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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesThe Anvil Parliament: a John Dunn story

The Anvil Parliament: a John Dunn story

John-Dunn-e1444853676972It was a well-known fact in Almonte that any youngster who was forced to go to school for ten months of the year could gain more knowledge fin the remaining two months around the blacksmith shop than all the teachers put together could give him in ten at school.  The difference was, of course, that learning came easy around the anvil.  But there was more:  it was the one place in Almonte where the wise men gathered every day, and their accumulated wisdom made it easy for them to settle all the little affairs that kept governments in an upset in Ottawa and Toronto, in that parliament at Westminster in London, and even in that new place called the League of Nations.  It was only the big thorny issues of Almonte, like the question of the boundaries of Irishtown, which kept the debates going in the blacksmith shop.

It happened that my father was talking to someone in his office after lunch one day, and I was sitting out in my Canadian Flyer on the sidewalk near the front of the house watching the tide of workers returning in twos and threes to work in the mills.  They rolled down the streets like the pebbles returning when the waves wash back down the beach, and suddenly again it was very quiet on the streets.  A single ding-dong from the bell at No. 1, another from Thoburn’s, the one o’clock stroke of the town clock, and the looms resumed their clacking in the woollen mills.

A team of horses pulling a wagon load of coal had just crossed the bridge and was moving up the hill.  Even at a distance I could tell it was a load of coal for the sun glinted off the polished tin chute lying on top of the load, and the smudge-faced driver sat squinting on the top of the chute.

At that moment I chanced to look up the street just as the two front doors of the blacksmith shop swung outward.  The blacksmith stepped out into the street to push the doors back and hook them against the walls of the shop, and before going back inside, he stopped for a moment on the street.  Shielding his eyes with one hand, he looked down Queen Street at the approaching team, listened to the tlot-tlot of horses’ hooves on the pavement, and then, with a shrug that spelt our satisfaction wordlessly, he turned and went inside.

Instantly, I was on the move.  The open doors of the blacksmith shop drew me round in the wagon as surely as a magnet draws a needle on a table top.  It was the signal that the visitors’ gallery was now open and the afternoon sitting of the Anvil Parliament would be getting under way any moment.

Swinging my left leg over the side of the wagon, I started pumping along the sidewalk, steering straight past the cedar hedge, the potato patch, the verandah of the white house, the high front steps of the grey house, and then the brick.  No one could be expected to keep on pumping like this all the way to the blacksmith shop, and besides, everyone slowed down here to coast past the grocery store, and enjoy the sweet smell of brown sugar in the barrel and crusty bread on the counter.  Oh, those delights in the nostrils were deceivers, for there came a warning too:  stop breathing, hold your breath, and pump hard to get past the shed, for that’s where the coal oil sits in the big open tank with the quart measure under the spout at the bottom of the tank to catch the drip.  Pump, pump hard and don’t let the stink of coal oil spoil that saturated delight of brown sugar and Butternut bread.

Phew, it was always close.  A little more coasting past the iron hoops for buggy wheels, the pile of white ash timbers for sleigh tongues, the mound of hoof scrapings and manure sweepings from the inside of the blacksmith shop, and Bob’s your uncle, as old Billy used to say.

Billy had already got to the shop, and was now in his usual place in the commons, seated on the step at the front door, leaning back against the jamb, where he could survey the street and keep an eye on everything.  Even though he was old enough to sit inside on the trestles with the senators, Billy refused to carry a cane as most senators did, and he continued to wear his blue Carhartt’s overalls every day because the big in front shed the ashes from his pipe without burning through.

“Goin’ to be a hot afternoon, Billy,” the blacksmith said.

“Likely over ninety,” replied Billy.

Weather was a subject like the opening prayer in Parliament, a kind of convention to break the silence, but his day it got less notice than usual, for Johnny Wallace had just rounded the turn and was approaching the front door.  He had on his blue serge suit, but to keep away from a chill, he was also wearing his heavy woollen sweater-coat under the jacket of his blue serge.  People understood why Johnny didn’t want to take a chance on getting a chill:  he must suffered terrible bad from the cold during his days in the Klondike; his slow gait and hesitant step, even assisted now with a cane, all this made it clear that his sufferings there in the land of ice and snow must have been terrible hard to bear.  Gosh, it was even said that Johnny’s habit of sitting on the extreme left among the senators, on the seat closest to the forge, was because he had been a kind of model for Mr. Service’s poem about the Cremation of Sam McGee.

