Stepping in from the Cold
Finding warmth with friends at a local pub
The frozen wind is bashing the heat out of life itself as it barrels down the Ottawa River from the north, freezing the small town of Hudson, Quebec, along its way. A couple of feet of snow cover the ground and more clings to bushes and trees. Snow crunches under tires and under feet.
Arms clenched to my sides, I dash from the warmth of the car with my three friends Peter, Jen and Jill. The parking lot is across the road from our destination and the lot is already half full, meaning we’ve got even farther to go, as everyone has taken the closest spots possible. Wearing just shoes and light overcoats, we are all complaining about not dressing for the weather -- but none of us had wanted to deal with extra layers once we got indoors.
I dash ahead across the empty road and up the flagstone walkway where I take a little leap to the veranda and reach with my bare hand to grasp the iron door handle, wrenching the door open. There’s always that straggler making me wait in the cold while I grip the frozen handle. Judging by the cries from inside to close the door, the warmth is surging out as the cold air is blasting in.
The last of my friends finally makes it past me and into the tiny foyer. Yanking the door closed behind, I’m in. My glasses immediately fog up, and after wiping the steam off with my fingers, I can finally take it all in -- The Willow Inn on a Saturday night. The Willow sits on Main Road next to the ferry landing, where during the summer you can have a pleasant 10 or 15 minute ride across the Lake of Two Mountains to the town of Oka. In the winter, the ferry service owners plow a road across the ice, charging a toll. The Willow has been serving people since 1820. For many years The Willow was a summer destination for city folk who took one of the steamships that plied between Montreal and Ottawa. But the year now is 1977 and on this frigid February night people are still gathering for companionship and fun.
The sign says Bar to the left and Dining Room to the right. Going right also leads to the registration desk for one of the rooms on the second floor. I’ve never gone right.
I can see through the open doorway into the bar. Ahead of me, my friends are slowly making their way through the lounge section of the bar. This is where you bring a date-date. You know, when you want to spend some time getting to know someone without having to share the discussion with your friends. A handful of low chairs and small tables. The ones closest to the fireplace fill up first. Can’t get any more romantic than low-slung tables, low lighting and a roaring fire on a cold winter night. It’s not the room to drink beer (that’s farther along at the back) but where you sip wine, twirl scotch on the rocks and maybe indulge in an Irish Coffee if you are wanting that sophisticated look -- and the warmth of a hot drink. Often couples stop here for a pre-dinner drink before heading to the dining room. These are the couples with money, usually our parents’ friends, older people. People with means, with credit cards, who own recent-model cars. These are the guests who go to the formal dining room, which overlooks spacious lawns bordering the Lake of Two Mountains. Fresh linen on the tables, three course prix-fixe meals on special occasions and Sunday brunch buffets.
We stop to say hi to various friends in the lounge then push on. There’s a low murmur coming from the back rooms of the bar, where we are headed. Warming up now, I’m looking for a place to dump the coat. As we head past the bar we all call out a greeting to the bartender Ken. Everyone likes Ken, and apparently Ken likes them right back. He loves to take care of everyone, and when he isn’t cracking open a beer or chatting with a customer he is cleaning the bar counter or restocking the fridges. Right now I see him reaching for the bottle of Lamb’s Navy Rum, the only liquor that Farley Mowat, one of Hudson’s more well-known visitors, drinks. The Willow makes sure there is always a bottle on hand. One bottle usually lasts a few years as Farley is the only one who drinks from it.
As Ken waves back, each of us peers into the Dart Room and then into the Tap room to see who’s there to figure out where the most fun is going to be that evening.
The Tap Room is at the back of the Bar and looks out over the Lake of Two Mountains. Not that there is much to see at this hour. The sun set around 5 pm and it’s approaching 9 now. The hockey game is going on the only TV. Sound is on and a group of dedicated Montreal Canadien fans cluster near it. In Hudson, like the rest of western Quebec, you only support the Canadiens. Canadiens-worship is akin to a religion and I think it might be illegal to support any other team, like the hated Boston Bruins or the ridiculed Toronto Maple Leafs. Quart bottles of beer in various stages of consumption litter the tables as the supporters of the winningest hockey team ever munch on free greasy salted peanuts, a bowl on every table, and talk about the last great play by their favourites on the team. The sound is a constant ebb and flow of groans about bad plays, grumbles about the always inept refereeing staff, and cheers when the Habs score.
There isn’t much else happening in the Tap Room, just a couple of friends sitting around and the pull of the hockey game--which, while great, isn’t what we came here for. Smoke is starting to gather at the ceiling from the many lit cigarettes.
So it’s into the Dart Room we go. We drape our now stifling coats on the coat tree. An actual dart game is going on, with a few tipsy sorts trying to hit the board. It’s clear they’ve been here for a while as many of the their shots are wonky and a bullseye hit is not in the cards. The Dart Room used to be called the Map room. The owners had hung maps of the lake and other regions on the walls as decoration that survived the introduction of the dart board. A distraction while you wait for your opponent to sober up enough to let a dart fly.
But the real thrill of the Dart Room on a Saturday night, isn’t darts. No, it’s the beat-up upright piano against the back wall. Maybe, just maybe, someone will decide to sit down and play a few tunes. Even better if they’re tunes we know. Even better if they’re tunes we know the words to.
