Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Four

As Mrs. Shimoda held a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, a portion of a woman's pale hand outstretched and pointing towards the distant prospect of Cherry blossoms, she savoured the pleasure in placing it snugly in its finely cut destination, and hovered for a moment over the image that was gradually taking form, a colourful panorama of three Japanese women in patterned kimonos. A gift from her son Paul. Puzzles, cross-word and jigsaw, the latter most especially, allowed her to forget the everyday worries and concerns of her life.

Her concentration was slightly offset as she heard a distinct thud coming from her tenants above. She had seen Amelia leave earlier in the morning, so she assumed it to be Duncan, or 'adorable Hugh.' It seemed to come from the kitchen area. She listened a bit longer, heard a faint sound like wood scraping against wood, and then returned her full attention to the puzzle looking for the edge of a blue sleeve.

Duncan Strand was on his hands and knees half-way inside a lower kitchen cupboard looking much like the stereotypical image of a plumber. Hugh looked on intently stationed near his slippered right foot. Duncan had knocked a hefty can of chick peas off an inner shelf while trying to ascertain the diminishment of dog food supplies. It had rolled to the edge of the cabinet, dislodging a portion of the cabinet wall. He thought it was odd that the wood was so loose, and having pulled the piece of wood away, he saw something glisten in the dim light. Pulling it out, he found it to be a package sealed in shrink-wrap plastic. Hugh looked rather perplexed when Duncan emerged from the darkness without a shiny circular object holding his food.

Duncan's first thought was that it might be a manual for a dishwasher that had fallen between the cabinet and the wall during a renovation period, but as he placed it on the table, he realized it was a white, eight and a half by eleven, unmarked envelope, shrink-wrapped in a fairly thick plastic. He was unsure what to do. It didn't look like it had weathered much time in its enclosure. At that moment, he heard Hugh behind him scratching the wood within the cabinet. He turned to see Hugh's little tail sticking out of the open cabinet door. Time to take Hugh on his walk and do a little shopping as he had planned. He was content to wait for Amelia's return when they could open it together. He had learned in his 53 years the importance of sharing moments.

As he put his jacket on and wrestled with the dog leash, he remembered a lesson in sharing which had been a memorable awakening. Walking down the long corridor towards the apartment of his girlfriend's parents, the unnerving sound of mahjong tiles being shuffled accompanied by the sounds of voices speaking Cantonese, he arrived as Yiyin opened the door still speaking to her family preoccupied with their game, her supple brown leather jacket, plaid skirt and leather boots a picture of sophistication. Their long descent in the elevator where he mentioned he had picked up the pictures he had taken of them in and around Hong Kong and Macau earlier that week, and her severe reaction on hearing that he had looked at the photographs without her. His defence that he had wanted to make sure they had turned out had been interpreted as an unworthy excuse. It had been one of the defining moments in their relationship. Photographs. She had refused to look at them. Mystified as to whether it was her nature or her culture that was so formal in its expectations, he had sat in a daze while she drove fiercely down the steep curving roads, shifting gears with precision and skill. Eventually she did look at the photographs, but they were forever tainted with his selfishness and lack of understanding. Looking back, he saw he was so young, so naive. He knew so little of her relations with her family. He had felt sorry for her seeing she had been brought up in an old fashioned family where the sons were sent for higher education but not the daughter, but he could never decipher the inner workings of their relationships. Not speaking the language, he had always been in the shadows when conversations took place, never quite knowing what they or Yiyin were thinking. He felt, however, that this lesson in sharing had been the moment when he relinquished the vision of his own path for that of two.

He picked Hugh up and made his way down the staircase to the front door, and as Hugh licked his chin, he thought accommodation was a key to growth and maturity. He placed Hugh on the stoop, and they made they way down to the sidewalk. When he was just a kid, he remembered wanting to be old, mature, on his own, established, in control of his life, images of a pipe smoking sailor on the high seas, or an older man in a library surrounded by books, leather chairs, and paintings of seas and ships. It was the hard life lessons in between that he, and everyone, had to weather to get to those so called golden years. Life itself. The irony now, was at the age of 53, he was beginning to think more fondly of his younger selves. The robust health of twenty-five or even thirty-five looked very good.

