Pavor relaxed his shoulders and released the weight of his arms upon the desk, his fingers poised on the keyboard—an act of contrition, of supplication—as if they were stemming the flow of unwanted letters.
'At once under the volcano, and over the rainbow,' he typed. Thoughts of Malcolm Lowry and flying monkeys rose briefly in his mind. He paused, then highlighted that last sentence and pressed delete.
What was a coma? He realised he was quite ignorant of the latest science.
'A desuetude of action concealing an unfettered imagination.'
Were a coma patient's thoughts spinning ever upwards like a twisting ladder of DNA? Was it an endless labyrinth excursion, circling, passing, reaching the centre only to return to the start and begin again? Or a maze of past emotions and experiences relived as the mind explored hither and thither, a retracing, a re-encountering, a déjà vu here, a vestige of life there? Science, he thought, must be studying it in depth, at length. He imagined an article entitled, Induced Comas and Space Flight: From Here to Mars in the Blink of an Eye.
His Mother thought his work as a writer was much like a coma. The imagination. Fantasy. Day dreams. She wanted him to return to law, to real life dealing with real issues. Writing. Perhaps writing was much like a coma. Or the act of writing at least.
'A detachment from the future, a moment within all moments, the unreflective harmony in the womb, a transcendental acquiescence.'
Pavor stopped typing and, taking up his vodka and tonic, finished the drink, lemon slice and all, chewing the sour cleansing sweetness before spitting it back into the glass with a shiver down his spine. He should resume his Rex Packard novel. Progress was needed. He had to put his sense of guilt aside. Umberto, with a view indulgent with charity, had said as much when Pavor had revealed the story of Tullio's accident. Connecting the dots from his perspective was solipsistic. Tullio had been tired, he had been visiting his Grandmother in Villa Opicina. Just because he dropped by to get a few books signed before driving into Trieste was no reason to take the blame for the accident. And what of the rogue garbage container slipping from its chained position? He could almost feel the tap of Umberto's hand upon his upper arm as he had said that Goethe might have felt somewhat responsible for the resulting suicides after the publication of his The Sorrows of Young Werther, but Pavor shouldn't enslave himself to guilt due to an overwrought sense of improvidence, or as Umberto had added, if he should give a beggar money to buy a roast chicken, he can't blame himself if the beggar chokes on the wish bone.
He rose and walked over to the window and watched the ornamental trees quiver in the wind, and then his eyes followed a twist of dry leaves being swept round the garden gnome in a miniature vortex. He stretched and rubbed his eyes feeling like one of them, beguiled by the diversion of chance breezes. If he had stayed at his desk writing about his characters Rex Packard and Vernon Smythe, the accident that befell Tullio, and the meeting of Carina and Umberto would not exist for him. Now, now they were future characters. Their interactions had been digested, their characters would be dissembled and finally divested upon the page in a faceted and fragmentary fashion at some distant and unexpected time.
Checking his watch, he returned to the glowing screen. He wasn't very good at writing after five, but he thought he should try and rough out a few scenes and then finesse the details in the morning.
Sitting before his laptop, he wiped his lips and began to type.
In a café at the corner of Milton and Park Avenue, a young woman dressed in jeans, sweater, fall coat and scarf, sipped her espresso. She was as unremarkable as the diverse assemblage of university students nearby. A thin book of selected poems by Rilke—accompanied by the poet's eyes on the cover—peeked out of her brown leather purse on her lap. She was seemingly occupied with her cell phone, but she was also attending to the faces and voices of those around her. And keeping her eye on the front door.
A text message on her cell phone informed her that an identical laptop bag had been purchased. Her partner was waiting.
It didn't take her long to walk the two and a half blocks to the second-hand book shop. She browsed the window ledge of bargains while checking the reflections in the window glass for anything suspicious passing behind her. It wasn't necessary, but habit and conditioning had created a need, the fulfilment of which made her feel physically and mentally at ease. Not wanting to waste time, she entered the shop and casually approached a table holding a display of philosophy books. She scanned the bindings for what she was looking for, and picking out two, she quickly paid the young man who seemed more interested in pricing books than looking at her figure. A minute later she was opening the door of her partner's car. He handed her the bag and she placed the books inside.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said.
She nodded and watched him get out and walk towards the University. If there was an asset to turn the head of a librarian, it was her partner, a physically striking young man with blue eyes that could charm the age spots off an older woman's hands.
Finding it odd he didn't carry a bag, Mélisande Bramante had noticed the handsome young man enter the library, and watched him disappear towards the extreme right of the stacks. He must know what he's looking for she had thought. She was in the middle of filling out an online order for monographs when she heard a groaning thud followed by the sickening sound of falling books and cascading paper. A prime example of the dreaded shelf collapse if there ever was one. She left her sheltered desk near the door and went to investigate. Why was it, she wondered, these incidents generally happened while her boss was at lunch? But with each step her empathy eased her annoyance. She hoped no one was hurt.
