S.S. Numidian

Like a Six Word Bio, an elliptical message stared back at Kay from the lid of the packing box

B. Penny

S.S. Numidian

Winnipeg Via Portland, M.E.

Written in hand painted letters across the planks of the big travel box, this message had become faded with age, obscured by the dust of time. It was nineteen hundred, the turn of the last century, when Kay’s grandmother at the age of 28 braved the ocean voyage from Liverpool to Portland and thence to Winnipeg to meet Kay’s grandfather, a friend since her teenage years on the Estate of the Bordillon family. Grandfather was the son of the gameskeeper. Bessie was a maid and then, as years went by, Miss Bordillon’s lady’s companion.

William left home at 17 to make his fortune and he must have done that very well because he traveled frequently back and forth to England – frequently for those days. On one of those trips, now an established and successful British subject living in Canada, he proposed to Bessie and she agreed to follow him to the pioneering city, that Canadian hub of the railway network of North America, to Winnipeg, plunk in the middle of the vast, flat prairie.

And here Kay was today, happily, diligently, scrubbing that box that she had jealously envied before her Mother died and which she gleefully had inherited when the estate was resolved.

The box had moved from each house that her Mother lived in. It stayed in the basement, filled with curtains and other linens and precious clothing that Mother had been unable to part with. Her mother’s wedding dress was in there and a grand, very flat black hat from the ‘Fifties designed in Paris. It looked like Audrey Hepburn’s hat from Breakfast at Tiffanys.

On Monday, Kay had been laying a chunk of carpet in the basement. In order to bring the carpet out to the lawn to cut it to size, she had to move the box; so she pulled it from its temporary storage place, outside, sheltered from the weather, under the porch overhang, thanking the muscle gods for her gym work-out. The darned thing weighed forty pounds at least.

When Kay moved to the house a twelve months previously, there was no room for the box. The sheer amount of goods – her mothers and her own – had priority stored in the basement. The box would likely survive the winter. Those boxes were still there encumbering the passages, stacked to the ceiling. Some of the goods were waiting for the box to come in. There were days when Kay felt the chicken and egg syndrome was mocking her. The Catch 22 principle. She couldn’t put stuff away without the box. She couldn’t bring the box in until stuff was put away. She sighed deeply in exasperation.

And now she had recuperated carpet from a friend who was laying hardwood flooring.

“Perhaps I should be installing hardwood flooring,”: Kay ruminated; but she had carpet and it had been free. Now carpet laying was the first step to sorting out the basement into show room, art storage and studio. And now the box was in Kay’s way.

Kay hauled the heavy crate up the three cement stairs to the sidewalk area and left it in the hot sun to allow it to dry thoroughly and to air it out.

That was Monday, and in her inimitable red hen state of mind, the nine by twelve carpet was installed with great amounts of heaving and dragging, lifting of unpacked moving boxes from one place to another. Tuesday Kay felt like she’d packed seven days into Monday, and so she rested. She was, after all, a senior.

Wednesday, taking advantage of the weather, Kay got back out and spent a full day in the garden – the weather was fantastic, perhaps a touch too hot and bright, but beautiful. Midway through gardening efforts, Kay noticed that water was dripping on the box.

“Now how could that be?,” she pondered aloud. “We’ve had almost 10 days without rain. Each has been hotter than the next. Everything is sere and dying if not fed by piped in water, but this box, sitting under the eaves is getting great water drops on it.”

The sky was blue overhead. Not a cloud. There was not a bird in view. She drew the box away from the eaves and still the water spots mysteriously grew.

Now thoroughly perplexed, Kay gingerly stuck her finger in the clear wet substance and sniffed it. It wasn’t oily but it was sticky. In seconds, it filmed up on her finger tip, slightly grey, slightly brown, translucent. She stuck her finger in again, and once again. No smell at all. Just that sticky, filmy residue.

Kay returned to her garden patch, dug it free of iris root bit by bit. Time passed. The final root mass was lifted when, all of a sudden, an idea arose in her mind. It was wax! The heat of the midday sun had melted it!

Now it was Friday, and Kay, seeing the clouds finally gather high above, decided that this was the day to clean up her grandmother’s the travel box. It was the first thing to be put in on the new carpet. Then it would have a new generation of contents. It would be a great container for her medium sized paintings. If anyone came to see them, they could easily flip through them without them sliding down in an untidy heap at their feet.

Kay drew a hot pail of soapy water from the kitchen sink, took a scrubbing sponge and a terry cloth rag out to the back yard and began to wash down the trunk. The soapy rag pulled away an ugly layer of fine dirt.

“How much of this am I willing to take off?” she said, talking to herself as she worked. “… Can’t ruin the patina. ….Want to preserve the historical feel of it … must protect the lettering … don’t want to make it look brand new”, and she scrubbed all the while. The sponge came away with a fine layer of dark brown dirt which she rinse out with the garden hose. “No use putting that thick film of dirt into the washing water.” she thought.

Should she take away the careless blobs of enamel paint, some white, some vermillion red, some in forest green that decorated the lid, evidence of the box’s reincarnation as a surface to hold things in father’s workshop? There were paint can rims of oil merging into the brown stain of the wood. It all seemed part of its history, its character, its life. Kay considered, then left them. Had she removed them, perhaps there would have been raw new spots of damaged wood like open wounds in an ancient skin. It wasn’t worth the risk.

