Pulling the thread tightly, Mrs. Shimoda poised the needle above the opalescent button on her favourite teal coloured blouse like a Northern Gannet ready to plunge into the sea, when the doorbell rang. Not wanting to rush the final steps, she set her blouse upon the dining room table and quietly walked through to the living room's front window wondering who it could be. Canada Post? A nervous salesman with a clip board? Resolute religious pamphleteers from the far edge of reason? It was Amelia from upstairs. A welcome sight.
“I'm sorry to bother you Mrs. Shimoda.”
“No bother, please, come in.” She closed he door behind her and invited Amelia into the living room. “Would you like some tea?”
Wondering if she should accept or refuse, she read the signs as quickly as she could, and noticing the shimmering light upon a seemingly completed jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table in the next room, and the open sewing box and a blouse beside it, she decided Mrs. Shimoda was offering tea as a necessary preamble, a courtesy. “No, thank you, very kind of you to offer. Perhaps another time.”
“Please, sit down. Is everything all right upstairs?”
“Thank you.” Amelia sat down on a mossy yellow shot silk armchair. “Yes, yes, we're fine. It's about your previous tenant, though, Thérèse Laflamme.”
Mrs. Shimoda lifted her chin slightly half expecting bad news.
“She's all right,” Amelia added quickly to dispel any possible inference of a violent end in a far away country. “It's just that she's suffered a slight case of amnesia, and her friends thought that by revisiting the apartment and meeting you again, it might help her revive memories and reanimate the past.”
Mrs. Shimoda nodded her head not at all surprised by this revelation. To help her arouse memories, she could lay the original lease forms upon the dining room table, place her black fountain pen with its small images of koi beneath the layers of lacquer—certainly a memorable device—and then replicate the signing ceremony. “Yes, of course. How unfortunate for Thérèse. When do they want to do this?”
“Well, today if possible. Only if it's convenient for you. They're coming over at six o'clock for dinner. ”
She breathed in deeply. “It would be best if Thérèse came here first. I'll prepare for her visit. I'm sure it will help.” She showed Amelia out with a smile waving away her effusive thanks.
Returning to her sewing she looked out of the dining room windows and thought that they could stand there together, looking out at the garden lit by the porch light, and that too might evoke memories. It's difficult enough, she thought, living on the edge of tomorrow, without the past for consolation.
While the clouds dissembled and city hummed, Duncan Strand, or his consciousness, tried to fend off the fatigue of his body by creating little nervous spasms and fits to keep it awake, but his body was weary and dragged his consciousness into the depths of sleep. . . .
. . . he was walking a narrow wooden hallway and coming to a door with a brass plate reading H. M. S. Absolute, he entered and with hands clasped behind him like a visitor at an art gallery, he carefully made his way between low stacks of hardcover books distributed like a miniature maze upon the polished floorboards of the what felt to be the great cabin of an old ship. He stood for a moment looking out of one of the slanted rear windows until, hearing a tingling bell he turned round to see the approach of Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“It's odd how these windows are on an angle,” he said.
Søren sighed deeply. “The windows," he said, "being at the back of the ship, must allow for an angle of understanding for we're looking backwards, and looking backwards is always slightly askew.”
Ludwig, his arms crossed in his grey tweed sports coat, with a look of perplexing simplicity stated, “The light reveals that even the dust has its place."
At that moment, Yves, Tom, Jerome, Mélisande, Pavor, Amelia, and Thérèse entered the room, and then his long lost twin, Gavin.
They each took a shot glass of shimmering clear liquid, and raised them as if to propose a toast.
The next thing he knew, it was night time, and they were on a flank of waste land with piles of rubble and gravel rising behind them, while before them, dark waters lapped a shoreline, and lights in the distance spread upon the water like leaking photons. They gathered round an oil barrel burning with rubbish and old palette wood. Ludwig looked deeply into the flames, and quietly mumbled a few sentences no one could hear or understand. And with that utterance, he turned around and climbed the gravel pile and disappeared from view between the crags in the dark. They all looked at each other with profound confusion. Then they heard laughter as a gust of wind roared down upon them. Gavin then picked out a flaming piece of wood to act as a torch, and made his way up the rubble and gravel pile, and standing atop, he yelled something, which was drowned out by the winds, and launched himself into the darkness. By the time he himself climbed to the top of the gravel pile using his hands to steady him, he could see no trace of Ludwig or Gavin. They had quite vanished away. He then felt his feet slip in the loose gravel and sensed he was falling . . .
