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Authors: Peter Behrens

Travelling Light



Copyright © 2013 Peter Behrens

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This edition published in 2013 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Behrens, Peter, 1954–
Travelling light / Peter Behrens.

Electronic monograph in HTML format.
Issued also in print format.
ISBN 978-1-77089-238-5

I. Title.

PS8553.E3985T72 2013         C813'.54         C2012-906738-5

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk
Cover photograph: Jarrod McCabe

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund

For Mary Behrens and Aidan O'Neill

And the girls I tried to talk to after class
Sailed by, then each night lay enthroned in my bed,
With nothing on but the jewels of their embarrassment.
Eyes, lips, dreams. No one. The sky & the road.

A life like that? It seemed to go on forever—

— from “The Poet at Seventeen” by Larry Levis



Civil War

We used to fight race wars in Montreal. Think of us in our snow boots, ski jackets, and woollen tuques
The wars began with each side — French and English — building its snow fort and packing snowballs, then venturing out to attack the enemy.

The violence — fraying, hysteric — escalated with each assault wave. Screams were our language. We had icicles for spears; when our supply of snowballs was exhausted, we hurled chunks of ice. We fought hand-to-mittened-hand, floundering in fresh snow, spitting and clawing at each other's numb, freezing faces.

From a certain distance — given the thinness of our northern air, the pellucid quality of our sunlight, the crisp shadows cast by spruce, maples, elms — our warfare may not have appeared as vicious as it was. War's beauty often deceives. Flesh was sensitive in subzero January afternoons; every blow ached, wounds bruised yellow. Drops of blood plummeted through deep, crystalline snow, and by the time we disengaged, most were crying, tears glueing our eyelashes.

What troubled me was the disloyalty of Frances, my older sister, who always fought alongside the French kids. Her alienation from us was essential, like a code sculpted on a gene. The sheer strength of her; the way she slashed and thrust with the icicle in her hands. Both of us screeching, me trying to punch her in the belly, land a good solid one, fell her.


Our city was studded with churches like pieces of costume jewellery, too massive to be valuable. The power of the Church was weakening, though when a bus drove past a church, most men tipped their hats and many passengers made a Sign of the Cross.

In sermons wedged between Mass rituals we were told that sin was native and natural and confession the cleansing, the only virtue. Year after year we genuflected on cue, then roused ourselves to stroll up the aisle and receive a Holy Communion wafer. Returning to our pew, kneeling, I sucked the pulpy host from my teeth, swallowed it, then slipped my teeth around the back of the pew in front of me and bit hard, compressing the dead cellulose, tasting the salt and the varnish.
was hard and real, and bitterly satisfying.

The Structure

Montreal was as close to home as my father ever got. There was a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood at one end of Queen Mary Road, and two miles away, at the intersection of what had become Boul. Reine-Marie
and Côte-des-Neiges, a French-Canadian neighbourhood had mushroomed from a farming village to gather itself defensively around the Université de Montreal
whose space-age campus sprawled up the mountainside. Most restaurants in the city were owned by Greeks
Lower Outremont was occupied by Hasidic Jews and once-Yiddish streets east of Park Avenue were Portuguese. There were tattoo parlours for sailors on St. Lawrence Main, and across the Lachine Canal, the oldest industrial district, where the
— not the Scots — made nineteenth-century fortunes importing molasses from the West Indies, refining sugar, milling wheat, and manufacturing rope and shoes. Irish Griffintown was cut up with new highways and concrete overpasses, but a black stone marked the grave pit where victims of famine and ship fever were buried.

He took us on long drives through districts no one else we knew had ever visited. Always east: to the locomotive shops, Molson's Brewery, Maisonneuve Ward. Street after street lined with three-storey walk-ups and steep iron outside staircases. He steered us down boulevards crowded with factory workers after the factory whistles blew at noon on Saturday. He took us to a Sunday Mass in a Hungarian church, a Portuguese church. He bought salami at a Czech delicatessen on the Main and black bread from a Russian crone in a bakery in Park Extension, but my sisters and I would not eat it. In the back seat of the Buick we were restless, bored, unsettled by the exotic feel of whatever it was that attracted him.


