Rorke Stores, Carbonear, 1871
Recently, Lara Maynard, an avid local book reviewer and lover of historical fiction, attended a meeting at the one remaining building that was once part of the Rorke Stores complex in Carbonear. The "store" is now a museum and Registered Heritage Structure.
At the time, Lara was reading my debut novel "Ananias" and decided to take it along with her. She photographed the book using this remarkable edifice as a background. The main setting for the novel is Carbonear, and I did extensive research in order to depict the town as accurately as I possibly could. Of course the Rorke Stores did not exist in the period described by the novel (1820s) and ultimately, most of the town was destroyed in the great fire of 1859.
Although John Rorke worked in Carbonear during the 1820s, he did not establish his own merchant business until the following decade.
Lara's excursion and the photos she posted on Twitter (one of which I have included below) got me thinking about how critical the historical Carbonear context was for my creative writing. I immediately recalled a passage from my (as yet unfinished) second novel "Vicory" when young Vic and his two friends are sent to Carbonear on an errand. This may truly be a quintessential moment in the Carbonear context, as it not only deals with the Rorke Stores, but also with the main commercial space: the heritage building on the opposite side of the street that is now home to the popular pub and restaurant, The Stone Jug.
The passage is about three young lads: Vicory, and his friends, Mark and Ed. And like boys, they dawdle, naïvely philosophize, compete, and generally get totally distracted when they should simply be focused on the task at hand...
I hope it sparks something in your imagination! Please enjoy the trailer.
Photo Credit: Lara Maynard
“Ye ever eat cow before?” Ed was curious about the goal of our mission. The walk to Carbonear was about four and a half miles. Throwing rocks at seagulls, exchanging pleasantries with some of the boys in Freshwater, walking tightrope on the stage longers at Crocker’s Cove, climbing the stone walls of merchant houses at Burnt Head and taking in the sights along Lower Path to Rorke’s would add about two hours to the three hour return trip. It was a fine Saturday in June. No threat of rain. The girls could cover the fish. This was manly business.
“It’s called beef ye daft twillick,” Mark replied.
“I only ever eat chicken and sheep near’s I can remember,” I said.
“Few rabbits. Jaysus. Mudder can make some pie with a scattered rabbit. Pastry an’ gravy. Oh my sonny b’ys.” Ed patted his hand on his stomach as a testament to Mrs. Parsons’ culinary skills.
“Had some once,” offered Mark. “Da had to shoot poor old Bath after she dried up. Weren’t fit near as I can recall.”
Bathsheba. A cow named after the mother of Solomon.
“Yes. Sure I remembers that.”
We plunged into a typical transitory period that some might construe as reflection. It would be closer to the truth to suggest that our minds periodically went blank between moments of great philosophic exercise.
We only rarely found ourselves in Carbonear, usually with specific orders. Not only was this where you went for staples like flour and molasses — here you could get a glimpse of luxury. But the merchant homes that lined Lower Path did not speak to us of wealth for we really had no inking as to whether or not we were poor. Other, less fortunate people were poor. Other, more fortunate people were rich. We were somewhere in the middle.
The houses were all similar. Some had a front gallery facing out onto the path — sometimes with a chair. It was inconceivable how anybody could be lazy enough to just sit in a chair and look out at people walking by. We never saw anybody actually sitting on a front porch chair.
“That’s just for show,” offered Mark.
We strolled down the cart track, picking up any stone, stick, or iron fragment that caught our eye, examining it without comment, then usually hurling it for all we were worth towards the water in a mute contest of strength. Except occasionally:
“That went in,” said Mark.
“Did not,” said Ed. “There weren’t no splash.”
“Jaysus b’y, Ed. Ye deaf?”
Quiet once more.
I was thinking that we should probably pick up the pace, but then again, I was only ever scolded by Phoebe Jane. We were dawdling. It’s what we did. Passing the dull gray and lime-washed houses, I was aware that Mark had advanced beyond the ranks and was about fifty feet ahead. All of a sudden he stopped and turned to his left. He stared up, mouth wide open. Ed ran up to see what Mark was gawking at. The understudy then fell into a repeat performance of his cousin — just as dumb and gape-mouthed. I broke into a trot, and as soon as I reached where they stood, I too turned to behold.
“What d’ye make of that?” Mark spoke out into space. We remained transfixed. We adjusted our heads so that our caps shielded the eleven-thirty sun from our perspective.
“Jaysus. I seen it all now.” Ed was particularly awed.
“Blue,” I managed. “Like the sky.”
Mark: “Like the water.”
Ed: “Like a robin’s egg.” (Ed was the naturalist among us. Mark never gave him much credit for such delicate thoughts.)
We had never before seen real paint on a house, at least not on the outside. It didn’t matter that it was a grand house, with a strange curvy roof that seemed to melt down over the third storey like icing running down from the top of a cake, and windows — windows pushing through the purple slates. We had passed the house before and didn’t take notice as it used to be the same tone as every other house along the stretch. Rich people for sure. Powell’s or Butt’s or Garland’s. But what was this colour thing?
