6 min

Waterboys, friends and other acts of self-preservation

The personal motivations of Waterboys writer Robert Gray

Credit: Xtra West files

Finishing a work and looking back I sometimes can see more clearly the marble roots that colour me as a writer, my peculiar style or way of seeing the world. It’s not always a pleasant moment. About halfway through the Waterboys series, a close friend said, “It’s not about us at all, it’s all about you.” Now, make no bones about it, that friend is a bastard, but he’s also right of course.

The only way I could know Waterboys was through the peculiar way I saw the world. And now that I think about it, I think this perspective was wrought from a short list of three memories. Though only one is mine entirely. I come from a family of fabulists. Nothing small ever happens.

Three memories, and the first has as much to do with the place as the story. I grew up in a fishing village on the northwest coast of BC. Worse and better, I grew up in a trailer park in a fishing village on the northwest coast of BC. I lived where the white trash puts their trash. Where the trailer park ended was a pile of big granite chunks and behind those chunks was a swamp and then the rainforest and some lesser form of oblivion. There were often bear traps on that last road of the trailer park because there were often bears. I don’t remember the traps working, except to catch our white poodle, Scamp. They caught Scamp so often that the wardens threatened to relocate her. If it had been later in life I would have opted for relocation myself, but I was only eight or nine at the time of this story.

The thing you need to know about living in a place where it rains most of the days out of the year is that there are, statistically speaking, more rainbows. And the thing you need to know about lesser oblivion (as a place) is that the indigenous tribes have a myth of Dzunuk’wa, the wild woman of the forest who collects children that stray from the village in a basket on her head and then later eats them. Whether truly a spirit or not, she performs a community service, baby-sits through fear so children don’t stray off into the woods where, spirit or not, they would die from the elements or the wildlife.

One afternoon, eight of us were playing on a porch in that last line of trailers. We played elaborate pretend games since most of us didn’t have TV or toys. We were playing school boat and now that I think of it that sounds incredibly boring. The leaders of the games, whether Cory, Holly or myself, were always the kids with the biggest imaginations, the ones who create a sea where there was a gravel driveway, a boat from a porch, and make the whole idea of a school boat sound more exciting that I am able to here.

So that afternoon, I saw the rainbow that shot over the trailer park and ended somewhere in the swamp. And when you’re the one with the richer imagination, the ability to make stories rise from the gravel driveway and seep from the aluminum trailer walls, then you say with conviction that there is gold at the end of the rainbow, and you make eight other children look into the open hands in their little laps and imagine what riches they could hold. You say, “Can you imagine what we could do. We could buy our own real houseboat.”

I think you can imagine how this ends. How, it turns out, I was the opposite of Dzunuk’wa. I was a trailer park Pied Piper as I led the eight other kids up into the swamp and, in my defence, we made it a good way into the trees, moss, and muskeg before the children were up to their knees sinking and some of them began to cry. “We’re going to buy our own school boat” was quickly replaced with “we’re going to die,” each lacking any grounding in reality.

Luckily, Cory’s mother grew tired of wondering where all the good men were and suddenly wondered why her screeching kids were not screeching anymore. She came after us into the swamp and, just as the other kids sank deeper, unable to go further, she was upon us.

To this day, any story I tell inevitably has its moment in the swamp, when I look out over the faces who want to believe and I find myself wondering what was so good about a school boat that we all wanted one. Then, I ran off, bolted perpendicular through the trees toward home and left them to Cory’s mother to rescue. Now, I more or less try not to abandon the story at that point. More or less.

The second formative memory was much earlier, when I was about four, in Smithers in north central BC, when my entire family was driving in a very large truck through the woods at night. The events are a little vague to me, but I do know that a moose crossed the road in front of the truck beams and headed into the woods, and that my father thought it would be a good idea to follow with his gun.

As we sat waiting for either the moose or my father to return, my grandfather discovered a wounded loon near the roadside. My grandfather was a crazy brilliant man, the sort of man who thinks the way to calm down a wounded loon is to dance like a wounded loon. It must have worked because he managed to capture the loon.

The loon ended up at a sanctuary while the moose ended up on the floor of my father’s garage. That night, I was sent out to say goodnight to my father. I peeked through the garage door, slack on its hinges. My father, who was a butcher, had operated on the moose but it didn’t look good. I don’t remember hugging him. Wild creatures smell different than anything else. Until this day I can smell when there’s something wild nearby. In the woods on that night two men taught me the kind of man I wanted to be. And what kind of writer. Whatever is happening in the woods, I want to write about the man and the loon dancing in the headlights, not the smell of blood on the garage floor.

And the last memory is not my own, it’s my mother’s. When I was three and she was bursting belly with my brother, we visited friends of hers at Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island. All the kids were playing outside where kids belong, in a ravine beside the house, the mothers laughing inside. And that would have been a perfect arrangement for a Sunday afternoon if the cougar hadn’t come out of the trees. Details came later as the story’s been told over and over. It was a young cougar, only a year or so old, so kid meat was new to it, though obviously kid meat moved quick enough and made a lot of noise, which to most cats in the world is all you can ask for. I was the youngest of the kids playing house in the ravine, so I was in the highchair and unable to move when the cougar came out of the trees. So I was left behind.

I try to imagine what it was like to be my mother during this, bursting at the seams, sitting with friends, a part of her always preoccupied and worried about her overly quiet child, the way he just blinked at her all the time, the child that always felt heavier than he should have. The moment when the other children came screaming into the house yelling “lion!” which was just before the moment she realized I wasn’t there screaming with them. Only my mother and the woman who ran the house ran out into the bright afternoon to face the cougar.

To this day that woman, my mother’s friend, is my example of a good hostess. If wild animals attempt to eat your guest’s children, confront the animal with your guest. When they reached the edge of the ravine, I was still in the highchair, and the cougar was about three feet from me. It had been closer before my mother arrived because I kept repeating, “It snuffed me.” My mother and the other mother searched for something that they could throw, but there was nothing. And my pregnant mother contemplated throwing herself and my unborn brother onto the cougar to save me.

I would like to think I was afraid, terrified. But if history has proven anything it’s proven that I have a woeful lack of sense of threat or harm. I have been hit by trucks and hung off the front grill staring perturbed at the driver. I have accidentally fallen into the ocean and sunk quickly to the bottom. I have fallen for the wrong boys with regular and reliable timing. I am the least likely person to save me. Yet, for me what was the defining moment, as the cougar stared at me like a dessert on a dessert cart, was that I looked back at my mother wearing a T-shirt that neither woman could take their eyes off. It said, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

A rainbow, a swamp, a moose, a loon, a cougar and an appetizer. Waterboys wasn’t about me, it was about a group of guys who would have followed me into the swamp, would have danced with the loon, who would have thrown themselves on the cougar to save me, though certainly paused to laugh first.

In stories, I believe it is the flaw, the very thing that makes us a possible statistic, that is the thing most likely quality to get us through. And survival, like happiness, is absurd, but I’ll take it when it comes. And I’ll write about it as much as I can.


Aug 20. 8 pm.

Crush Lounge.1180 Granville St.

Readings, special guests, prizes.

Everyone welcome.