Thursday, December 27, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty

Redpath museum
Duncan stood on the sidewalk looking towards the limestone outlines of the Redpath Museum, its Classical Revival architecture rising up in the fog like a Temple on a Greek mountain side. The pediment, the medallions, the columns, and the peaks of the transepts revealed themselves in the slowly shifting air as if it were an art history slide show and he was a sleepy undergraduate. As he approached the massive stone front staircase, he managed to glimpse a figure looking out of the large half-open door A tall bearded man in a long coat. But only for an instant as the fog thickened and shifted.

Of course, he should look up Tom, Tom Culacino. He could ask him to look at the strange manuscript he found under the kitchen cabinets. A childhood school friend, and former drummer with The Splices, and now a Professor and researcher in computing, Tom had done well. As Duncan stood looking towards the Museum sheltering in the fog, he recalled the vivid memory of a school visit. It must have been 1968 or 1969. They were running around the upper floor and came up to the dark suited legs of a museum guard. Their teacher had not been amused. Duncan's memory was of dark wood, glass cases, and natural light coming from the windows above, with dusty scents from around the world, a confusion of decay and stasis, a building steeped in the past. The enormous, to them, Dinosaur, and the other natural, anthropological and archaeological relics had overwhelmed their senses with wonder. Duncan turned around and made his way back towards the science building. Tom's research in higher computing was completely over Duncan's head, but he liked Tom for his quirky sense of humour, bizarre interests and complete knowledge of the latest and obscurest music. His work involved concepts such as compiler optimizations, method-level speculations, return value predictions, speculative multithreadings, and phase-based adaptive recompilations which were as foreign to Duncan as perhaps false band, doublure, cocked, tipped-in, rubricated, and cancel leaf were to Tom.

Academic terminologies were rife. As he approached the science building, he remembered flipping through some published papers in post-graduate psychology and truly only finding common ground in the syntax. He had been young, and briefly dating a slightly older secretary in the post-graduate department of psychology, his mind only familiar with basic psychology terms and Jungian and Freudian concepts. When she gave him a tour of the labs, he had been deeply disturbed by the sight of white mice with small tubes connected to their open scalps, non-voluntary candidates wedded chemically to an instrumentality of knowledge, an instrumentality that altered forever his view of the discipline. Not a Freudian slip in sight. Bio-chemistry had taken over. That had been in the late 1970s. Duncan could only imagine what they were doing presently. Perhaps even the syntax was beyond him now.

Walking down the corridor towards Tom's office, he remembered it was Monday, and the wizard was unlikely to be found. He knocked on his door anyway. No response. Two more knocks. Not a sound. Back at the elevator Duncan noticed an associate of Tom's, Frank Woo, coming towards him.
“Dunc isn't it?”
“That's right,” Duncan said smiling, acknowledging Tom's nickname for him, one discovered from an Aussie song called Duncan.
“If you're looking for Tom, he's in the cafeteria. I think he's working on a two cup problem.”
“Oh, thanks Frank.
He spotted Tom at a corner table, earbuds leading to his jacket pocket, his fingers tapping on his cup.
“Hi Tom.”
Tom nodded and smiled at Duncan. “FIDO,” he said.
Duncan raised his eyebrows and sat down. “Fido?”
“Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation. We could use it today don't you think.”
“Yes, sounds like a plan.”
“Wouldn't work on the FOG though.”
“First Osbourne Group, FOG. Yes, indeed. The old CP/M operating system. Brings you back doesn't it?”
Duncan groaned and rolled his eyes.
“I like the side burns. Quite . . . fetching,” Duncan said, trying not to stare.
“Do you know that Luther Wright and the Wrongs might be huge if they were called Luther Wrong and the Wrights. Just a little algorithm fun. So, Dunc, what brings you round the numbers side of things?”
“I have this odd manuscript made up of numbers and letters. It mimics a text, but it is essentially gibberish to me. I was wondering if you could take a quick look and give me your opinion.”
“Sure, why not. Doesn't look like you have anything with you though. Is it in your memory? They used to prize their memories back in the day.”
“What day would that be?”
“That would be the . . . Medieval day and earlier.”
“Sorry. Very little room left up here. No vacancy. Or too much depending on your position. I just happened to be passing the Redpath Museum on my way to the library on bookish bus, when I remembered you.”
“I haven't been there in years. I wonder how the stuffed lion is holding up."
"Yeah, I forgot about him. Probably a little faded, frayed and forlorn."
"That sounds like you're quoting from one of your early songs. So, how is Amelia?”
“Good, good. Unfortunately, this text is beyond her translation skills. How's Milly?”
“Thriving Dunc, thriving. Well, anytime you have the thing, just drop it by the office. No guarantees I'll be able to decipher it, but I will give it a look over.”
“Give it the 1, 2, 3 eh? Great, many thanks mate. All the best to Milly.”
“All our best to the lovely Amelia.”

