Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Nine

A timeless luminescence played off the bathroom tiles as the flames of the tea candles shivered and flickered in their faceted glass holders. Amelia remarked the translucent glow upon her exposed skin as she swept a cloud of bath bubbles towards her breasts rising from the hot water like tropical islands. Alacrity and Karma she could call them, those odd words Duncan had spoken one night while in his liminal state. Alacrity and Karma, twin tropical islands in the south seas of his unconsciousness. She closed her eyes feeling the welcome flush of warmth upon her cheeks, grateful for this moment of calm and normality as the lavender-scented bathwater released her from layers of psychological restraint, layers reaching back even to that nascent aversion to the idea of giving birth, one that had passed through various stages of denial, self-reproach, selfishness and acceptance. It was fortuitous neither of them had wanted children. As she swirled water around her hips, she imagined Duncan and his twin brother in their Mother's womb, each in their own amniotic sac with their umbilical cords making her think of astronauts floating in space, or deep sea divers with oxygen hoses, or monkeys swinging on lianas under the rain forest canopy. With the loss of his twin brother, and his unlikely-to-be married younger brother, Duncan was forever going on about being the last of the line, and she sensed he derived a stubborn dignity in this preponderant closure, almost one of negative pleasure. Perhaps that was why he'd wanted to visit his childhood home that afternoon, before they'd even returned to theirs. They'd driven past his old elementary school, now condominiums, and then stopped at his old church across the corner from it, where they had got out and walked around. The trees had overgrown concealing the substantial presence of the large church. Duncan had recalled the time when as a young teenager, he'd followed his Father, who was on the church house committee, through a window and out to an attached roof ladder and up to a small door to the massive square towered belfry to inspect the excessive build-up of bat and pigeon droppings; a dank and fetid smell had risen from the dark and slippery interior where the bells had long ceased to ring. Many bags of guano had been redeemed by a contractor hired to clean it up. So many memories he'd said, so many. His parents had been the first to wed in the new building's chapel, but now the structure was up for sale. When they'd gotten home, he'd searched his files for an old magazine he'd inherited from his parents, a copy of the The Presbyterian Record from June of 1964 with a photograph of the church on the cover, a flood of parishioners cascading down the main entrance to the sidewalk, a photograph in which he was sure he could see his parents in the crowd and he and his brothers hidden in the sea of suits, hats and dresses. There were so few people now left to attend. “I wouldn't be surprized if it was turned into condominiums,” he'd said, before describing an imaginary series of rooms in the belfry tower with a spiral staircase between them, rooms filled with books and antique furniture, an impossible future Gothic fantasy of his desire. They had then left the car at the church and walked down the street to look at his childhood home, which was well-kept and in better condition than he remembered. The school, the church and the home were three points forming what he had said formed an isosceles right triangle of childhood that could fit into a football field. The growth of neighbourhood trees and the rise of a four-storey apartment block on the corner across from the family home—on the empty lot of an old Esso gas station—blocked the views of the sky from his old den windows. The slender Linden tree of his childhood had grown to an absurd thickness for such a small front lawn, it's breadth just defeating his encircling arms. It would outlive him he'd said, his life was as ephemeral as the aphids that used to live within its dappled expanse.

From her initial fears that Duncan would awake without memory, as if he'd sipped water from a mysterious river running through his dreams, she felt that his strange sleep had had the obverse reaction, arousing his deepest recollections and stirring up the silt of pale nostalgia. She had experienced feelings of relief and thankfulness before finally settling upon a sense of delicate uncertainty, retaining an unspoken concern for a sudden relapse. Except for his novel propensity to strip the prosaic and habitual of its banality, he seemed quite normal. His having cleaned the fridge was perhaps a welcome side-effect, but she hoped he would soon loose interest in the mundane. Life was complicated enough without awakening the auto pilot of daily life. As for the Norwegian outbursts, she was baffled, and had given up trying to record them for later translation possibilities. She hoped they would just stop. Seeing him standing before his bookshelves casually reading a small paperback entitled The Spirit of Aikido, after dinner, she'd been reassured that his old self was intact. Books were still his great love, as language was for her.

A new assignment to translate a popular young adult novel provided a structural resilience to her life for the next quarter, allowing her to feel confident in the approach of the holidays and the new year. She'd already performed a quick read through of the text, one overladen with adolescent love triangles, physical transformations and dark forests. She would have to resist her temptation to embellish the narrative with too rich a vocabulary, a propensity she noticed in herself, and one she would monitor as she followed the line and the voice of the adolescent narrator. If there had been such an abundance of young adult books when she'd been young, she wondered if they would have helped with her anxieties and doubts. As for own her reading, she recalled going from Nancy Drew to Catch 22, a book pinched from her Aunt's bookshelves. Then there had been the shelves of Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers, books by Margaret Miller and Helen MacInnes, and the large selection of classics in her uncle's collection. She wasn't sure if her reading choices had been a symptom of her fleeing adolescence, or mere circumstance.

She drew the sponge up and squeezed hot water behind her neck. Was this new assignment, she wondered, due to her agent having pressed the emotional button? The young translator whose husband was in a coma, his businesses in limbo, their livelihood in jeopardy? A woman in need of the proverbial helping hand? Pity? Concern? She slipped her chin down into the water and blew soapy bubbles with her lips, the hypothetical question transformed into opalescent structures moving upon the surface of the water, an evanescence that slowly drifted towards her distant toes.

Raising herself, the shifting water echoing off the smooth white tile, she reached for a towel and dried her hands and forearms, then took up the sheets of paper resting on the toilet seat nearby, printed pages of Duncan's recollection of his dreamscape while in his coma-like sleep. The day after he'd awoken, he'd asked her to bring her laptop to the hospital so he could describe the inner world before it faded from his memory. She had watched him type with his fine, ten-finger skills—the most practical course in high school he'd said, telling her all about his typing teacher, an older woman with her sleeveless dresses revealing the slack upper arm flesh that wobbled when she pointed to a line of text on the blackboard with her yardstick as the class pounded away on the late 1950s Royal Aristocrats seeking speed and accuracy, speed and accuracy, the watchwords for their future lives. It had not taken him long to type it out, but he had been briefly overcome with exhaustion at the end, much to the concern of the nurses who had popped in to take another battery of tests.

His description was but another text to interpret and translate, she thought. One she hoped would provide clues to understand his experience. She'd read his halting sentences a dozen times wondering if he'd just made it up out a mania of past emotions and memories, but she still found herself drawn to them in the hope of finding meaning, significance, insight, and perhaps a silhouette of some form of truth.


Dream Fragment

It all began aboard a large sailing vessel. I awoke in a small cabin with a porthole. I remember my landfall, my disembarking. I found myself alone, descending a sloping gangway to the dock, a young man ascending at equal pace, an approaching simulacrum of my younger self. Without stopping, he passed me a rusty skeleton key before vanishing in the fog and mist. All of a sudden it was night. The narrow streets and dark alleys running off from the quay were wet and slick. The occasional store windows revealed empty display areas like theatrical stages between performances. A full moon provided light. I found myself before a tall brick and stone wall and began following the course of it in the hopes of finding a door. Letters in an unknown script were occasionally scratched into the rough stone. I came to a large upside down Gothic arched door made of stout oak and decorated with richly carved rosettes that upon closer inspection, revealed a diversity of faces, Green Men with differing expressions. The point of the arch lay near my feet, the keyhole in the middle, eye level, the open mouth of one of the faces. I looked through but only the only thing visible was darkness. I inserted the key sideways and turned it and the tumblers silently, effortlessly aligned, and the the door opened inwards of itself and I stepped carefully over the narrow point and pocketed the key. A passageway ran to the left with a gradual downward grade and as I began to walk, I ran my fingertips against the dark walls feeling ridges like the wales of corduroy, or spines of books, reminding me too of running a stick along fences as a kid. Coming to large double doors without handles or knobs, I pushed them open and found myself beneath a geodesic dome structure, moonlight reflecting angular shadows, grids and triangles, upon the pathway before me, one that led to fifteen foot high bookshelves on either side, each with a rolling library ladder attached to a smooth runner rail. I breathed in the intoxicating alchemical aroma of paper, cloth and leather bindings feeling I'd found a hidden paradise, a lost or forgotten library. I looked down the path and noticed it came to an end, and thinking it odd, I walked the long distance to that supposed dead end only to discover that it opened to the left with a gradual curve which I continued to explore. I had to overcome my desire to look at the books, their buckram, leather and cloth bindings diverting my attention, their gilt titles seducing me to withdraw a volume, breath in its particular scent, feel its unique shape and texture, and behold the imagined title pages of elaborate design. Only when I came to the end of the curve which abruptly turned right and then back towards the direction I had come, did I begin to recognize a familiar layout, one that Amelia and I had walked with Melisande, a layout of a medieval labyrinth. I then gave in to my desire to look at the books themselves and I scaled one of the ladders and randomly pulled a book off a high shelf, a heavy full leather binding with panelled boards and gilt tooling, one of a multi-volume set with the title Canticles of Sand. I opened it to see exquisite green and blue marbled endpapers and fore edges; it was a finely printed book with engravings of strange coastal landscapes. Putting it back in place, I glanced at the titles around me and many were in foreign languages. Deciding to explore the pathway, I descended the ladder and continued along the path, occasionally stopping to look at a book that caught my eye—the books only had titles, neither author names nor publisher's imprint at the foot of the spine. I vividly remember these titles: Perpetual Conceptions, Gelid Harmonies, and Specular Apothegms.

