"There must be a place different from this. The whole world can't be the same. But what if it turned out to be?" - Charles Ritchie, An Appetite for Life.
This bench I'm sitting on, on the Halifax boardwalk, is not my favourite bench. Though its angle blocks the cold April wind, it also provides a broad view of the Dartmouth oil refinery, with little in between but tankers on the water and tractor tires on the docks. What's more, its sheltered nature hides it from the rest of the boardwalk, and many curious pedestrians are well into my personal space before they notice I'm here. The decreasing shops and increasing industrial wharfs usually lead tourists to assume that this is the end of the boardwalk, and thus perfect for private, intimate moments - leading to a fair amount of awkwardness when they finally notice my presence.
My favourite bench carries none of these problems. That bench is the only feature of a stretch of the boardwalk that is much more private than this one. Thus, pedestrians can see you from fifty meters away, and there is a rum cake shop nearby that distracts them and keeps them from lingering too long. As an added bonus, this bench affords a lovely panorama of McNab's Island and the vast Atlantic calmly lolling away behind it. And while I know it cannot be the exact bench that Charles Ritchie wrote about in his diary in 1924 -- published in 1986 as An Appetite for Life -- it never fails to remind me of his 18-year-old view of this window to the rest of the world.
When I first read Ritchie's diary, its principle effect on me was comedic rather than emotional, since I was unfamiliar with the city in which he lived and about which he wrote. It wasn't until I had spent two years at school in Halifax and subsequently returned home to Ontario, aching with the remembrance of harbour-bench ponderings and nostalgia for plans of adventure and romantic trysts along the cliffs of the railway cutting, that I came to appreciate his writing.
With this ache I picked the book up again, not expecting, but hoping, for some mention of a familiar landmark. What I found - on the very first page - astounded me. Ritchie sets up exactly what drives his desire to see the rest of the world: the view of an ocean liner leaving the harbour, while callously leaving him on a bench on the harbour-front. He reflects, "Oh, to be on board, doing anything, a stowaway, or swabbing the decks, going anywhere."
This attitude certainly hits home now, even though I am not sitting at what I think of as Ritchie's bench, my favourite bench. Tonight, a good view would give me a sight not just of the usual Atlantic, but also the ocean I was supposed to cross tonight. Because of the ash from some volcano whose name nobody tries to pronounce, a long-awaited trip to Europe was canceled this morning, and I've been left alone in this beautiful, historic, friendly, cosy -- small -- city for another two weeks. Air travel is hectic and expensive now even within Canada, and so I will not even be able to escape back to Ontario.
As another young couple nearly stumbles into my lap and shoots me a reproachful look (as if I were disturbing them!), I decide that it's time to pick a different moping spot, since my regular bench is closed off anyway. I decide to stick with the Charles Ritchie theme, and walk home via the railway cutting, trying half-heartedly to find his childhood home. A quiet but unmistakably mechanical groan becomes audible as I approach the first bridge. The cutting is too deep for me to see the train yet, but even this makes me smile, imagining Ritchie's description of "a cliff of tawny rock a hundred feet deep"
where his family's orchard used to be. Ritchie made the railway a huge part of what Halifax has meant to me in the four years that I have lived here; it's very comforting, when a train goes by at night, to know that nearly ninety years before, someone else loved "the hooting of the engines, the ringing of the cow-bells, the jangling of the couplings, and the sound of the mournful whistle as the trains draw out in the distance... dwindling away to the edge of sleep."
Photo credit: Caroline Michaud
And it occurs to me, as I lean over the mouldering concrete railing of the bridge, that this deep scar across the Halifax peninsula, though a soothing and homely image for both Ritchie and me, is exactly what we were both looking for on that bench. The trip to Ontario would take days, potentially, but suddenly I'm not bothered. I can't think of a better sound to accompany me for 36 hours than that mournful whistle and that comforting rattle.
Charles Ritchie did soon leave Halifax, spending ten seasick days on a ship bound for England in October of 1926. But my own trip out of town will be by land. Hopefully, from the bottom of the cutting, I'll finally be able to pick out that childhood home of his, perched precariously on the cliff-edge.