Duncan stared at the vacant lot across the street. The concrete blocks were jetsam, the graffiti scrawls really old-fashioned luggage labels of exotic destinations visited, Shanghai, Rangoon, Malabar, Montevideo, Valparaiso, Yokohama; the lone empty wine bottle held a mysterious manuscript within, tossed from some sinking ship like in that tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Sometimes he felt his daydreams were vital to his mental health.
Ship bound. Becalmed. He could hear the ticking of the clock in counterpoint to his wristwatch as he brought the cup of tea to his lips. No customers, no telephone calls. The odd book request from his online database aroused the occasional sense of being vital, but selling books online with so little human interaction had always felt, to him at least, soulless. Book values and prices had dropped due to increased availability, postage was sometimes more expensive than the requested book, and the only part he found enjoyable now was the process of packaging books to secure their safety from bumps and moisture.
He returned to his desk, the old wood floors creaking like a merchant vessel of the nineteenth century. The note on his desk reminded him to search his shelves for copies of P. K. Loveridge's novels for him to sign. In the aisle of “L's, he pulled out a copy of Pavor's Rex in Arcadia and his Olivaster Moon, and brought them back to his desk. Sitting down with a sigh, he remembered he had awoken last night from some forgotten nightmare, not quite knowing where he was, and had wondered what it would be like to lose one's memory. Perhaps it was like that feeling when he went from one room to another to gather an item, and then completely forget what it was he had wanted, but multiplied a hundred fold. Confusion, mystification, frustration, reality issuing a strange shadow feeling of familiarity. Unable to sleep, he had lain awake listening to Amelia's breathing, and it had reminded him of waves breaking upon a shore, her inhalation like the quiet regress, and he had felt she was the ocean holding him aloft, memory itself keeping him afloat, looking up at the full moon, its wavering reflection reaching out to him, luring him back to sleep.
The cream in Arthur's coffee spiralled and swirled like a distant nebula, the formations resembling his confused search for answers in the dark brew of shadows. Dipping the spoon into his cup, he circled the liquids into conformity while an island of bubbles in the middle turned and slowly collapsed like dying truths. He sipped his coffee and gazed at Jerome across the uneasy silence. Mrs. Laflamme had left them in the living room with coffee and fresh-baked ginger cookies—uniform circles glittering with rough sugar and darkly fissured like crevices on an alien landscape. They sat in flowery upholstered comfort and listened to the muffled voices and footsteps above them as Thérèse and her mother attempted to establish the past, overcome the present, and discuss the future.
Jerome looked at Mr. Roquebrune and thought he suited the decor of the house, the brightly coloured paintings of Québec countryside, images of horses pulling logs through winter landscapes, an autumnal view of low rolling hills reflected in a lake, a portrait of a rugged Habitant with his clay pipe and soft wool hat, Spring flowers in a vase.
Arthur was admiring the paintings at the same time, and yet had noticed one that seemed unusual, like a dissonant chord in a romantic adagio. It looked more suitable for an arched niche in a Neoclassical vestibule due to its shape and its quasi-religious arrangement of the figures. He wondered if it was one of Jerome's.
“Is the painting in the hallway one of yours by any chance?”
Jerome, aroused from his concentration on deciphering the noises from the second floor, looked back to Arthur and then slowly shifted his gaze to the hallway where the painting hung. “Yes, it is. Stands out from the others, doesn't it.” Leaning towards Arthur, he said with a lowered voice, “I wonder if Mrs. Laflamme brought it out of a closet and hung it there just for our visit.”
Arthur nodded his head. “It's very good, but yes, the style is . . . baroque in comparison. Is it based on an original?”
A thump from above like a shoe hitting the floor startled them.
