(A novel by Susan Overturf)
The first time I visited the West End of Vancouver, I fell in love with it. Just sixteen, born and raised in desert-like Kamloops, British Columbia, I had never seen the ocean nor so many different trees and delightful flowers. I had travelled to Vancouver with my parents to visit my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, who lived on the top floor of a Queen Anne Victorian-style home overlooking English Bay on Beach Crescent.
Aunt Agnes, who had never married, lavished much of her attention on her three cats — Do, Re, and Mi. They shared a nightly ritual of watching the sunset, no matter what the season, from her bedroom garret. By day, Aunt Agnes worked as a secretary for the head of a large law firm, earning no doubt one of the higher salaries for a woman of her generation; on weekends, she enjoyed baking cookies for her downstairs neighbours — two young men who owned a flower shop on nearby Davie Street. If she knew they were a gay couple, she never mentioned it, but it would not have mattered to me anyway, since I did not yet know the meaning of the word, my parents believing that one’s sexuality would most likely be learned by osmosis as one aged. Aunt Agnes, I am sure, totally accepted anyone into her worldly sphere. It was what I loved about her.
At the time of that visit, I knew nothing of the history of the West End. Once a neighbourhood for wealthy CPR railroad barons and their families, the West End eventually evolved into middle class after the affluent residents abandoned their spacious Victorian-style homes in the early twentieth century for even larger and more expensive ones in Shaughnessy Heights, named after the CEO of CPR at the time. Slowly, their left-behind mansions were either torn down or made into boarding houses or apartments, like the one Aunt Agnes lived in. By the 1950s, there were also many three-and-four-story apartment complexes. Aunt Agnes, always an independent soul, valued the eccentricity of living in a home that had once housed the wealthy. When I naively asked her why she didn’t choose to live in an apartment building, she said, “Oh, Dorthea, what a terribly boring idea!”
Aunt Agnes, to me a woman ahead of her time, enjoyed her independence and the opportunities that living alone afforded her. My parents left me with her for five days while they travelled south to Seattle. “Enjoy yourself!” my aunt had said, and she had given me free rein to explore. So I did. I walked the streets, stuck my toes into English Bay, and explored the cool trails of Stanley Park. In the evenings, my aunt and I sat down to a light supper, which I had usually prepared before she got home from work, and we always climbed to the bedroom garret to watch the sunset with Do, Re, and Mi. It was an idyllic five days away from parental supervision.
When I returned to Kamloops, the reds and yellows of the roses and rhododendrons, the various green hues of the maple and oak trees, and the whites and blues of the ocean remained in my memory. Dry, brown, dusty Kamloops seemed incredibly ugly by comparison, and I kept in my heart the desire to some day live on that small peninsula known as the West End. It was not to be for nearly fifty years.
I returned to the Lower Mainland two years later to attend the University of British Columbia. My impoverished student lifestyle never allowed me the opportunity to leave the campus, and so I had no chance to visit with Aunt Agnes and Do, Re, and Mi. After graduation I returned to Kamloops and settled down to a typical middle class existence: marriage, two kids, and a teaching career. Thoughts of living in the West End faded amidst my daily, hectic schedule.
During the final years of my teaching career, a teachers’ workshop held at Simon Fraser University brought me to Vancouver again, and a friend and teaching colleague suggested we take a bus to the West End while we were in the city. I jumped at the chance. Even though Aunt Agnes had passed away several years before, I walked by the old home she had once lived in. It was in disrepair and one of the few older homes to have survived. Now, there were more and taller apartment buildings, and the area had grown considerably, stretching over to Coal Harbour on one side and False Creek on the other. What remained, however, was the ocean breeze and the shade trees. I was not deterred by the changes; it was during that visit that I told my friend, “I’m going to come here to retire.”
And I did. Ten years later. After my husband’s death. After my children had grown up. After my career had ended. I needed a new beginning, and my childhood dream of coming to Vancouver’s West End finally became reality.
Now that I was here, it still seemed like a dream but maybe that was just fatigue. I felt so tired that I thought surely I would not be able to take another step. I stood at the bottom of the flight of stairs and looked up. A second day of moving furniture and unpacking boxes had taken their toll, but I had vowed that I would always walk up the stairs to my apartment rather than using the elevator. Just a small way to stay young, I thought.
The stairs were split between floors, so there were ten landings to make it to the fifth floor. I suppose it took me less than ten minutes — not bad for a sixty-five-year old pensioner who’d spent two days in a row doing physically demanding work. About half-way up, though, I felt an adrenaline rush — or maybe it was just a desire to get home. Whatever the reason, when I reached the tenth landing, I felt remarkably invigorated. I had achieved my goal and knew that I could soon rest my feet.