The young woman with the laptop bag hearing the noise, waited a few moments outside the library door. She noted only two other pairs of shoes besides her partners leather slip-ons. She quietly entered. The two students hunched over their computers were away from her line of sight, so she quickly exchanged the laptop bags, noting the weight of the target bag was almost identical with its fake, and was out the door and down the stairs before her partner had a chance to fluster the librarian with his charm.
It was fifteen minutes before the young man returned to the car. He had helped the librarian fix the shelf and put the books back. All part of the plan.
“No problems?” he asked.
“In and out without a snag,” she said, putting the book away, her thoughts still tethered to Rilke's poem Eve, the last line winding its way around her like a snare. “How about you?”
“Easy peasy,” he said sticking the key in the ignition. “The librarian had interesting tattoos on her arms. Didn't expect that.” He turned to her. “What about you? Do you have tattoos.”
She smiled. Make him think about it she thought. “How about that new Thai noodle place on St. Catherine Street?”
The young man looked at his watch and then softly touched her arm. “Sounds good but, I have a dental cleaning in thirty minutes. It will have to be next time. Can I drop you off.”
“No, it's fine.” She handed him the spare key set. “I'll walk back to my car. The bag's in the trunk. For their eyes only.”
On her way back to her car she caught her reflection in the bookstore window, her muted double staring back at her with questions she didn't want to hear.
The coastline of Norway around Bergen appeared to be as if a mirror had been dropped and the jagged fragments were the result. Arthur Roquebrune sat at his desk at Wormwood & Verdigris with a map before him, debating whether he should travel to Bergen to escort Thérèse home. Morally he felt obliged to make the excursion but logically he felt it wasn't necessary. His adversarial legal idiom hit the ball back in forth in his mind like some kind of dialectical tennis match. And how could he justify it to his wife and his partners? In addition, he would be meeting Martine Haugen again, the woman he'd made a fool of himself over after that third glass of wine ten years ago at that conference in Paris. No, too embarrassing to relive that brief infatuation. Martine Haugen could see Thérèse off at the airport in Bergen, and he could meet her here in Montreal at the Trudeau International Airport, and then drive her to Varennes to stay with her Mother. First-class, all expenses paid by him through the David Ashmore funds.
In consultation with Thérèse's Mother, he would then provide her with additional financial assistance from the investments and also call upon his good friend and client, Edward Seymour to provide preliminary psychological consultation. Between them, they had enough connections with specialists at the Royal Victoria Hospital to repair her memory loss and help her resume her normal life. She had already shown signs of progress.
“She's piecing things together,” Martine had said. “Filling in the blanks, seeing the picture of her life take shape.”
Jerome van Starke would play an important role and yet Jonathan Landgrave had not yet returned his calls. Very unprofessional he thought. But he gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking Landgrave could be on a brief holiday. Whenever he saw Jonathan about town, he was generally well-tanned, it was either a short golfing holiday in Florida, or an escape to St. Lucia for a week, and once he had told Arthur he had just returned from Tahiti. Tahiti. Robert Louis Stevenson. He pictured Stevenson sitting on his veranda, dark eyes, drooping moustache, and long hair, basking in the humidity of the islands. This aroused a desire to browse the small blue volumes of his Tusitala Edition of the writer's works when he returned home that evening. He imagined himself sitting in his study, baroque music on low, a copy of Virginibus Puerisque and Other Essays open on his lap, soft macaroons and a hot cup of tea. . . . He sighed. The age of 67 and he was still prone to the occasional daydream.
Thérèse and her condition, however, must stay paramount in his thoughts. Martine had informed him Thérèse remembered a moment before she had been found wandering. She had heard the door bell, and upon opening the door, a scentless spray like a mist blown by the wind, fell upon her face. No other details until she found herself on a street bench, confused, wondering who, what and where. It had been Martine's contact information in Thérèse's small woven wallet that had allowed the local police to make contact with her.
Roquebrune didn't want to know what the science was behind the spray, all he wanted was a status quo, a return to normality for them all. The rights of the living were trumping those of the dead.
