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Bookmark #10 Port Colborne, Ontario

Sailor Girl, by Sheree-Lee Olson


It was a sailors’ phone booth, smelling of tobacco and desperation. She held the receiver away from her face as she dialled Hazel’s number. Imagining the ring pealing through Hazel’s little house from the heavy black phone in the hall.
— from Sailor Girl by Sheree-Lee Olson, published by The Porcupine’s Quill. Bookmarked in Port Colburne, Ontario on October 12th, 2011.

 

About Sheree-Lee Olson and Sailor Girl

Sheree-Lee Olson was born in Picton on the shores of Lake Ontario and grew up across Canada and in Europe as the eldest child in a military family. After earning degrees in visual art, philosophy and journalism, she joined The Globe and Mail as an editor in 1985. In 2007-08 she was a Canadian Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. She has contributed fiction and poetry to numerous literary magazines, as well as contributing personal essays to the Globe.

Sailor Girl was inspired by Olson’s own experiences working on Great Lakes freighters to finance her education. It was published in 2008 and is Olson’s first novel. Set in 1981, Sailor Girl follows Kate McLeod, a nineteen year-old art student on the run from a violent boyfriend, who packs up her camera and her vodka and goes to work on an aging Great Lakes grain boat. Kate eventually settles in to this new world peopled by male sailors and their female cooks, and finds consolation the rhythms of water and hard work. Sailor Girl is a love poem to the elemental forces—wind, water, desire and love—that drive a young woman’s voyage of self-discovery.

Sailor Girl is published by The Porcupine’s Quill. This excerpt is used with the kind permission of the author.

Banner photo credit: Isaac Pennock.


The Passage

It was a sailors’ phone booth, smelling of tobacco and desperation. She held the receiver away from her face as she dialled Hazel’s number. Imagining the ring pealing through Hazel’s little house from the heavy black phone in the hall. Thinking she should have just called a cab, because now she would be making Hazel come all the way downstairs, worrying.

But she let it ring on; she didn’t want to be hanging up just as Hazel got there. When the voice came it was a shock, not least because she had ceased to expect it, had begun listening to the ring as an end in itself, its rhythm, its relentlessness.

Just one word, barked out breathless and harsh. ‘Yeah?’

‘Hazel?’

‘Who’s that?’

‘It’s Kate.’

‘Who?’

She clutched the greasy receiver tighter, smelling the aftershave from the last caller. ‘Kate, the porter. I’m in the Canal. Can I come and see you?’

‘Wha’ for?’

Realization dawned as she heard the slurring. ‘Hazel, are you okay?’

There was a blast of static, then a series of thumps, before the receiver was clattered into the cradle. The dial tone blared.

It was no surprise Hazel was drinking, but alarming all the same. Kate dragged up the tattered directory from where it hung chained to the phone. It opened itself onto the taxi listings; the pages creased and tattered, covered with scrawls and jottings, fragments of addresses, dollar figures, women’s names. She called Seaway Cabs.

‘Where will you be?’ the dispatcher asked.

‘Right here,’ said Kate. ‘At the phone booth.’

The dispatcher said they were busy; someone would be there in fifteen minutes. Kate lit a cigarette, watching the massed shape of the Huron Queen looming above the holding wall. The deck lights came on, making little cones of yellow in the fog that was now rolling in from the lake. The lake effect, the softening of the air when warm meets cold. All the cities crowding around the lakes, poisoning the water, ignorant of their debt. She longed for the wind on Superior, scouring everything away.

Calvin would be up there, smoking at the top of the ladder. It was too dark to see him now, but he would be able to see her. She thought of what he would see: Kate lighting a cigarette, Kate on the phone, like a doll in a glass case by the supermarket exit, waiting for someone to come along and win her.

He would see someone waiting for something better to come along. He wouldn’t see the homesickness in her, the darkness curling up like fog through the gaps at the bottom of the booth. She felt it climb into her belly like the opportunist it was. People could get homesick for anything. For a school where no one really knew you, for a bad boyfriend, for parents who found you wanting. For a bunk as wide as a yardstick in a cabin smelling of soup.