Fiction

Vigil on the rock

Day after day they clung to the strange stump of Siwash Rock on the water’s edge in Vancouver. Would no one listen to their desperate protest?

VERA JOHNSON December 10 1955
Fiction

Vigil on the rock

Day after day they clung to the strange stump of Siwash Rock on the water’s edge in Vancouver. Would no one listen to their desperate protest?

VERA JOHNSON December 10 1955

THE ROCK was solid and comforting beneath him. On the way up there had been some bad moments when small pieces tore loose and fell in sickening silence until they bounced off the base and into the water. But on top it was firm.

There was barely room enough for the two of them. At his left he could look down to the black base of the Rock and the cold green water licking at its edge. If he leaned to the right, across the sleeping bag where Jo was huddled, and looked down on the other side, the view would be the same.

He felt the rope knotted at his waist that was comforting too, although he hoped it wouldn’t be put to the test. The other end was tied to the little fir tree behind him. He turned his head to look at it. It was skimpy, like the grass which had sprung from soil and seeds lodged in crevices and spread sparsely over the surface. The tree was not more than four feet high and it leaned out into space, looking pitifully insecure. But it had been standing there as long as he could remember. The roots might have sunk deep enough into the vitals of the rock to support the weight of a man if he slipped and fell.

It was quiet, so quiet that every sound struck sharply on the silence. A seagull circled overhead, mouth gaping in a raucous cry. It could be the same gull they had disturbed when they began the climb, scolding the intruders on what he regarded as his personal property. A small tug was heading from the Narrows up toward Point Atkinson, foam fanning out behind it, and the boogata-boogata of its diesel engine came clearly across the water. It was too far away for him to distinguish the name. Was it one of the Cate's tugs, on its way to pick up a load? He wished he had thought to bring his binoculars.

The sleeping bag moved, and his hand shot out in a swift protective gesture, but it was all right; Jo was just waking up. She rubbed her eyes, still heavy with sleep, and yawned.

“What’s the time?” she said.

“Ten o’clock. You’ve been sawing them off for almost three hours.”

“I needed it.”

She began to squirm her way out of the bag.

“Watch it,” he said. He took a grip on her upper arm and held it until she slid into a sitting position beside him. She craned her neck and looked out over the Gulf to the horizon, where the mountains of Vancouver Island made a serrated grey band against the sky.

“The view’s better that way,” she said. “Couldn’t we turn around?”

“You can, if you want to sit facing uphill,” he said.

She dug her fingers into her scalp and massaged it while she considered. “I guess not,” she said finally. “Anyway, we can look at the trees.”

Directly ahead of them, hiding the city from sight, was the rank forest growth of Stanley Park. Once Si wash Rock had been part of it, but centuries of erosion had split it away from the mainland. On a level with the top of the rock and only a stone’s throw away, a gun emplacement had been built into the cliff. It was deserted now, an empty shell of concrete and steel with obscene phrases scribbled over the whitewashed walls, but the fenced roof served as a lookout for sightseers.

When he was a youngster, Bob remembered, there had been only the cliff, with a narrow dusty path corkscrewing to the bottom. The boys slid down it on the seats of their trousers, grasping at bushes to slow their progress and shrieking with a terror that was partly genuine. They fished and swam and tried to climb the Rock, and sometimes succeeded. In the late summer afternoons they would set out on safaris through the jungle, running along fallen trees and leaping with Tarzan cries onto the padding of humus, surprising lions behind every stump and forgetting the pursuing natives whenever they discovered a bush gay with huckleberries. Sometimes they battled Germans in an abandoned trench, a relic of the First World War. A dank place it was, smelling of rotten wood and moldering soil.

And now he sat on the Rock and stared at a relic of a later war, the gun emplacement with its rectangular opening gaping futilely.

FROM somewhere above them—up on the road, probably—a new sound broke the stillness, the sound of a man laughing.

Jo heard it too. She snapped the lid of her compact shut and dropped it into her jacket pocket. "How’s that for timing?” she said brightly. "I comb my hair and put on lipstick and, presto, the company arrives.”

