Not an idle man, Allan passed the time visiting his wife’s Irish relatives, and then his own in Cornwall. There he was riding his bike one day when he met a man trying to fell an ancient oak in his garden. Allan rested his bike against the low stone wall and offered to help. For two weeks he returned every day to chop that behemoth into stove-sized tinder.
His departure date came, at last. He and his crew sailed aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth—once again clothed in her Cunard colours after years of gunmetal grey.
Raising a finger, he clarifies: “Not named for the Queen Elizabeth you think of now. The one before that.” He licks his lips and smiles, “And Winston Churchill sailed with us.”
He says it so casually that I make him say it again. And indeed, at dawn on each morning of the four-day sailing, England’s indomitable leader paced the upper deck—taking air and shouting greetings to officers on the deck below.
Elizabeth was met in New York by hordes of jubilant civilians. “We knew the fuss was meant for the Prime Minister, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it.” Those ordinary-looking men soaked up the praise, finally feeling like the heroes they were. He pauses in his storytelling to catch his breath, and in spite of his frailty, I don't struggle to picture him in uniform with flawless posture and an assured grin.
The Canadian National Railway facilitated the rest of Allan’s journey—making stops in seemingly every town between Halifax and Vancouver. “We had men from each province in our company. As each one stepped off the train we were pretty sure we’d never see each other again.” He faced near-death alongside these men in those thick black nights gone by. These were not insignificant goodbyes, but even as he told of them, it was clear his mind was only concerned with the journey’s end.
Finally, finally, finally, the steamer rolled into Vancouver’s old Central Station. Military transport was relegated to the lower rails, far below the main commuter platform. Soldiers rushed from the train only to find their journey further prolonged—a hefty flight of stairs remained between them and the objects of all those muddy trench reveries.
“It was a winding staircase that wrapped around and around in a square. We all had heavy kit bags on our shoulders, but we ran up those steps.” He details the climb so carefully, reliving the agony of such superficial separation, knowing she was at the top of those stairs.
Wives and girlfriends, the finest they’ve ever looked, scanned the uniformed stream for the face they loved. “Your grandmother was there. She was wearing the felt hat I had sent her for Christmas, which was the fashion back then. It was covered in flowers.” He falters then, determined to hold his composure, but chokes briefly as he says, “She was so cute.” An unfamiliar smile emerges, showing his teeth, his real ones mind you, not the perfect enamel most men his age trade up for. It’s an embarrassed smile—shy to be still be so in love after so much time.
“I don’t know what happened to my bag. I must have dropped it at the top of the stairs. I didn’t even notice where it had gone, I only saw her in that flowered hat.” Another pause, this one much longer, accompanied by tears he fought off before, and again those impetuous words tumble out, “She was so cute.”
In the hospital bed he works to compose himself as I suppose he had to that day so long ago. They embraced. He tells how he picked her up with such abandon that that flowered hat came right off her head and tumbled down all those many flights of stairs. Another officer was kind enough to climb down and up again to retrieve it—Allan was far too engaged and couldn’t bear to leave Aggie’s side for even that long.
Fifty-five years have past since the end of that great war and Allan’s great separation. Until today he has never shared the tale of that reunion, but he doesn’t stumble over a single detail in the telling—as if he has recalled it every day since.
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