Johnny like to greet the members of the assembly with the most discomfiting news first in order to get it out of the way, so that the members could then give their undivided attention to more pressing problems, such as whether or not the off horse on that team with the wagonload of coal had a habit of throwing the rear hoof on the near side.

Johnny now stood in the doorway, a pall of gloom on his face, looking as dismal and long as a seven days’ rain.  Bad news was in the making; silence awaited Johnny’s announcement.

“Goin’ to be awful tough sleddin’ next six weeks.”

Johnny made it sound as if it were a fair accompli, a thing with no measure of doubt or fear or contradiction about it.  In deference to his wisdom and years, no dispute followed his words.  Still, his hearers wanted to know the basis of his intelligence, since they would be affected by the results of it too.

“Why is that, Johnny?” old Billy asked.

“No snow.”

Johnny waited ten seconds to see convincing evidence that his hearers had been taken in a moment of incredulity, and then he moved inside, passing right behind the rump of the horse waiting to be shod.

Another senator arrived.  Watty.  Watty found himself in the wake of laughter that had followed Johnny’s bad news, and he stopped only to greet old Billy on the step, and went inside also, stepping over the horseshoes on the floor, brushing past the rump of the horse, and took his seat on the trestle beside Johnny.

Even though senators and commoners alike were men of unshakeable courage, and had been to far-off places and had done heroic deeds in the Klondike and Chicago, and in the shanties up the Opeongo, there was a difference between them.  Even with a heavy team in the shop for shoeing, flicking their tails to dislodge the flies, stomping their hooves on the floor, and occasionally glaring round with baleful eyes, the senators simply ignored all signs of danger.  They brushed past the rumps of the horses without so much as a “Whoa now.”

Even when the blacksmith took a red hot shoe from the forge and lifted the horse’s hoof an smacked the red hot metal to test the fit, searing the hoof and sending clouds of choking, stinking, acrid smoke from the hoof swirling around the senators, even then not one of them ever budged from the trestle.  No sir, it’d take more than that to get them off the trestle, especially when others were standing waiting to see a vacant seat.  Everyone knew that senators though like horses; it was called horse sense, and was the principal mark of distinction that separated the senators from the commoners.

Old Billy did his best thinking in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and after being discomfited by Johnny’s bad news of snow, Billy drew out a plug of tobacco from behind his overall bib, and with a sharp jackknife he cut slivers off the plug into this left palm.  He kept on slicing, and looking at the mound growing in his palm, until he figured there was enough for the bowl of his pipe.  Then he folded up the knife, and put it away, and then the plug.  With the heel of his right hand, he rubbed and rubbed the tobacco until it had all mixed together like shredded chaff.  Putting the bowl of the pipe beneath the mound of tobacco, he funnelled the shredded leaf into the pipe, all the while pressing it down, and tamping it with a thin index finger on his right hand.

He reached behind the big of his Carhartt’s once again for a match, and scratched it on the pavement in front of the step where he sat.  He was holding the match away from himself to let the sulphurous stink burn off before he applied the true flame of Eddy’s Sesqui to the tobacco when it happened.

A stranger drove up in a Model T Ford car and stopped right in front of the shop.  The man at the wheel was not only a stranger but a gentleman as well, for he was wearing a straw hat, flat on top, the kind that the ladies would call a boater, and no self-respecting man in Almonte, senator or commoner, would wear such a thing like that except on a stage.

The stranger leaned across the seat of the car and asked:

“Can anyone tell me where is Irishtown?”

“Irishtown?” Billy replied incredulously.

“Yes,” the stranger replied.

The flame of the match kept on burning and burning.  The charred remains turned and curled outward; the flame moved closer and closer to the end, and to Billy’s finger.  I could see Billy was debating with himself if this stranger was trying to put one over on him just as Johnny Wallace had done, thinking to ask such a simple question as where in Irishtown when he was standing right on the edge of it, and then ZING!

The flame just nipped the tip of Billy’s finger.  He jumped up, spun his hand in the air to wring out the pain in his seared finger nail and then drove the stub of the charred match into the shredded horse manure at his feet.  Only then did he go out to help the stranger in the car and give proper instructions.  Billy set one foot up on the running board of the stuttering Model T and said,

“You’re at Irishtown right now.”

“Oh?”  The stranger showed real surprise.

