In May of 2000 I was in the middle of a diploma program at a small IT college in Halifax, and was preparing to enjoy a long weekend. One of my classmates, Sean, had never been to Cape Breton, which to me would be like living in Egypt and never going to see the pyramids. With that in mind, plus the fact that a couple of young ladies from home wanted us to party with them in Cape Breton, Sean and I decided to spend a couple of days on the island.
My mother suggested we stay at my grandparents’ place. That sounded good to me, since we didn’t really have a place to stay. I’d had a major falling out with my father in 1992 and wouldn’t be showing up on his doorstep just yet. My best friend Ron was away at college, and most of my other friends had left Cape Breton as well. I still had plenty of relatives there, though. As for the girls we’d be partying with, they were staying with relatives of theirs as well. Like most Cape Bretoners, they didn’t actually live in Cape Breton. If everyone from Cape Breton were to go home all at once, the island might sink.
So anyway, one fine day in early May, Sean and I left Halifax and soon found ourselves passing under the iconic ‘Welcome to Cape Breton’ sign on the bridge that makes up part of the Canso Causeway. Soon after that we were greeting Papa, who was home alone at his house on Lorne Street in Sydney. That was my mother’s real reason for asking him if we could stay there: Nana was in the hospital and Papa would benefit from some company. Our visit would be good for all of us, she said.
Walking through Papa’s front door was like going back to a different time in my life. I had lived in so many different houses over the years, first with both parents, then with just my mother, then with just my father, and then on my own. But Nana and Papa’s house had never really changed, not in my lifetime. I hadn’t spent much time in that house since my childhood, but now there it was, my childhood, right where I’d left it. The patterns on the hard floors. The way voices echoed around. The way the house smelled, even without Nana’s cooking. The donuts in the kitchen. The pictures on the walls, including the one of Jesus and his sacred heart. All that was missing was Nana’s cackling laugh. ‘Honest to God!’ she’d say.
Sean and I spent more time in Papa’s house than we’d thought we would. I hadn’t seen Papa in a while — we’d never been really close — and had forgotten how witty he was. His jokes and anecdotes had us in stitches. He told us about his childhood trips up to Glencoe, his adventures at the steel plant, and all sorts of things. Sean and I were impressed. We spent the whole weekend impressed.
Sean was also impressed by the girls at Smooth Herman’s. It was our first full day in Cape Breton and we’d started drinking sometime in the afternoon at our friend’s parents’ place after listening to some of Papa’s stories. At some point we ended up at Smooth Herman’s Cabaret. I don’t remember much after that, just flashes of a drive (in whose car, I can’t remember) all around Sydney and maybe New Waterford. Then, in the wee dark hours of the morning, Sean and I were teetering on Papa’s front step, Getting the key into the lock was like trying to put a cat into a bathtub. Finally it went in and so did we.
Things fell apart, or rather we did, right after we’d entered the house. Both Sean and I were unable to walk up the stairs, so we made the ascent at a slow, unsteady crawl, giggling all the way. Waiting for us at the top of the stairs was Duncan MacLeod, who may or may not have said something, but if he did, I’m sure it was funny. I’m sure he probably found the sight before him pretty funny as well, since most of his grandchildren, myself included, had crawled up and down those same stairs as toddlers. In fact, Papa had us going up and down those stairs well before we could walk. I had probably been better at it in those days than on this particular night.
Daylight came too quickly and, it seemed, with ill intent. I awoke in the room my five uncles had once shared, the sunlight curled in a tight fist around my head, squeezing as hard as it could, or at least as hard as it dared without crushing me. The flimsy curtains were no match for the sun’s rays, which were now tearing into my skull like claws. Wow, I thought. There’s no way I can go hiking like this.
It was way too early to get up after the night we’d had, but Sean and I were supposed to go hiking with the girls. I couldn’t imagine backing out of a day of hiking in Cape Breton, but now I was doubting my lack of imagination. All I could imagine now was taking a tylenol, or two or three, and seeking out a dark place to hide from the sun’s claws, which were now picking through my stomach, stirring up the contents of the previous night’s revelry, trying to splash them back out so the sun could have them all for itself. No, a hike was not looking good.
The bacon and eggs Papa made for breakfast weren’t looking good either. In fact, nothing was looking good, least of all the faces of the neighbours who had come over to gawk at me as I slumped below the picture of Jesus with his sucking chest wound, my stomach threatening to imitate art right there on the kitchen table. The expressions on the neighbours’ faces were somewhere between ‘Oh you poor thing’ and ‘Tee hee oh you poor thing tee hee!’
Needless to say, I regretted the previous night’s binge.
“Well,” said Papa, reading my thoughts on my face, “I could give you the cure. Do you want the cure?”