It was about then that I heard the footsteps. At first I was unsure from which direction they came, and remembering Melisande's explanation of labyrinths having but one entrance and one path, I realised that if the footsteps were following me into the labyrinth, I could not escape them. They would find me along the way or at the centre. The bookshelves were back to back and didn't have spaces between. The only possible hiding place would be to scale a ladder and somehow manage to clamber on top of the highest shelf, their tops forming what I imagined would be a mirrored pathway of the one below, an additional pathway with the hazard of vertigo. To slip and fall would not be inconsiderable. All of these thoughts passed through my mind as I listened to the footsteps echoing in the passage, and still I couldn't decipher from which direction they issued. I remember trying to lower my breathing rate and stay calm, but even though I possessed the key, I felt I was trespassing. With my senses heightened due to fear, I listened to the footsteps which were firm, even and resounded with a frightening persistence. I made the decision to walk towards the centre, and I began as quickly and quietly as possible. The footsteps increased in their speed. I began to lightly run, and likewise, my pursuer, who I sensed was a man, began sprinting. From that point I remember starting to run wildly, bouncing off the edges of bookshelves as I turned corners, the occasional book falling to the path. It then occurred to me to pull books off the shelves to hinder him, but my love for books got the better of me, and I reasoned it would take the same amount of time to dislodge them than I would gain in frustrating his pursuit. It didn't matter in the end, for as I came round a large bend which I conjectured to be at the top of the labyrinth, the path was blocked with four foot stacks of books. I climbed one of the ladders and seeing it was free from obstacle, I positioned myself near the top and began pushing myself along the rail with my right arm and my right foot. After careening around large curves and long straight sections, I had to occasionally stop at the sharp turns to transfer to another ladder. I heard him behind, travelling the other side, the sound of metal on metal, the rubber wheels squealing along the floor, his vigorous and aggressive physical exertions knocking books off as he went.

When I felt I was gaining on him, my ladder shuddered to a stop almost throwing me off, but I held on with one hand and pulled myself back. The wheels had broken. Looking forward in the dim light, I couldn't see any other ladders, so I climbed up and reached for the top of the bookshelf unit and hoisted myself up. I tried to dislodge the ladder but failed. Kneeling, feeling slightly dizzy, I glanced back and I could see a hooded figure in dark clothes, his pale hands gripping the ladder as he pushed off with one foot. Standing up, I looked across the expanse of the labyrinth and found I was not too far from the centre, but if I followed the path, it would take me back in the direction of my pursuer, so I contemplated vaulting the path below to the tops of far bookshelves across from me. It was then I felt the impact of a heavy book on my shoulder thrown by my nemesis from below. He then began scaling the ladder and I picked up the book at my feet, and unable to overcome my curiosity I quickly read the title that almost did me in, Cordis Divisio, then I threw it down at him, hitting his back and stalling him momentarily. I ran along the tops of the bookshelves and could hear him following. Books skidded by me, one hit my arm, another almost hit my head. I could see that I was approaching the middle of a semi-circular arc with a straight line running towards the centre of the labyrinth, and I made my way carefully there only to find it broke to either side in short dead-ends arcs, and across from me, the circular outline of the centre. Looking back, I saw he was slowly coming towards me, still holding a book in his left hand. I ran back to the beginning of the straight path, turned around again, and ran quickly as I could and made the leap across the pathway below.

I made it across, but overshot the leap and found myself slipping over the inner edge. I was clinging to the top of the bookshelf unit, trying to find a foot hold, when I heard him land above me. Looking down I could see a large, sharply pointed sun dial on a stone pedestal. I then looked up, and the man was holding a pale hand out to me, and with the other, he began to pull back the hood on his jacket, but before I saw his face, I lost my grip and fell towards the sundial.

I then awoke and found myself in the small room aboard the ship once more. And the whole sequence started over, and over, and over. I was caught in this nightmare loop until I awoke in the hospital and not in the ship's cabin, the machines around me beeping, the nurses hovering over me, and Amelia behind them with a look of deep anxiety upon her face.

*

Amelia shivered, put the pages back on the toilet seat, turned the hot water tap on, slipped down into the bath, and contemplated if, and when, she would tell Duncan he'd been calling Gavin's name before awakening in the hospital. 

© Ralph Patrick Mackay

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Eight

For Duncan Strand, the world was becoming an endeavour of renewed recognitions.

Having finished his breathing exercises, he lay on his back, his calves resting upon the upholstered living room chair like an astronaut ready for takeoff, his head upon a pillow, rocking gently to the repetition of four songs on his old Walkman CD player positioned upon his chest, songs by the Psychedelic Furs: In My Head, Heaven, The Ghost in You, and When She Comes, his right index finger rested on the skip button, his left arm spread out towards Hugh, who, with his large, brown limpid eyes, lay beside him, chin on his outstretched front legs, looking at him with a greater sense of affiliation and affection as they shared the soft carpet pile and a similar perspective, enjoying the occasional tummy rub as he sniffed the essential odours of Duncan mixed with the fusty nuances embedded in the carpet around them.

Duncan had forgotten how much time he'd spent on floors as a child, under tables, behind Chesterfields, on stairs, under them, and beneath the covers, the early environments of childhood imagination. Looking through the open passage to the next room, he gazed upon the dining room table he'd inherited from his parents, a heavy, dark Chippendale inspired number with a footrest between the legs, one he used to sit upon pretending it was his submarine, or lie supine like a vampire in his coffin, and how he'd get yelled at by his Father for doing so. The cracks were still there, the repairs weakened with age. The table was fraught with memories of tension-filled suppers: the solemn graces, the baptism with spilt milk, the daily incarnations of the potato, and his recalcitrance before the salmon cake. But also the joys of birthdays with their 1960s Woolworth Department store pastel confections with their inevitably dried-out red roses and candied silver ball-bearings he'd leave behind on his plate, and of course the shaky inscriptions in occasionally misspelled or abbreviated names—accepted with a reduction in price; the holidays too, with their turkeys—legs in the air like him now—and the hams with their Argus-eyed pineapple slices pinned in place with sharp edged cloves like miniature tomahawks, and those seemingly endless games of Monopoly, Gin Rummy, or Crazy Eights. An embarrassing memory came back to him. He must have seven or eight, eager to relate the details of what he'd learnt at school that day, an exploration of the inner ear, and how he had used the word 'Fallopian' in place of 'Eustachian' tube and watched his parents mysteriously turn to stone, only their eyes shifting to each other in a paroxysm of shock. Nothing had been said. The silence, like an exhalation, had dwindled in the renewed clatter of forks and knives, and no doubt a change of subject. Only later did his brother tell him of his mistake. How had he known of it at that age he wondered? Or had he? Had it been in the Junior Encyclopedia Britannica, the one his brother had written on the bottom edges of volume seven, '100% Junk' in what must have seemed, at the time, an epic act of defiance? He couldn't remember. His youth felt over-weighted with innocence and ignorance, the latter a great regret—how he wished he'd been one of those precocious geniuses found in books—but the former, a characteristic he cherished like the lost stone with the perfectly round hole he'd stubbed his toe against at the water's edge on Cavendish Beach in Prince Edward Island, an innocence best exemplified by his youthful spinning round and round on a summer's day until the light-headed dizziness warped him out of orbit and he fell to the grass trying to hold the azure sky and fair-weather clouds from being sucked into the vortex of his self-induced wonder, lying there overcome by the mystery of distant galaxies and endless space, a feeling of organic oneness with the spinning earth beneath him, and the numinous above.

