Valley Voices

The Visit

Author Tim Fairbairn’s son Owen visited the dilapidated Quebec farmhouse his father grew up in ‘wondering if he will find me there’.

by Tim Fairbairn

Owen is his mother’s son. Anyone can see it: the black hair, the even darker eyes, tall like her brother and father, his thin frame made strong by tree-planting summers. And the mind that creates to survive. For his mother, it’s the poems that transform chaos and sorrow into images; her way to help us understand the world, to make it cohere, so it doesn’t overwhelm or kill us. Creation equals hope. For him, it’s music, the songs in his mouth and the instruments in his hands. Today, he makes his way to his father’s abandoned house, wondering if he will find me there. As he walks, the score he is composing for a choreographer in Victoria, a few thousand kilometers away, sleeps in his mind.  It is slow to awaken. He must be patient. The dancers are still dreaming. 

On this August afternoon, he has come looking for me in a house long abandoned and condemned. He parks his 09 Hyundai Accent, a car I gave him, on the side of the road, where River Road and Fairbairn Lane meet. He pauses for a moment to survey this section of the Gatineau River. Only because of the drowning here, can it be identified as a section; a measurement term that makes no sense for something that flows like time and can never be still. A river should not be divided into pieces; neither should a road or a song or time. Still, this portion may be set aside for it is where the kid drowned when I was 14, a tragedy that perhaps explains my worry over my son. The worrying bothers Owen; he feels it as a judgment on his need to live in the world the way it should be, no longer broken but precariously held together by his belief in a common humanity, like a motif in a sonata or a poem. His father’s mind is never at rest, never completely frozen. When I told him about the drowning, I made it seem like it was terrible only for my younger brothers, who tried but failed to pull their friend from the current, and that is why one of them does not wish to be found and the other married four times. I was older and supposed to be watching. 

The house, now just twenty minutes up the road, is uninhabitable. Since his father, no one has lived there for 50 years. To make way for a new one, it was dragged off its foundation into a clearing in the forest. Still, he is quite certain he can find me there. To everyone else, except Owen and me, the house is forgotten. It has tilted where it sits on the forest floor, the only thing not living. Weeds have grown up through it, and the trees surround it so completely it cannot be seen from the gravel road, Fairbairn Lane, his own last name. The name has also drawn him there, like an invitation from a distant relative to a family reunion. Unfortunately, many on the guest list cannot make it today because they have passed away or are living in Toronto or other cities that bear no connection to these gravel roads and hayfields. Cities are just the places you move to; no one really comes from them. 

It’s called Fairbairn Lane because of the mill. “Bairn” means child and “fair” signifies that the Scottish ancestors were blonde long ago.  One of his aunts, his favorite, is blonde. Because he is his mother’s son, he is only fair in his good looks. It’s a much harder name to pronounce than Miller or Stanley or Richardson, the other families who live on this road. It has too much “air” in it. In a nearby village, his great-great grandfather’s mill with its wheel-turning rapids summoned the immigrants to cross an ocean. Fairbairn Mill is now a hotel with a French name and a restaurant he cannot afford. There would be no point now to try to find me there. The millstones have stopped turning and the air is empty of dust and you no longer have to shout to be heard. 

Owen needs no maps. In his backpack he carries instead his violin and a water bottle. His plan is to use his cellphone to record a video of the encounter. He hopes the music will charm me back to the house I inhabited when I was fifteen. Since then Owen’s father has traveled six times to Europe and once to Mexico and Cuba. I even lived in Iraq for a year, when Saddam was its ruler. In Mosul, I spent an evening with the Dervishes and can tell you about the way they chanted as they pushed swords through their bodies and didn’t bleed, healed in the moment by their mad faith. I have worked in Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan but now live on Vancouver Island, in a lovely seaside town. I still drink too much coffee but no longer walk as far as I used to. 

Owen passes the field and sees his father on the hay wagon, stacking bales as they emerge from the hungry red baler, but I am too busy even to notice let alone talk to my unborn son. Passing the barn, Owen can hear the scratch of his father’s shovel, cleaning the stable, scraping manure into the gutter then into a wheelbarrow to be dumped onto the pile. Owen considers going inside, but I might be upset to have the labor prolonged. The cows in the yard still need water. 

Owen checks no one is watching his trespass then uses his long legs to straddle what remains of a page wire fence, crawls beneath the cedar and spruce branches, unwinds the tentacle of a wild rose bush from his neck, then rises to stand before the uninhabitable house. The door is wedged shut, so he enters through a broken window.

The empty house creaks and echoes with his footsteps. He sees his father at the kitchen table. I am eating a tomato sandwich. I picked the warm red globe this morning, so it still tastes of the earth, the way a tomato should. The bread is also fresh, uneven slices cut from my mother’s loaf dropped off by my father just an hour ago on his way to town. I will eat tomatoes everyday from now to November, the green ones ripening on newspaper spread along the cellar floor. Owen’s grandfather visits more often than necessary, always on some errand, an excuse to conceal his worries. This kitchen with its woodstove radiating warmth is where we will meet for the last time. Owen’s grandfather came inside to check that there was enough firewood in the cellar to feed the furnace through the winter. Then he came upstairs, sat at the kitchen table, rolled a smoke and asked about school. Even confessed his regret about being sent into the bush when he was twelve to cut pulp to be sent down the river to the E.B. Eddy’s paper mill. Three days later he will die of a heart attack, his body set adrift on the river of time.

In the living room, Owen’s father sits at the wobbly-legged card table, doing his homework now that the chores are completed. I am doing well, near top of class, even in Math. Owen takes comfort in knowing that his adolescent father, since being on his own, can see beyond his despair. I believe there may now be a larger life awaiting me.  In the far corner is the cot with its navy blue sleeping bag. Next it, a dresser with 4 pairs of underwear, some socks, 4 shirts and three pairs of jeans though I only require two of each. On top of it, Hey Jude drifts out of the white radio set to an AM station. Even though Owen prefers John, he has to admit that Paul can still sing.

Owen will not visit the upstairs rooms. The stairway has become detached from the wall. The house is not safe. Light pierces through the corners, the walls tilt and the ceilings have peeled and cracked. The nails squeak in their struggle with the wind to maintain the rafters at right angles. He sets his cell on the sill of the window where he entered, sits cross-legged on the living room floor, tucks his violin under his chin, and draws the bow across the strings. He retrieves the phone, listens to the piece all the way through, then sends it to me with no explanation. It will take me a few minutes to figure out where he is. I hear the thud of the baler piston as it pounds loose hay into solid bales, the scrape of the shovel against the cement floor, the strike of the wooden match against the lid of the stove, and the crack of the ice as the child bubbles to the surface. Unable to tell him how much, I thank him for the gift, compliment him on his journey through time, and joke how fortunate he was the high notes did not send the walls tumbling down. I wonder what he will do with me now I am found in the place where I became me. For now, let us just be together in the music.

About Tim Fairbairn

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