Two kids, bananas, and rum-runners
Updated: Jan 9, 2021
You never know what is going to get an idea rolling. I was working on an idea for a play and in my research came upon a newspaper article from 1948. An elderly man was run over twice -- murdered -- in a cold, dark alleyway. The only witnesses were two young children. But there was never any doubt about who did it.
The 1940s -- film noir and the golden age of crime writing. Why not visit that place and time -- a time just after the War in a fictional harbour city that sits on the edge of the world?
What to call it? My mother is from Cape Breton, and she once mentioned the barrachois -- a kind of salt water lagoon, separated from the sea by a sand bar. My harbour city had found its name: Barrachois. Not quite land, not quite sea. Not quite what you want to believe.
I started to see the city -- like so much in Cape Breton, it would be founded on coal and the sea. That would bring steel mills. And shipping. And smuggling. This city was to be entirely my construction -- I didn't want to be tied to geography or history. I wanted freedom for a story that would entertain.
My grandmother was an entertainer and she loved to tell stories. One was about my grandfather Jack, a very strict teetotal Presbyterian: the piano was locked on the sabbath; the Sunday meal was cold, cooked the day before. A man of rectitude. One night, Jack was very late. Anxiously watching the street, Nana saw a figure rise over the crest of the hill, carrying a huge stem of bananas. He deposited it on the kitchen table. Eighty pounds of bananas.
Jack had spotted some rum runners in trouble, and he had waded into the surf to help get their boat safely to land. He had struggled with his conscience about helping liquor smugglers -- but for only a moment. These men were only desperate to earn a little money. It was 1931 and work was scarce. They tried to give him rum to thank him, but Jack declined. They gave him bananas, the cargo that hid the liquor.
My invented city, Barrachois, became criminal by tradition -- not violent but pragmatic. Cheerful, even. Until two little kids became witnesses to the murder of a man limping down an alley.