Duncan was thankful for the seat on the mid-morning bus going uptown. He needed it. He'd just learned that Mr. Therriault, the owner of the William Street property where he operated his rope and book shop, had accepted a generous offer to sell up. A vast area was being gentrified and his fairly well-kept building was, unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the point of view, in the way. Duncan had anticipated the possibility of change, yet he hadn't quite estimated the probability, and now with the hidden variables having risen to the surface, he felt swept away like so many loosing chips on a craps table. First the exchange of shoulder bags at the library, then the missing alpha-numerical text from the shop, and now this. The pattern of three strikes again. How many years had his family been on that street in various addresses over the years? How many years? Well, the whole area was being developed and soon all the crumbling red brick buildings with their boarded windows and graffiti scrawls surrounded by empty lots filled with debris, derelict trees and rank standing water—random rippling mirrors of the ever changing sky—would be bulldozed away and efficient, modern structures would rise—along with the tax base—and bring a new life of urban professionals, landscaped frontages, speciality shops, expensive cars, bicycle paths and the smell of rebirth in it's sharp angles, level planes and clean reflections. The old area would pass into the local history books for what it had been, a mixture of residential and factory life where manual labour met machine, a destiny of forgotten names and addresses listed in old street directories, of interest only to those looking back. The area had fallen so low that this development was a good thing. It had to be. There was a time, the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s, he thought, when a building crane had been unknown. The lean years. Duncan then remembered the Olympics in 1976, and rolled his eyes. Taxpayers were probably still paying for that stadium.
A young woman wearing an attractive mauve hijab entered the bus and made her way down the aisle and sat beside Duncan. He smiled with his eyes and pulled himself out of his slouch. Life goes on he told himself. Life goes on. The woman's attire reminded him of an incident, in a life of seemingly endless incidents. It was the end of May 1979, he was driving his yellow Volkswagen Rabbit on his way to the new apartment he shared with his girlfriend, and he came up beside a dark model two-door jeep which was quite full of what looked like household objects. The jeep had been signalling a left turn and he was going straight, but the jeep didn't turn and ended scraping the side of his car. The young woman in the passenger side who was wearing a hijab had looked frightened, and her partner, a large young man with dark hair, moustache and six o'clock shadow had come out to inspect the damage. The jeep had not suffered anything but his Rabbit had sustained large scuff scratches along the doors.
“I have a friend on the south shore who can fix this,” the man had said, pointing to the scratches.
“Ah, maybe we should exchange information first,” he had countered.
The young man had brought out a folded sheet which apparently was a temporary international driver's license. He was from Iran. A student at Concordia University. It was his address, however, that jolted Duncan as much as the jeep itself, for it was the same address as the large apartment building where his girlfriend used to live with her parents, and where he was forever parking his yellow Rabbit on the side of the ramp that led to the underground parking—a space the tired-eyed janitor was forever telling him half-heartedly not to use. Had this young man recognized his yellow car and considered he'd been following them? Perhaps had been following them for some time? Had he hit his car to find out? They must have been under pressure, stress, easy enough to brake out with a symptom of paranoia. The revolution in Iran had been going on since January. He assumed they were likely children of wealthy parents in Iran, perhaps professionals themselves, possibly on the wrong side of the new regime, and he knew that Concordia had a substantial number of Iranian international students and that many lives were being disrupted. They had exchanged information but when he tried to follow up, the young man had seemingly left the country. He often wondered what happened to them. He had followed the news, read about the purges of the universities, and he had heard that thousands of politically motivated executions had taken place. A few scratches to his car seemed so ridiculously unimportant. It was one of those incidents, however, that had made him feel like a pawn in some strange game of the Gods; human lives manipulated to collide at a crossroads on a dark night, one side seeing possible significance in the yellow car, the other, bewilderment over the coincidence of an address. Life was forever sliding these incidents his way it seemed. Why had he taken that road that night? The timing was so precise. He shook his head, defeated by a lack of answers. The world must be overflowing with such incidents, he thought, the nature of fates crossing in space and time, those moments when life is lifted above the mundane and a choice is offered, a chance to be taken. Could he have been instrumental in that couple's life? Had he failed them? Had they failed him? He would never know.
