Only the most suspicious of neighbourhood busy-bodies spying through their sheer window curtains, would have found anything remarkable about the telephone service van parked at the corner beneath the yellowing lindens. Only the most paranoid of nosy-parkers would have found anything upsetting by the sight of the individual behind the wheel, a stout man of middling stature, of middling appearance, of middling appeal, sipping his Tim Horton's extra-large double-double in one hand while adeptly playing Angry Birds on his Blackberry in the other, the sounds of squawking birds and snorting piglets a counterpoint to the low level radio station wavering like white noise. The open carton of sugary Timbits resting on the officious looking papers on the dashboard underscored this reality, all signs and sounds of normality to the average perception. But the man in the Montreal Expo's baseball cap was only vaguely concerned with the piglet problem in his palm, he was waiting for the appearance of his subjects. He had already memorized the information on his phone, the sub-stats as he called them: Duncan Strand, 53, owner of Strand Cordage Ltd., and Lafcadio & Co., Books, Amelia Strand, 40, part-time CEGEP teacher and free-lance translator, dog named Hugh. No pics. Addresses, phone numbers, car licence number, model and colour. Landlady, Mrs Shimoda below. The information had been sent to him late the previous night. A document retrieval operation. Simple. Clean. He'd given it the name, Operation Labrador, but with the appearance in his side mirror of sleepy-eyed Duncan coming down the stairs with Hugh, he had thought perhaps the name Operation Wiener Dog would have been more apt.
Duncan noticed the van but didn't give it a second, let alone a third thought. His mind was elsewhere. Hugh sniffed at the sparse grass at the base of a maple tree, while Duncan rubbed his stiff neck and stretched it from side to side producing the sound of cracking bone which he had learned was really only air released from the joint, or so he was meant to believe. His jaw was tight and his hips were sore. He had not slept well. Too many concerns. Too many interactions. Although he could turn his personality up when required, he was truly an introvert's introvert, happiest when sitting behind his desk surrounded by his books and papers, cataloguing and describing older volumes, their bibliographic anomalies, their surface sufferings and indignities, their inner logic of signatures and size.
Hugh dragged him towards the corner of the park sniffing and inspecting along the way.
The man in the van sipped his coffee thinking that his subject didn't look his age. He put it down to being childless. Nothing like having kids to age you. The responsibilities, the worries, the demands. Wiener dogs. Not much responsibility there. A full size Dachshund was funny in itself he thought, but a miniature one was hilarious. Operation Draft Stop. He chuckled at his own wit as Duncan and Hugh disappeared around the corner.
Duncan couldn't match Hugh's jauntiness this morning—a brisk liveliness that belied his short legs—but he enjoyed watching him perform his rituals. How dogs parcelled out their pee, a little bit here, a little bit there, was a wonder to him. Canine communication. Invisible graffiti. He felt little adorable Hugh suited his personality, their personality. Much like them, he felt Hugh was an introvert but able to interact with considerable aplomb when needs must. Parties, family gatherings, professional meetings all required that effort of will to shed the protective skin and open oneself to the quandaries of life. Hugh rose to the occasion—as much as he could rise to anything—though Hugh's professional associations were not quite what he would call demanding—his veterinarian, Susan, the only one.
The fog was beginning to thin he noticed. They walked up towards Dorchester and Hugh inspected the shrubbery and grass at the corner while Duncan blinked and yawned towards the upper reaches of the RCMP head office with its aerials and communication devices hiding in the fog. He wondered what they must listen to, detect, uncover. We live in a world of terror plots and uncertainty he thought. How simple it was in his childhood in the 1960s, a world sans graffiti, sans terror, sans plots. Hugh pulled him away with a zestful interest in a garden gnome peeking at him, eye to eye, from behind a miniature garden fence. Of course there was the 1970s Québec crisis. Yes, graffiti, plots, the terror of mail boxes. Hugh pulled him further on past the early twentieth century limestone townhouses, many now divided into flats. Tribalism was rife, his Father used to say, especially in the suburbs. Duncan had never been one for groups. Somehow, he didn't think introverts were much interested in tribalism—more, I-balism, or eye-ball-ism he thought with a half smile and a turn of the head.