Duncan left Tom with his fingers tapping to Luther Wright and the Wrongs, and whatever two cup problem, paradox or perplexity troubled him.


Rebecca Haffner heard her name mentioned, then her assistant saying, 'just a minute, and I will check.' Interruptions were unusual on Monday mornings. Unwelcome as well. Robert, her assistant, knocked lightly on the half-open door and popped his head in.
“There is a Duncan Strand here asking if he could possibly see you for a few minutes.”
Nodding towards her book and paper covered desk as if hearing news of great import, she said “Show him in.” She leaned back in her black leather chair and rocked imperceptibly as she heard the shuffling of feet coming towards her door.
“My apologies for upsetting the flow of your morning Rebecca.”
“Not at all. Have a seat. It's not often I see you without your book bag. Haven't lost it have you?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“So, what can I help you with?”
“You are the most knowledgeable book person I know . . .”
“Ah, flattery is often the precursor to a demand.”
Duncan smiled. “More my appreciation of you knowledge than flattery. But, yes, there is a request. I have come across an unusual watermark that I have been unable to trace with my personal reference books, and knowing of your . . yes, more appreciation, extensive research in such areas, you might be able to bring it to light for me.”
“Do you have it with you?”
After telling Rebecca the details of how he found it bound with the cash book, he gave her his finely drawn facsimile.
“And this is half of the watermark is it?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“De umbris idearum,” she said almost to herself.
“I'm sorry Rebecca, what was that?”
“Early watermarks were more than trade signs, they were seen as thought-fossils, thought-crystals, hieroglyphics many of which held significance. Cryptograms and ciphers in the texts were common.” She paused and put the paper down. “What type of paper are we talking about?”
“I would say a thick coarse paper, probably around 1600 or so. That's what I feel.”
Rebecca nodded her head.
“Hmm, I can't be certain based on the little before me, but it is likely Bohemian, possibly Oppenheim. The watermark is unusual. It is possible the text is a . . . Rosicrucian publication."
It was Duncan's turn to nod his head, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Not quite my area of expertise,” he said, “but that is certainly interesting to hear. I shall do some research.”
“Is your alumni membership up to date?”
“Yes, yes, it is.”
“Good, the macro and the microcosm of the world is at your fingertips,” she said gesturing above and around her to the library that was her daily abode.
"Many thanks Rebecca, I will keep you abreast of any developments."
"Bonne chance mon ami."

Duncan stood in the elevator descending from the rare books department, checking his watch and thinking his time was limited. As the door opened on the ground floor, he recognized the man who often sat on the park bench near the restaurant, now well-dressed and coiffed, walking towards the passage to the undergraduate library. Duncan followed trying to avoid looking at him. Perhaps he was correct in thinking him a student in a sociological experiment. The man made his way to the elevator of the Redpath library and pushed the button. He turned about and looked around and stared at Duncan who walked up to stand nearby checking his watch again. Together with two other students, they rose to the third floor, Duncan waited for the other three to disembark before following. They each made their way into the library like pinballs in a game, dispersing in different directions by the force of their necessities. Duncan had rarely used this part of the library but he found it much improved since his days as a student. The mystery man made his way into the book stacks as if he knew his way. Duncan stood at a catalogue computer and, trying to think of something to look up, typed in Rosicrucian watermarks. The man emerged with a number of large books and made his way behind Duncan towards the comfortable chairs near the windows. Duncan glanced over. Art books. Late Renaissance art. Bronzino. 

© ralph patrick mackay

Photograph from the McCord Museum

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Nineteen

Thérèse, sitting at the window desk, sealed the envelope and propped it against the pot holding a Christmas cactus, green with hope. She got up and went to the door and contemplated whether to mail it now, or in the morning. Her tired legs giving her the answer, she returned to the desk and opened her laptop. While she waited for the computer to warm up, do its yoga stretches as Martine would say, Thérèse searched the chipped porcelain cup holding pens and pencils for the hidden flash drive. She hadn't looked at the files in months. She had come very close to dropping it into the cold North Sea, and yet, it was the very reason she found herself in this lovely city. If only it had been a straight forward case of city corruption. Corruption sheltering just beneath the rocks. It was almost expected, and, as she knew, all too real. But this. . . .

She thought of the day when her Father's lawyer asked her to use her investigative skills on a personal case. Almost a year ago it was. Mr. Roquebrune had phoned her and arranged a meeting. He had picked her up and they had driven up to Mount Royal, their conversation casual, about family, her Father and her career. At the parking lot, they had got out and walked the pathway to the lookout enjoying the trees in their colours. It had been a lovely day, one of those days that bring contentment and pleasure with each breath. As they had approached the lookout, he had revealed his story.