Seeing his stop ahead, he excused himself and slipped past the young woman and was soon walking towards the bookshop where he hoped to find a clue to his missing bag. The thought of what he was going to do with the family business and his bookshop, due either to shock or disbelief, had not penetrated his deepest concerns, and he had put it on a shelf like a book requiring further research. He wasn't prepared for that opening chapter quite yet. That narrative seemed to be in another language, one he would have to learn.
As he reached the bookshop, he couldn't help but stop and check the cheap books on the window sill, an irresistible pull like a bee to lavender, and as he browsed, he breathed in the unique fragrance emanating from the open door, as enticing a the smell of fresh baked bread to a hungry man. A slim blue volume of Rousseau's Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire caught his eye and he deftly slipped it out from its forlorn sill-mates thinking it would be an ideal companion for his pocket. Opening it, his left hand thumb fanned the pages coming to rest on the third promenade, and he read the first lines:
Je deviens vieux en apprenant toujours.
Solon répétait souvent ce vers dan sa vieillesse. Il y a un sens dan lequel je pourrais le dire aussi dan la mienne; mais c'est une bien triste science que celle que depuis vingt ans l'expérience m'a fait acquérir: l'ignorance est encore préférable. L'adversité sans doute est un grand maître; mais ce maître fait payer cher ses leçons, et souvent le profit qu'on en retire ne vaut pas le prix qu'elles on coûté. D'ailleurs avant qu'on ait obtenu tout cet acquis par des leçons si tardives, l'à-propos d'en user se passe.
Yes, he thought, just what he needed. He possessed a few copies of the work in both English and in French, but they were hardcover volumes with aged dustwrappers and fine portraits, not suitable for peripatetic perusals. He made his way in, searching his pocket for a dollar. The young man working was unknown to him, but he knew that any employee of the shop was bound to possess an exceptional quality in some fashion or other—whether they were a polyglot, a tuba virtuoso or competitive kite flyer—and this kept his hope from faltering. He laid the volume on the small wood counter followed by the loonie.
“I know this will be an odd question, and a long shot, but do you happen to remember a customer who purchased a two volume softcover edition of Kierkegaard's Either/Or recently? It had a three letter stamp on the flyleaf, PMR.”
The young man dropped the loonie in the till producing a hollow clink as it joined its till-mates. He looked at Duncan steadily, recognizing him from book sales over the years as another bookseller and friend of his boss. “A two-volume set of Kierkegaard? . . . I do as a matter of fact.” Placing a bookmark in the Rousseau, he paused to evaluate the effect the information had upon his questioner and seemed pleased. “It was memorable due to the method of purchase. An attractive woman entered the shop, went straight to the display table, reached down and plucked the volumes up and paid for them. Not a glance at anything else in the shop. She paid and she left. Not a word. Fastest sale I've ever known.” He turned his attention back to a small tower of books he was pricing. “She was quite attractive. Didn't seem like your average philosophy student. Expensive clothes, expensive purse, expensive perfume.”
“Really? Was that recently?”
“Last week . . . Wednesday.”
“Wednesday . . . .” Duncan was lost in thought as he made his way to the door almost tripping on the step. He turned and thanked the young man for his exceptional memory and made his way slowly towards the university, his eyes cast downwards as if reading the fractured sidewalk for signs of symmetry.
Jerome heard the rattle of the tea tray as he stood before the window looking out at the remnant fall colours and the city towers in the far distance below, huddled together as if for warmth. Turning, he was surprised to see a young woman with the tray followed by an inquisitive, if formal, Airedale whose light ochre, charcoal and black coat made him briefly remember Declan's dog Beaumont. The dog's face looked very familiar. He'd seen one very similar recently, and he began to search his memory.
“Mary asked me to bring the tea out for you, there are biscuits if you like.”
“Thank you. Very kind.” He was perplexed over who she was; her clothing and overall appearance suggested more of a private secretary than a servant. Perhaps Mr. Seymour's. She also looked vaguely familiar. Had he watched her pass by one day he wondered.