She wasn’t feeling bright, he knew. Inside, she was sick and scared, just as he was. He put his arm around her shoulders and waited.

It seemed a long time, a long time of listening to the voices and straining to make out what they were saying, before the men came into sight on the path leading down to the Rock.

The man with the camera was ginger-haired, tall and angular; his companion dark and stocky. The short one called out, "Mr. Campbell?”

"That’s right,” said Bob.

"I’m Jim Finney of the Star. We got your letter this morning.” He pulled an envelope from his pocket and took out a sheet of paper. His eyes skimmed over the page. "According to this, you and your wife are going on a hunger strike until the nations of the world agree to total disarmament.” He looked up. "What makes you think the Russians will pay any attention?” His tone was mildly curious.

Always the Russians, Bob thought, as if other countries made nothing more lethal than popguns. But that was a side issue. He didn’t want to get bogged down in petty argument about who was the real villain.

"We thought about it a long time,” he said. It was a poor beginning, but he had to say something. "We saw things getting worse every day and there just didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it. All the big wheels in the world —people like us can’t reach them. They just go on making hydrogen bombs and building armies and signing treaties and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He knew he was repeating himself, but the words didn’t come easily. "You feel so helpless,” he said.

Finney and the photographer listened patiently, their faces blank, waiting for him to get to the point. If they would only give some sign that they understood what he meant; even a nod would have encouraged him to go on. But there was no reaction at all. "You tell them, Jo,” he pleaded. "Tell them what we decided first of all.”

Jo looked at him with troubled eyes but her hesitation was momentary. Perhaps she could read in his face how much he needed help. She turned back to the newspapermen.

"The way it looked to us,” she said, "the only thing we could do was try to save our own hides. So we sold the house and made a down payment on a little fruit farm near Penticton.”

Bob had never been so proud of Jo as he was at this moment, listening to her strong clear voice. She had always been a shy girl but the shyness never stopped her from expressing her convictions. Bob wished he had her courage. Carrying banners in parades or writing letters to the editor or arguing with two or three friends—that was easy. But when he tried to talk to a crowd, or to strangers, then he panicked.

"We’re just ordinary people,” Jo said. It was true, in a way. At least, they always thought of themselves as being ordinary. He could remember how indignant he had been when his sister Ella had demanded, "Why can’t you just mind your own business, like normal people?” That was the time, years ago, when they had been arrested for taking part in a pacifist demonstration.

It was no use trying to convince Ella that it wasn’t abnormal to be concerned about what happened to ordinary people like themselves. Ella knew better. She knew depressions and wars were acts of God and ordinary people just had to put up with them.

"All we want is a home,” Jo was saying, "enough money to buy the groceries and to take in a show once in a while, friends and neighbors we can visit —that’s all that most people want, but you can’t count on it these days. Every week they’re piling up more atomic and hydrogen bombs and inventing better guided missiles, and you know that one day soon somebody will make a mistake and the whole shebang will blow up.”

Finney stuck a cigarette in his mouth, took a match from his pocket and scratched it into flame with his thumbnail. "Go on,” he said.

"Well, we made up our minds to get out, but we weren’t happy about it. You can’t just turn your backs on people like that and pretend they don’t matter. We used to get furious sometimes at the way they shut their eyes to what was going on—reading the news and then settling down to watch Liberace or rushing off to a bingo game, just as if there was nothing to worry about. But we didn’t want anything to happen to them. Especially the kids, and the babies.”

She stopped and Bob knew she was remembering the time she woke up screaming. There was no more sleep for them that night. Jo was afraid to go to bed, afraid that if she closed her eyes she would be plunged again into that vivid dream world where children had time to learn the meaning of sheer horror before the blackened flesh peeled from their bones.

He squeezed her arm and felt her muscles tense as she took a grip on herself.

"Anyway,” she said, "we were all ready to leave when Bob got his big idea. He’d been reading a book on Gandhi and then we went to see a show called Thirteen Hours—it’s all about a man who’s going to commit suicide by jumping off a building, only they talk him out of it. Did you see it?”

"I’ve heard of it,” said Finney.

