Sunday, April 07, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Forty

Thérèse Laflamme made a second pot of linden tea and observed the steeping process through the clear glass pot. Martine had recommended it for a variety of ailments, from the common cold to high blood pressure to insomnia, and Thérèse felt she was suffering from most of them.

Martine was due to arrive home from Stavanger around one o'clock, which gave her about two hours to prepare her presentation concerning the David Ashemore case, a narrative that seemed to her wholly implausible, but one that she believed Martine would take seriously, and, being a lawyer, provide her with advice as to how to proceed.

She sat down at the kitchen table and shook her head over her mistaken assumption. The small piece of plastic she had thought belonged to the outside light had really been a portion of the mounting device to contain small household items behind the kitchen door. The exterior light fixture had been glass. Her fears had tied the different pieces together, making her think someone had broken the light and placed a piece in the kitchen beside the broom, an example of psychological provocation. Such a conclusion had not been jumped at with abandon, paranoia pushing her forcibly in that direction. Her fear was influenced by the experiences of David Ashemore who had suffered from similar psychological provocations as related in his journals. Her perception, she could see, was under stress. She now saw life through a broken glass darkly.

She drew her fingers through her auburn hair, her unease expanding with the expectations of Martine's return, a welcome return, but one now tainted with the shadows of a dead man's legacy.


"Yes,” Pavor said, “I'm Mr. Loveridge.” The man before him was of medium height, early thirties perhaps, sporting short dark hair, a designer stubble some Hollywood actors would covet, a leather jacket, jeans and a motorcycle helmet in his left hand. Pavor's imagination saw him as an assassin in his new book.

“Tullio, Tullio Friuli,” the man said, offering him his hand. “I'm associate of Umberto's at the Università.”

“Pavor, Pavor Loveridge, pleased to meet you,” he said shaking his hand. Tullio Friuli. Tullio Friuli. Enough vowels there to trip over. Not a name for a character. “So, how can I help you Tullio?”

Tullio bent down to put his helmet on the doorstep, stood up, and then slipped his hand inside his leather jacket. Pavor suffered a nervous spasm but recovered quickly as he saw that the Umberto's associate was pulling out two softcover books, and not an imagined weapon. “I hope for you to sign these please, I'm big fan,” he said smiling. “I was passing. My nonnina live not far. How you say, two birds, one stone yes?”

“Certainly, certainly, yes, two birds, one stone,” his nervous smile softening up to his eyes. “Come in, come in. Are you with the Archaeology department as well?”

“No, I'm with the Dipartimento di Mathematica, but I'm friend with Umberto.”

Pavor flourished a fine felt tipped pen and took Tullio's books to the desk to sign. He recognized the book cover layout of the Italian translations of his Rex Packard series, a design which made him think of French language books in Québec. “How would you like me to sign them Tullio? Just my name or may I inscribe them to you?”

“To me, yes, that is fine,” he said, sighing as he sat heavily in the soft chair near the window, a sound of fatigue and weariness.

Pavor gently opened the book to the front free endpaper and and smoothed the paper down. He was about to write 'To Tullio' but that reminded him of a song from a distant decade, so he wrote “For Tullio, So pleased to meet you. Best Wishes, Pavor, October 24, 2012.” He then turned to the title page and drew a line through his printed name and underneath provided his author signature. He repeated this in his Rex In Arcadia, and then handed them back to Tullio. “It's fantastic to know I have some Italian readers who like my books. So, who are some Italian authors I should be looking out for?”

Tullio raised his eyebrows and shifted his head sideways, “I like Luigi Guicciardi, Alessandro Perissinotto, and Giorgio Scerbanenco. Many others too. I write names for you.” Tullio withdrew a small leather booklet and using Pavor's pen, wrote out the names in a small precise handwriting. “So you live in Montreal?” he said not looking up.

“Yes, Montreal, a beautiful city, like Trieste, beautiful, but not as old.”

“I have relatives there. Yes, beautiful city. Beautiful women too,” he said with a hand gesture to emphasize his appreciation of the beauty of women. He handed Pavor the list of his recommended Italian writers and got up to go. “That singer, Shania Twain, is she from Montreal?”

Pavor didn't quite catch the name at first, the pronunciation sounding like 'twine.' “No, I don't think she is.”

“Ah, I'm big fan of Shania Twain. Bellissima," he said, fingers and thumb together. Tullio turned about and paused looking around the room. “You need anything, I leave my number here,” he gestured to the paper in Pavor's hand. “Need tourist guide, let me know, yes?”

“Great Tullio, that's great, very kind of you. Thank you, grazie.”

“Thanks for signing books.”

The two men shook hands in a manly macho manner to consolidate all understanding, and Pavor watched as Tullio walked towards his motorcycle. He stopped halfway and turned around. “Continuare a scrivere,” he said, with a gesture of his hand as if he was writing.

