Bridge in the Rain, Guernica Editions 2010, is a collection of stories set in Toronto’s High Park and linked by an inscription on a park bench. The stories chronicle the travails of seven women, each dealing with a turning point in her life, be it family crises, artistic endeavours, carreer choices, or friendships, and are set in present day.
“BiancaLakoseljac’s collection of stories Bridge in the Rain, linked by an inscription on a bench in High Park, is precise and elegant, shot through with the element of surprise as she gently but firmly pushes the boundaries between reality and the supernatural: a narrator becomes a sperm-donor substitute for Vincent van Gogh, and his fate converges with the mad painter’s through the barrel of a revolver; a blow-up doll becomes The Perfect Woman and resolves narrator Lila’s tedious marriage; a little girl is befriended by the characters in her books. In this delightful collection, Bianca has found her literary voice in the ordinariness of lives touched and transformed by magic” — Elizabeth Abbott
For more information about Bridge in the Rain please visit the Guernica Editions website.
Check out an interview with Bianca Lakoseljac on OPEN BOOK TORONTO, At the Desk: Bianca Lakoseljac At the Desk interviews in our archives.
AN EXCERPT FROM Bridge in the Rain:
Foreword: Meeting Gordie
After a short walk from home, I sat on my usual bench inHighPark. I was dealing with personal crises on a number of levels.
Only about a month earlier I had cancelled my university teaching contract for the fall semester to handle a health problem. I knew that I could have, should have, managed both. After all, a ten-year teaching career is not easily jeopardized by a health issue, I told myself. Yet, combined with other setbacks I’d learned to manage over the years, this one brought me down. Not that I hadn’t been down before. I was on my third life, I’d often said. I took a drastic step. Was it cowardly? It felt like it at the time. In retrospect, I believe it was brave; at least I’d like to think that it was.
Shortly after undergoing surgery, I was seized by a frenzied need to write. The many unfinished stories and beginnings of novels and unedited poems I’d written over the years (while stealing time from marking exams, or tending to my family, my household and gardening chores – all enjoyed) now beckoned from the filing cabinets. For the first time in my life I owned a sliver of time that suddenly seemed my own, unclaimed, free to use in any way I wished.
On this day I was working on a novel I had begun writing in memory of my mother who had recently passed away. I had not made it to the funeral.Belgradewas still being bombed and commercial flights had been cancelled due to sanctions. What in the past would have been an eight-hour direct flight would now be a circuitous string of uncertain connections. I would not have made it in time for the funeral and would have missed at least a couple of weeks of teaching. I made the agonizing decision not to go. But guilt had set in like fog on a windless day.
A few years had gone by and some pages scribbled quickly here and there added up to a few chapters. As I descended into my memories, the dappled shade blending the vista before me with the visions from my past, I heard a voice call out.
“Recording your precious thoughts, are you?”
I looked up and saw an elderly gentleman holding a dog on a leash. He smiled, as if he knew something about me that I didn’t. Then, he announced that I was sitting on his favourite bench and asked if he could share it with me.
“It is your special bench,” I answered. “No need to ask.”
“May I?” he repeated kindly.
“Of course,” I said and slid to one side.
He sat down to my left and leaned into the back-rest. He shuffled for a few seconds until he found that comfortable spot as if he was settling into his armchair, ready to watch a football game. He patted his dog and called her “Princess”, then offered her a snack and she ate it out of his hand.
For almost a minute we sat quietly, he looking across the park towards Grenadier Pond, and I trying to focus on my writing. The next moment we looked at each other and laughed. I felt as if I were sitting with an old friend and pretending not to know him, and going by
his smile I guessed that he might’ve thought the same.
“So, what do you think of it?” He asked.
“Pardon?” I said.
“The inscription on the bench. What do you think of it?”
I looked at him, baffled.
“You did see the plaque, didn’t you? I thought that’s why you’re sitting here, recording your precious thoughts.”
I must’ve looked dumbfounded.
“It’s right there, behind you,” he said.
I turned and read:
Of memory, images, and precious thoughts
That shall not die.