"Well, when we got home from the movie, all of a sudden this idea popped into his head. The show was based on something that really happened, so Bob said, 'If they make that much of a fuss about a man who wants to die, why shouldn’t they make an even bigger fuss about a man who just wants to live?’ He said. Just suppose a couple of people climb up on top of Siwash Rock and go on a hunger strike.’ ” Bob said, "Suppose they print the story in the papers and everybody reads it—pretty I soon a lot of ordinary joes all across the country would begin to realize they aren’t so helpless after all.”

He had no trouble finding words now. They poured out of him.

"Somebody else does the same thing —out in Halifax, say—and then another one in Winnipeg, and Montreal, and after that Chicago and New York and Los Angeles. And each time there’s more publicity and more people thinking and imitating, until it spreads all over the world.” He wound up triumphantly. "If enough of us stop eating and working, the whole system will collapse. Then all the big men— the politicians and diplomats and dictators and generals—-why, they’ll just have to do what we say.”

"I see,” said Jim Finney, and Bob felt the fervor drain out of him. It was no use. Maybe they’d talked to so many murderers and dope addicts and survivors of plane crashes that nothing could excite them.

Finney took a last drag on his cigarette and sent the butt arcing out over the cliff. The photographer said something to him and they held a brief discussion. Then the reporter called out, "We’d like to get a shot of you just the way you are now and another standing up.”

By the time they had finished posing with their mouths stretched in artificial smiles and answering the interminable questions, the sun was lifting above the banked trees. Beneath his hand, Bob could feel the Rock warming in the rays that beat down on it.

A BLOND young man strode loose-legged along the path that sloped down to the gun emplacement. He cried out loudly and with cheerful insolence, "Good old Finney and McGraw! Out after the big news, eh? No more wars—we’re all going to live happily ever after.”

Finney said something to him in a low voice, then turned and waved to the Campbells. "Good luck,” he called. He trudged up the hill with the photographer at his heels.

"I like him,” Jo said. "He’s real.” The blond youth was facing them with respectful attention. "Mr. Campbell?” he said politely. ‘‘I’d like to get an interview for the Beacon, if you don’t mind answering a few questions.”

Yes, Finney was real, Bob thought. He might be cynical but at least he didn’t try to humor them, as if they were a couple of well-meaning crack pots.

After the Beacon reporter left they lay on the sleeping bag with their eyes closed, letting the sunshine soak into them. It was the first warm day of the year and already the smell of summer was in the air—the smell of sap running freely through the trees after the winter’s lethargy and leaves thrusting towards the light and moss and earth and ferns and sun-baked rocks, and mingled with it all the salt and seaweed tang of the ocean. On a day like this there was no need to think. You sank into a state where consciousness was restricted to purely physical sensations.

The change came suddenly. One moment he was steeped in torpor; the next, wide awake and ravenously hungry. Shame forced him to lie still and keep his eyes closed. He couldn’t let Jo see his weakness. He willed himself to sleep but instead his brain churned up tantalizing visions of stews and roasts and crisp bacon and toast dripping with butter.

"Bob,” said Jo.

He turned his head and said, "Yes?” She was sucking a blade of grass and looking at him, her face so close to his own that it seemed distorted.

"I hate to admit it,” she said, "but I’m starving.”

"So am I,” he said.

They began to laugh, quietly at first and then with mounting hilarity, until tears squeezed from their eyes and they gasped for breath. Nothing could be more ridiculous than this—to pledge themselves to slow starvation and then, on the very first day, to find that the longing for food had driven every other thought from their heads.

When she was finally able to talk, Jo said, "Let’s see if gin rummy will take our minds off it.”

The cards helped them to ignore the empty feeling and there were other distractions during the long afternoon — a comical squirrel that stood on its hind legs to survey them while its nose quivered with interest, the swooping seagulls, a middle-aged couple who admired the view and showed a well-bred disinterest in the Campbells, a group of children who stared in frank curiosity. The youngsters reminded Bob of their own three, Bruce and Robbie and Lynn, who were spending the Easter holidays in Kelowna with Jo’s sister. Meg was warm-hearted and understanding, and he knew that if anything happened she would give them the love and security they needed. But the knowledge, which should have been comforting, aroused instead a sharp ache of longing for the children. He forced his thoughts away from them.

