When Belle 
Walked 
Along Spadina

Fiction

If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interest of the State, approaches, inspects, passes over, or is in the neighborhood of, or enters any prohibited place; he shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.

—Canadian Official Secrets Act, 1939

 

Whenever Belle walked along Spadina, the shopkeepers would leap from the comfort of their worn stools to offer her the juiciest orange or the most luscious square of strawberry cheesecake. Schwartz, who owned the lady’s apparel store, would attempt to lure her into his premises by showing off his most glamorous red frock. With her tight black curls and her smooth olive skin, crimson suited Belle.

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“Bellele,” he’d shout, yanking the stub of the cigar from his stained lips. “Give a fella a chance to make a shayne maidele happy.”

Usually Belle played along with Schwartz’s game. “Sure, Mr. Schwartz, if you don’t mind the neighbours telling your missus all about us.”

Belle never actually minded when the shopkeeper would hold the sample up to her chin and press the bodice against her chest. Schwartz was harmless, unlike foreman Mandelbaum, the giant with forearms the size of the sailor Popeye’s in the funnies. At the garment factory, Belle sewed buttons onto the jackets of the servicemen who were cleaning up the mess the Nazis had made of Europe.

“There are laws in this country,” Harry would claim, shaking his fist at the dust-choked ceiling of the factory.

On the shop floor, the foreman’s word was law, and Mandelbaum had convinced himself that he was entitled to cop a feel at least twice a day. He’d sneak up behind Belle as she sat hunkered over the Singer, her foot furiously pressing on the pedal, pushing the machine to sew at ever-faster speeds. She never knew when he would pounce, so all she could do to defend herself was to mutter under her breath as she tore at the coarse black thread attached to the whirling bobbin. When Mandelbaum would reach down with his huge fist for a fast hard squeeze under the fabric of her apron, she would yell “Get out, get away,” above the clamour of the machines, but he would pay her no mind. Wasn’t she asking for it with her cherry red lipstick and her black patent shoes?

The other operators wouldn’t bother to look up from their piecework whenever the chief cutter rushed toward Belle’s station to intervene. During the day, Harry Vine was the most accomplished cutter in the garment industry, but at night everyone in the shop knew he was organizing for the Ladies International Garment Union. Harry was a pint-sized man, slight and boney, with dreamy grey eyes that sparkled when he was making speeches about how swell life was in the Soviet Union. The girls thought highly of Vine even though he lowered himself to implore Belle to launch a formal legal complaint against the foreman. After all, what made her so special?

“There are laws in this country,” Harry would claim, shaking his fist at the dust-choked ceiling of the factory. The seamstresses suspected that Harry and Belle were an item although Belle pretended that he meant nothing to her.

Tonight, when Belle pulled the vinyl cover over the Singer, she wondered how Schwartz or Mandelbaum, or even the girls on the factory floor, could know that her world was coming to an end.

 

As Belle rushed from the coat factory and onto Spadina Avenue that spring night in Toronto in 1946, she didn’t even smile as old man Schwartz raised high a stylish crimson dress for her approval. What did it matter if Harry was pushing her to lodge a grievance against the foreman? Who would listen now anyway? With the short, stocky cipher clerk from the Russian embassy convincing the government that Vine and the comrades were spies, Belle had more important things on her mind than Mandelbaum and his beefy, intrusive hands.

Tonight she would not linger by the greengrocer, or the bakery, or Schwartz’s dress shop. Instead she broke into a run as she turned the corner at Baldwin Street, heading straight home to the family’s flat above Annie’s Kosher poultry store. There, the white curtains were drawn across the display window, which was a bad sign, and the screen door that kept the flies off the chicken scraps of necks and gizzards was latched, which was an even worse sign. Skirting the heaps of refuse, Belle circled round the side of the building, down to the darkened alley between the jerrybuilt garages, and toward the rear of the shop.

On the back verandah, Annie and the comrades were playing pinochle, counting the cards in Yiddish, sounding tremendously glum. Harry, too, was in attendance, fidgeting in his chair. The situation was worse than imagined if her mother was dealing out cards before nine at night, before the cutting boards and butcher knives had been bleached. Even worse, if her father, Joe, the high-flying gambler, wasn’t even dabbling at the makeshift gaming table with the amateurs, chuckling at their blunders. Instead, he sipped a glass of tea while propping up his forlorn face with one splendid, manicured hand. A sugar cube was clamped between his teeth, in the old European fashion, to give the weak amber liquid a pleasant taste. They looked alike, Joe and Belle: dark, exotic and with the electric charge of reckless, demanding hearts emanating from them both.

“C’m here, gorgeous,” Joe said to his favourite child when he spotted her. “Take a load off.” His paternal advice to her was always to quit her job sewing buttons on wool coats in the factory, but Annie forbid it. She claimed they depended upon Belle’s wages for the family’s nest egg, just in case something catastrophic happened. For instance, if they needed to disappear, at night, without warning. Annie’s life was spent waiting for the three a.m. knock at the door.

