Wednesday, October 22, 2008



I left the cabin at sunrise on March 19, 1878, never to return (except half an hour later, after I discovered I had forgotten my hat). I walked some ten miles to the train station, whereupon I boarded a steam engine to New York. Of course, train travel in those days was not the luxury it is today. I shared a cabin with no less than 30 other men, and we were provided with only three chairs.

We all agreed to play a game of poker to settle the matter of who would get the seats. We used our neckties as gambling chips, a decision that roused consternation among some players (a tie-less neck, of course, was thought to represent skulduggery among the lower classes). Luckily, one thing the train service wasn’t short on was cards, and the 40 packs that were provided to each of us as we boarded serviced our needs more than adequately.

As we began to play, I realised that I had never played poker in my life. I began to struggle against the 30 others, who I was sure had all played the game before. Just as I was about to curse my isolated upbringing, a young brown-skinned man of about my age, sitting next to me, reached over and turned my cards up the right way.

“Thank you sir,” I told him. “How very kind of you to help a novice such as myself.”

“Not a problem,” said the man in a peculiar Irish-African accent of a sort I had not heard before. “Glad to help out a fellow who looks down on his luck.”

I must admit I may have looked a little more roguish than the other men in the cabin, owing to the fact that I was wearing my father’s best suit, which had accompanied my father through the bear attack that had so tragically taken his life.

The young man introduced himself to me, and I to him, then him to I and me to him. His name, as far as I could tell from him telling me, was Patrick Ollinger. Unfortunately for Patrick and I, the poker game was won by three finely dressed gentlemen of approximately the same age and fine-dressedness as Patrick and I weren’t.

We wandered the train for half an hour or so, looking for an empty carriage, eventually settling on the luggage compartment at the end of the train. I sat on a paisley carpetbag, while Patrick chose a large wooden trunk, covered with velvet.

“Patrick,” I asked him. “Why are you going to New York of all places?”

“I’m going to stay with my aunt,” he said. “My parents can’t afford to look after me, now that they’ve bought another house.”

“How many houses do they own?”


“No wonder they can’t afford you.”

Patrick explained that he was travelling to New York to stay with his grandmother, who currently only had one house. I told him the story of my life so far, up until the point that I had told him about my life so far. Patrick kindly invited me to stay with him in New York, as accommodation was one eventuality I hadn’t prepared for.

The train arrived at Central Station by the next evening, during which time Patrick and I had become firm friends. We were standing some minutes on the platform before we realised we had in fact taken our temporary seating with us. Having no luggage of our own, we agreed to hold on to the carpetbag and the trunk until such time as the owners came to claim them and we couldn’t hide them quickly enough.

Neither of us had had anything to eat since leaving Vancouver, so we made our way to a cafeteria opposite and diagonally across and along a little bit then around the corner and up the road from the station. The menu contained many strange foods we had never heard of. Unperturbed, I ordered myself a serving of Slack Jacks and Patrick a Flappy Jim.

“Where does your Grandmother live?” I asked.

Patrick reached into his overcoat and pulled out a smaller overcoat. Inside was a slip of paper with the address on it.

“17th and 24th Street,” he said.

“I thought she only had one house,” I said. “Surely she can’t live on two streets?”

Before Patrick got a chance to answer, our food arrived.

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