With the visibly evanescent fingers of frost on the windshield leading the way, Pavor drove along Sherbrooke Street enveloped by the aroma of fresh baked bagels while the words of the eccentric Fitz resurfaced in his thoughts like pieces of academic flotsam. He certainly lacked inhibition, he thought. A coffin fly no less! There was something about Fitz, something dispassionately erudite that irritatingly lingered like the itch of a mosquito bite. Perhaps he was a new professor at one of the Universities. As this thought settled like a well-placed puzzle piece, he recognized Amelia driving towards him, her face bathed in a shard of angled sun created by the tall buildings. He waved but she didn't see him for the light in her eyes. Probably on her morning errands, he thought, much like himself, a translator and a novelist out and about while their respective partners, a bookseller and a librarian, kept the books. A fanciful notion passed over him: perhaps in another dimension their relationships were inverted, Melisande and Duncan the symbolic bridge partners to Amelia and himself. Two bibliophiles and two wordsmiths, the cataloguers and the scribblers. The notion faded quickly as he considered how little he knew of Amelia's character and personality. She was much like an artist's picture to him, lightly sketched and enigmatic, but disturbingly more real than his late wife and child who now seemed to have faded into a haze of natural evocations, manifestations of seasonal intimacies; unwonted, diurnal creations of his imagination. In bed at night, looking out at the framed darkness, he often wondered if they had existed at all.
He would have to deal with the storage locker with their archived belongings. It was time.
Approaching his apartment building, he noticed the street parking was a clean sweep, the other residents also having sought distant landfalls: Saturday morning breakfast diners, glistening powder on the Laurentian ski slopes, or shopping malls with their echoing fountains and endless sales. Or were the drivers all one night stands slinking off to their private worlds? He pulled into his old spot and noticed the space in front of him had a circular oil stain on the asphalt which resembled one of those coloured NASA images he'd seen on the Internet, a supernova, or some kind of gas emanation, captured instants of the past, like colourful paintings on black felt, interstellar art. As he walked towards his apartment, however, he realised that the position of the stained pavement was indeed from his last departure. The possibility of a leak took the sheen off his morning, the fresh air dulled to hints of exhaust.
Amelia released her foot from the gas pedal and coasted along Sherbrooke Street towards the red light in the distance, passing between the towering modernist Le Port-Royal Apartments on her left, and the human scale span of the late-nineteenth century row houses on her right, buildings clad in grey limestone with rusticated front entrances, oriel windows, gables and attics updated with modern, dark jade green awnings dusted with snow, buildings long ago transformed into upscale art galleries and boutiques. As she came to a stop at the corner of Bishop, she thought of all the translation work she'd performed, all the local writers she'd been reading, both in English and French, writers who were creating their own version of the city, laying claims like stake holders in a gold rush, and an overwhelming impression of a tiresome tug of war overcame her. A city with contentions lay all around her camouflaged by the calm effects of habit. Perhaps she should have been reading and translating the text of the city itself. She felt a wave of exhaustion overcome her as she thought of all the local books and authors being pushed and marketed by publishers and the media like the latest in fashion trends. She massaged her neck. She must be burnt out. The stress of Duncan's condition and their uncertain future had stripped her of her resiliency. Pessimism and defeat had seeped in. Taking a deep breath she imagined having experienced a simpler life: to have been born in a small town in Ontario without language issues, to have married a high school sweetheart, to have bought a house in the hometown, to have raised children, travelled, bought a cottage. To have had normal parents to act as grandparents instead of ones lost in the semi-spectral existence of post-hippie, blissed-out blindness. If only they'd waited for the new age to fully break upon the shore, they could now be taking advantage of the alternate medicine, the yoga, the acupuncture, the Tai Chi, the organic foods, and the mindfulness that had finally spread to the mainstream. But no, they had forged ahead seeking the golden horizons of self-fulfilment and were now left behind by the shifts of time and twists of cultural evolution. Amelia stared ahead of her wondering what it would have been like to have experienced a plain, uncomplicated path. Normality, consistency, continuity. Continuity. The light turned green and she drove on, passing between the the old and the new buildings of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with their promise of high culture, enough to unsettle her confusion of thoughts for a moment and make her think of her imaginary double in that imaginary small town, driving her own imaginary streets at this very minute, thinking how wonderful it would be to escape the clinging communal knowledge and suburban restraint of the small town and move to the stimulating anonymity of a great city like Montreal.