We grab the last table and the waiter (must be new as I don’t know him) approaches. I know he’s the waiter because he is carrying the regulation cork-lined round plastic tray with a raised lip that the designer thought would prevent a beer stein from falling over onto the floor. My other clue is his outfit. I’m not sure why, but back then in Quebec, all serving staff were decked out in black skirts for women, and for men black pants, white shirt and a black bowtie. The pants were inevitably polyester -- I know this as I wore many a pair in my day. The white shirt had to be long sleeved. And the bowtie was always a clip-on. Why struggle with one that ties up? And who knew how to tie one anyway?
While we wait for our drinks, we go over who is here, who isn’t, who is expected, and who says they will be here but probably won’t show. Jill and Jen, fraternal twins, have lived in Hudson their entire lives and know everyone. Jen, a noted talker, is the taller, with short hair, who always looks slightly tanned. Jill has longer, blonder hair and a fistful of freckles. They are rarely apart and the two together always ensure a lively evening. Peter is a quiet sort with a fleeting smile and is a driving force for mischief, especially when he can convince someone else to take the lead.
Our drinks arrive -- beer for me and Peter, a soda with lime for Jen and white wine for Jill. The talk turns to college. We’re all in our first year at John Abbott, the local community college slash university prep school. Professors, courses, travel time. We often commute there together either in Peter’s car or mine. Peter drives a Volvo and I, a very old two-door Datsun 210, faded red. Peter lives outside of town and has to drive everywhere. He got me my first job in Hudson as a waiter at Whitlock Golf & Country Club. Jill and Jen live down the road from me with their mother and grandmother. (Actually, a lot of Hudson lives down the street from me, as I live on Main Road, which runs 12.9 kilometres long). Our evenings out almost always start in the twins’ tiny, cluttered, happy living room. Their mother always urges us to have a good time and their grandmother worries about our safety.
The Dart Room thrums with the low-level buzz of people talking amongst themselves at the few tables. Then a commotion starts in the lounge. Voices get louder, laughter grows in volume. Loud greetings of “Phil!” and we know that our evening is about to change dramatically. Because when Phil shows up, he always brings a barrel of hats and the need to play the piano. Not a desire, but a need.
Phil, normally a quiet and physically active man (he loves to chop wood), transforms into a social, hugging party-goer after he’s been administered a few beers. A happy drunk. Someone who needs to make others happy through music and silly hats. If you are in the right frame of mind, Phil is the life of the party. And if you aren’t, well there’s always the Tap Room or the lounge.
For me it’s a loud hello of Jimmy followed by a quieter string of Jimmys along with a shoulder squeeze that may alter my bone structure. Phil lives a short walk down Main Road from my place. I taught him how to sail. Phil isn’t one for a lot of words or even a lot of different words when he is under the influence; but what he says, he says with meaning. Phil slams a hat on my head as he plops down on the rickety piano bench. After shuffling through some song sheets and acquainting his thick digits with the worn ivories, he launches into the first song. Don’t ask me what he plays. They are old party songs of his youth. Before easy access to paid entertainment. Before multiple TV channels and internet surfing.
A couple of people join in who are familiar with the words, and they belt out the lyrics. The dart players abandon their game. Conversation trails off as it’s hard to compete with an inebriated choir. Others join in. People sitting at the bar swing around in their stools ready to take in the entertainment. A cheer from the Canadiens fans in the Tap Room is easily drowned out as more of us join in the singing. After the second chorus I finally know enough words to sing along but the song comes to an end. People call out for their favourite songs. Doesn’t matter -- Phil knows only a limited number and most are from before we were born. Phil pauses, clutches his beer, and quaffs down a long draught. His scratchy voice is starting to go -- it squeaks and grates more than producing words anyone can understand.
He positions his hands again and strikes up the next tune. The room is ready. The adrenaline in the room is rising as people grow excited to take part in this instant choir -- the kind of choir any pub-goer in eastern Canada or the United Kingdom would recognize. The waiter scrambles to keep up the demand for more refreshment. Our untrained vocal cords ache, and beer, soda or whisky help cool them down. The room is filling up and others crowd in to sing or watch. No one should even think about trying to accessing the washroom in the corner. The Willow’s owner, Pat, manages to squeeze his head and one shoulder through the door to see what the noise is all about. No doubt the last remaining guests in the dining room were being disturbed over their coffee and cake. Pat’s got a big smile on his bearded face.
After the fifth or sixth song, the crowd starts to wane. People are getting back to their conversations, the dying minutes of the hockey game. Phil is running out of steam. The need to play is leaving his body.
Others are heading out to the Chinese food or pizza joints on Harwood Boulevard in the neighbouring town of Dorion. As for us, we’ve got plans to drive back down Main Road to the Chateau du Lac tavern, another ancient institution in Hudson which I quickly named Chateau du Shellac after moving here. It’s got live music on Saturday nights. But first we struggle to retrieve our smoke-scented coats off the overloaded coat tree, which falls at least three times in our efforts. As we push our way out, it takes a while to say goodbye. Goodbye to Ken behind the bar. The lounge has emptied out except for a few people getting after-dinner drinks. With shoulders hunched and hands jammed into our pockets, we step outside, hit with the nasty shock of a February night in Hudson.