Saturday, December 21, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixty-One, Part A

Standing at the dining room windows, the spent garden before her, she looked closely at the stark limbs of the leafless trees and shrubs and thought they resembled the branching architecture of elkhorn and staghorn corals, corals she remembered swimming over with a feeling of great excitement and pleasure, but as this memory washed over her, she couldn't recall the context. Scuba diving? Snorkeling? The Caribbean? She noticed the small stone bench in the far corner, and could see herself sitting on the cold damp slab in the early morning, black-capped Chickadees playing in the fir trees above her, the delicate pink dianthus plants near her feet, robust spreading sedums and purple salvias reaching up towards a diversity of grasses—greys, greens, reds, feathery and slender—swaying and twitching in the light breeze. Raising her right hand towards her face as if to sweep away a strand of hair, she stopped and gently moved it back and forth as if waving to a friend sitting where she had sat. Mrs. Shimoda noticed this as she approached from behind.

“Such a beautiful space,” Thérèse said, hearing the floor boards creak and feeling her presence.

Mrs. Shimoda stood at her right elbow staring at the depth of the autumn garden scene wondering to whom she had been waving. There were no neighbours to be seen, no faces in rear windows, no stray cat to offer an appeal. Without words, she reached out and clasped Thérèse's hand, and feeling the warmth and pulse of her blood, in silence she shared the view. It was if she had a daughter, a daughter reunited after a long separation, the daughter whose loss she privately lamented. After her son had been born, they'd decided a single child was best so as to focus all their energies upon his upbringing and future. Uncertainties had guided their thoughts and emotions, uncertainties rooted in the experience of their parent's internments during second world war; their loyalty to Canada dismissed outright, their basic human rights stripped. Born in 1941, she often wondered if she had been a burden or a blessing. She remembered her Mother saying that the looks of their friends and associates who couldn't or didn't react to the injustice, haunted her more than the faces behind the phrases of abuse. Her parents had internalized the wounds, rebuilt their lives and looked forward, always forward. Those years were painful to stir up, but whenever the past was aroused, she would inevitably think of the injustices suffered by allied soldiers and civilians at the hands of the Japanese military, and this abstract balancing of sins made her feel like she was on a teeter totter, suspended in air, her feet dangling, dizzy with the vertigo of an invisible wavering counterweight in the distance, gravity pulling at her heels, nausea rising up her spine, until the thought of the atom bombs dropped on her distant homeland broke the spell.

Mrs. Shimoda gently squeezed Thérèse's hand and drew her towards the dining room table. “Do you remember this pen and the signing of the lease?”

“Oh, I do, yes, the little colourful carp.” She looked down at her signature and admired the bold and even strokes. She sat down and taking up the pen, she wrote her name beneath the signature to compare. Identical. She smiled up at Mrs. Shimoda. “I guess that's a good thing. For a second there, I thought I would have to scratch an X.” She looked back at the paper and then across the table to the completed jigsaw puzzle, a spring blossom scene in Japan, three woman in kimonos. Then she noticed the dark polished wood of the table revealed near the centre, like a deep shadow where one of the woman's hands should be, her arm reaching out to . . . a strange thought occurred to her, did the image arise from the dark hole, or was it being drawn into it? She breathed deeply to clear her mind of such an odd question and in doing so, she recognized the fragrance of incense. “I remember your house always had such a lovely smell,” she said.

“Would you like to burn a stick of incense? Relax with your thoughts? Come along. I'll leave you alone for a few minutes while you have a moment of calm before your dinner upstairs. You might need it. Adorable Hugh, the pet dachshund of Amelia and Duncan will be sure to find you of interest.” She led Thérèse to the living room and instructed her to sit upon the small cushion and make herself comfortable. “You can start by lighting the candle,” she said, withdrawing a dollar store disposable candle-lighter from a cabinet drawer. “My son thought it would be safer to use this than matches. I know it's not very authentic but, let it be our secret.” Back at the cabinet in the corner of the room she hesitated over which incense to offer Thérèse: one for good fortune with the scents of sandalwood, cinnamon and clove? Or a floral choice to relax her, such as lavender? She opted for the latter and returned to find the candle lit and Thérèse looking pleased. She handed the aromatic stick to her and instructed her to light it from the candle, let it burn for a few moments, then wave it out and place the smoking incense stick into the mound of ash within the Koro, the ritual incense burner. When Mrs. Shimoda had made her way to the kitchen, she followed the instructions and watched the aromatic smoke spiral upwards, and as she breathed in the familiar fragrance, she kept thinking how the ash of her incense would mix with the ash of Mrs. Shimoda's previous rituals and meditations, and this gave her a great sense of comfort, assurance, solidarity.


