Saturday, October 20, 2018

The opening passage, a teaser from my latest novel entitled : THE TRANSIT OF TRISTAN

Wednesday August 17th, 1994

Telephoto lenses nestled in the soft embrace of the duvet on the twin bed next to her, their striated outlines highlighted by the glint from the clock radio's absinthe coloured light. Implements of a spy. She shifted her eyes to the polished gleam off the night table which housed the holy trinity of all hotel rooms—television remote, clock radio, telephone—and waited for her wake-up call feeling like a Sibyl awaiting the cryptic arrival of the divine.

Boarding began at seven in the morning. Departure, an hour and a half later. She didn't know quite what to expect. The passage up river on a supply ship was an unknown. A vastness of landscape no doubt. Fewer people certainly. Dangers? Unlikely. Days of calm she hoped. Days of meditative walks. A chance to reset her equilibrium with the world. Escape.

She turned and lay on her back, and, for a brief moment, felt she was floating, floating upon all the days of her past, floating upon all the incidents and incidentals that cluttered a life and hindered self-knowledge. Days in that busy world she'd left behind where the winds of synchronicity seemed to shape her decisions; days when a casual hesitation on a street corner brought about the convergence of parallel lines long prefigured.

But not today, not on this hotel bed awake in the pre-dawn chill. She felt no shimmering auroras of hidden truths, no premonitions of fate, only the pale anxiety of many landfalls and departures ahead of her, where she imagined huddles of impatient-eyed, scraggly-clothed, emotionally-tethered souls awaited, ready to observe, evaluate, and quietly mock her sense of escape.

In defense, she saw herself cup her Nikon F4, or her Pentax LX, and surreptitiously fine-tune the focus, to the left, to the right, and then, with a dry click, freeze their moment of time and light.


Seven Islands. Sept-Îles. The name reminded him of the famed seven islands of Greece, the Ionian Islands: Corfu, Lefkas, Ithaca . . . . He couldn't remember the others.

He thought he could make out a few of the local ones in the grey morning mist, hovering in the far distance like the long-hulled ships at anchor waiting their turn at the loading dock.

Iron ore.

He sipped from his steaming coffee cup surprised at having remembered this fact. A friend of his mother had told him about the iron ore decades ago, a man who'd made a living as a private pilot for various business executives, often American, travelling the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. He'd lived in Seven Islands as he called it then. He could see him now, standing in a doorway, a tower of a man, hands in pockets, rocking on his heels, regaling them with stories of this exotic coastal land. Supposedly a railway had been laid into the far north, up into the Labrador hinterlands where the mines were located. The ore travelled south by rail, and then shipped westwards to Montreal, or abroad.

Montreal. That's where he should be, not in this hotel dining room with a view of the harbour. He'd probably still be in bed, dreaming of the music score for Vivaldi's baroque concerto for two violins, 'Per eco in lontano,' the one he'd been working on.

He reached for a newspaper on a nearby table, a Québec city paper dated Saturday August thirteenth. He wasn't surprised to find the headlines devoted to politics. It had only been four weeks since he'd overheard news that the Québec premier had called an election for mid-September. His colleagues at the Vollenhove Institute for Baroque Studies knew he wasn't interested in politics, knew he didn't read newspapers, knew he didn't listen to the radio or have a television, but the aural and visual noise of it was difficult to escape. Placards and signs had proliferated like musical notes of an avant garde and dissonant composition. Graffiti scrawls of “OUI” or “NON” appeared like bruises on the facades of fine older buildings, and the incomprehensible political chatter in his favourite coffee house seemed intent on intruding upon his consciousness, intent on unravelling his sensibilities like a loose thread pulled from one of his scarves.

He turned the pages passing over political contentions, homicides, accidents, and blood sports to arrive at the weather predictions for the week. Nothing was specified for where he was headed. From Sept-Îles to Blanc-Sablon seemed a wilderness of no concern.


She finished off her banana and yoghurt and stared through the hotel window remembering the last words of her father, a literary quotation he must have anticipated using for years: Non seulement nous regardons les choses par d'autre côtés, mais avec d'autre yeux; nous n'avon garde de les trouver pareilles.

She didn't tell her mother he'd spoken those words. Instead, she'd fabricated a moment of drama for her: a clutching of the daughter's arm, her mother's name on his dying lips.

Literature had been divisive. Best to provide this dry salve to their long broken marriage. Sweeten the end. She realized it may have transferred a touch of guilt upon her mother's conscience, but she considered it a healing touch.

It wasn't until she dealt with his estate did she come across the literary source. He'd left a supple leather bound copy of Pascal's Pensées upon his desk, the silk ribbon bookmark lining the gutter like a red incision: Book two, number 124.

It was if he knew he was going to die.

As to the author, she'd been mildly surprised. She'd anticipated a modern philosopher or writer, someone like Sartre or Camus, Beckett even. Why Pascal? And what was the meaning behind the words that we not only see things from different sides, but with different eyes too, we don't want to find them alike? And what did her father intend to convey? Words and literature were not her domain. She'd made it through the narrow divide of poet, playwright-father, and actress-mother to emerge from the familial shadows with an interest in frozen moments, captured visuals. Words had always been elusive, slippery, unreliable.

She dropped the small yoghurt cup into the waste basket and wondered if she'd be given the same room on her return in six days time. Hovering over the phone, she picked up the Hotel Mingan message pad. Six days. Not even a week. Wednesday to Monday. She would leave her car in the hotel parking lot. Safer she thought. And further away from the salty air of the port. She tossed the note pad on the bed beside her packed bags.

She should arrange for a taxi to take her down to the port. Best to arrive early and overcome anxieties of uncertainty.

The bearded taxi driver with his Greek fisherman's cap was curious. Was she going to visit relatives? Which community? No. She was a photographer. Tourist. There and back. Sightseeing. He nodded his head and then gave her a look in the rear view mirror as if she was to be pitied. A single woman in her late twenties on a supply ship to distant communities seemed a waste of life's precious energy and time.

They drove in silence past generic 1970s bungalows with their generic landscape offerings of dwarf evergreens huddled in generic formations. But for the election placards, it could have been any street in any town, any province. They turned left on avenue Arnaud towards the port and she caught a glimpse of tugboats in the distance and could smell the tang of the water.

Ahead of them she noticed a young man striding towards the pier, his long brown hair tied back in a ponytail with a dark ribbon. He was carrying two pieces of luggage, pale green cloth with brown leather straps and handles. As they passed him she looked back and noticed he was wearing what appeared to be a waistcoat. A watch chain glimmered like an inverted rainbow at his waist.

© Ralph Mackay 2018

Monday, October 24, 2016

Four Years Ago: Chapter One: The Great Circus of China

This is the first chapter—after the prologue—of my novel Sandstone.

Sunday October, 21, 2012.

The Great Circus of China

With his peripheral vision, Duncan Alastair Strand watched his doubled profile in the antique faceted mirror while he absentmindedly doodled a circle of rope on old company note paper for Strand Cordage Ltd., a circle of rope in the shape of a snake eating its tail, an image whose mythological name and spelling preoccupied his mind and clashed with the initial purpose of his sitting at the kitchen table on this Sunday afternoon, pen in hand, the preparatory requirement of his hunting and gathering: a grocery list.


Dust motes rose in the sun from a faux-fur slipper—his wife Amelia's sacrifice—which Hugh, their miniature dachshund, grappled with on the kitchen floor. Duncan paused to look upon Hugh who rested his nose in the slipper. They shared eye contact, blinking in unison.