It’s true that, by the end of the war, Annie and the pinochle players couldn’t believe their luck, that their arms were clear of tattooed numbers. But Annie never let her guard down. The few refugees whom the little group had met, those who’d managed to sneak into Canada since the fighting ended, were ashamed of the numbers burned into their forearms. For the most part, these refugees wished to live quietly, but the ones brave enough to attend Party meetings were astonished that they’d survived. The card players never spoke openly about their own good fortune. The chance of a Jew born in Poland or Hungary or Russia, sipping tea on Annie’s verandah in 1946, was a miracle. More often than not, they pinched the soft flesh of their arms to make sure they were alive.

Usually in her father’s arms, Belle felt safe. But tonight was different. Instead of planting a kiss on her fulsome cheek, Joe buried his face in her black curls.

“They’re all waiting for the lawyer Cohen to return from Ottawa. Look at them,” Joe said derisively. “They think Cohen will get them off the hook.” He had no time for what he regarded as amateur folly.

“Do you think Harry will be arrested?” she murmured to her father, softly, in Yiddish.

“And why not, why not him? He’s the ringleader.” Joe glanced over at the pinochle players, including his own wife, Annie, who was too exhausted from standing in the shop for fourteen hours selling chickens to acknowledge her daughter’s arrival.

Joe lit a cigarillo. “Bastard,” he said to no one in particular. Belle wasn’t certain if he meant Igor Gouzenko, the tattle-telling Russian cipher clerk who’d caused the trouble, or Harry. Gouzenko decoded the Canadian operatives’ missives passing through the embassy in Ottawa.

“Shhaa!” Annie spoke harshly. “Quiet!”

Joe, who gambled with the meager profits she earned in the chicken store, grew silent. They hadn’t spoken civilly to each other in years.

“What about Uncle Fred? He’s a member of Parliament.” Belle was proud of her uncle, the first Communist elected to sit in the House of Commons. She often bragged about him to the girls at the factory.

Now the Canadian government was accusing him, and fourteen others, including three women, of spying for the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. Gouzenko, who wore a bag over his head when he posed for press photos, had offered them up as spies to the Mounties. And for free.

“We’re waiting for Cohen to wire us tonight,” Harry said over the chatter of the card players. Vine had worked on Uncle Fred’s election campaign in Montreal, so it was he who’d sought out J.L. Cohen, the people’s lawyer, to defend him. “If anyone can get Fred Rose off, it’s Cohen. He’s one of us!”

Belle could not comprehend why, for days, Uncle Fred had been holed up in his office on the sixth floor of the House of Commons, directly under the clock tower on Parliament Hill. Yesterday night on the radio that was always blaring in Annie’s shop, she’d heard the newsman describing the scene in Ottawa: the Mounties circling the office, with Uncle Fred and the lawyer barricaded inside, refusing to budge. But Uncle Fred was innocent. They all were! Why not face the music, come clean in court to an impartial judge, and be set free?

Early this morning, Belle had listened to how the local Cossacks had schlepped Uncle Fred, kicking and screaming from his office, handcuffed him and accused him of being a traitor to Canada, of breaking the Official Secrets Act and of spying for a foreign power. Fred was accused of providing the Soviets with military intelligence that endangered the security of all Canadians, quite possibly the entire western world.

“I thought the Russians were our best friends, and sharing secrets is what friends do,” Belle remarked sadly.

Joe whispered in his daughter’s ear: “No more they aren’t. Your boyfriend, Harry Vine, lives in a dream world.”

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Suddenly, springing up from his seat at the card table, Harry demanded: “What does it mean to be a Jew?”

Belle heard her father sigh. Harry was going to launch into one of his speeches. While Annie wished that Harry would soon ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage, Belle knew her father thought her suitor was a troublemaker and worried that Harry wouldn’t put her first, before the Party.

Tsores,” replied Annie. “Trouble.”

Harry ignored her. “To be a Jew is to be on the wrong side of the law. Or the wrong side of the border. What else?”

No one said anything. “What else” meant listening to the stories of the American soldiers who entered the camps as the few remaining inmates struggled to survive for one more day. “What else” meant the knot they felt at the pit of their stomachs as more news filtered through to Canada, each day announcing that their Landsmen in the old country lay buried in mass graves.

“Sit down, Vine,” Joe pleaded. “Enough! We’ve heard all this before. If they throw Rose in jail, you’ll be next.”

But it was never enough for Harry. He’d spent his entire life betting that the Party would transform the world and, most importantly, the plight of the forsaken Jews scampering across the globe. “If we don’t draw a line right here, now, they’ll throw Fred in jail. Our chance to make Canada a Communist country, a true ally of the Soviet Union, will be lost.”