Duncan awoke, The Hunting of the Snark falling to the floor with a soft bump. His neck had been lolling to one side, and dribble had rolled down his chin and into his shirt pocket. Breathing slowly, he wiped his lips and face and as he raised his head, the details of the dream began to recede from him like a wave rushing back to the sea, only fragments lingered in the wet sand like polished stones. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein had been actors in his two-act drama. And Amelia, his friends and others, plus his brother Gavin, aboard a ship . . . then on a shore at night . . .but the details were fading rapidly, ineluctably, frustratingly. He wondered which character in the Snark they each represented: the Beaver, Butcher, Bellman, Baker, Bonnet-maker, Banker, Barrister, Broker, Billiard-marker, and Boots. His profession also began with a B: Bookseller.
He looked down and noticed a lose piece of paper had slipped out of the fallen Snark, and picking it up, discovered two stanzas written with the same fine penmanship as the inscription on the flyleaf:
They sought it with theories and a fine research chair,
They pursued it with tenure and scope.
They postulated facts with utmost care,
But failed with values and hope.
That's why I am here, not lounging back there
Seeking it with letters and chalk.
And now if you'll excuse my silent despair,
I think I will go for a walk.
Letters and chalk. Silent despair. Placing it back in the book to accompany the inscription “To David, From one Snarkophile to another, warmest wishes, ............” and the signature he couldn't make out, the thought occurred to him that if he could trace the writer of the inscription and the stanzas, he might discover an interesting provenance. The inscription lacked a date, but the faded ink, and the fine penmanship suggested it could be upwards of a hundred years old. He returned to his desk and settled it on a pile of books for his personal collection. If he'd known about the sale of the building before the weekend, he wouldn't have been out buying books, wouldn't have found the Snark, wouldn't have had the dream.
He looked over at the painting. It already exuded an aura of bleak suggestiveness.
He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, and imagined himself a few years into the future, sitting on bench facing this very spot, now a towering mass of glass and concrete blocking out the sun, and just as he had come across Stuart Grange that day on McGill College Avenue sitting on a bench facing the location of his old bookshop, and they had sat there recreating images from the past, perhaps he too would be joined by a friend and proceed to shuffle the deck of nostalgia and deal each other cards of numbered reminiscences.
Opening his desk drawer to look for a thin booklet with samples of famous author's handwriting, he rummaged through the assemblage of bookmarks, pencils, paperclips, happy-face tacks, screwdrivers, sticky notes, labels, Canada Post custom forms, petrified glue sticks, an empty match box from Davidoff's on Sherbrooke Street, his plastic pin depicting a rabbit on cross-country skies over the number 110 for the Canadian Ski Marathon his younger brother had dragged him into so far back he couldn't remember the year, an old red and gold stiff cigarette pack with Egyptian illustrations: Ramses II filter tip, casino dice with his name on them, a limited edition ten dollar gaming token from the Riviera in Las Vegas from 1996, three Rapier English darts in a black leather case, broken cassette tape holders, and an assortment of CDs. Eyeing David Sylvian's Secrets of the Beehive, he felt it was just what he needed. Forgetting all about his search for the booklet, he popped the DVD drive open on his computer and selected the song Orpheus, then walked over to his mini fridge with the kettle on top and decided to make tea. One could never go wrong with a pot of tea, he thought. Enjoyable when shared, but just as restorative when alone. Better still, a long walk with the one you love, and then a pot of tea. Life always came down to the simple things in he end.
Influenced by Thérèse's condition, and having the afternoon to himself, Pavor had fallen into the nostalgic mood of a flâneur, walking up and down the streets between McGill College and Mackay, observing, absorbing, and seeking the hidden and the obscure, such as the beautiful projecting bay window on the side of a Victorian era home now looking down upon an alley and across at a brick wall of a twenty floor apartment block like a vulnerable eye in the land of the blind, or the particular symmetry of twelve window air conditioners—window shakers he'd heard them called—across a span of three period buildings like punctuation marks, or the unfortunate renovations stripping a building of all sense of uniqueness, but also, on occasion, buoyed by the preservation of a quality architectural specimen, inspired enough to set his imagination off to visualize the street as it used to be over a hundred years ago, a narrow residential avenue of fine townhouses with cut stone facings—city residences of managers, doctors, and widows—with cast iron fences around small front gardens with bird baths, large shade trees, birdsong, horse drawn carriages, busy squirrels, families walking dogs, aspidistras or cats in windows, and tradesmen delivering staples, and then to contemplate the passage of time, as the enlarging city began its commercial encroachment, leading to the transformation of many of the homes into rooming houses, the gradual loss of their Victorian gingerbread details, the demolition of many due to neglect and developers seeking to build apartment blocks or office towers, the survivors succumbing to commercial establishments such as dental offices, jewelry stores, fashion boutiques, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. In another hundred years, he couldn't possibly imagine what would be found.
