There’s nothing left for me here.
I had lived in England for my entire life, since I was a boy, with my father, a butcher and my mother, who stayed at home to do the washing. I used to have a baby sister named Lily, but the typhus killed her. I was twenty-two years old at the time, and since my mother died my father hadn’t really been the same. He was getting on in years, and I didn’t think he had much longer to live. And if I didn’t get out of this cesspool of a country, I wouldn’t either. The smallpox, the yellow fever, the crime and the murder in the street, factories spewing smoke into the air. I made a kind of living working in my father’s butcher shop after he fell into poor health. When my father finally passed, I made the arrangements for him to be buried with my mother and sister. And then I packed my things.
As I filled my leather duffel with the only clothes I had besides the ones on my back, I thought about where I would go. I had only thought about leaving, fantasized about stepping onto the deck of one of the huge ships I had seen so much in the harbour, and only stepping off onto the soil of a new place. Somewhere I could start over.
I grabbed anything I figured I would use on my journey or in my new home, my compass, my father’s pocket knife, and the stashed pouch of money my parents kept under their bed. I fastened the bag closed, satisfied that I had everything I needed. I pulled my worn boots onto my feet, boots so old, the soles worn so thin that I could tell which part of town I was in just by feeling the cobbles under my feet. I looked back into the cluttered, cramped, but comfortable home I had shared with my parents for my entire life. I was leaving behind my mother’s collection of books, I never was able to read. I shut the door behind me, locked it with the key I had worn around my neck ever since I was old enough to be sent down the street for groceries by my parents. I clutched the key tight as the sense of finality washed over me. As I walked the route to the harbour I had envisioned myself walking so many times, I let the key go as my hand floated past a storm drain, hearing it jingle as it slipped through the metal slats and into the pipes, irretrievable.
The harbour master was a small, irritable man who seemed to always look like he had just downed a glass of very sour milk. When he spoke with a seriously debilitating lisp, I was just glad he wouldn’t be coming on the journey with me.
I asked him how much it would cost to go to North America. He looked at me, thoroughly unamused, and then spat, “That dependth on where it ith that you want to be thailin’, doethnit?”
I subtly wiped a fleck of his saliva off of my chin as I thought about what he said, where did I want to go? I hadn’t considered this before, when it was such an impossibility. I looked to the map that laid on the counter that separated me and the harbourmaster, inhaled through my nose, and smelled the sea. I put my finger on any spot of the landmass I recognized as North America, and looked at him in his small eyes.
“Canada? That’d be about what you’ve got in that there purth,” he said, motioning to the fabric coin pouch that hung from my worn leather belt. I untied the knot and dropped the purse on the counter, obscuring a part of Canada known as Manitoba. He slid it off the counter into his palm, and opened it. The harbourmaster nodded, satisfied, “The nektht one leaveth in a couple hourth.”
I gave him a short nod and walked away. I was a little panicked. Not only was I blindly setting off to another continent, I was doing it with almost nothing. I had a few coins tucked away into my boots, but not much. The money I had just given the harbourmaster was, I thought, enough to get me started in North America. That wasn’t the case, I supposed.
Three months on a ship with the same people gets tiring pretty quickly. I found out who I liked (very few people) and who I didn’t (most) I stayed to myself mostly. On the journey I overheard that two people died, yellow fever apparently. They had to throw them overboard in case we caught the sickness. When we made port finally, I packed my things from my packed cabin very quickly. I couldn’t wait to step into Canada for the first time.
The first thing I noticed was the trees. Towering green columns, on a scale I had never seen. They were perhaps a kilometre away, but so enormous I couldn’t stop my jaw from hanging. Around the harbour was a small settlement. A few small houses, a shop, a harbourmaster much like the one back in England. I was knocked out of the way by a big man who I had seen on the ship a few times. The several hundred people were finally stepping out onto the alien earth of Canada. Some headed to a small building that I would have bet was a bar, but most just carried on the main road that went through the settlement, I’m sure they had taken this trip before. I took a step forward, an odd, untethered sense over me as I realized I could go anywhere. I walked towards the tavern, thinking it would be my best chance for an idea of what was around. The small house was made of logs of the trees that surrounded the opening by the harbour. Judging by the many stumps that were still rooted in the ground, this clearing was at one point as wooded as the forest surrounding it. I opened the door to the tavern and saw a dark and dingy room. A counter was on the right side of the room, and a few barrels that were meant to be chairs were organized around crates, which stood as tables.
I stepped up to the counter, and looked behind. There was no one back there. I gave the counter a gentle knocking, and after a couple seconds, pregnant with expectation, a burly man about as tall as the trees outside and with a beard that tickled his chest when he spoke.
“What can I get you?” He asked, habitually picking up a glass and wiping the inside with a grimy white rag.
“I… Uh- A drink.” He looked at me, unamused. God what an idiot I was.
He put the glass on the counter and pulled a green bottle, half full of sloshing amber fluid. He poured it to about two thirds the volume of the glass, and then pushed it towards me.
I put the glass to my mouth, but as soon as the arid smell rose to my nostrils I set it down. “I’m looking for work. What is there around here?”