Pavor pointed at him and nodded. “I will,” he added loudly. He stood in the open doorway feeling strangely like he was seeing a brother off on a journey, a brother he had never had. He gave a salute wave as Tullio pulled away nosily onto the quiet suburban street. He closed the door and returned to the living room feeling invigorated, and yet, standing there with the piece of paper in his hands, somewhat dizzy, memories of childhood birthday parties were roused from his dusty memory shelves, he was playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, going off in all the wrong directions, his friends hooting and laughing. What crazy games they played as kids, and so many involved blindfolds.

Catching sight of himself in the gilt-edged oval mirror over the modern gas fireplace, he realized he was unlikely brother material for Tullio, what with his 6'1” frame, his fair hair and blue eyes, and lack of any whiff of stubble. No, not a blood brother.

Looking down at the list of authors and the phone number, he placed the slip of paper in his wallet and replaced it in his back pocket. His papers in order, he was ready to go, but first he felt he had to use the bathroom and as he made his way there, he told himself he had to remember to bring his writer's notebook.


Pavor made his way around the traffic circle and into the Esso Station just up from this crossroads of the main thoroughfare into Villa Opicina. A neatly dressed young man came up to his window and Pavor politely asked, “rienpire per favore.” The Esso sign had made him feel, for a moment, back in North America, the sign so incongruous to him in north eastern Italy. The sounds and smells of gas stations, so evocative of childhood holidays with his parents, were international now, this station a clone of countless thousands around the globe. And yet, as he looked at the sign for 'Bar,' and signage saying 'Slovenian,' and the swarthy men sitting on stools outside, truckers and workmen, smoking, talking and occasionally looking in his direction as if wondering what a blond haired man was doing in these parts, he realized that such stations, though standard, allowed for cultural modifications. A bar instead of a Tim's outlet. Drinks instead of coffee. He remembered walking by a wine bar in Trieste with a service window to the sidewalk and people milling about with a glass of wine and their cigarette as if it was a residential patio and a party was in progress. He couldn't see such a convenience catching on in Montreal, sophisticated though it was, the weather was against it.

The clean-shaven young man washed his rear window with skill and strength, the clump and squeak of the squeegee a metaphor for a helpful and reassuring spirit so rarely experienced back in self-serve Canada. He wondered if there were any service stations left that provided actual service. Hearing the click of the automatic pump mechanism, he looked to see what shocking amount was due, and depleted his wallet of the necessary bills and asked for a receipt. His accountant had an unwavering appetite for receipts. “Grazie mille,” he said as he gave the young man a tip. He started the car up and slowly made his way to the curb. Looking through the rear view mirror, he could see his back window was as clean as a minimalist literary style, no unsightly drips of ironic detachment, no annoying streaks of sub-textual disparagement. He watched the young man approaching the group of workmen on the stools, and heard a jagged ripple of phrases and laughter, perhaps a mix of Slovenian and Italian, good-hearted and harmless, the carefree expressions of working men, often rich in observational insights. Though, as he drove away, he did wonder what a woman would have experienced.

The day was tipping towards late morning, the sun behind him breaking through the clouds and combing the maritime pines on the mountain slopes as he made his way down to the Opicina Obelisk, the landmark commemorating the road between Trieste and the Austrian frontier. Passing the Obelisk on the curving road, he looked over to see people getting ready for a jog or a morning bicycle ride on the Napoleonica, the famous walk with views of the gulf of Trieste and the beautiful coastline, an item on his list to explore with Mélisande when she visited.

The city and the gulf were visible over the shrubs and low trees, a difficult sight to draw one's eyes away from, but the roads were smooth and with each glance towards the gulf he derived a breath of anticipation for the unknown encounters waiting below. Having found a CD in the glove compartment by someone called Vasco Rossi, he slipped it into the player and relaxed into his seat.

He knew what roads to take by now, having studied Umberto's helpful, efficient and detailed instructions laid out much like an archaeological plan. The sharp right onto a very narrow road, the Via Commerciale, could easily have been missed, and he was grateful for the tip. This older road, however, was not as smooth, and with cars and small motorbikes parked along the side, oncoming traffic, and numerous tram track crossings,  it demanded his full attention.

Rex Packard, his internalized fictional creation crept behind the wheel as he made his descent on the winding road, urging more speed, goading him to pass small motorbikes, but he kept Rex under control, gathering insights into his character's demands, making mental notes for future references. How would Rex drive? What would he think of Vasco Rossi? Would there have been an incident at the gas station? These ruminations and the vivid impressions of the countryside kept his mind busy enhancing his storehouse of knowledge for future use. Writers, he thought, were so underpaid for their work. His mind was always at work, even, and perhaps most especially, when he was asleep. 'I'll sleep on it' was a daily exercise for writers. If he divided what he made by the hours he worked, he would be ashamed by how little it would be. If he had continued as a lawyer, his hours would have been long, but the pay would have been infinitely better. What he needed was a hit. Or a movie deal. Something to put him over the high walls of the gated communities of the comfortably ensconced. He imagined Rex holding his hands together and bracing himself to take Pavor's foot and weight and catapult him over the golden field stone wall into the gloriously landscaped wonders, where modern houses sprawled and aquamarine pools shimmered in the warmth of a Southern sun. Palm trees, cacti, an Audi, a Mercedes and a Range Rover, California, the coast, success.

