The People from Away

by Amy Bernstein

The people from away



For many years, it amazed me that no one there noticed.  Then I realized that because we were summer people, only there for a few weeks every year, we were practically invisible to the people who actually lived in the town of Inverness.  Still, they must have assumed I was my own daughter, if they figured anything at all or ever noticed that we didn’t change or age with the passing years.  

    Do you remember the old play, Brigadoon?  It was about a magical town that only appeared every hundred years.  The people in the town stayed the same between appearances.  In their time, actually it was just the next day each time they appeared, nothing strange about it at all.  Well that’s how it was for my family, only in reverse.  The town continued on and we just stopped at the end of vacation.  We drove away in our car each fall, and, as soon as we left the island, boom, it was the next summer and we were driving the opposite way on to Cape Breton Island across the causeway.  

We had discovered Cape Breton Island almost by accident.  My parents sent my brother and I up here to summer camp, and then they drove all the way up here to pick us up… and just fell in love with the place. Well, who wouldn’t?  They drove into a world with fields as green as an apple and ocean as blue as the glass that washed up on the beach. Red clay cliffs with white limestone outcroppings laced with glittering black crystals ran along the sand beaches, eagles flew by and nested in the cliffs and pod whales, called “blackfish,” by local people danced in the waves. 

We should have known that something was odd about time up there. This was 1969, and coming around a curve in the road, you would see a field of golden hay being forked up by hand into a horse drawn cart.  There were no bailers, no tractors no fuel driven farm machinery of any kind. This was 1969.  Out in the world, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, a man walked on the moon, the Vietnam War was killing thousands, people were overdosing on drugs and Rock and Roll, and here they were still making hay with horses drawn wagons.  One of the old (or what seemed old to me then, I was 15,) fishermen whom we had helped to bring in his lobster traps gave me an old Scottish amulet, a silver Celtic Knot. As we drove onto the cause- way and off the island, I remember wishing that it could always be summer, and that we could always to be in Inverness.  Who thought it would really do anything?

Then, there we were, driving back onto the causeway to get to the Island. My parents and my little brother didn’t seem to notice, that was the other weird part. They chatted on as if they had heads full of memories of the past winter.  I guess the amulet or whatever magic was making this happen took care of adjusting their minds.  But it didn’t change mine, I don’t know why.  I knew all the time what was happenening.

That summer my parents bought our summerhouse. Right in town, it was a part of The Red Rows that were built in 1893, to house the higher ups at Inverness Coal Mine Number 1, the bosses and their families. The front of the old company houses faced the main street of the little town of Inverness.  Each house was really two houses connected in the middle. They were originally exactly symmetrical, each a mirror reflection of the other. They were once all painted Red with grey roofs and looked like identical rectangles all down the street.  Back behind there were more rows going down toward the sea.  They once each had the same flat roofed dormer in the front, centered, with two windows, one for each home, another flat roofed dormer on the side far outside of the roof, to left and right also with two windows each, the same narrow black front doors next to each other below the center, dormer, the side doors with a mud porch to the left and right of the house. Each building had two chimneys, one for the coal cook stove in each kitchen.  In each front yard there was the same center sidewalk. 

In the ensuing 86 years until the first time I saw them, the owners of each side of each house have changed them.   Some have been repaired and improved, while others had been neglected and worn down.   Now, no two opposite numbers were identical any more, and each double house was entirely different from the others. Now they looked like a row of fraternal twins at best, more like a family group actually, not even seeming to be the same age anymore. A few had been turned into businesses. There was Amy’s Trendy Trims, painted hot pink and.

  From the back you looked out toward the ocean.  It was not close. At least a mile of small company houses and then the low dirty dunes which cover the old mines sat between you and the ocean.  But it was out there all the time just the same.  There are no windows on the seaward sides of the Red Rows.  Bad weather comes from the ocean side and so, in a more practical and less beauty conscious time such as the time in which these houses were built, there were no windows seaward with great views.  Pretty much, if you want to look at the view to the ocean, and it is exceptionally beautiful, you have to go outside in back. The people that lived there year around went out to look at it a lot.  Sometimes with laundry to hang up, a bottle, sometimes with a cigarette.

There were 14 of them left then, where there were once dozens. There was once an identical row across the street from these, in the days when the coal mine was in operation and the main street was dirt.  But these were torn down in the 1920s.  Now the shops of the town faced the Red Rows, and the highway that took a tourist all around Cape Breton Island passed down the middle.  

There weren’t many tourists then.  Only nutcases like my parents wanted to drive this far on bad roads to stay in a place where there was next to nothing to do, it rained all the time and there were huge bugs. The town looked like most places where people were out of work.  Since the coal mines had closed in () there had been little to do for money except raise sheep, and hay for sheep, and fish for lobster in the season. And cut down trees.  None of these pastimes was a big money maker.  There were 5 bars in the six-block stretch of the main street, and you often saw men staggering up the wooden sidewalks of Central avenue at noon. 

 Once, during our second summer when I would have been 16 if I was still aging, I saw a middle aged woman greet her drunken husband at the door with a frying pan in her hand.  She screamed something at him in Gaelic and he staggered away to sleep it off in the barn.  That summer, I was still shocked by the little changes that had happened in what seemed to me like only a few days. The old movie theater had closed down, it still had its posters up for A Thousand Clowns, which I had seen and loved there the previous summer, when it was already an old film. I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t see another movie until DVDs were invented.  

On our third summer, 2 of the bars had also closed, and the government had opened a state liquor store in town to fill in the gap.  You could still walk down railroad street, next to our house to get to the beach then.  At the end of the dirt road, you arrived at the ocean just at the town dump.  It was the most beautiful dump in the world, piles of stinking trash tottered at the edge of red clay cliffs, and spilled over onto the beach where seagulls and bald eagles fought over the goodies.   You could walk down the beach to the end and back, a distance of over a mile and see no one.  You could take off your clothes and swim in the ocean and be quite sure you would not be interrupted.  People around there didn’t go to the beach then.  What was the point?  And they were all impossibly burn-susceptible, with the Scottish pale skin and hair.  

Around the third or fourth summer, we finally got to know some of our neighbors. Not that they had been unfriendly, just waiting to see if we would stick, I think, or disappear one day.  Little did they know how much we were sticking around. Next door, were Bridget and Loche MacEchern.  She was old and white haired, even when I first met her, but she had been a schoolteacher for years and was a smart and cheerful woman with laugh lines and bright blue eyes.  She seemed to be always at the wood stove, which was kept lit even in the warmest weather and when you visited, you had to be ready to drink lots of sweet tea and eat at least three buttered scones.  He husband was of the opposite temperament.  He spent at least five or six years of his life sitting in the back corner  of the kitchen in an old armchair by the wood stove chewing tobacco, spitting into the stove and glaring out at the world. He thought the world had done him wrong by letting him get old and be poor and he was never going to forgive it for doing so.  He was suspicious of us and our intentions toward his town.  He was quite open about this fact.  Maybe he was right, as it turned out.  Not specifically about us, but about people from away changing the town.  


This is just a start of a maybe something?