There almost seemed to be a generational change taking place. The closing of the Mount Stephen Club seemed to mark the passing of the old Anglo elite who had held on to the past as long as they could, now to be revitalized by new money and architectural vision into a boutique hotel for the nouveau riche. Transformation. Change. It was inevitable.
He rested for a moment, his shoulder against the black cast iron lamp post on Crescent Street, the sign for Ruelle Nik-Auf Der Maur above him pointing towards the Sir Winston Churchill Pub and not the damp shadowed alleyway along the side of the building. He conjured up an image of Auf der Maur's hard-drinking cronies with a ladder, screw drivers and a hammer, providing that honorary shift to the sign, and then repairing to the pub for a toast to their fallen journalist comrade, Boulevardier, and raconteur. Then again, it may have been pointing at the pub from the very start. He'd never met the man but had heard stories of his smoking and drinking stamina, and his friendship with the author Mordecai Richler, another man of the world, one likely to be found with a decorative pack of Schimmelpennincks nearby.
One street over, on Mackay, between St. Catherine Street and de Maisonneuve, he stood before the two surviving houses on the block, attached twins in disrepair under the shadows of the modern. It wasn't so much the deterioration and neglect of the architecture that stirred deep emotions within him, as the loss of the rich experience that had existed there in the quiet old world charm of Café Toman, the Czech café on the second floor of the turn of the century home. He remembered the entrance with the large mirror to check your hair and scarf before scaling the old creaking wood staircase to the landing with its round oak table spread with magazines and newspapers, the hall tree to hang your coat, the gentle classical music coming from the modest speakers, the old prints of Prague on the walls, the tall narrow windows and their muted light, the laughter and greetings of the charming Robert who managed to make everyone feel special and remembered, the descent of his Father George from his nap on the third floor and the overheard conversations in the kitchen in the old language, the delicious borscht or goulash with a little plate of subtle cheese bread fingers baked in special old world forms, the delicate sandwiches, the coffees and cappuccinos, the cookies like the vanilkove rohlicky—a favourite of his Mother's—little vanilla crescent moons dusted with the fresh snow of confectioners sugar, or the irresistible apple strudel with a dollop of fresh whipped cream which would leave one feeling dinner wouldn't be required that night. And of course the hand-made truffles to take home to someone special. For many years it had been his escape, a writer's refuge from the bustle, a place where he had felt completely at ease, he could relax with a coffee and a pastry, think, read, and scribble notes. A place to observe university professors, students, and occasional groups of noisy first timers thrilled with the unusual. But once Robert's Father passed away, he took the end as an opportunity for a new beginning, and closed the café. Freedom. More time. A new life.
Turning around, he saw the fairly new tea shop in the lower level of the still new Concordia University building, and made his way over. He was impressed with Thé Kiosque's offerings and ordered a small pot of Margaret's Hope and a Chai tea scone, and then sat at the window counter seat, and stared at the sad building directly across. There must be many like him who missed the old café. The deterioration didn't bode well. It looked as vulnerable as a wounded rabbit under a circling hawk. It wouldn't surprise him to hear it had become a parking lot one day.
“Your tea, and your scone,” the young woman said.
“That smells wonderful, thank you.”
“Do you know the story of Margaret's Hope tea?” she asked, seemingly eager to talk on this quiet early afternoon.
“No, but my . . friend introduced me to the tea and I recognized it on your list, so I ordered it.”
The slim dark haired young woman with numerous rings in her right ear, rested her hands on the top of a nearby chair and began to tell him all about the tea. “It was a small tea plantation owned by a man who lived in London who had a younger daughter named Margaret. On one occasion she visited the garden plantation and was charmed, but on her return to England, she became ill and died. The Father named the tea garden Margaret's Hope in her honour.”
“That's very sad,” Pavor said, “but a lovely story.”
“Supposedly, visitors to the old tea estate have felt or seen her ghostly presence in the old home, on the verrandah, or watching over them while they try to sleep.”
“A delicious tea, and a ghost story. Thank you for telling me. A very interesting background.”
She smiled and began to wipe the table running the length of the window and told him to just ask if he needed anything else.
© ralph patrick mackay