“A man, a client of mine, aged 52, died recently, last Monday in fact. His name was David Ashemore. He was a bachelor, a researcher in intelligence work. On the Friday before, he had come by Wormwood & Verdigris and left a box with a letter addressed to me. He wanted me to keep the documents within the box for safe keeping. Within was a manuscript and five years of journals. If anything untoward was to happen to him, he wanted there to be an investigation. He requested there be an autopsy if he died and that I must be present to discover if anything unusual was found.” Mr. Roquebrune lifted the collar of his fine wool and cashmere overcoat, and adjusted the purple paisley silk scarf around his neck. “As you know, Wormwood & Verdigris is an old firm, and our discretion and reputation are well-known. This investigation request seemed rather outside our purview. That is why I thought of you. Your Father had been such a good client and always talked fondly of you and your skills. Feisty he said you were. We will pay you of course. If you accept, whatever major expenses you project to encounter, should be pre-discussed with me, but otherwise your time will be recompensed accordingly. The deceased actually left funds designated for that purpose.”

They approached the concrete balustrade at the right side of the lookout and with the city spread out before them, solid and substantial, the request seemed vague and dubious. Thérèse opened her mouth to respond, but hesitated. Then, turning to Mr. Roquebrune, thinking of the manuscript and the possibly endless pages of journals in a hand she may find difficult to decipher, she said, “What was there to investigate? What do you think? Was he . . .”
“Suffering from a mental illness? No, I don't think he was. He left a list of people who he felt must be interviewed: doctors, friends, acquaintances and neighbours. It was his belief as far as I could tell from my brief perusal of his papers, that their stories will reveal parts of the puzzle.”
"What was the puzzle?"
"As far as I could discern, he felt his health and reputation had been destroyed by actions undertaken by his employers."

They continued walking to the centre point of the arc and Mr. Roquebrune took a coin from his coat pocket and placed it in one of the viewers. He scanned the city and then out to the North East. “That is where my family originated, farther up the river, but nevertheless, distant roots on the land.”
Thérèse looked through the device and tried to imagine the time of the seigneuries and habitants. “Such a beautiful view, so rich in history,” and as she said it, she felt her sentence come under the shadow of the past with all its attendant miseries, hardships, tragedies and injustices on all sides. She turned the viewer back to the city centre and looked at the highrise apartment buildings in the foreground with their expensive penthouses and countless windows of so many people's lives looking back at her.  Rising, she looked over to Mr. Roquebrune and said, “Why didn't the police look into it?”

“He did not want the police involved. I was enjoined from doing so. His words were, 'the truth would be suppressed.' The letter to me also said he wanted me to come by on Monday morning to talk. He said he would leave the front door open in case he didn't hear the doorbell. When I arrived, there was no answer, so I let myself in. As I stood in his hallway, I called his name but only the shroud of silence followed."
Mr. Roquebrune turned his back to the balustrade, and looking towards the large Chalet, sighed wearily. Thérèse touched his arm with her hand.
"On the hallway table, I found a note in large lettering. The note informed me he had taken his life. His body would be found in his bedroom. And there I found him, on his bed, prescription pills on the beside table."

Thérèse took his arm and they walked towards the Chalet.

“It was quite a shock. It was unique in my career to have experienced such an . . . episode. And a decision had to be made. And quickly. All my legal instincts had shifted under my feet, I was at sea as they say, and yet, I felt I was under the legal and moral obligation of my client to follow through with his desires.”

They walked up the staircase and entered the Chalet. Mr. Roquebrune pointed up to the pictures that hung about the central hall, rather old-fashioned scenes from history, and said, “Few people seem to know that the great abstract painter, Paul-Émile Borduas worked on some of these paintings in his youthful days." Then, after a pause, "Le Refus global seems so much water under the bridge doesn't it? The world is changing so quickly. Do you like Borduas's compositions in black and white? I find them quite peaceful to look upon.”
“Hmm, yes, but my preference is for the colourful richness of Riopelle.”
“How is your friend, the painter, Jerome?”
“Oh, he is fine. Always busy with a painting.”
“I have a building to rent at the back of my property which would be ideal for his lifestyle. An excellent room for a studio. If he is interested, have him call me.”

They made their way out the back door and began their return to the car.
Mr. Roquebrune stopped briefly and looked at Thérèse. "David Ashemore wanted me to be present at the autopsy to ascertain whether there was an advanced piece of technology inserted in his stomach or upper intestine."
"Advanced technology? That is very .  .  . bizarre. What did they find?"
"Unfortunately, the autopsy took place without me. Someone had pushed it through. When I talked to the coroner, he had been very nervous and said nothing foreign had been found. The report, he informed me, would show that Mr. Ashemore had died of an overdose of sleeping pills consumed with alcohol." Mr. Roquebrune coughed and cleared his throat. "The coroner also said that David had been in the last stages of prostate cancer which had spread up his spine and into a number of his organs. The body has already been cremated."
"Oh, that is very sad. Suicide seems quite understandable then. Open and shut case as the TV dramas say. It seems all rather mysterious though. Intelligence work, a possible murder, a possible cover-up, documents and journals. Why don't you hire a private investigator?"
"A private investigative firm could very easily be coerced. Money, power and influence can turn the most upright citizen .  .  . upside down, whereas you have my complete trust. You could pose as a friend of David's and follow from that premise. The funeral will be sometime in early November. He didn't have any close family or relatives still living. The moment you come across any resistance, anything at all, I want to be kept informed. I merely want to fulfill the obligation set down by my client. No more. We can't be expected to be heroes. The moment you discover any type of resistance, we will put the file to sleep."
"And what about the manuscript and journals?"
"They will be kept in our files. Indefinitely. Archived."