I turned the knob on the door leading into the hall and pushed; the heavy door opened remarkably easily. Immediately, I could smell curry; someone had chosen East Indian cooking for their evening’s meal. My mouth watered, even though I had already eaten a plate of sushi. I reached into my jeans pocket for my keys, took half a dozen steps to my apartment door, found the right key and slipped it into the lock. As I turned it, the door to the next apartment opened and a man came out.
“Hi, you must be the new tenant.”
I paused, still holding on to the key, and turned to look at him. “Yes, I am.”
“Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand to shake mine and smiled broadly, infectiously. “My name’s Mark Underhill. I live here, so we’re neighbours. Welcome to Royal Manor!”
I left my keys hanging in the lock and accepted Mark’s handshake. “Thanks. My name’s Dorthea. Dorthea Parsons.”
“Are you new to the West End?”
“Yes and no. I came here as a teenager to visit my aunt, and I loved it. I visited again about ten years ago. But this is the first time I’ve actually lived here.”
“You’ll love it!” Mark smiled. “I know you will.”
I figured Mark to be at least twenty-five years younger than me, if not more. Clean, neat, some gray in his mostly black hair, with a nicely trimmed mustache. A small man, at about 5’5”, he was dressed in a clean pair of black jeans and a long-sleeved, red shirt which was not tucked in. A small gold earring hung from his right ear lobe. By comparison, I felt tired and dirty in my pair of faded jeans and a large blue shirt that covered me up but didn’t exactly flatter me. For a split second, I wondered what my hair looked like. I knew that, clean or dirty, it was still gray, short, and curly.
“I think I‘ll like it here,“ I said, with exhaustion clearly in my voice, “but it will take some time. Right now it feels as though I’m up to my eyeballs in boxes and packing materials.“
Mark nodded his head in obvious understanding and sympathy. “I’ve been here for years and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” He smiled and added, “That’s why I never move. I couldn’t possibly do it!” As he spoke the final words, he extended his hand forward, palm down, and pushed it through the air towards the floor.
I chuckled. “Hmmm. I know what you mean. It’s too bad I didn’t have you around when I was telling my friends in Kamloops that I was moving here.”
Mark raised an eyebrow. “Oh? They have a poor opinion of the West End, do they?”
I crossed my arms and leaned slightly against the wall. “Well, not really the West End — more like all of Vancouver! People who live in the Okanagan, you know, don’t think much of Vancouverites. But I think my friends’ motives were actually more selfish. They just didn’t want me to leave.”
“Ah, yes,” Mark agreed, “the so-called good friends who think they have your best interests at heart when they really have their own best interests at heart.”
I laughed. “Yes. You’ve got them pegged well. They told me I’d never be happy here.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re going to prove them wrong,” he said, and then paused. “It’s just such a beautiful place.“
I nodded my head in agreement. “It’s lovely, I admit. That‘s why I chose it”
“They say it takes a year to adapt. You’ll be fine.” Mark smiled again, showing off a perfect row of white teeth.
“What do you have to adapt to?” I asked, somewhat annoyed that anyone would have difficulty adapting to mountainous horizons, sandy beaches, or spectacular sunsets.
”Well, like any neighbourhood, we do have problems,” Mark said, somewhat defensively. “Street people, druggies and dealers, noise and air pollution. The neighbourhood’s changed since I’ve lived here.”
“Yes, I know. It’s the same anywhere. I saw so many changes in my thirty-five years of teaching. No community is immune from these problems, I guess.“
“No, probably not,” he said and then added reassuringly, “But I remain happy here.”
I smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.“ I added, somewhat ironically: ”I’ve dreamt of living here for so long that I was worried you were going to tell me it’s no longer paradise.”
Mark nodded his head. “It is paradise, but you might want to avoid Granville, the liquor store on Bute, and the back alleys.” He winked at me and then asked, “So you were a teacher?”
“Yes, I’ve just retired from thirty-five years of teaching.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Oh, my god! How did you stand it?”
I chuckled and nodded. “I’m not sure. Thirty-five years of teaching adolescents — everything from poetic devices to the great themes of literature to understanding the grammatical structure of a sentence — should be enough for anyone. It certainly was for me!”
Mark laughed. “I can imagine!” And then he asked: “Where did you say you lived before?”
“Kamloops. Ever been there?”
“No. I’ve lived in Vancouver all my life. What little travel I’ve done has been to the west: Hawaii and Japan.”
