- 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2024
THE CHRISTMAS EVE
- 03 Dec - 09 Dec, 2022
Christmas Eve, 1889, dawns too warm.
Charlotte Halpenny can almost hear the city groaning under the wet snow and creaking ice, and she groans with it. Three days of clear cold weather were just enough to raise her hopes, but now this: a morning like a wet rag.
She stands on Theodore Street outside the new Rideau Skating Rink and looks up at the cupola against a sky that is so uniformly grey, so featureless, that it hurts her eyes despite the lack of sun.
In her hand, the hockey stick stands like a staff, the butt end on the thawing ground. Her skates are still hanging around the bedpost she shares with her sister, who is probably still snoring.
Only Charlotte and her father left the house before dawn this morning: Father to check the ice on the river, and Charlotte to eke out some hockey practice time before the teams arrive at the arena.
But without skates, because what use are skates without ice?
The Rideau Skating Rink was built a year ago because there was too much demand at Dey’s Arena, just a few steps away, at the edge of the canal.
Already, both rinks are full, all the time.
By January, the canal will freeze, and people will clear sections of it for skating. But there will be children there, and dogs and bumps in the ice.
Anyone serious about playing hockey will be at one of the indoor rinks, or at Rideau Hall, where the Governor General’s own daughter is frequently on the ice, stick in hand.
Charlotte Halpenny is not the Governor General’s daughter. She is the daughter of a carter and ice cutter and, for now, she plays on impromptu teams, their rosters shifting, their game times determined by dinner bells. With the new rink, though, a new hockey club has been born, and there’s talk of a permanent women’s team.
Raising her stick like some ancient wizard, she carefully crosses the street, avoiding the half-frozen mud and a rattling cart and horse, and pushes the freshly painted arena door open.
The miasma of wet wool and wet wood doesn’t dismay her, but the noise does: the sharp slap of sticks banging, people yelling. Even at this early hour, even without ice, the rink is full. Will she even have a chance to play?
Her friend, Eleanor Gignac, comes banging through the doors that lead from the entrance into the rink itself. Her face is red and her hair sticks to her temples beneath her cap.
“Come on. Cassie Williams is here, watching.”
The words ring dully in Charlotte’s ears. Cassie Williams, daughter of an MP, skates as though she’s living one second ahead of the rest of the world. It’s usually Eleanor and Charlotte watching her, not the other way around.
“Watching? Do you think…….?”
Eleanor shrugs, stick in hand. “She is looking for girls for the team. I’m sure of it. Come on! If we play well, perhaps she’ll ask us to join.”
Charlotte flings her coat onto the hook in the cloakroom. She’s already wearing her “rational” skirt, roomy and not too long, and a wool jersey above, all dark blue. She adjusts her tam o’shanter and runs through the doors into the noise and light.
Jack Halpenny watches his brother twist the augur into the ice on the Rideau River. They are alone in a pale landscape; just above the golden tree line, a few fingers of dawn still streak the grey.
They didn’t even bother bringing the horse. The ice will not be thick enough, not today. The only question is how thin it will be. How long will this season take to begin? Will there be enough ice this winter to justify Jack’s continued refusal to take the job at his brother-in-law’s brewery?
Jack stands on firm ground at the water’s edge while, a few feet away, his brother kneels, tentatively, on ice that creaks alarmingly beneath his weight.
The augur plunges into nothing; a thin rim of shaved ice around its base shivering as Robert pulls it back out. He slides the test stick into the hole, as though there can be any doubt, and pulls it back out.
“Aw, for the love of…..”
“As we thought?” Jack asks, mildly.
“Worse than we thought. It won’t be ready to cut until well into the New Year, even if we get that cold snap you say is coming.”
Robert looks stricken, kneeling over the test hole as though mourning over it.
Jack rolls the words over on his tongue, the few sentences that he’s been preparing to say promising his wife he would say – for weeks now. “I’m taking a job at the brewery, Robert. I won’t be cutting ice this winter.”
But instead he takes a breath of damp air through his mouth. He can’t imagine a way to speak those words without insult to Robert, who is unlikely to be given employment anywhere, and certainly not at a brewery, and certainly not at a brewery run by a man who considers Robert to be a stain on the family reputation.
“Come on,” Eleanor urges Charlotte. “They’re starting a new game. You and I can each join the left side; Rachel and Ada have had to go home.”
The rink – or what will be the rink, once the weather gets cold enough to keep a steady sheet of ice on it – is divided in half, with a group of young men playing on one side and women on the other. Portable metal poles mark four goal areas, two on each long edge of the rink.
With a yell, they take to their sides, and Eleanor and Charlotte take up positions in front; they’re fast on their feet and everyone knows it.
Charlotte leans into her toes, bends her legs, ready to spring, and spring she does. The other team wins the ball but she thrusts her stick forward and winkles it out from the leeside of an opposing player’s stick, knocks it back to her own centre player, who shoots it forward fast and straight, and then Charlotte’s team whoops in delight.
