Episode Episode My 'Canandian Soldier' - Short story published September 25, 1960
H.V. Ormsby Marshall, Contributor
I hadn't been a helper at the canteen for long. Actually, canteens for servicemen had been unknown in Jamaica until well after the beginning of World War II. Like any another woman at that grave time, I felt that I should do my bit in my far-away little country. The promotion of the comfort and well-being of the servicemen sent here for our protection was a need I could help to fulfil.
The naval and air force units were stationed near Port Royal, historic naval base of bygone glory; the Canadian Regiment at Up Park Camp in the city. I worked on evening shifts twice weekly at the canteen. Dancing usually began at about the hour that I handed over to the last shift at 9 p.m. I seldom remained to dance with the men, for my duties to husband and children demanded my presence at home.
Occasionally, however, some of the other ladies on my shift, or the men themselves, would persuade me to make myself available as partner for even one or two dances.
The men were always appreciative. They were, for the most part, a homely, friendly lot of boys, some of whom had turned my own house into a 'home away from home' at the invitation of my husband and myself.
It was one evening a short time after I had become attached to the canteen staff, that I noticed one of the men of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, then stationed in Jamaica. My attention was attracted to him because every evening, at least when I was there, he came in and seated himself on a stool before the bar opposite the snack counter where I worked. He never wanted the usual supper that we served, and so he never came across to us. Instead, he sat on his stool and gazed across at me.
STRUCK BY ME?
At first, I paid little attention to these prolonged scrutinies. Eventually, the other ladies noticed the soldier's behaviour and teased me about him. I said to myself, "If he's struck, he's free to come across, order a salad or ice cream even if he wishes no supper, and make the opportunity of conversing with me."
But he never came. He was not a very young man. I should say he was well on in his 30s, tall, lanky in build, and not particularly good-looking. He had a serious face. I never saw him in conversation with any of his associates at the bar, nor, for that matter, did he appear to be doing much more in the drinking line than holding the glass before him on the counter.
At times, his intense gaze was disconcerting to me. I thought, "If he has fallen in love with me, why doesn't he just come across and say so?"
I conjectured at length that he must have found in me a resemblance to someone he had left behind: his wife or mother perhaps, or maybe, even a sweetheart. In looking at me as he did, he was not really seeing me at all, but that other, and the sight of me must have brought him solace. Or, perhaps, I argued within myself, he was the shy sort who did not like to speak to me in the presence of the other ladies. I wondered if he ever would speak to me should any better opportunity present itself. At other times, I put him right out of my mind in spite of his continued scrutiny. After all, 'a cat may look at a king'.
So it went on until one evening, one of my coworkers said to me and the other ladies on our shift, "Do stay on for a bit this evening, and let us take that table over there and have drinks to celebrate my birthday."
We all agreed. I telephoned to let the home folks know that I'd be late. The music struck up and the dancing began. Our drinks were served and we were making birthday speeches when I noticed that my 'Canadian Soldier' as I had become in the habit of thinking of him, who had been seated as usual before the bar, had got up and was walking towards us. He came straight to my side, and bending over me asked me to dance with him.
I will admit that my heart missed a beat. It had been so totally unexpected.
"Yes, certainly," I replied, excusing myself from my companions. I dared not meet their eyes.
As I walked on to the dance floor with my partner, I said to him, "I'm afraid I'm not much of a dancer."
He did not reply. I soon found that he was a very good one, and soon he helped to make up for my own poor performance.
Several times, I attempted to make conversation with him to no avail. If he answered my comments at all, it was only in monosyllables. I gave up trying. When the dance was nearly at an end, he looked down at me, and meeting my eyes, he said: "I thought you said you couldn't dance!"
I felt duly gratified. At least he appeared to have enjoyed the dance in spite of his still unsmiling countenance.
The music ceased. He took me back to my table companions and went off. I never saw him again.
"Well, you've got one over us," declared my companions. "That grim fellow. Never thought he'd bend thus far. What's his name? Do tell us something about him!"
But there was nothing to tell. He had not asked me my name. I did not know his. He had answered none of my small talk. I took my departure shortly after.
Very soon after that evening, the Winnipeg Grenadiers left Jamaica. They were sent to Hong Kong in 1941, that fateful year of the War for that far distant Crown Colony. The Japanese siege on it had started.
I will admit that I often thought of my 'Canadian Soldier', not that I had fallen in love with him - not that I fancied he had fallen in love with me. But because of his unusual attitude towards me, and the fact that something in me had seemed to bring him some sort of comfort in his enforced absence from all that he loved at home.
Now as I remembered him in this great distance that lay between us; as I heard the tales of the bitter battling for Hong Kong, knowing that he was in the thick of it, participating in the grim siege with all its tragic elements, I felt a sense of sadness and sympathy for all those of the Winnipeg Grenadiers whom I had met and known in Jamaica.
One night at about this time, I had a strange feeling. Clear in my mind's eye was my 'Canadian Soldier' gazing at me across the seas and oceans that divided us, even as he had gazed so often across the canteen floor. The following morning, we learned of the capitulation of Hong Kong under its brave governor, Sir Mark young. It was Christmas Day, 1941. The massacre of the brave troops who had held out for so long seemed to have been complete.
Instinctively, my mind went back to the feeling I had experienced the evening before of my 'Canadian Soldier's' nearness to me, to the expression I had seen in his eyes. Had the remembrance of me brought him some solace in the hour of his final sacrifice? At least, I'd like to believe so.