The Home Front

CHAPTER TWO - The Boarding House

AS the taxi pulled up in front of 162 King Street, we noticed a woman’s face peering through the parlour window, her nostrils flattened against the glass. She looks like a pig, I thought as the face disappeared from view. Slowly the windowless green-painted door creaked open, and the woman stepped outside. There was no front yard; the boarding house stood right at the edge of the public sidewalk.

‘I’m Mrs. Walters and this here’s my boarding house,’ the woman told us in a raspy voice. ‘I’m not used ta childrun stayin’ here, but yer husband said ya had nowheres else ta go.’

Short and stout, Mrs. Walters had wispy grey hair pulled into an untidy bun and held in place by a nest of hairpins. Her glasses were so smeared with kitchen grease and sweat that I could barely see the colour of her eyes. Two buttons were missing from the front of her worn cotton dress, causing it to gape over her stomach, showing off a faded pink slip.

The taxi driver unloaded the luggage onto the sidewalk.

‘Ya want me ta carry this in fer ya?’ he asked.

‘Just leave it here. My husband’ll take it up ta the room,’ Mrs. Walters told him. She waved us toward the house. ‘Come on in and I’ll show ya around.’

As she shuffled up the stairs ahead of us in worn pink slippers, I noticed that her bare legs were streaked and knotted with red and blue veins. She stopped outside a room on the second floor.

‘This is where y’all sleep,’ she said. ‘Bathroom’s down the hall ta the right. Dinner’s at six. Make yerselves at home. If ya need anythin’ I’ll be in the kitchen.’

I gazed about the room. The furniture was sparse: two double beds covered with musty-smelling, faded blue bedspreads, a once-white wooden dresser with paint that had long since chipped away, and a rickety crib. The only light came from a single bare bulb, which dangled from the centre of the ceiling on a long, twisted yellow cord.

My mind flew back to our Winnipeg home. Strangers were living there now, sleeping in our beds and eating from our dishes.

I thought about my bedroom with its pink and white striped wallpaper, and my pink bedspread covered with white daisies. Mother had made it for me, and she’d made one for Barbara too, only hers was white with pink daisies. Was the mantel clock still keeping time, or had the new people forgotten to wind it? I saw the sunbeams in the early morning streaming through the living room window, and the attic where all our toys and books were stored away for the summer. I wondered if the house missed us, and blinked back the tears. I didn’t want to make Mother feel bad.

Parting the dingy curtains that covered the room’s small window, I peered through the smudged glass at the weed-infested backyard. The decaying hulk of an old Model T Ford stood surrounded by rusting bicycle parts, broken garden tools and water-filled car tires. Here and there, striving to brighten the gloom, a few persistent dandelions poked their heads through the rubble.

‘Are we going to stay here all summer?’ I asked. I tried to hide my dismay, but I knew the words came out sounding whiny.

‘It depends on your father. Now let’s go out for a walk.’

‘First, I have to go to the bathroom,’ said Barbara.

“Let’s all go.” Mother said.

We gasped as Mother swung open the bathroom door, for the room reeked of urine and stale tobacco. A long, narrow, claw-footed bathtub took up most of the space, leaving room only for a rust-streaked pedestal washbasin and a grime-coated toilet.

The shabby brown linoleum covering the old pine floor was worn away in spots and the floorboards beneath looked black and greasy. Two grubby grey towels hung crookedly from the single towel rack.

‘Ugh!’ Mother shuddered. ‘Don’t touch anything in here!

It’s a good thing I brought some towels from home. I’ll unpack them after our walk.’

She showed Barbara and me how to squat over the toilet so our bottoms wouldn’t touch the seat. ‘Remember, toilet seats are covered in germs!’ she said. ‘Especially this one!’

We held our hands under the running water in the sink, washing them as well as we could with the cake of cracked, blackened Lifebuoy soap that sat in a pool of slime in a glass soap dish.

‘At least there’s Lifebuoy soap,’ said Mother, ‘even if it’s dirty.

Lifebuoy is supposed to kill germs. I hope it works!’

We waved our hands in the air to dry them, and then followed Mother down the creaking staircase and out into the sun-filled street. We trailed behind her as she pushed Roger in his go-cart, holding hands and trying not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk.

‘Step on a crack; break your Mother’s back,’ we giggled.

We passed a grocery store at the corner of the street.

CHESTERS FOODS announced the faded red and white sign that hung from the eaves.

‘What does that sign say?’ asked Barbara.

‘Chesters Foods, but it’s spelled wrong,’ Mother told her.

‘There should be an apostrophe after the “r”.’

‘What’s an aposafee?’

‘Apostrophe. You’ll learn about it when you’re old enough to go to school.’ Mother usually took great pains to explain things.

She must be too tired, I thought.

Through the torn screen door we saw two men in overalls standing at the counter, drinking orange crush from corrugated brown bottles.

‘I’m thirsty,’ said Barbara, but Mother said the place didn’t look very clean.

‘Let’s go back to the house,’ she said. ‘Daddy should be there soon.’ She was very quiet as we retraced our steps along the street.

‘Are you sad?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, no. But I do wish your father could have met us at the station.’

‘Why didn’t he?’

‘He is always under orders from the army. He has to do what they tell him.’

‘Why can’t he say no?’

‘He just can’t. Soldiers have to obey orders.’

We played with our Raggedy dolls on the sidewalk as Mother sat on the sagging front steps with Roger on her lap.