Duncan tried to think of the other items they needed which had occurred to him only minutes ago, but his thoughts were scattered, elusive, skittish as subjective personal truths. Amelia would be greeting her new friend Jacqueline at about this moment, kissing each other on the cheek, admiring each others outfits, and entering a café for a little brunch and conversation; two translators from different factions exchanging stories of deadlines and authors—distant, unruly, recalcitrant.

Bananas, Cucumbers.

He wondered if there was a theme here.

Baguette. . . dish soap, capers, artichoke hearts. That was good enough to get him going he thought.

The radio played softly in the background, an eighties song, making him wonder if a musician from the band had become an executive of the radio conglomerate, for they were forever playing that specific song along the horizon of the airwaves like some kind of psychotropic drug, such that it made him feel like a subtopian redeemer embracing a pacifying tonic required by State.

He turned the radio off. 

He looked through the weekly flyers for grocery sales, and then rewarded himself with a few pages of the free arts paper where he noticed an advertisement for the latest Cirque du Soleil show. He closed his eyes as memories began to effervesce. What year was it? A winter month. He gathered the papers and carried them over to the small recycling bin, then stood at the back door thinking he'd been measuring out his life in weekly flyers and recycling pickups, conditioned to respond to bananas at fifty-seven cents a pound. What year was it? It had been quite cold he remembered. Late January or February. 1982? Yes, it must have been February 1982.

Through his pale simulacrum upon the glass, he could see his twenty-three year old self emerge from the Viau Metro station on a cold evening, uncertain, anxious, late. The convex roof of the Maurice Richard Arena hovered in the near distance like a dimly lit space craft. He searched for his neatly folded ticket to see the Great Circus of China, and upon opening the door to an empty foyer, heard the clashing, stridently exotic music of the East: gongs, cymbals, erhus. The show had already begun.

A disgruntled usher pointed the way with his flash light and left him in the dark to find his seat. 

In the ring, young women in silk outfits and exaggerated eye make-up, twirled glistening plates impossibly on multiple sticks, their dark eyes radiant with controlled emotion, their smiling lips demure. So different from the circuses of his youth, with their manure and popcorn odours, their parades of animals, clowns, trapeze artists, the hideous snap of the lion tamer's whip, and the anonymous man shot out of a canon for the deafening finale.

The usher had returned, a bobbing flashlight coming his way. Asked for his ticket, the attendant informed him that his seat was in the first row. A domino effect in motion, the usher made his way between the seats to talk to a young man in the front row while the dark outlines of two people in the aisle awaited their true placement. The women MC of the show looked imperiously their way wondering why there was a commotion. The attendant waved him forward, and he shared an exchange of looks with his imposter, but there was no animosity to be read, and feeling a tinge of guilt at having ousted him, said 'pardoner-moi' as they edged past each other like prisoners exchanged on a dark border. The residual warmth left by his phantom occupant added to his sense of complicity. He'd been quite content in the fifth row. He didn't like to draw attention to himself. Yet here he was, ushered into the light that splashed the ring's edge.

Two young women came out, placed themselves on their backs on raised, curved platforms, and began to juggle with their soft-slippered feet, an assortment of large items tossed to them from assistants: wooden chairs, large imitation Ming vases, boxes, and carpets. Their finely contoured legs and bums were slightly elevated by the platforms and at an angle to his seat. His heart rate and temperature rose, a blush came to his cheeks. At one moment as they twirled fine woven carpets in wavering circles like the gowns of spinning dervishes, the performer closest to him, looked sideways and caught his eye for a moment as if curious to see who'd been the focus of attention. Their eye contact brought him closer to the experience, overcoming the spectacle with the personal, overcoming their diverse cultures with an intense shared moment. She was not just a circus act, but a young woman behind the rouge and the lipstick, a young woman with a history, a young woman with desires and hopes, a young woman from Communist China possibly looking to . . . escape.

Returning to the frigid night and the dreary metro ride home had not diminished his sense of wonderment. The patterns of circularity and the human form had merged to create a symbolic representation of universal symmetry. There had been a hint of transcendence in the performances. It had all made sense to him. The answers had seemed clear. It was only later, however, sleepless in the dark, did he imagine himself befriending the circus performer, listening to her life story, discovering her desire to live in the west, helping her escape, and finding themselves chased by Chinese officials across the breadth of Canada like spies in a best-selling thriller.

Duncan stared through his indistinct reflection, then brought his hands up to his face and rubbed his eyes. Thirty years ago. Another life. The attractive young performer was likely long retired from the circus; married, probably with a son. The young man he'd supplanted was, he liked to believe, the man who was now worth almost three billion dollars. It was unlikely he would ever know for certain whether he was the future founder of the Cirque du Soleil. He could very well have been a bartender from Beloeil, but it was his personal myth, a type of cautionary tale, making him mindful of opportunity, even though, at the time, he wasn't a street performer finding influences from the East, but a young man trying to avoid a family business, a young man adrift from a relationship with a young woman newly arrived from Hong Kong, a young man looking for a way out, a way out of his own making.

© Ralph Mackay

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Limbering Exercise in Flashfiction

You Know

“Well, you know that famous saying . . . .”

The young man on the bench, seemingly more interested in pedestrians on the other side of the street than listening to words spoken in a somewhat harsh voice, left his questioner hanging.

“You know . . . ?” the older man continued, as if prompting was his business. “It generally refers to actors. Film actors mainly,” he said, his right hand describing a small circle in the air. He paused, sharing the view across the street while thoughts of aspect ratios flickered in his mind. “Pick an actor, any actor.”

The companion didn't respond.

“Right then, let's say . . . David Patrick Kelly. A very good character actor. Still in the biz. So, the saying would go like this:  'Who's David Patrick Kelly? Get me David Patrick Kelly!! Get me a young David Patrick Kelly! And then . . . Who's David Patrick Kelly?” The man's laughter sounded like it came though a cabbage shredder. A smoker's laugh. A smoker who possibly drank.

The companion shifted his weight and looked down the street without a response.

“'Who's David Patrick Kelly?' Oh, boy, that's a good one. It's just like fucking life isn't it?” He nodded to himself, his gaze shifting to the overcast sky as if his aged, once handsome face was expecting a benediction.

The young man removed his earbuds, raised himself, and walked a few steps over to the curb to await the approaching bus.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Yes Cecil Update

I'm presently working on the opening and final chapters of this novel in progress. I will then edit the manuscript thoroughly. By year end I hope to have it completed with new title appended. From there, I will seek publication proper, and begin work on my next novel that's been biding its time, arms crossed, left eyebrow arched.

It's a train that suddenly
stops with no station around,
and we can hear the cricket,
and . . . .

-from Rilke's The Wait
trans. from French by A. Poulin

Monday, October 13, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighty-Four

Aqueous floaters plied the liquid of his eyes like pieces of driftwood, their shapes reminding him of punctuation marks: comas, inverted question marks, and tildes, those squiggly lines to be found on the upper reaches of his computer keyboard. Pavor rubbed his eyes with his fingertips, the pressure producing a mild version of the kaleidoscopic displays he used to enjoy as a youth, the mandala-like formations of light expanding and merging before dwindling to an opaque sepia tone which in turn diminished to the darkness of an imagined interstellar space.

“Like elusive holograms,” he said, as if to himself.

Mélisande, sitting at his desk, looked round. “What?”