Thérèse opened her browser while the memory faded. She put the flash drive back in its forsaken porcelain container. She couldn't face the files just yet. She thought back to when a few days after her meeting with Mr. Roquebrune, he had called her into his office. She had gone down to Wormwood & Verdigris and in their library room, he had informed her that the coroner had died of a heart attack. She could choose to relinquish the job if she wished. She should have known from that moment to have backed off. 

She closed down her computer. She walked over to Martine's stereo and turned on the cd player and started to listen to the Erik Satie disc Martine had been listening to the night before. Thérèse curled up in a side chair, the Karen Fossum book on her lap, and listened to the soft piano notes and emotions which bathed her like the muted light that graced the cactus leaves with distant warmth.

© ralph patrick mackay

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighteen

Jerome van Starke
c/o Pascal Tessier
Galerie d'Art Crépescule
Montréal, Québec

Bergen, Norway.
October 22nd

Dear Jerome,

When I awoke this morning, I looked up at the ceiling and saw the reflected leaves moving with the breeze, and it was as if I was under water, and they were reflections from above.The reflected leaves will soon be gone. The plaster ceiling molding around the modern light fixture is quite old, as is the house. The faces seem intent on some distant horizon. How many people have awoken to this ceiling and thought my thoughts? She has witnessed, this woman in the molding, more sunrises than I. What history within this little room? Personal and intimate. What lives? What stories she has overheard, her perspective on the world, at an angle, one ear unseen to the heavens, the other to the mundane realities beneath? I enclose my poor picture taken from my bed. You can see what I see.

I am alone in the house. Martine is off to Stavanger for meetings. Stavanger, she told me is the hub for the off-shore oil business. Also, she informed me, it has a well-preserved old city section of attractive wooden houses. We must take the ferry and visit one day. Preferably in the late Spring when the window boxes will be brimming with fresh blooms. Whenever I see such old homes, I wonder who lives in them. Have they been passed down through generations? Have they merely changed hands to those with greater financial wealth? Then again, living in an old building which has been designated historic, there may be many restrictions on what can be modified. The deception of appearances. We see older houses and imagine qualities and realities that may not exist. I remember when I was very young and was fascinated with a very large Victorian home in Montreal, and how deflated I felt when I learnt that it was not the home to one family—that perfectly imagined family of many children and pets running amok—but a house divided into flats. I don't think I ever looked at homes quite the same again.

Such a crisp, clear day, the clarity of vision unequalled since I arrived. As sharp as the truth. But, the days are getting shorter, and already, at 4:30 p.m., the day is beginning to wane. Daylight savings will soon be upon us.

I know this letter must seem redundant, piggy-backing on the one I mailed to you this morning. You may receive this one first by some sleight-of-hand mistake, but that would not be of great concern. It is likely you may retrieve them both from Pascal on the same day and wonder which to open first. May the cancels lead you. Lay them out side by side and read them each apace.

There was a pleasant southern breeze today. I stopped at Krog og Krinkel Book café, a popular spot, and had a coffee and a skillingsboller—a classic Bergen bun with cinnamon and cardamon. I sat there looking down at the skillingsboller, and I saw a labyrinth in its circular beauty. I walked the labyrinth with my eyes thinking of our future. If others had noticed me, they might have been bewildered by my stare. Perhaps they thought I was praying before the finest bun available. They are very good. I walked my labyrinth and then I ate it.

I later browsed the books, and while doing so, I heard Pop Goes the World by that band from Montreal. Such a surprise. Might have been the owner's iPod mix. Brought me back. I have been humming the tune most of the day! I found a cheap paperback of Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips, and a mystery by Karen Fossum. Also, wonder of wonders, I saw a name on a spine I recognized: your friend P. K. Loveridge. The book was in Norwegian, but it was a translation of one of his novels. It was inscribed on the title page: To Felicia, may the moon be ever full. On the back of the title page it states it is a translation of The Olivaster Moon. I don't know his books but I bought it too. Martine may be able to judge it for me, translation notwithstanding.

I then made my way down the narrow streets to the open area around the Lille Lungegardsyannet, an inner city lake with a fountain feature. While taking some pictures, I had to be wary of the seagulls. They seem larger than ours. Seagulls and pigeons stick close to humans don't they. Or is it the other way around, by accident? A brief déjà vu moment of Hitchcock's The Birds. I asked a young couple to take my picture with the lake behind me and the beautiful red and white buildings reflected in the dark blue water. They told me it is used for skating in the winter. A large Christmas tree with lights in the centre—a Norway Spruce perhaps? Reminds me a little bit of Mount Royal's Beaver Lake. I stood there imagining us skating around the tree, smiling, laughter, sun. What would we do without our imaginations?

