"What is that sir?” the taxi driver asked, his lively dark eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror.
“Well, the astronaut in the space capsule or space station doesn't have much room, and yet, looking out of the window . . . boundless space.”
“Very much ironic, yes,” and he chuckled. Noel braced himself in the back seat of the small cab, while the driver took the corner with one hand on the wheel and the other gesticulating to the space beyond the window, “boundless space. Yes, quite humorous.”
North American cabs, a complex diversity of models, sizes, shapes and colours, were forever a challenge to Noel, conditioned as he was, to the singularly iconic London cabs with their spacious interiors and their ease of entry and exit. Having to lean down and slide in through the narrow angled opening of taxis in North America seemed like a stretching exercise for a contortionist. How did the elderly manage he wondered? Although he was 72, he didn't think of himself as elderly. Such a demographic was still represented somewhat by his long deceased parents. Somehow, his parents were forever old. He imagined his elderly Mother trying to get in and out of one of these vehicles, then added snow into the bargain, and shook his head, inwardly, ever sensitive to taxi drivers and their sensitivity to admonishments as to their driving habits. Montreal, he was told by his daughter, was famous for the manoeuvres of its taxi drivers. If you were in a desperate chase of a vehicle ahead, like some private eye in a movie of the 1950s, 'follow that car cabbie!' Montreal was your kind of place. Montreal, where the pedestrians had a breadth of interpretation when it came to red lights, and jay walking was as common as pigeons on the sidewalk. A city to keep you on your toes and on the edge of your seat, he thought.
The taxi drove up the curving street, the large older homes and enormous looming trees on the slope of the mountain seeming to hover in the darkening thick atmosphere. Approaching the juncture, Noel instructed the driver to keep to his right and make his way around the loop to the far side. As they passed the fork in the road, Noel realized the police cars were no longer in evidence. When he had visited his friends Edward and Lavinia in the early 1980s, two police cars were forever stationed on the street, one facing up, and the other facing down on the opposite side of the fork. Thomson and Thompson Edward had called them with affection. Ever since the 1970 abduction of the British Trade Commissioner, the street had been supplied with these supernumerary security eyes. The locals must have both loathed and appreciated them. Loathed for the reminder of the incident and for the unpleasant constant sight of security, and appreciative for the sense of protection they provided for their homes. He must remember to avoid mentioning them. The city has moved on. Without them, however, Noel felt he was passing between an unseen Scylla and Charybdis.
He tipped the cabbie generously and told him to drive safely. He watched as the taxi disappeared down the street, making its passage towards the perils and possibilities of the unknown in the vibrant shrouded city below. A beautiful city, now austere, grey, and humming with its covert movements in the mist. A wealth of experiences lay before a young man like that he thought with a touch of envy. A new generation and its own discoveries.
Pressing the doorbell, he heard the muted Gothic sound within, a sound which reminded him of his bell-ringing days in Bala and beyond. Out of the corner of his vision he glimpsed a rather forlorn looking cat scurry amidst the shrubbery. Then he heard the clipping footsteps of a dog approaching the other side of the door. It couldn't be George II. That would be a miracle. The door opened wide with theatrical aplomb, “Welcome, welcome, welcome! And you brought English weather with you,” Edward said greeting Noel with open arms as George III sniffed and gazed upwardly with circumspection.
“Welsh weather, my dear Edward, Welsh weather, a marriage of heaven and earth” Noel laughingly replied shaking Edward's hand with a gentle strength and great warm feeling.
“Come in, come in. And what is this?” Edward asked receiving a package from Noel.
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. A bottle of Port to remember the good days. You're looking very well. You haven't changed a bit. When was the last time we met? Was it in London, no it was in Florence, in . . 1998.”
“Yes, that's right, Florence,” Edward said. Then after a pause, “Fourteen years. Well, they've been good to you as well. You're looking healthy, hale and hearty, or is it the other way around?”
“Well, there is more than a touch of winter in this old beard.”
“Dapper as always I see.”
“I have reached the age Edward when a bow-tie is almost expected. I have tried to resist the cravat however. One has to draw the line somewhere,” he added with a wink. “I remember as a child of seven and eight, a bow tie was de rigueur. Perhaps the Bard got it wrong after all. It should be the three ages of man: bow tie, straight tie, and bow tie.”
“And what would the ages of woman be?”
“I'm quite sure Miriam could tell me. Probably one endless age of looking after men.”
“How is your dear wife?”
“She is well and she sends you all her love.”
They made their way into the living room, George III sniffing at the cuffs of Noel's trousers.
“And which George is this?”
“George the third.”
He turned, and bending low, introduced himself to the dog formally and proffered his hand. George promptly took advantage of this offer and sniffed and licked the clean and slightly chapped fingers. “Perhaps the reason for your youthful looks is all the Georges you've had,” he said looking into the lovely liquid eyes of the dog and petting his soft yet stiff curly hair. “Or is there a painting in the attic we should know about?”
“It might be a bit early in the day for a glass of Port, but this is a special occasion,” Edward said handing a glass to Noel.
“I think we should raise a glass to Lavinia and Miriam.”
“To Lavinia and Miriam,” Edward said. They raised their glasses and gently clinked them together.
“Please have a seat Noel, have a seat. Mary is just having a wee nap and we have some time to chat. My niece Amelia and her husband Duncan, the bookseller, will be joining us for dinner.”
“Excellent. Five for dins. A toast to the wonderful Mary.”
“Yes indeed,” and they raised their glasses. “So, how is your daughter?”
“Elizabeth is very busy, very busy, and prospering. She has a condo. An investment. Whether she sells now or rents it while she is in Paris, she will make a profit. It's a rum business.” Noel's occasional rolled 'R' was highly emphasized on this word. “A parking space cost $35,000!” he said taking a sip of Port.
“Ah, my annual tax bill.”
Noel raised his eyebrows at this revelation. “An expensive bit of air to be sure. But you made an excellent investment here considering what you must have paid for it in the mid 1960s. A toast to you Edward.” Another glass raised. A brief silence overtook them while George looked on, at ease.
“Paris? Oh yes, a transfer. Up the ladder. She will be a hop away from Miriam and I, so that will be very nice. I believe there is a man involved as well. A Parisian named Philip. Perhaps Miriam and I will have a new son-in-law.”
Edward raised his glass, “To Elizabeth and Philip.”
Both recognizing the unintended Royal reference, they laughed.
© ralph patrick mackay
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