Secrets of the City

Stephen Osborne

Last year in the Vancouver City Archives I came across a disturbing series of letters written in 1918 by Maud Matthews, the first wife of the first archivist, a man whose compulsion to collect and preserve ranged from historical documents, interviews, photographs and maps to family papers and physical specimens such as the “ten-penny nail removed from the wall of 1114 Davie Street, by pulling it with one’s fingers, about three inches long, of the old square oblong head, a type found in early buildings, badly rusted but quite strong after years of exposure to the weather, now resting in the City Archives.”

The letters from Maud, written to her sons after she left the archivist and their marriage of twenty years, are part of the repository that forms the core of the city archive, which is to say the “official” memory of the city. She and the archivist had been living since 1911 in the house they built on Maple Street, in a neighbourhood known today as Kits Point, only a short distance from where the city archives, housed for a time during the tenure of the first archivist (some sixty years) in a room known as the Desolate Chamber, now reside in a bunker-like building sunk into a hillside overlooking False Creek. In October 213 I decided to return to the archives to look for more letters from Maud, and to visit the house on Maple Street, which I had found on Google Street View, and where, as I understood from my brief reading so far, Maud had been held against her will after the archivist, with the help of a policeman and their seventeen-year-old son Hugh, apprehended her in Ladner, a fishing village south of the city, and forced her to return home; she remained there, or, according to a note in the archivist’s hand, she “stayed” there, for four days and refused to eat, save for “a slice of toast and a great many cups of tea and four strawberries.” Two days later he wrote to Maud asking that she keep the “sordid events of Ladner” secret, and to put her “trust in Him to whom you must someday account.”

I set out for Kits Point on a clear day in the middle of the week with my camera and notebook, and caught the No. 2 bus at Victoria Diversion and then the SkyTrain to Burrard Station, and from there the up-escalator—against a terrific wind blasting down the escalator shaft to the underground tunnels—to the street; after a brief wait beside a man singing fiercely into his cellphone in a language I had never heard before, I boarded the No. 44 bus and found a seat near the front. The bus rolled through downtown and onto Burrard Bridge, and had passed the rise in the middle of the bridge when I looked up and glimpsed in the distance the monument to the Northwest Passage that looms over the shoreline at Kits Point, and as it vanished from view I thought I might include that too in my itinerary.

Once across the bridge, the No. 44 turned left instead of continuing along to Maple Street, and when I realized what had happened and pulled the cord, we were well up Burrard Street going the wrong way. I got off and walked back past the storefronts along Burrard toward Kits Point, and crossed over First Avenue to a field of open ground that had always seemed whenever I had noticed it over the years to have been forgotten or left fallow by the unseen agents of vacant city land; it had been lightly disguised by a miscellaneous planting of trees here and there and a wide expanse of tough green grass that seemed to offer a kind of jousting yard for the Seaforth Armoury, which lay across the street like an emanation of King Arthur’s court with its circular towers and conical roofs, parapetted gables and dormers, crenellations and massive stepped buttresses; next to the Armoury the enormous fermentation silos belonging to Molson’s Brewery stood in ponderous rows along the sidewalk and down the alley. As the stream of heavy traffic halted for construction, I had a clear view of the imposing and incongruous facades of these two institutions, which I had never seen laid out so clearly before; one of them was the source of the beer that my friends and I had considered to be drinkable only when no other beers were available, and the other, I had heard, was said to be inhabited by the ghost of a “piper without his pipes,” whose footsteps are heard at night on the parade square, and a “coughing woman,” who can be heard “clearing her throat” in the evening beneath the cross of St. Andrew near the grand troop door. The first military action of the Seaforth Highlanders had been to put down the miners’ strike in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, in 1913; the second was the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. A notice on the internet stating that the Armoury was “built on an old First Nations reserve” manages to elide the mysterious, possibly occult process of land transfer that moved so much Native land in this part of the world into non-Native hands.

I turned around to take my bearings and noticed in a shady grove at the near end of the field a scattering of benches on which people were sitting and talking to each other and contemplating their mobiles. Off to the side was a monument of some kind, a human figure rising from a pedestal of stone but looking the other way; I went round and saw that it was a likeness of a woman cast in bronze gazing out over a tiny plaza. The name on the plaque was Kinuko Laskey, who on August 6, 1945, when she was sixteen years old and a nurse in training at a hospital in Hiroshima 1.4 kilometres from the hypocentre, had survived the atomic bomb explosion that wiped out 16, people. For the first year of her recovery, her mother had kept mirrors and other reflective surfaces away from her, to protect her from the sight of her disfigurement. She was stigmatized after the disaster as “hibakusha,” one of the atomic people, and after several failed suicide attempts, she met the Canadian serviceman whom she eventually married and with whom she moved to Canada, where she became prominent in the anti-war movement. This encounter with her memorial on what I had presumed was a vacant lot was my first knowledge of Kinuko Laskey, who founded the Canadian Society of Atomic Bomb Survivors, and whose marriage lasted fifty-three years until her death in 24.