All my love,

photograph and text © ralph patrick mackay

Friday, December 14, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventeen

Mélisande Bramante sat on the penultimate pew of the chapel reading a book and eating her organic apple. With a bite, a fine spray of the fruit's nectar bridged the pages, from verso to recto, infusing the paper with its sweetness. She gently rubbed the excess moisture away and turned the page, the dedication and prologue still humming in her thoughts. She scanned the next poem and then read it with more attention:

Not quite a hero's quest—that's much a realm
Of online multi-player games—but more
A reckoning of life to overwhelm
That sense of passing time, that final score,

That echo in the garden maze. You say
Each cobble's placed by hand like lead type in
A printer's form, an alphabet the rain
Will ink, for notes we'll make along the way.

Allegro, largo, grave, our movements terse.
Our cumbrous strokes the margins will invade
With title, preface, footnotes, end notes, verse.

You say we're typographic interludes
In variations infinite. Remade,
Recycled cosmic dust all faith includes.

She closed the book and finished her apple, thinking about P. K. and why he wrote the book of verse. A reckoning? She wasn't sure she wanted to go on this voyage. She heard a noise in the hall, like someone sighing loudly. Going to the door she opened it slightly and saw a young man in dark green cords and a corduroy jacket to match, bending over his shoes, obviously struggling with a recalcitrant knot. Hesitating, she continued to watch as he succeeded in untying his shoes and place them beside a pair of desert boots.

Turning, he saw Mélisande standing at the open door of the chapel across the hall. She wore a black dress with purple winter tights, and a thin purple cardigan and held a book in one hand and an apple core in the other.
“Ah, eating in the chapel, someone is being naughty. Just the person I wanted to see,” he said. “I was hoping you could do me a favour.”
“A favour?” Hearing students coming up the stairs, she gestured for him to follow her into the chapel, “Come on, we can talk in here.”
Settled on a back pew surrounded by the muted light from the stained glass windows, Mélisande faced Duncan with her apple core held in front of her. She looked from side to side wondering what to do, so Duncan pulled a few tissues from his coat and wrapped the core and placed it back in his pocket, much to her amusement.
“So, how is Amelia?”
“She's great. Busy, which is good. Translation jobs here and there, and her course is popular, so she is doing alright. How are you?”
“Fine, fine, just taking a short break. The calm before the storm. Well, it never really gets too busy here.” She pushed the sleeves of her cardigan up to reveal her tattoos. “How is the book selling business these days?”
He looked down at her arms noticing new tattoos since he last saw her, a red rose and a bee on her left forearm and a spider web in a Gothic arched window on her right.
“Those are lovely,” he said gesturing to her illustrated arms.
“Thanks. An artist friend designs them for me. I can roll down my sleeves and they become my secret. Of course during the summer they are revealed much more. I am a bit more revealing in the off season.” She smiled.
Her arms rested on the book on her lap obscuring most of the words, but he could make out Love, Karma and Palmyra, and he thought she must be reading a slim obscure religious monograph.
“I'm sorry, you asked me about the book business. Well, I imagine some booksellers are managing, like The Word which is so well situated near the University, but for my humble offerings, the tide is out. I think the eReaders are starting to have a major impact.”
“We try to buy anything you have of interest, and we thank you for those older volumes we were missing in the Luzac and Probsthain series, but our budgets have been cut, which is becoming a boring refrain everywhere isn't it? Are those new glasses? They look good on you.”
“Oh thanks. The heavy frames are back in style. I had a similar pair when I first started wearing glasses back in grade three. Those frames were found in a glove compartment of my Aunt's car and she gave them to my Mother for me.”
“Found in a glove compartment?”
“Yes, that was the story. God knows. Cheap as in free. Anyway, my brothers thought they looked like ones people wore in Russia. It was the cold war era.” He thought of that cartoon with Rocky and Bullwinkle and the side characters of Boris and Natasha, Russian stereotypes, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman, spectacle wearing time travellers. His brothers had mimicked their voices quite well. Dark-rimmed glasses still retained a residue of that odd mash-up in his mind.
“I was hoping to look like Michael Caine in his Harry Palmer movies. Some men buy red sports cars, I buy dark glass frames. Sometimes I think I look more like Buddy Holly though, a bit on the whimsical side.”
“Not at all, they look really good on you.” Looking at him she found it hard to believe he was 53, he looked so much younger, though the grey hairs were more evident with proximity.
“And how is the rope business?” she asked.
“Can I interest you in a clothes-line, a rope-ladder or perhaps our tug-of-war model? So, so. Getting by. Which brings me to the reason for my visit. I was going through the old cash books of the family business, and I came across an old Latin text bound in at the back, upside down and missing the prelims. From the paper and print, it is very old. Possibly 1600. I found half of a watermark which I shall try to find out more about. With my rudimentary Latin, I think it is a religious text. I was hoping I could leave it with you and you could discover its true nature.”
As he fumbled with the laptop bag, she thought that Amelia had done well meeting Duncan. He had his feet on the ground. And they would be alright, for she thought her Uncle must be very wealthy. When she was a student with Amelia attending Marianopolis CEGEP, they occasionally visited his house, and she had been impressed.
He pulled the bound volume half out of the bag.
"I hope you can help with this one.  The leather is deteriorating so mind your clothes.  I'll put this back in the bag for now. Keep the bag too, I don't need it at the moment." He placed the bag on the pew beside her. "Thanks again. If you're looking for a book, any book, I'll get it for you as a present.”
“No problem. So, any book eh? Perhaps a Gutenberg Bible, or two?”
“If I can find one, it's yours,” he said touching her left arm. “I better let you go. It was great to see you again. And thanks for doing this for me.”
“Ah, no problem. It will give me something to do in the quiet moments,” she said with an ironic smile. “Say hi to Amelia.”
“I will, I will.” And with that he left the chapel and quickly laced his shoes, quietly coveting the desert boots which were back in style. He had had many a pair in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps he should shop for some. They would be a change from his brown leather Sperrys. Give Amelia a surprise.

