The Dictionary

Summer, 2014 / No. 33
Illustration by Jason Turner.
Jason Turner

When I was twelve years old my family had to pack up quickly and leave our house.

Papa woke me by shaking my shoulder.

“Get dressed quickly. The war has started.”

My mother, older brother, and sister were already up. I understood: the Nazis had invaded Belgium. It meant we had to leave Brussels and everything we knew. It meant the future was unknown.

We travelled through France and Spain to Portugal. Sometimes we travelled by train, sometimes we got a lift in a cart pulled by horses, and sometimes we walked. We slept in farmers’ haystacks and in empty houses. One night we even slept in a great castle. It was cold. I could hear rats scurrying along the stone walls.

Sometimes I was afraid. Mama reached out to hold me in the dark.

We kept moving.

We stopped in the port of Lisbon. Papa tried to find a country that would take us in. But there were so many like us, and we were all unwanted.

At last Papa got us visas for a place called Jamaica. I had never heard of it but Papa said it was an island across the ocean.

The ship rocked on the waves. My brother, sister, and I all got seasick. I rocked and moaned for hours. Then the storm ended and the sun came out. People emerged from below deck. A family of musicians came out to play waltzes. I stood on the deck and felt the fresh sea air on my skin. I didn’t feel as scared. I thought to myself: maybe this is the start of an adventure.

“I see land!”

We ran to the rail of the ship. There was a long beach. There were skinny trees with big leaves at the top like drooping petals. The sun was hot.

Down the gangplank we walked, relieved to be on shore. We climbed into the back of a truck. The truck rattled down the road.

“Are we free now, Papa?” asked my older brother.

“No, not yet,” Papa said. “We have to go to a camp. There we will live until we find a country that will take us in.”

The camp was surrounded by barbed wire. The barracks were built of wood, and each one was divided into small rooms. Our family got a room. There was also a dining hall. Nobody could leave without a pass from the camp commander.

The people already there showed us where to take showers, where to scrub our clothes. They warned us to beware of scorpions. “Terrible creatures!” said an old man who lived in the next room. “A single prick from the scorpion’s tail can kill you.”

Mama made sure we checked our beds before getting in.

Papa said we would need money to start life over again in a new country. But the camp rules forbade work of any kind, so Papa snuck out to a nearby market. He bargained for leather and brought it back to our barracks.

Sitting on the bed, Mama and Papa cut and stitched the leather. They made a wallet, a handbag, a pair of gloves. The next day Papa returned to the market and sold them to a merchant, bringing back more leather. I was afraid he would get caught sneaking in and out of the camp. But Papa just smiled and told me not to worry. He wasn’t afraid of anything.

My brother joined the soccer team. He was crazy about soccer. All he talked about was the pass he made, or the goal he almost scored. My sister made new friends and spent all her time with them. But I wanted to study.

Papa once told me that a country was a good place to live only if its laws were fair. So I had decided to become a lawyer. I would need to go to university, and right now I wasn’t even in school. But in the camp were many educated people who had also left their homes. Maybe they would teach me.

The first person I approached was Professor Finkelstein. I found him sitting under a palm tree reading a book.

“Professor Finkelstein,” I said, “what did you teach at the university?”

The professor looked up.

“History and philosophy.”

“I would like to study history and philosophy,” I said.

“And I would like to teach,” he said. “ Come and sit beside me.”

If I had one teacher, why not find more? I went to see Mr. Kosar, who used to work in a bookshop. Mr. Kosar knew how to speak English.

“Tree,” he said in English, pointing. “Door.”

I repeated the words. My father gave me money and I got a pass and walked into town to buy a big red book called Chambers English Dictionary. Every day I memorized twenty new words and tried them out on Mr. Kosar.

I found Madam Chardin folding sheets. Madam Chardin had been a science teacher in a girls’ school. She agreed to teach me biology and mathematics.

Each day I ran from teacher to teacher. Any task I could do for them—fetch water, mail a letter, chop wood—I gladly did. Everything I learned excited me. It seemed that I could never know even a small portion of the world’s knowledge.

One day Papa announced that he needed a new pair of trousers.

“I can’t go to the market in these rags,” he said. “I need to look like a businessman.”

“New trousers?” said Mama. “Your vanity will be the end of us. Well, we sold three purses yesterday. Go ahead and get your trousers, Mr. Handsome.”

Papa winked at us. He knew he would get his way. I followed him to the tailor in camp, a man who had once run a shop on the rue de Rivoli, in Paris. Papa didn’t have enough money yet, but he asked the tailor to save him some good cloth.

“I have just one roll of fine cloth,” said the tailor. “I’m going to make you the most beautiful new trousers you’ve ever seen.”

Although I was learning a lot from my teachers, I knew I would never be able to enter university and become a lawyer if I didn’t finish high school.

Papa believed there was a solution to every problem.

“All you need to do,” he said, “is find a school and convince the principal to let you in.”

This didn’t seem so simple to me. But the next morning I received permission to take a bus to the nearby private school. The building was old and elegant. Boys in uniform were playing a game on the lawn they said was called cricket.

I knocked on the headmaster’s door. Using my simple English, I told him about my situation.

The headmaster looked at me over his glasses. He stroked his beard.

“I would like to help you, but you have no doubt fallen far behind the other students.”