Standing before the family crypt at the cemetery, Duncan pulled away a spray of tall grass at the corner of the modest granite structure and began to wind it around his fingers. All the old Strands were there. From his Great Grandparents to their descendants including his Grandfather and family. Names and dates. Names and dates. The death of Phoebe Strand in 1885, age 3, and Hiram Strand in 1915, age 19, a reminder, he thought, of the tenuous nature of the individual carried away by the flow of history. Whether it was disease or war, accident or old age, the family was fairly representative of its time. His parents were nearby in a separate plot along with his brother Gavin upon which he had just left a small bouquet of flowers. There was room for a few more Strands, especially since cremation and an urn would only require a small hole in the ground. Shallow spade work of an hour at most. Probably less. His younger brother, a fifty year old bachelor living in Ontario would never have children. And he and Amelia would never have children, so it was the last of the Strands. He was the end of the tether, a dying metaphor if there ever was one. All those jokes about his surname, the play on words, the innuendos growing up. He had often wondered if his family had adopted the name of Strand when they launched themselves into the cordage business so long ago, or conversely, had they taken up the business because of the name. The family was fairly stranded now, beached, shipwrecked, high and dry, the business at the end of its rope. A dying metaphor.
He wondered if a diversity of future Montrealers strolling in the cemetery enjoying the fall colours or the spring flowering trees and shrubs, the birdsong, the sun and shade, the odd woodchuck and rabbit, and the omnipresent squirrel, would walk by, as he walked by old tombs of forgotten families, and read their names and think, perhaps, how sad it was there were no longer family members to tend to memory. A cautionary thought.
The sepia melodrama of the thought slipped away as he passed his hand over the rough stone and the self-evident deterioration around the letters. We are the stone dust of the letters the carver sweeps away, he thought.
He made his way back to the old office near the gates of the cemetery. The thinning fog clung to the tops of the evergreens where a crow perched calling in the mist. Humans, he thought, had outgrown their auguries. He kicked a stone along the path thinking that the native Canadians who used to scale this mountain would have attended to its call, read the sign, understood the meaning. A crow in a cemetery on old native land. What foothold did anyone really have he wondered.
But the famous and accomplished who were buried at the cemetery certainly appeared to have one. Anna 'King of Siam' Leonowens, John Abbott, Sir Hugh Allan, David Thompson, the Molsons, the McGills, the Roddicks, and John Redpath whose odd Victorian neckbeard always made Duncan think of one of the characters from the Planet of the Apes movies. And of course Sir Alexander Galt whose house became the funeral home where he experienced something beyond him, and later danced in the disco conversion with his Hong Kong born girlfriend, a disco where he had once mourned.
“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” he said loudly, spinning around as the crow flew off gracefully towards the south. A grey squirrel, startled, sat up on its haunches, hands together holding an acorn, contemplating the strange nature of a man talking to himself.
“David Ashemore, David Ashemore,” the older woman said as she typed the name into her computer. Her dark hair in an old-fashioned perm reminded Duncan of his Mother's hair, forever darkly set in time. “The location of David Ashemore's resting place, here we are.” She was reading silently from the screen, but also recalling a request for this location about eight months ago. “He's resting in the sculpture garden, a niche on the east side of the circular granite wall that surrounds it. Would you like one of our maps?”
“Um, sure, why not. Thank you.” Duncan unfolded the brochure, the map of the cemetery displayed before him, the pathway lines reminiscent of the borders of countries. “I don't suppose David has had many visitors,” he said, feeling in the mood to talk. “No close family left. Parents long gone. No siblings. Rather sad.”
The woman smiled up at him. “Well, you never know, there's always someone, like yourself for instance. Or . . .” She hesitated, realising her sympathy might lead her over the line of accepted discourse with a patron. “Do enjoy your visit, and if there's anything we can help you with, anything you'd like to know about our services, please don't hesitate,” she said, giving him additional brochures.
He nodded, thanked her and made his way out.
A niche, a columbarium niche was very appealing, especially the indoor example listed on the brochure. Some niches even had window glass and space for photos and personal items, like one of those shadowboxes that crafty people create. Year round visiting without the worry of heavy winter weather, your loved one looking back at you from beside his or her urn. Mementos like a favourite book, a pen, a stone, a shell . . .a golf ball. A pretty penny though he thought. A pretty penny. What was Yves ranting about, the loss of the penny? The phrases relating to the coin would outlive the penny itself. Penny for your thoughts, in for a penny in for a pound, penny wise pound foolish, penny pincher, a penny saved is a penny earned. His Father was fond of that last one. Not that it helped. Duncan thought of his Grandfather's little framed cartoon over the old oak desk at Strand Cordage, two men at a bar with the words written above, “Yer pays yer money an' yer gets yer—froth.”
All of a sudden Duncan felt immensely tired. Tired of having kept the Strand business going. Tired at having tried to keep the family together. Tired of trying to hold on the past. Tired.
