(A short story written for Fitzroy's Fabula event...)


Toronto. It has almost been a mythical place for as long as I remember. My Uncle Bobby, my mum’s brother, moved there from Ballymena in the mid 50s. Our homes had more than the average numbers of maple leafs. Uncle Bobby was missed and loved and a little legendary as a result.

When Bob and Shirley and cousin Deborah visited Ireland in the summer of 1978 I put my spoke in.

Very quickly it is July 1979. I was a skinny 17 year old. Long disheveled hair I was just finished lower 6th. I wanted to be an adventurer. Uncle Bobby was the only member of our family who’d left Ballymena, even up until today. 

But I was pretty naive and innocent. The furthest I had been was Newquay and it was hardly big city. I did though want to see Canada and arrived on July 1st for two months. My Granny was with me. My mum would arrive at the end of July.

It was needless to say, a fabulous time. The sun was always shining. It was hot. My cousin Deborah only 10 at the time would go to Swimming Lessons in Glen Watford and I would go to the vending machine with my quarters and grab a Grape… Grape I say… Fanta. They even opened differently than ours.

I’d then sit and read Rolling Stone on the grass. It was there that I read that Bob Dylan had become a Christian and was working on a record called Slow Train Coming. I had just become a Christian a couple of months ago and this sounded so cool. Everything about Toronto was cool.

We’d visit other family members, Uncle Bobby would take me to local football matches where all the accents were Scottish and Irish and I’d spend hours in the basement playing pool or watching trying to figure out how to play Baseball. 

One night Aunt Shirley said, “pAss the salt Robert Stevenson”. I wondered how she knew my name and went to grab the salt but my Uncle got to it first and I learned for the first time that I was named after him. 

Aunt Shirley was like a mum for that first month. She was the real Canadian. She had the accent - all out and aboot. From Wiarton out in rural Ontario  she held those rural values, the best of them and she carried them gently. She’d have been giving me grief about this hair with a wee Shirley grace filled chortle.

I never asked Aunt Shirley what she was up to when she leaned in and pulled out as much courage as she could find inside me. I look back and see it as a dare or a tactic or something even smarter.

She was a small town girl. When she arrived in Toronto at the end of the 50s she must have had to find courage to live in that new environment. She met a small town boy and made a wonderful life. She lost my Uncle Bobby to a work accident in 1993 and showed great courage to deal with it.

Maybe she just wanted to step on my 17 year old arrogance that a month living with me at that time might have annoyed. Looking back I could understand that. Maybe she just thought you are 17. You’re running around with your Granny, your aunt and your ma. Grow up. 

I like to think she was being more strategic. That she was mothering me. Eeking out a courage that she knew was there but I’d never looked deep enough to find.  

It was shortly after my mum arrived. My cheeky arrogance had been suggesting that I might head into the city on my own some time. Now, as much as I wished I could do this did I really want to do it. Did I actually have the courage

Anyway, not long after my mum arrived, maybe within hours, Aunt Shirley drops me in it, “Margaret, Steve says he’s going to go into town on his own.” She had me. I remember something in my gut. Oh no! I’m not sure that I want to… but I now have to. I had a couple of big sleepless nights and then… 

I took a hearty breakfast and headed out alone, down Pitfield Road and round the corner to the Midland train station. There were a few boys got on the same carriage. My age but way more mature. It was the first time I has seen jeans with holes in the knee. I put that idea behind my ear and concentrated on when to get off, taking in some of the scenery on the 25 minutes into Bloor/Yunge station.

When I got out of the station I had the best day of my young life. In and out of Sam The Record Man’s HMV beside it, the Eaton Centre with its Ballymena connections across the road. I stocked up on vinyl. I remember a Rory Gallagher, George Harrison, Steve Forbert and a Lynyrd Skynyrd. Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps though I think it was on another trip in the next week. Check me out!

I had one other sweet surprise. About six months before I was wrestling with a God that I didn’t think existed. So I looked at my CD rack. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors was on the front. So I said, Ok God take the flames off that album cover. 

Of course he didn’t but there in Sam The Record Man in very late July was that same record without the flames. It seems that after the band were in a plane crash the record company took the flames off… in the American version. That was a wee lesson in how miracles might work. 

My aunt Shirley passed away three weeks ago. As I thanked God for her life. I thanked her for being my Canadian mum, so many times, but particularly for the courage she dragged out of that wee boy… 

I wish I could say that that was that. The birth of courageous Steve. However 10 years later, almost to the day, I arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London. My first visit. All Toronto courage was gone. I climbed the stairs and looked out on London and quickly scampered back to safety. I sat there until a girl called Janice came and led me out. She’s been my courage ever since.


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