It was in memory of Claire.
He pointed to a young oak tree only a few steps in front of us and said that it used to have a dedication to the same woman, but it was no longer there. He got up and peeked around the base of the tree. “Vandalism. It’s too bad people would do that. I’m just checking, in case the person brought it back. It happens, you know.”
He walked a few paces up the hill.
“There was an old stump here for many years,” he said. “It had a stone with a bronze plaque and the same name. I always wondered if it was a different Claire.”
He patted the grass with his foot. “It’s not here any longer. There must be a story to all this.”
I passed my hand over the inscription. I had been doing exactly that – recording my memories. But there was more to this message. The words that should have evoked a sense of sentimentality for a few moments and drifted away instead sunk deeply into my mind. They spoke to me of my own doubts, of the changes I was undergoing, of the conflicting feelings within me, as if my whole life had been one gigantic oxymoron: pieces disjointed, unfulfilling, unresolved.
And now, it was being told to me. Strangely, it somehow seemed right. It pointed to a broader meaning, the “big picture.” I wasn’t sure what that was, yet suddenly I felt light-hearted. It didn’t seem to matter that only a short while ago I felt out of place here on this bench, on a weekday when I should have been in the classroom, or marking papers, or at home doing other useful things responsible people did. None of it mattered any longer.
“Gordon Munro,” he said and offered his hand. “That’s with a ‘u’, not like most others.” He spelled it out for me.
“Gordie,” he said. “Everybody calls me Gordie.”
“Bianca,” I said.
“There are some well known artists by the name of Bianca,” he said in a tone that was more a question. “Lady Bianca. You must’ve heard of her. Bianca Thornton, a famous blues singer.Oakland’s finest. Has formal training from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Beautiful! You know of her? ”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“And there are others. Let me see… you must know of some.”
“Shakespeare’s bad girl is one I know of,” I replied, and we both laughed.
I peered into his eyes for a moment longer than was polite. I couldn’t turn away – his dark pupils were encircled by a blue ring.
“You noticed, didn’t you?” he exclaimed and caught me off guard. I fumbled for words and before I could think of what to say, he continued: “The blue in my eyes comes from a native tribe, Micmac, I was told. My grandmother came from Bear River inNova Scotia. She was of mixed race: black, Micmac, and perhaps white. Which meant her family’d been in the area for a long time.”
He opened his eyes wide and offered me a closer look. I peered, now unafraid of being caught staring.
“She married my grandfather, James Munro, and they moved toWeymouth, and laterYarmouth.”
I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a questioning look.
“That’s inNova Scotia. I was born there. From what my family told me, Grandfather James was probably a former slave fromBaltimore. He would’ve been freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “What a family history!” For a moment I felt as if I were in a lecture hall. Details of so long ago – dates, names – poured out with such urgency and precision it seemed as if he were reciting a report on a monumental event that had just occurred the day before. The milestones of history suddenly seemed so immediate that I felt part of them. I was struck by the passion and enthusiasm through which they were brought to life by a person who simply happened to sit on a park bench next to me.
“You’re still looking at my eyes, aren’t you?” he said, chuckling. ”Many people are surprised.”
“Yes, they’re most unusual,” I said. “They’re … navy.”
He laughed. “Navy, did you say? Definitely the right word.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said.
“Well, I just happen to have been the first black Canadian to enter the Royal Canadian Navy! Not long after the Second World War.”
He fed another snack to Princess. She gave a low growl and he told me that she had arthritis.
“I was eighteen when I applied,” he said. “Went to Halifax, had my interview, passed the tests. All of them. Then went back home and waited. Five months went by. They called others who wrote the test with me; a few friends from Yarmouth, some from towns nearby. I knew they didn’t want me because I was black. So I wrote a letter and threatened to tell the Halifax Chronicle. I got a reply – a letter of acceptance. I reported on June 29, 1948, inHalifax.”
A sudden gust picked up the loose sheets of paper on my lap and scattered them around the bench. We ran after them, reclaiming them from the piles of fallen leaves swirling about us.
