After a nod and a hello to the bookstore clerk, a fresh face filling in on a slow Saturday morning, Pavor busied himself in looking for a certain title by Boris Vian. Being so close to The Word bookstore on his way back from picking up bagels and feeding Clio—whose feline dismay had been assuaged by a dish of food, soft words, and a gentle stroke down her spine—it was inevitable that his desire to replace Vian's The Froth on the Daydream, the small 1970 Penguin Modern Classic with the cover image by Felix Labisse, a book he'd purchased from The Word thirty years ago and had misplaced or lost, and had, for the last few years, been quietly looking for, would draw him to that cave of delight, that veritable cornucopia of the world's voices offered with a Zen-like calm, a bookstore whose shelves held the quiverings of countless words ready to take flight with the turning of a page and escape out the door between the supple fingers of a contented customer to which he hoped he was one.
“What was it with Beckett and the letter M anyway?” a male voice behind him asked.
Startled from his romantic musings about the pursuit of secondhand books, Pavor exchanged a brief glance with the clerk, and then turned around to see a middle aged man sitting in the low slung upholstered chair parallel to the display table laden with history books. The man's greying moustache was exemplary, full, finely trimmed, and ever so slightly tweaked at the ends. It hovered beneath his long nose like a circus canopy over the stage of his open mouth. His large horn-rimmed glasses engaged the brim of his baseball cap, one that sported a logo like a street sign, a dark silhouette of a faceless man's head with a bowler hat, and a line drawn across it on the angle, an heraldic bend, the logo for the music group Men Without Hats. Worn with irony, or as some kind of emblem of antiestablishmentarianism, Pavor could only wonder.
“Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Murphy, Malone, Molloy, Moran, Mahood . . . and yes, Macmann. There are others I'm sure.”
Pavor thought the man's patent, hadn't quite pended.
He noticed he was holding a book entitled Visions by Leonid Andreyev, the hardcover dustjacket revealed an image of the bearded author looking much like a 1970s French Canadian folk singer.
“Can't you just see the stiff-haired Sam sitting cross-legged at a café table in Paris, tweed jacket, scarf, a demi-tasse before him, a thick white cigarette trailing smoke, those striking grey-blue eyes looking past you?” The man looked towards Pavor as if expecting an answer. “I had the good fortune of meeting him. Yes, Paris, 1979, Montparnasse. He signed a copy of Godot for me. Such nice hands.” The man returned his attention to the Andreyev leaving the clerk and Pavor holding the silence between them like a sheet ready to be folded.
Pavor began to recall the images of Beckett whose multi-lined and deeply etched face was like a road map of all the disillusions he'd surveyed. An iconic image, a caricature of all things modernist and literary. Images of authors unsettled him. Photographs could rarely go beneath heir split-second captured surfaces. His own author photograph for his publisher was just such a facade. His had been poised, looking stalwart, strong-willed, in control, and yet at the time, he'd been fragile, his will power crumbling like burnt toast—he could barely get out the door. He often looked at author photos and wondered what inner frailties gnawed at their self-confidence beneath their bitmapped images.
Pavor returned his eyes to the shelf before him, but could see no Vians between the Vernes and the Vidals, and having no interest in either of those authors, it increased his frustration seeing them cheek by jowl.
“Excuse me, but are you P. K. Loveridge?” the clerk enquired from the built-in cash desk beneath the stairs, a position that reminded Pavor of a Dickensian workplace, something akin to Kenge and Carboy.
“Yes, that's me.”
“There's a couple of books of yours here we'd like you to sign, if it's no problem that is.”
“Sure, no problem.” He came around to the little counter while the clerk rummaged behind him for the books. “You wouldn't have any books by Boris Vian by any chance?”
Placing the two softcover volumes on the counter beside a volume on wine, the clerk looked towards the front window as if daylight would help his memory search the storage shelves upstairs. “Nothing at the moment. They go pretty quick.”
“Umm, I bet.” Pavor began to sign the copy of Olivaster Moon when he heard the approach of the lugubrious man with the moustache.
“Ah, a writer I see.” The man was taller than Pavor expected. “What is your style Sir?” He didn't wait for an answer. “Are you a practitioner of dirty realism, that efflorescence of rural ruminations? That migratory method from the midwest, rural Gothic, hayseed haiku if you will? Or perhaps you proffer examples of real dirtiness, British influence, lad lit yes? A progenitor of bawdy metropolitan graphic with a touch of graffiti rap?” The man, whose clothes carried the scent of the coffee house, paused. “Esoteric eroticism perhaps?Vampiric youth narratives? Regional, coming of age reconstructions? Family saga fandangoes? YA lite, or narratives as clean and uncluttered as a staged condominium open house?" The man chuckled like a critic. "Or are you one of those coffin flies who scuttle along the edges of famous crypts in order to co-opt an historical life for a story?”