“You’re not missing much,” I said. “Kamloops is way too hot in the summer. And dry. Fires were always a danger. I didn’t want to stay there.”
“You were there for your entire teaching career?”
“Yes, and I grew up there, too. But my husband had a good job and our kids were happy with their lives.”
“How many children?”
“Two boys. Now in their thirties.” I paused, never liking to admit my widowhood but knowing, somehow, that it had to be said. “I’m a widow. My husband, Jake, died ten years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I am, too. But I’ve learned to deal with it.”
Mark looked uncomfortable and changed the subject. “Are you all moved in now?”
“Almost, I guess. I’ve exchanged a three-bedroom house and garden for a two-bedroom apartment five floors up. I’m not sure yet where everything is going to go!”
Mark chuckled. “The longer you live in an apartment, the more efficient you get. I have my own business. I’m a hairdresser. If you ever need a cut or perm, just come see me. I’ll give you a free cut just for being a new tenant!”
“Well, thanks,” I said, “that’s very nice of you.“ I paused for a moment, thinking I should really get inside my apartment and sit down, but a couple of questions occurred to me. “By the way, do you know how our building got its name?”
“Royal Manor? Who knows? I don’t think anyone living here has been of royal blood!”
“I certainly don’t qualify,” I added.
“Me either,” Mark laughed.
“How long have you been here?”
“In this building?“ He flashed his right hand open and closed three times: “Fifteen years. But I’ve lived in the West End since I was eighteen.”
“You must like this particular building.“
“I do. The owners have taken good care of it. I love the ivy on the front of the building. I wish I had a balcony, but they didn’t build balconies back in the 50s. I like having only five floors, though. Some people wish we had a parking garage, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t have a car!”
“I intend to get rid of mine soon,” I added.
“There’s no point in having one. You can walk or take transit anywhere.”
“How about the current owner? You like him?”
“Yes — he’s from Hong Kong, I think. He’s put in new carpets in the lobby and constructed a nice flower garden at the front. He’s not here often but he seems to care about the place, which is good, and the manager is easily approachable.”
“I met him yesterday.“ I shifted my weight and turned to put my other shoulder against the wall. I felt fatigue sink into my bones, but the conversation was interesting. “Everything about the place suits me,” I said. “My apartment has new carpeting and all new appliances. I wanted to be no higher than the sixth floor since fire truck ladders can usually not reach higher than the seventh.“
Mark chuckled. “I didn’t know that about fire truck ladders.”
I smiled and pointed. “It’s important to know these things.”
“Apparently.” Mark laughed and winked at me again.
I enjoyed Mark’s easy openness and friendly manner. I had a feeling he was going to be a great neighbour. “I should be going soon, Mark, but I will bother you with one last question, if you don’t mind.”
“How did the crazy people who built this place figure out the numbering system for the apartments?”
Mark laughed. “Everyone asks that question! The apartments were numbered chronologically beginning at the first floor, but they were also tagged with their floor. Hence, the first floor has 101, 102, and 103, while the second floor has 204, 205, 206. With such an arrangement, it means that the fifth floor has 513, 514, and 515. Are you bothered that your apartment has the number thirteen in it?”
“No, not really,” I said. “But a few friends have commented on it. I’m sure they’ll get over it.“
Mark repeated, “I’m sure.” Then he changed the topic. “It’s been nice to meet you, Dorthea, and I hope you get settled soon. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”
“Yes, thank you. I enjoyed meeting you, too.”
Mark nodded and then added, “You said that you have two sons. Do they live here?”
“No. Michael‘s married and living in Calgary, managing a grocery store. He and his wife are going to have a baby soon. Peter, my younger son, is a marine biologist living what he calls ‘the good life’ in southern California.”
“And so you’ve come to live a fun, single life in the West End!” Mark said. He grinned from ear to ear.
“Well, I don’t know about the ‘fun’ part, but the ‘single’ part is accurate.” I put my hand on the keys, still hanging in my lock, and said, “I’d better get going. I think I need to sit down, and I shouldn’t keep you from wherever you were doing. This was a lovely chat. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”
“Yes. I’m sure. If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know. And don’t forget about that free haircut!” Mark headed for the elevator, pushed the ‘down’ button, and then turned back to me and said, “Oh, and let me know when you see her.”
“What?” I asked. I had pushed opened my door, holding it open with my foot.
“Her. The little girl. The ghost.” The elevator doors opened and Mark stepped in, turned and smiled at me, and then waved. The doors closed, and I was left standing in my door, with a million questions on my lips.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.