Pinned by gravity, he lay upon the carpet in this most comforting of postures as the memories of childhood faded. Breathing deeply, he pressed the pause button and he imagined the CD's rpms descending to zero. His collapse in the bookshop, he thought, was strangely similar to that childhood pastime, the world spinning round, his head at once weightless and heavy as granite. Perhaps it had been a result of all those adult years of not spinning round and round, all those years of non-attentiveness to . . . innocence? No, he wouldn't go there. Amelia would think he was going down the path her parents had followed to everyone's eventual dismay. Yes, he must keep on the rational side, the “A” side of interpretation, even though his random, and apparently mundane, utterances in Norwegian were a mystery to him. He agreed with her Uncle Edward: leave it be, let it settle, get on with life. What were they but syllables and sounds? Nothing to worry about. He was no stranger to the quirks of language. Only last month he remembered ordering a pear tart from a fine French pastry shop and had used the words 'tarte de poivre,' in place of 'tarte de poire.' What was an extra 'v' but an accidental amusement between the clerk and himself? He was always fumbling with words. He wondered now if it was an inherited trait. His Mother, who had no real French, having been born in Notre Dame-de-Grace in the late 1920s, and had never studied the language like many of her generation, had still been willing to try with her simple salutations and her 'comme ci, comme ça.' and had even tried to converse with the non-English speaking wife of his Father's business associate who he'd invited to dinner one evening, a dinner where his Mother had related how she'd been out in the rain that day with her new umbrella and had used the word 'pamplamoose,' in place of 'parapluie.' Duncan smiled to himself. Yes, he was a chip off the old block.

As well as this verbal side-effect, he felt his recent medical ordeal and symbolic rebirth had enabled him to shed a hardened skin of habit, an integument of reason, allowing him to regain an enlivened perspective on life, and with fresh eyes, observe the world around him. He'd already become fascinated with the mundane, the overlooked, the absurd, like the five jars of semi-finished pimento stuffed olives that had migrated to the back of the fridge looking much like a mad scientist's collection of extraterrestrial eyes in briny formaldehyde, or the button plackets on all his shirts with their horizontal button holes that framed the vertical ones—like a birth and a death—a detail he'd been unconscious of after five decades of his own fashioning. Not an hour ago he'd found himself re-buttoning them all as they hung in haphazard attention upon their plastic hangers, less in the desire for order than in a renewed fascination with the clever device and the urge to keep the shirts as human-like as possible. The crisp shirt collars had also stimulated the now distant memory of attending the Knox Crescent and Kensington Presbyterian Sunday services as a child: he and his brothers dressed in their white shirts and bow ties sitting on the little benches in front of the first pew, fidgeting and squirming while their cherubic minister, like an actor on a thrust stage, stood at the centre of the altar steps and extemporized on his homily of the week, a simplified story for them, his hands gesticulating expressively before returning to each other and gently clasped upon his stomach. And then the Sunday school volunteer would lead them away along the red carpet to the side door to the sounds of the muted organ and a soft hymn, leaving the adults like those forsaken to deal with a sinking ship. A backwards sequence of recollections had been triggered and his Saturday morning excursions with his parents to the old Atwater Market in search of the rump roast for Sunday dinner were brought back to him. The butcher's stalls with their cold room windows revealing the carcasses, half carcasses, the oxidized blood mimicking slabs of marble; the pig carcasses yellow and orange with various triangular and circular marks like passport stamps; pig, beef, lamb, veal, ageing in the dim light; he could almost smell the sawdust upon the floor behind the cutting tables where the mustacheoed butchers in their white shirts, hats and pink-stained coats conversed in French, content in their profession, content in their skin. Notwithstanding the horrors of factory farming—if they had existed as such in the 1960s—at least he'd known where his meat had come from, and had given thanks before meals, though to his mind it should have been given first to the poor animals, and second, to his Mother for preparing the meal, but such truths had been overlooked for the greater truth, whatever that might have been. The circularity of the weekend ritual of seeking out the roast beef and its final consumption had been a subservient shadow to that great abstraction. And now he was meatless, having followed Amelia into vegetarianism for what seemed forever. Only the memory of a succulent smoked meat sandwich made him feel at all nostalgic for his meat and potato origins.

He shifted his eyes to the corner of the room where the lamp light reflected back from the ceiling in two soft arcs like female breasts and he thought of Amelia taking her bath, no doubt trying to soothe her worries over his health and her concerns over whether he'd wake from his first night's sleep at home. Dr. Yee had assured them he would be fine, the tests having failed to uncover any hidden dangers. She'd been confident in his recovery through the use of medication and exercises. There was something about Dr. Yee that reminded him of Yiyin however. Cheekbones? Lips? Eyes? He'd been tempted to inquire if they were related, but a sense of formal restraint had held him back. Perhaps another time. Perhaps with a followup appointment in the future, if it felt appropriate, the atmosphere relaxed, the timing right.

He removed his earbuds and put the CD player aside. Hugh, now stretched out, was dreaming, his little legs doing the dog paddle. Perhaps he was running alongside the shy Greyhound from down the street, the one who shivered in winter not wanting to go further than the corner and back with his owner. Or maybe Hugh was dreaming he was the Greyhound with its svelte figure and long slender legs, galloping like a horse across a field of dandelions in bloom. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply feeling that if he didn't have a residual fear of sleep, he did retain a fear of revisiting a certain dreamscape, one he felt he'd lived within for the three days he'd been 'away' as Amelia had referred to his anomalous coma, his brief vacation from reality. He too had been running. But away from a shadowed pursuer.

© Ralph Patrick Mackay

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy Seven

It hadn't been funny at the time, she thought, as the laughter of co-workers and friends encircled her like the plaiting of a holiday wreath. She must tell the story again they insisted, so-and-so hadn't heard it yet. So-and-so was new. New to Sophie's Christmas party for librarians, an annual event which had been held in her flat on Esplanade Avenue for the last eight years, and at which Melisande had first related the story with great dramatic energy, and a panache that had surprised, and later embarrassed her, due to the absurdity of it, and the underscoring of cathartic joy at having left the environment in which it had occurred, a story which now, in its eighth holiday incarnation, had withered somewhat, at least to her, before the bureaucratic expectations of saint-hood when it came to dealing with library patrons. She sipped her wine, smiling at the laughing faces around her as she remembered the actual day, when, on her first job at a downtown public library, one frequented a great deal by the homeless, the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the eccentrics, the local characters, and those with time and nothing else on their hands, she'd been called to the circulation desk from the office and told that there was a disturbance in the reading room. It had been a Saturday. She'd been in charge. The circulation staffer had pointed out the individuals involved and had whispered to her that the young man had complained that the person facing him across the table had been looking at him and giggling. The individual in question, a youngish woman with her head wrapped in tin foil, was sitting very low on her chair, her arms on the table, her head resting on the back of the high wood chair. Melisande had conjured up a sentence she hoped would be sufficient to ease the situation: “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patrons.” She had approached the table, the two patrons looking up at her, the young man with relief, the young woman with uncertainty, and she had said, “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patients.”

It hadn't been funny at the time.

The young woman had looked up at her, a smile breaking upon her face like the reflections of florescent light upon her aluminium foil, and, having caught the Freudian slip, had begun to laugh quietly which had made the young man indignant. In that moment of embarrassment, having reduced everyone to a patient of a psychiatric ward, she'd managed to look around the reading room at all the faces turned her way, many haggard and weary, beaten down by life and circumstances, their bodies frozen in the act of reading papers, magazines, books, a nightmarish vision of reverse judgement, and not knowing what else to say, she'd turned around and made her way back to the office, made a pot of tea to sooth her nerves, and thought a job in a private or university library would suit her better, feeling that her undergraduate degree in religious studies and her graduate degree in library science had not prepared her for dealing with such encounters.

“It hadn't been that funny at the time,” Melisande said over the thinning laughter around her, feeling that every ounce of amusement would be accounted for in some grand Karmic register and there would be hell to pay as her Father used to say.

“Patients,” Sophie said, tapping the new girl's arm with her hand, “It's still funny after all these years Melisande. What a wonderful transposition of words.”

“In the library I'm working at,” the new girl said, “we've been instructed to call library users, 'customers.' They think library user, patron, and client are outmoded. Customers. Sometimes I think I'm working in retail.”

The sound of Randy Travis's rich voice singing Meet Me Under the Mistletoe overlay the awkward silence that settled upon the party goers as they struggled to respond to this rather mundane remark.