“In the midst of life . . . we are in debt,” Duncan said, pouring Jerome a glass of red wine.

Jerome laughed. “In debt, yes, that's a good one.”

Amelia came into the dining room with a platter of assorted cheeses, crackers, sliced baguette and grapes. “Please help yourself Jerome. Fresh from the Atwater Market.” She popped a green grape into her mouth. “There's such a lovely cheese shop there. So many choices, artisan, organic. We're very fortunate being so close.”

The three of them stood around the table in the awkward initial stages of self-revelation as they waited for Thérèse to complete her visit with Mrs. Shimoda, and Pavor and Melisande to arrive with the pizzas from Amelio's. Hugh, having thoroughly sniffed and passed judgement on this stranger in his orange socks, looked up at him with an expression of benevolent anticipation of cheddar.

“I feel I've seen you before Jerome,” Amelia said. “Perhaps at an art show or an author reading, or maybe it was a . . . restaurant.”

“You might have passed me on a sidewalk,” he said. “I like to sit on city benches and look for interesting faces. Yours looks familiar,” he added with a inquisitive turn of his head.

“So Jerome,” Duncan said, breaking the flow of the conversation in his attempt to avoid admitting they'd stared at him from the Commensal Restaurant thinking he looked like a Dickensian street character. “I imagine painting's more lucrative than selling old rope and books.” Bringing the subject back to the challenges of self-employment, Duncan could see a greater breadth of conversational options. “Buyers willing to shell out the big bucks for a portrait or two.”

Jerome cut a triangular slab of soft brie and placed it on a slice of baguette. “I don't know. It's all relative to how ambitious I want to be I guess. Values and opinions are out of my control, but I try to make a living.” He bit off half of the bread and cheese and pondered the shape of his career while Hugh spotted a fluffy snowflake bit of bread descend to the floor near the orange socks. “I recently had a very strange portrait request. It'll pay well, but it's unusual. I was picked up and driven to a large castle-like country estate an hour outside of the city—exactly where I'm couldn't say—and I stayed there a few days while I made preparatory sketches of the wife of the owner.”

“Sounds like something out of a Gothic romance,” Amelia said.

“There's an odd coincidence that involves you Duncan,” he said, bringing his glass of wine to his lips.

“Me? Really?”

Jerome wondered how to frame his story and how much to reveal. “I was waiting in their library before the next sitting, and naturally I browsed the books. On a bottom shelf, I noticed a book sticking out slightly, The Dark Room, Strand, in gold letters on the spine. I thought it might be a story from the Strand Magazine, but as I pulled it out, it was a fake.”

Duncan felt a rush of blood, a quickening of his heart beat. The Dark Room. Strand. “Ah, dummy books. A sham library door perhaps?”

“Well, it was a dummy book as you say, but the others were real. When I pulled the book out, the bookshelf eased forward to reveal a secret room, a room full of very old leather bound books, esoterica, magic, occult, and, on a lectern, a catalogue for the collection, a catalogue with your name on the title page.”

The cheddar-laden table water biscuit in Duncan's right hand cracked between the pressure of his thumb and fingers sending crumbs and cheese to the floorboards (an offer Hugh couldn't refuse, messy though it was). “My name? The Dark Room? That's . . . .”

“Yes, it is, isn't it,” Jerome said. “Extraordinary. So, did you visit the house and make the catalogue there?”

