I had been in Canada for some ten days, I had very little money, I was only 18, but I did have a job starting the following Monday. But where could I stay?
It was the result of a phone call to my dear friends, George and Eileen Darragh, that my dilemma was solved, at least temporarily. They had just recently moved into a small one-bedroom apartment at the corner of Keele and Lawrence, had few financial resources themselves, and welcomed the pittance that I could offer, in return for my sleeping in the corner of their living room and an occasional evening meal. And as it turned out, George worked only two blocks away from my new employer, so we travelled in each morning by bus to Yonge Street, and then by metro into the city, a journey of about an hour.
The office of Helyar, Vermeulen, Rae & Maughan (HVR&M) was on the seventh floor of an old building at the corner of Bay & Richmond. One could tell that the building was ancient by the elevator, with its sliding mesh doors and which could only be operated by an attendant, day or night. Across Bay Street was the huge multi-storey Simpson’s department store, occupying an entire city block.
When I joined HVR&M, there were only three employees – an Australian receptionist (Janice), an English bookkeeper (I can’t remember her name), and an English quantity surveyor, Peter Pedrette. Soon after, we were joined by another Englishman – Jack Brown, and a rather shy little Jamaican – Leroy, who rarely ever spoke.
Peter was 36 when I first knew him and he had only recently arrived in Canada, with his wife, Barbara. He had spent some years working in Kuwait and it was there that he met Barbara, a school teacher. They were both devout Catholics and not long married. Their first child was due later that year. They were devoted to each other and they always addressed each other as ‘Darling’. They were well-educated and well-spoken. I developed a great respect for them.
It was Peter who fuelled my nascent interest in equity investment by talking of shares he was considering buying. One lunch hour we went to the Toronto Stock Exchange and I was fascinated to see how the trading worked in the cacophony of noise, with traders shouting their offers and communicating with their team by hand signals. And the tickertape of deals, moving relentlessly across the screens. I was well and truly hooked and I spent many evenings in the city library, around the corner from the office, reading investment books, and forming my own approach to equities. It has turned out to be a lifetime interest, and my methods today are little changed from my initial approach more than 50 years ago.
I suspect that Peter was quite well off, at least by my standards. One day he asked me if I would help him to carry some gold from the bank where he was going to buy it, to his deposit box in another bank further up the street. I carried one of the bars for him, while he carried the other. They were small but extremely heavy. It was my first exposure to gold and those two bars would today be worth much more than a million dollars each.
Across the street from the office and a floor higher in Simpson’s, we could see girls in white uniforms working at the windows. We used to wave to them. Jack’s fiancée was a buyer in Simpson’s and one day he reported back that the windows were part of the Elizabeth Arden beauty salon. One afternoon, Jack suggested that we take a large sheet of architects drawing paper and write ‘Telephone number?’ on it, and hold it up at our window, when the girls were looking out. This we did, and a blonde girl signalled back their number. But what to do next? Peter was married, Jack was engaged and Leroy was too shy, so it was left to me to make the call. Well one thing led to another and before long the girl – Sandy, and I became constant companions, a situation that lasted for the next eight years and through many countries. And her friend Valerie, who was also at the windows, ended up married to my friend Howard, and thanks to internet, I am still in periodic contact with both of them.
Peter and Barbara lived in a small cottage on Algonquin Island, one of a chain of islands just south of the Toronto mainland. There were no cars on the island and Peter commuted to work by ferry. It was an idyllic setting. Sandy and I visited them many times, sometimes for a meal, once to babysit their little son – Anthony, and another time to help with raking up the knee-deep layer of autumn leaves. Eventually they bought a large old house with wood panelling, near High Park. I helped them with the move.
Inevitably time moves on, we eventually left Toronto on our long journey across Canada to Vancouver and San Francisco and island hopping to Australia. And I lost touch with Peter. Apart from a brief business visit in 2001, I have never been back to Toronto.
A few years ago, I tried to trace Peter and Barbara through internet sites, but to no avail; I could not find their footprints. It was only recently that I stumbled on them. It turned out that Barbara died of cancer in 2004, Peter in 2005 and his oldest son five months later.
And Peter died the same month as I had my own near-death experience in Stockholm, the day before George died in Coleraine.
Of the three of us, I was the lucky survivor.