The clerk, a Page to Pavor's Knight, came to his defence. “Mr. Loveridge writes spy thrillers with nuances of noir crime, Fitz. Haven't you read the Rex series?”
Fitz ran a hand over his enviable moustache and looked sideways at Pavor. “Ah, I see, a novelist who works for a year to produce a book that's consumed in an evening. Your poor readers Sir, they must suffer to wait. Or, to reread. Are your books worthy of rereading?”
Pavor was at ease with eccentrics. Like players of solitaire, their cards were on the table. “Well, I don't know. I hope so.” He closed the signed copy. “I can tell you, I can't reread them if that's any help.” He smiled.
“Ah, well put Sir, well put. Unfortunately, having not read your work, I can't say I am a bona fide fan. No autograph seeker here," he said, tapping his plaid shirted chest. "Don't get me wrong,” he said touching Pavor's arm, “I'm not an urban snob, a snurb as it were—not to be confused with the snurd which is the slushy snow that builds up and freezes in the rims of cars and is deposited along roads and left in parking lots, veritable vehicular defecations, snow turds, hence snurds—no, I am not a snurb. I'm quite as willing to delve into the noir as the next man. Yes, give me a Stark, a Westlake or a Leonard and I'll be content . . . for an hour or two.” Fitz raised the copy of Andreyev before Pavor's eyes. “Have you read this author.”
“Andreyev? No, I'm sorry, I haven't.” He signed the second book, Rex in Arcadia. “I played Russian roulette once and came up with Gogol. Haven't gone much further than that.” He hoped that confidence would baffle the eccentric Fitz enough to make his retreat. “I really must be going. I have a cat to feed. Nice to meet you Fitz. I'll keep Andreyev in mind.” He thanked the young clerk and asked him to say hi to his boss for him and made his way to the door.
“Ah,” Fitz exclaimed, picking up the book on wine, “it's extraordinary what the humble grape has achieved is it not? Just think of its shrivelled little cousin, that desiccated delicacy, the raisin, how . . .” Pavor was out the door, and as he passed the large front window, he waved to the shadows within seeing only his dark reflection in the glass. Melisande had told him stories of peculiar and eccentric library patrons, but secondhand bookshops also had their share. Especially if a comfortable seat was provided.
Back in his car, Pavor observed the slender fingers of frost formations on his windshield, constellations of crystals with inconceivable tenuities, sidereal impressions in frozen molecules. He remembered his daughter's fascination with window frost, “winter writing” she'd said, “an unknown language.” Pavor rested his forehead on the steering wheel and closed his eyes.
His cell phone rang.
Reluctantly he pulled his phone out. He recognized the number. “Hey Jerome, how's it going?”
“Sorry for calling you on a Saturday morning. Hope I didn't disturb you.”
“No, not at all. Just out on errands. How's Thérèse doing”
“She's good. Better every day. Thanks.” Jerome cleared his throat. Pavor thought he sounded rather excited. “I just wanted to let you know that the client whose wife's portrait I painted, heard I was getting married and has offered to host a celebratory dinner. I told him it was a double wedding. All the better he said, and when he heard Duncan was the best man and his wife the bridesmaid, he invited them as well. Six of us for the night at their country estate. What do you think? The food will be gourmet.”
“Wow, the perks of your trade eh? I'll talk to Melisande, but it sounds lovely.”
“He said he'd have his Mercedez Benz van pick us up on the Sunday after the wedding, and we'll stay over till Monday or even Tuesday if we'd like.”
Pavor had yet to think of honeymoon destinations but such a visit seemed a pleasant precursor to a trip abroad. “Thanks Jerome. Sounds great.”
“Good. I'll talk to you soon. Say hi to Melisande for me. Ciao.”
Ciao? He hadn't heard Jerome so animated since he won an arts grant to study in Europe. Pavor started the car, left the defroster off, and made his way home.
Amelia wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror but her features were still fogged by the remnant moisture. The words of the doctor came back to her like the steam returning to the mirror's surface. A liminal state the doctor had told her. He was stable. They would perform more tests during the morning and afternoon. She should go home and take care of herself and then return late afternoon when Duncan would be back in his room.
