To have stood before her Mother's door like an eavesdropper, to have quietly passed the others with their Christmas decorations—sleigh bells, pine cones and Macintosh bows, a quilted Santa Claus with reindeer, a Joyeux Noël garden gnome, snowmen silhouettes, a crèche vignette carved out of linden wood (the result of personal choice or that of their offspring?)—and to have listened to the piped-in music of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, she'd felt she'd emerged from the elevator to a level where everything was monitored, and silence—an evocation of death—was forbidden; the music, like a psychotropic drug, massaging her consciousness into docility. The hallway with its blue patterned carpeting, upholstered chairs, occasional tables, lamps, mirrors and framed prints of happy landscapes and flowering glades, had seemed to her a facsimile refuge from true reality. Sitting beside her Mother now, she imagined herself trapped in this warm, dry environment of meals, medications, overhead announcements, games and activities like a captive on an endless cruise over a waveless sea. Once more the sounds of Christmas carols, this time nature inspired—Good King Wenscelas with the distant cawing of crows—seeped under the door from the hallway while her Mother laughed in response to a witty remark on the television by Pénélope McQuade. Isabelle smiled and casually glanced towards the entrance where a strip of light on the carpeting projected from the ever-lit hallway made her think of a chalk line on a running track. The start? The finish?
“Tu es pressé Isabelle?” her Mother asked, holding the television remote like a weapon holding her hostage.
Isabelle reassured her she wasn't in a hurry and had only been stretching her neck.
“Elle est si drôle ce Pénélope,” her Mother said, placing the remote between her thigh and the arm of the chair. “Si mignonne.”
Isabelle restrained herself from telling her Mother how Pénélope's pixie hairstyles had influenced young women viewers. Hadn't she too once had her hair trimmed and styled much like the television host? She recalled now that Pénélope's father's first name was Winston, an unusual name, and wondered if the source had been the character in that famous book she'd read while in private school. She always got the books mixed up. Was it Nineteen Eighty Four, or Brave New World? It seemed so long ago. Winston something or other. Winston Churchill. Winston Graham. Winston cigarettes. Winston . . . .
She glanced at the white and red poinsettia plants she'd brought as a gift. They would soon dry out and drop their leaves to become spindly skeletons of themselves. Her Mother would then ask to have them taken away. Revivified or tossed she'd never know. Just another marketed tradition. She wondered if white poinsettias had made inroads in the funeral business. Her Mother had already outlined her preferences for her own funeral, large triangular shaped floral arrangements in vases with white and mauve blooms, and for the reception, floral tributes with a greater variety of colours and shapes. Much the same for her own funeral she thought if she pursued the David Ashemore case. What would it be? A car accident? A poison induced heart attack? A staged suicide? A mugging? She could see her sisters going through her belongings, her dresses, shoes, sweaters, jewelry, keeping desired items before hiring an estate company to take over the undesired contents. They would use her kitchen, her bathroom, perhaps even use her old toothbrush to clean the built-up dust on certain owl figurines and sculptures. Jokes would be made about an owl fetish. Small talk about collecting manias and stories of people who collected oddities like combination locks with forgotten combinations, or the exuviae of cicadas and scorpions. Her own treasures would be dispersed at discount prices and the remnant filtered through the Salvation Army system, picked over, judged.
And her ex-husband Nick? Would he show up at the funeral with but another fresh-faced limpet barely into her twenties? Maybe one on each arm, a blonde and a brunette. They flocked to him like fruit flies to an ageing banana. He was a walking cliché of virility. She recalled the day she'd met him while on Mount Royal sitting on a bench reading a psychology textbook. He'd come jogging towards her, stopped to catch his breath, caught her eye, and joked about how he had to work off that spanakopita. Next thing she knew, he'd invited her to his Greek restaurant. She always remembered the sight of his powerful calves, the first thing she'd observed when she'd raised her eyes. His dark-toned skin, hairy forearms, that two o'clock shadow, those playful eyes. Of course her Mother thought it was her fault for losing him. What could she do? Nick was a ladies man. It was his genetic disposition. The restaurant provided him with a constant supply of young women. Word of mouth did the rest. She would see them walking by the restaurant, stopping to read the menu, but really looking through the glass to see if he was there. That was his lot in life. Being Nick's wife wasn't hers. Though she did miss his spanakopita.