“But I’ve been studying hard with the professors and teachers in camp.”

“Yes? All right, then. I’ll give you some paper. Write me an essay on all that you have learned. Then I’ll decide.”

The headmaster left the office and I started to write. I wrote about leaving our home in the middle of the night. I wrote about sleeping in a field and an empty castle. I wrote about my father and mother and brother and sister, about Professor Finkelstein and Mr. Kosar and Madam Chardin.

“Ever since I left my home, it has been night,” I wrote. “But going to school, that would be daytime. That would be the sun coming up.”

The headmaster read my essay.

“Yes,” he said, “you belong here.”

Every morning I took the bus to school. At lunch the headmaster sat with the students and talked about history, about the war, about art and literature. He had a record player and put on music by Bach and Mozart and Benny Goodman and Bessie Smith. All of it was wonderful.

When I returned to camp, Papa and Mama, brother, and sister sat at the small table sewing gloves and wallets.

“The scholar is home,” Papa said, patting me on the head. “Now pick up a needle and help.”

In June the students had to write final exams. Professor Finkelstein and my other former teachers helped me to prepare. Even my brother and sister asked me questions.

I sat with the other students in the school auditorium. After each three-hour exam I was exhausted. The headmaster sealed our answers to send to England and be marked by professors at the University of Cambridge. I only hoped that the ship carrying them across the ocean wouldn’t be torpedoed by an enemy U-boat.

Meanwhile, Papa had put away a few pennies each day until he finally had enough to pay the tailor. One afternoon he came into the barracks and announced that his new trousers were ready.

“Come, all of you,” he said to us. “I want you to see me wear them for the first time.”

“You have to make a show of everything,” Mama said, but she came along, too.

“We’re going to see Papa’s new trousers!” announced my brother and sister to everyone we passed. Soon a crowd was following us just as if we were in a parade.

The tailor ushered Papa behind a ragged curtain. We could see his stocking feet when he took off his worn shoes, then his patched trousers. He pulled on the new trousers. The tailor pulled open the curtain.

“Ah!” said the crowd.

“I admit, you look very well in them,” Mama said.

Everyone cheered. The family of musicians struck up a march. Papa began to stride down the main street of camp as we all followed behind him.

Papa stopped.

His eyes opened wide.

“What’s the matter now?” asked Mama.

Papa whispered: “A scorpion. I felt it just now in my trousers. The stinger touched my leg!”

I had never seen my father afraid before, but now his face turned pale. His arms and legs shook. Nobody knew what to do, not even my old teachers.

“Save my husband!” wailed Mama.

I knew that Papa needed my help. Stepping forward, I said, “Papa, you have to drop your trousers.”

“In the middle of the street?”

“Yes. And very slowly. You mustn’t disturb the scorpion.”

Everyone agreed. Papa nodded. He tried to hold up his chin with dignity as he unbuckled his belt. He let the trousers slip slowly to his ankles. We all held our breath.

I saw something glimmer among the folds of the trousers. I leaned down and reached forward.

“Don’t!” cried Mama.

I held up the shiny thing.

“It’s a pin!”

“A pin?” Papa said. “Not a scorpion?”

The tailor blushed. “I must have left it in the trousers by mistake.”

Quickly Papa pulled up his new trousers. For a moment he looked angry but then he started to laugh. Everyone else laughed, too. Mama, brother, sister, and I rushed to put our arms around Papa.

Just then we heard a honk. The headmaster was driving in his Jeep down the main road of the camp. When he saw us he jumped out, waving a piece of paper. The exam results had arrived safely from England. I had passed!

The headmaster helped me apply to universities in England and America. All of them said the same thing: you are sixteen, too young. The headmaster had studied in Canada and suggested that I apply to the University of Toronto.

I wrote a long letter explaining my situation. Many letters went back and forth. Finally a letter arrived to say that I had been accepted. I was thrilled, but at the same time fearful and sad, for going to Canada meant having to part with my family. Suddenly I didn’t think I could go through with it.

“You’ve worked so hard,” Papa said. “Don’t worry, we’ll meet up again.”

The day to leave arrived. Everyone came to the harbour to see me off. I had a small suitcase holding my few clothes and my Chambers English Dictionary. I cried and so did my brother and sister, my mama and papa. Papa gave me a present—a new jacket, made from the same material as his trousers.

From the deck of the ship I waved goodbye, wondering when I would see them again. I felt both like a child and an adult. I promised to remember everything my parents and my teachers had taught me.

When the harbour disappeared behind us I turned to look out toward the sea, toward the new life that awaited me, and I tried to be brave.

Author’s Note

This story is based on the experiences of my father, Maurice Fagan. He arrived in Canada safely, and received his law degree from the University of Toronto. The rest of his family—my grandfather Max, grandmother Adele, aunt Adeline and uncle Henry—went first to Cuba and finally to Toronto, where they were reunited. More than seventy years later, my father still has his Chambers English Dictionary.

Cary Fagan lives in Dufferin Grove. His collection My Life Among the Apes was long-listed for the Giller Prize, and his short story “Shit Box,” from Taddle Creek’s summer, 2007, issue, was nominated for a National Magazine Award. His books for kids include The Boy in the Box, Mr. Zinger’s Hat, and I Wish I Could Draw. Last updated winter, 2014–2015.