Thursday, October 25, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Nine

Jerome van Starke stretched out upon the antique wicker chaise lounge, his head upon the large brown corded sofa pillow, images of the day's faces—emotions and enigmas, profiles and recognitions—making entrances and exits upon his inner stage. The fashions and body movements, the glances and stances. So few looking at him, don't look at the 'homeless man,' the 'unfortunate,' the 'emotionally challenged.' Occasionally he would find an inquisitive eye, one that couldn't quite figure out who he was and what he was doing sitting on a street bench watching people go by. The police knew him by now. Only dogs met his eyes consistently, a mixture of bored curiosity and latent sympathy. He always included a dog in his paintings, lower right, looking out at the imagined viewer, his name underneath in a flourish, 'van starke.' The owner of the restaurant that faced his bench would tell his patrons that the man was “une artiste, nothing to worry about, not a beggar, but a painter looking for inspiration,” and he would point to the painting behind the cash, a portrait of the owner which Jerome had painted for him, having used Anthony van Dyck's portrait of Cornelis van der Geest as inspiration. There was the owner, complete with the slightly limp piccadill ruff collar of the original painting from 1620 but a much more handsome specimen than poor old van der Geest.

He reached over to the crumbling white plaster Grecian style pedestal and pressed the cd player on and let the soothing melodies of Coeur de Pirate wash over him like a sacred rain, the piano notes like drops of water upon his face. He looked at the figures on the pedestal, handmaidens, one hand over a breast, one holding a jug, libation bearers, and he imagined the flow of wine, wine falling into the river of life like red coiled snakes.

His burnt umber rags were neatly hung on a suit hanger upon the back of the door to his studio, his lace-less shoes positioned on the mat like offerings to Hermes. He now wore honey-coloured wide wale corduroys and a large denim shirt. A half-completed oil painting on the large easel reflected the late afternoon northern light.

Conjuring up the two women he saw today walking arm-and-arm, expressions of contentment, their colourful thin scarves flowing in the cool air, he visually placed them in the painting to the left of centre, envisioning the colours, the brushstrokes, the tonal contrasts.

He was glad he had decided to venture out on a Sunday. It had been worth it, those faces. Just what he needed for the painting. Weekday mornings, he found, produced a monotony of morose facial expressions, grey-steeled, rushed, yet, with less-concern in their tired eyes. They came like a river from the direction of the Central Train Station, an army of suits, shoes, purses, briefcases, shoulder bags, holding digital devices before them like maps guiding their steps. Lunch-time crowds were the most interesting by far. A mixture of office workers, students, tourists and those with time on their hands. Time on their hands. Was it incised upon their palms? Their expressions were a mixture of release and forgetfulness, the day half over; the lunch buyers, the sun seekers, the health walkers, the window shoppers. The evening rush hour towards the train station was much more hurried, their gait anxious with the passing of every second, not wanting to miss their departures. Determination in their strides and on their faces.

No, quite definitely, lunch-time crowds were the most inspiring.

His occasional forays into Dorchester Square were also beneficial at times. Leaning back on the park bench facing the equine statue was his place. His other place. The occasional tour guide would pontificate about the statues in the park, calling it an 'equestrian' statue, but he was not one to correct, he was not a stickler as was said. Equestrian, equine, what did it matter to the tourists who would likely forget about it by the next encounter with Montreal history. The unmounted horse was a favourite view. Rearing, the horse's expression of fright at what he imagined would have been an explosive sound, the soldier looking up with determination, pulling down on the reins in a frozen attempt to control that remnant of untrained wildness, that glimpse of a true nature in face of a fabricated horror. How few looked at the statue. Truly looked. It was now a place to take the sun, leaning against the warm concrete base, cell phone to the ear. Pigeons invariably perched on the outstretched forelegs like dark furies.

He closed his eyes, listening to the music. The image of Thérèse sitting across from him, laughing, wine glass half-full, the glimmer off the white dishes before her, the background music massaging the atmosphere, the glowing lights and the table candles, the shadows and darkness through the windows, the dark reflections off parked cars, the passing headlights. It had been three months since he last saw her.

He had lost count of how many paintings he had completed, how many portraits of Thérèse he had produced. She was always the beginning of any painting. The focal point, standing in the forefront of vanishing points, or, in this half-completed painting, to the extreme right of the canvas as the vanishing point was off canvas in his modern version of Carpaccio's The Disputation of St. Stephen. Rare were men in his paintings. Women predominated his scenes. Hearing his neighbour’s dog bark, he looked over to the distant wall where his favourite painting hung. His modern version of Carpaccio's Vision of St. Augustin. The dog in the original was timeless. Absolutely timeless. He replicated it as closely as possible. Thérèse as St. Augustin, sitting at a desk with laptop open, looking up at the light, pensive, books and papers surrounding her. In the distance, he had painted a fireplace with a miniature of the original painting above the mantel shelf. A wing-back chair and ottoman at the left side, and shelves with modern books and small statuary and china pieces. The dog looking up at Thérèse expecting to be fed, or was he, or she, perceptive enough to notice inspiration alighting? He could never sell the painting. Not now.

A knock at the door, a familiar knock. Jerome turned off the cd player.