He stopped to watch two squirrels chase each other around the large trunk of a Maple tree, their movements based on sound for they could hardly see each other due to the breadth of the trunk and the quickness of their feet. Somebody wrote about squirrels chasing each other. Was it Wittgenstein? Orwell? Or . . .and he remembered it was from a William James essay he was reading a few months ago, a nice edition of Pragmatism (1907), which he had purchased from an estate sale. He would have to look it over again when he got back to the shop. See if he could glean an insight into . . . squirrel behaviour.
As he approached the sculpture garden, he noticed a man working nearby. The circular granite wall was inviting and he gravitated towards the eastern arc looking at names to the accompaniment of clipping sounds from the man's pruning scissors. David Ashemore 1958-2011. Simplicity itself. But for the small red rose in a small holder beside his name. Who, he wondered, had left the flower? A mistake? There was a blank stone beside his so it could only by for him.
If they had remained friends would he be standing here? Had he attended Lower Canada College and been primed for scouting at McGill by Professor Petherway as possible material for intelligence work (Petherway intoning Beowulf's rich guttural northern voice, a mixture of Germanic, Icelandic and Scandinavian sounds to their fresh ears) would their destinies have been exchanged? Would David be standing here? Would he be lying there?
Duncan wandered over towards the gardener, an older man, swarthy, strong, pruning the rose bushes with meticulous care demonstrating years of experience.
“Another year, another pruning,” Duncan said, trying to start up a conversation.
The gardener stretched his back and nodded his head as if measuring Duncan for his personal philosophy, sizing him up for his understanding of the world. It was then Duncan noticed one of the man's eyes was not quite eyeing him, a glass eye he thought. Difficult work pruning with one good eye. Duncan checked the man's hands, all fingers present and accounted for, a sign of skill, prudence and patience.
The gardener with the weathered skin pocketed his pruning scissors and withdrew a pipe which he fiddled with and then lit with delightful puffing sounds. He exhaled the fragrant smoke in an arc above them and approached Duncan.
“Do you know much about roses then?” The man's voice was surprisingly soft.
“Very little, I'm afraid. My Father planted rose bushes I remember, tea roses I think, back in the middle 1960s, one for each member of the family. Perhaps he should have chosen peonies instead. Less work, more dependable.”
The man nodded, smoke rising past his fake eye without it blinking.
“The root stock is the key. Good hardy root stock grafted into delicate flowering varieties.” He rested the pipe between his lips as he surveyed the rose bushes nearby. “But they are care intensive that is to be sure. Pruning just so, preparing them for winter, mounding around their bases, protection always needed due to the frost and thaw, frost and thaw. Have you ever visited the Botanical Gardens? Enough rose bushes there for a Queen. Very impressive and interesting due to the varieties. But you must think of the petals, the beauty of one flower, eyes up close, the scent of the beauty filling your nasal passages hitting that area beneath the eyes. Hit right between the eyes is a good phrase to describe the experience. That's the way to truly appreciate a rose. Much like a glass of wine.” Using his pipe as a directional device, he pointed to the flower beds. “The bushes here are few but they are fine specimens.”
The gardener's reference to hit between the eyes made Duncan immediately look at the man's glass eye and he had caught his glance.
“Have you worked here long,” Duncan asked.
The man removed his cap and scratched his thinning grey hair. “Must be going on forty years. Yes. I don't do as much heavy work as I used to do, but I still like to feel the earth in my hands, tend to the roses, inspect the trees. Variety we have, yes, to be sure, variety we have.”
“It's so lovely here. I can stand in the cemeterey and not see or hear the city that surrounds it, and I feel I'm in the country with these extraordinary old trees and wildlife.”
The man smiled. “When I get home from work every day, my good wife says 'So, how was your day in the country?” He chuckled. “Two worlds in one day I have, two worlds in one day.”
“You're lucky to work in such a place. Fresh air. Nature.” Duncan turned towards the granite wall. “I'm just visiting an old friend I lost contact with. Died fairly young, early fifties. No family. It's odd that I just discovered a flower beside his name.”
“Is your friend's name Ashemore by any chance?”
Duncan's eyebrows lifted at this. “Yes, that's right. How'd you know?”
“Since the spring a woman visits once a month and leaves a rose. Like clockwork. She asked me once if it would be alright to use one of the roses from the bushes here if she forgot her own. When I see her I say hello. We exchange small talk, the weather, the plants.”
“I was best friends with David Ashemore when we were very young, and then our paths diverged and we lost track of each other. His obituary was the first time I was reunited.” He paused wondering whether the visitor might be the young woman at the funeral home. “Was she a younger woman named Tess Sinclair, auburn hair, about five foot seven or eight?” Duncan asked feeling he was pushing the man too far, overstepping propriety.
“No, I don't know her name, but she was not as you describe. An older well-dressed woman, expensive clothes. Blond hair. Petite. I thought she might have been his wife.”
© ralph patrick mackay
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