based on a true story
She could taste the sea on her lips as she drove her Hudson Super Six towards Summertown, Nova Scotia on a day that only God could have made. Amy and Ben, her grandchildren, whooped and hollered as they stood on the automobile’s back seat, arms flapping wildly in the wind. “We’re eagles, Grandma, look we’re flying”
“No, we ain’t” claimed Ben “We’re areo-ma-planes”.
“You children can be whatever or whoever you damn well want to be, always remember that” said Sadie talking out one side of her mouth, the other side being the occupied territory of a Turkish cigarette; Murad being her current favourite.
“Don’t say ‘damn’ Grandma, it ain’t right”.
“She can if she’s a wanting”, gasped Ben through the rushing air, “I can too, Amy, you see if I can’t – Damn! Damn! Damn!”
“You’ll go to hell Ben, I swear you will” Amy worried far too much about other people going to hell.
The large red automobile whisked through the outskirts of town throwing up large masses of dust. White laundry didn’t remain clean as Sadie’s machine did its worst along the potted roads but there was no one to object – the streets were deserted.
She moved the cigarette to the other side of her mouth just as her big automobile screeched around the corner into Main Street.
“Shit”, the word escaped from Sadie’s mouth.
“Shit” repeated Ben.
“Ben” said Amy, worrying about his soul again.
In front of them stood a wall of people, all facing the other way and the big red Hudson was just about to mow them down.
Sadie braked just as hard as she had been cussing, throwing Amy on to the floor and Ben straight over the seat with the boy laughing all the way. Now with a little luck and providence those at the back of the crowd stepped aside, letting the automobile slide through to the front. It came to rest in the middle of Lincoln Street just as the soldier boys were marching past. They had to work their way around the car and pass Ben who was standing on the hood saluting, one or two of them returned the salute; this was Summertown, 1918 and the men had finally come home from overseas.
“In no time at all your father will be home too, he can’t stay in Paree forever, although lord knows he’s tried” added Sadie quietly. One of the older soldiers at the back of the parade waved her through the crowd and on a whim she leaned out of the car and kissed him; if she couldn’t kiss her son John then this boy would have to do.
It must have been all of fifty years since Sadie first came here and today was to be the final trip to this peculiar little town at the edge of the world; this time she had brought John’s kids. In the old days she would bring her husband but now he was way too sick to travel and so she normally came up this way alone.
Sadie had promised herself that this was to be her last time and that she would say farewell to The Ice Ghosts forever, someone else would have to remember.
It was a long hot drive from New York City to the little town that clung on to a continent. Summertown’s one hotel, The Prince of Wales, looked proudly over the bay and surprisingly little had changed in it over the years. The hotel had opened its doors in 1860 to celebrate His Royal Highnesses’ visit to Nova Scotia but the external wood was now in need of a fresh lick of paint but just like an old friend, it always wore a warm smile on its face.
As the Hudson parked up alongside several other automobiles there was a noticeable swell blowing in from the Banks; a big storm was coming and forcing Sadie to consider waiting until the following morning to visit the stones.
Like all the other fixtures and fittings in the hotel, Umbrosia was still here, still laughing, and still known as Old Umbrosia even although she was younger than Sadie.
“Well I declare it warms my heart to see you missus and you’ve brought the little chill’ins this time. They sure look like ya, they surely do missus” then she laughed all the way up the stairs like an angel had whispered the funniest joke in the world into her ear.
“Here we are missus, your usual room nice and clean as always” Umbrosia managed to hold the luggage, retrieve the keys from her pocket and open the door all at the same time. She needed to give the door a slight nudge with her shoulder which had her laughing wildly all over again.
“Just been newly painted, we couldn’t get the paint during the war but the boss lady insisted it be ready for missus Sadie and here we are”
Umbrosia dumped the bags on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. “Just needs to catch my breath missus ‘cause Old Umbrosia just keeps getting older. Now what’s your name young un’?”
“Well Amy, you sure is unusually pretty, you sure is, and is this your brother? What you called boy?”
“That little urchin called Old Umbrosia ‘Mam’, did you hear him missus? I do declare” And with that Old Umbrosia laughed her way out the door and slammed it behind her.