Maurice, the man who looked after the property stood before Jerome, a package in his hand.
“I found this within the flyers and junk mail. You must have missed it on Friday.”
“Ah, merci mon vieux. And how are you today?”
“Uh, I am feeling like shit. My gallbladder is killing me again.”
“Maybe you should cut out cheese, and pasta.”
“How can I cut out cheese, how could I live without my cheese?”
“What about having surgery? It's not a complicated procedure anymore. A few holes, and they do it all by miniature camera, vacuuming it out with one of the tubes.”
“Ah, my friend, you make it sound like a bit of plumbing. The cleaning of a drain, eh. No, no, I am not ready for the knife, monsieur. Not yet. My brother had a camera put down his throat to look around in his stomach and he's never been the same. No sir, I am not in a hurry for the knife.” Maurice paused, half turning, “There were two men here earlier asking of you.”
“Two men? What did they want?”
“They didn't say.”
“What did they look like?”
“Hmm, well, they didn't look like artists. Expensive suits, faces only a mother could love.”

Jerome thanked him for letting him know. Shutting the door, he listened to Maurice's low moans as he descended the stairs. Maurice, he feared, was half in love with his pain. He looked at the package postmarked Trieste. He tore the envelope open and drew out a slim volume entitled Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra, by his good friend P. K. Loveridge. The cover, pastel colours of palm trees, white sand beach, a sail boat in the distance on a placid aquamarine sea. Jerome turned to the title page and found an inscription to him:

Dear Jerome,
My latest offering from your humble servant. Have settled in Trieste at a friend's place, will be here a year. Come and visit if you can. Give yourself a rest from all those fetid paints.
All my love to Thérèse,

He flipped a few pages and a piece of paper fell out. Picking it up he read:

Ah Ha! If you have found this slip of paper, you are well-rewarded for your curiosity. And here I thought you might have tossed the book onto your shelves to be forgotten. Yes, my dear Jerome, a collection of poems. From a writer of novels you ask? Well, it is a narrative poem. You'll find it all here, sonnets, villanelles, haiku, triolets, rondeaus—have I lost you yet?—ghazals, odes, acrostics, blank verse, clerihews, dramatic dialogues and a Rubaiyat or two. You might even recognize yourself within. The spirit only of course, the spirit only. Read it if you can in small doses. Something to ease the pain of your insular existence. I jest, I jest. I do hope it is readable. May it not be “compassed murkily about.” P.K.

PS: Do visit! Plenty of room here for you and Thérèse. You should smell the harbour. And the coffee, ambrosia. Ciao.

Jerome placed the book on the chaise lounge and walked over to the window. A visit to Trieste is just what he needed. Fresh air, new faces. Thérèse having left him three months ago, he was still lethargic and withdrawn. He relived the scene, going to her flat, no one answering his knocking. Her landlady, the petite Mrs. Shimoda he had painted in one of his canvases, coming out below to say the apartment was empty, and recognizing Jerome, pausing before saying she has moved. No, she did not have a forwarding address, she was sorry.

Jerome pressed the cd player on again and walked over to his easel. 

© ralph patrick mackay.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eight

The rosewood mantel clock seemed to tick louder, or was it only, he thought, because his good ear was towards the fireplace. He was looking out the living room window, the early October evening sky darkening from the distant eastern horizon where the lowlands of the St. Lawrence river basin gradually rose to the hesitant first outcrops of the Montegerian hills, now diminishing in the first shadows to islands like they were once before, and no doubt redolent with the scent of fallen leaves and woodsmoke, where cottages and homes clustered nearby with windows glowing with the colour of clover honey, and where, perhaps, a man or a woman stood, like him, looking out upon their views while pondering their inner lives, the evening humidity hovering invisibly upon the cool glass as if seeking out the warmth of their breath.

Edward Seymour turned to look at the eight day fusse timepiece clock, the blued moon hands pointing to 6:40 p.m. 'Time to keep time running' Lavinia used to say, and he would wind the clock for another week. Sunday evenings were their favourites. He looked up at the portrait of his wife above the clock and raised his small glass of port and drank a silent toast. How many were left to him he wondered. Four a month, fifty-two in a year. Perhaps this was his last. Everything was ritual now. His morning cup of warm water with lemon, his gentle yoga exercises he had been doing since he was in his early 40s, his all too brief walk with George III, his light morning breakfast, his opening of the morning mail, the appointments with doctors, the rereading of a special book, the conversations with a neighbour, his interactions with Mary, his recollections of youth, his sharing time with family.

'Look, the clock is happy,' Lavinia would say when the time was ten minutes past ten, or ten minutes to two; or, 'look, the clock is sad,' when it was twenty past eight or twenty minutes to five. Her personification of time would always conjure up the image of a smiling or frowning clock face with eyes, nose and mouth like the image from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. What would she have said about 6:40 he wondered. It reminded him of a landing signal officer directing a plane; or flag signals he learned during the war. The letter A came to him, yes, the letter A.

