II

The Shamrock, Thistle & Rose Hotel

Keep Street, Sarnia, Ontario

July 30th

My girl, my girl, my glorious girl!

What a letter was waiting for me. I guessed its arrival long before it was placed in my hands. As I walked down Keep Street such a wind blew up, with the strength of the sea and the smell of the pines; it almost blew me off my feet. I felt in my bones that word from you had come at last. And it was you, sweetheart, the Anne I had fallen for all those years ago, wide eyed, reverent and unlike any soul I'd known. One who knows how much I am missing an Avonlea summer. As I read your letter I could feel the birch trunk against my back, smell the air as it shifts through your hair, and in those few brief moments I was home.

It's terrific to hear you are writing again. Though I'd have known even if you hadn't said so, it always shows when your head is in a story. I was reminded of an afternoon I caught sight of you at the graveyard. You were telling Matthew about something you were working on, and I said to myself, "Blythe, you'll need more than one lifetime to discover all the Annes inside that girl." You know I have my favourites, but the Anne who wrote to me on July 1st will always be my first love.

About that weekend in May, we were never at crossed purposes. I knew what you were longing for because I'm longing for it, too. But you're right about one thing, it would never have done me hightailing out the Blake's window (though they do have a door.) I want far more for us than that, why else would I be here if not for our House of Dreams. Remember what I said about wanting you and wanting our home, that I can't have one without the other? I made a promise to you when I put that ring on your finger, and I don't intend for you to marry the kind of man who breaks his promise. Even if it almost breaks me to keep it.

So what is it like here? Like nowhere I've been before. First off let me reassure you there is nothing at all unpromising about the place I'm staying in. As you would have noted in the address above, The Three Weeds is merely the common name for a most uncommon hotel. I'm sleeping the finest room I've ever stepped foot in – though don't tell Mam I said that.

I wish you and Mam had the chance to see each other this summer. I expect you've heard through the Avonlea grapevine that Uncle Dave has now recovered. Not that this holds any sway over Aunt Pearl. She's determined "her Doctor Dave" will retire, and wants to move to NB. Not because she is particularly fond of the place, because she doesn't trust her husband not to take a case or two if they remain on the Island. I pity the fellow who takes over his practice. Not only does Uncle Dave see all Glen St Mary but a good portion of Upper Glen and Lowbridge as well. John-Paul Crawford lay in the parlour for two days with a broken foot waiting for my uncle to come back from his vacation rather than have another doctor look at it. It's a curious town, the Glen. I used to imagine living there once – the once that didn't have you in it – now it makes me laugh to think I could ever be satisfied with so small a life.

Which brings me back to The Shamrock, Thistle and Rose, or Three Weeds as they call it here, and why I'm sleeping in a bed as ornate and ancient looking as the one Priss and Stella used to fight over. It's all due to Lord Anson Hulme and he's as eccentric as the hotel I'm living in. Picture Jeremiah Pye with even wilder eyebrows and teeth of gold not wood. Hulme is one of those gentleman scholars who travel the world and write papers for the Royal Society as a hobby. He was once obsessed with fossils and before that butterflies (according to his valet he nearly lost his life in the Amazon trying to find some rare blue moth.) Now engineering has caught his fancy. It's Hulme's money behind this tunnel construction, and when it's complete it will be the first of its kind in North America. A tunnel being dug directly under a body of water. It's one thing to read about it in the papers, but to see it, Anne. The tunnelling shield is a marvel, allowing the men to excavate in a cast iron vault of compressed air. Which is where yours truly comes in.

