I was still an eager young teacher when I first walked into the store on Richmond Street. It was 1984. Farley Mowat was there that day, copper beard as big as Santa’s, signing the latest reprint of Never Cry Wolf, which had just been released as a movie. I’d already seen it three times. Like three-quarters of the people in this country, I’d spent my life in a 3,400-mile strip of land hugging the southern border, never out of range of American TV signals. The North was something Canadians only dimly understood but were quick to crow about to unsuspecting tourists who had trouble pronouncing “Saskatchewan.” Here was a man who’d lived the geography I struggled to teach from uninspiring textbooks, who’d made it his life’s work to explain our own country to us. A man who was crazy enough to wear a kilt to a book-signing in March, when the snow was still a foot deep outside.
I was covering the search for the Northwest Passage that week in class. I’d come armed with my well-fingered copy of his book Ordeal by Ice. But when I saw the great man himself, dutifully scribbling inscriptions when it was clear that he’d much rather be drinking rum in the nearest tavern, my resolve faltered. I pretended to browse the biography section as I rehearsed my lines in my head, waiting for my nerve to return.
“Ordeal by Ice, eh?” I heard from behind my right elbow. “Maybe you’d be interested in this.”
That was how I first met Will. Even then, he was a skilled book hustler. He had to have been in his late-twenties—he’s only a few years older than I am—but already a pair of reading glasses hung from a chain around his neck.
He pulled a biography of Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, off the shelf and handed it to me. “A classic British explorer,” he said. “Glorious in his failure.”
“Known affectionately in his day as the man who ate his boots,” I said.
Will smiled, recognizing me as a Franklin aficionado. “Did you know that more than twenty expeditions went looking for him?” “And in the process charted the passage he died looking for,” I added. “Some say it was the largest search-and-rescue operation to this day.” “History teacher,” he said, his first impressions of me confirmed. “Am I right?”
“Guilty,” I confessed. It wasn’t often that I met someone who could quote Franklin back to me chapter and verse. For most people, he was a footnote in Canadian history, the central figure in a vaguely familiar tragedy that hadn’t been important enough to make its way onto any test they’d taken in high school.
“Did you get Farley to sign that for you yet?” he asked, eyeing the book I’d brought with me.
He sensed my hesitation. “He won’t bite,” he assured me. “At least, I haven’t heard of him doing it recently.”
“Thanks,” I said. He was right; I should just get it over with.
“Let me know if you need my help with anything,” he said and moved to another customer, leaving me to get on with it.
There was a lanky red-haired woman talking to Mowat as I approached the special table they’d set up for him. By the way she sat, with one leg swinging idly off the edge of the table as she chatted him up, I could tell she wasn’t a customer. His eyes twinkled the way men’s eyes do when a younger woman flirts with them. I was having second thoughts again, afraid that interrupting them might not put me in Mowat’s favour.
The woman noticed me hovering. She leaned over to Mowat. “A member of your public awaits,” she said, patting him affectionately on the hand. She stood up, making way for me with a polite smile. Now I could see what had made his eyes twinkle. There was something very direct and unapologetic about the way she looked at me, as if for that instant I was the sole focus of her attention, the only man on earth as far as she was concerned. And then, just as quickly, her focus shifted away, and I felt strangely abandoned.
“Hello there,” Mowat said to me, inviting me to come closer.
I felt like a six-year-old who’s too shy to step up and deliver his only line at the Christmas pageant. I shuffled forward and awkwardly extended my hand.
“Mr. Mowat,” I said. “I’m a big fan.” How original of me. I wondered how many times he’d heard that line.
Mowat shook my hand and smiled graciously. “Glad you enjoy my work.”
For all my rehearsing, I couldn’t decide what to say next. We looked at each other like two strangers at a party who’ve run out of small talk. Then he saw the book I was clutching.
“Would you like me to sign that for you?” he asked helpfully.
I handed it to him. “The name’s Irving,” I said.
The cover of the book almost came loose as he opened it. “It’s nice to see one of my books so well used,” he said as he signed.