She covered her mouth and quietly burped. Dinner tonight—overcooked pork chops, boiled potatoes, carrot and turnip mash, followed by apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream (an English chef?)—if not memorable, had at least kept her busy while trying to choose subjects of conversation mundane enough to avoid gossipy neighbouring ears. Dinner with her Mother was always contentious. Other daughters visited with their husbands, their children. Residents would nod to her and say hello, but she could read their minds: ah, yes, the single one, the divorcée, the forensic something or other. There was the bald man in an old grey suit who always sat by himself in the middle of the dining room staring ahead as if he was watching a film on a big screen. Everyone else were in groups of three, four or five. When she stayed for dinner she would sit at the special tables for visitors and her Mother's companions would wave from their table, a trio instead of the usual quartette. The first, the tiny Mrs. Gagnon with her pleasant smile, couldn't hear very well, the second, Mrs. Castonquay, tall and stern, rarely talked, and the third, the healthy, red cheeked Miss Clement never stopped talking, “fatiguant” her Mother would say, manipulating her hand like a puppet. She often scanned the tables and could imagine the cliques and cabals much like in high school, though a hubristic inversion had occurred. No longer was it how much money one's Father made, the circle of self-esteem was now a mathematical formula consisting of the number of children one had and their levels of achievement, combined with the number of grandchildren, multiplied by the number of visits and demonstrations of affection which provided the fluctuating lines on the graph of pecking order prestige. Pilots for major airlines still held a tremendous caché she'd learnt in that casual confinement of trifling conversations otherwise known as an elevator. She'd been entertained by an elderly Mr. Forget in his sweater vest and soup-stained tie informing her, with the occasional wink and a touch on her forearm, of his apartment view over the old grounds to the south east where the great poet Emile Nelligan had spent his last years in the old asylum for troubled minds. Wasn't a day, he'd said, that he didn't think of him. She had listened to the elderly gentleman, looked him in the eyes, even touched his hand with a show of empathy, and seeing the wrinkled loose skin between his thumb and fingers, had been reminded of the soft ripples of Bahamian sand that she and Nick had walked upon during their honeymoon, a stroll in the shallows, a shoreline emblematic of their challenging relationship, the back and forth, the rise and fall, the warmth and the cold, the pleasures and the dangers, the very diastole and systole of Mother earth. Her Mother had later informed her that Mr. Forget's son was a pilot, and the envy of them all. When he visited there was always a rise in attention levels. Jacques Forget, pilot, not a crease out of place, his blue black hair perfectly coiffed like a young Cary Grant. He could very well have been the pilot who few them to the Caribbean for their honeymoon years ago. She could see the elderly Mr. Forget now, shuffling down the hall towards his room, a departure sans adieu, his soft voice reciting a poem by Nelligan—at least she supposed—the words spoken half to himself and half to the ghosts around him. Ghosts. Perhaps the ghost of David Ashemore had accompanied him down the hallway, a brief lyrical diversion from haunting her thoughts with his unfinished business concerning Jarvis Whitehorne.
Since receiving the note from what she assumed was Thérèse Laflamme, she'd researched Whitehorne only to discover that his company had been purchased by a large American conglomerate over six months ago, and his yacht, Revenant IX, had been recovered off the coast of Antigua five weeks ago, listing heavily to the starboard having taken on water. No one aboard. The whereabouts of Whitehorne still under investigation. Clive Saunders who'd taken over Ashemore's job had told her—off the record, you didn't hear it from me—that he'd learnt of Whitehorne's shady international connections selling biotech. They had arranged to meet at a dépanneur, and he had talked quietly while holding a tin of baked beans with maple syrup as if discussing the delicacy of the after taste. Whitehorne had developed an implant device, he'd told her. Nano-technology. A sort of fail-safe button: “Remote activation providing termination of host.” Cold phraseology for distance execution. Saunders had left her with the rumour that future applications could be introduced like a vaccine. If the individual became problematic later in life, “File, delete. In a future world facing climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of food, fuel and clean water . . . “ he'd shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate human life would be cheap. It made Whitehorne's other methods, his acronyms of aggression, positively sophomoric: FIST: fabricate, isolate, slander, traduce. THAW: thwart, hinder, annul, wither. “In the future,” Saunders had said, “prisons would no longer be affordable. Cheap labour would be replaced by robots. Unrest and criminality nipped in the bud.”
Standing in the aisle of a convenience store listening to these theoretical projections while pretending interest in cheap spaghetti sauce and cans of beef vegetable soup all to the soundtrack of Owner of a Lonely Heart coming from the store speakers had drained her of all hope, and made her feel as chipped and cracked as the stained linoleum beneath her feet. A prolonged silence that could be interpreted as defeat had left her numb with the sense of how easy such an implant could be abused. Just who would be the ultimate file manager?
She looked at her Mother, safe, content, well taken care of, holding on to the shirt tails of world affairs in her battle against irrelevance; and yet her daily news fix was but a surface skim, a pure injection would probably finish her off. It strangely made Isabelle think of an incident on a nearby lawn last summer, a cat attacking a mourning dove, and her attempts to save the bloodied winged bird from what appeared to be a lovely white domestic short-haired with a collar, yet as wild eyed and transfixed as someone before a computer screen. Her chasing the cat away had been a mere interlude of unreality to the feline brain feeding on its depths of instinct. There she had stood, a woman in the middle, between the cat and the pigeon, challenged by the nature of morals, and the morals of nature. Whosoever will be saved?
Listless and overcome with fatigue, Isabelle stared vacantly ahead, bathed in the cerulean glow of civilization.
© 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.