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Book excerpt: Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

A shocking secret his father had hidden from his family forms the basis of author Wayne Grady's debut novel.

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

VIVIAN

Mary Parsons was right, he looked so much like Frank Sinatra it took your breath away. Triangular face, curly black hair plastered to his forehead, a grin like a fox who knows where the chickens are kept, that was Jack Lewis, newfoundland’s newest singing sensation, as they called him on the marconi. except he wasn’t from newfoundland, was he. Mary Parsons said every time she saw him she had to bite her knuckles to keep herself from screaming, but Mary Parsons was Catholic and Catholics were given to hysterics. Vivian’s family was Church of england, solid as a rock. He did look like Frank Sinatra, but when that american sailor took her to see Step Lively at Fort Pepperrell, she hadn’t liked Sinatra at all. Too brash. Jack Lewis thought he looked brash, but he wasn’t quite pulling it off. Something about his eyes, well, they weren’t blue for one thing, but it wasn’t just that, there was a kind of pleading behind them, a coaxing, like they were saying, “Go along with me on this.” Like even before tonight they’d been in something sinful together. She ’d once found Mary Parsons smoking a ciga- rette in school, and Mary had given her a look like that: “don’t tell Matron.” and she hadn’t.

But if you didn’t know better, if you forgot you were in the Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John’s, newfoundland, and if you squinted up at the stage through the smoke and the dark- ness and the dancing couples, well, you might think it was Frank Sinatra up there, but you’d have to wonder what Frank Sinatra was doing in St. John’s, looking like a lost kid. That was the dif- ference—the real Frank Sinatra never looked lost.

Since she was at the K of C dance as a volunteer, selling lunches to raise money for the war effort, during the break she took a tray of sandwiches and tea to the band in the back room. The King’s Men, they called themselves. They were drinking beer, which wasn’t allowed but she didn’t say anything. They were from the navy Band down at HMCS Avalon. She’d seen them many times, parading back and forth from the base to the dockyards whenever a convoy sailed. They looked right smart in their dark blue uniforms, with white puttees and dickie fronts. But St. John’s was full of men from away, and a girl had to be careful. She served him last, when there were just two halves left on the tray. By the time she got to him, she ’d worked herself into a fine tizzy. He looked at her and she felt caught. There was only the tray between them.

He pointed at the sandwiches and asked, “What kind are they?”

“Fish. Mary Parsons made them and she ’s Catholic.” “What’s that got to do with anything?” Mainlanders didn’t know much, did they. “The fish is left over from last night,” she said. “Friday,” she added when he looked at her blankly.

“Leftover fish,” he said. “and tea.” He took a swig from his beer bottle. “Just like home.”

From close up he was handsome as all get out. His eyes seemed to pull her in and she had trouble keeping the tray straight. He was a bit wound up, she could tell that, it might be from being on stage but she hoped it was from being near her. He was tanned, like a fisherman, maybe he came from somewhere warm. She sensed a need in him that she liked because she thought it was a need she could fulfill. everyone had needs, her parents, her sister, her younger brother, but satisfying their needs was some- thing she had to do, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. With this man, though, this stranger, she felt in her body that his were needs she would be happy to look after. His woollen uniform had dark stains down the back and his white dickie was soaked. She almost asked if he wanted her to find him a towel.

“You eat a lot of fish where you come from, do you?” she said, surprised that her voice was working.

“Enough.”

“Where ’s it come from, then?” “From a can.” “you mean from a tin.” “yeah, from a tin can,” he said. “How come your skin is so white? don’t you ever get any sun?” “This is newfoundland, Mr. Lewis. Have you seen any sun lately?” She should have called him Ordinary Seaman Lewis, but that sounded vulgar.

“My name’s Jack,” he said, holding out his hand. There was an awkward moment as she shifted the tray to her left hand and shook his with her right. His felt cold and bony, as if she were shaking a frog. It didn’t repel her, though. It told her he was as nervous as she was.

“I’ll call you Jack Tar,” she said.

“That’s a sailor, ain’t it? That’s me, then. Jack Tar,” and he sang: “I was born upon the deep blue sea.”

He hadn’t been, she thought. He hadn’t been anywhere near the sea before. and she hadn’t been anywhere else. “Well,” she said, “if you don’t want a sandwich . . . “ She began turning from him.

“Wait.” He reached out and held his hand a few inches from her chest, pretending to be choosing a sandwich. “They both look so nice,” he said, looking up at her and smiling into her eyes. He thinks I’m a V-girl. am I? Her arms ached from holding the tray, but she couldn’t move. She could feel the heat from his hand through her blouse. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“I’ll never tell.”

“Come on, I’ll bet I can guess.” “Go ahead and try.” “Lily White.” “no,” she said. “It’s Vivian. Vivian Clift.” It was only part of her name, but it was close enough. Finally he looked down at her tray and took a sandwich. She almost stepped back, as though he had let go of her. “Thanks for the grub, Vivian Clift. Got a song you like? I’ll sing it for you next set.”

But she couldn’t think of a song she liked, couldn’t think of any song at all, not even one she didn’t like. Her mind was still on his hand, its heat. “I’m not staying,” she said. “I’ve got to get home.”

“Too bad,” he said, biting into his sandwich. “How much for the sandwich?”

“It’s on the house,” she said.

“Thanks.” He washed the sandwich down with the last of his beer. “See you around, then, Lily White.”