Between 1895 and 1897 a small schoolhouse was erected by the villagers of Gilford on Lake Simcoe -- a stone and brick job with a steeple and a silver bell that served the public for over six decades before briefly becoming a private school sometime around the Summer of Love.
In 1975 the schoolhouse was bought by a mad Swedish woodworker who remodelled the interior according to a bizarre, apermitted plan and ran it as The Olde Schoolhouse Pottery Shoppe. In 1986 it passed to a family of Newfoundlanders, who lived upstairs and sold worms on the main floor.
In 2004 I bought it, and now I live here.
On the brickwork along the bottom of the schoolhouse are the signatures of a thousand children, stretching back a hundred years. Mabel Coultier 1901 says one brick; Alice '32 says another. I wander along the porch steps, running my fingers over the weathered stone.
With a sudden and fierce roar, a snowmobile tears across the road and slides to a rough stop on the ice in front of my house. A hunter in bright orange fatigues steps off, peels off his helmet and mops his brow. Without a glance he stumps up the steps right past me, and pulls open the front door. "Er, can I help you?" I call.
"Yeah, I want to buy some worms, eh?" says the hunter.
"I'm afraid that this is a private residence," I tell him. "You're parked on my front lawn, in fact."
"You used to be able to buy worms here," he says, puzzled and hesitating.
"Would you mind closing the door? You're going to let the cat out."
"Oh," he says, looking at the front door in bewilderment. "Oh, sorry." He closes it and stumps back down the steps. "So, no worms, eh?"
"Over there," I say, pointing to the nearby village plaza.
As soon as the frost breaks for spring my highest priority is to build a tall wooden fence in the middle of the narrow run of grass that separates the schoolyard from the plaza, to enhance the villagers' ability to grok the boundary. On the school-side will be planted fast-growing evergreen bushes, to enhance our sense of privacy.
The plaza is modest, but central to the life of the village and therefore constantly busy with folks either coming to check their mail at the Gilford General Store, or hunters toting their gear from the lake to the ice-fishing hut rental arm of the local Bait & Tackle. (The propane-heated mega-size sleeper-cabin is popular, prompting the following glowing testimonial from one happy customer on the Bait & Tackle's website: "Imagine sitting in bed with a cup of coffee in one hand and a jiggling rod in the other!")
Since there is currently no garage at the schoolhouse, I am using one of the Bait & Tackle's bright yellow ice-fishing huts as a shed. So far, no bites. The Newfies may have overfished my backyard.
I'm excited to explore the rest of the yard. Currently, the snow goes up to my thighs before I even get half-way to the fence where the mowed part of the field ends and the wild thatch begins. I found a fire-pit, and a tyre-swing encased in ice. The puppy found a rusty spring and sliced her paw open for fun, leaving a garish trail of bright red prints across the bleach-white snow.
At night, this winter world is supernaturally quiet. It makes me feel deaf.
The mad Swedish woodworker who rewrought the schoolhouse wove nooks and crannies, broken by wide berths of open-concept space. Half of the main floor is given over to the twelve foot ceilings of the Great Room, a swath of high-windowed space serving as salon-diningroom-hall. The long wooden kitchen leads to an unfinished sauna, and a beyond it a washroom and laundry.
Stairs lead to a large landing and another washroom, the one I have dubbed Poo Court for it is here that the mad Swede had clearly focussed his powers of nonconformity to building standards: the toilet is raised on a wooden dais, and surrounded on three-sides by a short wooden wall that looks more than anything in this world like the witness box in a courtroom. "Gotta go testify," I tell my wife as I roll out of bed.
"Testify?" she repeats, blearily.
"I have been subpoenaed to appear in Poo Court. The defendant: CheeseburgerBrown. The plaintiff: last night's dinner."
Our bedroom is also bizarre. There is a four-poster bed integrated into the wall, with a fireplace and brickwork at the foot. A narrow wooden companionway leads to a walk-in closet on my wife's side of the bed; a similar companionway on my side leads to a Secret Room. Beside the fireplace is a walkout to a balcony. And the glass in the windows is one-way, so we can prance around in our skivvies.
"I bought new pants. What do you think?" LittleStar turns does a slow pirouette in front of the fireplace: it says Angel across her bum.
"That's a pretty sharp racing stripe down the leg," I say. "The only thing is...I'm pretty sure racing stripes are supposed to run horizontally."
And so my wife is reoriented horizontally, and the opacity of the one-way windows is tested. The next day, no voyeur-cam footage appears on the web so I figure we're in the clear.
Our bedroom is accessed from the Drawing Room, a second storey salon that connects us to Poo Court and the landing on one side, and LittleStar's studio on the other. LittleStar's desk is nestled beneath a dormer window, pictures of our baby already mounted on the slanted ceiling. By the kitty-corner round window is the pull-rope for the bell.
