In case you’re wondering, I can pinpoint for you the centre of the universe. For those who wish to know precisely, it is atop a hill just off the main road in Brig Bay, Nfld. — just past the branch where you turn left and, because the ravages of time and change have spared no one, veer right instead of pulling into a steep parking lot on your left (’cause you’re continuing on up the incline toward Bird Cove Hill).
It is from this lesser hill, where you would no longer stop for commerce, the Co-op store presided for many a year, drawing good people unto itself for the dispensation of the necessities of life, sometimes described in terms of nourishment or shelter not connected in any way to terms of purchase. Some climbed the stairs to conduct business, yes, or just to hang out, but you were just as likely on winter nights to trip over hockey players recovering from a beating and frostbite, or a newsbearer winding up in gusts of urgency to rival the whipping wind those Orrs and Espositos were hiding from.
I have been a newsman most of my life. This fascination with the news and its components — not to mention the warring sides of every issue — didn’t start with the Humber Log, The Western Star, The Gander Beacon or the Northern Pen, or any of the mainland newsrooms I would later land in, for that matter. These early ones were just finishing schools, where I honed my skills and figured out the craft. The real insight had come from watching and listening, while waiting to be tended on at the Co-op store.
It’s the place where you always heard the news; if not what was picked up on the radio then what tumbled off the lips of someone who just rushed in and hurried up the steps to where an audience could be counted on to be waiting. Where headlines announced were swiftly sent for interpretation to the best panel I ever heard this side of Fox or CNN, or even the CBC: the man sitting smoking on the rail in front of the big window; the strident one who hand-clapped the certainty of his convictions; Tom the clerk, who casually inserted his opinion in quips (punctuated with an upward glance), then by the tenor of the snip with which he opened a ham and set to laying out, by ease of drawing knife, rounds as perfect as had he used the slicer; a newer clerk named Myra, who could keep track of conversations and her task of sorting and “marking down” the largest of orders without missing a single beat; and now and then a younger buck, old enough to smoke and hold opinions, leaning on the counter with transferable expressions.
The news could not be counted on, however, to be rip-roaring dissertations based on what politician should be in and who should be out — or just why, Mister Man, we were better off when the red-white-and-blue was flying. Some days you knew right away, after racing up the steps, whether something bad had happened, and by the depth of the gloom subduing voices could tell if it had come from trembling lip or off the radio. No kid had to be asked twice to reach for reverence then. Nor was any physical display required to explain what was going on: the sadness or alarm that had marred someone’s day was being hung on a few more shoulders than could be found in just a single household.
The Co-op store found its way into my new book, a thousand steps from home, though there is no single ode that describes the store or its influence on purpose. It shows up instead unannounced, but fitting, as though what would be remarkable was if it hadn’t. Falling off the tongue then and into lines, urgent with the burden of some other theme, I brushed across a particular page of poetry. Effortless in its encapsulation of events, or offering of succinct perspective. Falling into place as easily as our beloved Co-op matriarch Nellie, ever compassionate and efficient, could swipe the twine a time or two around a well-wrapped bundle while “Yes girl”-ing understanding to a hurting woman, on the outflow of her breath.
The years and changing social clime took its toll on the hulking figure presiding as a watchman on that bank: the lights stopped being on late into the evening, and then the parking lot became a mooring place for fewer and fewer cars until, forlorn, it ambled off into forgetfulness, and at last its decaying form was put away.
Someone should erect a monument close to there, or at least raise a flag, to commemorate the meaningful starting point for so many journeys — and the place to which so many autumn hearts would surrender kingdoms for one more chance to return. It would not be all that much of a stretch for one to consider it hallowed ground, I say. Nor would it, in my estimation, be less of any Brig Bay son or daughter to admit their perspective on the world was first framed by the dimensions of that big window. You know, the way it kept an eye on everything coming and going into and out of the harbour, and minded a lot of people’s business too — from Bird Cove down to Blue Cove, and especially those up around the harbour.
No matter if your viewpoint, at any given time, was looking out or looking in.
Looking out is a favourite memory for me. Looking out onto the harbour and the government wharf; onto the ships that brought the foreigners in, to occupy imaginations with their language and at night the booths and pool table at the Sea Breeze; onto the longliners and lesser boats that described the everyday; onto the near-bird’s-eye view of house and stage curving around the harbour, and too somebody walking on the gravel road, headed this way, slowing — like you would — in pleasant pause before a grey two-storey house, on days when the wind was just right and Car’ Allingham happened to be baking bread.
The Co-op store provided everything on the list your mother folded and insisted you hand to Nellie, all right. Candies, three for a cent, as well, and Dubble Bubble (long before I would become Pud’s spokesman). And prided itself on supplying Christmas, right on time, with the frost and starry nights that decorate mid-November; where the stuff bragged about in Christmas catalogues showed promise of being true, and even what was making an encore appearance on the impossibly wide display shelf before you still held the power to enchant.
The Co-op holds a place in the shaping of outlooks on the world more profoundly than those who hold them might have thought of until now. Oh yes. Let’s get to that monument, without delay.