Duncan was lost in a moment of astonishment. The looks of expectation on Amelia, Jerome and Hugh made him feel as if he'd just taken Aldus Manutius's name in vain. “No, no. It was all very odd. I was working for Stuart Grange at the time—his shop name was Grange Stuart—and he received a request to catalogue a special collection.” Duncan took a large sip of his red wine. “Boy, that brings back memories. The collection was held in an empty penthouse apartment on Mountain Street up near MacGregor, or now Dr. Penfield. Every day for two weeks I would stop off at a favourite bakery, buy a few cheese bagels, and then make my way up Mountain Street, past Holt Renfrew, the Chateau Apartments, and on up to the apartment. Those were carefree summer days. No worries. So much easier being an employee. Anyway, it was arranged I would show up at ten in the morning and wait in the lobby for a Mr. Vigg. He was an older well-dressed man, slight build, military moustache, cravat. At first I thought he was the owner, but no, he was a butler I think. Anyway, he had the key to the penthouse, and the key and security code to the locked room with the books. And what books they were. It took all my effort not to lose myself in them, search them for marginalia, read the texts, stare at the engravings, breathe in and feel every page.” Duncan was looking off into the corner of the ceiling as if the past hovered above the crown molding. “I was often early and would talk with the doorman, who was this tall guy named Dirk. The stories he had. Doormen see it all. One morning I was holding the fort as it were as Dirk went to the garage to bring up a beautiful dark green Jaguar XJ6 for one of the tenants, when an older well-heeled couple came out of the elevator with two children about the age of seven or eight, cute as buttons in their private school outfits. They went out the door and got into the jaguar and off they went. Dirk informed me later that the parents would often arrive home propping each other up in their expensive clothes, elegantly drunk. To me, the parents looked more like young grandparents, the children their wards. Probably the first time I saw rich people as . . . sad. I wonder if Dirk still works there? He was a fan of the novels by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove and all that stuff. I'm sorry, I'm going off on a tangent. So, yes, I would be let into the penthouse, and Mr. Vigg would leave me sitting at the fine leather-top desk, with a library lamp, and he would come back at four to lock up. The kitchen had everything to make coffee or tea, and there was black forest ham in the fridge, mustard, fresh bread in the bread keeper. I could help myself. It was a great gig. Loved it. Didn't want it to end. I would go out on the corner balcony and look down the street, the sounds of traffic, the lights, the bustle, the St. Lawrence river somewhere in the distance. Something very special that only those up at those heights experience. And the panopticon behind the building where the four apartment blocks created a square of wasteland, provided the occasional distractions of other lives, glimpses of diverse routines, a man at a typewriter, a woman doing yoga in the passing phase of sun, a cat sleeping on a sofa back, a dinning room table still life with a vase of faux flowers and a bowl of faux fruit, windows forever curtained, blinds forever drawn. Fascinating.”

“Did you ever meet the owner?” Jerome asked.

“Nope. Never knew his name either. Just the initials . . . what were they? D. G. K., a gentleman I think it was. I have a copy of the catalogue at the shop. I did the cataloguing, neatly pencilled, and Mr. Grange's wife Miriam typed it up. This was before computers had entered the scene. She was a librarian from McGill's McLennan Library who smoked Rothman's cigarettes and could swear like a sailor. She would sit at the heavy IBM Selectric and type away with tremendous speed and accuracy, sometimes with a cigarette between her lips, the smoke trailing up, resembling what I assumed a mystery writer might have looked like when pounding out their suspense novels, someone like Margaret Millar; and whenever Miriam changed the ribbon on that heavy monster she reminded me of a mechanic looking under the hood of an old car." Duncan shook his head. "Good days, good days. Mr. Grange put out some interesting catalogues in his time."

“Well, Duncan, I did meet the owner and his wife. Her name might, or might not be, Lucrezia, and his first name is Declan. Nice guy. Self-made. Rose from very little in Griffintown to become a real estate developer. Condominiums, hotels, that kind of thing.”

“Declan? Of Westlake-Declan Entreprises?”

Jerome shrugged his shoulders. “Could be. Is the company into condos and hotels?”