Looking back out upon the lights of the city, he would soon notice the four beacon spotlights from Place Ville Marie searching the undersides of the evening clouds like a flashlight pointing into an alabaster cave. It generally reminded him of London during the war. He drew the curtains on another day and walked slowly over to the ornately carved mahogany cabinet in the corner of the living room, lifted the top, turned the record player on, started the turntable and lifted the stylus, his hand shaking, before dropping it as close to the outer edge as was possible. George III lifted his head from his outstretched front limbs and rolled on his side. The clicks, pops and snowy crackles of the grooves were as much the past as the record itself, Danny Kaye singing a silly song, The Thing, Lavinia's favourite light-hearted depression-lifting silly song. The record remained on the turntable, a permanent home in her memory. He sat down in his mahogany framed wing chair with the worn orange damask cloth chosen by his wife, and listened. It was not much. A short song, a ditty if there ever was one. He closed his eyes and imagined Lavinia at the record player, her foot tapping on the carpet, her richly curled dark red hair catching the lamp light, her cool gin rickey clicking in the glass as she moved, smoke furling towards the ceiling from her long Benson & Hedges cigarette. The room became crowded with party guests from the past, high heels and nylons, ties and brogues, the chatter of so many voices, laughter. All of them ghosts now. He had outlived them all. 

Glancing at the books on the lamp table, Fourteen Stories by Henry James, and a blind-stamped leather bound copy of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, he picked up the latter, its fine grained cover as lined as his old hands and opened it to the brass paper cutter, smooth and thin with age, that held his place. Waring. It was a poem he never tired of rereading. Taking a sip of his port, he looked forward to having Duncan read the Henry James to him tomorrow evening. Amelia was a good reader too, better in fact when it came to diction and pronunciation, but he was fond of Duncan's odd mannerisms. This reminded him of his resolve to look at some of his private journals. He was unsure whether a decision had to be made concerning their future. To leave them where they were, untouched, or have them sent off to be recycled. A memory of a short story by Robert Graves came to mind. Something to do with compost, he remembered, we are all but compost in the end. How Lavinia was shocked to see the gardener pissing on the compost pile. It was an old method of helping with alkaline soils he had said. Well, he didn't say it in such scientific words but that was his drift. He too has long shuffled off from this spiral of never ending seasons with all their fallen joys and nether currents. He put Browning aside, walked slowly over to the cabinet, took out an album at random from the shelf underneath, a long playing recording of Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia and other Russian pieces, and set it going. Then he made his way across the hall to his book-lined study.

Dark oak shelves with fluted pilasters and rosettes housed his collection in precise order. In his youth, he had been much less concerned with placement, relying on memory and serendipity, but the older he got, the less time he wanted to devote to searching for desired objects. While in his early seventies he had donated years of dusty psychiatric journals to the University, journals which had been moldering away in the lower level of the coach house, volumes he hoped they had benefited from by way of recycling. The price of paper was decent at the time he remembered. The books that remained in his collection were the special volumes that reflected his life's journey. Many inscribed by the authors.

Two low shelf units beside his desk under the window housed his private journals, light brown leather with the date stamped in gilt at the base of each volume. He retrieved the volume for 1988 and made his way back to his comfortable chair in the living room, the strains of the oboe drawing him forward, his slow steps in half time to the pizzicato camels of his imagination. That recording was a bit faster than he liked, or was it just because he had gotten slower? George III did not appreciate the music it seemed, having gone off down the hallway towards the kitchen for water. Edward watched George's relaxed gait and thought that even to this day he didn't know why he loved Airedales so much. It was something deep within. An identification with character? Perhaps he had been one in a previous life.

Sitting down, he lay the volume on his lap, closed his eyes and listened to the rest of the music, gently swaying his head with the beat, envisioning a caravan, himself atop a camel, lumbering from side to side, dream-like visions of seraglios and colourful woven rugs rising like phantom oases in the distance. During the silence between the end of Borodin's piece and the beginning of The Romance from The Gadfly by Shostakovich in a piano and violin version, he opened the journal and sought the month of February. The piano's opening notes sounded like a lullaby he thought as he turned the pages until he found the first passage relating to Duncan. He began to read:

Friday February 19, 1988.
Lavinia reminded me of our dinner party tomorrow evening. PET and a few other distinguished guests have been invited. Should be a long day of preparations. Do hope weather holds, PET said he would walk. I can always drive him home if necessary.
Massella Landscaping have been doing a very good job of snow removal. They seem to have a firm grip on the market around here.
Duncan Alastair Strand (DAS) age 29, phoned this morning. Joan placed the message on my desk, with his full name and phone number. He wanted to ask if I could possibly see him as a patient. I had gotten along with his father Joseph Strand of Strand Cordage Ltd., when I needed the dumbwaiter repaired. I asked if there was an emergency, but he replied that it was not an emergency, but he simply needed to talk to a professional over the circumstances of his life at this moment, and having gotten to know me briefly when fixing the dumbwaiter, he felt comfortable in asking. I agreed to meet him next week. NOTE: I do remember seeing an obituary in the paper last year for a 'Strand'. One of those 'suddenly' obits. Could very well have been a relation. Strand is an uncommon name. I do hope, it did not involve, rope.

Monday, February 22, 1988.
It has been a slow but full day. Tired from much thought. Quiet dinner with Lavinia. Snow has kept us within, the fireplace crackling in the grate. My door is open. Lavinia playing the harpsichord. Sounds like Bach.
Heavy snowfall made for cancellations today. Did not get far with George, the front walk had to do. Snow too heavy. Joan couldn't make it to work and I said it was fine. Quite understandable. I said I could handle the desk and phone. I told her to stay warm and safe, I would phone the patients to cancel appointments.
DAS was my only patient. I wasn't able to contact him in time to cancel. He arrived, understandably, late. I asked how he managed to get through the snow and he replied 'an early departure and perseverance.' Well, I told him he was my only client for the day, so there was certainly no rush.

