The lunchtime crowd at the Miller Tavern is abuzz with people in office attire, murmuring about work.
It could be a snapshot of a French cafe. But this is Hoggs Hollow.
Seated at a chic wroughtiron table on the patio is M.K. Tod. Her grey hair, with spectral blonde highlights, falls onto her red cardigan, giving her a Helen Mirren appearance.
She’s talking history, but in a personal sense: where her family fits in a world that predates many of the people at the tables, even those with hair hued by the silver filter of time.
Tod’s grandparents, Leslie and Marjorie James, lived on Plymbridge Road in Hoggs Hollow from 1935 to the late ’40s. Their lives led to the inspiration of her recently released self-published novel Unravelled.
Let history begin with her grandmother who, at age 75, died on the way to her second wedding.
“Everybody was at the church, the groom was waiting, and my grandmother was driving in the car with her son, and she had a massive heart attack,” the 63-year-old shares, pausing for effect. “It’s kind of a punch line for a story.”
Tod says she decided to research her grandparents’ lives, the times they lived in “and things of that nature.”
“The more that I researched, the more I just got captivated by what they had lived through,” she said.
It wasn’t just her grandmother’s demise that proved to be the impetus for her story, which is a tale about a wartime love triangle. Leslie James, Tod shares, is believed to have been an officer at Camp X, Canada’s most secretive military installation.
“You can’t get any proof of that, but my grandmother used to tell us he knew William Stephenson, who also had the name Intrepid, if you know your WWII spy stuff,” she says. “So, I thought that was kind of cool.”
From those starting points, Tod reveals she created a world in 1936 where a couple’s lives unravel at the prospect of returning to France for the Vimy Ridge war memorial dedication ceremony.
Like a scene out of Casablanca, the book’s protagonist, Edward Jamieson, is thrown back onto the field of battle, and a chance encounter with his former lover, Helene.
Tod assures that her grandparents were not the source for infidelities, however.
“I’d like to say they’re the inspiration, although it’s called two wars, two affairs, one marriage, but I don’t think either one of them had an affair,” she says.
There’s also Tod’s own experiences in the words she shares.
“I grew up down amongst, I used to come skating at the Jolly Miller, and walk the streets to York Mills Public School, and all that jazz as a kid,” she says, looking out at the parking lot of the Miller Tavern. “Things in the story are things like walking across
the bridge that goes over the Don River, and walking up the hill to the streetcar — there used to be a streetcar where the Loblaws is now.
“I don’t remember them all, but my mother told me about them. She shared oodles of stories about my grandparents. She has given me her father’s scrapbooks. It gave me some personal tidbits.”
Even the origins of her picking up the pen started while living with her husband in Hong Kong in 2004.
Unable to find stable work, Tod says she visited writing.
It’s ironic, she says, a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
“I didn’t like history as a kid — it wasn’t my thing at all,” Tod says. “I was a math major.”
She studied math at Queen’s University in Kingston, and mastered in computer science at the University of British Columbia.
After years working with IBM, she worked as a consultant in the technology industry. But she cuts in, stops the conversation about past jobs with a candid secret.
“I’m a feminist from way back, so I never thought I’d be just content to sit there and not earn money, but I’m having so much fun,” she says, letting loose a guffaw.
At the heart of it, she says, Unravelled is a love story, “but it’s a love story wrapped up in war.”
“And all the sort of challenges and stresses … is this person coming back?”
We know now, Tod has returned home in the pages of Unravelled.