He made his way across campus to the main library thinking that this invasive fog was beginning to infiltrate his consciousness. He wouldn't be surprised if he saw whirling dervishes spinning about on the soccer field, or a schooner's sails emerge between the trees.

Putting his hand in his jacket pocket he discovered Mélisande's apple core in its damp shroud. Seeing one of the many campus squirrels standing in the mist, he began to call to it in a high pitched tutting sound. Remnant apple in hand, he tried to entice it. It jumped onto to a cement plinth which resembled a water-fountain and lifted his front paws up in the air sniffing and peering warily at Duncan. He didn't understand the language but he comprehended the human gesture. Getting quite close, Duncan held the core at arms-length and gave a little toss, the core landed beside the squirrel. Inquisitively, he smelled it, picked it up and nibbled at it briefly. Then holding it pensively, looking at Duncan as if for a reaction, tossed it to the grass below. Duncan rolled his eyes. Everyone's a critic.


Jerome, standing in front of the five-arched central window of the library, was flipping through Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Mélisande, seeing him from the desk, wondered what atmospheric disturbance was causing men to descend upon her bookish quietude. First it was P. K.'s volume of poetry, then Duncan, and now Jerome. Approaching him, she noticed how the red rosette stained glass device inset in one of the windows seemed to hover above his head due to the strange light from outside. She also noted he had a small hole in the heel of his left sock.
“Jerome?” she whispered to his back.
He closed the book, and leaned towards her ear and softly said, “Could we talk?”
She led him out of the library and across the hall to the chapel. She sat him down where Duncan had sat and asked him what was wrong.
“I wondered if you had heard any news of Thérèse?”
“No, I'm sorry. But you know Thérèse. She is always breaking away. She'll be back. Have you talked to her Mother?”
“Yes, she advised me that her daughter was fine, and just needed to be on her own for awhile. Not to concern myself, not to worry myself.”
“Well, that is reasurring.”
“I received a book of P. K.'s the other day. Poetry.”
“Yes, me too.” She didn't know what to say.
“What's with those two?” he said. “Here we are, stranded in this fog, and they are . . .” He couldn't finish his sentence.
“Why don't we have dinner. We can talk more then. I finish at five.” She got up. “It will do us both good to talk.”
After he laced up his shoes, she gave him a brief hug before entering the library.
Jerome descended the stairs thinking she smelled of apples. What was that quote, he thought. 'Comfort me with apples.'

photograph and text © ralph patrick mackay

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixteen

But for the momentary interest in the handsome Airedale terrier looking out from the passenger window of a small white sedan, Jerome's drive home was much like a stylus in a groove, his mind preoccupied with Thérèse, this new mysterious commission, and the invitation to Trieste by P. K. Loveridge. Habit had taken him home. All he could really remember was the face of the Airedale.

Using the electronic garage door opener, he entered the dark cavern that would safely sequester his ageing deux-chevaux for the winter months. Stepping on fog spiced with exhaust fumes, he made his way out, pressing the button to close the door. No mail in the box. It was an odd building. Standing alone, a three story thin building at the back of a property, with access along a leafy back alley. It had initially begun life as a substantial brick car garage, but the present owners had developed it into a modest home, with living quarters on two added upper floors, the top-most of which Jerome used as his art studio, rich in natural light coming from large windows and skylights.