Upon seeing a wall of books through a living room window, his thoughts spun away from the gravity of the past, triggering a memory of a dream he had had last night: he was running with Joseph Campbell, the scholar and comparative mythologist, running with books in his arms, trying not to drop them, but failing in that endeavour, looking back, stopping to bend down and retrieve their splayed forms upon the wet grass, and all the time Campbell was telling him to leave them behind, they would help delay the shadows gaining upon them. He shook his head in bewilderment as Hugh did his business. He hadn't thought of Campbell for a dog's age. He had read his books back in the 1970s and 80s, and attended his numerous guest public lectures at Loyola College in the early 80s, and even attended one weekend seminar, mesmerized throughout by his inspiring rich throaty east coast drawl—a voice that at times reminded him of Al Pacino—his mannerisms and of course, his extraordinary vast knowledge. But Duncan had left his comparative mythology period behind him. The four volume Masks of God were in an Australian Shiraz wine box with similar volumes on religion and mythology. His soiled, annotated softcover copy of The Hero With A Thousand Faces inscribed by the author, rested upon a stack of other Campbell titles gathering residual dust behind works by Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. It had been awhile. Life got in the way. Or was the way.
As Hugh stood by waiting for Duncan to pick up after him as was the ritual, Duncan watched the light reflections of the passing cars behind him upon the limestone houses, thinking of the slide-shows Campbell provided during his lectures. He was like a magician, standing off to the side, talking with expressive gestures, casually walking close to the projection to point out a feature, or emphasis the importance of a symbol. Hugh pulled on the leash, bringing Duncan to the immediate present. He bent down with a small black plastic bio-degradable bag to perform his urban responsibilities.
They walked on, making their full circle around the block. He remembered his brother Gavin, the one who hardly ever looked at a book, and yet the one who was able to come up with the lyrics to his tunes. Whenever he himself tried to write lyrics, the words seemed to get in the way. Gavin the extroverted introvert, however, could always find the words. They came to him. He felt them. But he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. He pushed Duncan out of their Mother's womb first he did—probably because he was in the way—and pushed himself into the next dimension pursuing that hero's journey he knew nothing about and yet everything, crashing his souped-up sports car in the early morning mist all those years ago.
Duncan and Hugh arrived back at their door, the journey's end. The service van remained in place but was of no concern to him. His thoughts had shifted, thoughts now preoccupied with his recent bibliographic discoveries, the Latin text and the manuscript in code, and with what Joseph Campbell—or his unconscious—was trying to tell him.
The breakfast room was empty, so Jerome began to investigate the chafing dishes on the large oak sideboard; fluffy scrambled eggs, twists of fatty bacon like the ears of giant pugilists, pork sausages in their post-sizzle sweat, home-fries huddled like warm bricks ready for the mortar of egg, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh ground coffee, and a variety of fresh cut fruit in assorted colourful bowls. Jams and jellies and a selection of toast, but, no marmalade. A moratorium on marmalade perhaps.
A marmalade morning without marmalade was to Jerome, rather anomalous. A moniker coined, not by direct representation of Seville oranges in sugary splendour, but by Declan's wife in abstraction, a name which conjured up sentimental images by Victorian artists like Helen Allingham or Marcus Stone. A summer garden scene, flowering shrubs, women on garden benches in long dresses—drapery for the skilled eye and hand—books and letters on the seats beside them, summer bonnets and ribbons hanging on the upright, a cat playing with a ball of yarn, Marmalade Mornings, engraved in italic lettering on a brass picture frame plaque.
“Dig in, help yourself, that's what it's there for,” Declan's voice taking him by surprise, urging him on like a mild mannered drill Sargent to his grandchildren.
Declan came along side Jerome like a Spanish Galleon, all elbows. They filled their respective plates in silence, Jerome noticing a sign of concern and preoccupation on his patron's face.
After eating with little conversation other than the references to the weather and to Beaumont, Declan went over to refill their coffee cups and when he returned he finally became quite talkative.
“When I bought Castlebourne, I discovered in the attic rooms among the discarded furnishings, a wood and leather trunk containing many of the previous family's historic papers, some account books, letters and other items fit for the fireplace. Among them were old garden plans. One included a maze and a list of sayings to be used as points of contemplation while walking the thing. As far as I know, they never created the maze.” He drank his coffee pausing as if recalling the moment when he disturbed the dust of many years and unearthed the crumbling plans. “So, when I had this place built, I decided to carry through, bring it to fruition so to speak. We found a good stone worker and had the sayings carved. The trees took a bit longer, but, as you have seen, it's not too shabby.”