At last, just in time for supper, Daddy arrived in a taxi. Mother flew into his arms and burst into tears. We hung back, somewhat unsure. Why was she crying? Wasn’t she happy to see him? We gazed up at him shyly. We hadn’t seen him for almost a month, and he seemed a stranger in his uniform. For the past year he had spent most of his time in training at Camp Shilo, a two-hour drive from Winnipeg. All decisions affecting his life, and ours, were made by the War Department of the federal government, and Mother was told very little.

‘Don’t cry, Darling,’ Daddy said. ‘We’re all together now.’

‘I’m sorry. I guess I’m just tired from the trip. I’ll be all right.

Let’s go in to dinner. Mrs. Walters is waiting for us.’

The small crowded dining room smelled of cooked onions, boiled beef, dust and sweat.

‘I see yer husband came,” said Mrs. Walters. ‘Ya can all sit over there.’ She pointed to four chairs on the far side of an oval table that was covered with a piece of faded blue oilcloth, spattered with barely discernible pink roses.

‘Do you have a high chair for the baby?’ Mother asked her.

Mrs. Walters showed little patience. “Nope. He’ll hafta sit on yer lap. I told ya I’m not used ta children stayin’ here. I already had ta borrow a crib from the folks next door. Good thing their little fella don’t need it no more.’

Four middle-aged men with rolled-up shirtsleeves and suspenders sat on the other side of the table. They all stopped talking and stared as we scrambled to find our places. At each end of the table was a large enamel bowl filled with watery beef stew, a platter of dry buns and a jug of tepid water. There was no butter. On the sideboard was a bowl full of home-canned peaches for dessert.

After she had brought in the food, Mrs. Walters retreated to the kitchen to eat with Mr. Walters.

‘What’s this stuff?’ Barbara piped up as Mother ladled stew onto her plate.

‘It’s beef. It will put meat on your bones,’ Mother told her.

Barbara cautiously took a bite. ‘It tastes like throw-up.’

‘Mind your manners,’ said Mother.

We were all hot, and none of us felt like eating, but I dutifully swallowed a few bites of the stew before my throat began to swell with the effort of holding back my tears. I mustn’t cry, I told myself, gritting my teeth and swallowing the coppery taste in my mouth. Everything was so strange and I wished we were back in our own home. I hated the war.

Daddy, holding Roger on his lap, fed him a bit of the meat, but Roger spat it out and began to wail. I thought that Mother looked ready to wail too.

Daddy stood up quickly.

‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said. ‘Maybe we’ll find some ice cream.’

I shyly placed my hand in Daddy’s as we left the boarding house, and he gave it a squeeze and winked at me. He looked so big and strong and handsome in his uniform, with his blue eyes and curly blond hair. Surely he would make things better, so Mother wouldn’t look so tired and sad.

Soon we came to a small park across the street from a drug store. Daddy bought ice cream cones at the soda fountain and we ate them as we played in the park. Barbara and I took turns pushing each other on the swings, and tried to see who could go fastest down the slide. Then the sun began to set, and Mother said we’d better go back to the boarding house.

‘We haven’t even unpacked yet,’ she said. Back in the room, she dug into the suitcases for pajamas, toothbrushes and clean towels. After washing and brushing our teeth, we girls climbed into bed together and Daddy tucked Roger into the crib.

‘I’ll never be able to sleep on this mattress,’ sighed Mother as she lay down. ‘It’s as hard as a rock!’

‘So is this one,’ giggled Barbara, wriggling like a puppy.

‘Well, we must try to get some rest,’ Daddy said. ‘You’ve all had a long, tiring journey, and tomorrow we’ll try to find another place to live.’ He reached up and pulled the light chain, plunging the room into darkness.

The hot air smelled dusty and stale. We tossed and turned, dozing and waking until the morning sun peeked in the window.

Exhausted, we struggled into the clothes we had worn the day before and went down to the dining room for breakfast. Once again the other boarders stopped talking and stared as we found our places at the table. Mrs. Walters was pouring coffee into chipped cups.

‘Mummy,’ chirped Barbara into the silence. ‘Was your bed really as hard as a rock?’

‘Be quiet!’ said Mother, flushing.

On the table was a box of corn flakes, a jug of powdered milk mixed with water, a plate of cold toast and a jar of gluey, red homemade jam.

‘Can’t I have a boiled egg?’ asked Barbara.

‘We have to eat what’s here,’ said Mother.

‘But I don’t like corn flakes,’ Barbara whined.

‘Just have a piece of toast then.’ Mother sounded exasperated. ‘We’ll get something else to eat later.’

Daddy went out after breakfast and Mother took us back upstairs to wait for his return.

‘He’s gone to try to find us somewhere else to live,’ she explained, ‘but it won’t be easy. The city is full of soldiers’ families.’

Roger had his morning nap and Mother read to us while we waited. An hour later Daddy returned with good news. He had found tourist cabins on the bank of the St. Lawrence River, and the owner had agreed to rent us one for the summer. Mrs. Walters hovered by the door as we loaded our belongings into a taxi.

‘Sorry yer not stayin’. I done the best I could fer ya.’

‘We appreciate your kindness,’ said Mother, ‘but we’re going to be in Brockville all summer, and the children need space to run about.’

‘Okey doke. I’ll maybe see ya sometime.’

‘Wave good-bye,’ said Mother as we drove away.