He handed it back to me, hoping, I’m sure, that I’d thank him and move on. Instead, I kept standing there, looming over him in my overstuffed parka like a dark cloud.
“Was there something else?” he asked, peering at me over the rim of his glasses.
“I’m Irving Cruickshank,” I said. “I wrote you a few weeks ago. Right after I found out you’d be coming to town today.”
“Ah, the schoolteacher,” he said warily. He could see what was coming. He was figuring out how to let me down gently, I could tell.
“We’re doing the search for the Northwest Passage this week in class,” I said. “Ordeal by Ice blows away any of our history texts. As I said in my letter, I was hoping you might find half an hour in your busy schedule to drop by and talk with my class.”
His smile verged on a wince. “Irving,” he said, “I’m flattered you asked, but—”
Before he could finish, I’d fished into my jacket pockets and pulled out my insurance. I laid a dozen crumpled letters on the table in front of him. “These are from my students,” I said. “Addressed to you. I told them I’d deliver them personally. They’re really hoping you will come.”
My appeal had caught the attention of the woman who’d been talking with Mowat. I felt the warmth of her gaze shine back on me as she looked on in amusement from the nearby cash register. Mowat slouched back in his chair, his kilt creeping up, further exposing his knobby knees. I wasn’t making it easy for him. He placed his glasses on the table and massaged the bridge of his nose.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a sigh. He felt ambushed. There was a mixture of regret and irritation in his voice. “I tell you what, though. When I get home, I’ll write your class a reply to their letters.” He shuffled them into a stack and tapped the bottom edge of the pages against the tabletop as if to signify that the matter was resolved. “It was nice to meet you, Irving. I wish more teachers were as dedicated as you.”
I’d been politely dismissed. I didn’t know what I was expecting. He was a busy man. He couldn’t rearrange his entire schedule just to help a crackpot teacher entertain his students. I thanked him and turned for the door. I was like one of those failed Arctic explorers, casting off with grandiose ambitions only to crash into the reality of the polar ice pack.
As I twisted the rickety old doorknob to leave, I heard the woman call after me from the cash. “Wait,” she said. “You forgot to fill out one of our ballots.”
I looked back at her. She sat perched on the tall stool behind the counter, her fingers interlaced across her knee. The sleeves of her Icelandic sweater were pushed up to her elbows. She acted like she owned the place, which I might have thought possible if it weren’t for the fact that she didn’t look any older than me.
“I didn’t buy anything,” I said apologetically.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Maybe you will next time.” She held out a pen.
I had the feeling she was toying with me like a cat does with a wounded mouse. Still, I couldn’t resist the pull of her green eyes. I approached the counter and took the pen from her. I was acutely conscious of the salt stains on the sleeve of my parka. She slid a blank scrap of paper in front of me.
“Just write your name, address, and telephone number,” she told me.
“This doesn’t look like a ballot,” I said.
“We ran out. This will do.”
I carefully wrote out my name and address. For a moment, I couldn’t remember my telephone number.
“What’s the prize?” I asked.
“We haven’t decided yet,” she said with a sly smile.
A few moments later, I found myself out on the sidewalk, as giddy as a wallflower who has just been asked to dance by the prettiest girl at school. The wind chill was minus twenty, but I didn’t feel the cold.
The way Helen told the story later, it was the look of pure disappointment on my face after I so ineptly blackmailed Mowat with my sheaf of student letters that intrigued her. She could tell how much I’d hung my hopes on his goodwill. It was my lack of guile that charmed her.
She took Mowat across the street to a pub after the book-signing and convinced him to reconsider my request despite his secret fear of speaking in public. Helen had known him since she was a little girl. He and her dad had served in Italy together during the war. Whenever “Uncle” Farley had paid a visit to the house, she’d crawled up on his lap, played with his beard, and asked him to tell her a story. He’d never refused. Even though she wasn’t a little girl any more, he was still susceptible to her charms. She promised to come with him to my class. They’d pretend they were in her parents’ living room. She’d ask him to tell her a story, except this time she wouldn’t crawl up on his lap and a few extra people would be listening in.