Jonathan, a subject specialist at the university, came to the rescue: “At least that'll keep the word patient out of the equation.” A wink to Melisande. “Here's to customer,” he said, raising his glass, “may the Walmart greeting be soon to follow.” Having saved the party from a minor denouement, everyone raised their glass, and after they drank, a scattering of ideas for conversation, like the multiple trajectories of a fireworks explosion, spread through the room, their voices reduced to more intimate levels,

“So Jonathan, how's Frank doing these days?” Melisande asked, trying not to stare at his expensive mock-tortoiseshell—at least she assumed them to be mock turtle—glass frames.

“Well my dear, he's working away on a new book, provisionally entitled The Rake's Profit, or Tally Hoe: John Cleland and his Publishers. He's up to his earlobes in research. Just last night he was regaling me with details of one of Cleland's bookseller publishers and his stint in the pillory for publishing Fanny Hill.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.

“I guess Fanny Hill seems pretty tame compared to reading material these days. I overheard a woman at a bookshop tell a friend that she'd been reading one of those Fifty Shades books and how she had laughed her way through it.”

“God knows where all those millions of copies will end up. Elderly pensioners burning them in their fireplaces for warmth perhaps. Throw on another Fifty Shades Darker, my dear,” he said imitating an elderly voice, “I feel the draft on my back like the frigid breath of Dr. Freeze .

“So, when do we get the wedding invitations Melisande?” Sophia asked from across the living room.”We're all looking forward to the day.”

Trying to appear her regular organized self, not wanting to let on that she and Pavor had yet to choose from the examples available, with their plethora of fonts, shapes, sizes, colours, embossing, ribbons, lace, textures, and photograph options. Pavor had offered to write a short short story to include with the invitation as well. A keepsake. “January, the month of Janus, the doorway to the new year, looking back, looking forward” she said, not wanting to commit to a specific day, “it will be a simple wedding.”

Sophie raised her glass, “Here's to Melisande and Pavor, may their wedding day be blessed with good friends and good weather.”

Jonathan gave her a squeeze with his left arm and whispered in her ear, “So, since it was a leap year, did you propose to Pavor or did he finally man up?”

Melisande slapped his thigh and gave him a playful nudge with her shoulder. “On bended knee between the pews of the McGill Chapel no less.” As the memory came back to her, she recalled the dual nature of the proposal, the confession before the request, the past before the future, the revelation of a predeceased wife and child, and how their ghosts had thrown a shroud over the proposal, one she hadn't noticed at first, but later had felt settle round her like a gloaming mist upon a farmer's field.

 © Ralph Patrick Mackay

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Six

The scent of old books greeted Edward Seymour as he entered his study, the gilt stamped titles and the varicoloured bindings speaking volumes to him of distant pathways taken, memories, and relationships. At ninety-two, he knew they were unlikely to be revisited with anything but nostalgia. He went to the shelves where he kept books inscribed to him by old friends and associates, and breathed deeply as he gazed upon them. Wilder Penfield's novel The Torch, stood with his The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, and his No Man Alone: A Surgeon's Life; beside them, books by Karl Stern, his Pillar of Fire, his The Third Revolution: A Study of Psychiatry and Religion, his The Flight from Woman, and his novel Through Dooms of Love. Edward recalled the year of 1960 when both Penfield and Stern had come out with a novel and many had wondered who would be next. Even he had contemplated writing one, and having produced twenty pages, had but it aside. It must be in one of his old files he thought. He reached out a wrinkled slender finger towards Stern's The Flight from Woman, an interesting study of its time, and with his striated fingernail like old ivory, pulled it out and put it on his desk to hazard a glimpse of the past. Then, seeing Rainer Maria Rilke by Willem Graff, he pulled it off too, and opened it to to see Willem's inscription to him. He fanned the pages and a paper fell out and slipped down to the carpet like a glider making a perfect landing upon an Aubusson field. Carefully, he bent down to retrieve it and went to sit at his desk. A letter size sheet, folded in half revealed two poems, typed, one from each end as if mirrored, and when folded, resting upon each other in an intimate alphabetical embrace. He remembered. the attractive woman, a former patient, who had transferred her affections to him in the mid-1970s. She'd fallen for Rilke, and then for him. Or had it been the other way round? She'd left him with these poems after he'd discussed the issues with her and made her cognisant of the transference, as well as the boundaries of propriety and professional duty. The temptation now seemed less significant, but it was tinged with longing like the fragrance of musk. The paper itself was like a desiccated leaf preserved as an emblem of a path not taken.

C'est le paysage longtemps . . .

C'est le paysage longtemps, c'est une cloche,
c'est du soir la délivrance si pure;
mais tout cela en nous prépare l'approche
d'une nouvelle, d'une tendre figure . . .

Ainsi nous vivons dan un embarras très étrange
entre l'arc lointain et la trop pénétrante flèche:
entre le monde trop vague pour saisir l'ange
et Celle qui, par trop de présence, l'empêche.


Dans la multiple rencontre

Dans la mutiple rencontre
faisons à tout sa part,
afin que l'ordre se montre
parmi les propos du hasard.

Tout autour veut qu'on l'écoute,
écoutons jusqu'au bout;
car le verger et la route
c'est toujours nous!

The poems didn't arouse in him a dormant longing for youth, but did arouse the feeling that poems were embedded in timelessness, waiting silently for the next passerby to grab hold and briefly experience a sense of eternity. She had been a doctor of internal medicine which had made him think of poets being the doctors of eternal medicine. She had laughed at his play on words. He folded the paper and put it back in its old resting place almost hearing the echo of her laughter. He opened his desk drawer and withdrew his journal and began to write:


Wednesday December 19, 2012 - 7 p. m.

It has been many days since I've written this journal. Preparations for the holidays, doctor's appointments, fatigue and forgetfulness have all played their part.

A mild day, a light drizzle, and now, a light snow is falling.

Received two Christmas cards this morning. One rather special. It is lonely at the top of the age chain.

Nostalgia overcame me this evening. I dipped into old books. In one, I came across a slip of paper given to me by an old patient of mine, a woman who had transferred her affections to me, the classic therapist dilemma. It's good to know she worked through her issues and led a happier life. I wonder if she is still with us? She was very beautiful I recall. Having dealt with the fallout of such temptations over the years in treating a diversity of patients suffering at one of the three points of the classic love triangle, perhaps I'd been conditioned to resist such extreme emotions. So many affairs had ended in broken families and ultimately, loneliness. Very few had been successful diversions. Thankfully I resisted the temptation. Happily married to my dear wife, my friend, my equal, I had been fortunate. The latent affairs of the heart had stayed within my imagination.

Another Christmas will soon be upon us. Every year I think it might well be my last, although young doctor Bergeron thinks I'm 'bien fort.' I feel like a man in an hour glass, or a life-glass perhaps, standing on a small mound of remnant sand, a mountain beneath me in the other sphere. If only I could push on the sides of the glass, pound my fist upon the surface, rock the glass back and forth until it fell sideways to form a symbolic sign of infinity, and I could sweep the remaining sand into the concave feature of the glass and lie down and rest, cupped in eternity. I wonder why it is that some individuals when they reach a great age, catch a second wind and become avid for life? More to lose perhaps. Looking back, there seems to be a life hurdle that takes so many in their fifties and sixties due to lifestyle or genetics, but if they pass through, or over, that barrier, those last laps can be richly fulfilling. They have been for me, though a sense of guilt surrounds my willpower like the piping on my dressing gown.

Amelia and Duncan are doing well. She keeps me informed every other day as to Duncan's well-being. It has now been ten days since he emerged from his three day coma. He is functioning very well, his memory is solid, and what physical effects he sustained, he has overcome with minor therapy. The doctors are still uncertain exactly what caused his fall. A close call with an aneurysm like an asteroid passing through the Earth's atmosphere and burning up perhaps. The only oddity of his three day coma seems to be strange and random expressions in Norwegian, a language he did not know previously. A mystery. He seems to understand what the expressions mean, but he is unable to control their capricious and seemingly unconscious eruptions. Naturally, specialists and postdocs have been interested in his case. I have advised him to avoid researchers. Let it work itself out I told them.

This has me somewhat worried.