They made their way along their little quiet side street, and turned right and briskly made their way up to that much reduced boulevard, Dorchester. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and CSIS building on the far corner, was not unattractive in its concrete and glass exterior. It could easily pass for an apartment complex or a small office tower. As Hugh sniffed along the grassy verge at the corner, Duncan mused that he had never seen a Mountie in formal outfit in the vicinity, only men and woman in smart suits and business wear. Not even a flashy tie or two. He often thought that when he was buying his bagels at a nearby shop the customer in front of him could quite likely have been perusing some top secret documents that morning, decoding some message from an operative: “Golf on Sunday?” Their jobs, he imagined, could be just as mundane as any. He was reminded of a sentence in Ulysses, where the viscerally grounded Bloom refers to a policeman as prime sausage. You have to be prime sausage to be a Mountie Bloom would have said.

Up Greene Avenue they walked, Hugh getting all the attention, the oohs and aahs at how small, how cute, how, yes, adorable he was. He stopped in front of the old Double Hook bookshop, their old graphic icon still above the door, a part of the old building's gingerbread. It was now Babar, a children's book store. He wondered if Yiyin had ever had children. Her marriage and whirlwind honeymoon in 1983 had been the last he'd heard of her. She could be living anywhere. Her children could be lawyers, doctors, engineers by now. Pedestrians passed the man seemingly lost in thought on the sidewalk as if he were a statue with a dog attached. His eyes were now looking behind and above the shop where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Westmount Square rose up like a dark sail. For all he knew, she could be living there. Standing at one of those windows looking out towards the western sky, wondering what to do on such a glorious Sunday. He had known early on, that their relationship was not for keeps. They had been so different. He hoped she was happy wherever she was.

“Qu'elle est mignonne,” he heard a woman's voice behind him say. Turning, he saw an older woman and her husband looking down at Hugh, whose tail revealed himself appreciative of the adoration. Duncan smiled and said "bonjours", but he hesitated to correct the woman who was now petting Hugh, by telling her his name, “comme Hugh Laurie,” seeing that he might enter a maze of unnecessary confusion, not sure if Hugh Laurie was a known quantity. The couple smiled and sauntered off murmuring to each other. Only now, did he think he could have used Hugh Grant as a reference. He was quite sure the latter had a reputation beyond language. He looked at Hugh and tried to see if there was any resemblance. Probably not. But charm he had. Yes, he had Hugh Grant's charm.

As he looked down at Hugh, he realized he was standing on a piece of street art in coloured chalk. It was a square of pale yellow with a portrait of Babar, his hat and clothes in muted colours. The clever artist had also drawn lines over the artwork to resemble a jigsaw puzzle. A very talented artist. Duncan stepped back for he had been standing on Babar's trunk.

The sound of music drew his attention to the cars stopped for the light, a dark model Audi with its windows down was playing a song he recognized. Julie, his young secretary at the shop, kept him up to date on the latest music, for she brought her own music to listen to, and she was a fan of many modern bands, including the composer of the music coming from the expensive car. A song called Only the Young by the unusually named artist Brandon Flowers. The coincidence was strange. Just last week at the office he had heard the song, and going to Julie's desk, had found her watching the video for the song while she was on her lunch break, a video showing high wire artists which reminded him of the Cirque du Soleil. And now the song again. He felt a bit dizzy as he watched the car drive slowly off, two young women with dark sunglasses, blond hair in the breeze, smiling in his direction, but not for him, for his adorable Hugh.

© ralph patrick mackay

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Three

Dust motes rose in the morning sun from the faux-fur slipper--a sacrifice of Amelia's--which Hugh grappled with on the kitchen floor. He paused to look up at Duncan who sat at the kitchen table, pen poised over a company note pad, Strand Cordage Ltd., with the beginnings of a list, Bananas. Hugh sighed and rested his nose in the slipper, the illusion of a rabbit between his paws fading. The human scent, the reassuring scent of Amelia, a balm to his intrinsic instincts. They shared eye contact, blinking in unison, both thinking of her.

Bananas. Duncan tried to think of the other items they needed which had occurred to him only minutes ago, but they seemed elusive as fruit flies. Amelia would be greeting her friend Jacqueline at about this moment, kissing each other on the cheek, admiring each others outfit and entering their favourite café for a little brunch and conversation. He pictured them, two translators from different factions, exchanging stories of recalcitrant authors, manipulative editors and unruly deadlines. He heard the stories too, but it was different when she shared them with Jacqueline. He could sympathize, be a sounding board, be understanding and comforting, but her friend could truly identify. He was glad they had met at a conference.

Bananas, Cucumbers. He looked down and wondered if there was a theme here. Baguette. . . dish soap, capers, artichoke hearts. That was good enough to get him going he thought.

The radio played softly in the background, an eighties song. The eighties, a nostalgia dovetailed with commercial interests, were popular again.