The neighbour's little white dog yapped in their yard as he climbed the exterior stairs to the second floor. His answering machine was blinking its red beacon of hope, but Jerome only found a recorded message for a contest to win a cruise. Up to his studio, he went over to a work table and chose a cassette to play. He truly loved the sound of a cassette tape in its plastic box when handled. And their size, you could flip them over in one hand in a continuous pattern like a meditation device, a pleasing plastic percussion instrument. He was in the mood for Etienne Daho and put his Paris Ailleurs in the stereo, then walked over to the unfinished painting on the easel as the singer broke into Un homme a la mer.

He could paint himself in the bottom right of the painting, kneeling down to pet an Airedale who looked out at the viewer. And Jonathan Landgrave, he could use his face and his long camel hair coat for one of the figures in the distance. That would almost finish the painting. He could do it today, but the need to do a little research on the Bronzino painting disrupted that calmness he required to do his best work. Suddenly feeling fatigued, having slept poorly the night before, he went over to the chaise-lounge and lay down. The sharp edge of the binding of P. K. Loveridge's collection of poetry, Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra, jabbed at his ribs. He withdrew it and opened the volume. Turning the first pages, he came to the dedication page and read:

To Mélisande

I know no joy wherein thou hast not part,
My speeding wind, my anchor, and my goal.
-Giordano Bruno.

What an obscure reference he thought. He turned the page and read the first poem entitled Prologue:

While tourists come and go below the antique light,
Above the horse's hoof, aloof the spiders spin
Twin galaxies of thread. They spread with octave might,
A danse macabre, a rondo, lento with each step
The lamp their mystic moon, and soon their school of night.

In morning haze, the maze of silk reveals its prey
Like sailors in the shrouds, or clouds in distant space.
Entanglements of string that linger with the day.
Mute requiems in lace. To trace all time in warp
And weft, has left me on the cobblestones astray.

The street my labyrinth path, my breath an open gate,
With lifeline, headline, heart, I'll start; I'll chalk the slate.

Jerome closed the volume and rested it on his chest. Mélisande. He wondered if she would take old Loveridge back. Perhaps this volume was his attempt to curry her forbearance. Trieste. What was he doing over there anyway? Breathing the second-hand smoke of Svevo, tripping on uneven paving stones like Joyce, or scaring horses with his eyes like Richard Burton?

He closed his, and soon fell into a light sleep.

He could see Thérèse and Mélisande at a table in the crowded night club or restaurant, but he was blocked from getting to them and forced up a spiral staircase by faceless jostlers. Then, finding himself outside at the entrance, he began walking away. A sleek convertible drove by, Loveridge and Landgrave sitting side by side, but they didn't see or notice him. There were people everywhere, as if a street party had broken out. He began to run after the car and soon found himself down by the old port, a tall ship at anchor. He was running towards it along a narrow path and saw another man running towards him. Just before he could recognize the man, he awoke, the book slipping off his chest to the floor, bumping the soft front edges of the volume.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes, wiped his lips and sighed loudly. Mélisande. He could go see her at the Religious Studies library where she worked and talk to her. Maybe she has heard from Thérèse. Then he could go over to the main library to do some Bronzino research.

He changed into more comfortable jeans, and put on his soft desert boots. The walk would do him good he hoped.

“Split Enz.”
“Sorry?” Julie said, smoothing her hair with that most classic of hand gestures, thinking it odd that her boss would be commenting on the state of her hair.
“That song you're humming. It's by the group Split Enz. I haven't heard that one in ages.”
“Oh. I heard it on the radio coming to work. My boyfriend changed the radio station and that song came on. I can't get it out my head. One of those ear-worms.” And then she sang the refrain from Six Months in a Leaky Boat followed by la de da de daaaaaaaa de da de da da de da da.
“My wife says that if you hum the tune of Spider Man you can get rid of any earworm.”
“I don't know that one.”
Duncan realized once again he was old.
“I have to go out to do some errands this morning. I know you can hold the fort. There are no deliveries or pick-ups today, so if you want to lock the front door, and put the sign up for people to ring if they want to enter, please do. I'll be back by one o'clock before you go. By the way, how is your other job going?”
“Good, good. The salon is doing well.”
“Good, good,” he said, feeling like an idiot repeating her words. “Right then, see you later,” and with those parting words he was out in the fog with the 1881 cash book in a laptop bag over his arm. Julie was a smart young women. He was glad he could offer her the four hours each morning from nine to one before her shift at the salon from two to six. She worked hard and her boyfriend was studying engineering so they would be alright in the end he felt. In the end. He sighed as he walked along in the fog in the direction of up town. It would be a bit of a walk, and he wondered if he would have luck in catching a bus. Amelia had the car today so he was au pied.

Mélisande Bramante would be able to help him.  The Religious Studies library where Mélisande worked was such a warm and generally inviting place. Perhaps the quietest library on campus. A favourite spot of his to study when he was at the University.