His fanciful imaginings quickly dissipated as he came up to a source of traffic. He was surrounded now by gleaming concrete apartments interspersed with older homes tightly hugging the shoulders of the road on the slope of the mountain. Flashing lights ahead revealed an ambulance and police. Craning his neck, he couldn't see much. A small van pulled up behind him, the man sticking his head out the window to get a better view, an arm raised in a gesture of frustration. The siren then started and he watched as the ambulance drove off towards the city, and slowly the traffic began to move. As he approached the area where a policeman was waving motorists on, he noticed a mangled motorcycle on the right side of the road, and it looked like Tullio's. Driving ahead, he turned into a small parking area near the road, and began walking back. With his poor Italian he managed to learn that one of the many heavy wheeled garbage containers had broke free from its position on a nearby sloped driveway and rolled into the street, the motorcyclist had tried to avoid it but had swerved and lost control, crashing into the fence. “Ospedale Maggiore,” the policeman had said raising his shoulders and arms and shaking his head if indicating death was a possibility, “Ospedale Maggiore.”

As Pavor walked back to the car, he noticed something catching the light in the shrubs, and reaching out he saw it was one of Tullio's books he had just signed. Rex Manu Propria. It must have flown out of his jacket. Its companion was not to be found.


He didn't remember driving down to the hospital, having been in a state of shock. But the frustration at finding parking awoke him to mundane necessities. He decided to park on the water's edge and walk back, a long walk but he could use the time to grasp what had happened. There was nothing he could do at the hospital. He wasn't family. He would just be a nuisance standing there with a book in his hands bothering Doctors and nurses.

He took a right onto the Via Mazzini which he knew led straight to the public port area, the rusticated stone buildings and their street level boutiques reminding him of Old Montreal. That's where he should be. Driving in Old Montreal, Mélisande beside him, newlyweds on their way to breakfast. They would have found a house and settled into work routines, entertaining friends, visiting family. None of this would have happened. A house sit in Villa Opicina for ten months wouldn't have been offered. Tullio Friuli would have been unscathed, his books unsigned. Pavor now thought of his signatures as death warrants.

As he parked the car he could hear the sound of the water and the cry of the gulls; in the distance the tankers and container ships seemed immobile, metal islands in the morning mist; sailboats, their white canvases reflecting the muted light, leaned before the wind; these sights and sounds seductively eased his mind and he grabbed a scarf from the backseat and walked towards the low broad stone pier, its dark horn cleats running along both sides as if defining a path towards the river of forgetfulness. The large rough cut stone beneath his feet welcomed his stride and the winds, the Bora whistled and spiralled round him like spirits at play.

He was tracing a thought, a thread leading back to his university days doing a master's degree in literature at McGill, a thesis on the work of Henry James. From Henry James, to a Law degree, to becoming a writer of crime and spy thrillers seemed inconceivable, and yet the path was as straight as this pier with its rusting cleats waiting for the hawsers, lines and cables coiled and ready upon the decks of memory.

Could he lay the blame upon the author? Had he unconsciously donned the mantle of the preconceived and out-dated notion that a conventional married life would be the ruin of his writing career?

The pier seemed to stretch out before him endlessly.The winds became stronger, buffeting and buckling his legs with their gusts and bringing up a memory of the film The French Lieutenant's Woman, with Meryl Streep tempting fate out on the massive windswept Cobb.

His thoughts returned to the James story, The Lesson of the Master, wherein an older successful novelist warns a younger talent, Paul Overt, to avoid marriage, believing it would dilute his art into thinner, less artistic creations. And yet the master novelist was happily married. Paul left behind the young woman he loved to write in Europe for two years, only to come back to find the elder novelist, now a widower, ready to marry Paul's love.

Pavor sat down heavily upon a cleat, his legs together, huddled like a penurious beggar, his scarf fluttering about his face. Could such a story have been guiding his way? Had he been avoiding marriage feeling it would inhibit his writing? Commitment, that thorn of reality in the foot of his aestheticism? He considered the worry that, inversely, marriage might induce him towards the creation of high literature and deprive him of his ability to write his popular novels. The Underglasse being the temptation. Perhaps that was at the root of his disinclination.

He felt the edge of Tullio's book resting against his ribs underneath his jacket and withdrew it. Flipping through the pages he began to  feel that the words and letters had been written by someone else. The dark water lapped at the edge of the pier unconcerned with humans and their frailties,  ready to consume anything thrown its way. The temptation had been great to toss it in and watch it sink, and then leave Italy altogether, but his responsibilities were not so obscure as to leave no evidence behind. Poor Tullio lay upon a hospital bed, possibly with a sheet over his head, being escorted towards the hospital morgue by pale faced clones of Charon. 

No, he had to stay. And with a sense of guilt, he thought of the details he could glean from such a hospital visit.

© ralph patrick mackay

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