THERE were more visitors before the sun set, most of whom had merely come to stare, but among them was a reporter from the morning paper. He wanted a fresh angle for tomorrow’s readers. How had the first day been? Was their resolution weakening? Was the lack of food bothering them yet?

''No, we’re feeling fine,” Bob said. "I guess we’ve got more important things to think of.”

"You’re a wonderful liar,” Jo said later, when they were lying in the sleeping bag.

Out here, with the trees cutting them off from the lights of the city, the night sky had a deeper blackness and the stars shone with a hard bright glitter. The night had a smell of its own, distinctive from that of the afternoon. It was cool and pungent with the aroma of evergreens.

It reminded Bob of their camping trip through the Okanagan last summer, of chill early-morning swims in the still lakes and breakfasts of bacon and eggs cooked over the campfire—he shifted his position restlessly, turning over onto his back. The rope knotted to his belt had become twisted beneath him and was digging into his back. He cursed soundlessly and shifted again, onto his right side—-but the rock was still hard and unyielding beneath him, and his stomach still a large emptiness. He reached for one of the leather bottles which were tied to the little fir tree and took a sip of the warm brackish water. It had been a mistake to leave it lying in the hot sun all day. Tomorrow he would figure out something better! Tomorrow—that would be Saturday since today was Good Friday, the day of hot cross buns, brown and shiny on the outside, and inside rich with raisins and redolent of spices—he groaned and turned over on his stomach, feeling the knot bite into him and not caring, knowing he would never fall asleep anyway . . .

Jim Finney arrived early the next morning, just after they finished washing in the cold sea water Bob had hauled up in a sand pail borrowed from the kids. They didn’t know he was there until they heard him call out, "Hi kids—how are you making out?”

It was a ridiculous greeting—the reporter could be no more than twenty-four or five—but it had a warm and friendly sound.

"Hi yourself,” said Bob. "What are you doing up so early?”

"Just thought I’d drop in and see how you were doing. I brought along the papers, if you can figure out a way to get them over. I’m not so hot as a pitcher.”

Bob solved the problem by throwing over one end of a rope, which Finney caught on the third try. He rolled the papers into a tight bundle, tied it and tossed the package back. His aim was wide but Bob gave a yank and the bundled newspapers landed at his feet.

For half an hour Finney leaned against the fence and chatted with them in a rambling, inconsequential way about baseball and education and juvenile delinquency and the problems of parents. They agreed that raising children was no cinch in the modern world. There was a pause and the reporter dragged deeply on his cigarette. Then he said, "So you really think it’s going to happen.” He didn’t have to specify what he meant by "it.”

"Don’t you?” Bob asked him.

Finney shrugged his shoulders. "Nobody else seems to be worrying very much,” he said.

"Maybe because they don’t really believe in it,” said Jo. "It’s just too terrible.”

"Yeah,” Finney said, "maybe.”

He finished his cigarette in silence and left for work.

It took them a quarter of an hour to read the newspaper reports. When Bob had finished, he looked at Jo grimly.

"Well, Jim Finney did a good job,” she said, "and as for the others—we expected it.”

"Sure,” he said bitterly. "We knew they’d go poking into our private lives. But we didn’t expect them to make us look like a couple of fools.”

There were a lot of things they hadn’t expected.

The temperature had dropped and a grey overcast shrouded the city. The Gulf stretched black and cold to the horizon. Even the seagulls seemed to be affected by the chill dampness of the air. Their cries as they circled and banked overhead sounded melancholy and forlorn.

On top of the Rock it was cold and lonesome. Bob and Jo took turns exercising to keep warm. There was no room for complicated manoeuvres, so they kept running on the spot until the blood pounded through their bodies and carried warmth to their numb fingertips. But that was before the people came. They came singly at first and then in groups, all braving the weather on their day off to take a look at the latest additions to the Stanley Park zoo. They pressed three-deep against the fence and stared and made witty remarks. Some of them facetiously threw peanuts and popcorn and candies. One little boy kept insistently repeating in a doleful monotone, "I want to go and see the penguins. Mama, I want to go and see the penguins.”