He pointed to the lake in the distance beyond the Gardiner Expressway. “This is a very special spot here. Even on a hot, muggy day, the breeze from the lake, from the pond, passes over this bench.”
I nodded and stuffed the notes in my bag.
“I used to live in the area, just north of here, Bloor andRunnymede,” he said. “We sold our house, moved to an apartment at Eglinton and Royal York. I still come to the park, though. Sit on this bench. I’ve been coming here for over twenty years.”
“I beat you,” I said. “I’ve been coming here most of my life. I used to stroll my son through this park when he was a baby.”
“I could take my dog for a walk where I live,” he said. “But I like to get in the car and drive, go somewhere else. That’s why I joined the Navy. So I could travel. See new places, meet new people. And what an experience it was.”
Over the next couple of hours, he told story after story about his life.
“First, I was sent to the Naden Naval Base nearVictoriafor my training,” he explained. “That’s when I was told I was the first Canadian black to enter the Royal Canadian Navy. One East Indian named Sonny Shah had preceded me. While at Naden, the Navy took pictures of its three new minority recruits: an ‘Oriental,’ whose name I don’t recall, Sonny Shah, and me.”
He talked about his first weeks in the service, of being forced to defend himself on a number of occasions. One time, he was asked by other enlistees to move to the end of the food line. He explained that his boxing skills came in handy, and that very soon he made it clear to his peers that he would not be bullied. The French Canadian sailors were very accepting from the start, and soon he gained the support of the others as well.
The most serious difficulties he encountered occurred during his frequent trips to theUnited States. The first American port he visited in 1948 wasSan Diego, where the Canadian crew was invited to a big USO dance. After a long dispute at the entrance to the dancehall, Gordie was told that he could enter, but that he was not permitted to dance.
“I watched others dance for about half an hour,” he said. “They were having the time of their lives. I thought I’d try to get someone to dance with me. I went down the line of young hostesses and was refused, time after time. But I persisted. One courageous girl with a southern accent said, ‘If y’all got the nerve to ask me to dance, I’ve got the nerve to dance with y’all.’ We danced for no more than two minutes when the band suddenly stopped playing. It was announced that the dance had ended and that everyone had to leave. Some of my new-found Canadian friends were really peeved at me for spoiling their evening ashore.”
Gordie recalled every detail. Every once in a while he asked if I was really interested in hearing about his life, or if I was just being polite. I assured him that his stories were much more interesting than any movie I’d ever seen, that I felt as if I were a secret observer to history in the making.
He talked about the many obstacles of being, in his words, the “groundbreaker” for other Canadian blacks who have since been able not only to enter the Navy more easily, but also advance through the ranks without the race-related barriers he’d encountered.
Over the years, he had visited various ships and spoken with young sailors who were astounded to hear that blacks had been in the Navy only since 1948. They knew that blacks had been in the Air Force from the time of the Second World War and in the Canadian Army as far back as 1914.
During his ten years in the Navy, Gordie served on eight ships, among them the HMCS Ontario, Quebec, the Iroquois, and the aircraft carrier Magnificent – affectionately called “the Maggie.”
As a leading seaman, he was a radar operator and plotter, refusing to accept a job as a cook or a steward; positions that, in his words, the American black sailors were forced to take on at the time.
He recalled that, while in American ports, many who visited the ships found it strange and improper that Gordie was having his meals with the rest of the crew. He also fondly remembered the support of his fellow Canadian sailors who, when needed, came to his aid.
“I was inKey West,Florida, walking down the street,” he recounted, “when a group of five or six rowdy, white men began chasing and threatening me. I spotted a group of my shipmates some distance away, on the other side of the street, and yelled, ‘Canada!’ My fellow Canadians ran to my rescue, and together we chased the Americans away.”
After leaving the Navy, Gordie decided to pursue his love of music. He became a lounge piano player and singer inMontreal, working at clubs throughoutQuebecand at venues such as the “AfricanVillage,” the Ramada Inns and the Jamaica Pavilion at the Fleuralies, the former Expo 67 site. He and his family moved toTorontoin 1983, and for a while he played the lounge at the top of the Manulife Centre.