The bedroom was just as Sadie remembered it, the one room that never changed and the thought of it always kept her warm. Each night as she nursed her husband Alex through the bad times, she closed her eyes and dreamt of this room.
“It’s getting dark, Grandma”
Amy watched from the window as the frothy sea horses were being chased on to the shore by the gathering storm.
The first lightning bolt startled the little girl who began to let tears flow down her cheeks.
“Come away from the window Darling, come to Grandma”
Her granddaughter rushed to the safety of her Grandma’s arms.
“How ‘bout you Ben, you want a hug?”
“I ain’t scared Grandma”
“You ain’t scared, huh? Then maybe you can fetch Old Umbrosia and tell her to bring up some lamps”
Ben, like the man his father would expect him to be, walked along the corridor slowly until the next crash drowned the hallway in white light and as no one was watching, Ben found a place to hide.
By supper time the storm had continued to grow in strength and ferocity so Umbrosia had delivered cheese, milk and wine to tide them over. Sadie and Amy were sitting together on the big bed eating the last of the Monterey Jack while Ben sat grownup like, by the door.
“Don’t you want to join us Ben? I think we’ll be safe, I honestly do”
“No thank you kindly, Grandma”
But just as she finished talking, the biggest flash and crash in the history of storms found Ben sitting next to Amy and Grandma.
“Well then, ain’t this cosy, ain’t this real cosy? What shall we do then children? Amy?”
“A story Grandma, please”
“What about you Ben, do you want a story?”
“A boy’s one, not a girl’s one”.
“Well let me see, I could tell you how I came to this country and why I come to Summertown every year”.
“You came from far, far, away didn’t you Grandma?” Amy was proud that she knew this fact.
“I did indeed” said Sadie, kissing her beautiful little granddaughter on the forehead.”Tell you what, let’s close the curtains and hunker down”.
When they’d made themselves comfortable and Sadie had built up the roaring log fire, they all sat close on the bed and readied themselves for their Grandmother’s story.
“Truly, it was all so, so long ago but I always try my best to remember everything and everyone, just as it should be.
“The year we are talking about, 1868 was so long ago that your Mom and Dad weren’t even born. I had just turned fourteen years of age and I lived in the town of my birth, Greenock on the west coast of Scotland. I was without any word of a lie a wild child but I had a bunch of friends, The Nelson Street Gang as we called ourselves. Apart from me, there was Will, he was sixteen and the leader, there was Alex and Rory, the twins, they were thirteen years old and although they lived in Glasgow they would travel the twenty miles to come to the town for the day. James was much older, I think he said he was about twenty years old and it was he who came up with the idea that changed our lives. James had a pal John Paul or Pauley, as we called him, who would also have been about sixteen and it was he who gave us the name of a ship.
“It was a game that many of us were involved in, a game of stowing away aboard a ship and then revealing ourselves at the last-minute as the vessel was about to leave the Firth of Clyde; that, my darling children, was the river I grew up beside.
“My mother, Isabel, was not an unkind woman but she did have to love and care for seven other children, so each of us was overlooked from time to time and if I disappeared for a few days it would not cause her a great upset. Will’s idea was to see how far we could travel without being discovered but it was the older boy, James, that sealed our fate, he wanted to work on the railroads of North America and knew of a ship that would get him there. The vessel was known as the Arran and its first mate was a friend of Pauley’s father, so even if we were found quickly Pauley felt we’d be well looked after.
“We made our move when old Dreamer, the harbour master, had fallen asleep from his daily rum potion and the crew were out in the streets of the old town. We weren’t the only ones that night looking for a ship to board. I reckon this happened most evenings at the harbour. The crews weren’t too concerned as they knew they would catch most of the stowaways in time and those they didn’t, well they would be set to work.
“Our ship was headed for Quebec, although we were unsure where that was, it sounded far away and that was good enough for us.
“I, James, Pauley, Alex and the twins managed to find our way into a cargo hold and lower ourselves behind the rope store. We’d bumped into five others, three boys and two girls also boarding the Arran that night but they had made their way to the stern of the ship. Little did we realise at the time that they would be the lucky ones.
