PAINTING A PICTURE.
It was an absolute deluge and yet there I was, under a black-as-pitch sky at mid-afternoon soaked clean through despite donning a slicker and knee-high rain boots, parading behind Dad, Mom, Mike, and the realtor, as we marched up and down each and every row of each and every field on that farm. Inspecting.
The century house, set back about 100 feet from the old gravel road, was two-story reddish brick with just a hint of gingerbread. While structurally sound, it had been neglected for years. The front lawn was shoulder height without exaggeration; shards of broken glass from nearly every single window peppered the garage’s dirt floor; and long-dead houseflies littered the windowsills. But it didn't matter, we all saw the beauty in her. The 144 acres, two barns, and old tractor shed all made for ideal hide-n-seek territory, and for building forts from the bales of hay that would soon be stored therein.
Clear through winter, we spent our weekends and holidays cleaning, painting, wallpapering, and oiling the 12" baseboards, pocket doors, stairs, and slat ceilings. But with time and hard work, we had that old house looking pretty darned good. My brother, ever the builder-of-awesomeness, quickly took inventory of any possible toy-making supplies: transistor tubes artfully extricated from a tv become a veritable city. Loose second floor floorboards slid back to reveal top secret hiding spots. Registers removed to transport toys between floors.
While he staked his claim there, I journeyed outside where the sun shone bright and not even a puff of cloud dimmed the day. Surveying the crops that gently swayed with the soft breeze, I headed down the lane and across the fields, through the softwood bush, then the hardwood bush, jumping across a ditch to a large knoll. Sheltered by a beautiful stand of small but lush cedar, one wouldn't have known there was a neglected but at one time charming little building nestled in the greenery.
The simple structure appeared to be well designed and efficient. A tour around the exterior raised my curiosity as to its previous use: two windows on the western side were left partially open. From the first came a trailing tangle of wires and cables, creeping across the building like an overgrown vine before disappearing back inside through the second window.
I stepped closer to peer in and could see nothing but a warm ray of sunshine streaming across the old hardwood floor. Continuing on, I reached the front door. On a flat stone above the door, the word “Malvern" was inscribed. Smokey-indigo paint, once smart against the faded orange bricks, had pretty much peeled off. The weighty brass doorknob felt loose in my hand. The door creaked open easily, revealing what could be nothing other than an antiquated central switchboard - a wall of sockets, knobs, buttons, dials, and wires upon wires upon wires.
“Finally!”, came a young voice from inside. “From the way you were poking along, I thought you’d never get here”. It was Gus, and that is how we met. It’s like we’ve just always known each other and always will. Since then, we’ve met at that knoll every single day, dawn to dusk. It didn’t matter that the world had moved beyond the switchboard and party lines, we were totally enamoured with the era from whence it came and made the little building our fort.
Back in the day, before the telephone monopolies took hold, independent companies provided service for the more rural areas. “Malvern” was one of those. In 1931, this independent company was sold to Bell Telephone and that was that - a superfluous vacant building frozen in time, just waiting for us to stumble upon it. We relished learning all we could about telephony and, in particular, the history of this building that we now simply call “Malvern".
A few months went by before everything was up and running. And then a couple more after that, sitting in one of those sunrays thinking, ‘okay, so now what?’. And then, on June 13th, a Friday morning, the wall of sockets beeped. And again. The two long rings of a party line. I could hear what sounded like a child playing, and an adult instructing that the phone does not work. “But yes it does,” the boy protested; “listen!”
“Do you know how long our phone service has been out?” said the adult now on the other end of the line. "And when I say ‘our’, I mean the entire community here…" And that is how it began. The voice didn’t ask who I was or why the phones had been inactive for so very long but, after that, more and more calls came through the switchboard. While I am not necessarily certain I should be believed, ‘they’ turned out to be -rather incredulously- a motley group of animals within Algonquin Park (and expanding), an area that was never switched over to the Bell network, and had basically been off of the communication grid since. They intrepidly took over the defunct phone lines and used them as their own until time and tarnish rendered the switchboard inoperable. That is, until Gus and I unwittingly strolled along.
From that childhood day that I wandered into Malvern, I have been known as Central Switchboard, or simply ‘Central’ to the callers. Unbeknownst to them, I am human. Now-beknownst to me, animals can communicate. In fact, they are quite verbose. So, for what turned into years, there Gus and I sat, patching their calls, (and eavesdropping just a little bit…) and now feeling like we know each of them through their conversations. These stories are those heard by way of the Malvern Switchboard. The accompanying drawings were sketched as we listened, imagining both the countenance and manner of our fur, feather, and finned friends. We hope we have done them justice.
- Central & Gus