The cold morning air shocked Ernest John’s cheeks as he followed his grandfather down the five wooden steps from the back porch. The chickadees stopped arguing and scattered away, creating a rare moment with no sound at all. Ernest John was the namesake of his grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, whose nickname in the family was “Poppy”. To Poppy’s slight amusement and disappointment, six year old Ernest John had recently stood on the fireplace hearth in the livingroom and declared that he preferred to be called John, instead of Ernest.
Poppy stopped before reaching the white gate at the sidewalk and waited, watching John poke along the narrow path with his head down. “C’mon. Let’s go son.” Poppy always called him son instead of grandson, and John liked it. It made him feel special. “Okay” John agreed, trotting a few steps to return his small, freezing hand into the security of Poppy’s large, gloved, waiting one.
Kitty-corner across the street from Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland stood the bus stop sign where they caught the Lake Hill bus everyday. It took Poppy downtown to his Manager job at the Yates Hotel, and took John closer to his private school in Esquimalt.
After about five minutes of knocking his knees together, feeling the frigid morning air creep uncomfortably up into his private school short pants, John saw the bus coming up the street. It had felt like forever.
The driver greeted them with a familiar smile and a deep, gravelly “Hello, Mr. Clarke”. John smiled at the driver and got a quick wink in return. Poppy knew everyone on their route. Victoria was a city, but in 1972 it wasn’t too big for familiarity and good morning greetings.
Shuffling towards the back of the bus, they passed a girl sitting with her big brother. She was blonde, tied back in pigtails, with a round face and a sour expression. The girl recognized John and stuck out her tongue. He didn’t understand the reaction and tried to ignore it.
Poppy had noticed the little exchange. As they sat down, he leaned over and whispered “What was that all about?”
John didn’t want to say, but the girl had stuck her tongue out at him a few times before, and then pouted when he didn’t respond. He pictured the girl sitting in her desk in their little classroom, two rows in front of him and one row to the right. He pictured how she always loved to put her hand up first and answer the Teacher. She thought she was cute and maybe she was. Maybe he hated her, he thought. He wasn’t sure how he felt, and finally just shrugged. “That’s Tracey,” he told Poppy. “She goes to my school.”
Poppy watched her squirm and squabble with the boy next to her, and looked down at his grandson, who seemed so passive and distant most of the time, but especially now. “Hm.”
Poppy sat back and closed his eyes, remembering his wife Edna, and how she used to make the boy his oatmeal. She’d only been gone for a few months, and Ernest sat as straight-backed as he could in spite of how lost he really felt without her. At seventy-four, he was long-past retirement age, but needed the money, and anyway, what else could he do? The job was practically the only thing he had left to call himself a father and a provider.
After a few minutes, he heard John singing quietly to himself, and listened to his grandson’s small soprano singing voice ringing quietly until they got off by the Yates Hotel. It was a pure, high-pitched echo of the voice that John’s mother Angela had once had. Angela, who had been the apple of his eye. Angela, who at 41 now spent most of her time sleeping and drinking, having surrendered her joys and creativity to manic-depression and alcoholism. Ernest Huntley didn’t know if he could truly ever help his daughter, but he knew that he could help her six year-old son and her four year-old daughter. He pictured John and little Kimberley laying on the living-room carpet, talking and colouring together peacefully, and he smiled to himself. They were good kids with an uncertain future.
Later, as they stood on the pavement waiting for the second bus which would take John to the front door of his school, Poppy straightened John’s cap and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The second bus pulled up and the large Irish driver greeted Poppy and waved John aboard.
“Have a good day and be a good boy,” Poppy said. He really meant for John to have a happy day and to remember that he was already a good boy. John looked up into Poppy’s blue-grey eyes and loved him, and tried to smile. He hated going to school. He climbed aboard the bus and waved from his seat, and worked up a fake smile for his grandfather.
Poppy would never tell his grandson how he’d been shipped over to Canada from West Sussex in 1910 at the age of twelve, “transferred to another family” in Canada” under an English Home-Child program which lessened the burden on large poor English families by paying them to ship their youngsters overseas to work in other people’s farms and gardens. The lad waving back to him was too young to understand how some families just unravelled from the outside-in, or in the case of John’s mother, from the inside-out. Hopefully, John would never need to know.
All that mattered was the family that he had today, and the bus which would come for them again tomorrow morning.