This special case of Duncan, along with today's card from Isabelle Cloutier, have convinced me to tell Amelia the truth about her Mother and Father. If I should falter, hesitate, or pass away before I can tell her, I will write it here, in brief, in the hopes she may some day read my journals which I will bequeath to her:

My youthful half-sister Catherine, the progeny of my wayward Father and a young secretary, was sent to Canada before my arrival. Suffering from depression, she found herself ushered into the care of Donald Ewen Cameron where she was exposed to his experiments with Electroshock and drug therapy, leading to her later spiral of dysfunction. What an unfortunate place to have met a husband, but meet Richard, Amelia's father she did, another patient of that misled research. When I arrived to teach at McGill, Catherine and Richard had already found a hippie haven in the Hare Krishna movement. Though I tried to help, they'd distanced themselves from us. Amelia was young when they left that group and changed religions once more, following a Yogi off to California and we secured legal custody of their children. I never broached the subject of Cameron's experiments upon them with Amelia. I had thought it best to avoid creating a need to stir up the truth. The players involved were too powerful. The whole unfortunate affair had been sealed away, an episode from the cold war no one wanted to revisit. The truth revealed in these cases is as rare as elephant eggs in a rhubarb tree.

It has been decades since I've written in my journal about Catherine and those difficult years. Guilt? Catharsis? If you are reading these words Amelia, please forgive an old man his sins.

As to Isabelle's letter within her Christmas card—un hibou comme d'habitude—she informed me that she had received a cryptic letter signed with the initials of what must be Thérèse Laflamme, with the names of David Ashemore, an arrow pointing to the name Jarvis Whitehorne, and the acronym, P.R.I.S.M. It seems Amelia must have heard me discuss Isabelle's name or I absentmindedly mentioned it in passing. Isabelle researched Jarvis A. Whitehorne and discovered a rogue researcher in the footsteps of Cameron. This man seems to have his own research company, Whitehorne & Associates. The acronym seems to stand for Peremptory Remote Intra-Sensory Manipulation. No longer is it necessary to have a patient in a room to experiment upon according to Isabelle, now they can insert devices and activate them remotely, or, by the use of acoustic devices, disrupt sleep patterns and manipulate the body's chemistry from afar. It all seems so far-fetched but Isabelle assures me such experiments are taking place. It is a great abuse of science and technology. The rational male mind has objectified the other and is able, without conscience, to break their very spirit. Isabelle sees the abuse of such types of scientific and technological advances as a greater threat in the future to individual freedoms than concerns over big brother listening to their phone calls, or is it reading their emails now? The rational male mind and the objectification of the other will always be the source of great evil. Isabelle suggests that David Ashemore had come across the activities of Whitehorne and had begun to write reports about them, only to find himself, she thinks, a target. She fears that Ashemore was told to desist in his investigations, but continued. Much conjecture on her part she admits.

A sense of dread overcomes me as I think of such abuse. I will tell Arthur all about Isabelle's discovery on Saturday over our chess game. I just realised we won't be playing chess till the New Year. Well, it will keep. Best not disturb his holidays anyway.

I shall wait till after Christmas to tell Amelia about her parents. She has too much on her plate right now with Duncan's still delicate health, and the closing of his business. Good news is that Duncan has a buyer for most of his stock, and some of the funds will be put towards a new car and a trip to England. I would not mind seeing England once more, but for the travelling. And I'm sure a third wheel would be unwelcome. They never did take a decent honeymoon. I shall add to their financial purse and also provide them with addresses of our living relatives on that distant island.

Edward drew a line beneath the last sentence and taking up Isabelle's letter, pasted it down upon the facing page, then closed his journal and returned it to his drawer. Walking over to the window, he looked out upon the limbs of the naked trees with their layer of light snow like Gothic tracery. Here he was, with the night birds and cobwebs, the city glittering below like distant stars. He closed the curtains and his eyes alighted upon the framed piece of paper hanging between the bookshelves and the drapery. He had discovered it in a strange book published in 1918, a book explaining the details of the gas mask created by a research group under B.F. Goodrich, a book with haunting images of a soldier modelling the mask, and looking like an undersea monster. Images enough to haunt a child's dreams he thought. One of the authors was a certain Major R. G. Pearce, who he learnt through the head librarian at McGill, had been a medical doctor in Ohio, and a sometime poet. The piece of paper was Pearce's poem entitled Entropy. Edward never felt closer to the words:

When the night raven finds our hearth and fans
The dying embers with his wings, and space
Which time has warped into our frames expands
In unstrained rest, there will remain no trace
Of us on earth, but in the firmament
Perhaps a Protean cloud will hold my form
And it will catch the light your star has sent.
When like my song your molten heart was warm.

Since crumpling power shares not in our estate
Contented we should lie in dreamless sleep;
And hurried time will never confiscate
The tryst which mutual souls have sought to keep.
Our elsewhere and our here will then be one
Beyond the reaches of the cyclic sun.

L'envoi
If this would be, our lives may not be vain
For smiles might ripple over space again.


The head librarian had given him a short lecture on the prevalence of poets who had trained as doctors, offering a long list of names, some well-known, others obscure. Such individuals were able to maintain a balance of science on the one hand, and the intuition of poetry on the other. It gave Edward hope, acted as a soothing balm for his sense of dread. From the door, he looked back and scanned his bookshelves for an instant, then, turning the light out, carried the books by Stern and Graff to the living room to spend an hour or two with his hands in the past.

© Ralph Patrick Mackay

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-five

With the visibly evanescent fingers of frost on the windshield leading the way, Pavor drove along Sherbrooke Street enveloped by the aroma of fresh baked bagels while the words of the eccentric Fitz resurfaced in his thoughts like pieces of academic flotsam. He certainly lacked inhibition, he thought. A coffin fly no less! There was something about Fitz, something dispassionately erudite that irritatingly lingered like the itch of a mosquito bite. Perhaps he was a new professor at one of the Universities. As this thought settled like a well-placed puzzle piece, he recognized Amelia driving towards him, her face bathed in a shard of angled sun created by the tall buildings. He waved but she didn't see him for the light in her eyes. Probably on her morning errands, he thought, much like himself, a translator and a novelist out and about while their respective partners, a bookseller and a librarian, kept the books. A fanciful notion passed over him: perhaps in another dimension their relationships were inverted, Melisande and Duncan the symbolic bridge partners to Amelia and himself. Two bibliophiles and two wordsmiths, the cataloguers and the scribblers. The notion faded quickly as he considered how little he knew of Amelia's character and personality. She was much like an artist's picture to him, lightly sketched and enigmatic, but disturbingly more real than his late wife and child who now seemed to have faded into a haze of natural evocations, manifestations of seasonal intimacies; unwonted, diurnal creations of his imagination. In bed at night, looking out at the framed darkness, he often wondered if they had existed at all.

He would have to deal with the storage locker with their archived belongings. It was time.

Approaching his apartment building, he noticed the street parking was a clean sweep, the other residents also having sought distant landfalls: Saturday morning breakfast diners, glistening powder on the Laurentian ski slopes, or shopping malls with their echoing fountains and endless sales. Or were the drivers all one night stands slinking off to their private worlds? He pulled into his old spot and noticed the space in front of him had a circular oil stain on the asphalt which resembled one of those coloured NASA images he'd seen on the Internet, a supernova, or some kind of gas emanation, captured instants of the past, like colourful paintings on black felt, interstellar art. As he walked towards his apartment, however, he realised that the position of the stained pavement was indeed from his last departure. The possibility of a leak took the sheen off his morning, the fresh air dulled to hints of exhaust.


*


Amelia released her foot from the gas pedal and coasted along Sherbrooke Street towards the red light in the distance, passing between the towering modernist Le Port-Royal Apartments on her left, and the human scale span of the late-nineteenth century row houses on her right, buildings clad in grey limestone with rusticated front entrances, oriel windows, gables and attics updated with modern, dark jade green awnings dusted with snow, buildings long ago transformed into upscale art galleries and boutiques. As she came to a stop at the corner of Bishop, she thought of all the translation work she'd performed, all the local writers she'd been reading, both in English and French, writers who were creating their own version of the city, laying claims like stake holders in a gold rush, and an overwhelming impression of a tiresome tug of war overcame her. A city with contentions lay all around her camouflaged by the calm effects of habit. Perhaps she should have been reading and translating the text of the city itself. She felt a wave of exhaustion overcome her as she thought of all the local books and authors being pushed and marketed by publishers and the media like the latest in fashion trends. She massaged her neck. She must be burnt out. The stress of Duncan's condition and their uncertain future had stripped her of her resiliency. Pessimism and defeat had seeped in. Taking a deep breath she imagined having experienced a simpler life: to have been born in a small town in Ontario without language issues, to have married a high school sweetheart, to have bought a house in the hometown, to have raised children, travelled, bought a cottage. To have had normal parents to act as grandparents instead of ones lost in the semi-spectral existence of post-hippie, blissed-out blindness. If only they'd waited for the new age to fully break upon the shore, they could now be taking advantage of the alternate medicine, the yoga, the acupuncture, the Tai Chi, the organic foods, and the mindfulness that had finally spread to the mainstream. But no, they had forged ahead seeking the golden horizons of self-fulfilment and were now left behind by the shifts of time and twists of cultural evolution. Amelia stared ahead of her wondering what it would have been like to have experienced a plain, uncomplicated path. Normality, consistency, continuity. Continuity. The light turned green and she drove on, passing between the the old and the new buildings of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with their promise of high culture, enough to unsettle her confusion of thoughts for a moment and make her think of her imaginary double in that imaginary small town, driving her own imaginary streets at this very minute, thinking how wonderful it would be to escape the clinging communal knowledge and suburban restraint of the small town and move to the stimulating anonymity of a great city like Montreal.