DAS, his initials remind me of the Sanskrit surname, and this in turn brings up my early interest in yoga from reading B. K. S. Iyengar's 'Light on Yoga' back in the sixties. I can see it on my bookshelf now here in my study. It truly influenced my direction. There I was at McGill, a climate tainted by Dr. Cameron's views, and I was moving away from such scientific manipulation. The abuse of science, I fear, will continue with every scientific discovery. I fear the more we discover, the more we will be moving towards a society which can use the information to control people in an Orwellian sense. For every benefit these discoveries bring, there will be people who will take advantage of the knowledge and use it to harm people. Scientists will come across odd permutations in experiments, offshoots that can have negative results on human health. These will be used and abused. 

I often wonder what life I would have had if I had remained in England. If I had not become interested in Eastern thought. We are all made of decisions and choices. Few of us, I imagine, find our ways smooth and even. Few of us. I realize how fortunate I have been in life. Very fortunate.

DAS was certainly ruddy cheeked and had a healthy appearance. He hadn't changed much from his first visit to the house to fix the dumbwaiter. He appears to look younger than his age, but his speech and the look from his hazel eyes reveal a maturity of soul. His body language, his dark brown hair, his manner of speaking with hesitant thought, all seem to conjure up characters from the past.

I began with small-talk concerning his family, their business, and hoping his family was well. I then asked him how I could be of assistance. He was obviously troubled and had difficulty in expressing it at first. He didn't know where to begin. Then he just said that his brother, a fraternal twin, had died in a car accident late last year. They had been in a music group together since the age of 14. His late brother, Gavin, had helped out with the family business and he too on occasion, but now that Gavin had passed away, he had to help out a bit more. Their mother had died when they were 12. A younger brother, George, lives in Ontario, a sports journalist.

With the death of his brother, their music band, The Splices as they were known, disbanded. Duncan had been working at Grange Stuart Books, his day job he said. I told him I knew Stuart. Knew the shop well, too. DAS said he helped Stuart at sales. Stuart would choose books, and DAS would box and cart them. He also did quite a bit of the cataloguing in the back room. The business was not really geared for street traffic, hidden as it was on a side street, up a flight of stairs from a door without signage. Most of Stuart's business was with specialty collectors, catalogues, and universities. He had started there in the late 1970s when a student. Stuart Grange's wife had been a childhood friend of DAS's mother, and they had remained friends, living one street over from each other. He has a B.A. in English Literature. McGill. He said we could have crossed paths in the hallways. Quite likely, yes, quite likely. In the mid 1980s when Stuart Grange retired, Duncan took over his stock and opened his own store, Lafcadio & Co., while still playing with his brother in the band. I told him I remember hearing about Lafcadio & Co., the name had intrigued me, but I admitted never having visited the shop. He said the name was after Lafcadio Hearn, and specifically his cat, blind in one eye, a stray tom who he had named Lafcadio. He was the Co. 

His problems seem to stem from an accumulation of incidents:
-A breakup with a girlfriend, a Hong Kong born young woman who he had met at a club where they were performing.
-A tryst with a touring performer from China.
-Conflicts with his brother over creative pursuits.
-A brush with death, skin cancer, a fortunate early detection.
-Difficulties with his book selling business, juggling this and music.
-Pressures from their Father concerning the family business.
-The death of his brother.
-Demands of his father's business as the elder Strand is not well and is near retirement age.
-All the above couched within the parentheses of his Mother's early death.

These, in general, have slowed his momentum. Damaged his sails so to speak. He is in port for repairs. He seems keen on nautical terminology. Understandable from growing up with his Father's shop selling all types of rope, much of it for the marine market. I sense a touch of depression, and feel perhaps a light tonic of some kind would not be amiss. But I shall see with further developments. He is still youthful for his age, still resilient. I hope I can help him repair his vessel and send him on his way.

Edward noticed the music had stopped. He closed his journal feeling quite exhausted with the past. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, in and out, deep breaths, before falling into a light sleep.

Text and image © ralph patrick mackay.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seven

Faltering at the corner of Dark and Light, he stepped back into the shadows, the distant shimmering of an asphalt mirage reflected in his eyes. Falling, he stretched out his arms. The darkness rose to embrace him and he found himself walking slowly alongside a large tent structure, its pennants fluttering a semaphore in the dim light; he tripped on a guide wire and landed upon a lawn heavy with dew. A light in the distance led him to a narrow passage leading up to a rough concrete walk. A redheaded woman with feline eyes ran past him. She looked back. He felt he must follow her; anxiety and dread rose up in him like a bile and he ran, ran towards the woman who was escaping from something behind him.