“Those little floating particles in our eyes, they're like elusive holograms.”

“Ah yes, I have a little dark one in my lower right eye. I'll be reading in bed, and I'll flinch because I'll think there's a spider on my sleeve, or on the bedspread. Something to do with the angle of light and shadow I imagine.”

“I wonder what creates them?”

“You can probably Google it.”

He stretched his legs out from his comfy chair and yawned, arching his back. “That would just take the mystery out of it.” He paused for a few moments.“What about . . . optical fish swimming in our visual aquariums?”

“Optical fish.” She smiled. “More like eye dust.”

He looked up to the corner of the ceiling and noticed filaments of dust swaying in the radiator's rising warmth like undersea vegetation. “My Mother used to call it Irish lace,” he said pointing towards the ceiling.

“Irish lace?” She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “That's rather . . . .”

He sat up in his chair. “She didn't say it with a negative connotation. My Mother must have picked it up from my English Grandmother. When I was young, I knew nothing about prejudices towards the Irish, and I thought it a magical term, Irish lace. It wasn't until I was in my twenties, stuck as I was in my subjective mind, that I could shake the reference and see it for what it was. Then I wondered how I could have been so blind.”

“Great, now when I see the ceiling dust, I'll think Irish lace, and I'll have to catch myself from saying it.”

Pavor got up and walked over to her and began to massage her shoulders and neck, watching their reflections in the window, like two actors in front of a backcloth painted with a night scene of tree branches, the historic Sulpician Tower with its weather vane and the old fortification walls outlined with freshly fallen snow. “I just remembered the oddest dream I had last night,” he said, as he watched a small pick-up truck pass their building.

Mélisande gave up her reading and bent her head down resting it on her hands. “What was it?”

“I was in a country setting, standing before a pile of interesting carved stone ornaments, pineapple finials and crosses, and I found myself wanting to take one, the smallest of them, a ball finial which looked like a pawn in a chess game. But I felt I shouldn't just help myself to them, especially as I felt they were from a cemetery. Next thing I remember I have this heavy stone ornament and I'm trying to attach it behind the seat of my small motorcycle, which is odd, because I've never owned one. I cover it with a jacket or something, and then I see an odd vehicle bounce by on a nearby road it's truck bed laden down with these types of stone pieces, and I think 'cemetery.' I feel they saw me in the rear view mirror and I begin to worry they'll come after me. It was an odd vehicle. One of those cars that have a pick-up truck bed in the back.”

“Hmm, yes . . . an El Camino.”

“What? How'd you know that?”

“Librarians know everything Pavor. You must remember this.” They laughed. “No, my cousin Frank owned one. Always showing off his souped up half car to us. I remember it was blue with red flames painted along the sides. We used to joke it was like that hairstyle, the mullet. 'Here comes Frank with his mullet car' we used to say. 'Business in the front, party in the back.' Sorry, I don't know who came up with that phrase.”

“Right . . . your cousin Frank.” He realised he knew so little of her family.

“I probably would have forgotten the name of the car but it's stuck in my memory alongside the pilgrimage trek, the Camino de Santiago. So, what happened next?”

His fingers worked their way up to her scalp like a pilgrim up a hillside. “I don't know. I woke up I guess. That's all I remember. But I really wanted the stone finials, felt they'd make great decorations in a garden.”

“You . . . don't have a . . . garden.”

“I know, I know. Maybe a future garden. Our future garden.”

A silence overcame them as they each envisioned their own variation of an ideal house with a garden, Mélisande trying to accommodate Pavor's ball finial in her English herbaceous border, and Pavor wondering if Mélisande would punctuate his formal layout with a stone sculpture of a great Mother Goddess, the type she'd been discussing over dinner the other night, one of those pregnant stone earth Mother figures that she said long predated the Greek Apollo and his control over the Delphic oracles like some kind of Parnassian pimp. Such thoughts led to further speculations on how they'd balance the feminine and masculine elements within the house. Would the living room be masculine decor, and the bedroom feminine? His de Chirico copy of The Nostalgia of the Infinite over the mantle piece, or her portrait as Mélisande by Marianne Stokes copied by Jerome?

He continued massaging her scalp, exploring the geography of her northernmost hemisphere, deep in the forests beyond the tundra of her shoulders and neck, remarking how the whorl of her follicle origin was counterclockwise and slightly to the right of centre, which made him think of spirals, and he wondered if it could it be connected to the golden spiral of the Fibonacci sequence he'd been reading about? Softly, he massaged Mélisande's temples and around her ears, gently kneading while his mind drifted off to the phantom islands and lost atolls in the ocean of his memories. She began to breath deeply and he sensed she'd eased herself into a light doze. Gently, cautiously, he withdrew his hands and listened to her inhalation and exhalation with the attentiveness of a parent beside the crib of a newborn. He returned to his chair and picked up one of his old writing notebooks from a box he'd taken from storage in the hope that he'd find inspiration for plot developments, and began to turn pages with fresh, though vague thoughts of writing a mystery novel with clues laid in a pattern according to the Fibonacci sequence. An expanse of white space upon the paper brought his thoughts back. He'd come to little stacks of poetry, lines like hexagrams in the I Ching. He'd written the poems and fragments after the death of his wife Victoria and their child Tamara and he'd half forgotten them. With apprehension, he began to read:

Fare Forward

Dreams of puzzles three-dimensionally crossed
With letters in glorious enthralment,
Arouse to awaken, the sanity of whiteness,
Free convention, and fresh linen.

Grappling the flux with porous invention,
I reveal how sea-drops gather quickly,
The vestige apperception, as it pales to confusion,
Cleansed by holistic circlings.

A moral tenor, tending notes to equation
In a forever ending consummation,
'Farewell my love, this is the last curtain,'
A vinyl disc, grooves ever meeting.

With arm extended in spring's dusty air,
I press the clock-radio's pause,
And fare forward I flow with mythical dreams,
Of stylistic fingers ever repeating.


Silhouette / fragment

The silhouette of dark consent, a pure
Memento mori; languor's lenten ease.
The sails of hawk in circle motion, dark
Beneath the quiet force of sun; the growth
That breaks the earth, the shadow of a cloud,
The silent image, slip of dream, the mark
Of eye upon the page, a soundless oath
That festers within speech, a golden shroud.


In Buckram

In buckram with blank cartridge, pavonine
Yet apterous, a fallen angle lost
With ink dipped quills, I flounce the mirror's sign
Of a Bobadil in feathered humour's tost.
The quiet purist in me shifts the page
To suit the hearth, for ash to fit the soil
To benefit the sapor of a fruit.
And yet, I draw the bow again to wage
The shot of apple-innocence, and toil
To render into verse, it's very root.

Pavor closed the notebook and slipped it back into the white filing box. A bad idea he thought. A bad idea. The memories would encircle him like snakes, massaging, constricting and ultimately suffocating him with past regrets. He looked out the window above Mélisande, trying to focus on the night sky through the reflection of the living room upon the glass. Tomorrow, if the weather was pleasant, they should go for a Sunday morning trudge up the mountain and follow the pathways to the summit lookout, and breath the cold, crisp air, sip hot chocolate from the chalet and watch the city before them, glinting, humming, and steaming, alive with pre-Christmas activity, alive with new generations of diversity, alive with anticipation and possibility.

Mélisande awoke, groaned and stretched, wiping moisture from the corner of her mouth. “Ohh. . . your massage put me right out.” She swept a hand across the manuscript pages. “Sorry, I think I drooled on your novel.”

