Chapter Three

This book is mostly about people I have met, famous and otherwise. Describing them with any degree of accuracy has taxed my waning memory cells to the limit, and demanded countless hours of research. It has also strained my integrity more than a little. Time and again I have heard a small voice saying:
Come now, Pat. Did it really happen that way?

At times the reply came from the hard-nosed journalist I never was.

 So what if you stretch the truth a little here and there? You’re supposed to be entertaining people, aren’t you?

 

On other occasions I would remind myself that whatever I scribbled was hardly likely to affect the reader’s regard for a Marlene Dietrich or a Mordecai Richler.

But those voices of cynicism and equivocation went silent when I approached the subject of Gabrielle Roy. New obstacles – more threatening – took form.

To begin with, I was only six years old when I first saw her. Can I trust recollections of a time so close to infancy? But that’s where I feel compelled to begin my description of Gabrielle Roy.

Was she really that beautiful? That angelic? Did that wealth of dark hair really fall like a velvet curtain between my face and my first attempts at forming the letters of the alphabet on a smeared sheet of ruled paper? Was her voice really that thrilling – low and dramatic?

Maybe my remaining memory cells are ganging up on me to play a cruel joke. Maybe my vision of the young Gabrielle Roy comes from the photographs taken of her in the ‘30s and ‘40s when her passion was acting and her outlet a tiny Francophone theatre company called Le Cercle Molière. But, no! The celebrated Quebec artist Jean-Paul Lemieux wouldn’t have taken that much liberty when he painted her portrait. And her interest in drama must surely have affected her speech.

And what I know to be true about ‘Miss Roy’ supports the impression of her I’ve carried with me like a talisman for a lifetime. She did break the rules to keep me from repeating Grade One. She did respond to my mother’s request that I remain left-handed when it was obvious my southpaw was smearing everything I wrote in ink. She was responsible for the art lessons I won as a prize in a citywide contest. And the many Gabrielle Roy books that deal with her years as a teacher reinforce my contention that ‘Miss Roy’ (pronounced to rhyme with ‘boy’ by all but a few of her pupils in her hometown, St. Boniface) taught the youngest school children she could find – and not necessarily in her mother tongue.

Fate smiled on me in the winter of 1978 and gave me a rare chance to test my recollections of ‘Miss Roy.’ But that would be getting well ahead of my story, and – to be truthful – the famous author was far from my mind that day in 1945 that I shocked the boss’ wife by revealing that the talk of Montreal had taught an unlettered prairie lout in Grade One.

Grade One! Any thoughts I had about Provencher School in 1945 would have centred on Grade Ten and the strong possibility that one or both of my final two years in school would end in failure.

And speaking of failure, my beloved Miss Roy had had her share before that uncut edition of “Bonheur d’Occasion” reached the boss’ wife. Genuine want descended on her at a time her family and friends in St. Boniface still reveled in the extravagant expectations voiced on her departure for Europe in 1937.

The ugly truth was that Gabrielle Roy’s studies – first in London and then in Paris – bore little fruit. Then came her narrow escape from the German invasion of France, and her struggle to survive in wartime Montreal.

Even her breakthrough as a novelist came at a price; it failed to impress anyone outside of the French-speaking world until Hollywood came into the picture in 1947. That year Columbia Pictures paid ten thousand dollars for the rights to “The Tin Flute,” the English translation of “Bonheur d’Occasion.” I read about the windfall in The Winnipeg Free Press at the time but it was another twenty years or more before I read “The Tin Flute” and then, realizing what I’d missed, “Where Nests The Water Hen” and my favorite Roy novel “The Cashier” in quick succession.

Besides my failing grades at school, two other problems nagged at me during those last months of World War II.

With victory in Europe, a trickle of servicemen began to return to Canada. Some were wounded, struggling on crutches or twitching from some nervous disorder. But most had been discharged early because they simply weren’t needed anymore. It was from a group in this last category, slouching at the confectionery’s soda fountain, that I got my first taste of a peculiar and unexpected prejudice.

“How old are you?” one of them asked.

“Sixteen.”

This brought knowing smiles from the vets, and a round of head shaking, guffaws and groans.

“Then you’re in for it, Sonny Boy. We licked the krauts and they were bad enough, God knows. But you young buggers will have to fight the Japs! And you’re going to have your hands full, I can tell you.”

Much has been written about Nazi propaganda and how its distortions galvanized Germany’s population, but it should be noted that our side became quite adept at the art by the time those returning vets made me a target of their frustration. Comic strips and war films portrayed the Japanese enemy as subhuman, closer to monkeys than men, and we were told they had been trained to ignore every ‘rule of war.’ And, from what we read in the newspapers and saw in newsreels in those pre-atomic bomb days, the Japanese were far from defeated, and would have to be fought to the last man on their native soil. What the vets took such pleasure in reminding me had my blood running cold.

The other worry I had at the time was closer to home. I hadn’t worked at that confectionery very long before I began to wonder why the owner only employed boys as part-time help. And when I finally screwed up enough courage to confide in another boy working in the confectionery, it emerged that he, too, had been questioned repeatedly about his emerging sexual equipment.

We were working for what boys our age called a “fairy” – a catch-all term we applied to any male we considered abnormal: from a classmate we found to be a trifle effeminate to a relative caught wearing his wife’s clothes.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I was seized by a truly terrifying thought: what if, in my blatant naiveté, I had raised the subject with my father?

“Dad, why is Mr. X so interested in my – you know – what’s between my legs?”

My father was a policeman. Off duty, he kept his Smith and Wesson Police Special revolver and its ammunition in his bedroom closet, on a top shelf, out of sight. What he had more trouble concealing was his hair-trigger temper. The mere suggestion that a “fairy” had approached his son could well have been fatal for Mr.X.

But, as it was, my problem with Mr. X was solved when I found a better-paying part-time job at a drugstore a few blocks distant. I brought my naiveté along for company. The first customer to ask me for a ‘prophylactic’ was presented with a popular brand of toothbrush.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  
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One Response to “Chapter Three”

  1. Gerry Guetre Says:

    “Le Circle Moliere” – should that not read “Le Cercle Moliere”?

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