Having finished his breathing exercises, he lay on his back, his calves resting upon the upholstered living room chair like an astronaut ready for takeoff, his head upon a pillow, rocking gently to the repetition of four songs on his old Walkman CD player positioned upon his chest, songs by the Psychedelic Furs: In My Head, Heaven, The Ghost in You, and When She Comes, his right index finger rested on the skip button, his left arm spread out towards Hugh, who, with his large, brown limpid eyes, lay beside him, chin on his outstretched front legs, looking at him with a greater sense of affiliation and affection as they shared the soft carpet pile and a similar perspective, enjoying the occasional tummy rub as he sniffed the essential odours of Duncan mixed with the fusty nuances embedded in the carpet around them.
Duncan had forgotten how much time he'd spent on floors as a child, under tables, behind Chesterfields, on stairs, under them, and beneath the covers, the early environments of childhood imagination. Looking through the open passage to the next room, he gazed upon the dining room table he'd inherited from his parents, a heavy, dark Chippendale inspired number with a footrest between the legs, one he used to sit upon pretending it was his submarine, or lie supine like a vampire in his coffin, and how he'd get yelled at by his Father for doing so. The cracks were still there, the repairs weakened with age. The table was fraught with memories of tension-filled suppers: the solemn graces, the baptism with spilt milk, the daily incarnations of the potato, and his recalcitrance before the salmon cake. But also the joys of birthdays with their 1960s Woolworth Department store pastel confections with their inevitably dried-out red roses and candied silver ball-bearings he'd leave behind on his plate, and of course the shaky inscriptions in occasionally misspelled or abbreviated names—accepted with a reduction in price; the holidays too, with their turkeys—legs in the air like him now—and the hams with their Argus-eyed pineapple slices pinned in place with sharp edged cloves like miniature tomahawks, and those seemingly endless games of Monopoly, Gin Rummy, or Crazy Eights. An embarrassing memory came back to him. He must have seven or eight, eager to relate the details of what he'd learnt at school that day, an exploration of the inner ear, and how he had used the word 'Fallopian' in place of 'Eustachian' tube and watched his parents mysteriously turn to stone, only their eyes shifting to each other in a paroxysm of shock. Nothing had been said. The silence, like an exhalation, had dwindled in the renewed clatter of forks and knives, and no doubt a change of subject. Only later did his brother tell him of his mistake. How had he known of it at that age he wondered? Or had he? Had it been in the Junior Encyclopedia Britannica, the one his brother had written on the bottom edges of volume seven, '100% Junk' in what must have seemed, at the time, an epic act of defiance? He couldn't remember. His youth felt over-weighted with innocence and ignorance, the latter a great regret—how he wished he'd been one of those precocious geniuses found in books—but the former, a characteristic he cherished like the lost stone with the perfectly round hole he'd stubbed his toe against at the water's edge on Cavendish Beach in Prince Edward Island, an innocence best exemplified by his youthful spinning round and round on a summer's day until the light-headed dizziness warped him out of orbit and he fell to the grass trying to hold the azure sky and fair-weather clouds from being sucked into the vortex of his self-induced wonder, lying there overcome by the mystery of distant galaxies and endless space, a feeling of organic oneness with the spinning earth beneath him, and the numinous above.
Pinned by gravity, he lay upon the carpet in this most comforting of postures as the memories of childhood faded. Breathing deeply, he pressed the pause button and he imagined the CD's rpms descending to zero. His collapse in the bookshop, he thought, was strangely similar to that childhood pastime, the world spinning round, his head at once weightless and heavy as granite. Perhaps it had been a result of all those adult years of not spinning round and round, all those years of non-attentiveness to . . . innocence? No, he wouldn't go there. Amelia would think he was going down the path her parents had followed to everyone's eventual dismay. Yes, he must keep on the rational side, the “A” side of interpretation, even though his random, and apparently mundane, utterances in Norwegian were a mystery to him. He agreed with her Uncle Edward: leave it be, let it settle, get on with life. What were they but syllables and sounds? Nothing to worry about. He was no stranger to the quirks of language. Only last month he remembered ordering a pear tart from a fine French pastry shop and had used the words 'tarte de poivre,' in place of 'tarte de poire.' What was an extra 'v' but an accidental amusement between the clerk and himself? He was always fumbling with words. He wondered now if it was an inherited trait. His Mother, who had no real French, having been born in Notre Dame-de-Grace in the late 1920s, and had never studied the language like many of her generation, had still been willing to try with her simple salutations and her 'comme ci, comme ça.' and had even tried to converse with the non-English speaking wife of his Father's business associate who he'd invited to dinner one evening, a dinner where his Mother had related how she'd been out in the rain that day with her new umbrella and had used the word 'pamplamoose,' in place of 'parapluie.' Duncan smiled to himself. Yes, he was a chip off the old block.