Approaching her, he bent down, hugged her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “A special watermark to remember then, 'this is where Mélisande fell asleep!'

“Luckily it's only a first draft.”

“What do you say to a walk on the mountain tomorrow?” If the weather's good that is.”

“Sure, that sounds nice. I could use the exercise.”

“Great, I'll let you continue reading. Do you want anything from the kitchen? I feel like a piece of that strong cheddar and some of that nice bread.”

She was tempted to joke about him feeling like a piece of cheese but let it go. “No, nothing for me, thanks,” and watched him leave the room, his fingers scratching his brow. She sensed his distraction, his preoccupation, his pale anxiety, and put it down to creative pains. She picked up a pencil in her left hand and waggled it over the pages and began to read:

Rex Under Glass – Part Nine

She watched Rex Packard walk around the corner carrying what appeared to be a painting. She put her car in drive and pulled up beside him as he reached his rental. She lowered the window. “Have you added art theft to your quiver Rex?”

His questioner's voice, a rather richly toned feminine voice, though startling, was not threatening. If he'd been in danger, there wouldn't have been sarcastic small talk. Rex ignored the question and continued to place the painting in the back seat of his car before turning to see a black Escalade driven by a dark tanned attractive woman in her mid to late forties, her short blond hair gelled and curled this way and that in an artistic fashion. “We need to talk,” she said, and he heard the click of unlocked doors.

She smiled holding out her hand.“Vera, Vera Causalton, most people call me Vera Causa.”

Rex didn't catch the reference as he fastened the seat-belt, but he shook her hand. “I guess I don't have to introduce myself,” he said, feeling somewhat off balance, both by the surprise situation and her attractiveness.

Without a word, she drove up the winding streets with control and speed until they arrived at a lookout on Summit Circle blocked to vehicular access by stone planters. She parked just before the expanse along a sidewalk near a gated entrance to one of the enormous Westmount mansions and got out. Rex followed as she walked towards the stone balustrade and the flickering city lights in the distance.

“Money and influence Rex,” she said motioning to the stone planters with their rather scraggly floral displays. “This lookout, or Belevedere, used to be open to cars so you can imagine the late night revellers, the teenage trysts, the creaking cars, the disruptive sounds, the broken bottles. Now . . . parking is obviously curtailed and a curfew's in place.” She looked at her watch, a large faced multi-functional dial. “Shouldn't be long before one of the private security SUV's makes an appearance.” She looked up. “Camera surveillance.” She withdrew a small brown decorative box and took out a little thin cigarillo and lit up. “Started smoking Schimmelpennincks when I was based in The Hague.” She blew smoke out towards the city, the lights of the residential lowlands, the towers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Westmount Square and the beginnings of the rising cityscape with its condominium and office towers to the east.

Rex was impressed with Vera's moxy, her alluring figure and her large dark eyes, so much so, he forgot to have one of his own cigarettes. Perhaps he worried it would be his last. “Are you with one of the intelligence services?”

She ignored the question. “It's about Vernon Smythe. His activities of late have been causing some . . . ripples in foreign ponds. As you may have learned, he's invested heavily in commercial applications of various scientific and technological innovations. The Russians, the Chinese, even the North Koreans have done business with our Mr. Smythe.” She drew heavily on her cigarillo before exhaling towards the sky. “It seems there's also money to be made in more . . . capitalistic endeavours at home. For an example, when there's an urgent need for a city sports team to win a championship, Vernon's company can be hired to use their acoustic weapons to have the visiting team wake up in their hotel rooms fatigued, irritable, and feeling like their spines have been twisted like an elastic, and their jaws wired shut. Specific players can be targeted, the goalies, the top scorers, the pitchers, the heavy hitters, the quarterbacks that type of thing. Easier targets are individual sports figures such as golfers, tennis players, etc. Where there's a fortune to be won, some will shake hands with . . . a Vernon Smythe.” She turned her back to the city and sat upon the balustrade.

“So, what can I do about it?”

A large wheeled SUV drove up and parked alongside the stone planters and a man emerged talking into a shoulder communication device. Rex watched as Vera walked towards him and began a conversation; she showed him some type of identification and he tipped his hat, smiled, and made his way back to the security vehicle. She came back to Rex, tossed her cigarillo to the concrete walkway and crushed it out with her expensive black leather loafer.

“We want you to do the right thing and help your country. Be one of our unofficial eyes and ears on Vernon Smythe and Co.”

Rex looked towards the dark foliage of the park trees, a sense of confusion overcoming him, as if he'd wandered off a pathway and was lost in a forest. Was that a small stream running across the park? He squinted his eyes but he couldn't make it out.

“The future is all about conditioning Rex. Conditioning, psychological control and manipulation. With every keystroke monitored, every nuance evaluated, every communications analyzed by algorithms to discover 'negative association quotients,' or NAQs, Governments can then instigate a universal system of protocols to adjust civilian behaviours. Someone visits a questionable site, they receive a shot of acoustic or some other type of conditioning. Over time, citizens will learn, like mice in a lab experiment, to avoid such associations. Old fashioned conditioning Rex. Avoidance therapy. The main problem is of course the male population between the ages of 14 and 34, always has been. We've been lucky to have the gaming culture in place—although it has its problems too—but it's been much the best pacifier since television and popular music. But you see, Vernon is pushing the envelope, getting ahead of plans, possibly undermining such future developments.”

“Sounds like a cheap science fiction novel,” Rex said, turning around and sitting beside her, their thighs touching.

She looked at him sideways. “We're already living in a cheap science fiction novel Rex. HyperSonic Sound is old hat. My trunk is full of parabolic microphones and other acoustic paraphernalia.”

“Sounds kind of kinky to me, but whatever turns you on.”

Vera Causalton got up and started walking to her Escalade, while Rex stared at her hips swaying in her tight dress pants. “Think about it Rex.”

He followed her. He felt he would follow her anywhere.


Mélisande put the pages back in the folder and placed the pencil back in the chipped blue coffee mug, its dark graphite spire head first past the glossy veneers of plump felt pens and retractable ballpoints to the shadows below where small coloured thumbtacks awaited, forgotten in the dust. Pavor's story lines were too bizarre for her. His readers, however, seemed to enjoy them. What kind of person could torture an innocent with such acoustic weapons she wondered? Who could do such things? Who could be so drained of empathy, compassion, humanity? She wished he would abandon this darkness, this shadow-side, and find new subject matter. Perhaps if he wrote an autobiographical work of fiction, reveal the loss of his wife and child, cast it upon the page, it would be a catharsis, akin to a baptism, allowing him to embrace a new path.

She slipped the folder back in the desk drawer and turned her head towards the kitchen trying to understand what the sound was, and then realised it was Pavor humming along to a song on the radio. As she made her way to the warmth and brightness of the kitchen, she recognized it. It was the song, A Holly Jolly Christmas sung by Burl Ives, a song bound to brighten the mood of the most jaded misanthrope. She began to smile.  

© 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.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighty-Three

Duncan raised the cool water in his cupped hands and gently pressed it against his face, rested his palms over each eye, and breathed deeply as the remnant water trickled down his wrists. He repeated the process and then reached for a towel thinking perhaps he shouldn't have been drinking Maudite along with his new prescription. Looking deep into the mirrored reflection of his brown eyes, he wondered if the depression medication he'd been taking since Edward Seymour had advised “a light tonic” back in the mid-80s, was interacting with it.

