By Michael Newman, Christopher Johnstone, and Christopher Gorman
I’m sitting at a table in Starbucks. My venti latte is growing cold as I stare at the man in front of me.
He’s stocky, his shoulders are broad, and his unshaven stubble is patchy on his black skin. His coat hangs loosely on his shoulders. It’s a nice coat—a North Face—that looks like it used to fit, before hard times struck.
His eyes are downcast, as if he’s embarrassed, and he’s mumbling. I catch, “Five dollars for a coffee and they can’t spare me a twoonie,” in a voice that somehow conveys that he remembers being able to spend five dollars on a coffee.
He heads out, the door closing with a swoosh that somehow seems to lighten the air of the café behind him.
I glance at my watch as the heater next to me kicks in. It’s just past five in the evening. I have to be at Queen and Spadina for seven o’clock which means I have lots of time, but I still need to eat.
Police sirens cut through my thoughts. At least six police cars and an ambulance mount the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks and come to a halt with a screech just as a harbour police boat pulls quickly into the marina.
I toss back my latte. More emergency services are pulling up, and my curiousity is piqued. I still have time to cross the street to see what the commotion is all about before grabbing a bite.
Sweeping up my things, I pull on my overcoat and step out into the cold. The air is bitter, biting into my skin, and the cold amplifies the screams of the sirens.
I cross the street, heading for the gathering onlookers. I’m surprised to see my eighty-three year old Danish neighbour Jurgen has already beat me here with his dog. He always did have a sense for where the excitement was going to be.
I walk up just as two of the police officers in the boat jump over the side, still in their winter coats, their guns still strapped to their waists.
They’re converging on a calm ripple in the water. The water is dark with a deep cold, but I can see that same distinctive North Face coat that was in Starbucks mere moments ago, lazily sinking.
The police reach him, start to pull him up, and the calm ripples explode into a violent thrashing as he starts to fight them off.
Through the tumultuous yelling I hear my name and look up. There’s a woman there, young, with her brown hair cut in a bob. Her purse hangs off her right arm, and she clutches a large black and white puppy, holding it close to her heart. Her eyes are distraught, and she’s focused intently on the accident. She’s not the one who called my name.
I look to her right and see Jurgen gesturing at me, beckoning me over.
“Did you see that?” he asks excitedly. “He just jumped in! No one around him at all—walked straight out of that Starbucks there and straight into the lake!”
I shake my head in disbelief as violent coughing erupts from the water.
The police haul the man over the edge, overcoming his kicking. He’s not screaming, but he’s yelling, cursing, demanding that they let him die—that his life isn’t worth living.
The woman with the dog shrinks smaller. Jurgen goes quiet. We all watch in stunned silence.
We’re still trying to comprehend what’s taking place as a group of dry police officers step up and haul the man to his feet.
They ignore his protests and almost drag him across the cold, bare pavement to a waiting ambulance. Through the yelling, the paramedics step in, wrapping him tightly in a thick blanket and bustle him into the warmth of the ambulance.
The doors shut, cutting off the angry curses, and as quickly as they arrive, they depart.
Silence fills the air as loud as the sirens before it.
For a moment, I stare after him. I watch as the woman and her dog continue on their way. I watch as Jurgen shakes his head and starts for home. For a brief moment we three glimpsed through the cracks at a soul that had fallen through.
As I cross the street to catch the 510 streetcar to Queen, I can’t help but wonder if anyone will ever convince him that life is once again worth living.
January 30, 2020 The Journey: A Group Writing Session Group 2
A note on the process of writing The Watchers by Christopher Gorman
The Watcher was born of a collaboration between three writers who had never written together before as part of the Canadian Author’s—Toronto group writing event: The Journey. Our group, author Michael Newman, artist and writer Chris Johnstone, and myself (Christopher Gorman), was randomly selected by drawing numbers from an old fashioned top hat.
We splintered off from the other group and sequestered ourselves in a room with some mango-orange tea that was quite perfect at stimulating the creativity, and set to work. We knew where we had to start: our protagonist had to arrive at CSI Spadina, and our characters had to be born of our observations on the way to the event.
Similar to the other group, we started out by talking about our respective journeys to the event (Chris and Michael by streetcar and myself by an aborted streetcar ride turned Uber ride), the feelings we felt, and some people we had witnessed that might make interesting characters. At a certain point, Michael leaned back and said, “You know, yesterday was Bell’s Let’s Talk day, and that reminds me of something that fits with that theme. It happened two weeks ago—not tonight—but it still involved me and a streetcar ride.” And he proceeded to tell us a poignant story told to him by his neighbour of witnessing a man who had given up on life throw himself into Lake Ontario and try to fight off his rescuers.
By the time he finished his recounting, it was clear we were going to attempt to open up a small window into this man’s story. We had no idea of the details that led him to that moment in his life, but we felt it important to illustrate that mental health is fragile and that the potential to wind up in a similar situation is not as far away as most of us think. It was also clear that we were running out of time and we hadn’t started writing yet! Only half an hour of our allotted writing time remained!
With the second hand sweeping by on the clock, we started by filling out the character section of the ‘cheat sheet’, as we knew the characters were at the heart of our story. For the purposes of our story, we took creative license and mixed in people we had seen on the way to the session, with people Michael had seen two weeks previous. We gave them names, descriptions, occupations, personalities. For our character who would wind up in the lake, we created a back story and a job that had been lost not too long before that, making him feel real to us.
I had my laptop in my bag beside me, but it felt like this story needed the organic rawness of a piece of paper and a pen. So I wrote the first sentence, and then Chris and Michael started throwing in ideas, events and descriptions.
At times, the ideas came faster than my pen was moving and before I knew it we had our story plus three pages of partially filled in scribbled side-notes and to-come-later’s. The story itself was full of scratched out sentences and arrows redirecting sentence fragments. Bit by bit, we ended up with three pages of story, and brought it to a close by reinforcing that not that long ago, this was just an average man going through his life.
We wound up taking an extra fifteen minutes, but in the end created something we’re all proud of. Chris and I know each other fairly well but we’ve never tried to co-write a piece together, and it was our first time really meeting Michael. Overall it was an amazing experience and we would be happy to work together again.
Can’t wait for our next writing adventure!