These are only some of the stories he told me on that golden October day, while Princess lay patiently on the grass next to our bench. We noticed a few curious looks from some of the passers-by. One elderly couple paused and stared, then turned back a few times, taking another glance at us. Was it that our voices carried too far in the quiet of the park? Or our laughter?
At one point Gordie nudged me (in our hearts we were old friends by then) and said, “They think I’m trying to pick up a white woman, eh?”
He pulled out a picture of his wife, Jane, and told me that he wasn’t surprised by the stares. He was used to it, he said, as some people had even asked Jane, being a lovely white woman, what she saw in him. He also showed me the pictures of his sons and his grandchildren.
“Life goes fast,” he said. “I’ve seen and done many exciting things.”
He paused and pondered for a while and I wondered what he was seeing that I could not.
“Music has always been part of my life, always will,” he said. “How about you? Is there one thing you don’t want to miss out on?”
For a moment I was at a loss for words. I began to tell him about cancelling my teaching contract, when he stopped me.
“Tell me. What is it you want to do, now?” He pointed to my pile of paper and added: “I think maybe you have the answer.”
And the next instant I heard myself say the haunting thoughts I’ve been pushing aside my whole life – say them out loud – admit to my frantic desire to write. “And give up teaching? Give up what you love?” the anxious voice in my head warned. It frightened me. Only a few times in my life had I said these words out loud.
I asked Gordie if I could write a story about his life and he agreed enthusiastically. He gave me a copy of a CD he’d recorded of the songs he composed and played. He refused my offer to buy it. He said it was his gift to me. He would be happy just knowing that people enjoyed his music.
Some time later, we met again at our bench and he showed me the book he’d purchased, The Ships of Canada’s Naval Forces, 1910-2002. We looked at the photographs of the ships he’d served on and read excerpts.
In 2004, Gordie found out that one of the Navy ships would be docked inTorontoand he went to visit. He told the sailors about his experiences, and they introduced him to their captain, Marta Mulkins, the first woman captain in the Canadian Navy. After hearing about his service, she gave Gordie her captain’s hat with the following note: “From the first woman to command a Canadian warship to the first black man to enter the Canadian Navy.”
Gordie tipped the hat he was wearing, pointed to all the golden braids, and said: “Wherever I go, people ask me which ships I commanded and I tell them the story of my hat.”
A couple of years had gone by. I had not returned to teaching. Instead, a novel, several short stories and many poems had been written. Some of the stories had somehow, of their own accord, converged on the park bench where we had met. I realized that meeting Gordie is how it all began.
I telephoned Gordie and spoke to his wife, Jane.
“He would’ve loved to see his story in print, I am sure,” she told me, “but he passed away last year.”
A lovely chat followed. We knew a little about each other, as we’d spoken briefly in the past, and Jane and I agreed to tell Gordie’s story. Many of Gordie biographical details were provided by Jane during our chats.
“Eyes are the mirrors of the soul,” says a proverb dating back as far asCicero. The first thing I notice about people is their eyes. They tell much more than words. They tell the story of the human spirit. How true? Only the believer in such truisms can judge. I have not been disappointed yet.
During my graduate studies atYorkUniversityin the early nineties, one day I drove hurriedly into the parking lot, running late for class. The parking attendant remarked, “You’ll make it. Don’t worry. Everything will be as it should.” Plain words said in passing, but the gesture was much more than that. It was the caring for another that I remembered. The man had this fatherly air about him – he was a black man with navy eyes.
Only recently as I read Gordie’s biography Jane had generously passed on to me, did I discover that Gordie was a parking attendant atYorkUniversityin the late eighties and the nineties. Had we met before? I think we did. And I think we’ll meet again. I always recognize a kindred spirit.
Although the future is unknown to me, I guess that’s
The way it has to be, you see,
My destiny is written in the master plan
— Master Plan (B minor) by Gordie Munro