Then there was the doctor, who forced his way to the front and introduced himself as a representative of the city health department, acting on the instructions of the mayor. He had a friendly, solicitous manner. They sat in shivering misery and answered his questions, with the eyes and ears of the crowd fixed on them. It was some time before they realized that he was a psychiatrist, trying to determine if they were certifiable or merely eccentric.

"You can give the mayor a message for us,” Bob said. "Tell him that if anybody tries to move us away from here, we’ll jump off, and neither of us can swim a stroke.” That was a lie, but he didn’t think they’d investigate. "You can’t get near us without making a noise, so it’s no good trying to take us by surprise when we’re asleep.”

The pain was something else they hadn’t counted on—not intense pain, but a feeling as if a hand gripped the stomach and twisted it. It came and went intermittently throughout the day. Worse than the pain was the desperate hunger, and worse than either was the strain of hiding their feelings behind a mask of calm and dignity. When a few peanuts landed on the sleeping bag, Bob felt a violent urge to pounce on them. He imagined himself crushing them between his teeth. His mouth filled with saliva and his stomach contracted spasmodically. Then he carefully picked up the peanuts one by one and tossed them into the water.

Jo put her hand over his and squeezed it.

THE day and night dragged by, and another day and another night, and then the days began to blur and run into each other and life became a prolonged nightmare. They didn’t play cards any longer or exercise. They didn’t even talk much, except when Jim Finney made his morning visits. It was easier just to stay in the sleeping bag and sink into a semi-stupor.

Every now and then Bob was frightened by a sudden feeling that he had lost contact with reality. He remembered things that had happened but in his memory they took on the vague outlines of fantasy. Maybe he had dreamed them.

"Jo—”

"Mmmh?”

"What day was it the radio man came?”

"The radio man,” Jo repeated, as if she didn’t understand.

Maybe he had dreamed the fat bouncy man with the earphones who squatted over a tape recorder, twisting dials, and shouted across at them to speak right into the microphone.

But then Jo said, "Oh, you mean Roving Mike. That was before the policeman, wasn’t it?”

He didn’t know. He could remember the man in uniform holding up a piece of paper and telling them it was a warrant for their arrest on a charge of disturbing the peace, and Jo saying that if he came near them they would jump —but was it yesterday? the day before? a week ago?

"He was here the day the sun shone,” Jo said.

"Who—the policeman?”

"No, Roving Mike.”

But there had been two days when the sun shone, Bob objected. They puzzled over the problem until Jo recalled that the first day of sunshine had been Good Friday and the second Easter Sunday. Ever since then it had been raining.

"Then it must have been Sunday he was here,” Bob said. He wondered how long ago that was and thought of asking Jo, but she had fallen asleep again.

The days dragged by, and the nights, and one morning Jim Finney said, "Look kids, you’ve been here ten days now. Why don’t you give up?”

Bob didn’t answer right away. Lately, he had noticed, his mind seemed to move sluggishly. It took him a while to understand what was said to him and longer still to frame an answer. There were even moments when he forgot why he and Jo were camped on Siwash Rock.

Now he said, " We can’t give up yet.” 

"Why not?” Finney sounded angry. He batted the fence with the bundle of newspapers he was holding. "I’ve been all through these papers and I can tell you what’s happening in one word —nothing. It’s a fizzle.”

Jo said, "It takes time.”

"Time! How much time do you think you’ve got? You’re getting to look more like a couple of skeletons every day.”

He was exaggerating—but it was unimportant, anyway. What mattered was just hanging on until people had a chance to declare themselves. Maybe they were waiting to make sure it wasn’t just a publicity stunt. Maybe it was timidity that held them back.

"Why not call it quits?” Finney persisted. "Come on. I’ll treat you to the biggest steaks we can find.”