“And the sundial, was that part of the plan?”
Declan looked down into his steaming coffee, blinking like a discomfited chess player. “Well, the sundial was part of the old herb garden at Castlebourne, surrounded by thyme, parsley, marjoram, sage, basil, Valerian, Lovage, garlic and God knows what else. It's still growing as we speak but now with a statue at the centre. A little water feature.” He finished his coffee. “The original maze plans called for a pedestal with a top of rare black polished obsidian, a sort of scrying-stone my wife believes. If it existed, we haven't found it.”
Scrying-stone. Polished obsidian. It conjured up images of Waterhouse's painting The Magic Circle, or Burn-Jones's The Beguiling of Merlin. “I envy your discoveries,” Jerome said over his crossed knife and fork. “Do you know who drew up the original plans?”
“Yes, it was a woman named Catherine Fenton. My wife knows more about it than I.” Declan turned as if he heard something. A few seconds later there was a knock on the door and a tall, dark featured, casually dressed man entered.
“Harry, grab yourself a coffee,” Declan said, “and come and meet our friend the artist, Jerome van Starke.”
Harry ignored Declan and shook Jerome's hand like a cheerful sceptic. “So, Jerome, can I put in an order for a Mona Lisa for my wife's powder room? Just kidding, mate. Nice to meet you.” Then he sauntered over to the sideboard to pour himself a coffee.
“So Dec, what's the score?” Harry said clinking a spoon in his mug.
“Well, I think everything's arranged. Have you brought your latest drawings and plans?”
“I wouldn't be here otherwise.”
Declan turned to Jerome as Harry sat opposite him. “Harry here was my old childhood friend in Point St. Charles, before he left me for a better neighbourhood when we were about ten. Never saw him again. Strange that.” They both chuckled. “Then, about twenty years ago, there I was at a cocktail party and I hear a laugh. I turn around and see a tall man across the room talking to the hostess. I knew that laugh. I remembered it like a face. So I began a conversation with him and asked if he had a younger brother named Harrington. The man looked at me wide-eyed. Yes he did. An architect. Presently rediscovering the family roots in the Caribbean and designing fancy homes for the rich and famous. His elder brother provided me with a phone number and well, we've been in business ever since. Hotels and Condos throughout the Caribbean and quite a few splendid homes. Harry's one of the best.”
“That's . . .” Jerome tried to find the right words as he gazed upon the alluring, smooth, clean-shaven head of Harry.
“Amazing, isn't it,” Harry said, jostling Declan's shoulder like a long lost brother. “This man's senses are acute Jerome. Fucking remembered my laugh over thirty years. Meant to be I guess. Meant to be.”
Amelia dialled Mélisande's number at the library thinking she would catch her before the preoccupations of the day tied her down.
“What's up?” Mélisande said trying to sound cheerful.
“We wanted to invite you over for dinner tonight, just the three of us. It's been too long. Love to see you. We can discuss the manuscript papers Duncan dropped off the other day too. How about it? 6:30. Just bring yourself.”
“I'd love to. Thanks. I have Duncan's discovery in the laptop bag beside me here at the circulation desk. I really haven't had a chance to delve into it, so that would work for me.”
“Excellent. See you at 6:30. Have a great day, and don't let the eccentrics get you down!”
Mélisande thanked her and rang off. Looking around at the empty library bathed in muted rose coloured light, she had to admit, libraries did tend to attract them,
A ringtone of Cheap Trick's The Dream Police alerted the man in the service van he had received a text message. Having abandoned Angry Birds, he reached out and finagled the device to read his electronic missive.
abort op. new info. doc. elsewhere.
The key was in the ignition and he pulled away from the curb with relief and a knackering for a fresh honey cruller.
Mrs. Shimoda noticed its departure and returned to her crossword puzzle, the female jig-saw piece held firmly between thumb and forefinger, a portion of a pink blossom in need of a male piece for connection and oneness.
© ralph patrick mackay