Caught in the sequence of red lights, she came to a rest at Mountain Street with the exclusive Holt Renfrew on her right, and the revitalized Ritz Carlton Hotel ahead, luxury and exclusivity of wealth surrounding her, and as she watched the pedestrians in their diversity pass by, she concluded that ultimately, it was all about adaptation. Having lived all her life in the inner city, she'd be ill-adapted to small town existence. With this thought, she continued on to her Uncle Edward's with a renewed sense of will, and a reinvigorated, though shaky, desire to deal with the crumbling facade of her life. She had to be strong for Duncan. She had to be strong for Uncle Edward. She had to be strong for Hugh.


*


While Jerome inspected the fine-haired points of a selection of brushes, Thérèse looked down at his studio table and searched for music among the papers, pens, pencils, erasers, tubes of pigment, cotton rags, and opaque glass jars sprouting paint brushes like perennials at the back of a garden. Seeing as they both leaned towards a laissez-faire attitude to house cleaning, she wondered how they'd manage living together. She assembled the scattered cassette tape cases and created an arc like a spread of playing cards, a curved mixture of colour and black and white images: Pierre Flynn's Jardines de Babylon and his Le parfum du hasard; Etienne Daho's Paris ailleurs, and his Pour nos vies martiennes; Renaud's Morgane de toi, Mistral gagnant, and Marchand de cailloux. She then saw the edge of an eighth cassette tape and slipped it out from beneath pencil sketches of eyes. It was a band she was unfamiliar with. The La's, with a photograph of a woman's eye on the cover. Jerome was in a retro mood.

She heard his approach and felt him kiss the nape of her neck and gently run his hands down her arms. “Creating order out of chaos,” he said

“You and your old cassettes,” she said turning around to give him a squeeze. “Why not get an iPod?”

“With my fingers covered in paint, cassettes are good. I can toss them around and not worry.” He reached over for Pierre Flynn's Babylon. “Anyway, I like the feel of them, the sound of them, and they've taught me to wait for the better songs, or at least, my favourite ones. Have you ever noticed how after listening to the sequence of songs on a tape, you get to know which song is coming up, and in the silence between songs, you can anticipate the first chords to come, the words, the melody? You can almost hear them, recreate them in your mind. Why should I purchase their digital phantoms? Little ghosts unconnected to each other, mixed up and shuffled like a deck of cards.” He gave her a hug. “I'm all set if you are.”

Thérèse sat in the arranged armchair by the window and opened the book she'd chosen to occupy her, a Boris Vian novel she'd never read before. Jerome pressed the cassette into the machine and soon Pierre Flynn's rich baritone voice was singing Complainte du chercheur d'or. She couldn't concentrate on the text before her, the music and lyrics leading her thoughts astray, but she continued to look at the open book as a prop for her portrait. She hadn't told Jerome she'd recalled the name of the man who she thought responsible for the death of David Ashemore. She hadn't told him she'd learnt of the name of Isabelle Cloutier from Amelia who had mentioned it in the hopes of giving her some confidence that the Ashemore case was being taken care of. And she hadn't told him she'd found Ms. Cloutier's address and mailed her a card with the simple inscription within, David Ashemore – Jarvis Whitehorne, the acronym, P.R.I.S.M., an acronym representing a program instigated by Whitehorne, and she had added her initials, T. L. / T. S. She didn't want to know of the resolutions, conclusions, retributions. The card was her closure. An arrow shot in the dark. An arrow for Jarvis Whitehorne.


*


In preparation to make a batch of vegetable soup, Mary withdrew the large soup pot from the lower cupboard and placed it on the counter near her cutting board. Taking the top off and looking in like a magician into a top hat, she noted the faint rings of colour, orange, green and blue, a remnant gleam of olive oil embedded in the fine metal burnishings, and she thought of the demonstrators last spring who had walked the streets of Montreal banging their pots and pans in defiance of a legislative bill. There's always something, she thought, there's always something. What can you do? What can you do?

The aroma of her fresh baked carrot muffins had made its way down the corridor into the living room where Arthur Roquebrune sat musing over the chess board. The aroma confounded his concentration as he began to anticipate the arrival of Mary's baked goods, with the promise of melting butter on their fluffy, dark bronze-tinted cake-like textures, the touch of fresh jam, and the pot of tea with its cozy in the shape of an orange cat. Edward Seymour looked on as he massaged the scalp of George III who sat on his haunches beside his chair. “Do I have you there Arthur?”

“Oh, it's far from over Ted, far from over.” Arthur liked to use the shortened form of Edward's name when they played their weekly Saturday morning chess game. A subtle handicap to deflate the home team. “Let's hope we don't find ourselves in perpetual check like last week. Somewhere out in the ether your echo is still moving the Queen back and forth ad infinitum.”

“I had a patient once,” said Edward, the image reminding him of an old case, “who was taken with the game, taken rather too far. It had turned into an addiction.” Arthur nodded his head as he mapped out the possible moves and countermoves before him. “He began to see games in patio stones, floor tiles, women's patterned dresses and gingham tablecloths. He did like Italian bistros. Well, we tried behavioural conditioning, but the bio-feedback didn't seem to work. I suggested he take up another game, distract him from the chess. I suggested tennis.”

“Hmm, and so, what did the patient do?” Arthur said not looking up.

“Well . . . he became addicted to the game of Go. Instead of squares, his attention was drawn to the interstices: the crossing of phone lines, the pound sign or octothorpe, the lines and points between squares of floor tiles and patio stones. The cross hairs in the very fabric of life. Lines, lines, lines.”

“Ah,” Arthur emitted somewhat distractedly.

“And then he took to carrying a box of candy M&M's because they aped the convex shape of the playing stones, and were cheap enough to leave behind on bistro tables and friend's bathroom floors.”

Arthur looked up. “Montaigne thought chess was absurd and trivial,” he said, and then shook his head. His thoughts drifted back in time and he wondered if Jacques Cartier and his men had played the game at Charlesbourg-Royal during that difficult winter of 1541-42. Did they have the necessary leisure? Would it have soothed their nerves? Had it been a welcome distraction from the dangers facing them?

“Ah, yes, your Montaigne. Are you still reading his diary of that journey to Italy?”

Arthur moved his black Bishop to King Bishop's fourth, and then sat back. “Yes, yes. There are some interesting moments and details. Local customs, food, that kind of thing. The spas, baths, the drinking of the waters, but the sections recounted by his hommes d'affaires dwell too much on Montaigne's bladder and stomach ailments yes, due to his suffering from the stone. Perhaps some are more interested in how many stools he passed that day, how many stones, or the quantity of urine.” Arthur shook his head. “But I will continue. The good outweighs the bad.”

Edward rested his chin on his clasped hands in a semblance of prayer, and scanned the chess board in an overtly secretive manner, pursing his lips and blinking his eyes as if communicating in code.

“The Montaigne is not as entertaining as the Vathek by Beckford though,” Arthur continued. “This Vathek wasn't on my list of books to read, books I wanted to read when young but never had the time, but my bookseller pushed it on me saying he thought I'd enjoy the tale. Somehow I think I'll never get through my list. It keeps growing.”

Edward nodded absentmindedly. “Hmm.” He moved his white Knight to King Bishop's third. He crossed his arms, and in the silence that fell upon the game with its counterfeit infinities, Hugh made his appearance. His clipping nails upon the hardwood floor drew their attention from their wooden officers and foot soldiers to Hugh's sprightly curiosity. George III lowered his head and sniffed him as he passed by.