Bob shook his head. There were a lot of things he wanted to say. He would like to tell Finney that it wasn’t so bad, now, as it had been at first, that the hunger pains had almost disappeared and there were even days when they didn’t think of food at all. The crowds of sightseers had dwindled to a trickle and the curious stares of the few who came had ceased to bother them. He wanted Finney to know this —but he couldn’t tell him. Talking was too much of an effort.

THEY were always sorry when Finney left. When he’d gone, the feeling of unreality closed in on them again. Even the Rock seemed insubstantial. When he pressed his hand against it, Bob could feel it dent beneath the pressure, like a pat of butter. His body felt peculiarly weightless. Once, when he was lying in the sleeping bag while overhead the gulls rode the air currents, their stretched wings scarcely moving, it came to him suddenly that he could do the same. He would stand up with his arms spread wide and lean into the breeze and let his body drift slowly upwards. He inched himself laboriously out onto the Rock and sat there, waiting for the strength to stand upright. Then he realized that he must first untie the rope knotted to his belt. He picked at it clumsily but it resisted him and at last the futility of his efforts overwhelmed him and he sat with tears dribbling down his cheeks, wishing he was lying beside Jo again, safe and warm.

Afterwards he wasn’t sure that it had really happened. He wasn’t sure about anything, except that they had to stay on the Rock and everybody was trying to get them off. There was a man who said he was the mayor. He pleaded with them at first and then got angry and shouted that they were disgracing the city and he would remove them by force. "We’ll jump,” Bob warned him, and the man got red in the face and shook his fist. Was he really the mayor? Had there ever been such a man?

Another time it was a minister who said the boys were in his Sunday school class. "Why don’t you leave such matters to the United Nations, Mr. Campbell? Your family needs you. Come back to them, and you can pray for world peace along with the rest of us.”

Before that — or maybe after — or maybe never—there were two men and a woman who wanted him to join them. "Come and work for the Canadian Peace Congress, Mr. Campbell. It’s the only answer.” He knew it wasn’t, but couldn’t remember why.

Maybe they were all phantoms—all except Jim Finney. He was real and solid, bellowing at them, "My God, it’s just plain suicide! And all for nothing! Don’t you realize by now that people just don’t care? You could stay here until you rotted and they still wouldn’t care. They’ve had plenty of time to make up their minds—eighteen days— and that’s the answer. Now you’ve got to forget about them and think of yourselves.”

"We can’t give up yet,” Jo whispered, and Bob parroted, "Not yet.”

The nightmare went on until a morning when Jim Finney held up a paper with red headlines six inches high and shouted at them, "Can you see what it says? HUNGER STRIKES SWEEP NATION! It’s all over— you’ve won!” And then there was a big red fire engine and a ladder sweeping through the air towards them, with a blue-coated fireman perched on the end, and an ambulance where Jo and he lay beside each other and wept happily and Jim Finney was unaccountably crying too and repeating over and over again, senselessly, "I had to do it, you understand? I had to do it!”

THAT YEAR spring came late to the Okanagan. Bob worked in an orchard where the limbs of the apple trees stood out bare and stark against the blue of the sky. Sometimes, when memories crowded in on him, he thought that perhaps he had imagined the part about Finney crying. It didn’t seem likely that a man cold-blooded enough to deceive them by having a special front page printed would display such emotion.

Bob and Jo didn’t blame him—not after the first cruel moment of enlightenment. He had done what he thought was best, and maybe he had been right. There was no way of knowing. Even now, they couldn’t be sure. If they had been able to hold out just a few more days—

In his last letter, Finney had said, "Something strange is happening here. There are Vacancy signs in windows all over the rooming house district and you can even find apartments and houses for rent. They say the boom is just leveling off, but to me it looks like the beginning of a mass exodus. It could be that you and Jo have achieved something, after all.”

Maybe Finney was right—but they had other things on their minds now— pruning and sprays and temperatures and bulletins from the Department of Agriculture. Adjusting to life in the country was not a simple process, in time, perhaps, they would put down roots and feel they belonged. In time, they might even be able to look to the southwest, over the benchland and the flumes and the dry hills above them toward Vancouver, and not wonder how long it would be before the sky blazed.