“Between the movements of the vessel and the rancid smell of the ropes I felt I was going to be sick and found sleep hard to come by. I heard the crew return just before dawn and the Arran set sail soon afterwards. The sun was shining through the spaces in the deck and so the hold warmed up fast. Within an hour they were calling for the hatches to be battened down, this is when the crew do their final search before heading out to the high seas. I could see the boys holding their breaths as our area was searched but no one thought to look behind the ropes. ‘I’ve found some’ I heard one of the crew call out but it turned out it was the five from the stern. They were transferred on to the pilot cutter and that was that, we, on the other hand, were bound for some foreign land called Quebec.
“I heard someone call that we had passed ‘Paddy’s milestone’ and that we were heading out into the Irish Sea. Will felt it was time to make a move and since the first mate knew Pauley, Will suggested he should go up with him. What was the worst that could happen to us? We would be made to work to the next port, a life on the open seas then a trip home.
“Things,however, didn’t work out like that, the boys had been gone only a few minutes when we were all being hauled up to the deck. I knew almost immediately that something was very wrong. Standing next to Pauley was a man I will remember for the rest of my life, his name was James Kerr and he was the first mate of the Arran and probably a drinking pal of Beelzebub himself. He came from Lochranza and was thirty-one years of age at the time. The skipper was Andrew Watt, twenty-eight and married to Kerr’s sister. By all accounts, Andrew Watt was known as a kind and fair man but whatever hold Kerr had over him had poisoned his good nature.
“I don’t want to scare you kids, suffice to say that life aboard the Arran was far from heaven. We were beaten regularly and given only water for days. When the ship’s cook threw the potato peelings over the side, James and Will jumped over to catch those pieces that were stuck on the side of the ship. Some days we had one piece of peeling each. As the eldest those two were whipped ever day, only Pauley escaped the cruelty. Some of the crew tried to smuggle dried meats to us but paid for it by being whipped in front of us. On other days Captain Watt tried to dampen Kerr’s anger but one look from the first mate and Watt would fold. I will always wonder what he had over him.
“Days passed and the air grew colder, much colder. Sometimes Will was tied to the mainsail without a shirt and left there for hours as ice formed on the sails. Then that day came – the ship stopped. All around the Arran was an ice pack which had stuck the vessel solidly. On that day Kerr ordered Will, James, Alex, Rory and I off the ship on to the ice flow but Watt countered this decision and told us to return to the Arran; perhaps his conscience or God made him reconsider but the next day he was back on the devil’s side.
“Pauley watched as we were marched back down the gangplank on to the ice flow again. Watt told us that the provisions on the Arran would not support all six of us as well as the crew. He went on to say that another ship, The Dark Shadow, was stuck about a mile to the north of the Arran and would accept us with all haste. How or why he knew this did not strike me at the time. Pauley had tears on his face and the smirking Kerr had his arm around the boy as we stood on the ice. ’God bless’ was Watt’s final words. I will always remember those words.
“To add to the pain both the twins had travelled in their bare feet and that was all they had to stand on in the ice. Will had been given a knife from one of the kinder crew members and had succeeded in hiding it in his turned-up trouser bottoms. As you may have guessed no such ship as The Dark Shadow existed or at least we never saw it. By the time we realised this fact we had lost sight of the Arran and had no idea if we were five, fifty or five hundred miles from landfall and perhaps Kerr had expected us all to expire.
“As darkness fell James made each of us tie a piece of clothing to one another, so that if the ice broke in the night we could at least keep together. We huddled closely and with God’s grace made it through to the morning.
“Of the twins, Rory was not faring well and the frost bite was starting to blacken his toes. As we continued to walk into the white wilderness, the ice began to break up. Sometimes there were small gaps filled with water that had to be jumped. All of us made the other side except for Rory who fell in and it took all our energy to pull him out again. Alex tried to carry him but it was almost impossible and Rory began to fall behind. When Rory fell in once more we pulled him out but we all felt we had no energy reserves left. He asked to remain to catch his breath and we moved silently on, even Alex didn’t look back but I heard ,as I’m sure we all did, Rory slip back off the ice and into the water for the last time; a small part of me died that day.