“And who do we have here,” Arthur said dropping his hand down to entice Hugh with a stranger's scent.

“Hugh, an orphan for the night. Amelia's pet. She dropped him off last night. George here is uncertain what's going on.”

“Yes, yes, territory and all that.” Arthur scratched Hugh's ears and rubbed his back. “That reminds me,” he said, “last week when you were telling me of your friend Ms. Cloutier who was looking into the David Ashemore case, I wanted to tell you he was an orphan, adopted by the Ashemore's when a baby. When Amelia walked in, and we stopped our discussion of the Ashemore case, I never got to mention it. Perhaps it would help your Ms. Cloutier with her interests.”

Edward looked down wondering if he should reveal that Isabelle had reached a cul de sac. “That's an interesting fact Arthur. I'll let her know next time we talk.”

As Arthur returned his attention to the checkered square between them, Mary made her way into the living room with a tray laden with muffins and mugs of steaming tea. She didn't like to see grown men mincing about playing Mother with fine china cups. Big mugs of tea it was. The chess players preferred them as well, something to warm their hands, stimulating distant memories of hot chocolate and childhood.

“Thank you Mary, something to keep us going,” Edward said.

“Yes, yes, thank you Mary, your muffins are ambrosia,” Arthur said smiling up at her. “My dear wife thanks you for the recipe.”

“Ah, well she's very welcome Mr. Roquebrune. Glad you both like them. So now, who's winning this week?”

“Hard to say at the moment, but we may be here some time.” Edward winked up at her.

“I'll be making a quick vegetable soup for lunch. It might be ready before you are. I'll be back to top up your teas. Enjoy gentlemen.”

They thanked her again and watched her departure with a sense of admiration and guilt at being so pampered. Hugh, looking up at the tray, sniffed the air, a physical language that still resonated with his human counterparts.

As Edward busied himself with his muffin and tea, Arthur contemplated taking his pawn with his own pawn, but then quickly considered that moving his Bishop to King's fifth would be the better choice. He did so, and raised an eyebrow on his opponent.

Arthur, now relaxed and confident, prepared a muffin with butter and a touch of marmalade.

“That move seems familiar Arthur. Are we repeating ourselves?”

Arthur's laughter faltered with the appearance of Amelia and Mary holding an arm around her shoulders. He stood up out of concern and respect, pieces of his muffin falling to the floor where Hugh and George quickly competed to snuffle them up. “Now sit yourself down and have a word with your uncle and I'll bring you a nice cup of tea.” Mary exchanged a glance of deep concern with Edward before going back to the kitchen.

“What's the matter my dear?” Edward said, quickly running through the possibilities of distress: Duncan running off with a circus performer, money woes, car failure, the reappearance of her parents.

She told them how she had been phoned on Friday night by Duncan's friends wondering where he was. How she'd phoned the shop and then driven down to find him lying unconscious between the bookstacks, and how she'd called an ambulance and spent the night at the hospital hoping he'd survive what ever caused his collapse. She was wiping tears away as Mary brought her a big mug of hot tea, and together with her uncle and Arthur's kind words, she began to feel the solidarity of family and close friends fortify her belief that all would be well. “Don't worry Amelia. I'll make some phone calls. I still have many connections with the Royal Vic. We'll make sure he gets top notch care,” her Uncle said.


Arthur sat down heavily upon his chair, overcome with a nauseating dread that Duncan's collapse may have had some connection with Thérèse LaFlamme's in Bergen. He glanced at the chess board and saw nothing but randomness and escape, and he recalled the words of Montaigne: quelle corde de son esprit ne touche et n'employe ce niais et puerile jeu? 

© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yes Cecil A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Four

After a nod and a hello to the bookstore clerk, a fresh face filling in on a slow Saturday morning, Pavor busied himself in looking for a certain title by Boris Vian. Being so close to The Word bookstore on his way back from picking up bagels and feeding Clio—whose feline dismay had been assuaged by a dish of food, soft words, and a gentle stroke down her spine—it was inevitable that his desire to replace Vian's The Froth on the Daydream, the small 1970 Penguin Modern Classic with the cover image by Felix Labisse, a book he'd purchased from The Word thirty years ago and had misplaced or lost, and had, for the last few years, been quietly looking for, would draw him to that cave of delight, that veritable cornucopia of the world's voices offered with a Zen-like calm, a bookstore whose shelves held the quiverings of countless words ready to take flight with the turning of a page and escape out the door between the supple fingers of a contented customer to which he hoped he was one.

“What was it with Beckett and the letter M anyway?” a male voice behind him asked.

Startled from his romantic musings about the pursuit of secondhand books, Pavor exchanged a brief glance with the clerk, and then turned around to see a middle aged man sitting in the low slung upholstered chair parallel to the display table laden with history books. The man's greying moustache was exemplary, full, finely trimmed, and ever so slightly tweaked at the ends. It hovered beneath his long nose like a circus canopy over the stage of his open mouth. His large horn-rimmed glasses engaged the brim of his baseball cap, one that sported a logo like a street sign, a dark silhouette of a faceless man's head with a bowler hat, and a line drawn across it on the angle, an heraldic bend, the logo for the music group Men Without Hats. Worn with irony, or as some kind of emblem of antiestablishmentarianism, Pavor could only wonder.

“Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Murphy, Malone, Molloy, Moran, Mahood . . . and yes, Macmann. There are others I'm sure.”

Pavor thought the man's patent, hadn't quite pended.

He noticed he was holding a book entitled Visions by Leonid Andreyev, the hardcover dustjacket revealed an image of the bearded author looking much like a 1970s French Canadian folk singer.

“Can't you just see the stiff-haired Sam sitting cross-legged at a café table in Paris, tweed jacket, scarf, a demi-tasse before him, a thick white cigarette trailing smoke, those striking grey-blue eyes looking past you?” The man looked towards Pavor as if expecting an answer. “I had the good fortune of meeting him. Yes, Paris, 1979, Montparnasse. He signed a copy of Godot for me. Such nice hands.” The man returned his attention to the Andreyev leaving the clerk and Pavor holding the silence between them like a sheet ready to be folded.

Pavor began to recall the images of Beckett whose multi-lined and deeply etched face was like a road map of all the disillusions he'd surveyed. An iconic image, a caricature of all things modernist and literary. Images of authors unsettled him. Photographs could rarely go beneath heir split-second captured surfaces. His own author photograph for his publisher was just such a facade. His had been poised, looking stalwart, strong-willed, in control, and yet at the time, he'd been fragile, his will power crumbling like burnt toast—he could barely get out the door. He often looked at author photos and wondered what inner frailties gnawed at their self-confidence beneath their bitmapped images.

Pavor returned his eyes to the shelf before him, but could see no Vians between the Vernes and the Vidals, and having no interest in either of those authors, it increased his frustration seeing them cheek by jowl.

“Excuse me, but are you P. K. Loveridge?” the clerk enquired from the built-in cash desk beneath the stairs, a position that reminded Pavor of a Dickensian workplace, something akin to Kenge and Carboy.

“Yes, that's me.”

“There's a couple of books of yours here we'd like you to sign, if it's no problem that is.”

“Sure, no problem.” He came around to the little counter while the clerk rummaged behind him for the books. “You wouldn't have any books by Boris Vian by any chance?”

Placing the two softcover volumes on the counter beside a volume on wine, the clerk looked towards the front window as if daylight would help his memory search the storage shelves upstairs. “Nothing at the moment. They go pretty quick.”

“Umm, I bet.” Pavor began to sign the copy of Olivaster Moon when he heard the approach of the lugubrious man with the moustache.

“Ah, a writer I see.” The man was taller than Pavor expected. “What is your style Sir?” He didn't wait for an answer. “Are you a practitioner of dirty realism, that efflorescence of rural ruminations? That migratory method from the midwest, rural Gothic, hayseed haiku if you will? Or perhaps you proffer examples of real dirtiness, British influence, lad lit yes? A progenitor of bawdy metropolitan graphic with a touch of graffiti rap?” The man, whose clothes carried the scent of the coffee house, paused. “Esoteric eroticism perhaps?Vampiric youth narratives? Regional, coming of age reconstructions? Family saga fandangoes? YA lite, or narratives as clean and uncluttered as a staged condominium open house?" The man chuckled like a critic. "Or are you one of those coffin flies who scuttle along the edges of famous crypts in order to co-opt an historical life for a story?”