"A friend of mine who makes many of my picture frames, had a simple arched frame made of rosewood in his studio, and when I saw it, I thought it would be good for a small scale copy of a painting Thérèse and I had found interesting on a visit to Venice in . . . 2003.” He sipped his coffee and finished his soft gingery snap. “The original's in the Rialto area. A church called San Giovanni Elemosinario. Most people walk right by it because the entrance and iron gate are flush with the facades of the market buildings where shops sell tourist fare, t-shirts, shoes, jewelry, but the church's towering campanile is there if you look up." Placing his coffee on a side table and resting his head against the highback chair, he looked up at the ceiling as if he were sitting in a pew observing the painting in question. “Besides Titian's St. John the Almsgiver, there's a painting by Il Pordenone depicting St. Catherine, St. Sebastian and St. Roch. The figures are densely interwoven and positioned. Very little background to be seen. Thérèse thought they looked like prisoners squeezed under a transparent cloche. I've modernized it for my version of course. If you look closely you'll see the features of St. Catherine are those of Thérèse, Sebastian those of mine, and St. Roch of my friend Pavor Loveridge. I'm clothed and holding a camera in my outstretched arms above me and looking towards her as if twisted in a vortex. Thérèse, in a Tilly vest and chinos, is holding a travel guide open to pages with an image of the church tower and, in very small writing, the name of the church. She's looking up as if in awe. Pavor meanwhile is kneeling down to pet a young Labrador Retriever who has one leg pointing off canvas, as if giving directions to the straight and narrow way. In the original the dog is a cherubic winged angel. St. Roch is, among others, the patron saint of bachelors and those falsely accused which I thought Pavor would appreciate being a bachelor and a writer of crime novels.”
“I'll have to take a closer look before we leave.”
Laughter filtered down the staircase, Mother and daughter's. Arthur and Jerome smiled.
“I think it was Vasari who fabricated a story that Titian was jealous of Il Pordenone, and then poisoned him. Il Pordenone died in his mid-fifties while Titian reached his mid-eighties. Such a competitive world back then. The truth . . . ?” Jerome shrugged his shoulders. He closed his eyes feeling the truth of anything seemed elusive at best. He imagined the painting, saw himself turning towards Thérèse as if he was her shadow guide, ready to add commentary, background, context, subtitles, colouration, light, meaning, truth, and then the thought image began to fade, Thérèse's so called transparent cloche was filling with an opaque mist. Upstairs she was revisiting the fragments of her life, rediscovering her past. Would she rediscover their love? Would she still accept him, accept his wedding proposal? He hadn't thought of that. Doubt tickled the back of his neck and he began to feel very insignificant and out of place, much like the painting.
The sound of footsteps upon the carpeted stairs alerted them to the descent of either mother or daughter, and they anticipated her like nervous patients in a dental office waiting room.
Get on with your life, her mother had said. Leave this globe-trotting behind for awhile. Settle yourself and find a job here in Québec. No more danger. She lay on the guest room bed beside an assortment of older photographs and mementos of her travels. Murano glass pendant and earrings from Venice; the small Mate gourd with Uruguay written in black letters on the side; the letter opener from Haiti; the finely carved pencil/pen holder from Venezuela; the mundane miniature Eiffel tower; a bookmark from Tallinn; a diversity of coins and paper money tactile with memories. She picked up a photograph of herself and the Australian friends she'd met on her travels in South America. They'd made their way down from Ecuador to the westernmost point of the continent in Peru past Talara. Climbing the rocks and sand to the lighthouse above the beach, she'd slipped and scraped the heel of her right hand, and her right knee, the scar a landscape feature on her skin, a smooth outcrop like a small phantom island. She remembered standing at the top, wind-blown, bleeding lightly, the oil tankers motionless in the distance, the round refinery storage tanks behind her like enormous suburban swimming pools, the birds clinging to the cliffs white-washed with their excrement below. Did she really visit such a place? Another photograph of the Hotel de Sel in Bolivia out on the salt flats, she and her friends reflected in the shallow water, a mirror image of blue sky and white clouds. She shook her head. It seemed the life of another. The binder in which her mother had placed all of her cuttings from newspapers, magazines and online sites—travel pieces, political and social stories, disaster relief reports, human interest profiles—was of little interest to her. Something had changed. Nausea overcame her when she contemplated such work. She imagined it would wear off. She just needed time to recuperate, adjust, redefine.
She noticed a colourful square of glazed clay on the night table, a gift from her friend Melisande, a finger labyrinth she had made using special paints to form a miniature medieval Chartres labyrinth. She reached for it and started her index finger along the smooth yellow path between the raised indigo blue lines, rising up towards the centre and then swinging away and around. As she continued the circuitous route, she thought it exemplified the challenge before her of regaining the past, a visiting, a revisiting, all the points of her life, a much more demanding task than a direct avenue to a single memory like a spoke on the wheel from tire to hub. Regaining her memory was to be a slow, incremental endeavour. And she wasn't sure of what the outcome would be.