The first goal is theirs.
Charlotte is warm now, her face flushed. She lets herself glance to the side of the rink, where Cassie Williams leans on the boards, arms folded. She’s looking at Charlotte thoughtfully.
The ball’s back in play and Eleanor has it. She dodges one opponent and then another, and Charlotte grins. Eleanor’s shining today, faster than she’s ever seen her. And Charlotte knows her so well, can match her exactly on skates.
She runs, her stick swaying in front of her, keeping pace with her friend.
Powerful. The faster she runs, the faster she wants to run, like speed is a well she’s tapped.
She’s all alone in this patch of the rink. No one is there to stop her.
She turns and changes to a skipping, sideways step, so she can see Eleanor out of more than the corner of her eye.
And that’s when she realizes, with a freezing horror, that she’s closer to the opponent’s goal than Eleanor is.
In some cities, it’s standard to allow forward passing in hockey games. But not in Ottawa, although there’s always a brisk debate about whether they ought to. In Ottawa, so far at least, players must stay behind the puck, or the play stops. Charlotte knows this full well. She didn’t mean to get ahead too quickly.
She sees Eleanor stop hard, two women bearing down on her from the opposing team. Eleanor is poised, ready to pass the ball to Charlotte, and Charlotte can see that Eleanor can see that Charlotte is too far ahead.
Eleanor has to make a choice, and she makes it. She passes the ball to Charlotte, just a little behind where Charlotte is now. Charlotte steps back, far enough to catch the ball with her outstretched stick, but she doesn’t have time to get behind where Eleanor is. As the ball touches Charlotte’s stick, the other team cries foul, and the play stops.
In the tumult, Charlotte can’t bear to look at Cassie Williams, or at Eleanor. She keeps her burning face down.
“It’s definitely behind its time,” Robert says, standing up with a creak and brushing shaved ice off his trousers. “By Christmas Eve last year, there were no open patches on the river.”
“It’s a slow start, but by January we’ll have forgotten that. Ice is ice.”
Why is Jack trying to make his brother stop worrying? Robert should be worried. Jack is worried. But he can’t admit it, because of the conversation that must follow that admission.
“Yes, ice is ice,” Robert says. “And people will be happy to buy the artificial sort, if there’s an ice famine. Nasty, soft stuff, but the factory men will tell them it’s cleaner. Hmph. As if there could be anything purer and clear than what nature made herself.”
When Robert gets poetic, that’s a sure sign of melancholy. And Robert’s melancholy can get very dark indeed.
“There have been warm years before, and the world kept turning.”
“The world kept turning, but ice men starved.”
“A few warm days in December don’t add up to an ice famine,” Jack says. “Don’t go looking for worries before they come. Let’s wait and see what the New Year brings.”
“Waiting is all we can do,” Robert says, and takes off his cap, runs his fingers through his sweaty hair.
Charlotte’s team loses four goals to three. It doesn’t really matter – it was only an impromptu practice, early in the morning on Christmas Eve, and she doesn’t even know the names of two of her teammates. But there’s a sour taste to the air anyway, as the men who play for the hockey club lumber into the rink and the unofficial players, the women and the boys, trudge out.
Cassie Williams is standing in the entrance, doing up the buttons on a long wool coat.
“You played well,” she says, startling Charlotte. “Both of you.”
Charlotte and Eleanor freeze.
“Thank you,” Eleanor says, and glances at Charlotte. She says, graciously, “Everything’s different when there’s no ice, of course.”
Cassie nods. “I’d like to see what you both can do on skates, when the cold weather comes.”
It’s a long walk south to reach her family home, but Charlotte doesn’t mind; it isn’t cold, and she likes to walk. She feels the good ache in her legs. Cassie Williams wants to see her on skates, when the cold comes. The cold will come, must come, eventually, but a hockey season only lasts so long. What does she make of a winter that’s slow to begin? What does she make of herself in the meantime?
She sees a man in a hat and coat trudging up the street from the other direction: her father, she realizes, with a grin. But Jack looks troubled, and he’s nearly at their front step before he notices Charlotte there waiting for him.
“How is Uncle Robert?” she asks, knowing what it means when her father wears that expression.
“Oh, he’s his usual self. He’ll be here tomorrow for your mother’s Christmas feast.”
She smiles and takes his arm. Some things are the same in every year, and Christmas in the Halpenny house is one of them. Even the words they say to each other are traditions, comforts, and rituals. They’ll open their gifts in the morning, and sometime later Jack will ask each of his daughters, privately, separately, if they got what they wanted. He’ll want to be sure they’re happy.
Has Charlotte got what she wanted? Yes, she will tell her father. Yes, and not yet, in this season of waiting.
There was indeed an ice famine in the unseasonably warm winter of 1889/1890 in the historical background, which led to the development of more artificial-ice factories in North America, as families demanded a steady supply for their iceboxes. Still, some ice cutting continued for decades in Ottawa.
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