When we first moved in we discovered that a roost of houseflies had been having the run of the place, and I have been industriously killing them by the thousands, taking advantage of a few days while our wee toddler, Popsicle is away with grandparents -- baby-free, I dispense tactical blasts of insecticide. For some reason a majority of the flies come to LittleStar's studio to die. "I am constantly surrounded by death buzzing!" she protests, pointing to the wriggling things pinwheeling around on their backs as they gave up the ghost. I nip up with the vacuum and make its sac their dusty mausoleum.
A nearby ladder leads to a loft space that is little toddler Popsicle's room, and the finished basement is where we've stowed LittleStar's parents. Young up top, old down bottom. A place for everything and everything in its place.
"Why is there blood on the floor?" LittleStar asks, furrowing her brow.
The puppy has chewed out her stitches for fun. She romps through the Drawing Room, creating a grizzly scene as she chases her own tail. A fistful of flies drops out of the dormer window to die on the carpet beside her as she wags her tail. So she eats them.
Somebody who lives in our village owns a limousine company. There are always white stretch jobs parked in front of the Bait & Tackle, while the drivers shoot the breeze with the postie and check their lotto numbers. Sometimes the limousines bring Americans for hunting or ice-fishing, and they are invariably dressed in head-to-toe green-mottled camouflage. I don't know what they think they're hiding from out there in the snow, but they're apparently under the impression that it is blind.
I see a sixpack of them, talking loudly with pinched upstate accents, as I pull out to drive into the big city. Gilford quickly disappears behind me, but for a moment my mirrors still show the highest point in town: the steeple of our schoolhouse. I pass the Go Kart tracks of the Innisfil Indy, and anticipate the summer. Soon I reach the highway.
The highway is still wide here, but it is black and empty. As I drive south the river fills with light, stage by stage: first the current of cars around me thickens, and then the banks gain lights. Service stations and fast food. The dwarf-mountain of a local theme park bought by an IP/entertainment supercorporation with a coincidentally similar logo. And then suburbs and suburbs and suburbs; more blazing lights; warehouses, outlet malls, shipping concerns, smoking heavy industries...
And then the city. Overpasses, thick rivulets of lively traffic, hundreds of signs. I am where had been home. The roads rage around me with snarls and drones and whistles. Downtown/Centreville via Don Valley Parkway South/Sud 2 KM. People try to kill me, but I swerve quickly and survive. Like BBs we swirl in rough squadrons from one loop of highway to another, rolling down the drain toward the skyscraping core.
At the computer store I hand over my scraped and worn TiBook to a skinny kid in an over-sized Apple T-shirt and ask him to replace the optical drive. I drop off papers at my lawyer's office, to begin the process of creating a new corporation. I put the windows down to hear the citysound despite the cold. I buy a tea, and drive around. The city is nothing but fun when you're just visiting. It's a human-themed theme park. The logo is the CN Tower.
As I drive back to the schoolhouse the lights of the city peel away in layers. The megalopolis is a glowing horizon in my rearview mirror as I find my exit in the dark. Gilford is just north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, lands alternately under threat or protected by environmental decree. It is from the aquifers of the moraine that the schoolhouse well draws its water -- the water my family now drinks. It also serves as a boundary to the megacity's growth...for now. I pass the rich farming flats of the Holland Marsh, and the world beyond the highway drops away to pitch.
I am swallowed by the country dark. I notice that instead of feeling far from Toronto, I am beginning to feel that I am getting closer to home. The orientation in my mind is turning, and Gilford is becoming the centre of my new mental map.
And now we're pretty much through the worst of it. The horrors of displacement are done.
If you've been following along, you might be asking yourself, "How can it be that CheeseburgerBrown has moved again? Was it not less than a year ago that he told us the story of The 10 Day Shimmy?"
It's true. That was just eight months ago. (Back then, Popsicle was still the size of a Christmas ham and LittleStar was a top-heavy mobile milk-bar.) We spent eight months living in drive-by alley, paying cheaper rent and scouting for a property to buy while cringing at the fringes of Caribbean gang violence and aggressively loud Jeebus-Calypso. About seven months too long, in my opinion.
At any rate, this time's for keeps. I'm not moving again for decades, unless I'm chased out by pestilence, fire or war. (Even so, I may stand to defend this castle.)
When we were moving the movers kept trying to give me helpful tips for the next time I packed. "Save it," I'd say; "by the time I move again my failing mind won't be able to retrieve advice from this long ago."
"I ain't never seen a place like this in fifteen years of moving people," said the Cape Bretoner who helped move us eight months ago, now elevated to captain of the three man team. "Are these the original timbers?" he asked, exploring the Great Room.
"I don't think so," I told him. "The inspector said they're not load-bearing...the Swede used them to hide the electrical, running up from the basement."
"Beauty!" he said, grinning his gap-toothed grin.
Now my laboratorium is reassembled, and the boxes are all burned. Computers boot. Network lights blink alive, and the wireless network comes online. My interrupted airline project can resume, as well as my efforts to flog finished things like Space Attack! and Traffic Life.
A fire crackles in the hearth, my wife and I are curled on the couch and sipping a smooth Merlot. "I love our house," says LittleStar, snuggling up.
The fire cracks and pops. This schoolhouse has charmed me, too.
(Now all I have to do is pay for it.)