“The key is not to spook him,” she told me over the phone.
I felt queasy. I was stunned that she’d taken such an interest in me, and terrified of saying anything that would reveal me to be the hayseed I knew I was. “I can’t tell you how much this will mean to the kids,” I said.
“It’s not the kids I’m doing it for,” she said.
Even though men aren’t supposed to swoon, I came pretty close right then.
I don’t remember how I managed to get through my first class that next day. I was in a complete fog. Helen was bringing Mowat for fourth period. I told the front-office secretary to let me know the moment they arrived. It wasn’t long before the whole staff knew. A couple of my colleagues from social studies and English intercepted me in the hall between classes. Why hadn’t I talked to administration about scheduling a special assembly so everyone could hear Mowat speak? At the very least, I should open my class to any staff members who weren’t teaching that period.
By the time Helen brought Mowat in the front door, Pritchard, the principal at the time, was there with his coterie to greet them. I came upon the scene just as he was explaining to Mowat that a reporter from the London Free Press would be arriving shortly to cover his historic visit to the school. If it weren’t for Helen, I think Mowat might have bolted right then and there.
“Farley’s really looking forward to speaking with the kids in Mr. Cruickshank’s class,” she said. “But I’m afraid he has to leave town right after.” She danced Mowat through the crowd with the grace of a toreador. “Ah, Irving. Our gallant host. Show us the way.”
Man, what a dish she was, in her Italian leather jacket with those fluorescent, skin-tight leggings and ankle-high hiking boots. She had an edgy sense of style, as if she were from cosmopolitan Montreal, not white-bread London, Ontario. I could tell that Pritchard felt jilted, but he knew enough not to tangle with her. His envious gaze lingered on us as she linked arms with Mowat on one side and me on the other. I knew I’d be getting a lecture on proper protocol in Pritchard’s office later that after- noon, but at that moment, I couldn’t have cared less.
“Who said anything about a reception committee?” Helen whispered, elbowing me in the ribs. She smelled of lavender, a scent that transported me to my grandmother’s house when I was five, and that Helen made confusingly arousing.
“Sorry about that,” I said. It was then that I noticed my eyes were level with her lips. “Word got out.”
Mowat winked at me. “Best not disappoint her, Irving. Believe me.” This tongue-in-cheek remark drew a jab from her other elbow. “You see what I mean?” he said in mock distress.
There was a buzz from the students the moment Mowat walked into the classroom. He was hard not to recognize, especially since he was wearing the requisite outdoorsman’s parka, which, by the look of it, had seen more of Canada in the past ten years than I could hope to see in my lifetime. The kids were so juiced up that they completely ignored the elaborate introduction I’d spent the whole night pulling together. When I handed the class over to Helen, she attracted as many looks as Mowat did, especially from the boys. She explained to the class how persuasive I’d been on their behalf, leaving out the bits where Mowat turned me down and she plied him with booze to change his mind. She invited Mowat to join her at the front of the class, and the two of them sat on the edge of my desk like two jawing cowhands perched on a corral fence overlooking the herd. After settling Mowat in with chit-chat about his recent travels, she looked over at me with a glint in her eye, then asked her uncle Farley, one of the country’s literary icons, to tell her the story of Sir John Franklin and his lost expedition. I’d never mentioned my interest in Franklin to her. She’d obviously pumped Will for information about me. The thrill of her attention was turning me to Jell-O.
Mowat described Franklin’s final expedition as the nineteenth-century equivalent of an Apollo moon mission. The British Admiralty had already figured out that any shortcut to the Orient through the frozen channels of the Arctic would be too treacherous to have commercial value. It invested so heavily in Franklin’s attempt simply because of national pride. Britain wanted to demonstrate its scientific superiority to the world just as twentieth-century America did when it planted its flag on the lunar surface.
“So following your analogy, that would make Franklin an astronaut,” Helen interrupted. “Wasn’t he a bit too old and podgy?”