The cure! It sounded beautiful for a moment, until I realized it would most likely involve ingesting something horrid. “Um…what’s in the cure?”
“It’s a glass of beer, a raw egg and some salt. But never mind what’s in it,” he said. “Do you want the cure or not? It works. Trust me, it works.”
“Are you sure?” It did sound pretty horrid.
“Look,” said Papa, “there used to be signs that said ‘Drink Canada Dry’, and I used to say ‘I tried, it can’t be done!’ I used this hangover cure all the time. It works. Do you want it or not? Just take the cure and you’ll feel fine.”
Sean was eager to go hiking. The girls had already called. Twice. I just wanted to feel better.
“Okay,” I said, gulping hard. “Let’s do it.”
“You’ll be fine,” Papa said again. “If you can keep it down.”
One of the stories Papa told us during that May weekend was about the fateful day about 20 years earlier when his drinking had finally caught up with him.
Papa had been an alcoholic. In fact, some of the boys at the plant used to call him Drunken Duncan. Another nickname of his was Hold Fast MacLeod, a play on the motto of Clan MacLeod. He was given that nickname because he somehow managed to hold onto his job in spite of getting in trouble multiple times over his drinking problem.
It all came to a head one day when he found himself standing in that same kitchen facing my aunt Susan, three men from the Steelworkers’ Union, and Father Doyle from the local diocese. It was an intervention. Duncan MacLeod would have one final chance to hold fast to his job. But only if he could give up the drink.
Determined to keep his job and provide for his family, Papa poured whatever remained from his most recent bender right down the drain. He put the empty quart bottles under the sink, closed the cupboard door, and said “There. That’s it. I’m done.”
Susan and the union men left. Father Doyle lingered long enough to see Papa pick up the phone and call for a taxi. In Cape Breton you could call for a taxi to bring you things like some milk, maybe some bread, or a quart of two of whatever your poison was.
“Ah, Duncan,” said Father Doyle, shaking his head. “You couldn’t even wait for them to be out of the driveway before trying to get more liquor.”
Papa put the phone receiver back into its cradle and turned to face Father Doyle. “Look, Father…I really am going to quit. I really am done. But I have to do it on my terms. Will you stay with me?”
“Of course I’ll stay with you, Duncan.” Father Doyle wasn’t about to give up on Duncan MacLeod.
After the taxi showed up, Duncan MacLeod and the Reverend Daniel Alphonsus Doyle got loaded together. Oh, the stories they must have told that night.
The next morning, Papa poured whatever remained down the drain, put the empty quart bottle under the sink, and closed the cupboard door. And never drank another drop.
It was hard at first. On his first day back to work at the steel plant after quitting drinking, he told me, a car horn sent him jumping into the air. His body and mind would take some time to adjust.
But adjust he did, and never looked back. He would even start keeping full bottles of beer and whatever else in the cupboard under the sink, for guests. But they weren’t for him. He was cured.
I stood at the sink in the bathroom right above the kitchen, staring at myself in the mirror, or at least some pale, frightened young man who I knew had to be me. Next to the sink was the cure. I tried not to look at it. I took deep breaths. When I exhaled, my cheeks puffed up. On the wall behind me, next to the locked door, there was a small plaque with the yellow and black MacLeod tartan, the clan badge, and the clan motto: Hold Fast. Let’s do it. I plucked the cure from its perch and turned to the toilet. After a few more deep breaths, I did it.
The cure went in hard and fast, punching and kicking its way in, wrenching those claws from my innards. It happened so fast, I didn’t know which side was winning. I felt something tearing away from my stomach and hurtling upwards. I feared the worst. My mouth opened wide and a demonic sound shot out, announcing the arrival of…a single drop of blood. At least it looked like blood. To this day I have no idea what it was, really, but it looked like a single drop of blood, and it plopped silently and unceremoniously into the toilet. That was it.
Really, that was it. I was cured.
“Wow!” I said as I strutted into the kitchen. “The cure worked! My headache’s gone, and I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up anymore!”
Sean shot me a look of confusion that bordered on theatrical. “Didn’t you just puke, man?”
I told Sean about the gagging, the retching, and the single drop of bloody whatever. We laughed. I think we even heard another story or two from Papa. Another story for the Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod. We laughed some more. Then we went hiking with the girls. On the way, we went through the drive-thru at the Sydney River McDonald’s. I had a very greasy sausage mcmuffin (with egg, of course) and still felt great. We spent the day at Cape Dauphin, where we explored the coastline and climbed along ropes to enter Glooscap’s Cave, also known as the Fairy Hole, accessible only at low tide. By the time we got back to Sydney, I was sunburnt and exhausted, but still feeling great.
A few months later I gave up drinking — cold turkey, just like Papa had — and went years without so much as a drop. I wouldn’t say I was cured. But that’s a story for another day.
Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.