Saturday, 27 July 2013

Skating In Etobicoke

Skating to a Scottish Gremlin in Etobicoke

My sister and I had an arrangement with Kirstie who lived on the sixth floor.  Kirstie was in Grade Two with my younger sister, Anne.  Kirstie wore kilts and white lacey blouses to school as if she were still in Scotland.  Being older and wiser, I absolutely refused to do so, as I knew I'd stick out like a Scottish sore thumb.  The other kids made fun of our accents, so I desperately tried to do away with mine like the way I'd stashed our old school kilts and uniforms to the dark, scary part of the closet and discovered my father's secret whisky supply, all hidden away.  Anne and I preferred the colourful seventies pant suits that our mother whizzed off on her sewing machine.  Crazy swirling patterned bell bottoms with matching tops and flaring sleeves.  Kirstie clearly had no idea how awful she looked in her old-fashioned tartans. 

The deal with Kirstie, however became our charming childhood pact.  If either of us witnessed the Witches leaving the property then we'd call one another immediately. The Witches were the superintendents of the building and as their name implied, they were wicked.  I decided that Mr. Witches hated children as we were always getting into trouble for playing ball in the hallways or pushing all the buttons in the elevator.

One early June evening, Anne and I were busy on the balcony doing homework at fold away card tables, occasionally glancing towards the Toronto Airport where airplanes  roared across the purpled pink of the Etobicoke sky, when we heard Mr. Witches shouting.  He always yelled and his children and wife never spoke, never disobeyed.  They piled into their VW Beetle and Mr. Witches, his everlasting scowl plastered on his face, gazed about suspiciously, squeezed in and the car sped off.  No one noticed us two small girls, peering down from our third floor balcony waiting until the car sped out of sight.  Delighted we ran to the telephone.  Anne put her finger in the dial and called Kirstie.

“Kirstie?  It’s Anne.  They’ve gone out. Yes, I know!  It’s been ages! Okay, good.”  And she hung up.  She beamed, "He's coming!"

We rummaged through the closet tossing aside winter scarves, flip-flops and mittens till we uncovered our roller skates.  Anne retrieved her keys from the hall table and off we went to meet Kirstie in the lobby.  Her roller skates hung like pearls round her neck, proper figure skates, white boots with laces, while ours were the bulky kind, heavy that fastened onto shoes with a key and wide wheels too clunky for jewelry. 

“Where is he?”  I asked anxiously.

“Don’t you worry, he’s just finishing his Tea.”  Replied Kirstie in her broad Scottish accent. 

“But we don’t know how much time we have.”

Once through the lobby, I decided to buzz Chauna and pressed her intercom button.

“Chauna, it's me, we’re all going skating, want to come?”

“Is Mr. MacIntyre going to be there?”


“Right, I’ll meet you down there.”

Chauna was unlike any girl I’d ever met.  With short spiky hair, tiny shorts which she called Hot pants and a pet skunk named Pepé, she gave the impression of a saucy fairy creature defying laws from every authority. Chauna explained, when I hesitated to pet Pepé, that of course he'd been de-fumed so was unable to dose you with his foul scent, but this didn’t stop the poor animal from trying.  Chauna regularly squirted Pepe with her Charlie perfume to conceal his natural smelly traces. The combination was disgusting.

Anne, Kirstie and I crossed the parking lot carefully so no one spied us and arrived at the top of the concrete slope that led to the pillared underground garage.  Here we were, three girls under the age of eleven, in Etobicoke, all from Scotland embarking on a magical skating expedition. 

Anne, the youngest grabbed her key, one of many which hung from a shoelace round her neck and inserted it into the box.  The huge drawbridge rose with a moaning shudder, till it clattered to a halt, suspended flat against the ceiling inside. Running down the slope, we all made sure that we trod heavily on the rubber hose that kept the door open electronically, so that the great beast wouldn't come crashing down upon us.  Once inside, the door reversed itself and loudly clanged to a close.  It took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the concrete cave, lit only by caged bulbs and we located the family’s green Beaumont, parked between pillars and a blue Mini.  Once again, Anne produced her necklace of keys and unlocked the Beaumont.  Pushing the front seat forward we scampered into the back seat. 

