When Hurricane Hazel tore through Toronto on October 15, 1954, it left its mark on both the city and its inhabitants. In the aftermath, a young cop named Ray Townes emerges as a heronumerous accounts detail the way he battled the raging Humber River to save those trapped in their homesand his story is featured prominently in the newspapers, thrusting him into the spotlight as a local celebrity. Meanwhile, his wife Mary is wrestling with doubts about her husband’s heroism. While performing her own miracles the night of the storm as a nurse at a mud-filled, overcrowded emergency room, Mary met a womandisoriented and near deathwith a disturbingly peculiar recollection of events. While Mary tries to shake her suspicions about Ray as they rebuild their life in the shell-shocked city, she can't help but wonder about her husband and that fateful night. When a reporter comes knocking 50 years later to revisit that horrendous night, the truth begins to surface and threatens to destroy them.close this panel
In the beginning there was only darkness and heavy rain. Sudden black waters that ruffled and swarmed like a plague over the roads and fields, poured like Guinness into abandoned stairwells. Downtown, at the intersection of King Street and Spadina Avenue, a young man in hitched–up plus–fours tried fording one of the deepest sections of road on his bicycle. The wheels slid out from under him and he disappeared, then rose again sputtering and indignant. Cop or not, I laughed along with the sodden crowd. Two unshaven men carrying a spineless mattress from one building to its neighbour had it ripped from their arms by the current. One of them, a showy and well–muscled lad, dove in theatrically and performed three or four impressive freestyle strokes before standing again, suddenly waist deep. He flopped aboard the ruined springs and feigned exhaustion. Bravo! I thought. Bravo!
No one took any of this splashy weather very seriously, even though there were reports of similar scenes all over the city. The cbc’s meteorologist reported matter–of–factly on the radio that a hurricane was blowing itself out over the Appalachians. His confident forecast was for a little more rain that evening, then drying out after midnight. But the sky was fierce with fat, scudding armies of cloud. And at the lake, a debris–laden surf was beginning to wash in. There were logs and curled roofing shingles, wretched baby toys with broken or missing limbs, dislocated umbrellas and battered hubcaps; a buckled American stop sign.
Commuters were clutching at lampposts and hats, yanking overcoats tight and yelling to each other quite cheerfully, almost proudly, that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen a rain like this. The buses were packed and glowed like lanterns. Their drivers honked at the more timid drivers to give way. If it stopped soon, I thought, then there wouldn’t be much of a problem (though I had seen a few refugees evacuating basements already, clutching their record albums and a favourite pair of shoes, or a squirming, terrified cat), but another hour or two and it would lose its comic edge.
Worst was the traffic. Motorcycle cops were attempting to guide drivers towards the shallowest sections of road. A couple of detours had been established. A drunken crowd that had gathered on the roof of the Gladstone Hotel on Queen Street had taken to lobbing beer bottles into the rising sea. The fact that instead of smashing they simply bobbed west seemed to strike them as miraculous. One idiot was scrawling messages on paper napkins and stuffing these inside the Molson’s bottles, as if he had been stranded in this overrun cattle town long ago and had finally sensed the possibility of rescue.
When I found a moment I telephoned home to tell Mary that I wouldn’t arrive until later, when things calmed down. She was disappointed — she had wanted us to spend the evening together, packing. We’d planned a trip to Niagara Falls. She whispered (as if she might be overheard) that she pictured us in bed together tonight, riding out the storm, if I got her drift, and so I told her about the boy on the mattress.
“Do you think we’ll still be able to go away?” she asked me.
“You said the Queensway was flooding.”
“We’ll drive around it,” I said. “Or we’ll rent a boat.” I was feeling strong, cocky even. But I was a respected policeman with a pregnant wife, and that struck me right then as the epitome of good citizenship. Everything about my predicament felt crystalline and pure. It was just the adrenalin kicking in, I suppose.
I told Mary I loved her and her throttled little gasp excited me. I would have to do that more often. But then, feeling suddenly delinquent in my duty, somehow adrift, I said only, “Mare, I have to go.”