A white tower against an oddly muted electric ultramarine blue sky, appeared above the trees. He followed her into the tower to find a brightly lit vortex rising above him, a heavy bell-ringing cord rising up through the middle. He climbed the spiral staircase, staying close to the outer wall as there was no inner railing. The red-headed woman with the feline eyes had scaled the steps effortlessly, leaving him far behind.  Finally reaching the top, he saw the woman on a window ledge, her hand on the rope, a rope leading up into the sky, attached to what he could not see. She pushed herself off the ledge with her feet and was swept up, out of sight. He too gripped the rope but it became as smooth as polished marble and he found himself slipping down through the eye of the vortex to the ground.

Duncan awoke to find his hands around the wires of his headphones, his wife sitting gingerly on the end of the bed, Hugh wagging his tail and looking up at them.
“Have you been asleep for long? You were fast asleep.” Amelia thought how the word 'fast' was so nonsensically versatile. On a fast, fasting, and fast living. From abstinence to self-indulgence.
He breathed deeply, stretching, trying to find words but could only maunder incoherently, hardly knowing what day it was. He hadn't heard his wife's question. Still in the haze of the dream that was quickly evaporating, he pulled the large padded headphones off, and managed to push his conscious mind to the fore and moan about how he had only been resting, reading, listening to music, but he must have fallen asleep.
Amelia rubbed his foot as he lay there gaining his faculties.
“How was your lunch with Jacqueline?”
Amelia said it had been very good, they did a bit of shopping and had a pleasant lunch. She told him she had invited Jacqueline and her husband to dinner at the end of the week. She thought she would leave it at that, not disclosing her disclosures. She picked up a paperback book fallen to the floor, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, and placed it on the duvet beside the cds of Arvo Part and the soundtrack to Trois Coleurs Bleu that Duncan had presumably been listening to. Then, picking Hugh up, she plopped him down on the bed and snuggled up beside them both.

“Tomorrow I have to bring George III to the vet,” she said. “I drop him off around 9:30 and pick him up at 4:00. I was thinking we could have dinner with Uncle Edward.”
“That would be nice. Oh dear, I'm sorry, I'm a bit groggy. That three o'clock Sunday afternoon snooze gets me every time," he said, random images of his recent dream slipping away from him like waves rushing back to the sea.
"How was your day?" Amelia asked.
He yawned, "Good, good. I  tidied up the house (don't worry, I didn't disturb your desk) and then I took Hugh for a walk but I felt a bit off so I came home and then went out again to pick up the items we needed. I was in line at the shop and in front of me was a rather grumpy looking women with an old brown dog. The portly old Labrador retriever turned and looked up at me with such sad eyes I just melted. I've never seen such a sad expression on a dog. I put my hand down and he perked up and began to lick my hand, his tail wagging. I didn't see that he sported a yellow vest which said do not pet, a working dog. Well, I broke the law and petted him. Poor thing, he seemed deprived of affection. Although she wore glasses, I couldn't see how the woman needed a working dog, she didn't seem to be visually impaired. Her husband was beside her and his vision seemed fine. He too was grumpy and rather sallow. Poor dog I thought. Well, I felt I brought a bit of happiness to a living being today. Brightened up his day.”
“It might have been a seizure dog.”
“Oh, I didn't think of that.” He paused thinking of the ramifications.
“Sounds like the old dog needed a bit of affection though. Lucky dog."
Duncan gave Amelia a squeeze, kissing her hair and breathing the lovely scent of her. "Thank you my dear."
"Remember the German Shepherd on the train as we sat for hours at the border waiting to go on to New York?" Amelia said. "You seem to have a blind spot with working dogs."
"Hmm, perhaps. Remember the odd questions the border guards were asking people."
"Yes, right out of left field."

Hugh sensed a moment of calm between them as they lay on the bed riding the wavelets of memory. He raised his head and licked Amelia's cheek.
“Yes, Hugh, my little baby. I don't think you would be a very good border dog, would you?” she said giving him a hug. “It's Uncle Edwards's birthday soon. I talked with Mary and we are planning a special meal. I ordered a cake yet I wonder if we should come up with something innovative for the 92 candles.”
Duncan lay there wondering if Uncle Edward at 91, still healthy, still living in his mansion, would outlive George III and go on to find another Airedale to name George IV. Perhaps even outlive another housekeeper like Mary. It must be difficult to outlive so many of his friends and relatives he thought. “Hmm. Perhaps they might have a a figure of a man and his Airedale. You never know.”
“I will see if they do. Good idea. For the candles, nine on one side and two on the other would work. Or perhaps candles in the shape of 92.”
“Brilliant my dear, brilliant.”
“What is the envelope on the kitchen table by the way?”
“I don't know. It could be the manual for Dr. Who's Tardis for all I know.” He told her how he came to find it and how he was waiting for her to make a decision about what to do.
“I wonder who was living here before us?”
“Wasn't it a single woman?”
“Do you think it's money?”
“No, It feels like a thesis.”
“A thesis? That's not very exciting. Come on, let's take a look.”

Duncan delicately cut the top of the plastic and slipped the sealed vanilla envelope out.
“Maybe you should wear gloves,” Amelia said.
“It just feels like paper. I'm sure it will be fine.” He used the scissors to cut the edge and they both peeked inside. It certainly looked like a thesis. He drew it out and the uppermost page was blank. The upper left corner held an old-fashioned copper brad which bound the papers together. It looked to be about half a package of printing paper. He swept the envelope aside and positioned the papers between them and turned the first page.

They looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Duncan turned a few more pages. Then he riffled the pages from the back and they saw it was all the same. A jumble of numbers and letters that mimicked a text.

Hugh scratched at the envelope that had fallen to the floor, then he sniffed it before looking up at them. “Sherlock Hugh is already on the case,” Amelia said.

Text and image © ralph patrick mackay

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Six

“I guess it all started with a dumbwaiter," Amelia said.
Jacqueline raised her eyebrows, turning her head slightly to the right. "A dumb waiter?"
"Yes, one of those elevator-like conveniences in older homes."
"Ah, bon, a dumbwaiter, yes," Jacqueline said.
"Perhaps I should start with my Uncle Edward,” Amelia offered, as Jacqueline took a sip of her coffee. “My mother's sister met him in England and they married and lived in London for many years. He trained as a psychiatrist and had a practice there. He was friends with many artists and authors such as Mervyn Peake and Graham Greene,” Amelia added, half thinking it was an unnecessary fact, but also thinking it was one that helped place her uncle in a more literary light. “There was an offer of a teaching position at McGill University and they came to Montreal. It was in the early 1960s. A military moustache graced his upper lip and he generally wore a cravat. Quite different to my other relatives. Uncle Edward bought a large house—there was old money on his side of the family—on the slope of Mount Royal, on Redpath Crescent, which is an odd name for the street as it is laid out like an elongated circle and rather looks like a noose.”
“Oh yes, I know the street,” Jacqueline said, “it runs up from Pine, not far from Trudeau's old house.”
“Yes, yes. A street of lovely houses and trees. My uncle's house is a beautiful stone mansion, slate roof, mullioned windows, gorgeous oak panelling inside, and it has a coach house. They never had children and my sister and I would look forward to family visits for we had, for the most part, the run of the place. Wonderful for hide-and-seek. Uncle Edward had a cork-lined study which I believe was even off limits to my aunt. Off limits to us certainly. Anyway, he left teaching and opened a private practice in his converted coach house. His clientele was select. His patients were generally well-to-do and suffering from depression, anxiety, marital problems, family problems, but no cases involving extreme mental illnesses. In 1988, his secretary was leaving to have a baby. My aunt suggested that I could take up the position for the summer break to make money for my university courses. I was 19 and soon to be 20. It was a pleasant job in a place I adored. From time to time I would ride my bicycle up from my shared apartment on Laval Avenue. But most often, I would take the bus, and walk up from Pine.”
“Where about on Laval did you live?”
“South of Pine on the east side across from where Émile Nelligan had lived, well, a few doors down at least, so our landlord told us.”
“Oh mon dieu, Didier had a flat on Laval, close to rue Napoléon around that time. Le monde est petit.”
“We could well have passed each other in the street, or stood behind each other at the shops. It is funny how the world works.” The thought occurred to Amelia that if she had met Didier and become romantically involved with him, then this conversation with Jacqueline, and much else besides, would not have taken place. “Well, it was at the end of July when in walked Duncan. He was wearing a denim shirt with a sign over his breast pocket, Strand Cordage Ltd., and at first I thought he was there for a service call of some kind, but he said he had an appointment. He was youthful looking, handsome, sporting aviator sunglasses. He was not a typical patient.”
“Was it love at first sight as they say? Le coup de foudre?”
“It may not have been as sudden as that, but their was a . . . a frisson lets say, an emotional reaction. But, here he was seeking psychological assistance. I didn't know what to think. Duncan had been the last patient of the day, and my uncle asked me to close up as usual, and while he sauntered home to walk his dog, an Airedale named George, there I was, with access to the files. I had an interest in Duncan, but it would have been unethical to look. I was tempted more than once during the week to dip into the file but I resisted. The following week, Duncan arrived promptly, looking just as handsome. He was rather quiet and shy. Without fail he would produce a slim paperback book to read. I remember thinking that he could at least make some small talk but it seemed it wasn't part of his character. At least he wasn't hitting on me in a vulgar way.”
“So, what did you do? Cleavage or leg?”
Amelia tapped Jacqueline's hand in mock admonishment. “Honestly! I can't remember," she smiled. "Anyway, one week he had forgotten his umbrella, and coming back in, he bumped into me on my way out to find him, holding his umbrella. We had laughed and he apologized and then just before he was going to turn around and leave, he asked if I would like to go out for a meal.”

Amelia sipped her coffee and noticed the young actress behind Jacqueline was smiling at her. Stories overheard, she thought, become stories retold. She lowered her voice slightly, “I said sure, I was ready to leave and so we left together, walking past the beautiful houses in the light rain towards Pine. I remember seeing my uncle emerge from the main house with George as we started off on the sidewalk.”
Jacqueline reached over and placed her hand on Amelia's, “Did he show you the door for fraternizing with a patient?”
“Well, when I arrived the following Monday morning, I heard my uncle practising his oboe in his office. This was a hobby of his but I had never heard him play it before in the coach house. He asked me into his office and advised me that if I was to begin a relationship with Mr. Strand, I should be discreet at the office. I was an adult and he respected me, but there were professional aspects involved. He said Duncan was a very nice young man, and there was nothing to worry about on that score. I had thanked him, saying we had only gone out to have a meal together and I wasn't sure if we were going to have a relationship, but I completely understood.”