We lived in an apartment, not a house. In the summers he rented us a beach house in Maine or borrowed a cottage in the Laurentians from his rich friends. His early life had included unhousement, internment, deportation. Success in business wasn't enough to restore what was taken away in August 1914, on the Isle of Wight, when his German
— suddenly an “enemy alien” — was arrested and removed and imprisoned for four years. After the armistice they were immediately deported to Germany. My father and his Irish mother did not speak German. He learned to. He came of age in the Weimar Republic. After Hitler was appointed chancellor, my father made plans to go to Shanghai, but when that city was suddenly occupied by the Japanese army, he went to Canada instead, travelling on his British passport.

His suits and shoes were made in London. He sent his children to expensive schools and stayed in the best hotels whenever he travelled, but he would not, could not imagine himself as a homeowner. Which word was more alien to his flighty sense of himself:
? He never possessed any part of the security granted as birthright to other families we knew. He invested in life insurance policies and we lived as tenants and people in borrowed houses.

The French Kids

Their names were Daniel and Yvon; they had moved into a flat across the street; their building had the best driveway for playing baseball. Their mother was a producer at Radio-Canada and a separatist; they didn't have a father. We fought them for years, also played hockey, soccer, and baseball with them. In a driveway between two apartment buildings I watched a baseball fly upward and bounce on the roof of the building across the street, and sometimes this was our language, but the relationship was unstable, the peace always fragile, and we were prepared to resume hostilities at any moment.

They would not speak English and we did not speak French. Nonetheless, one summer, working together, we built a race car from scavenged lumber, a rain barrel, and a set of lawn-mower wheels. We dragged it to the top of our steep street and took turns hurtling down the hill, past barking dogs in what felt like a movie about fear, speed, and collapsing time.

The Janitor

He came from the country up north. Tall, with a dark complexion and strong cheekbones,
comme un Huron
, people said. He seemed ferocious stalking up the street, pulling a cart with his tools, the knot of keys jangling at his belt. He swept snow from the walks using a broom of twigs bound to a broken hockey stick. In the spring he slung storm windows down to the street on a rope and hauled up copper mesh screens, old and stiff, streaked with green.

The building stood somnolent in midsummer, panting in the heat. When we tried to play handball in the cool, earth-smelling garage, the janitor shooed us outside, to gum-soft asphalt soaked in hot light. But the afternoons sometimes broke open with thunderstorms, sudden slabs of rain, trees swaying like hula dancers, the steep street a black torrent, nervous drivers pulling over to the curbs, glints of yellow light, and everything shining for a while.

Sacred Heart Convent

Frances passionately loves the nuns and will stay late to help arrange folding chairs in the auditorium or stuff packets of biscuits into gift boxes to be sent to the mission in Uganda. On Saturdays she chaperones rich Central American boarders on shopping expeditions downtown, and is always on call to help decorate the chapel. Even my parents are jealous of her devotion. When our sister Jean is enrolled as a day girl, Frances spins a narrative that permeates the school. According to Frances, Jean has been a terror ever since the day she was adopted. Jean bit a doctor's hand deep enough that blue cords of glistening muscle were exposed. Arrested for shoplifting at age seven, Jean still wets her bed savagely. Denied
The Monkees
, she seizes the television set and pours it out the window. It explodes hitting the sidewalk, and shards of picture tube zinging through surprised air kill a dog. None of the stories are true. Maybe Frances is describing her dreams. But she is captain of the basketball team and president of Student Council, and Jean, the new girl, is shunned. At the gymnastics exhibition before Christmas break we sit in folding chairs and watch Frances launch off a springboard and fly over a wood-and-leather horse. She soars up, up beyond the supplicant hands of spotters, her back arched and arms spread in a perfect flying angel, face tranquil and pale like the face of a saint upheld to the light.

Saturday Midwinter

Saturday mornings he wore suede oxfords, a tattersall shirt from L. L. Bean, and a pair of old grey flannels. He visited the public library, borrowed history books, diaries of statesmen and soldiers, and detective novels. He took us on long, desultory drives through distant parts of the city, neighbourhoods no one else ever visited. Now I understand he was trying to attach himself to something. He took a glass of beer with his lunch and a small piece of bitter European chocolate. Afterwards he fell asleep on the sofa in the living room while listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast from New York. The steam radiators were scalding to touch, the air brutally dry, dust motes spun in shafts of winter sunlight. By four thirty it would be dark outside. Someone brought him his tea. Window glass was stinging cold. There were heaps of snow in the street below, isolated yelps from the few children still out playing.