After having looked through the weekly flyers for sales, he turned over a few pages of the free arts paper and noticed an advertisement for the latest Cirque du Soleil show. He closed his eyes as he gathered all the papers into a pile, and sat quietly as memories rose up like bubbles, a natural effervescence in search of release. He took the papers and placed them in the small recycling bin under the sink, and then stood at the back door trying to remember the exact year. It had been quite cold he remembered. Late January or February. Yes, the year he believed was 1982. February 1982.

He saw his twenty-three year old self emerge from the Metro station on a cold dark evening, uncertain, anxious and late. The Maurice Richard Arena lay before him in the distance like a dimly lit space ship. He felt for his wallet in his back pocket where his ticket to see the Great Circus of China was neatly ensconced. Entering the building, he was enveloped in the exotic and strange music of the east, gongs, cymbals, erhu and other instruments putting speed into his steps for the show had already begun. An attendant seemingly annoyed at his appearance pointed the way with his flash light down the aisle and to the right. Seeing a few seats to the right on the third row, he begged forgiveness in his best French as he awkwardly progressed towards them. A few grumbles and sighs arose from those less empathetic, not seeing themselves in such a position. Feeling quite fortunate to have an empty seat beside him, he draped his winter coat over it and gave himself over to the wonderment of this very special performance.

Never before had he experienced such skill and beauty combined. The young Chinese women were very attractive in their colourful silk outfits and exaggerated eye make-up. They twirled plates on multiple long thin sticks, smiling demurely, their dark eyes radiant with controlled emotion as they walked with graceful movement.

The next thing he realized, there was a white light flashing in his direction and he looked to his left to see the attendant making his way towards him. Not his night he thought. He asked for his ticket. Duncan blushed with embarrassment in the dark. The anxiety which had risen like a spasm, began to spin like the performer's plates as the attendant informed him that Duncan's ticket was for the first row. A domino effect in motion, he watched the attendant make his way between the stacking seats to talk to a young man in the front row. Duncan saw the dark outlines of two people in the aisle waiting for the seats he occupied, and he also noticed the older woman MC of the show looking over his way, wondering why there was a commotion. The attendant waved him forward with that most ancient of hand gestures. As he approached his real seat, the young man who had for reasons unknown placed himself in the first row, passed Duncan and they shared an exchange of looks that remained vivid to this day. He could see his face as if it were the reflection in the window before him. There was no animosity to be read from his passing expression. A tinge of guilt at having ousted his impostor made him say, "pardonnez-moi" as they passed. Sitting down, he felt the residual warmth of the now phantom occupant.

He was not one to draw attention to himself. He had been quite content in the third row, yet here he was, ushered into the limelight that splashed the first row around the ring. Some of the performers and a few of the musicians sitting sideways on the curtained stage behind, looked his way, naturally inquisitive in the scene taking place. For a moment it made him feel like a VIP being shown his seat, arriving fashionably late, and this thought seemed to give him confidence to overcome his embarrassment. He pretended to look slightly important, and was pleased he had dressed in his fine wool turtle neck sweater and sports jacket.

Then two pretty young women came out, placed themselves on their backs on curved platforms, and began to juggle an assortment of large items with their slippered feet: chairs, enormous colourful Chinese vases, boxes, and carpets. Their finely contoured posteriors were elevated by the platforms and at a slight angle towards Duncan's seat. He felt a rise in his temperature and heart rate both due to such breath taking skill and for his trying not to to stare at their shapely physiques and keep his eyes on the spinning objects above them. At one moment during their twirling of the fine woven carpets around in circles like horizontal dervishes, the performer closest to him looked sideways and caught his eye for a few seconds.  The eye contact brought him closer to the experience, overcoming the spectacle with the personal, overcoming their divergent cultures with a shared moment. She was not just a circus act, but a young woman behind the make-up.

An evening filled with a display of 2,000 year old athletic astonishments: young male acrobats flying through flaming hoops, martial arts with swords, high wire acts, contortionists bending themselves in half and balancing items on their heads, and the rousing finale of a bicycle slowly circling the ring picking up a few acrobats each time until its metamorphosis into a towering tree-like form, a colourful peacock with its feathers expanded to full extent, left him in awe.

Duncan brought his hands up to his face and rubbed his eyes. Thirty years ago, he thought. It seemed like another life. The young man he had supplanted was, he believed, the man who was now worth almost three billion dollars. It was unlikely he would ever know for certain that it was the future founder of the Cirque du Soleil, but the resemblance was there. Who knows, it could very well have been a bartender from Beloeil, but it was Duncan's personal myth, a cautionary tale in making him mindful of opportunity, even though, at the time, he was not a street performer finding influences from the east, but a young man having escaped a family business and adrift from a relationship with a young woman from Hong Kong.

