Chug-a-chug-a, chug-a-chug-a had become as much a part of Sara as her heart beat. She sat in the glass domed observation car of the trans Canada train and felt the deep rumbling around her, under her, inside her. She didn’t want to be there, so she pushed out her lower lip in her trademark pout, in an attempt to add to her mother’s sense of guilt.
Her younger brother, Russ, craned his neck, hoping to see the engine as they went around a curve, while Sara’s younger sister waltzed her Barbie doll across the wide velour seat. Like Becky, she didn’t want to go to White Rock for Christmas. There was no appeal in cramming themselves into their grandfather’s small condo. They wanted to be home with their friends, surrounded by the familiar, comfortable in their own rooms, with their toys for entertainment. But against all their whining and complaining, their mom had moved forward with her plans. This first Christmas after their father’s death, she insisted they spend in B.C. (Before Christmas was wrecked).
Outside the glass enclosing them like a cage, towering mountains jabbed the clouds. Sara had never seen so much snow. White had tumbled from the sky since they’d gotten on the train in Biggar, SK and followed them like an avenging angel across the prairies, through the foothills and into these looming caverns of rock. It muffled the train’s strained beat as the engine pulling twenty-two cars lumbered up the side of a mountain, slower, slower, snail’s pace slow. The conductor had announced at breakfast they were already three hours behind schedule. Sara felt like the sky had engulfed her, swallowed her whole. She would be trapped in this dismal world forever.
She’d wanted to stay in the compartment and lose herself in a book. Her mother had other ideas. “You’ll never have an opportunity to see such wonderful scenery again. Now, quit sulking and come with me.” Sara practiced small rebellions all the time. But wise to her ways, her mother rejected all Sara’s excuses and pleas, and gave her the look. Sara had no power against this weapon, because you never outright disobeyed a parent. Besides, disappointing Mom always made her gut churn like the old washer agitating clothes behind their summer cabin. Sara scoffed at the world of grey outside the glass dome, making certain her mother heard the mocking sound. She never wanted to see this scenery again. Her mother was selfish, and mean, dragging her away from home at Christmas. Sara curled her legs under her on the cold leather seat and thought of her boyfriend. He was such a hunk. He made her feel safe when he held her. She wouldn’t see him for two weeks now. How could her mother do this to her?
“Play with me, Sara. You promised.” Even though she was sixteen, Sara grabbed the second Barbie and threw herself into Becky’s game, imagining her boyfriend was the prince and she was waltzing in his arms. Pretending was the only thing that helped her escape the reality of her father’s death … for a few minutes. Her mother had sewn them each extensive wardrobes for their dolls. They had far more clothes than most their friends, exquisite ball gowns of sheer, floating fabric, miniature blue jeans and sweaters, nylon stockings and glamorous hats. “Serena is going to the ball, and will win prince charming away from all the other girls,” she declared, as she slid her doll into a gown of pale green net over a silky underskirt.
“No way. The prince already loves Caroline.” Becky twirled her doll across the seat for emphasis.
The eerie sound of the whistle pierced her thoughts as the train approached a tunnel dug into the side of the mountain. Sara gasped for air when they chugged into the dark hole. Would an avalanche swoop down out of the invisible world above, raining rock and snow on them, burying them alive? The world turned black as they wound deeper, the slithering snake of a train seeking a lair, somewhere away from the cold and endless falling snow. She held her breath as the chug-a-chug-a slowed. Would the train stop, trapped by some unseen obstacle, leaving them saturated in darkness?
Then a glimmer of light fell at the front of the car, like the brief lifting of a curtain onto the day. She sucked in air, realizing she’d starved her body of oxygen. What a miserable time. Her mother faced the window, her eyes blank, skin tight and pale, against bones that hadn’t been so prominent months earlier. A wet line tracked her cheek. Sara tried to imagine how she felt, being left alone with five children at the age of forty-five. But as soon as she thought of her father, she felt like a sumo wrestler had leapt on her crushing her into the floor. Tears filled her eyes and pain stabbed her heart like the jagged points of broken ribs.
“Lytton, B.C.” The conductor’s booming voice filled the observation car, as he stepped through the door. Icy air and a blast of carbon smelling fuel accompanied him. Sara hunched into her sweater, wishing she’d worn her jacket, while her mom stopped the conductor. “Sorry Ma’am. We’ve lost another forty minutes with the heavy snow. We won’t be getting into your station until 6:45 tonight.” He checked his pocket watch, cocked his head to the side and closed his eyes. Snapping them open and catching Sara staring at him, he winked, nodded his head at he mother. “Yep, 6:45 if we don’t have further delays.” Mom’s shaky sigh accompanied him out of the car.
