Mystery

These letters from Penny—warm, loving, open, passionate, even erotic—would lead the average reader to expect she would run down the gangplank into my arms and shower me with hugs and kisses. Because it was the culmination of months of hoping, wishing and planning, I certainly did.

For example, her letter from April 14, 1964 had this, “Lots of love to Huggy Bear and George too and Grhh! Keep your arms outstretched and waiting. It won’t be long now and I’ll be in them again.” Lovely, loving, and typical of all the April letters.

Instead, the very first words she said to me were “Frank, I don’t want to live with you.”

I was shocked. I was more than shocked. If a meteor had screamed out of the sky and struck the deck in front of me, I couldn’t have been more surprised.

Why had she made all those promises? Why had she met my family, why had she seemed excited on leaving, why had she accepted a $600 wedding present from her father [$4,939.00 in 2018 Canadian dollars]? Why had she even come to England?

This mystery has since been overshadowed by the amazement I felt when Martha Croome, her girlfriend from school, told me, much later: “Well, you know Penny had an affair with Hugh Lawson in Vancouver, then in London and later in Toronto.” That announcement was, to me, like a nuclear bomb, but it didn’t, and doesn’t, explain this incident in Avonmouth, the port of Bristol.

Penny had spent months talking over wedding plans with her friend Mary, she had spent a week accepting congratulations on her wedding from her family and my family in Toronto, and she had left “excited” at marrying me in the eyes of a witness.

What had happened, indeed, what could happen to completely destroy these feelings on a 9-day ocean voyage, on a ship with only 15 passengers? I talked this over with my wife. “I  don’t think they even had cablegrams on freighters in 1964,” I said. “and anyway, what could you put in a cable that would derail a soon-to-be bride?” She came up with a different idea; “Maybe Hugh was on the ship.”

Hugh Lawson certainly had the money to finance a two-week holiday. His mistress was going to be alone among strangers for more than a week. Why not fly to Montreal and get passage on the same boat (the Saguenay Terminals ‘Sunprincess’).

This idea—however bizarre—exactly fits the two events I can document: the happy departure and the unhappy arrival. The real question is, was it planned, or was it a surprise?  If a surprise, Penny could hardly have done anything about it, and Hugh would have had more than a week to work his magic on her.

If it was planned, they would have arrived at the Port of Montreal independently, Penny by train, Hugh by aircraft. They would have boarded and taken their luggage to different cabins. And then they would have met in the common lounge. To the other passengers they would be attractive strangers. To them, the whole trip would have been like a honeymoon between the sheets. The only problem would be the boyfriend waiting on the dock.

Both these ideas are pretty flimsy, I admit, but the original question remains. We have marriage plans turned inside out for no apparent reason.

I don’t think Penny was crying when she made her announcement, but she was emotional. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she seemed upset. Minutes later, on the platform of the Bristol railway station, we argued about our destination, London or Romford. Since I had never met Hugh, never seen his picture, he could have been mere feet away on the boat and again as we boarded the train. If Penny were actually, physically, between her fiancée and her lover, she certainly would have acted exactly as she did – like an emotional basket case.

And, of course, if Hugh had subsequently visited the London office of Dominion Securities, there were ample opportunities to squire Penny off to a smart hotel to continue their affair. This again, would account for her on-again, off-again relationship with me that Fall.

All of which takes one back to the letters, especially the ones written on May 11 and May 16 and mailed, presumably by Maureen, from Port Carling on May 18.  Can you see anyone, no matter how skilled, pulling off a stunt like this? I don’t mean the physical arrangements, I mean the emotional letters, the phone calls to me, the talks with her girlfriend, the meeting with her father and stepmother, the meeting with my parents, even my uncle and aunt? No. That body of evidence hangs together like a woven tapestry. Penny is going to England to marry her intended, Frank Hilliard.

Nor can you deny my direct evidence of our meeting, or her subsequent letter to Mary which shows a turn of events that even her girlfriend can’t understand.

Like I said, it’s a mystery, and all good mystery stories have a solution and an ending. I’d just like to know what it was.


Since this page was created, a new document has shown up written just six months later on New Year’s Eve. It’s a kind of year-in-review statement typed by me, for Penny, at my work on three-part paper. Here’s what it says specifically about our meeting in Avonmouth:

Then you came. The fantastic scene with me tired beyond belief by a night’s loss of sleep and excitement from months of waiting and you jaded, peaked on mixed-up emotions, feeling that perhaps this man who had done nothing for so long was the man to marry–but not yet, not now and not that way.

Rather poetic, but not all that helpful in understanding Penny’s motivation. Let’s try and do that now. Here’s a three-page discussion on Motivation.