As well as this verbal side-effect, he felt his recent medical ordeal and symbolic rebirth had enabled him to shed a hardened skin of habit, an integument of reason, allowing him to regain an enlivened perspective on life, and with fresh eyes, observe the world around him. He'd already become fascinated with the mundane, the overlooked, the absurd, like the five jars of semi-finished pimento stuffed olives that had migrated to the back of the fridge looking much like a mad scientist's collection of extraterrestrial eyes in briny formaldehyde, or the button plackets on all his shirts with their horizontal button holes that framed the vertical ones—like a birth and a death—a detail he'd been unconscious of after five decades of his own fashioning. Not an hour ago he'd found himself re-buttoning them all as they hung in haphazard attention upon their plastic hangers, less in the desire for order than in a renewed fascination with the clever device and the urge to keep the shirts as human-like as possible. The crisp shirt collars had also stimulated the now distant memory of attending the Knox Crescent and Kensington Presbyterian Sunday services as a child: he and his brothers dressed in their white shirts and bow ties sitting on the little benches in front of the first pew, fidgeting and squirming while their cherubic minister, like an actor on a thrust stage, stood at the centre of the altar steps and extemporized on his homily of the week, a simplified story for them, his hands gesticulating expressively before returning to each other and gently clasped upon his stomach. And then the Sunday school volunteer would lead them away along the red carpet to the side door to the sounds of the muted organ and a soft hymn, leaving the adults like those forsaken to deal with a sinking ship. A backwards sequence of recollections had been triggered and his Saturday morning excursions with his parents to the old Atwater Market in search of the rump roast for Sunday dinner were brought back to him. The butcher's stalls with their cold room windows revealing the carcasses, half carcasses, the oxidized blood mimicking slabs of marble; the pig carcasses yellow and orange with various triangular and circular marks like passport stamps; pig, beef, lamb, veal, ageing in the dim light; he could almost smell the sawdust upon the floor behind the cutting tables where the mustacheoed butchers in their white shirts, hats and pink-stained coats conversed in French, content in their profession, content in their skin. Notwithstanding the horrors of factory farming—if they had existed as such in the 1960s—at least he'd known where his meat had come from, and had given thanks before meals, though to his mind it should have been given first to the poor animals, and second, to his Mother for preparing the meal, but such truths had been overlooked for the greater truth, whatever that might have been. The circularity of the weekend ritual of seeking out the roast beef and its final consumption had been a subservient shadow to that great abstraction. And now he was meatless, having followed Amelia into vegetarianism for what seemed forever. Only the memory of a succulent smoked meat sandwich made him feel at all nostalgic for his meat and potato origins.
He shifted his eyes to the corner of the room where the lamp light reflected back from the ceiling in two soft arcs like female breasts and he thought of Amelia taking her bath, no doubt trying to soothe her worries over his health and her concerns over whether he'd wake from his first night's sleep at home. Dr. Yee had assured them he would be fine, the tests having failed to uncover any hidden dangers. She'd been confident in his recovery through the use of medication and exercises. There was something about Dr. Yee that reminded him of Yiyin however. Cheekbones? Lips? Eyes? He'd been tempted to inquire if they were related, but a sense of formal restraint had held him back. Perhaps another time. Perhaps with a followup appointment in the future, if it felt appropriate, the atmosphere relaxed, the timing right.
© Ralph Patrick Mackay
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.