Caught in the sequence of red lights, she came to a rest at Mountain Street with the exclusive Holt Renfrew on her right, and the revitalized Ritz Carlton Hotel ahead, luxury and exclusivity of wealth surrounding her, and as she watched the pedestrians in their diversity pass by, she concluded that ultimately, it was all about adaptation. Having lived all her life in the inner city, she'd be ill-adapted to small town existence. With this thought, she continued on to her Uncle Edward's with a renewed sense of will, and a reinvigorated, though shaky, desire to deal with the crumbling facade of her life. She had to be strong for Duncan. She had to be strong for Uncle Edward. She had to be strong for Hugh.
While Jerome inspected the fine-haired points of a selection of brushes, Thérèse looked down at his studio table and searched for music among the papers, pens, pencils, erasers, tubes of pigment, cotton rags, and opaque glass jars sprouting paint brushes like perennials at the back of a garden. Seeing as they both leaned towards a laissez-faire attitude to house cleaning, she wondered how they'd manage living together. She assembled the scattered cassette tape cases and created an arc like a spread of playing cards, a curved mixture of colour and black and white images: Pierre Flynn's Jardines de Babylon and his Le parfum du hasard; Etienne Daho's Paris ailleurs, and his Pour nos vies martiennes; Renaud's Morgane de toi, Mistral gagnant, and Marchand de cailloux. She then saw the edge of an eighth cassette tape and slipped it out from beneath pencil sketches of eyes. It was a band she was unfamiliar with. The La's, with a photograph of a woman's eye on the cover. Jerome was in a retro mood.
She heard his approach and felt him kiss the nape of her neck and gently run his hands down her arms. “Creating order out of chaos,” he said
“You and your old cassettes,” she said turning around to give him a squeeze. “Why not get an iPod?”
“With my fingers covered in paint, cassettes are good. I can toss them around and not worry.” He reached over for Pierre Flynn's Babylon. “Anyway, I like the feel of them, the sound of them, and they've taught me to wait for the better songs, or at least, my favourite ones. Have you ever noticed how after listening to the sequence of songs on a tape, you get to know which song is coming up, and in the silence between songs, you can anticipate the first chords to come, the words, the melody? You can almost hear them, recreate them in your mind. Why should I purchase their digital phantoms? Little ghosts unconnected to each other, mixed up and shuffled like a deck of cards.” He gave her a hug. “I'm all set if you are.”
Thérèse sat in the arranged armchair by the window and opened the book she'd chosen to occupy her, a Boris Vian novel she'd never read before. Jerome pressed the cassette into the machine and soon Pierre Flynn's rich baritone voice was singing Complainte du chercheur d'or. She couldn't concentrate on the text before her, the music and lyrics leading her thoughts astray, but she continued to look at the open book as a prop for her portrait. She hadn't told Jerome she'd recalled the name of the man who she thought responsible for the death of David Ashemore. She hadn't told him she'd learnt of the name of Isabelle Cloutier from Amelia who had mentioned it in the hopes of giving her some confidence that the Ashemore case was being taken care of. And she hadn't told him she'd found Ms. Cloutier's address and mailed her a card with the simple inscription within, David Ashemore – Jarvis Whitehorne, the acronym, P.R.I.S.M., an acronym representing a program instigated by Whitehorne, and she had added her initials, T. L. / T. S. She didn't want to know of the resolutions, conclusions, retributions. The card was her closure. An arrow shot in the dark. An arrow for Jarvis Whitehorne.