 He put his glasses on, and as he ran his fingers through his hair, he noticed one of the many postcards of Montreal landmarks that Yves had applied to his record shop bathroom walls as decoration—a veritable salle de bain time machine—a postcard of the amusement centre of their early youth, Belmont Park in Cartierville with a view of the north river, now, somewhat ironically, a quiet green space named after its noisy predecessor. Memories, faded brief instances, flashes of image came back to him like those of his Father's slide shows of their family vacations to Cavendish Beach or Expo 67: the old wooden roller coaster descent, his baseball cap swept away, a sharp corner of the Wild Mouse, puddles and reflected sky, litter and sticky shoes, popcorn and pink cotton candy, shooting ducks in the shadows, ring toss, stuffed animals, spinning teacups, an enormous mallet suspended in the air anticipating the ringing of the bell, the bumper cars . . . bumper cars. It had been one of his favourite choices as a kid, yet one of the most frustrating. Alone, finally in control of one's direction, gripping the steering wheel, foot to the pedal and then . . . one was bumped off course, bumped again from another, pinned against the side while the clock ticked and the opportunity to drive freely, diminished. It was like life itself he thought, self-determination battered by the vicissitudes of a competitive world. Or at least a competitive twin.

He stretched his neck. Grinding bone and muscle rippled and popped.

But wouldn't the far-seeing gurus and those complacent authors on the self-help shelves supporting the zeitgeist of the day admonish him? Wouldn't they chide him for not seeing that he too was the driver of the other bumper cars? Wouldn't they say he was pinning himself to the edge while the unseen clock ticked away with maddening velocity? Expired? In stasis? A mirrored infinity of little Duncan's at the wheel?

Frozen in the banality of an everyday truth, he looked at himself in the mirror.

Was he responsible for the disappearance of the two unusual manuscripts? Was he responsible for the condominium development bulldozing the land his bookshop and family cordage business had found its home? Politics? Language? The price of gas? The double-faced internet?

Was he responsible for the discovery of the unusual rock on the sandy beach of Prince Edward Island? And for its loss?

As his thoughts grappled with bastard fate, the image of the marble sculpture of Laocoön rose in his mind. As soon as we slip from our Mother's wombs, he thought, we're swept into that flow of myriad possibilities, headlong, fingers in fists, coming out fighting, ready for the first slap.

Duncan rolled his shoulders and readied himself to join his friends, and as he opened the door he heard the soft acoustic 1970s folk sounds of Harmonium's Pour un instant coming from the speakers, and he stood in the open doorway, the lyrics and melody enticing him to feed on nostalgia, and yet he sensed, at least for the moment, he was a stranger there, out of place, his appetite expired much like the clock of that old amusement park ride so long ago. He felt remarkably untethered, yet he was equally filled with the uncertainty of what he would do. His life lay before him like one of those winding paths in old paintings leading to distant lands. He was still relatively young at 53 years of age. Wasn't he? Fifty three. Fifty three? Nausea rose from the pit of his stomach as if that amusement park mallet suspended in the air had finally come down to hit the mark, but the puck had only risen a few feet in his mind, the ringing bell silent far above.

He was on the dust heap at fifty three.


Lucrezia checked her smart phone for further messages from Declan who was caught in a flight delay at LaGuardia airport, which, according to his lack of syntax and use of exclamation marks, was not a pleasant experience on a Saturday evening on the 22nd of December. Seeing he wouldn't be able to make it to their country house till the next day for their quiet Christmas together, she'd made a visit to the secret book room and retrieved the cigarettes she kept in a fake volume bound in calf with the title The Sibylline Oracles - Sir John Floyer - 1713 in gilt on the spine. She'd just finished with a cigarette and tossed the remnant into the fireplace where the dry maple wood crackled and sputtered sending flames and sparks upwards like a smithy's forge. She rarely smoked more than the first half, just enough to overcome the need. The unacknowledged habit helped reduce her consumption, and hiding them, and rarely smoking them, added to their elicit pleasure. Their household staff were aware of her occasional proclivity; smoke vortexes rising from between the hedges of the maze, random white filters of her Davidoff brand unearthed in the garden by Belford Owens their gardener and stable man, or the hint of smoke on her clothes caught by the sharp nose of Miriam his wife, were sure signs. Of course Thaddeus and Bartholomew knew. They purchased them for her. As for Declan, she knew his opinion of her occasional habit. He voiced his concern once, and let it rest.

She paced back and forth in front of the hearth, arms crossed, wondering if she should start that Ann Patchett novel she'd bought, but ultimately, she felt too restless for the page. She missed sitting for Jerome, missed watching him work, looking at his body move as he worked the canvas. She'd been foolish with him once, but he hadn't been the first. There had been that sportsman sailor in Antigua, and the book specialist at Sotheby's in London but that was all. Brief flings of the moment. Three occasions. No further relations or communication. She couldn't see herself doing it again. She was glad Jerome was getting married but Declan's offer to host a small reception for the couples in the spring made her worry Jerome's wife would somehow perceive that something had occurred between them. A glance, or a phrase by one of them, or even by Thaddeus and Bartholomew, could possibly arouse a speculation.

Passing the Longcase clock in the hallway, she made her way to the kitchen where she'd left the novel and found Beaumont lying on the rug near the door, half-asleep. She winked at him when he opened an eye to look at her, and then she bent down and petted his shoulder and side.

“Declan will be home tomorrow Beaumont, tomorrow,” she said. “He can take you for a long . . .” but she caught herself before she said the word whose sound was a pure Pavlovian trigger.

While she made herself a cup of hot chocolate, she decided one of her favourite movies was the cure for her malaise. Ever since having watched one of Gene Tierney's movies on television when young, she'd become enamoured with the actress. She brought her mug to the cozy upstairs den and opened the cherry wood cabinet to reveal the large flat screen television, and shelves filled with books on her favourite actress, along with DVDs of most of her movies. Two rows of movies beckoned her: Belle Star, Whirlpool, Close To My Heart, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Heaven Can Wait, The Razor's Edge, Son of Fury, Black Widow, Leave Her To Heaven, Night and the City, Sundown, Hudson's Bay, Tobacco Road, On the Riviera, The Shanghai Gesture, Dragonwyck, Never Let Me Go, Thunder Birds, Laura. The Left Hand of God and many others. Lucrezia chose Laura as the film to watch, and she pulled out a large glossy book with pictures of the actress accompanied by famous people in her life such as Oleg Cassini, Aly Khan, John F. Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hughes and Dana Andrews among others. She also reached for the actress's autobiography entitled, Self-Portrait and walked over to her favourite chair. She placed the books beside the Tiffany lamp on the small wooden filing cabinet in the corner of the room which kept her collection of Tierney memorabilia which Ebay had enabled her to find, movie cards, photographs, magazines with her cover photo such as Life, Movieland, Screenland, Movie Stars, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, Paris Match, and rare movie posters she had had professionally framed in dark wood to match the den's decor: Sundown, Laura, Night and the City, Dragonwyck and Leave Her to Heaven. Declan called the den the Tierney Room.

As the credits rolled in front of the painting of the title character played by Tierney, she hummed along to the theme music and flipped through the actress's autobiography, stopping to look at the photographs. She recalled how she'd suffered from depression and had been hospitalized in the mid-1950s. Electroshock treatments had been administered. Memory loss had been a side-effect. What a nightmare it must have been for her she thought.  A gorgeous woman named after a man, in a man's world, controlled by mad scientists in white coats placing electrodes on her forehead and temples. Such a world of madness must have been as claustrophobic as a small room thick with cobwebs.