Duncan looked at Amelia, who looked at Jerome. “Duncan just received a letter from his landlord informing him the building where he has his shop and the land around it has been purchased by Westlake-Declan Entreprises for condominium development.”

Jerome, with his mouth open, managed, “That's . . .”

“Yes,” Duncan said, “it is isn't it. Extraordinary.” Their laughter felt silly but they couldn't help but find the whole business absurd.

Duncan's mind wandered off as Amelia and Jerome helped themselves to the cheese and baguette. He thought of old Stuart Grange looking at the location where he'd once had his bookshop, now a prominent highrise commercial building downtown, and the sad news that his dear wife Miriam, such a robust bigger than life character, had developed cancer and their hoped for retirement together had been diminished to his small apartment and her photographs.

The doorbell brought him back to reality and while Amelia went to greet either Thérèse or Pavor and Melisande, Duncan raised his glass to Jerome in a toast. “Here's to happenstance!”

© ralph patrick mackay

Monday, December 09, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixty

Rex Under Glass, part 6

With his bare hands behind him bracing the cold rough stone, Rex Packard posed for the camera: young man facing the firing squad he thought. Harris held the smart phone in front of him like a rare shell found on a beach: young man with a tenuous hold on reality he thought.

In comparison to the remnants of the historic fortification wall, Harris thought Rex seemed newborn, innocent, unstudied, and yet the stones were young compared to Prague's long dismantled Romanesque fortifications, the Gothic Medieval battlements and the more recent Baroque period defences, all taken away beginning in the 1870s as the coup de grâce for what time with its endless cycles of rain, snow, ice and baking summer heat had begun, the inevitable degradation and crumbling of mortar and stone where countless men had pissed, spat, cursed, and scratched graffiti after the cannon balls had flown and the assaulting armies had passed. Prague, now conquered by Budweiser, Perrier, McDonald's, where huddled clutches of students and knots of wandering pilgrims roamed the fabled cobblestones in search of time itself. Harris had seen it all. Rebuilding his life as a tour guide for two years had been an education in humanity's unending hunger for the past—and cheap souvenirs.

He handed the phone back to Rex. “If you'd been reading a book and sitting on a bench, it might have added a certain . . vraisemblance, but as you wish, man against a wall.”

Rex wasn't listening, he was too busy sweeping, tapping and pinching the touch screen. “Hmm, this one looks pretty good . . . .”

“Perhaps our distortions in the fun house mirrors captured us better.” Once again, Harris failed to elicit a response. He turned away and withdrew his cigarette case with the image of Ireland on the cover, and as he performed his ritual, he remembered the fake ruin at Belvedere House, the Irish folly called the Jealous Wall. He'd been on a day trip with a friend from Dublin for a spot of fishing at Lough Ennell, and after their brief angling excursion—the lake's renowned pike having eluded their hooks—they had sought out the autumn vistas around the big house and its folly, and yes, he had had his picture taken against the cold stones, posing like an Edwardian poet, wool scarf thrown over the shoulder of his tweed sports jacket, his supple leather gloves held in one hand, a Sweet Afton cigarette in the other, and it was there he'd learnt the story of the jealous man behind the jealous wall. He looked at Rex wondering if he'd appreciate the tale, but he was manipulating his phone seeking out wifi as if he were the hologram Doctor from Star Trek scanning invisible life forms on a distant planet.