“Like me, you mean?” Mowat said.
The class cracked up.
“All right,” he admitted. “He wasn’t exactly the Admiralty’s first choice. But he was the most eager to go.”
“Why?” she asked. “I mean, surely taking a rat-infested wooden ship into the coldest place on earth couldn’t have been his idea of fun.”
“His wife put him up to it,” Mowat replied with a mischievous grin. He was trying to get a rise out of Helen, I could tell.
Helen realized it too, but she wasn’t about to let a sexist remark like that go unchallenged. “Oh, I see. Blame it on the wife,” she said.
“Don’t you believe there are women in this world who can get a man to do almost anything?” The irony was dripping from his voice.
For the remainder of the class, Helen gave as good as she got. When Mowat said that Franklin had relied too heavily on the Royal Navy’s misleading charts, and that he’d failed to learn from the Inuit who had lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, Helen cited it as historic proof that men would sooner die than ask a local for directions. Later, Mowat described how Lady Franklin shamed the Admiralty, the emperor of Russia, and the president of the United States into helping her learn the fate of her husband, then subverted history so that Sir John was unjustifiably praised as the hero who’d discovered the Northwest Passage. Helen called it a refreshing change that for once it wasn’t a man who’d rewritten history. She told Mowat that he of all people should appreciate the importance of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.
After the bell, Helen drifted to the back of the classroom, where I was standing, and watched Mowat sign autographs for a clutch of students. She sat on a vacated student desk, her long legs dangling over the edge. “What do you suppose the attraction was?” she asked me.
“John Franklin and Lady Jane,” she said. “She had her pick of suitors. Why choose such a lump of a man?”
“You make him sound like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” I said.
“I’m sorry. I forgot he was your hero,” she said, titillating me with her teasing. I realized I was being evaluated, and not just for my views on history.
“Lady Jane wasn’t all sweetness and light, you know,” I said.
“I suspect that Franklin was one of the few men who found her bossiness endearing,” I said.
She folded her arms in a parody of indignation. “Do you have a problem with bossy women?”
“I’m beginning to sense I don’t have much chance of winning this argument.”
“You’ve got that right,” she said.
Mowat signed his last autograph. He peered over at us with the curiosity of a field biologist observing the courtship behaviour of two wolves on the tundra.
“The two of you seem quite pleased with yourselves,” he said.
Helen retrieved his parka from a nearby chair. “You managed to survive unscathed, I see,” she said to him dryly.
Mowat grunted as he let her help him on with his coat. “I should write a sequel. Ordeal by Helen.” Despite his grumbling, I could see that the whole experience had put a spring in his step. Beneath his gruff whiskers, he plainly wore the exhilaration of a man who’d faced his fear and prevailed.
“You were great,” I told him. “The kids will never forget this day. Neither will I.” In a distracted sort of way, I knew this was one of those golden experiences that I might never capture again in my teaching career. But at that moment, I was more concerned with asking Helen to see me again without coming across as a tongue-tied geek.
I escorted them out to the parking lot. A fine dusting of snow had settled on Helen’s car, and I helped her brush it off. The cold made me feel like a snotty-faced boy on a toboggan run. Mowat quietly handed me a Kleenex so I wouldn’t have to wipe my nose with the back of my hand in front of Helen.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
Helen was leaning across the hood, scraping away a stubborn patch of ice on the windshield with one leg extended like a ballerina. She left a wispy imprint where her breasts had gently brushed against the powdery snow.
Mowat noticed my spellbound gaze. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he said under his breath. It was offered to me as sage advice. He gave me a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “I’ve seen many unfortunate souls brave these waters before you.”
My cheeks flushed despite the cold. I felt strangely betrayed. I’d almost begun to see myself as Mowat’s comrade, a confidant, a fellow member of Helen’s inner circle. But as they drove out of the ice-rutted parking lot and I waved goodbye, having lost my nerve to ask Helen out, I sensed I’d been put back in my place, no matter how kindly.