She closed the book and paused the movie so she could get her reading glasses she'd left in the bedroom, and after finding them on her side table, she stood before the portrait of herself as Lucrezia Panciatichi painted by Jerome, and wondered how long it would be before she found herself talking to the portrait like a heroine in a Victorian novel.

© 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.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighty-Two

While Mrs. Shimoda sat up in bed concentrating on Tsushima Yûko's Oma Monogatori, a book of ghost stories she'd found in the multilingual section of her local library, Amelia was standing across the street with Hugh looking at the old-fashioned multi-coloured Christmas lights around their living room window, large snow flakes falling around her, occasionally dissolving upon her face with a ticklish sensation, her thoughts drifting towards her concerns over Duncan who at that moment was standing on a sidewalk two miles away near Disques Deux Côtés looking back at his footsteps in the snow thinking they were like the repetitive solitary imprints of someone stranded upon a desert island, the shadowgraphs of an invisible man.

As he approached the window of his friend's secondhand record shop, Duncan heard the muted strains of She Sells Sanctuary by the Cult, and he paused to look through the window framed with its cedar garlands and blinking red and blue Christmas lights at the rather absurd spectacle of two grown men playing invisible instruments—Tom sitting on a stool drumming the cluttered counter top with yellow pencils, and Yves facing him, plying vigorous down strokes to an unseen low slung bass—and he imagined his brother Gavin strutting about with a microphone and himself on lead guitar but the shop just wasn't big enough for Gavin's stage presence and the vision faded. He stood there feeling like a chess piece that couldn't be moved, paradoxically stuck in the continuous present like a work of art, while a snow plow with its revolving orange light, rumbled and scraped the road behind him, angling the frigid accumulations of his life to the curbside into inverted furrows towards tomorrow.

“Well if it isn't Dunc the Monk,” Yves said, as Duncan entered the shop stamping his boots on the inside mat. “We were starting to get worried.”

“Sorry guys, I just stopped to pick these up,” and he withdrew a six pack of Maudite from a black cotton shopping bag. “I think they're already cold.” He winked.

Tom opened the box and withdrew three beers and handed them out. “I think the first toast should be to Dunc, a good friend who made it back from the brink . . . just so he could ask us to help him pack up his bookstore . . . and have a drink.”

They laughed and Duncan playfully tossed his bottle cap towards Tom. “Here, a cymbal for your drum kit.” He sipped his beer. “I really appreciate you guys helping me out next week. It shouldn't take too long.”

“Tabernac Dunc, we would have packed up your bookstore even if you hadn't come back from the brink,” Yves joked, throwing an arm around Duncan's shoulders and giving him a squeeze. “That's what friends are for, man. We can't wait to put your dusty books into the boxes, eh, and carry those heavy suckers down that narrow staircase!” He gave him another squeeze. “I'm a mean two handed slinger of packing-tape. I'll bring my own, fully loaded.”

Duncan laughed. “I should get you a special box for your tape dispensers, like the ones they have for duelling pistols.” The subject aroused a flurry of literary references in Duncan's mind, the duels in Lermontov, Conrad, Thomas Mann and Pushkin. “Once when Amelia and I rented the film Eugene Onegin based on the Alexander Pushkin book, which has a major duel in the story, the young store clerk, who was something right out of The Sopranos opened the case to check it was the right tape and confirm the title with us, pronouncing it U Gene One Gin.

“Sounds like a gun fighter from the old west who couldn't hold his liquor,” Tom offered.

“That's good, that's good. I like that,” Duncan said. “Amelia and I found it amusing and we laughed on the way home, but mispronunciations are interesting. They open the words up. You see them afresh. God knows I mispronounced enough names and words when I was younger.” He remembered embarrassing moments concerning Aeschylus and Goethe in front of classmates. “So,” thinking he was losing them, “that was a pretty good rendition of She Sells Sanctuary.”

Yves was about to say how great it would have been to have played it on stage, but seeing the song came out around the same time Duncan's brother died in a car crash and their band The Splices truly fell apart, he just nodded his head and said, “The Cult's still playing gigs. . . with every other bloody band since the creation of rock and roll!”

“When we grew up in the sixties and seventies,” Tom added, “rock stars died young. Brian Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. I thought you either died young or went on to get a real job and grow old like the rest of humanity.”

“Mark Bolan,” Yves added. “Keith Moon, Gram Parsons and those are just a few, eh, colis.”

“Randy Rhoads,” Duncan chimed in. “I know, I know. Who could have predicted rock music would be a life-long career without retirement? To stay hip is to have a few hip replacements, a little tuck here, a bit of hair dye there, and Bob's your Monkey's uncle still jumping around the stage.”

They shook their heads, drank their beer and felt like they'd missed the last ship out of port.

Duncan broke the silence. “I've been busy going through files and papers of Lafcadio & Co., and Strand Cordage,” he said, as he searched the pockets of his winter coat, “and I came across some interesting items. Like this,” and he produced a wrinkled and folded piece of paper. “One of our set lists from late 1978. This is Gavin's. He used to tape it to the side of his electric piano.” He handed it to Yves.

“Colin de bin!” Yves said as he read the list. “Brings back memories, eh.”

“Holy crap,” Tom said, leaning over to read the list. “More cow bell please! I remember that set really worked well in the high schools, town halls, church basements and bars in the boonies. Wakefield, Sherbrooke, Grand Mère, Thetford Mines, Granby, Magog . . . .”

Yves shook his head with nostalgia. “And everywhere in between, cris.”

Set / October 1978 / Mascouche

  1. Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo / Derringer
  2. I Want You to Want Me / Cheap Trick
  3. Two Tickets to Paradise / Eddie Money
  4. Suffragette City / David Bowie
  5. Just What I Needed / The Cars
  6. My Best Friend's Girl / “ “
  7. Changes / David Bowie
  8. Lines On My Face / Peter Frampton
  9. Show Me The Way / “ “
  10. Don't Fear the Reaper / Blue Oyster Cult
  11. Rebel, Rebel / David Bowie
  12. Surrender / Cheap Trick

“Remember Gavin would use our band name in the opening song where it mentioned a fictional band named The Jokers.” Duncan said. “Always worked well. Personalized it.” Duncan's rhythm section agreed with him, touching his arm with affection as another silence befell them.

“Your voice was great for Lines On My Face, softer than Gavin's,” Tom said. “He was great on the electric piano though, wasn't he?”

“Yeah, good times, good times. Here's to Gavin,” Yves said, raising his beer. They clinked bottles and drank to Duncan's twin.

“November 1978 was near the end of our cover band days though. When Gavin and I went to England during the summer of 1979 to visit my Mother's side of the family, the Chadwicks, that was the turning point.”

“Yeah, where was that? Something 'field'? Ecclesfield?”

“Macclesfield,” Duncan corrected. “You remember Eccles because I came back to Montreal with an Eccles cake addiction and couldn't find any here, and was always going on and on about missing Eccles cakes, Eccles cake.”

“Right, right, oh God, don't remind us.”


“That's when Gavin came back with a Joy Division addiction,” Tom said.