A silence hovered between them, a silence of unasked questions. What was Duncan seeing a psychiatrist for? Did curiosity overcome her ethics? Did she look at his file? Had there been a falling out with her uncle?

“I couldn't look at his file,” Amelia continued. “I actually gave it to my uncle saying it might be better that he keep Duncan's file in his desk. He thought there was no need for that, he had complete trust in my discretion. That actually gave me the power to overcome the temptation. I never did look at the file.”
Jacqueline nodded with serious understanding.
“Well, only the first day,” Amelia added. “Just the basic information. His name, address, age, and that sort of information. Duncan Alasdair Strand, born October 29, 1958. A secretary has to know these things.”

They laughed and finished their dessert. Amelia wondered how far to go with her revelations. There was so much to tell about her life and Duncan's. Too much for the capacity of a light lunch conversation. And what would Duncan feel was appropriate? Had she already gone too far? Would she benefit in any reciprocal way with such revelations?

"But you said it all started with a dumbwaiter," Jacqueline prompted.
"Oh, right. My uncle's house has a dumbwaiter. As youngsters my sister and I actually took turns pulling each other between floors until Uncle Edward banned us from using it as an amusement park ride. Too dangerous he had said. Well, the dumbwaiter needed a new rope. My uncle looked up 'rope' in the yellow pages, and came across Strand Cordage Ltd. He didn't phone, but visited the business and talked to Duncan's father. They generally just sold ropes of all types but they also provided the service of replacing ropes on dumbwaiters. Mr. Strand senior sent Duncan to fix the dumbwaiter and my uncle liked him very much. So when Duncan .  .  . when Duncan had some difficulties, he approached my uncle for help." Amelia sipped the remnants of her coffee wondering if this was the right time to tell Jacqueline a bit of Duncan's story. She couldn't see a better opportunity. She could tell Jacqueline was sympathetic.

"Duncan's fraternal twin had died in a sports car accident in 1987. It was a difficult time for Duncan and he needed someone to talk to. He very much liked my uncle and being a psychiatrist, the decision was easy. Duncan and his brother Gavan had been in a music group since they were young. They called themselves The Splices. They wrote songs together. Played in clubs. When Gavan died, the band fell apart. There were two other members, a bass player and a drummer. Duncan keeps in touch with them on Facebook."

"I am so sorry for Duncan. They must have been close, fraternal twins often are."
“Yes,” Amelia nodded. “It is still difficult for him. We don't often discuss his brother. Well, that is how we met. I didn't mean to end on a sad note. Sorry."
"Not at all. I feel much closer to you both already. We all have stories," Jacqueline said thinking of her own family history.

 "I wanted to invite you and Didier for dinner one night," Amelia said trying to change the mood. "What about next Friday or Saturday?”
“That would be lovely. Let me talk to Didier and we can set a date."
“Great. Duncan and Didier can get to know each other.”
“Yes, Duncan and Didier. Hmm, their names would look good on a sign don't you think: Duncan et Didier, Notaires. Or Didier et Duncan.
"Yes, a nice ring to it."

They carried their trays to the front of the restaurant, Amelia thinking it was fortunate the place did not have waiters, or she might have offended someone. The busboy nodded a thanks as he wiped a table down. She remembered that a number of famous people had once been busboys. She smiled back. Her mother had taught her to be nice to waitresses and waiters. People who work on their feet all day she had said, deserve our respect. Other people too, but just think of how tired their feet are after a day of work. To this day she was mindful of workers and their feet and thought it was a wonder she hadn't become a chiropodist 

Image and text © ralph patrick mackay.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Five

Emerging from Simons department store, each carrying a bag with a new sweater, Jacqueline and Amelia stood at the corner waiting to cross the street. A frayed remnant of a poster on the lamp post fluttered in the gusts created by the high buildings. The bottom half was concealed by a cheap black and white photocopy promotion for a punk band, The Paranoids. The poster underneath was for an old concert of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, a graphic image of a ship with a black sail on the sea, the music for the evening had been the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, and a composition by Messiaen. The rest of the poster was covered up.
“I remember attending that concert,” Jacqueline said.
The Paranoids?”
They both laughed and gently bumped each other's shoulders as they imagined her in the audience of a punk band concert. They crossed the street on their way to the book store for a bit of browsing, their fellow pedestrians seeming so young, so preoccupied with their hand-held devices, some with white wires falling from their ears like remote tethers to their mothership.
“You would think punk is passé,” Amelia said.
“Ah, oui. Though I don't remember the bands that played the punk music in my younger days. It was Beau Dommage, Harmonium, Paul Piché, Véronique Sanson. Douce, with melody.”
“Hmm, yes. I haven't heard Beau Dommage for ages. What was that song they had, 'pour un instant' or something? It was more my elder brother's age but I remember him playing the record.”
“Oui, 'Pour un instant' mais c'etait Harmonium. A very big song for them. Very memorable. But that too, is passé.”

They reached the large bookstore, a new advertisement on the window for the Montreal orchestra with a picture of the conductor, Kent Nagano. Jacqueline held the door for Amelia gesturing to the picture saying how handsome he was, and enjoyable to watch. Amelia lifted her eyebrows and and said, “Ohhh, I seeee.” They followed their light laughter through door and made their way past the housewares and stationery to the back of the shop to look at the books in French. They separated and browsed the display tables, the colourful temptations of text and art vying for their attention.