It was almost three hours later when he thought it apropos to tell the tale. He had led Rex down to the Malá Strana, over to the Nostitz Palace pointing out its rich facade with its array of statues along the cornice by Brokof the Younger—now replicas, alas—a building where scenes of Amadeus had been shot he had informed Rex—a full head nod in reaction—then up to the Maltese Square where a statue of John the Baptist watched over the approach to the Maltese Church of the Virgin Mary under the Chain—an inquisitive cocking of the head—then round past the John Lennon Wall—gaudy and psychedelic with nostalgia and idealism—over the Devil's Stream to Kampa Island and the stairs leading up to the Charles Bridge where he had duly reprieved his old monologue about the statues on display—once again, copies of the originals—stopping to discuss John of Nepomuk who had been thrown from the bridge for having denied King Wenceslas the secrets of his wife's confessions concerning a possible romantic affair—a possible segue for the Jealous Wall—and then continuing with his old tour guide spiel across the river, under the tower past the museum of torture—plus ça change—and to the Old Town Square with its Medieval astronomical clock and a few bon mots concerning the fugitive nature of time—thinking to himself that one of the clock's four statuettes, the Miser, Vanity, the skeleton death and the Turk with the stringed instrument could be replaced with a representation of a jealous husband—before finally crossing the square and walking up and around to the his favourite Japanese restaurant where Rex had aped his choice of grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce, rice, Miso soup and salad washed down with a couple of Sapporos, and imitated him as he sat there picking his teeth after the fine meal.

“When you stood against the wall up near Petrin Tower, it reminded me of a story set in Ireland,” Harris commenced slowly. “I think I remember most of the details."

"I'm all ears," Rex said as if surrendering to an adventurous challenge.

"There was a man, an aristocrat named Robert Rochfort who, at the age of twenty-six married the sixteen year old daughter of another aristocratic family, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. They lived in a fine home called Gaulstown House. He was away a good deal of the time on business affairs, Dublin, London, and as Robert's younger brother Arthur and his wife were neighbours, they offered her friendship. She raised her children and the families were close, but Robert was distant to his wife and was rarely at home and was easily influenced by another brother, George, who, for monetary reasons possibly, disliked the young wife. An accusation of infidelity with Arthur was brought against his wife. George apparently the witness. Love letters were supposedly involved.”

Rex finished the remnants of his beer. “A bit of a Casanova then, this Arthur.”

“Well, that's the thing, perhaps not. Arthur had been shocked at the accusations and left the country to save face no doubt, and Robert locked his wife away in Gaulstown House with instructions to the staff that no family or friends could visit her. He meanwhile, lived in the beautiful Georgian mansion built on Ennell Lough, called Belvedere House, near his brother George's stately home. So, while his wife quietly lost her mind and began talking to the portraits on the walls, he was living the glorious life, respected, admired, perhaps even offered sympathy for having had the misfortune of an adulterous wife. When his brother Arthur returned, Robert sued him for £20,000 damages, what would be over a million dollars today, and inevitably Arthur was arrested and spent the rest of his life in a debtor's prison.”

“His own brother?”

“It's quite likely they were innocent. Just sensitive people sharing thoughts and emotions and supporting each other. Normal well-adjusted people with normal sensibilities." Harris waited while the waitress cleared their plates. “Then of course Robert had a falling out with the manipulative George.”

“Pistols at dawn?”

Harris nodded. “If only. He had a fake ruin installed to block out the view of his brother's house. This three story grand folly was called the Jealous Wall. I had my picture taken against it many years ago. Ruins were very popular in the eighteenth century, aids to reflection on the nature of time and decay, the memento mori of the landscape, but this Jealous Wall was a double fake, in its very nature, and the motive behind it. A greater example of the abuse of the Picturesque is unlikely to be found.”

“So what's the fortification wall in Prague got to do with an Irish ruin?”

Harris looked past Rex with a controlled frustration. “Absolutely nothing. Merely a subjective reflection on human nature aroused by the physical manifestation of walls themselves. The abuse of power. Wenceslas, Rochfort, Vernon Smythe. The manipulation of truth and lies.”

The lines on Harris's forehead made Rex think of sagging volleyball nets. He didn't want to discuss Smythe and his commission. “Where did you learn to pick your teeth like that, one hand covering the other?”

Harris raised his eyebrows in reaction to the change in the conversation. “I was stationed in Hong Kong for two years. Common enough to see people sitting around tables in restaurants picking their teeth after a meal. It would be an embarrassment to smile and reveal a remnant morsel between the pearly whites.”

Rex smiled making Harris wonder if they were caps.

“When were you there?”