Turns out, I'm not here to support the medics at the field hospital. I was selected to assist Lord Hulme (or rather his physicians) who are making a study of Caisson disease, or what's come to be known as the Bends. It has a terrible effect on the sandhogs (they're the fellows doing the digging). At least one in three men become doubled over and riddled with pain after working beneath the lake bed, and we are trying to discover its physiological cause at a cellular level. The theory is it's got something to do with air density outside the body having an effect on air density inside the body. Every day we are finding a new piece to the puzzle. You won't believe it, but it was my background at the Daily News that ultimately got me the position. I'm in charge of interviewing the men after their shifts, sometimes I'm even permitted to examine a few. They happily tolerate me, the Bends is no joke, they want it cured as much as we do. I assumed Hulme was only motivated by money because nursing all those patients costs a pretty penny, and his Company is obliged to pay. But he has no interest in the bottom line. It's the mystery that inspires him, solving the riddle. I suppose that's why we get on so well. The moment I arrived and was brought before him, I told him plainly I couldn't afford such rich digs. He replied that he couldn't afford for me to be badly fed or rested. It was my brain he was after, he said, declaring the best minds require a full stomach and a full night's sleep, and that if I couldn't pay for them the Company would!

I'm on the sixth floor, though the view from my window is nothing special. There is one fellow here, a scientist by the name of Melhop (picture Billy Andrews with unexceptional ears and a plum coloured nose) who has lived in Sarnia all his life. He's always showing me the sights, a dank tract of forest, a tar coloured lake, expecting me to fall into swoons. Eventually I had to tell him that I came from the Island, so it would take a lot more than a house-sized swarm of black fly to impress me. I meant what I said about missing summer back home, especially the things that can't be seen; the smell of red earth, a salt-sear breeze. Forgive me talking about the weather but it's wretchedly humid here. The hotel laundress knows me by name. I only brought four shirts, and it takes three to get through one day. The air here tastes like a cross between the Kingsport fish market and old coal sacks. When I return to my room and wash up for supper the basin is grey with soot.

Living in a place like this I understand why you saw Avonlea as a paradise. I'm hoping her tender beauties may feature in this book you're writing. I realise it's about another Island entirely, still something tells me when I have your words in my hands I might recognise a few landmarks. A lake with water so bright it shines, or a glaring blue hall perhaps?

Now I feel it, the old familiar ache that comes of missing you. I know I've hardly sold Sarnia as an impressive destination but I can see you in this place, Anne. There's something of the pioneering spirit that lives out here, which you'll have to admit is sorely lacking in Avonlea. The people I've met, the discussions we have, being neck deep in vital and honourable work. It excites and fuels me the way Redmond never has.

I'll have to end this now, though I don't want to. When I write to you I fool myself into believing you are next to me. Soon enough I'm gazing like a love sick loon at your photograph, with its permanent smudge on the glass where I am always trying to draw back that one curl, before I recollect that your real face isn't sepia and one inch wide.

I'm about to call on the widow of a man called Flaherty. He was first rate sandhog, a giant of a man, who died suddenly last night. You see why I wish you were with me. I don't know what to say to Mrs Flaherty and I doubt she'll want to talk to me. But you'd know how to manage it, you have this way of making everything right with the world. I can easily imagine the rapture on Elizabeth's face because I simply think of yours. When you wrote about her little gaping mouth I had to smile. I'm not sure this is something you'll want to hear, but Josie used to say that you floated about the fields like a basking shark because your mouth was permanently open. Your eyes though, told a different story. Miss Lavendar said you have the eyes of an old soul, one who had seen more than she should have at such a young age. The Flahertys have a daughter and now that daughter has no father. To her, I will just some stranger in a damp shirt asking her sad mama more questions. I don't want to be that man, and if you were here I wouldn't be. You'd have her on your knee in a matter of moments, and probably have a smile out of her by the end of the visit. Or her tears. You've never been afraid of tears and I am learning not be.

Only one more pearl to go, my love.

Gilbert

...

* reference to Anne talking to Matthew from chapter 1, Redmond Diaries -the second year

* Aunt Pearl and 'her Doctor Dave' first mentioned in chapter 9, Redmond Diaries -the fourth year

* NB is New Brunswick (where Gilbert's cousins live)

* Priss and Stella's bed first mentioned in ch 6 Redmond Diaries -the second year