“Here?” He said, motioning to the bar and by extension, the settlement. “Nothing. But if you keep heading inland, there’s a whole world you’ve never seen.”
It had been a quick two months. I had ended up meeting a man named Xavier, who had been in the next town past the harbour settlement since his voyage to Canada had arrived three weeks ago. He was a young, handsome man from Monaco. He spoke decent English and had been waiting for something to happen as he survived off of his money in the town. We carried on inland together, and about three weeks later, we found ourselves in Quebec. Xavier spoke French when we needed to communicate with the locals who had established themselves. I had, as my more liberal mother sometimes said about my reserved father, fallen for him.
In the first nights we had together in Quebec, we stayed up late, just talking. I talked about England, my parents, and Xavier did the same. We never touched anything more than two casual friends might, but the spark I felt with him seemed to burn bright enough to keep us both warm.
Xavier found work quickly in a bar, but I had more difficulty. We had grown to like each other’s presence quite well, so we decided to rent a small room together. The cost of rent was only slightly less than what Xavier made working on his own at the bar, so it was clear that I would have to find work quickly to be able to afford everything else we needed. As he was easily able to afford new clothes, decoration for the room, I was scraping by, slowly eating through my meager savings. Xavier said he didn’t mind, and I loved the way he nobly tried to be the breadwinner between us two, but I wanted to help.
I searched throughout most of Quebec for the next week, inquiring into every business I walked past. No one needed help. I was hoping to find a butcher, because while I didn’t particularly enjoy doing it, I did know how to do it and could hopefully get started quickly. It turned out there was only one butcher in all of the town, and it was usually quite full. I waited my turn in line, and when I asked the large Scottish brute behind the counter if he needed any help, he simply laughed at me.
I left, defeated. It had been yet another full day of walking about the town, asking for work, and the sun was dipping behind the massive trees off in the distance. And I would be coming home empty-handed. As I stepped towards the door of my room, I sighed quietly. I rummaged through my pocket and found the key. It was only when I pushed the key into the cast iron lock of the door that I became aware of the sound coming from the other side. It was clear to me that Xavier was in there, it was also clear to me that he was in there with a woman. My heart sunk. I thought I had been clear to him, my intentions, but what I never did think about was how he only spoke in plain words. To me, our relationship was an unwritten rule, a given that only we had to know about. It was the way I was used to doing it. I guess he mistook us for friends.
I gently pulled the key back out of the lock and took a step back. I felt a coin sliding around in my boot, enough to buy a drink or two, probably.
I found myself in the bar. It was in the wee hours of the morning. And as I sipped the amber liquid from my slightly grimy glass, I thought about everything I expected Canada to be. I thought about a prosperous country full of opportunity. It was supposed to be everything my home in England was not. I was lonely there, and it appeared I was lonely here. I was friends with a man with whom I thought was something more, and it seemed every job in Quebec was taken. I had money to drink until morning, but after that, it was gone. That meant I couldn’t afford to go to any other towns. I drank until I felt the sun on my back, convincing the barkeep to let me open a tab and stay. He was sympathetic and kept the whiskey coming. I woke up from my sleep hunched over the bar counter when a hand slapped me on the back.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the harsh orange light that sliced through the dusty bar air, but only a second for my head to feel like it was split in half. I squinted up, and saw Xavier standing above me. I almost puked.
“Good morning, my friend.” He inhaled through his nose, “You smell like a bottle.”
“I’m sorry about last night, I’ll give you more warning if I plan to have any friends over again. You can do the same.”
I touched my forehead to the wooden bar counter, it was mercifully cool against my aching head, “I don’t like women, Xavier.”
He laughed, “They are hard to live with, aren’t they?”
“No, no. I… Not like that.”
He stayed smiling for a moment, then his expression changed to a stoic one with a hint of anger behind his dark brown eyes. He suddenly stepped towards me and stiff armed me off of the bar stool I still sat on. I clattered to the ground, my tired hands hardly breaking my fall as it felt like my brain was rattling in my skull. He launched a foot into my ribs, which l felt hit me squarely. Another hit me right in the kidney, which launched sharp pain throughout most of my abdomen. He grabbed me by my dirty shirt collars, and hooked me in the cheek with his fist. My vision went black and I watched as white stars danced in front of my blindness. He let go of me, and my legs failed as I crumpled to the floor. He spat on the floor next to me, and called me something nasty in French. I heard him stomp outside and slam the door behind him.
After a second of trying to hold my pain in, trying to protect myself from being too badly injured, I let out a gasp. Suddenly the tears were there. I sobbed, every heave hurting my bruised torso. After a couple of minutes, I stopped, and sat up. Gingerly leaning against the bar. I slowly reached up, every inch of ascension in my arm shot pain through my ribs. I felt the neck of the bottle I had been drinking from all of the previous night. Bringing it back down with shaking hands I put it to my lips and took a long pull.
I left England because my family was gone, because I was hated by most everyone I knew because of the way I was. I thought this could be different, something new. I thought about what I could do next. where I could go. I was out of options, when all I wanted was a good life, something better than what I had. I was boxed in, and my only way out was down into a haze.
I took another drink.