Duncan hesitated to respond. The story of them having been dragged to Manchester by their second cousin to see a band they'd never heard of had been a key moment in Gavin's musical life. “Yes . . . Gavin could have written his name backwards after seeing that concert. It pulled him inside out.” He paused, feeling the pressure of an untold story rise up in him with the nausea of suppressed emotion. “I never told anyone this story before, but . . . I feel I have to tell it now. It might have died with me on the floor of my bookshop.” He took a long drink from his Maudite and continued. “I remember it was a Friday the thirteenth, July, and I didn't really want to travel with our second cousin in his Mini, but the three of us piled in and away we went. You can imagine the three of us smoking cigarettes in that little thing, God! Anyway, we arrive in Manchester and we buy our tickets and Duncan and Miles go into the bathroom to smoke weed which I didn't like to do, so I went outside for fresh air and I wandered around the building. Miles had warned me to be careful what with my Canadian accent and healthy tanned skin, I might be a target for local toughs. So I'm walking around the side of the place and make my way behind and I see a tall slim guy with shortish hair, dark dress pants and shirt grinding a cigarette out with the soul of his shoe and I sort of nod thinking he probably worked there as a stage manager or something, and he asks me if I have a cigarette. I say Yeah, sure, and open my pack of Bellevederes”

“You and your Bellevederes,” Tom said, “always that nice blue pack in you jean jacket pocket.”

“Yeah, I know, I liked that brand, my colour. Well, I offer him one and I strike a match for him, he holds his long fingered hands around mine to protect the flame, and after the first deep puff, he exhales and says, Bellevedere with a wistful tone, which was kind of ironic seeing we were standing in an environment of cracked pavements and brick dust. He asks me if I was American, and I tell him I was from Montreal, Canada, visiting family in Macclesfield. His eyes widened at this. They were rather intense and you felt they were looking through you at the same time they were looking inwards. At that moment a man came out and called him in. He looked at me and said thanks and walked away. I checked my watch, finished my cigarette and made my way back inside.”

“Wait a minute, are you telling us—”

“Yes, you can imagine I was kind of surprized when the guy who bummed a cigarette off me was standing there, centre stage, breaking into these dark emotive songs that seemed to have sprung from industrial wastelands. Their first song was just a wall of noise to me. I can't remember what it was. Didn't seem to have any lyrics.”

“Why didn't you tell us?” Yves asked.

Duncan sighed and rubbed his forehead. “It's complicated. First of all, there we were, healthy, sun-tanned twins from leafy, green pleasant Notre Dame-de-Grace, face to face with Manchester's grim and gritty conditions, the first months of Thatcherdom, and it all seemed unreal. It wasn't where I wanted to be, but Gavin, Gavin thought he'd found the motherlode, heard the music of his soul. He was bouncing up and down and shaking back and forth, loosing himself in the beat, and I sort of made my way to the side and watched from afar. It was amazing. When Ian Curtis went into his trance-like dance moves, it was bizarre. I'd never seen anything like it. Coming from Canada where the airwaves were awash in Barry Manilow, Kiss and Sean Cassidy, this new music just severed all the crap from us, but with Gavin it was like he shed a skin. After the concert he said he'd wished he'd been born in Manchester rather than Montreal, and he might have been up there on stage with something to sing about like that singer.”

“Gavin never mentioned your meeting Ian Curtis,” Tom said.

“That's just it. I never told him. That's sort of why I'm getting it off my chest now. He became so obsessed with the band right after the show, I couldn't tell him I shared a cigarette with the singer. It would have ruined it between us. So I let it go. And anyway, the band wasn't on any map we knew of. When the band became better known and Ian Curtis died, well, I definitely couldn't tell him. And when Gavin died it was almost like an unfinished link between us, something we had never shared, something to hold on to.”

Tom and Yves stood there, open mouthed, beers in hand. “Jesus Dunc, that's like an unexploded bomb just went off. Save the pieces as my Italian Mother says, save the pieces.”

“Our tastes were so different. In the late 70s I was discovering the great music on the ECM label, all Jan Gabarek, Ralph Towner, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, meanwhile Gavin was zeroing in on punk and post punk raunchiness. I remember thinking The Splices were already splitting as Gavin danced in that Manchester club.”

Yves went behind the counter and pulled out a CD, a compilation of Joy Division. “Any requests,” he asked.

Duncan thought for a bit. “I always liked Disorder,” he said.
They stood around drinking their beers, tapping their feet to the building momentum of the song as it filled the shop with its black and white palette, as fresh to his ears as a Paul-Emile Borduas composition was to his eyes. It had been a day of revelations. His life was shifting and spinning in the shadows towards an unknown future. Only that morning he'd discovered in the very old Strand Cordage Ltd. business papers that his paternal surname was not really Strand, but MacAdam. His Great-Grandfather having changed it when leaving Scotland. Something to do with debts. All those years he thought, all those years of believing in a mere name. He felt he was only Duncan now, and even that name he felt was shifting, as if the “C” in his first name had been reversed and he was sprawled in the concavity of its shape, stranded in the bottom of his given name, trying to climb out, dizzy with the beer, and the sound of Disorder.

© 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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighty One

To have stood before her Mother's door like an eavesdropper, to have quietly passed the others with their Christmas decorations—sleigh bells, pine cones and Macintosh bows, a quilted Santa Claus with reindeer, a Joyeux Noël garden gnome, snowmen silhouettes, a crèche vignette carved out of linden wood (the result of personal choice or that of their offspring?)—and to have listened to the piped-in music of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, she'd felt she'd emerged from the elevator to a level where everything was monitored, and silence—an evocation of death—was forbidden; the music, like a psychotropic drug, massaging her consciousness into docility. The hallway with its blue patterned carpeting, upholstered chairs, occasional tables, lamps, mirrors and framed prints of happy landscapes and flowering glades, had seemed to her a facsimile refuge from true reality. Sitting beside her Mother now, she imagined herself trapped in this warm, dry environment of meals, medications, overhead announcements, games and activities like a captive on an endless cruise over a waveless sea. Once more the sounds of Christmas carols, this time nature inspired—Good King Wenscelas with the distant cawing of crows—seeped under the door from the hallway while her Mother laughed in response to a witty remark on the television by Pénélope McQuade. Isabelle smiled and casually glanced towards the entrance where a strip of light on the carpeting projected from the ever-lit hallway made her think of a chalk line on a running track. The start? The finish?

“Tu es pressé Isabelle?” her Mother asked, holding the television remote like a weapon holding her hostage.

Isabelle reassured her she wasn't in a hurry and had only been stretching her neck.

“Elle est si drôle ce Pénélope,” her Mother said, placing the remote between her thigh and the arm of the chair. “Si mignonne.”

Isabelle restrained herself from telling her Mother how Pénélope's pixie hairstyles had influenced young women viewers. Hadn't she too once had her hair trimmed and styled much like the television host? She recalled now that Pénélope's father's first name was Winston, an unusual name, and wondered if the source had been the character in that famous book she'd read while in private school. She always got the books mixed up. Was it Nineteen Eighty Four, or Brave New World? It seemed so long ago. Winston something or other. Winston Churchill. Winston Graham. Winston cigarettes. Winston . . . .