“Grandpa’s going to be sitting at that station a long time.” Her voice sounded weary and worried, much like it had for months. Sara pressed against her mother’s side. She curled her legs under her and twisted a strand of hair around and around her finger. Her mother shifted so that Sara sank more heavily against her soft body. For a few seconds she forgot where they where and why, and soaked up comfort, but that wasn’t her mission. She wanted to give comfort, as well. When her mother’s body relaxed and she slanted her a smile, Sara felt as good as when she’d won the badminton championship at school.
Lunchtime released them from the prison of the glass car. They went down the stairs, and lurched their way along the length of the train from one car to the next. Sarah like struggling with the heavy metal doors, holding them open for Mom and Becky, then hearing the hissing weight as they sealed behind her. By the time they reached the dining car, saliva flooded her mouth and her stomach gave an impatient growl. Seated at a table with white linen and heavy sterling, CPR engraved on each piece, she chose from a menu as good as any restaurant. While Becky asked for her inevitable grilled cheese sandwich and fries, and her mother chose a bowl of soup and crackers, which Sara bet would be only half eaten, she decided on Hungarian goulash. She loved trying new foods, and hoped she’d like this choice as much as her chicken pastry from the night before. She’d seen Zaza Gabor on television and read in a movie magazine that she came from Hungary and loved goulash with paprika.
“At this rate, your sister and brother will get there ahead of us.” Mom passed the basket of warm bread to Russ.
“Why couldn’t we all fly? It would have been a lot better than this.” Sara muttered.
“You know your brother had work and Hannah had exams and couldn’t take off the days needed to travel by train. I thought this would be a real treat for you.”
“I like riding on the train.” Russ handed the basket on to Becky.
Sara spooned up her goulash. Outside the wide window white flakes fell, landing on the glass. Like runway models, they paused so she could admire their intricate shapes, before they melted and glided down the smooth surface. In a trance-like state she finished her meal.
But contentment was ephemeral. Within an hour the train was stopped by an avalanche ahead on the tracks. She tried to think good things – at least the tons of snow and torn out trees wasn’t on top of them. But as the hours passed and her mother’s face grew more pinched, her eyes darker with strain, Sara cursed the snow, the tracks necessary to carry the train, the engineer and men moving the obstruction. They were six hours behind schedule when they pulled into the tiny station perched in a narrow valley, where they would meet Grandpa.
Night had long since fallen, and darkness ruled as they stepped onto the wooden platform. The steward set their suitcases onto the wind swept planks. Mom thanked him and gave him a tip. She’d given Russ the tip for the conductor, who’d been so good to them. Russ had it folded neatly in his hand, and stepped forward. Whatever he said was washed away by the wind, but Sara saw him shake the man’s hand and transfer the money, somewhat awkwardly. He turned with a wide grin of satisfaction. The conductor tipped his hat and waved as he picked up the metal step he’d set down for them, and leapt back onto the train. “All aboard,” the conductor called into the gusts of wind. “All aboard.” But no one waited to step onto the train. The station seemed deserted. Mother herded us inside, her head swivelling around the chilly room as she looked for her father. He wasn’t there. A clerk dozed behind the counter, a slice of bald head visible through the small opening where the business of purchasing tickets happened. Mom’s steps lacked the lightness and speed with which she usually moved. “I wonder if there has been an older gentleman waiting here earlier?”
“Ha’n’t seen anybody all day.” He pushed his narrow frame upright, causing the swivel chair to protest in a series of high squeaks.
“May I use your phone to place a call, then?”
“Sorry Ma’am. The phone lines are down somewhere between here and White Rock. Can’t help you.”
Mom wobbled a few steps and sank onto a wooden bench. “Oh no. What now?”
“Maybe the snow held Grandpa up, too.” Sara took her mom’s hand. “Come sit by the stove, Mom. You’ll be warmer.” Once she had her mom closer to the heat, and Becky tucked in beside her, Sara went outside and looked all around. Russ followed her, swooping from one side of the platform to the other, like an owl riding the currents. The wind swept the snow into banks that, in turn, exposed and covered the deck. A ridge was already collecting along the bottom of their suitcases. With a last look at the empty parking lot, and the bushy sides of the looming mountains, she seized the two of the suitcases and hauled them inside. Becky was asleep, lying with her head on her mother’s lap, her legs curled along the hard bench, covered with mother’s coat. She shivered and leaned a little closer to the stove. She tightened her lips. Why did her mom always have to sacrifice her comfort for someone else’s? Russ carried in a case that banged against his knees with every step. Sara slammed back through the door to get the last case. Pacing on the platform she gulped in huge mouthfuls of air, trying to smother the tumult inside her. She hated her mother for dragging her out here, for always putting duty before fun, for being so busy with her clubs and doing stuff for old people that she never had time for Sara. “Bloody hell!” The fire of rebellion heated her blood as she sang out words she was forbidden to say. In seconds a flurry of snow down he collar cooled her brief revolt. Shoulders hunched, Sara hefted the last suitcase and stomped inside.