© ralph patrick mackay

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Two

"What about Hugh?"

"What about Hugh?"

Before his wife could respond to his laconic parry to her initial question, they heard Hugh coming down the hallway. A pleasurable sound, his little paws with their nails softly clipping along the oak floorboards. Even their landlady who lived alone beneath them found it reassuring.

Though they had  been recommended to her as good tenants, they didn't know that Hugh was possibly the deciding factor in their getting the flat. Mrs. Shimoda, who owned the duplex, had interviewed them as if they were applying for a job, a sheet of questions and her pen hovering over a point system they could not decipher. It had reminded her husband of a short story with the archangel Michael interviewing the latest inductee to heaven, a mystery writer who had been murdered.
"Loud music?"
No, they had both assured her, they didn't like it themselves. Her husband had admitted he collected classical and jazz records, but he only used headphones so as to appreciate the instrumentation and nuances of the sound.
No, again. They rarely entertained, and if they did, it would be for a small quiet dinner party of not more than two other couples. They explained further that they were both quiet, mature, bookish types who spent most of their free time reading and drinking tea. Mrs. Shimoda had made a number of marks on her papers at these revelations.
They had looked at each other as if they had forgotten a crucial piece of paper. His wife had taken the lead by revealing that they did have a miniature dachshund named Hugh.
"Miniature Hugh," she had repeated, pen poised over her papers. "Does he bark?"
Rarely, if at all, they had assured her. "We can bring him over so you could make your decision whether he is acceptable," her husband had offered, adding, "he is quite adorable."
"Adorable Hugh," she had said quietly.

They agreed to bring Hugh over that afternoon and sure enough, Hugh proved adorable. Thence forward she referred to him as 'adorable Hugh.' They didn't know at the time that Mrs. Shimoda's son also collected records, and her late husband had had a childhood pet dog named Itsuke, a full size dachshund.

She had then shown them her garden. It was not a large backyard, but it was exquisitely laid out with flowering shrubs, small trees, wooden plank walkways, large potted plants, a rock and sand feature and the  soothing sound of rippling water. Hugh had perked up at the sight of the garden and dipped his nose in the small pond of cool refreshing water before seeing a squirrel on the fence and advancing as if protecting his new territory. The squirrel had puffed its tail, shaking it up and down like a lion tamer's whip, before deciding to scamper along and leap into a tree, thinking, quite possibly, it had never seen such a big squirrel before.

Mrs. Shimoda had smiled.

She had shown them a section of her garden where she grew tomatoes and basil plants, touching the basil leaves and releasing their fragrant pungent scent into the air, a scent that would remind them of that moment. She had told them they were free to help themselves. She also mentioned that Hugh would have to take his ablutions, however, along the sidewalks and in the parks nearby. They had not thought otherwise.

The four of them had stood in the garden sharing a moment of rare stillness, with only the sparrows chattering above them in the dappled sun. As he breathed in the fragrance of the garden, Duncan was reminded of the scene in The Decay of the Angel, where the now aged protagonist of the Mishima tetralogy meets the Abbess of the temple.  Having his literary memory trying to place itself in his day to day life, made him wonder if it enhanced his reality by adding colour, light, and nuance, or if it diminished his reality by obscuring it with layers of fictional shadow.

They had then noticed  movement  beside what was soon to be their new balcony. An elderly couple approached the wrought iron railing, both well-dressed and looking slightly apprehensive. Mrs. Shimoda raised her arm in greeting and they waved back. "I feel autumn will arrive early this year," the old man had said, supporting himself on the railing like a priest at his pulpit, issuing dire admonishments of fire and brimstone to his flock. Mrs. Shimoda had responded that it could well be. She knew this was his first lob over the fence, and the ball was in her court, so she introduced her new tenants, Amelia, Duncan and their dog Hugh to her neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Stirling. The Stirlings had wished them well and hoped they found the neighbourhood to their liking, saying it was a quiet, close knit little group of people on the small street. Amelia and Duncan had thanked them with many smiles, head shaking and waves preceding their entry into Mrs. Shimoda's flat to sign the documents.