She glanced at the white and red poinsettia plants she'd brought as a gift. They would soon dry out and drop their leaves to become spindly skeletons of themselves. Her Mother would then ask to have them taken away. Revivified or tossed she'd never know. Just another marketed tradition. She wondered if white poinsettias had made inroads in the funeral business. Her Mother had already outlined her preferences for her own funeral, large triangular shaped floral arrangements in vases with white and mauve blooms, and for the reception, floral tributes with a greater variety of colours and shapes. Much the same for her own funeral she thought if she pursued the David Ashemore case. What would it be? A car accident? A poison induced heart attack? A staged suicide? A mugging? She could see her sisters going through her belongings, her dresses, shoes, sweaters, jewelry, keeping desired items before hiring an estate company to take over the undesired contents. They would use her kitchen, her bathroom, perhaps even use her old toothbrush to clean the built-up dust on certain owl figurines and sculptures. Jokes would be made about an owl fetish. Small talk about collecting manias and stories of people who collected oddities like combination locks with forgotten combinations, or the exuviae of cicadas and scorpions. Her own treasures would be dispersed at discount prices and the remnant filtered through the Salvation Army system, picked over, judged.

And her ex-husband Nick? Would he show up at the funeral with but another fresh-faced limpet barely into her twenties? Maybe one on each arm, a blonde and a brunette. They flocked to him like fruit flies to an ageing banana. He was a walking cliché of virility. She recalled the day she'd met him while on Mount Royal sitting on a bench reading a psychology textbook. He'd come jogging towards her, stopped to catch his breath, caught her eye, and joked about how he had to work off that spanakopita. Next thing she knew, he'd invited her to his Greek restaurant. She always remembered the sight of his powerful calves, the first thing she'd observed when she'd raised her eyes. His dark-toned skin, hairy forearms, that two o'clock shadow, those playful eyes. Of course her Mother thought it was her fault for losing him. What could she do? Nick was a ladies man. It was his genetic disposition. The restaurant provided him with a constant supply of young women. Word of mouth did the rest. She would see them walking by the restaurant, stopping to read the menu, but really looking through the glass to see if he was there. That was his lot in life. Being Nick's wife wasn't hers. Though she did miss his spanakopita.

She covered her mouth and quietly burped. Dinner tonight—overcooked pork chops, boiled potatoes, carrot and turnip mash, followed by apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream (an English chef?)—if not memorable, had at least kept her busy while trying to choose subjects of conversation mundane enough to avoid gossipy neighbouring ears. Dinner with her Mother was always contentious. Other daughters visited with their husbands, their children. Residents would nod to her and say hello, but she could read their minds: ah, yes, the single one, the divorcée, the forensic something or other. There was the bald man in an old grey suit who always sat by himself in the middle of the dining room staring ahead as if he was watching a film on a big screen. Everyone else were in groups of three, four or five. When she stayed for dinner she would sit at the special tables for visitors and her Mother's companions would wave from their table, a trio instead of the usual quartette. The first, the tiny Mrs. Gagnon with her pleasant smile, couldn't hear very well, the second, Mrs. Castonquay, tall and stern, rarely talked, and the third, the healthy, red cheeked Miss Clement never stopped talking, “fatiguant” her Mother would say, manipulating her hand like a puppet. She often scanned the tables and could imagine the cliques and cabals much like in high school, though a hubristic inversion had occurred. No longer was it how much money one's Father made, the circle of self-esteem was now a mathematical formula consisting of the number of children one had and their levels of achievement, combined with the number of grandchildren, multiplied by the number of visits and demonstrations of affection which provided the fluctuating lines on the graph of pecking order prestige. Pilots for major airlines still held a tremendous caché she'd learnt in that casual confinement of trifling conversations otherwise known as an elevator. She'd been entertained by an elderly Mr. Forget in his sweater vest and soup-stained tie informing her, with the occasional wink and a touch on her forearm, of his apartment view over the old grounds to the south east where the great poet Emile Nelligan had spent his last years in the old asylum for troubled minds. Wasn't a day, he'd said, that he didn't think of him. She had listened to the elderly gentleman, looked him in the eyes, even touched his hand with a show of empathy, and seeing the wrinkled loose skin between his thumb and fingers, had been reminded of the soft ripples of Bahamian sand that she and Nick had walked upon during their honeymoon, a stroll in the shallows, a shoreline emblematic of their challenging relationship, the back and forth, the rise and fall, the warmth and the cold, the pleasures and the dangers, the very diastole and systole of Mother earth. Her Mother had later informed her that Mr. Forget's son was a pilot, and the envy of them all. When he visited there was always a rise in attention levels. Jacques Forget, pilot, not a crease out of place, his blue black hair perfectly coiffed like a young Cary Grant. He could very well have been the pilot who few them to the Caribbean for their honeymoon years ago. She could see the elderly Mr. Forget now, shuffling down the hall towards his room, a departure sans adieu, his soft voice reciting a poem by Nelligan—at least she supposed—the words spoken half to himself and half to the ghosts around him. Ghosts. Perhaps the ghost of David Ashemore had accompanied him down the hallway, a brief lyrical diversion from haunting her thoughts with his unfinished business concerning Jarvis Whitehorne.

Since receiving the note from what she assumed was Thérèse Laflamme, she'd researched Whitehorne only to discover that his company had been purchased by a large American conglomerate over six months ago, and his yacht, Revenant IX, had been recovered off the coast of Antigua five weeks ago, listing heavily to the starboard having taken on water. No one aboard. The whereabouts of Whitehorne still under investigation. Clive Saunders who'd taken over Ashemore's job had told her—off the record, you didn't hear it from me—that he'd learnt of Whitehorne's shady international connections selling biotech. They had arranged to meet at a dépanneur, and he had talked quietly while holding a tin of baked beans with maple syrup as if discussing the delicacy of the after taste. Whitehorne had developed an implant device, he'd told her. Nano-technology. A sort of fail-safe button: “Remote activation providing termination of host.” Cold phraseology for distance execution. Saunders had left her with the rumour that future applications could be introduced like a vaccine. If the individual became problematic later in life, “File, delete. In a future world facing climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of food, fuel and clean water . . . “ he'd shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate human life would be cheap. It made Whitehorne's other methods, his acronyms of aggression, positively sophomoric: FIST: fabricate, isolate, slander, traduce. THAW: thwart, hinder, annul, wither. “In the future,” Saunders had said, “prisons would no longer be affordable. Cheap labour would be replaced by robots. Unrest and criminality nipped in the bud.”

Standing in the aisle of a convenience store listening to these theoretical projections while pretending interest in cheap spaghetti sauce and cans of beef vegetable soup all to the soundtrack of Owner of a Lonely Heart coming from the store speakers had drained her of all hope, and made her feel as chipped and cracked as the stained linoleum beneath her feet. A prolonged silence that could be interpreted as defeat had left her numb with the sense of how easy such an implant could be abused. Just who would be the ultimate file manager?

She looked at her Mother, safe, content, well taken care of, holding on to the shirt tails of world affairs in her battle against irrelevance; and yet her daily news fix was but a surface skim, a pure injection would probably finish her off. It strangely made Isabelle think of an incident on a nearby lawn last summer, a cat attacking a mourning dove, and her attempts to save the bloodied winged bird from what appeared to be a lovely white domestic short-haired with a collar, yet as wild eyed and transfixed as someone before a computer screen. Her chasing the cat away had been a mere interlude of unreality to the feline brain feeding on its depths of instinct. There she had stood, a woman in the middle, between the cat and the pigeon, challenged by the nature of morals, and the morals of nature. Whosoever will be saved?

Listless and overcome with fatigue, Isabelle stared vacantly ahead, bathed in the cerulean glow of civilization.

© 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.