This scene, from late in my book Every Secret Thing, left a mark deeper than most, and each year at this time I remember and honour the women and men who inspired it:
There was very little left to mark the site. In fact, as I took the turning south towards the lake and found myself surrounded on all sides by low stretching industrial buildings, I nearly thought I’d got it wrong...and then, beyond the buildings to my right, I saw the flags—four flags, unfurled against a sky that had been growing greyer as I’d travelled eastward.
This was it, I thought. I slowed the car.
The road curved, and the buildings on my right gave way to open space—a small green rise of hill, and on its top a low-walled concrete monument, not large, that held the four tall flagpoles with their emblems of the Province of Ontario, and Canada, and Britain, and the States, all set at half-mast. I was very near the water now. I could tell from the strength of the wind as it slapped the flags around and rippled up the grassy hill to where a sign, in plain black letters, read ‘Intrepid Park’.
It didn’t look like much of a park—only the unassuming monument, and a few young maple trees with trunks so slender they seemed scarcely able to withstand the bursts of wind that shook the leaves like something wild.
But I wasn’t the only pilgrim. A Canadian Forces bus had blocked the driveway of one of the industrial buildings, and mine was the last in a long line of cars that had parked at the edge of the road. Still, the little assembly of people beneath the four flags looked quite small, I thought. More like a gathering of family than a formal Remembrance Day ceremony. I felt conspicuous as, head bent to the driving wind, I climbed the gently rising hill towards the monument.
No one paid me any real attention. Most of the people were busy talking amongst themselves, some obviously politicians, working the crowd with their handshakes and smiles. There seemed to be a scarcity of old men, and old women—that struck me, straight away. I counted only a scattered handful of them, most wearing uniforms and ribboned bands of medals, sitting quietly on metal folding chairs that had been set in rows for those who found it difficult to stand. The people around them were younger, respectful in dark coats with red plastic poppies pinned through their lapels, or dressed in military uniform, without a coat, and shivering against the cold.
There was no shelter on the hill. The modest monument’s low wall had been shaped as a long open crescent, like arms spread to embrace the slate-blue water of Lake Ontario that stretched away unbroken to the stormy grey horizon.
Just a half-hour’s drive to the west lay Toronto. There, the lake was more civilized, reflecting back the bright lights of the cultured city skyline, with the small bit of well-controlled green that was Toronto Island lying just off shore. But here, at the southernmost boundary of Whitby, the lake had no such pretensions. It looked icy and forbidding, chopped up by the wind into frothy white waves over which seagulls dipped and hung, shrieking.
The landscape looked forbidding, too. Where the little park ended at the bottom of the hill, the rough ground began—dead brown grass tipped with gold and the odd tenacious patch of green, split by a narrow bicycle path that came from the fields ringed by woods to the right. Beyond the bicycle path there was nothing but scrub brush that fell off abruptly as though there were bluffs or a cliff at the lake’s edge.
It was a lonely place. And yet today, Remembrance Day, these people round me had all made the journey, as I had, to stand here in this spot above a long-abandoned site, now turned to blowing field.
There was movement from the monument. The soldiers of the vigil were about to take up their position. Soberly, they stepped forward from the ranks, two of them, each moving to one end of the curved monument. A few sharp, barked commands, and measured motions made in unison, and both were soon like statues, heads bent, rifle barrels resting on their polished boots. They’d stay like that, I knew, the whole length of the ceremony. Motionless.
Between them, I could see a plaque set in the centre of the wall. I couldn’t read the words from where I stood, but then I didn’t need to. I’d already done my research. I knew what was written there. It read:
ON THIS SITE BRITISH SECURITY
CO-ORDINATION OPERATED SPECIAL
TRAINING SCHOOL No. 103 AND HYDRA.
S.T.S. 103 TRAINED ALLIED AGENTS
IN THE TECHNIQUES OF SECRET
WARFARE FOR THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS
EXECUTIVE (S.O.E.) BRANCH OF THE
BRITISH INTELLIGENCE SERVICE.
HYDRA NETWORK COMMUNICATED
VITAL MESSAGES BETWEEN CANADA, THE
UNITED STATES, AND GREAT BRITAIN.
THIS COMMEMORATION IS DEDICATED
TO THE SERVICE OF THE MEN AND
WOMEN WHO TOOK PART IN THESE
I turned again, letting my gaze travel out across the windy, unkempt field to where the line of dark trees rose to block the view across the lake. Somewhere down there, in a building long gone, in this place full of silence and secrets, my grandmother had first met Andrew Deacon.
Now there was nothing, just the shadows of dark snow clouds chasing over empty space, and overhead a single gull with black-tipped wings that rose and wheeled and headed out across the lake like an escaping spirit.
The flags above my head flapped noisily, their cords and metallic rings striking the tall flagpoles with the hollow clinking sound of cold aluminum. The sound wrenched me back to the present.
The service began.
It was simple, short on speeches, just the solitary bugle and a reading from the military pastor, who had chosen as his text a passage I had never heard, from the Apocrypha, beginning ‘Let us now praise famous men.’ The words were fitting, bittersweet: ‘And some there are who left a name behind, to be commemorated in story. And there are others who are unremembered; they are dead, and it is as though they never did exist...’
I thought of Deacon, in his grave without a headstone; of his grey and faceless presence that had haunted me so long. Not faceless now, I thought. Deliberately, I closed my eyes to conjure up his image from the photograph, his smile, his eyes.
And then, as if in answer to my effort and my mood, the reading changed. Another voice, the younger voice of one of the cadets, read out the words of Binyon’s proud ‘Prayer for the Fallen’:
‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.’
I opened my eyes. The sun, on cue, broke through the clouds at just that moment, falling warm upon my frozen back like a comforting hand, and casting long shadows across the dead grass at the feet of the uniformed young men and women standing still, in ranks, before the monument. And for one brief minute, to my eyes, those shadows made a second army—ghosts who stood at fixed attention in between the living bodies, silent and aware.
I hadn’t been to a Remembrance Day service since I was a child. I didn’t know that Binyon’s poem called for a response; so it surprised me when it came, from those few older men and women in the crowd, from those old soldiers, standing straighter now than anyone around them, their scattered voices finding strength: ‘We will remember them.’
(NOTE: This Service of Remembrance at Intrepid Park, where Camp X used to stand, is held each year on the 11th of November, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Anybody can attend).