The Café

On Wednesday nights they always ate dinner at Café Martin on Mountain Street. He had been a regular since his bachelor days. Mountain Street was named after Bishop Mountain, first Anglican prelate of Montreal, but by the seventies its name had been changed to Rue de la Montagne
We admired their lives, the scent of her perfume, her sheath dresses, the burnish on his beautiful shoes glowing from somewhere inside the leather, and tried hard not be angry when they left us behind with a sitter, but anger, like electric current, can deliver lethal shocks, or illuminate cities, and it never just disappears.

The School

The headmaster chain-smoked and was a pioneer in the field of sex education. The school was trying to soldier its way through the sixties. We endured warning lectures from psychologists and policemen, drug raids in the locker room, bomb threats from separatists. When the fire alarm sounded, we streamed out to Royal Avenue and formed ranks patrolled by prefects. We were caned for infractions and learned to live in the shadow of fear, mostly fear of humiliation. In the hallways ancient chalk dust mingled with the scent of watery soup from the dining hall. Hallways, museums of doomed youth, were lined with sepia-tinted team photographs of a generation of Old Boys slaughtered in the trenches. They wore their hair parted in the middle, ferociously slicked down. The rolled necks of their woollen hockey jerseys caused them to lift their chins, which gave them a tautness, a wariness as they gazed at the camera, as though they were aware of the history awaiting them.


On birthdays our grandmother sent five-pound notes and English children's books in brown paper parcels tied with brown string, the knots lumped with scarlet clots of sealing wax. Before the First World War she had been an Irish governess in Saxony, where she met our German grandfather, whom she called “Bobs” and who was dead. When she came to Montreal, she attempted to school us in the manners and style of the Edwardians, or perhaps the gentry of pre-war Saxony. She spoke German badly and no French. Her boyfriend, the Count, had been in a cavalry charge and lived in the same seaside boarding house at Bournemouth. She could describe her parents being pelted with garbage on their wedding day, at Sligo. She had walked out of Frankfurt's rubble in 1945 to barter silver picture frames for potatoes in black fields. Montreal was less real for her than Europe, and at the dinner table on Sunday evening she liked to draw our father, her son, into arguments about politics and history, Germany and England and Ireland, and my sisters and I escaped as soon as we could and headed for the TV room, where Fred MacMurray was starring in
My Three Sons.

Operating Instructions

You understand that everything we tell you about ourselves and everything we say about the others is partly a lie, partly a dream, and not to be trusted.


My parents did not trust the French to run things fairly and were always annoyed with the government. They did not speak French themselves. In Montreal you could get by without it but in the country it was more difficult. One Friday afternoon we were headed north on the Laurentian autoroute when our car was pulled over by a Sûreté du Québec
cruiser. My father said
but the cop did not reply, only held out his hand for licence and registration, then returned to his grey and yellow police car with the documents while my father muttered about
storm troopers.
When the cop came back and wordlessly handed over the ticket, I felt compressed between my father's irritation and the cop's silence. People sharing a country but not a language come together clumsily and dangerously, like jealous armies.

The Fall of New France

Through our mother we were descendants of an Irish officer who sailed up the St. Lawrence with General Wolfe's army and camped all summer on Île d'Orléans while the artillery pounded Quebec. On a September night the British crossed from the island on boats and the soldiers filed up a narrow trail at Anse au Foulon. They had nearly gained the heights when one alert sentry challenged, “
Qui vive?
” Our ancestor, educated at the Catholic universities of Louvain and Paris, replied “
Vive le Roi!
” his delightful accent causing the sentry a few seconds hesitation, during which his throat was cut. The remaining pickets were overcome and the British regiments formed in line of battle on a wheat field just outside the town walls. In the foggy morning General Montcalm attended Mass at the Ursulines Convent, then sortied his troops through St. Louis Gate to give battle on the field. He was shot in the breast, his army broke and ran, and Quebec fell to the British, all on account of our ancestor. Wolfe died too.

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