I stepped away from the shade of surrounding katsura trees, the leaves of which had turned golden, and onto a pathway that led me to an enormous granite boulder more than six feet high sunk into a concrete slab on steel rods; carved in its surface was the image of a corn stalk accompanied by a list of Spanish terms that I soon made out to be a recipe for South Soup (Sopa Sur) para seis porciones: 1 ounce olive oil, 1 cups water, 1 cup coconut milk, tomato, jalapeno chile, bay leaves, garlic, pepper, onions, spinach, achiote and cilantro to taste, 2 squash, 2 zucchinis, 1 potato, 4 beaten eggs, 18 shrimp, 3 crabs, 1 kg grouper fish, 1 kg tuna, 6 squids, 12 clams. On the other side of the boulder, also engraved into the rock, was a long list of artists, creators and organizers, but no mention that I could make out of an organization or political body eager to commemorate itself or South Soup in such grand fashion. Only after admiring this handsome artifact close up did I notice, low down on one side, a brass protrusion bearing an inscription that identified it as a “Time Capsule, Deposited year 212, Legado Ancestral, to open year 263.” What the time capsule contained, and why this granite boulder was set up here to contain it, were questions that one might ask of any ancient stone or artifact; but in this case all is to be made clear or not clear forty-nine years from now.

I approached the north end of the field beneath oak trees whose leaves were turning and beginning to fall; the air was clear and cold in the shade. I came to a low, dome-shaped structure that appeared to be a fountain that had run out of water; at its apex the ghost of a white flame wavered almost invisibly in the bright sunlight. A plaque, somewhat mouldy and not easy to find, identified it as the Flame of Peace. I learned later on the internet that indeed it is a fountain, in the form of a “water-filled bronze cauldron” designed to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. I had come to the end of the piece of open ground, which I could see now had been transformed without my knowledge into a memorial park; a low wooden sign nearby proclaimed it to be Seaforth Peace Park, a name that clearly represents a compromise among committees that name parks and public spaces, for surely if this ground had a “real” name, it would be Hiroshima Peace Park. (Later on the internet I read that the land had originally been part of the “Kitsilano Indian Reserve,” and had been “eyed as parkland since 1924,” with no further explanation of its provenance.)

I stepped into a street blocked by heavy machines and construction workers watched over by a grim-faced flag person, and walked another block to Maple Street. Within minutes I had come to the house that the archivist and his first wife moved into in 1911: a shady bungalow in good repair, in a street lined with shady bungalows, with a verandah and a dormer with its own balcony, well preserved and no doubt worth more than two million dollars in the present market. I peered in from the sidewalk through an archway formed by a laurel hedge, into a lush front garden filled with shrubbery and garden gnomes and a profusion of hibernating plant life and fallen leaves, to a staircase leading up to the shady verandah and the front door to this peaceful, silent house of sadness, as I thought of it, to which, as Maud wrote to her son Hugh in 1918, “I could not return to be a prisoner. All I could think of was the horror of being locked up. You would think I was a jailbird or a murderer at large. I hope you are having a nice time and I hope you will continue to do so, I shall never get over my own son come after me with a policeman and helped his father in it, and the men in that barn tried to help me out. I am through now and will get a position in a strange town.”

Three years later, in 1921, the archivist remarried and moved his new wife Emily into the house on Maple Street, where apparently the reign of sadness continued, for within a year Emily too had moved out and filed for legal separation; the archivist’s frenzied pleas for her return were recorded in his diary, which can be found in the city archives along with the letters from Maud, and which is largely an account of Emily’s offences and includes several lists, such as: “things that Emily has broken” (vase, plates, window, pipe, letters, photos), “bruises she has inflicted” (kicked shins, scratched face, hit me on back of head with poker), “things Emily has thrown at me” (varnish tin, silver flower vase, ink pots, bellows, package visiting cards) and “names she has called me” (liar, hypocrite, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, brute, beast).

I presumed that Maud never returned to the house on Maple Street, but there were more letters and perhaps more diaries in the archive that I had yet to see. I continued north along Maple Street toward the park at Kits Point, and the Maritime Museum, the unlikely looking A-frame structure built to contain the St. Roch, the RCMP schooner named for the electoral riding of a Minister of Justice, and which had traversed the Northwest Passage in both directions during World War II. I circled the A-frame and had glimpsed the St. Roch through its big windows to look for the Ben Franklin, the underwater vessel that made the longest research dive in history while drifting deep in the Gulf Stream, and which I remembered photographing shortly after it was put on display on a patch of lawn in 23; now it was encased by a grille of steel burglar bars that greatly diminished its likeness to a wingless seabird of vast proportion, which was how it struck me when I stumbled upon it for the first time. Now beyond another expanse of rolling lawn I could see on my right a corner of the archives building retreating into its hillside, and on my left the monument to the Northwest Passage that I had spotted from the No. 44 bus. The breeze was lifting and kite fliers were at work on a rising hillside; there were no seagulls to be seen or heard, a lack that seemed like an error of arrangement, but crows were flying overhead in great numbers and the sound of the sea could heard in the waves lapping against the shore. I approached the monument and stood before it, a gigantic figure of steel and rust indicating a kind of notation, perhaps musical in origin, and at the same time a viewfinder indicating a way to the top of the world by a route long hidden to all but the makers of imaginary maps. In 1942, when the St. Roch was resting in the ice near Somerset Island, the captain and a small crew set out by dogsled across the dark and apparently empty field of ice; hours passed and they saw a glow in the distance; soon they could hear accordion music and many voices raised in song, emanating from what proved to be a huge snow house, the largest that the captain had ever seen; he and his men crawled in through the entryway and came into a terrific celebration illuminated by kerosene lamps: families dancing and singing and a man in the centre playing an accordion, which he continued playing as long as there were dancers dancing; as the temperature rose, many began removing their garments; eventually the snow roof caved in and the dancing and the music came to a slow, ragged and hilarious end.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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