They both looked to the doorway as Hugh made his appearance. Hugh looked from on to the other trying to figure out why his name was in the air.
"Yes old Hugh, we're going away and we have to find a place for you," he said, scratching Hugh's head. "We can't leave you here all alone can we?"
Amelia picked him up and gave him a hug before placing him on her lap and stroked his long back. She said that they could ask Nancy to take care of Hugh while they were away.
"Nancy, hmm," was his response.
"Or your brother perhaps." she said.
The thought of his brother George taking Hugh for over three weeks left him feeling slightly nauseated. An image came to him of Hugh on a couch licking George's fingers covered with that cheese coating they put on puffed cheesy bits, and watching loud sporting events on television. Hugh might never be the same. Who could they rely on? A kennel was out of the question for them. All he could offer was another "hmm," thinking it was too early in the day for a difficult conversation. He decided to change the subject, one of his reliable modes of interchange.

"I had the oddest dream last night," he revealed.
His wife sipped her tea and looked at him intently, seeing through his ploy, but being too tired to persist said, "Really, what was it about?"
"Well," he said, feeling much more at ease, "we had just entered this enormous sumptuous room, gorgeous period furnishings, rugs, paintings, fine bindings, a veritable grand country home." He liked to include his wife in his dreams even if she was not present in all of them, for the thought of his being independent in that other realm might signal desires which were not present in actuality, might put doubts of his loyalty and solidarity in play. The thought that his wife might think he was gallivanting about in his dreams with movie stars and strange women, leading a bachelor existence in effect, might be a disruption to their equilibrium. But in this case, she was indeed in his dream as she often was, although, seeing and recognizing faces was more of a feeling than a direct visual sense.

"You sat in a lovely tapestry chair behind me to my left, and I sat down at an extraordinarily carved harpsichord, fine in-layed woods and an elaborate painting on the inside panel. The keyboard was unusual for it had only brown keys, as if the white and black had melded. They looked and felt like some rare wood which was very odd. Then I began to play. Beautifully. The keyboard took on a strange form in that it extended far to the left of me, seemingly twice the length of a modern piano keyboard, and I was pulling it back and forth like an old typewriter to play the lower chords. There I was playing away, and leaning back on the bench to look out a window to my right. I noticed a statue on the lawn, which made me think it must be of the original owner of this stately home, and this gave me a frisson of nervousness realizing that this was not our house. The statue then came to life. He was a tall bearded man with a cane and a book under his arm. He stepped down from his plinth and walked towards the window. The former statue peered into the house, and began talking, but to whom I couldn't say. Then I noticed two other former statues, at least I felt they were, walking on the lawn. I felt we had just waltzed into this beautiful room and I had the audacity to start playing this rare instrument, and wake up these statues from their statue existence."
"And then what happened?"
"A stately women appeared in the entrance to the room and approached the harpsichord, bending over slightly and leaning on the edge. I didn't feel she was angry though."
"And . . ." she probed.
"I woke up," he said.
 After a pause, he resumed, "It just hit me how quiet dreams are. 'As quiet as a dream' would be a good expression don't you think? Do you hear in your dreams"
"Yes, I think I do," she said, "or at least the mental equivalent of sound. But that is a fascinating dream."
"I know, where did that one come from? Sometimes I think I must be dipping into other people's dreams." It was only later that night while looking through his bookshelves, and coming across a paperback collection of J. G. Ballard's best science fiction stories and looking at the contents page seeing The Garden of Time, that he thought there might be a slight connection. But he hadn't read the story for years. And he had dreamed the dream before coming across the paperback.  It was one of those moments when he realised how much the unconscious mind was working away like the proverbial mysterious individual behind the curtain.

They both sat drinking their tea while Hugh propped his little front legs on the kitchen table and wagged his tail against Amelia's ribs, oblivious to the uncertainty of his fate and the strange inner nature of humans.

© ralph patrick mackay

Monday, September 10, 2012

Long Poem Excerpt

I have been working on a long poem sequence which may go on for some time.  Some poetry comes quickly. These poems feel like sculpture to me. Like terracotta or clay, sometimes marble, chips flying here and there. I thought I would share the sixth in the sequence.

-A lyric sadness in the air. Mozart?
Or Haydn? Almost sounds like Arvo Part.
-She is superb this busker near the curb.
-A balm for equine meditated flight.
-She raises all our darkness to the light.
We join the crowd. The pigeons we disturb
Advance and peck the concrete looking lost.
Our coins, festina lente, tempest-tost.
The sharps and flats and pitch are anchors thrown
To still our stride, like snares of sound our own
Hearts recognize. Becalmed in placid seas
Of melody, she bows us into port,
Slow sarabandes for landfalls soft. They court
Our wayward variations with a breeze
Of interlude. You take my arm and draw
Me on, exempla of Newtonic Law.

© ralph patrick mackay