“Put the radio on.”  Said Anne.

“No, we must be quiet and listen for him arriving.” 

Clumsily, knocking elbows and knees we managed to hook on the skates, big wheels of wonderment and we waited. After a minute or two, we emerged from the Beaumont chunkily, the reverberated sounds banged around the concrete enclosure and we worried about discovery.  Waiting for the silence to take over again, we pushed out from behind the pillars and glided awkwardly to the middle of the polished perfect surface of our private rink.  Soon we heard the secret knock, two short quick, followed by three long hard ones, a side door opened and a shaft of triangular light dropped to the floor, a dark shadow of a man standing in the spotlight.  The door hinged on a spring, closed itself with a terrific bang, like a canon’s outburst announcing the arrival of a very important person, Mr. MacIntyre.

In his mechanic’s oily overalls and precious bagpipes wrapped round his body like a pet monkey, he stood waiting for the slam to stop its roaring reverb. 

“All's clear, Dad.”  Kirstie whispered. 

He smiled, then nodded.

We girls glided to our places before him, ceremonial like and the droning sound began.  High-pitched at first, from misuse, then lingering loudly within the cave and the overhead lights flickered as if they were candles in the wind. The Gaelic song wavered, hovering overhead, then danced round our bodies through the hallowed hallway. 

The skate had begun, holding hands, on the edge of fantasy to the sounds of the Highland Pipes we captured a rare moment in time to remember always.  The eerie notes stretched out like newly released caged birds and flew with peaceful grace, rolling over imaginary mists with the purring vibration of ancient times and we floated in awe weaving through the cave, gliding on air effortlessly and smiling. 

For once I wished I’d worn my kilt as Kirstie’s pleats rippled like flower petals round her knees to the pipes lengthy sighs.  He called his pipes “The Gremlin” and said they’d been made in Pakistan, no where near Scotland, but the bag was clothed in  Tartan.  The underground rink stretched out the length of a Soccer pitch and our feet flowed in sweeping motions towards the eastern side where another overhead door serviced a twin apartment building, then round the end columns we flowed down the hallway, like lilies on a stream.  The shrill echoes and haunting pipe music drowned out foreign sounds, even the thudding of our own wheels, it was magic. 


But then an unexpected ray of light crept across the far-corner of the enclosure, and Mr. MacIntyre’s chanting came to an abrupt halt and the spell was temporarily broken.  We slid in fear behind cars peering towards the door.  A small figure stepped onto the shaft and the door slammed with an urgency. 

“It’s just me, Chauna.”

The magic of Scottish bagpipes prevailed and the skaters danced and floated in another time, another world.

Mr. MacIntyre told us that he was destined to be our personal piper.  His kind eyes wrinkled at the sides and he smelt of tobacco and gasoline.

"You're such bonny lassies, you give a man something to smile about at the end of a long day."

Sadly the performance came to an end when the main entrance lifted with an earth shattering tremor announcing the arrival of a vehicle.  It flew in like a dragon returning to its lair, while we intruding girls cowered from its sight.  We waited while the rider emerged from inside the dragon and exited out the side door and resumed our places but Mr. MacIntyre and his Gremlin had vanished. 

Skating without the Piping, was just plain skating and the spell shattered.  Suddenly our skates’ chunky wheels felt heavy and Anne fell down twice bruising an elbow and scuffing her knee.  The skating sounds could also be heard like echoing noises of war.  No longer gliding graceful Kelpies but clumsy misplaced Scottish school girls in an underground parking lot in suburbia where no magic could possibly happen. 

Sadly, I have no photographs from this time period, however there are a few of my sister and I in Scotland in our school uniforms. 



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