Amelia sat upon the sofa, poured him a cup and handed it to him. He sat across from her on one of the high back embroidered chairs, and George sniffed his trouser leg.
“What a handsome dog. What's his name,” his fingers running through the dog's rough upper coat.
“George the third. The third because he's my Uncle Edward's third Airedale. Yes, I'm sorry, my name is Amelia, I'm Edward Seymour's niece.”
“Ah, nice to meet you. My name's Jerome. Your uncle has a very lovely home, and such fine paintings.” He reached for a biscuit and George sat on his haunches beside him looking hopeful. “I'm a painter myself.”
She felt guilty for having had any misgivings about him, unshaven though he was. “There's a very interesting portrait of a distant relative of my uncle's on the landing, the eyes never let you go, painted in Holland by Jan van Ravestyn my uncle believes, but he did say it requires a cleaning. Do you know who could do such a job?”
“Ravestyn. That would be a fine old painting. I know of several people who do such work, but their waiting lists are very long. I'm capable, but it's a laborious job to be a restorer . . . it requires a great deal of patience.” He bit off half of his biscuit producing a subtle nervous tick in George, who then moved his head and licked his upper lip. "Not really my area."
“You can give him some of your biscuit if you like. It won't harm him.”
Jerome did so and she handed him a small napkin. “Don't worry about the crumbs, I'm sure George will ferret them out of the carpet. Would I know your work?”
He looked at her wondering if she frequented his type of cafés and bars and concluded it was unlikely. She seemed a few years older than him, studious, and stylishly conservative in her dark pants, burgundy turtleneck sweater and colourful scarf. A different orbit of friends altogether. “Some of my paintings are around the city in cafés, businesses, and in private collections; I also do portraits. Helps pay the rent.”
“Oh, hmm,” Amelia mumbled as she munched on a digestive. She began to view him as someone who wouldn't be offended by a candid, point-blank question, no circling round the subject and wasting time, and she couldn't see how to advance the subject in any other way. “May I be quite frank with you Jerome?”
He nodded, wondering if he'd made a faux pas.
“I happened to drop by to speak to Mary and I mentioned seeing Mr. Roquebrune drive past me looking very serious. I've known him for many years and it made me think something was wrong. Well, Mary mentioned he had brought a young woman to see Uncle Edward, a journalist named Thérèse. I asked Mary if young woman's last name might be Laflamme, and she said it was.” She noticed Jerome had taken the revelation like rain rolling off a statue's face, as if he'd turned to stone. “My husband and I, you see, recently discovered that your friend, Thérèse Laflamme used to rent the flat we're living in now, in the house owned by Mrs. Shimoda, so when I heard her name mentioned, I felt I must meet you both. I understand it's not an optimal time . . . .” The thought occurred to her that a visit to her old apartment and seeing Mrs. Shimoda might be helpful for someone reconnecting the dots. “But, I wondered if a visit to our flat and meeting Mrs Shimoda might help her revive memories. Of course it would depend on whether Uncle Edward considers it acceptable.”
“You're living above Mrs. Shimoda now?”
She smiled widely. “Yes, isn't that amazing? A friend gave us Mrs. Shimoda's phone number when she heard we were looking for a new place.When we met our neighbour, Natasha Roy, she mentioned Thérèse's name as the previous tenant.” She had no desire to connect Thérèse with the strange manuscript Duncan had found in the dark. She was actually pleased it had disappeared and hoped Duncan would never mention it again.
If it had not been for the initial stage of jet-lag on top of his mild hang-over, Jerome might have reacted with a greater expression of astonishment, but he was seeking simplicity and calm, and this brilliant streak of crimson dashed upon the dour canvas he had been contemplating was discouraging. He was saved from any further response by the approach of Thérèse and Uncle Edward.
“Amelia, what a pleasant surprise. I see you've been keeping Jerome company.” Her uncle had the gift of graciousness; he could have found them rolling on the carpet in a torrid embrace and he would still have retained his composure. “I'd like you to meet Thérèse Laflamme.”
© ralph patrick mackay