Amelia looked down at a provocative, or 'racy' as her Mother would have said, cover of Maleficium by Martine Desjardins, a Victorian image of a nude woman, arms above her, with a religious symbol photoshopped onto to her loins. She picked a copy up and casually read the back cover. A respectful envy for the translators who gave the author an English voice overcame her once more. She had read all of the author's books. In French. As she was placing the book down, Jacqueline came up beside her with a copy of L'Amour en Kilt and Le Monde Selon Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith. “A translator's dream, don't you agree?” she asked. “He writes so many books, c'est incroyable!”
“I love his work. Poor Bertie,” she said and laughed sympathetically. “Who is the translator?”
Jacqueline searched for the name and said, “Elizabeth Kern.” They didn't know much about her, or what else she had translated. The representation of Bertie on the cover didn't resemble Amelia's visual conception but she thought the covers were clever.

After looking at books for fifteen minutes, Amelia purchased a copy of Espèces by Ying Chen, while Jacqueline picked Va au bout de tes rêves by Antoine Filissiadis.
“Mais évidement!” replied Jacqueline, and arm and arm they crossed the busy street for a light lunch, Jacqueline humming a tune by France Gall.

In the eyes of the man who occupied the end of a sidewalk bench beneath the second floor restaurant, the two women approaching could have been sisters. Both had light brown hair cut in a modern shoulder length style, one slightly taller than the other—he remembered he was 5' 6” and the taller one was about his height—both wore glasses, stylish with colours, well-dressed and probably around forty years of age.

Whenever Duncan lunched with Amelia at this restaurant, he would like to get a window seat and casually observe this homeless man. He never pan-handled. He would just sit there, people-watching in his designer shreds, running his finger through his stiff 'Edward Scissorhands' hair. Duncan, though sensitive to the homeless plight, had a number of theories concerning him. His clothes were so perfectly frayed, so strangely sand brown in colour, that Duncan often thought the man had just come from wardrobe for a Dickensian shoot. Perhaps there was a sociological experiment taking place, secretly filming pedestrians and their reactions to him. Another of Duncan's theories was he was privately payed by a competitor across the street, to sit on the bench during the all important lunch time period to hopefully discourage customers from entering the restaurant below, thinking no one would enjoy eating while a rather desperate looking man stares at you as you bring the fork to your mouth. His third theory was that he was really an undercover cop or a private detective. Amelia had said he was reading too many mysteries. A modern Sherlock Holmes in disguise? The Case of the Recalcitrant Waiter? He too didn't think much of this theory. It didn't hold much weight.

Amelia believed Duncan was suffering from, P.R.O.F.N.I.D.L.E. : Persistent Reference of Fictional Narrative in Daily Life Experience. She had jokingly made up this acronym, telling her husband she was thinking of writing a paper on it, using him, Mr. Y., as the case subject, and maybe even pitching it to the CEGEP where she taught a course in translation terminology, so she could add another course. She could be a Professor of Profnidle. (Professor Profnidle sounded good too.)

Seated by the window with their plates half full of cold salads and hot vegetarian selections from the buffet, they quietly ate and took in their surroundings. An attractive young women seated behind Jacqueline was talking to her phone as if it were a video camera; she seemed to be an actress of some kind discussing with her agent the details of an offer. Amelia sensed her refined use of language and accent came from Outremont or possibly upper Westmount. Then again, it could be from around the University of Laval in Québec city.

Soft classical music filtered down from the ceiling like a calming mist.
“So how did you meet your husband?” Amelia asked.
“Ah bon, we met on les Îles de la Madeleine.”
“Making castles in the sand?”
Jacqueline smiled. “No, we weren't that young. I was interested in the seal pups from having read about Bridget Bardot's visit back in the 1970s. There was a new eco-tour during the winter, and I went with a girlfriend. It was 1991. Didier was there with his camera. We met 'on the ice' so to speak.”
“That is very romantic.”
“Yes, we were staying at the large brick building on the island, a former convent which had been converted into a hotel. They were the tour operators. A helicopter took us out to the ice floes. We got close to the white seal pups, so soft and vulnerable. We had a marvelous experience. Cold, but merveilleux.”
“Well, I hope he kept you warm.”
They laughed as they guided their forks into pieces of Greek Tofu and Chinese Seitan.
“And Didier is involved with computers?” Amelia asked.
“Yes, he has worked on many projects, recently his company is developing social media tools for business, as well as a new side project which examines digital photography for authenticity. Photography is Didier's great hobby.”
“He seems very talented.”
“Yes, he is, but he works long hours. Thierry and I often eat alone. So, how did you meet Duncan?”
Amelia looked down at the remnants on her plate. Her story was very personal. She had only recently met Jacqueline, and yet she was so at ease with her.
“How about I tell you over coffee and dessert? A little poppy seed cake with fresh fruit on the side? We can share," Amelia offered, thinking it would give her time to frame her story.
“Oh, a story and dessert!” Jacqueline said. They both looked out the large floor to ceiling windows at the lovely wide street, the sacrificial trees dropping their first leaves of the season. They noticed that the homeless man had moved on.

Image and Text © ralph patrick mackay