Slamming the case onto the floor, and her butt into the furthest bench from her mother, didn’t alleviate her anger, at her mother for forcing her to come, at Grandpa for not being there, at Becky for getting all the comfort and warmth of her place beside Mom. Her mom hadn’t even reacted to all her noise. Sara stewed, mixing in a dozen slights and remembered wrongs until the flavor was so bitter she couldn’t stomach the taste. Talk about selfish. She was the queen! Right now Mom needed her father, stepmother and sister for support. During one of Sara’s rants she’d tried to explain her decision. “I can’t face the memories of past Christmas’s at home with your dad. All our friends will visit and offer condolences, again. Each time it brings your father’s death so close – too real. I can’t deal with losing him.”
With a heavy sigh breathed into the chilly room, Sara crossed to her Mom’s case and took out a sweater. “Mom, put this over Becky’s legs and wear your jacket. You’re going to get so chilled you catch a cold.” Her mother’s smile was sweet and non judgmental. She did as Sara asked. “Sit with us.” Her quiet voice held strength. Sara had watched her face every obstacle caused by her father’s sudden death, with courage and dignity. She had utter faith in her mom. She settled down on the other side of her, and packing her angst away gave her mom as much comfort as she’d take.
For two hours they waited. Sara’s stomach burned from anxiety. What would they do if Grandpa couldn’t get there, if they were trapped for days in the tiny station with no food? At least there was a bathroom. Sara entertained Becky and Russ as best she could, choosing word games and singing the alphabet song until they couldn’t think of one more nursery rhyme. And then something special happened. Mom started talking about growing up on the farm, about Grandpa and Gramma as a young couple with two girls. About how her younger sister, Arlene, had followed Grandpa around like a real tomboy, and how Gran had had to cut off her knee length hair because she had heart disease from getting rheumatic fever as a child. Sara learned that Gran was so afraid of giving her daughter’s her illness that she never hugged them. She tried to imagine how her mother felt. No hugs! Mom’s hugs were the best in the world. And she hadn’t gotten any herself. Right then Sara vowed she would hug Mom several times each day. Everybody deserved love, even if they did make you do things you resented. As she focused on her mother’s life instead of her own perceived injuries, she began to see how hard this Christmas was for her mom. There had always been a pattern around Christmas, woven about their father’s business, their parents’ friends. Long days of baking and storing the goodies away required for the big Christmas Eve party, where all Dad’s clients and employees came to the house. Their Dad buying the tree and bringing it home, then watching from the couch as mom and kids decorated, while Debussy played on the record player and the fire crackled. They got to have cokes a rare treat, and a teeny bit of the baking. “We have to save it for our guests.” Duty bound Mom, always doing the correct thing according to society, not always what was best for her family. Sara could see her mom was too frail to take on any of those traditions this year, and could imagine how much she missed her partner’s help. Now, they both wanted their fathers. And if only one of them could have that, she was happy for Mom. She led her sister in a round of Christmas carols.
Finally the door to the stationhouse banged open. Grandpa stood backlit by the falling snow. “Kathleen,” I’m so sorry I’m late. Six foot two, enveloped in a grey wool overcoat, he strode across the floor and pulled Mom onto her feet so he could hug her. It lasted a long time, and Sara could see Mom was trying hard not to cry. Sara remembered how good she felt snuggled in her dad’s strong arms. She used to sit on his lap Sunday afternoon while he read the paper and smoked his one cigar of the week. When she was much younger, she’d pretended to be asleep when they got home from the drive-in so he would carry her up to bed. She always felt safe with her dad, and now she realized that’s probably what he mother wanted – to feel safe in a world that had turned upside down and tumbled her out. Sara’s gut clenched as she remembered all the nasty little acts, mean words and digs she’d aimed at her mom the last weeks, as if it was Mom’s fault dad had died. Grandpa turned and gave her a long look. “You’ve grown up since I saw you last. Have you been doing a good job of looking after your mom?”
“No Grandpa, but I will from now on.”