“Ma would have a fit,” I mumbled.
“How so?” asked Mark.
“Vanity. A mortal sin.”
“They’re probably Catholic.”
“I think it’s gorgeous.” That broke the spell. Our gaze collapsed onto Ed.
Mark had one eye raised. “B’y, I gotta wonder ‘bout ye, Ed.”
“C’mon. Let’s get going.” I put my hand on Ed’s shoulder and led him gingerly with my forearm. He was still staring at the garish blue extravaganza even as we walked away. “Won’t be a quarter left at Rorke’s soon enough.”
Passing the foot of Bannerman Lane, especially on a rare fine day, meant passing into the closest Newfoundland could offer in terms of an urbane experience. Ladies in bonnets, gentlemen in horse-drawn traps, folks scanning posted bills, a soapbox preacher, and dogs running around in the muck and shite that passed as a street. The din of midday commotion with shoppers and hawkers.
Then the banging of hammers and the shouting of foremen. Two sawpits with four men stripped to the waist and sweating profusely while four others stood by waiting to spell them once the active shift was completely exhausted. A dozen or so workers of every shape and description having at huge timbers with axes and adzes, shaping pine and juniper into collar braces and gunstock posts. Once again we were stopped in our tracks, hands in pockets, eyes like sponges.
Mark’s assessment: “Rorke’s doin’ alright.”
Ed offering the obvious: “One weren’t enough I guess.”
Two mammoth store houses were being framed on the water side of Lower Path. They were identical, both reaching three stories, with steeply pitched roofs, two windows in the gable ends and two in the middle band facing onto the street, nine symmetrical panes in each. Slaters were finishing the east roof and framers were installing battens on the second to the west. A colony of gulls floated on the harbour waters just beyond the edifices, listless, bobbing on the tide, squawking only socially.
“Ye stayin’ here b’ys?” I nodded towards the magnificent tribute to commerce Rorke had erected just five years prior, on the street opposite. It was the only stone building in the town, trimmed with brick at every opening and sporting five dormers along the roofline.
“B’ys? Okay. Look — I got stuff to do.” No response. Mark and Ed were captivated.
I strode the steps up to the huge display windows, and pulled open the heavy wooden door. A bell on a metal hoop sounded my arrival, but there was a throng of customers inside so I was hardly noticed. Two men in bloody aprons tied at the front were taking orders and wrapping purchases in brown paper tied with hemp twine. Another was fishing around in a huge salt beef barrel with an iron gaff.
I waited in turn as people came, exchanged gossip and currency, then went again with their acquisitions. When I reached the counter, a tall thin man with wild bushy muttonchops asked for my name.
“Case. For James Case. Flathead.”
He proceeded to a thick leather-bound register open on the sloping desk towards the end of the counter, licked his index finger, pinched his thumb and rubbed the two together absent-mindedly. He leafed through the pages moving back to front. He finally landed on a page and slid his finger down, coming to a stop presumably where Da’s name had been recorded.
“On account?” he asked peering over the lenses of his wire-framed glasses, finger still planted on the page.
“So what will it be, son?”
“Da sent me for meat.”
He chuckled. “Pray, what kind of meat?”
“I dunno. Cow?”
“Chuck? Rib? Flank? Round? Shank?”
I stared back. Blank. I had nothing.
“Tell ye what son. What’s the occasion?”
“Is it a big dinner then?”
“I ‘spose, sir.”
“Yes, sir.” I was enthused. We were getting to the heart of the matter. “Revered Comben.”
“Then I think you’ll be wanting a roast.”
“Yes, sir. I think so, sir. But not a large one, sir. I don’t expect to eat any of it.”
“Alright lad. Let me see what we have.”
I waited anxiously while the thin man went to the wood block table behind where a stout, red faced man with a white linen cap was trimming what I gathered was a quarter of beef. Thin man spoke to red-faced man and the latter then sawed effortlessly into the carcass with a knife that was about two feet long. He held up a piece, raised his eyebrows and nodded his head almost imperceptibly. Thin man replied with a studied frown and a pronounced, tilted head, that-should-do-it type nod. He turned to me and also held the cut aloft. I did my best to imitate his affirmation to red-faced man — an overt attempt to distract from my utter cluelessness.
I tucked the brown paper parcel under my arm, pulled on the door and returned to the street. Mark and Ed hadn’t budged. I observed them for a moment from Rorke’s raised stone stoop. Almost identical in height, each fitted with a wool cap. Mark had only one of his suspenders done up and his trousers were hiked up on his arse on that side. His shirt was half out. Ed sported a piece of rope for a belt, but for some reason known only to himself, had one leg rolled up almost to his knee. His shirt was tucked in but had both sleeves torn off. Summer attire.
“B’ys c’mon,” I hailed from across the street. “I got the meat.”