Opinion Column

Down the Hatch: A Confusing Quest Re-explored

By Patricia Anne Elford

What’s your hidden room?

There it was again, flickering through my mind—that room. The memory simply wouldn’t disappear. Was it a dream? No. I wasn’t alone. Someone else’s curiosity had led him to that strange entrance to adventure first. (And no, neither of us was on drugs!)

It was somewhere in a south-side block of Pembroke’s West Street’s old brick buildings. A storefront had been rented for use as a campaign office. Once, perhaps twice, that site had held a women’s clothing store. At one point, when there were no visitors requesting campaign buttons or brochures, and the phone was quiet, DJ had wandered off. He’d made a discovery. He shared it with me when our office shift was over.

To the back and up to another level we went. Covered by the same carpeting as the floor, stood what appeared to be a raised platform, probably about 58 cm high by 213 cm long by 142 cm wide. Perhaps, at one time, a mannequin in flowing gown had stood upon it. DJ’s keen eyes had noted hinges and fastener. He’d opened it. The stand hid a set of wooden stairs leading down. He’d immediately named it the Corpse Hatch, similar to a mystery story’s warehouse device that was used to dispose of bodies into a harbour. No fuss. No muss. Just a quiet splash. This door did not, however, lead to water. Unidentified shapes stood in the darkness on either side of our dusty path.

As we explored further, we passed empty apartments, opened up to the view. Then, at some point in our adventure—further east within that building or the next—hard to tell, we found “the room”.

In the midst of the echoing emptiness was a dim workshop! Heavy wooden workbenches were cluttered with equipment and tools. Open containers of indistinct metal bits and pieces were stacked along the back of the benches. Cobwebs and dust indicated the workshop had not been used for some time. Greyed, small-paned windows, such as in a factory, invited a peek. The shop seemed to be situated part way up the building’s height, facing a courtyard or, perhaps, an old between-buildings carriage drive, with no obvious outside entrance.

Now that we’d discovered usable, probably removable, articles, we became aware of our circumstances. Words like “forgive us our trespasses” and “jail” leaped into my mind. Touching nothing, we quickly closed the unlocked door and sped out of that grimy hidden world, back to the less puzzling reality of 2011.

The memory of the hidden “Body Hatch” and the workshop continued to haunt me. Why a hidden stairway? Why an equipped workshop tucked away in a building, not obviously on the main floor? Had it much earlier been used to repair equipment for horses and carriages?—then the first floor would have been more practical. We hadn’t stayed around long enough to determine just what kind of tools and equipment were there. I’ve a vague memory of small motors. There appeared to have been items awaiting repairs. Time in that room had stopped abruptly. Had its occupant suddenly suffered a heart attack and never returned? Why hadn’t the equipment and items been claimed, removed or sold? It was, as the movie’s King of Siam would have said, “a puzzlement”.

Last month, the memory growing dim, I made a much-delayed attempt to rediscover the room. I wanted to write about it and its history. A compassionate real estate person met

me at 9 a.m. to take me through a Pembroke Street West building. (I know now where I’ll go if we have to sell our house!) The building had once housed a women’s clothing store I’d thought might be my target. There was the similar set-up of stores at the front, apartments upstairs, but no platform and no workshop.

“No”, DJ, interrupted when I reported in, later. “That office wasn’t on a corner! It was between other storefronts.” He was right. Again, too late, I Googled some elderly election news and discovered exactly where the office had been in 2011.

I visited the correct address. The business owners now there and on either side, had no access to the rest of the building, only an individual back exit. I climbed wide stairs from an elaborate front entrance a little further east on Pembroke St. W. On the shiny remodeled second floor, there was a bright, open hall, lined with new businesses or accommodations. I spoke to a man who appeared to be a photographer. The building had been, and was, in the process of being, completely revamped. This new tenant wasn’t aware of any workshop or hidden staircase. The only possibility he could suggest was a small door under the stairs I’d climbed from the front. It apparently led to a warren of rooms in a basement. Workmen were continuing their labours there but had yet to discover a room such as I described to them, there or half a level up.

The biggest amount of renovation seemed to have occurred at a ground-floor restaurant that had expanded considerably. More and more evidence indicates that this was probably where the workshop was. A back view reveals that windows in that part of the building have been bricked, boarded over and/or replaced by those which are smaller, more modern.

I’ve emailed both the Pembroke Historical Society and a gentleman who seems to be known as Pembroke’s go-to man for Pembroke’s history, but, so far, have had no response.

I visited the building’s property manager, but she, too, was unaware of what had been there before work had begun. It seems I was about six months too late!

Have you ever had an intention, a dream, a plan, something you thought you really cared about, that you’ve kept setting aside?—or a person you kept meaning to write to, visit, or call? You never did it. Then, an obituary, or phone call, twists the knife—too late! “They” say, “The way to hell is paved with good intentions.” The hell I see for that is here—living with the weight of regrets for failure to act.

Have you had a plan, a project, that has filled your dreams but not your actions, until, one day, you’ve realized you’re no longer able to fulfil it? Life is not over, but the time, the physical ability, the money, the opportunity, has gone forever.

New Year’s is the traditional, if artificial, time for resolutions, for grasping new opportunities, for planning to eliminate bad life habits such as procrastination or workaholism, both equally harmful for us and the persons around us.

The loss of that mysterious workshop will nag at me periodically. I’d love to solve it, but failure to do so won’t kill me.

We’ve one life to live. It’s a wonderful gift. We’ve thinking and evaluating and loving to do. Without being driven about it, with God’s help, I’m now making every new day a new year’s day—a day to refocus on what’s really important to me and acting on it,

especially when that “acting” means being still, listening for God’s direction. What about you? God bless you and grant you a meaningful new year! 

Patricia Anne Elford is a member of the Observer's Community Editorial Board.

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