Mrs. Irish

The first time I came to Montreal was midway through my undergraduate degree. A friend of mine from Vancouver was at a university there, and he invited me to live with him. I said yes, and he found a 3 1/2 just across from the old Forum on De Maisonneuve near Atwater. The apartment was awful. By the time I arrived in September, the sun was already obscured most of the day by a concrete tower block to the west. That winter was one of the coldest Montreal ever experienced. I remember the radio warned us to keep away from the windows because of the temperatures. 

I became friends with the concierge of the building. He was an Acadian who took me around the apartment building. He introduced me to different people, and told me about the Acadian expulsion. I had never heard of it before. One day he asked me to help him move some furniture for an older woman who lived directly beneath my apartment. I came into a beautiful set of rooms. A warm and gracious older woman greeted me and asked if I wanted tea. I suggested another time, and the concierge and I moved her furniture. Sometime later we met on our fire escapes while she was smoking and I was trying to enjoy the last of the sunlight.

We spent our Friday evenings together. She told me about meeting René Lévesque, and about the memorial at Gross Isle for the Irish that had perished during emigration and quarantine on their ways to Canada. It was all wonderful and terrible. I asked her name but she refused to tell me. 

“Call me Mrs. Irish,” she said. 

Sometime later, the concierge asked for my help again, and took me down to the basement of the building. There was a man who was living in the boiler room and the concierge told me he had found an apartment for him, but we needed to move his belongings. The concierge opened a basement door and pulled out a flashlight. We walked past a laundry room and entered a wide black cellar. The concierge flashed his light around the room, and I saw that the ceiling was strung with dozens of thin ropes. From every cord there were hundreds and hundreds of plastic bags fastened with wooden clothes pegs. At the corners of the cellar and along the walls there were dozens and dozens of stacks of yoghurt containers and crushed milk cartons and all sorts of other containers.

“This is the Depression, right here,” the concierge told me, as we started to lift a cot bed away from the massive oil furnace in the centre of the blackness and move it to a service elevator.

Everything was wonderful, and everything was mysterious. Everything was terrible, but I could hardly understand why. There was a diner across the street where I met a man who had spent the war living in a bunker in Greenland. I told him about how little light I had in my apartment, and he told me what he’d learned about growing plants in his radar bunker.

Before I moved out I came down the fire escape to say goodbye to Mrs. Irish. I remember opening her fire escape door and walking into her apartment, calling for her. Her rooms were untidy and no longer warm. I think it was the first time I began to have a sense of the inexorable and irredeemable isolation of the trauma I had seen.