“Good! Let it be over.” The tall man at the gaming table, the one with the shock of white hair, rose to speak. He towered over Vine. “Stalin threw Trotsky out of the Party, out of Russia, but Comrade Trotsky understands that permanent international revolution will free us, free the Yids. It is Stalin who is the counter revolutionary, not Trotsky.” Charlie, like Belle’s father, didn’t work for a living. Instead of hawking gumdrops, licorice and toffee apples from a pushcart in the market, he concentrated on studying military tactics in a carrel at the public library.

Belle couldn’t tolerate the expression of defeat on Harry’s face as Charlie spoke of Stalin as a villain, a traitor to every ideal the card players held dear. How could she pretend it was not true?

Impetuously, she rushed to his side and lay her hand on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered in his ear. “The Jews are dead all across Europe. If Hitler didn’t murder them, Stalin finished the job.”

Vine raised his arm to strike her with the back of his hand. It was inches from Belle’s face, but Joe was quicker than he was. “Touch a hair on her head and I’ll kill you,” Joe said, surging toward him.

Harry scurried off to hide in the shadows of the deserted alleyway. Yesterday he’d admitted to Belle that no one at the Soviet embassy was able to tell him where his chum the captain in the Red Army had gone or in what gulag his buddy the Yiddish poet had perished from hard labour and starvation. When the others heard Harry begin to whimper, they all understood that Fred Rose would be found guilty and sentenced to prison, and that there was a chance each one of them would end up there, too. Or shipped back to Poland. In one way or another, they’d all been in on it.

At that moment, just as Annie rose to calm her daughter, there was a knock at the front door of the shop. “This is it!” Annie said, standing in front of Belle as if to protect her from violent intruders.

“Don’t answer,” Uncle Charlie recommended. “Together we’re stronger than all the Nazis in Ottawa. Bolt the door, comrades!”

But they were expecting the telegram from Cohen that would seal their fate. Instead of the messenger boy, it was J.L. Cohen himself. He burst onto the back verandah, shoving Belle out of his way. He slammed his briefcase, overflowing with legal briefs and newspapers, down on the card table. His fedora was at a rakish angle, but his silk tie was crooked, his pinstriped shirt stained and his black leather shoes looked as if he’d sprinted from Ottawa to Toronto that night.

“Nu? They let Fred go?” Harry called out from the alley. “Tell me you got him off!”

“Where are you, Vine?” Cohen peered into the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by the overhead bulb hanging from the ceiling of the verandah. “What the hell’s going on here?”

The card players remained silent. From the corner of Belle’s eye, she noticed Mandelbaum, the foreman, lingering on his stoop next to the shop. He was chuckling to himself while waiting for Vine to emerge from the darkness. Belle understood that the foreman was biding his time, waiting to corner Harry in the alleyway when he was alone. This was his opportunity to knock her boyfriend from here to kingdom come.

“Fred is locked up in the army barracks outside Ottawa,” Cohen reported. “Thirteen of our comrades are with him. The bastards suspended habeas corpus and arrested them under the Wartime Official Secrets Act.”

“The war is over,” Joe said.

“Not for us, never for us.”

“With what criminal charges?” Harry asked plaintively, returning from the shadows. “The information we sent to the Soviets by coded message was useless. I copied it straight from the front page of the newspaper.”

“That’s the whole point, Vine. Spying is spying.” Cohen mopped his brow before sitting down on the stoop. “No criminal charges. They’re keeping our people behind bars for however long they wish. No visitors. No legal counsel. They’re going to appoint a royal commission to decide their fate.”

The card players looked stunned. “You mean they can’t defend themselves in a Canadian court of law, with a jury?” Annie asked, the fear crackling in her voice, like a pistol going off accidently in a soldiers’ bunker.

“No jury. It’s rigged before it starts. Fred Rose is dead.” Cohen spread open a copy of that morning’s Washington Post: “Red Spies in Canada Sought U.S. Defense Plans.”

Harry stepped into the light of the porch, but Annie stopped him as he opened his mouth. “No more, tonight. Genug iz genug,” she said.

Harry shook his head as if to clear it. He turned toward Belle. “Come for a walk with me,” he said.

“Forget about politics,” said Joe. “Come with me. Fred Rose can fend for himself. There’s a beautiful filly running in the fifth at Woodbine.”

Belle looked at them both. Harry had never actually done anything to keep the foreman Mandelbaum’s groping hands away from her. And here was her father, in the prime of life, with a bounce in his step, while Annie, who was the exact same age, looked more like his mother than his wife. If Belle sided with either Harry or her father, she knew that she would wind up like Annie, perpetually exhausted and frightened.

Belle slipped away from the pinochle players, making certain not to trip over Cohen, now sprawled out over the steps. She did not bother responding to Harry or even her father. Instead, she grabbed her black patent handbag and walked uptown to Bloor, where the war was over and a good-looking girl like her, in a red dress, might make a splash before anyone figured out who she really was, and where she came from.


Rabindranath Maharaj read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Joyce Wayne’s author profile.
Sandy von Kaldenberg