle, maintaining their order, and took off after Mama. Noticing the new movement, the dogs turned their attention towards the coming pig family and made as if to attack them. In face of the danger to the litter Mama lost her nerve, and started to retreat towards the fence, followed obediently by the litter. Just as they reached the fence, one of the piglets broke rank, turned around, and came charging in his waddle towards the goalposts, holding his trapped sibling.
Whether it was sibling love, or plain cussedness, I swear there was determination in the little fellow’s expression. You could clearly see the fire in his eyes. It was obvious he was not going to give up, or back down. He simply kept coming, ignoring the squealing pleas from his mother. It was a sight to behold. All the dogs stopped in mid bark, to stare at him and then, without looking at each other they slunk off. Given the respite I joined the hungover local and managed to free the little fellow without damaging the net, and the piglet happily joined his saviour sibling. Without so much as looking at each other, the two waddled off to the gap in the fence and disappeared. Perhaps, because I am an only child, I was deeply touched by this story book ending of a sibling having the others’ back against all odds and winning.
The determination of the little piglet also reminded me of an incident in Toronto, during the early 80s, when I was working at Bay and Bloor. At lunch time I would generally walk down South on Yonge Street, a full of life stretch of road. During my strolls I had noticed a young, about 15 or 16 years old, Punjabi boy, operating a hot dog cart in the parking Lot at the South East corner of Carleton and Yonge. A few feet away was another cart, run by a man of seemingly Eastern European extraction. A few days later I noticed a policeman yelling and gesticulating at the Punjabi boy, seemingly asking him to leave, while the other vendor stood by smirking. To make his point, the policeman took down the boy’s cart umbrella, and threw it down. The boy first looked exasperated, not sad, then his expression changed to white hot fury. Next thing I saw, he lost it. He withdrew the iron rod used for supporting the umbrella. With the rod in his upraised hand, he went running towards the other vendor, right in front of the cop. Both men immediately recognized the unrelenting pitiless look in his eyes. The other vendor ran for his life, while the policeman grabbed the boy in a bear hug, managing to prevent serious damage all round.
I prefer to think that George Orwell would have approved of the Punjabi boy’s actions to avenge himself. After all Eric Blair, albeit reluctantly, did shoot the Elephant in Burma out of a sense of duty. Similarly, as a matter of principle, Eric Blair didn’t hesitate in taking up arms in Catalonia, at great personal sacrifice and danger, in order to make a concrete contribution to the fight against fascism.