“As it grew dark towards the end of the second day we saw a bonfire neither from a ship nor a lighthouse but from a building on a distant shore, the problem was that the ice stopped about a mile from the safety of a landfall. We called, shouted and screamed but no one called back so Will decided we needed to make our own way across the water, it was now almost dark and if the ice broke we would not survive. Will used his knife to cut blocks of ice for each of us, we could sit astride them and paddle our way across. Being the heaviest, Alex and James tried first and it worked, the blocks floated and supported their weight. After another two blocks had been cut Alex and I took to the open seas. Will felt the three of us should start out and send for help when we got to safety, he would cut one final block of ice and follow us over.
“James drifted off to the left and I could only hear his voice grow fainter. Three times I fell off the ice and it was only with Alex’s strength and help that I survived. Somehow James made landfall first and attracted the attention of the farmer who was tending the bonfire. He and his sons cast a rowing boat out to sea and collected me and Alex but no matter how hard they looked, and believe me they did, all through the night and the next day and the following night, no trace of Will was ever found.
“When the farmer’s wife found out about Rory and Will she told us not to worry, she said the Ice Ghosts would take care of them, they take care of everyone lost out there and in turn our lost boys would look after the others. I didn’t know what others she meant.
“A couple of days later James announced he was moving on and would head to the nearest town for a train. That turned out to be Summertown; we had been washed ashore at Nova Scotia. He was going on to Philadelphia to meet with an uncle who worked on the Pennsylvania railroad, we never heard from James again.
“When the farmer told the locals about the Arran, the council contacted Quebec and the good folks of Greenock. When we recovered most of our health Alex and I returned home to Scotland by means of a schooner skippered by one of Summertown’s great and good, he had heard of our plight and wanted to help.
“News had already hit my hometown before we arrived and there were many at the quayside to welcome us, including the mother of Alex and Rory who was unaware of her son’s demise.
“When the Arran finally returned to Greenock both Kerr and Watt were arrested, initially for their own safety as the crowd were ready to lynch them. They both stood trial at Glasgow High Court and were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. On their release, Kerr went back to sea but I hear tell that Captain Watt died soon after in Pensacola, Florida.
“I married Alex, your Granddad, and we moved to New York City in the summer of 1873.The following year I promised I would return to Summertown to remember absent friends and to thank the farmer and his family. I collected two stones on the beach, one for Rory and one for Will, and I laid them on a rock. Each year, your Granddad and I would return and lay more stones in remembrance and so my lovely grandchildren that is what I hope you shall help me do tomorrow”.
By now Ben and Amy were fast asleep and Sadie wasn’t sure how much of the story they’d heard but it didn’t matter, it felt right telling it even if it was only to the lamps. Sadie put the kids to bed and took a look out of the window. The storm had passed and all was right with the world again.
In the morning Sadie, Amy and Ben went to the beach early. The sun was shining and the shore was chock full of souvenirs from the storm. Sadie went to pick a stone from the beach when she suddenly changed her mind.
“Ben, Amy why don’t you kids bring me a stone each”. The children loved the game and Amy returned with what she thought was the most beautiful and Ben with the biggest stone.
“Now come with me” as Sadie guided them to a pile of stones on the ridge.
“What are these?” asked Amy.
“These are for the Ice Ghosts, ain’t they Grandma?” smiled Ben.
“I heard Grandma, I’ll tell you about it later Amy” said her brother then both of them ran off.
Sadie laid the two stones on top of the others and was about to say a short prayer when she was interrupted by a scream.
“Grandma, come quickly, Amy’s stepped on a jellyfish”, Sadie, whispered ‘goodbye’ to the stones and knew her life now rested with her family and the future and that the past was the past.
The Nova Scotia summers came and went and the stones lay undisturbed for many years, then one sunny morning a man and his son walked towards the pile of stones and each placed a rock upon it.
The man smiled at his son, “That’s it, Rory my boy, that’s it” then Ben took his son’s hand and led him back to the car.
A few weeks after I put the story on the blog – I got this response:
This is the story of my Great Great Grandfather. The true story was originally written by John Donald. Though you changed the name of some of the stowaways, most part, it’s the same story as his. The Greenock stowaways were seven boys, interesting concept having one be a female. I have researched this story for several years and just came across your version of it today
bobby stevenson 2016