She sighed deeply and wrapped a towel around her hair.
The apartment was quiet without Hugh. Mary had picked him up last night to stay with Uncle Edward and George III. She hadn't revealed the reason why she needed a dog sitter. There was nothing they could do to help Duncan, and the hospital with its inevitable germs was no place for a ninety-two year old. She didn't want Edward catching some virus. She would drive up to see them for lunch and reveal all.
Passing the study, she stopped and looked in at Duncan's desk, a cluttered assemblage of papers, books, and collectibles he'd acquired over the years. She sat down in his chair and looked at the bamboo holders full of pens, pencils, book marks, chopsticks, and the letter openers he liked to collect, miniature swords and daggers in brass or copper, Victorian copper paper knives, finely polished multi-coloured wood ones, and carved exotics from other continents. On the right side of the desk sat a bowl filled with small sea shells, some pearly and transparent, others pure white and solid as stone, colourful pebbles, slender petrified coral pieces, and a small starfish, and sticking out of them like a pen in a pen holder, a brown and white feather, a feather with a story. Duncan, alone at his Father's country cabin, had been looking out the living room window at dusk watching a rabbit munch the grass under a birch tree. The next morning he'd found the feather where the rabbit had dined, an owl's feather. He'd kept it as a memento mori. A reminder of the way of nature. She withdrew it from the shells and gently ran her finger along the soft edge. Twirling it around she held it like a quill pen, and then, overwhelmed with a superstition that any action might have an effect upon Duncan's recovery, she was overcome with a feeling of having disturbed the spirit inherent in the object, and slipped it back in place between the shells and stones. She knew it was illogical, but at such desperate moments in life, the scope of influences became panoramic and all embracing.
She looked at the small colour photograph propped on a set of reference books, a photo of Duncan before she knew him. The year was 1981, he was twenty-two, slimmer, with longer, darker hair, and sporting gold-rimmed Ray-Ban aviator glasses slightly out of fashion by that time. He was facing the camera and standing near a tall mirror, his reflection, an echo of his lost twin brother Gavin. He called the photograph André and Me. His little joke. The reason being that for many years in his late teens and early twenties, he experienced people greeting him using the name André. A bicyclist passed by, raised his arm and blurted out, 'Salut André.' Or a pedestrian passed him with a 'bonjours' and a nod as if he knew him. Or from an open car window, a voice calling out André. Or that occasion on the Metro platform at Berri-UQAM, when a young woman waved and called to him from the other side of the tracks. She had been going east, he west, and the noise of their respective metro trains entering the station had precluded any further verbal interaction. From the inside of his Metro car, he had waved to her, and she'd waved back, separated by an arm's reach. There were other occasions. Each time he'd been caught off guard. Each time he'd been stunned and unable to react quick enough. Each time he'd been left mystified. And then it stopped. He never did learn who André was. Never did meet his French doppelganger. The end.
With failing logic and a sense of shame she wished it was his doppelganger in the hospital and not Duncan.
She slumped back in his chair, crossed her ankles and suddenly felt disconnected from everything around her. Floating upon a cloud of anxiety, she could hardly feel the chair. She closed her eyes and consciously breathed in and out, seeking strength from some hidden reserves of perseverance. Fearing she had little left, she concentrated, and visualized a water well, the kind found in old farmsteads, and imagined herself bringing up a bucket overflowing with replenishing liquid, and pouring it into a bamboo irrigation trough that fed a small garden. Breathing deeply, she continued the process until she drifted off into a light sleep.
Roused with a sense of falling, she looked at the clock and saw she'd only been asleep for ten minutes.
She dressed quickly thinking of the items she should bring back to the hospital. His comb, toothbrush, fresh boxer shorts, socks. Reading material she remembered. Yes, she could read to Duncan if it was all right with the doctors. Going around to his bedside table, she noted his selected bedtime reading was not promising: a Loeb Classic edition of the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, My Friend's Book by Anatole France, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft by George Gissing, and McAlmon's Chinese Opera by Stephen Scobie. A prime example of his eclectic and wavering interests. She didn't think she could manage any of them, but did choose the Gissing. Looking at her own stack of books, she selected a novel she'd been reading, a collection of short stories and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, one of her favourite children's books she'd been rereading, a book Duncan had never read. She thought that it might be just the thing for him. She could read it to him with a soft voice, fil de voce, like a bedtime story. It might be just the thing to bring him back to consciousness.
© ralph patrick mackay