In preparation to make a batch of vegetable soup, Mary withdrew the large soup pot from the lower cupboard and placed it on the counter near her cutting board. Taking the top off and looking in like a magician into a top hat, she noted the faint rings of colour, orange, green and blue, a remnant gleam of olive oil embedded in the fine metal burnishings, and she thought of the demonstrators last spring who had walked the streets of Montreal banging their pots and pans in defiance of a legislative bill. There's always something, she thought, there's always something. What can you do? What can you do?
The aroma of her fresh baked carrot muffins had made its way down the corridor into the living room where Arthur Roquebrune sat musing over the chess board. The aroma confounded his concentration as he began to anticipate the arrival of Mary's baked goods, with the promise of melting butter on their fluffy, dark bronze-tinted cake-like textures, the touch of fresh jam, and the pot of tea with its cozy in the shape of an orange cat. Edward Seymour looked on as he massaged the scalp of George III who sat on his haunches beside his chair. “Do I have you there Arthur?”
“Oh, it's far from over Ted, far from over.” Arthur liked to use the shortened form of Edward's name when they played their weekly Saturday morning chess game. A subtle handicap to deflate the home team. “Let's hope we don't find ourselves in perpetual check like last week. Somewhere out in the ether your echo is still moving the Queen back and forth ad infinitum.”
“I had a patient once,” said Edward, the image reminding him of an old case, “who was taken with the game, taken rather too far. It had turned into an addiction.” Arthur nodded his head as he mapped out the possible moves and countermoves before him. “He began to see games in patio stones, floor tiles, women's patterned dresses and gingham tablecloths. He did like Italian bistros. Well, we tried behavioural conditioning, but the bio-feedback didn't seem to work. I suggested he take up another game, distract him from the chess. I suggested tennis.”
“Hmm, and so, what did the patient do?” Arthur said not looking up.
“Well . . . he became addicted to the game of Go. Instead of squares, his attention was drawn to the interstices: the crossing of phone lines, the pound sign or octothorpe, the lines and points between squares of floor tiles and patio stones. The cross hairs in the very fabric of life. Lines, lines, lines.”
“Ah,” Arthur emitted somewhat distractedly.
“And then he took to carrying a box of candy M&M's because they aped the convex shape of the playing stones, and were cheap enough to leave behind on bistro tables and friend's bathroom floors.”
Arthur looked up. “Montaigne thought chess was absurd and trivial,” he said, and then shook his head. His thoughts drifted back in time and he wondered if Jacques Cartier and his men had played the game at Charlesbourg-Royal during that difficult winter of 1541-42. Did they have the necessary leisure? Would it have soothed their nerves? Had it been a welcome distraction from the dangers facing them?
“Ah, yes, your Montaigne. Are you still reading his diary of that journey to Italy?”
Arthur moved his black Bishop to King Bishop's fourth, and then sat back. “Yes, yes. There are some interesting moments and details. Local customs, food, that kind of thing. The spas, baths, the drinking of the waters, but the sections recounted by his hommes d'affaires dwell too much on Montaigne's bladder and stomach ailments yes, due to his suffering from the stone. Perhaps some are more interested in how many stools he passed that day, how many stones, or the quantity of urine.” Arthur shook his head. “But I will continue. The good outweighs the bad.”
Edward rested his chin on his clasped hands in a semblance of prayer, and scanned the chess board in an overtly secretive manner, pursing his lips and blinking his eyes as if communicating in code.
“The Montaigne is not as entertaining as the Vathek by Beckford though,” Arthur continued. “This Vathek wasn't on my list of books to read, books I wanted to read when young but never had the time, but my bookseller pushed it on me saying he thought I'd enjoy the tale. Somehow I think I'll never get through my list. It keeps growing.”