She liked to think that her Great-grandfather had made the trunk for her grandmother. He was both a carpenter and a cabinet maker, she’d been told. It somehow made the trunk that more important; that more valuable. An antique dealer wouldn’t have given her peanuts for it. It might have fetched a twenty dollar bill at the Salvation Army. But for Kay, it had an intrinsic value; a family historical value; and it was going to be useful.

The one by four planks had been made before electricity had been used in mills. The outer sides were planed smooth and fitted perfectly together, but on the inside, the saw marks could seen. These were hand made planks! The wood on the inside was clean and fresh looking as the day it had been constructed. A length of wood had been split in half and then again to form four corner braces. These had been rounded off, or rather, the inner side had three facets to it – a nice finishing touch on a utilitarian travel box.

On each end of the box, a sturdy handle was affixed with rough iron screws. The handle had been hand-forged from a thick rod of iron that would bear a man’s muscled hand, the kind of hand that was used to lading heavy crates of merchandise, bales and vast amounts of traveler’s trunks.

Now, as Kay scrubbed along the lid where it joined the box, she saw that the hinges had been hand forged as well. She tipped the box forward to inspect the underside of the box. How many spiders had taken up residence, installed their cottony nests of eggs? But there were none. Despite the rainy torrents of the winter, the box had fared well. It’s short feet had kept it above the standing water level. It was clean. It was dry. It was mold free. But the sides, she could see now, more exposed to light, still had a layer of grime on the lower two planks as if the crate had suffered it’s various crossings, sitting out in the elements waiting for the carrier to take it on it’s way home, mud splattering, drying, ingrained on the lower boards.

Scrub, rinse. Scrub, rinse, Scrub rinse. It was no easy job after all; but after a good hour of cleaning, inspecting, scrubbing, rinsing, she was done. Kay opened the lid to check the state of it’s innards.

Yellowed papers lined the bottom. The Vancouver Sun. 1978. It had been thirty years since Mother had cleaned out the trunk, refreshed its lining papers, repacked the trunk and closed it for posterity. Kay had uncovered a time capsule – The comics page had Peanuts, The Family Circus, Shoe, Fred Bassett, Broom Hilda, Doonesbury and Rex Morgan, M.D., still going strong today, though Love is, Kerry Drake, Casey and Tumbleweeds seem to disappeared into the ether.

Kay’s horoscope predicted: Work seems pleasant. Concentration level good, energy level optimal. Tackle complex projects.

The Career Option page had advertisements checked for Branch Manager/Mortgage Officer, starred with three blue stars against the title “Economist for the Province of British Columbia”. and a long blue pen mark highlighted the qualifications for a Supervisor, Pricing and Business Analysis for B C Buildings Corp in the adjacent advertisement.

That must have been Otto, Kay reflected. He would have been thirty, just home from his year of world travel, jobless and living with Mom and Dad.

A headline stated ” Return to synagogues, N.Y. rabbi urges Jews.” In another headline, “Man charged with killing wife, says he never lived with her”. It went on to say:

  • A man charged with the first degree murder of his wife claimed in assize court Friday that he never lived with her. …. when asked why he married her, Mr. C replied “I don’t know.”

That made Kay laugh though it was tragic, really.

Entertainment, You, The Courts, Sports, Careers. All these are here, but the events of the day were missing. But perhaps these snippets were enough to give a flavor. As much as things change, they stayed the same.

“Enough!” she chided herself. “What would Mrs. Stepford say” Mrs. Stepford, her next door neighbour was her Devil’s Advocate.” Why do you care? What does it all mean? Why is it important?” she would say. Mrs. S was a great one for throwing things out, living simply and directly, not getting distracted. She chafed and complained regularly about Kay’s incessant wool-gathering.

It had been an active hour of cleaning. Now it was time for tea. Kay went in and prepared a cup then sat communicating with her computer. Firefox…Google… S.S. Numidian she typed in. There were 17,100 responses that popped up in a nano-second. Kay selected StockImages


and found beautiful undersea photos with lovely tropical fish darting between the rotting framework of the vessel and its subsequent reef full of swaying Anenomes and coral in a cyan blue sea. Had the S.S. Numidian sunk? Grandmother’s ship? And navigating away from the photos, Kay explored another post or two:

Yes it had sunk. Steve Smith, writing on


had answered another seeker of historical trivia about her family and said:

  • The S. S. Numidian was built in 1891 by D. & W. Henderson & Co., Glasgow, Scotland. Tonnage: 4,836. Dimensions: 400′ x 45′. Single-screw, 13 1/2 knots. Triple expansion engines. Two masts and one funnel. Steel hull. Passengers: 100 first, 80 second, 1,000 third.Maiden voyage: Liverpool-Quebec-Montreal, August 20, 1891.Made her final voyage to Boston in 1914. In the first World War she was filled with cement and sunk, so as to block a channel against submarines. Sister ship: Mongolian.

Kay felt nostalgic and sad. It was the way of all things. Nothing lasted forever. People came and went. Lived and died. Ships were built and sailed, became obsolete and were sunk. Wars came. People had jobs, had no jobs, found jobs, built purposeful lives, got old. But the box was still here; and Kay was going to give it a new incarnation.

She finished her hot cup of tea, rose and went to tackle the next move. Just how was she going to get that box into the basement?


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