The clerk, a Page to Pavor's Knight, came to his defence. “Mr. Loveridge writes spy thrillers with nuances of noir crime, Fitz. Haven't you read the Rex series?”

Fitz ran a hand over his enviable moustache and looked sideways at Pavor. “Ah, I see, a novelist who works for a year to produce a book that's consumed in an evening. Your poor readers Sir, they must suffer to wait. Or, to reread. Are your books worthy of rereading?”

Pavor was at ease with eccentrics. Like players of solitaire, their cards were on the table. “Well, I don't know. I hope so.” He closed the signed copy. “I can tell you, I can't reread them if that's any help.” He smiled.

“Ah, well put Sir, well put. Unfortunately, having not read your work, I can't say I am a bona fide fan. No autograph seeker here," he said, tapping his plaid shirted chest. "Don't get me wrong,” he said touching Pavor's arm, “I'm not an urban snob, a snurb as it were—not to be confused with the snurd which is the slushy snow that builds up and freezes in the rims of cars and is deposited along roads and left in parking lots, veritable vehicular defecations, snow turds, hence snurds—no, I am not a snurb. I'm quite as willing to delve into the noir as the next man. Yes, give me a Stark, a Westlake or a Leonard and I'll be content . . . for an hour or two.” Fitz raised the copy of Andreyev before Pavor's eyes. “Have you read this author.”

“Andreyev? No, I'm sorry, I haven't.” He signed the second book, Rex in Arcadia. “I played Russian roulette once and came up with Gogol. Haven't gone much further than that.” He hoped that confidence would baffle the eccentric Fitz enough to make his retreat. “I really must be going. I have a cat to feed. Nice to meet you Fitz. I'll keep Andreyev in mind.” He thanked the young clerk and asked him to say hi to his boss for him and made his way to the door.

“Ah,” Fitz exclaimed, picking up the book on wine, “it's extraordinary what the humble grape has achieved is it not? Just think of its shrivelled little cousin, that desiccated delicacy, the raisin, how . . .” Pavor was out the door, and as he passed the large front window, he waved to the shadows within seeing only his dark reflection in the glass. Melisande had told him stories of peculiar and eccentric library patrons, but secondhand bookshops also had their share. Especially if a comfortable seat was provided.

Back in his car, Pavor observed the slender fingers of frost formations on his windshield, constellations of crystals with inconceivable tenuities, sidereal impressions in frozen molecules. He remembered his daughter's fascination with window frost, “winter writing” she'd said, “an unknown language.” Pavor rested his forehead on the steering wheel and closed his eyes.

His cell phone rang.

Reluctantly he pulled his phone out. He recognized the number. “Hey Jerome, how's it going?”

“Sorry for calling you on a Saturday morning. Hope I didn't disturb you.”

“No, not at all. Just out on errands. How's Thérèse doing”

“She's good. Better every day. Thanks.” Jerome cleared his throat. Pavor thought he sounded rather excited. “I just wanted to let you know that the client whose wife's portrait I painted, heard I was getting married and has offered to host a celebratory dinner. I told him it was a double wedding. All the better he said, and when he heard Duncan was the best man and his wife the bridesmaid, he invited them as well. Six of us for the night at their country estate. What do you think? The food will be gourmet.”

“Wow, the perks of your trade eh? I'll talk to Melisande, but it sounds lovely.”

“He said he'd have his Mercedez Benz van pick us up on the Sunday after the wedding, and we'll stay over till Monday or even Tuesday if we'd like.”

Pavor had yet to think of honeymoon destinations but such a visit seemed a pleasant precursor to a trip abroad. “Thanks Jerome. Sounds great.”

“Good. I'll talk to you soon. Say hi to Melisande for me. Ciao.”

Ciao? He hadn't heard Jerome so animated since he won an arts grant to study in Europe. Pavor started the car, left the defroster off, and made his way home.

*

Amelia wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror but her features were still fogged by the remnant moisture. The words of the doctor came back to her like the steam returning to the mirror's surface. A liminal state the doctor had told her. He was stable. They would perform more tests during the morning and afternoon. She should go home and take care of herself and then return late afternoon when Duncan would be back in his room.

She sighed deeply and wrapped a towel around her hair.

The apartment was quiet without Hugh. Mary had picked him up last night to stay with Uncle Edward and George III. She hadn't revealed the reason why she needed a dog sitter. There was nothing they could do to help Duncan, and the hospital with its inevitable germs was no place for a ninety-two year old. She didn't want Edward catching some virus. She would drive up to see them for lunch and reveal all.

Passing the study, she stopped and looked in at Duncan's desk, a cluttered assemblage of papers, books, and collectibles he'd acquired over the years. She sat down in his chair and looked at the bamboo holders full of pens, pencils, book marks, chopsticks, and the letter openers he liked to collect, miniature swords and daggers in brass or copper, Victorian copper paper knives, finely polished multi-coloured wood ones, and carved exotics from other continents. On the right side of the desk sat a bowl filled with small sea shells, some pearly and transparent, others pure white and solid as stone, colourful pebbles, slender petrified coral pieces, and a small starfish, and sticking out of them like a pen in a pen holder, a brown and white feather, a feather with a story. Duncan, alone at his Father's country cabin, had been looking out the living room window at dusk watching a rabbit munch the grass under a birch tree. The next morning he'd found the feather where the rabbit had dined, an owl's feather. He'd kept it as a memento mori. A reminder of the way of nature. She withdrew it from the shells and gently ran her finger along the soft edge. Twirling it around she held it like a quill pen, and then, overwhelmed with a superstition that any action might have an effect upon Duncan's recovery, she was overcome with a feeling of having disturbed the spirit inherent in the object, and slipped it back in place between the shells and stones. She knew it was illogical, but at such desperate moments in life, the scope of influences became panoramic and all embracing.

She looked at the small colour photograph propped on a set of reference books, a photo of Duncan before she knew him. The year was 1981, he was twenty-two, slimmer, with longer, darker hair, and sporting gold-rimmed Ray-Ban aviator glasses slightly out of fashion by that time. He was facing the camera and standing near a tall mirror, his reflection, an echo of his lost twin brother Gavin. He called the photograph André and Me. His little joke. The reason being that for many years in his late teens and early twenties, he experienced people greeting him using the name André. A bicyclist passed by, raised his arm and blurted out, 'Salut André.' Or a pedestrian passed him with a 'bonjours' and a nod as if he knew him. Or from an open car window, a voice calling out André. Or that occasion on the Metro platform at Berri-UQAM, when a young woman waved and called to him from the other side of the tracks. She had been going east, he west, and the noise of their respective metro trains entering the station had precluded any further verbal interaction. From the inside of his Metro car, he had waved to her, and she'd waved back, separated by an arm's reach. There were other occasions. Each time he'd been caught off guard. Each time he'd been stunned and unable to react quick enough. Each time he'd been left mystified. And then it stopped. He never did learn who André was. Never did meet his French doppelganger. The end.

With failing logic and a sense of shame she wished it was his doppelganger in the hospital and not Duncan.

She slumped back in his chair, crossed her ankles and suddenly felt disconnected from everything around her. Floating upon a cloud of anxiety, she could hardly feel the chair. She closed her eyes and consciously breathed in and out, seeking strength from some hidden reserves of perseverance. Fearing she had little left, she concentrated, and visualized a water well, the kind found in old farmsteads, and imagined herself bringing up a bucket overflowing with replenishing liquid, and pouring it into a bamboo irrigation trough that fed a small garden. Breathing deeply, she continued the process until she drifted off into a light sleep.

Roused with a sense of falling, she looked at the clock and saw she'd only been asleep for ten minutes.

She dressed quickly thinking of the items she should bring back to the hospital. His comb, toothbrush, fresh boxer shorts, socks. Reading material she remembered. Yes, she could read to Duncan if it was all right with the doctors. Going around to his bedside table, she noted his selected bedtime reading was not promising: a Loeb Classic edition of the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, My Friend's Book by Anatole France, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft by George Gissing, and McAlmon's Chinese Opera by Stephen Scobie. A prime example of his eclectic and wavering interests. She didn't think she could manage any of them, but did choose the Gissing. Looking at her own stack of books, she selected a novel she'd been reading, a collection of short stories and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, one of her favourite children's books she'd been rereading, a book Duncan had never read. She thought that it might be just the thing for him. She could read it to him with a soft voice, fil de voce, like a bedtime story. It might be just the thing to bring him back to consciousness.


© ralph patrick mackay