Edward nodded absentmindedly. “Hmm.” He moved his white Knight to King Bishop's third. He crossed his arms, and in the silence that fell upon the game with its counterfeit infinities, Hugh made his appearance. His clipping nails upon the hardwood floor drew their attention from their wooden officers and foot soldiers to Hugh's sprightly curiosity. George III lowered his head and sniffed him as he passed by.
“And who do we have here,” Arthur said dropping his hand down to entice Hugh with a stranger's scent.
“Hugh, an orphan for the night. Amelia's pet. She dropped him off last night. George here is uncertain what's going on.”
“Yes, yes, territory and all that.” Arthur scratched Hugh's ears and rubbed his back. “That reminds me,” he said, “last week when you were telling me of your friend Ms. Cloutier who was looking into the David Ashemore case, I wanted to tell you he was an orphan, adopted by the Ashemore's when a baby. When Amelia walked in, and we stopped our discussion of the Ashemore case, I never got to mention it. Perhaps it would help your Ms. Cloutier with her interests.”
Edward looked down wondering if he should reveal that Isabelle had reached a cul de sac. “That's an interesting fact Arthur. I'll let her know next time we talk.”
As Arthur returned his attention to the checkered square between them, Mary made her way into the living room with a tray laden with muffins and mugs of steaming tea. She didn't like to see grown men mincing about playing Mother with fine china cups. Big mugs of tea it was. The chess players preferred them as well, something to warm their hands, stimulating distant memories of hot chocolate and childhood.
“Thank you Mary, something to keep us going,” Edward said.
“Yes, yes, thank you Mary, your muffins are ambrosia,” Arthur said smiling up at her. “My dear wife thanks you for the recipe.”
“Ah, well she's very welcome Mr. Roquebrune. Glad you both like them. So now, who's winning this week?”
“Hard to say at the moment, but we may be here some time.” Edward winked up at her.
“I'll be making a quick vegetable soup for lunch. It might be ready before you are. I'll be back to top up your teas. Enjoy gentlemen.”
They thanked her again and watched her departure with a sense of admiration and guilt at being so pampered. Hugh, looking up at the tray, sniffed the air, a physical language that still resonated with his human counterparts.
As Edward busied himself with his muffin and tea, Arthur contemplated taking his pawn with his own pawn, but then quickly considered that moving his Bishop to King's fifth would be the better choice. He did so, and raised an eyebrow on his opponent.
Arthur, now relaxed and confident, prepared a muffin with butter and a touch of marmalade.
“That move seems familiar Arthur. Are we repeating ourselves?”
Arthur's laughter faltered with the appearance of Amelia and Mary holding an arm around her shoulders. He stood up out of concern and respect, pieces of his muffin falling to the floor where Hugh and George quickly competed to snuffle them up. “Now sit yourself down and have a word with your uncle and I'll bring you a nice cup of tea.” Mary exchanged a glance of deep concern with Edward before going back to the kitchen.
“What's the matter my dear?” Edward said, quickly running through the possibilities of distress: Duncan running off with a circus performer, money woes, car failure, the reappearance of her parents.
She told them how she had been phoned on Friday night by Duncan's friends wondering where he was. How she'd phoned the shop and then driven down to find him lying unconscious between the bookstacks, and how she'd called an ambulance and spent the night at the hospital hoping he'd survive what ever caused his collapse. She was wiping tears away as Mary brought her a big mug of hot tea, and together with her uncle and Arthur's kind words, she began to feel the solidarity of family and close friends fortify her belief that all would be well. “Don't worry Amelia. I'll make some phone calls. I still have many connections with the Royal Vic. We'll make sure he gets top notch care,” her Uncle said.
Arthur sat down heavily upon his chair, overcome with a nauseating dread that Duncan's collapse may have had some connection with Thérèse LaFlamme's in Bergen. He glanced at the chess board and saw nothing but randomness and escape, and he recalled the words of Montaigne: quelle corde de son esprit ne touche et n'employe ce niais et puerile jeu?
© ralph patrick mackay