Harris half-heard the question. He was imagining himself back on that humid island with its twenty-four hour hustle, decked out in his dark brown supple leather jacket, fake Rolex, stylish ankle boots with a decorative buckle detail, the sound of his footsteps a projection of his self-conscious displacement. He inwardly sighed and thought he could smell the sharp tang of the harbour, but it was likely just a residuum of dinner. Rex asked the question again. Harris looked up at him and saw someone who would have lost those prominent eye teeth if he'd encountered a Triad member with a grudge. “The mid '80s. China had just signed the deal to take over Hong Kong. The clock was ticking. Families were doing their best to get immigration papers. The upwardly mobile had already been sending their children abroad for University degrees—computer science and engineering were the big ones back then. Yes, the shadow of the transfer of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 loomed large. No one knew exactly what to expect. Few of us foresaw China's extraordinary economic development. Likewise with Dubai. If I'd been passing over that port city and someone had told me it would be the location for an astounding metropolis with the tallest building in the world, I would have thought them delusional. And what about Detroit.? Should have seen that coming.”

Rex nodded his head. “I was just there. It gave me the creeps. Made me think it could happen anywhere.”

Harris nodded his head knowing all about Rex's recent visit. “Corruption, mismanagement, global changes, luxury pulling the rug from under the feet of liberty. In two hundred years it might very well join the names of famous old ruins like Baalbec, Ephesus, Palmyra.” Harris smiled up at the waitress who brought him the bill. Rex motioned to grab it but Harris was too quick. “No, I insist, you're my guest. I'll take the hit this time,” he added with a wink and then busied himself with his wallet, counting the necessary Koruna. “Yes, my years in Hong Kong were enjoyable. Such a rich culture of food, luxury, gambling, horse racing, antiques. I began to collect when I was there. Small items, the paraphernalia of the opium den, emblems of oblivion and forgetfulness; exquisite Rosewood bowls, ivory handled opium knives, copper ashtrays and measuring cups, enamel opium boxes, glazed terracotta bowls, brass opium lamps, scales in brass with ivory beams and rosewood cases, lacquered leather travelling pillow chests, white porcelain head rests, lacquered bamboo pipes with terracotta bowls and ivory tips. Yes, and then I added anything to do with laudanum. Nineteenth century British medicinal bottles, pill cases and such. A decent collection. Got most of them at good prices. I kept a few items and sold the rest to help finance my shift here. Such is life.” He finished with the bill and looked across at Rex. “Are you someone who likes to remember or one who likes to forget?”

Rex stared at his spent tooth pick beside his empty glass. “I never thought about it before, but . . . I guess I'm more of a forgetter.”

Harris nodded as if he had already assumed this to be the case. He checked his watch. “We can swing by the Kavárna obecni dum for a coffee and dessert if you'd like, and we can discuss my ideas concerning our Mr. Smythe.”

“What about that absinthe you mentioned?”

“Ah yes, forgetfulness and oblivion. Just testing you for a reaction. I wouldn't touch the stuff. If you want something more authentic, try a Slivovitz, a rum brandy. Buy some and bring it home as a souvenir. Jelínek makes a nice looking bottle.”

As Rex put on his coat he said, “I feel you've led me on a wild goose chase today."

“Ah, well, it's beneficial sometimes to take the circuitous route, the diversionary path. To walk 'in rat's alley where the dead men lost their bones,' as Eliot put it." He smiled at Rex.  "It's easy to gaze at a landscape from the heights and believe what you want to, but it's much more important to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath your feet and read the writing on the wall.”

- - -

Pavor Loveridge reread the last line of his print-out and wondered if it was too pontifical. Maybe he should replace 'gaze' with a simple 'look.' He could already feel the shift in his sensibility, a turning away from his character Rex. Was he capable of killing him off? Moving on? He slipped the printed sheets of paper into a folder and put it in his desk drawer. Checking his watch he realised he'd better prepare for the unusual dinner invitation. Be observant and kind he told himself. Observant and kind. Try to bring some humour too. Light humour. Perhaps he'd come up with some ideas for his story when the night was through, lying awake, eyes closed, thinking of nothing and everything. Would he stay here or would he be with Melisande? He'd have to read the signs. Follow the path.

© ralph patrick mackay