She rolled off the bed and went to the ensuite bathroom and splashed water on her face. Leaning over the sink, drops of moisture suspended on her skin, she looked deeply into the radiating greys and greens of her irises where the dark reflection of her form stared back at her, the pupil, like a black hole, absorbing everything, even light. It was all there, inside, behind the eyes, stored away like archival files. Patience Dr. Seymour had said, patience.
Amelia wiped the bathroom mirror with glass cleaner wondering how many times Thérèse had stood there looking at her reflection. How many mornings, afternoons, nights, preparing for the day, for the night, brushing her teeth, plucking an eyebrow—or annoying facial hairs—applying make-up, combing her hair, opening the medicine cabinet? All mundane rituals performed with little conscious thought. Would she use the bathroom and see herself as she once was? The lighting, the colour of the tiles, the feel of the glazed porcelain sink, the cold metal of the taps, the sound of the flush, all reviving old memories.
She would have to tell Duncan not to mention the odd manuscript found in the kitchen. Now that it was lost, so may it remain.
Why did she offer to have them over? What had she been thinking? Was it more to do with Jerome than Thérèse? It might very well be disastrous. She scrubbed the toilet bowl vigorously as if her doubts were the germs and mineral scale. As she flushed the soapy water away, she thought of Thérèse's loss with mild envy. Would it not be a completely fresh beginning? An opportunity to forget painful childhood memories? Experience the world without psychological baggage? Recollection transformed into imagination? An innocence regained?
The cold, clear water filled the bowl while receding whispers issued from the tank. She closed the seat lid and wiped the surface where the fixture's manufacturing name was printed, CRANE. Duncan was usually the one who cleaned the house and he'd been too rough, having somehow removed a portion of the 'R' so every time she looked, she would read CHANEL, even though the last letter was a phantom. Eau de toilette Duncan had joked. Would Thérèse notice? Would it be a stimulus?
The storage unit would have to go. He could donate the clothing and household items to a woman's shelter, and then choose the photographs of special moments and bring them to a shop to be digitized, reduced to a slim disc, easily filed away in a drawer of his writing desk. He needed to forget the dead and get on with the living, but create a balance of remembering, honour their lives with continued visits to the cemetery, silent toasts on birthdays, wedding anniversaries. Pavor felt he had to grapple with the past very carefully. He knew from experience his dreams and waking thoughts were affected after handling the remnants of that life, he was often haunted by images of his wife and child, the apartment they had once shared, the imagined scenarios of trying to stop them from going out that day, or driving them himself instead of poring over law books, what he could have done, the what ifs and the if onlys.
An equipose, a balance was required, with unwritten rules for his new relationship with Melisande. He didn't want to be pitied. It would be a closed book on the topmost shelf, out of reach, out of sight, a private journal not to be mentioned.
Pavor dipped his coffee cup into the soapy water and slowly, methodically scrubbed, enjoying the heat on his hands, the bubbles tickling his wrist.
The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove by Dead Can Dance shuffled its way from her iPod to her earbuds as Melisande finished a statistical report. She began to tap her thumb beside her mouse, her mind drifting away from numerical facts to numinous energies. She closed her eyes tapping her right foot under the desk. She wondered what Pavor was doing. Pavor Loveridge. Lovegrove vs. Loveridge. Grove vs. Ridge. Mrs. Loveridge. Would she keep her own name? It was the law, otherwise she would have to pay for the privilege of Mrs. Loveridge. She liked it. Melisande Loveridge. Melisande Aurelia Loveridge vs. Melisande Aurelia Bramente. Initials MAL vs MAB. Queen Mab, Queen Mal. Would they live separately until the wedding? Would they leave their separate apartments and buy a small house? The amalgamation, the division, the balance of belongings. Would her cat Clio get along with Pavor as a housemate? Would she sleep on his side of the bed, on him, around him to demonstrate her dominance over him in the pecking order of things? Would he rise and make her breakfast and her lunch, clean the house, do the shopping, take out the garbage and recycling? Would she have an influence on his writing? Negative, positive? Would he be like a medieval walled city when he was writing? Would she be waiting at the tower gate for entry. Waiting like a merchant or a pilgrim for admittance. Waiting like a refugee from a ruined city. And once within, would she have to circle round to find his heart?
© ralph patrick mackay