“Go! Go!” she commanded, and I felt oddly as if I was being ordered once more out of an Italian trench and across exposed muddy fields towards tangles of barbed wire. And I also felt, with an unsettling certainty, and with the wet telephone still in my hand, that I was about to die.
The reporter — a lovely young Chinese woman, Katie something — was bored, I think. She had talked herself into our home but now she wanted none of this florid indulgence; it was unusable. At best she would reduce it to a dozen melodramatic words: Fifty years ago today, Detective Ray Ignacius Townes spoke briefly to his wife before the full force of the hurricane struck Toronto. He had time only to tell her that he loved her…. What she really wanted from me were the so–called heroics. She had a deadline (and perhaps a dinner date), and her appetite for the story’s peripheral details was limited. The day after tomorrow something else would demand her attention. A killing at the Eaton Centre. A police strike. Tuberculosis in the shelters. Any of the sordid thrills Toronto routinely offers. Quite reasonably she might have been thinking that I should understand those things, that I should help her.
And it really was a dreary retelling. I’ve done it much better elsewhere. At cocktail parties and at the occasional speaking engagement arranged by the public library. Every few years a relative of one of the deceased will track me down with questions and I’ll try to tell them what they want to hear. And even now, hours later, lying here in my own bedroom with my notebook pressed against my knees, my heart isn’t in it. I’ve given up on my plan of repeating everything I said to Miss Katie Whatsherface. Mary crept away up the stairs an hour ago. I heard her pull a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and take it with her. I have driven her to drink. Saying goodbye, Katie kissed my cheek (a social nicety, that’s all it was, but a flyaway strand of her hair was for an instant, I swear, inside my mouth). Once she was gone, Mary began to shake. At our age such a rage is alarming, seems freighted with risk. I can imagine all too readily an aneurysm, blood flooding her brain, or her heart clenching too tightly around her disappointment. Her eyes did pool with tears but words were beyond her. She kicked lightly at my oxygen tank to make sure it was full and that its hoses were attached properly to the valves, and then she sniffed away. She has shrunk in recent years, become shorter, and in a long–ago moment of levity I even suggested we scratch a set of lines into the wall, begin an ironic measure of our annual decline. And as she passed into the kitchen tonight (though it might have been an illusion, I suppose, some trick of perspective) I don’t think she reached much above the halfway point.
Dinner arrived late and stone cold. She had eaten alone presumably, wondering whether to starve me altogether. I think it entirely possible I will die before we are civil with each other again.
And I do understand her anger. That hurricane changed everything. It put our house under a cloud and caused a permanent turbulence to clatter through its rooms. Mary only knows half of it and that’s apparently more than enough for her to never forgive me. She should have, but she didn’t. And as a result we have wasted much of the rest of our lives. Why in God’s name did she stay with me? Was it the memory of love? The faint hope it can be rekindled?
Mark Sinnett is the author of The Border Guards, Bull, The Landing, and Some Late Adventure of the Feelings. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.close this panel
"Sinnett keeps the pages turning with many twists and turns, while peppering the text with nice turns of phrase. . . . Sinnett's meticulous research captures what the sights, sounds and smells of 1954 Toronto might have been like. . . . This book is for those who want thoughtful prose and fallible characters with their plot. . . . A reader of any age will find lots of action in The Carnivore on which to gnaw." GlobeandMail.com
"I just couldn’t get enough . . . Sinnett creates such a vivid and honest picture of Ray and Mary’s world that reading the book feels something like looking over their shoulders during the course of their relationship."
The Keepin' It Real Book Club (blog)
"Weds the pinprick domestic intimacy of Alice Munro with the flop-sweat extra-marital intrigue of James M. Cain." Toronto Star
"A cleverly constructed and evocatively written novel." Booklist Online
"Mark Sinnett could not have invented a more Canadian, more Ontario, more Toronto setting for his remarkable novel." Literary Review of Canada
"One of those rare literate books that cares enough about the reader to provide a plot . . . Sinnett has made an original, terrifying portrait of Toronto's soul." Eye Weeklyclose this panel