“Is there someone in particular you’re looking for?” Billy went on.

The stranger’s reply was drowned out by the clang, clang, clang of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil, but, Billy evidently heard, for he suddenly moved back, pointed up Ottawa Street, and waved as the driver thanked him and kicked the Model T into gear again.

“Did you get him straightened away, Billy?” the blacksmith asked.

“No trouble at all,” Billy replied.  “Someone at the station told him to look for Howard Sadler up in Irishtown, and the man didn’t know where Irishtown begins.  It told him to go right up to the end of Irishtown, and he’d likely find Howard at the farm.”

“Who was it, Billy?” one of the senators asked.

“Perfect stranger to me.  Didn’t give me his name.  Had to be a stranger to Almonte.  Anyone asking where Irishtown is has to be a stranger here,” Billy answered.

“Don’t know about that,” the blacksmith said, cranking the blower of the forge to raise a splatter of sparks and heat the horseshoes again.  “It’s all right to think Irishtown begins at Howard Sadler’s pond, but can any of you tell me where Irishtown ends?”

An irritating question, a question that upset the entire assembly.  At length Johnny ventured from the trestle end that he’d lived here a good part of his life and that had been a long time now, and he’d never heard anyone state just how far Irishtown extends into town.

“Some say it starts at Howard Sadler’s pond,” Johnny explained, “And some say it stops at the blacksmith shop, and others that it goes down Main Street at least to include the O’Keefes and the Graces and Minnie O’Hara, and that it should include at least Paddy Carroll and Tom O’Grady at the Methodist Church corner.”

A pause followed consideration of the motion.

“What about the side lines?” came a query from the open door?

“That’s easy,” replied Billy.  “On the east it has to stop at the fence line for Jim Little’s dow pasture, and on the west it has to go as far as French Hill.”

“Does it take in Jimmy Moreau’s creek?” again came a query from the dim ranks of the senators inside.
“How could you include Jimmy Moreau’s creek in Irishtown?  Sure the creek starts right up there on French Hill,” the blacksmith observed.

Clang, clang, clang.  Ding, ding.  Clang, clang, clang.  The flatting hammer in the blacksmith’s grip crashed down in rhythmic cadence on the horseshoe on the flat of the anvil, and put a lull in the debate.  After a minute of deafening clanging, the blacksmith dipped the hot shoe into the water barrel and set it sizzle for a few moments before he dropped it on the floor behind the horse and made ready for the shoeing.

He brought his farrier’s box of shoeing nails and rasps and knives over beside the horse, lifted a rear hoof, and started to drive in nails.  When he had done all four shoes and clinched the nails, and rasped the hooves, he stood behind the horse and surveyed the stand of the horse on its new shoes.

“Funny thing,” he said to the assembly, “You fellows have been living here all your lives, and your parents before you, and you can’t even decide where Irishtown is:  maybe you should ask somebody who’d be sure to know and settle the matter once and for all.”

Oh the crowning insult of it.  The very idea, to suggest that the Anvil Parliament couldn’t handle a single little thing like where is Irishtown.  The members were shamed into momentary silence, but not for long, for stung by the inadequacy of his party, Billy was ready to take up the challenge.

“Who’d you have in mind?  Con Mahony?” Billy asked, knowing full well that Con was entirely out of range, and had not been numbered among the quick for a decade or more since his untimely death at the age of a hundred and two.

But with the mention of his name, a terrible strangeness crept over the assembly.  A stillness, an atmosphere of mystery mixed with pleasure, for a smile puckered around the corners of the mouths of every man in the assembly at the very mention of Con Mahony.  The blacksmith stool stock still behind the horse, although his survey of the set of the horse was finished.

“Sure Con’s gone beyond the reach,” the blacksmith said at length.  “And it’s too bad, for he could have told us a lot about the Irish in this part of the country.  Anyway, there’s Howard, and he could tell us quite a bit.  And what’s more, I hate to disturb this session, but this horse is ready to go out.”

The assembly broke up, with the question still unresolved.  Where is Irishtown?  Once again, as in many other debates, the Anvil Parliament had wrestled with this thorny question, and had had to put it over for further discussion.  The boundaries of Irishtown continued to defy accurate definition.  Con Mahony would have to be consulted, even if ‘in absentia’, and certainly Howard.

The Anvil Parliament adjourned sine die.

John Dunn
24 January, 1977




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