She was fluent in Latin and would be able to help him with the text he found at the back of the cash book. Missing a title page and other preliminary pages, he hadn't been able to make much of the text, other than to think it touched on religious themes and that it was very old. Had he gone to that private school when he was eight, he might well have studied Latin. He tried not to bring up the fact with Amelia for she had tired of hearing how he had been chosen and had passed the admittance test like his best friend David, but his parents, finding that the yearly fee was $1,000, had to tell him it was something they could not possibly manage. Such a sum in 1966 was insurmountable to them. His parents had only finished high school and higher education and its culture was unknown to them. A stay-at-home Mom raising three sons and a Father struggling to keep a family business running was already a test of their perseverance skills. And how would his other brothers feel if he went to Lower Canada College while they remained in the public system? Guilt. Pride. He could see now it had been a roadblock that had stirred up pride, that most blinding of sins. Frustrated pride had steered many of his movements from that moment on. It was only with many years of looking back, could he see the circuitous path, with all its choices and decisions, punctuated by the 'if onlys' and 'what ifs.'

Seeing a bus waiting at the corner, he ran and managed to just get on before it heaved into the street sending Duncan grasping for a hand-hold. Fumbling for change, he managed to produce the required coinage and find a place to stand near the back. It was as if the bus was in a vapour tunnel. The windows were quite fogged with humidity. He looked down. The woman in front of him was using an Kobo eBook reader. Duncan could see it provided secrecy and anonymity. One could be reading the latest Daniel Steele or the Hohenstaufen Inheritance or whatever those titles of Robert Ludlum books were, and no one would know. And to read with such ease. And to be able to download out of print books printed before 1923, books he had pined for when in his early youth they had been so far from available, was extraordinary to him. Such a wealth of information available to kids these days. He was sure there must be some youngsters out there taking advantage. They should be geniuses by the age of ten. Surely.

The bus came to an abrupt stop sending Duncan swinging round bumping shoulders with a large bearded man who merely glared as Duncan said he was sorry. No wonder people take their cars he thought. He followed the flow, inching toward the back door like automatons, and out into the foggy but welcome open air. He realized he was two blocks short of his destination. Two blocks short of a destination. That was a good one he thought. He should write that one down. 'That guy's two blocks short of a destination, if you know what I mean.' He would have to walk the remainder, but he was fine with that. The walk, he hoped, would do him good.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, December 07, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Fifteen

Feeling that everyone else must equally be late due to the dense morning fog, it was with reassuring firmness that Amelia Strand pressed her foot upon the brake pedal as she waited at a red light, her green dash indicator blinking left. George III, beside her, seemingly oblivious to the unusual weather, was enjoying the outing—at least she thought so. On the car radio, the announcer discussed the overtures and symphonies of William Boyce as a small European car drew along Amelia's passenger side. The driver turned to look at George III who looked back at him, each cocking their heads with interest. The driver raised his eyebrows. George III shifted in his seat and opened his mouth to produce a small guttural noise of self-consciousness. The light turned green and Amelia, reaching out to pet him, noticed the small car drive away into the fog, and, with a swift intake of breath, she realized it could have been the painter they had been talking about, the boy friend of Thérèse LaFlamme. How many of those little cars could possibly roam the streets of Montreal?

A taxi driver behind her pressed his horn. In her rear view mirror she could see an arm raised in admonishment, so she took her corner and drove on, forgoing any improvisational sleuthing. Coming to another red light, she felt it was turning into one of those frustrating days. Duncan had left early and she had overslept. She had wanted to look over her translation work for the small insurance company that was due this week but that would have to wait. Then, as she stood before the toaster like a supplicant before an oracle, plate, knife and jam at the ready, she came to realize she had forgotten to put the raisin bread in. Will my toast burn? No, your toast will not burn. Then her scarf and shoes had proved elusive. And of course the fog. Yes, she thought, it might be one of those days, one of those days to be extra vigilant.

“And we will now hear William Boyce's Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, based on the overture to the New Year's Ode, Hail, hail, auspicious day, followed by C. P. E. Bach's Cello Concerto in A major.

Amelia envisioned a baroque orchestra on a float in front of her, sawing away, dispersing the fog with their vigorous movements, leading her on towards the light of an auspicious day—and a parking space.

“Trying to be mindful is difficult when surrounded by mindlessness,” Amelia said, sitting down at the kitchen table. “But I did manage to drop George III off for his check-up, tests and shots and get back here without incident. The fog is as thick as my mind on a Friday afternoon.”
“I'm glad you made it back safely my dear,” Mary said. “Mr. Roquebrune almost had an accident coming here this morning. He is meeting with your uncle in his office at the moment. I've brewed a large pot of tea and the scones should be ready soon.”
“That sounds lovely. I thought I recognized Mr. Roquebrune's car. How is Uncle Edward?”
“Well, I found him asleep in his chair last evening. A book on his lap. One of his old journals. But he was fine. I helped him up the stairs to bed and he mumbled a few words. When I asked him what he said, he replied, 'Milton, my dear Mary, Milton,' and he repeated the lines out loud. Something along the lines of 'tomorrow to fresh pastures new and. . .' no, that wasn't it, it was ' tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.' Well, one or the other. I must say it brought a tear to my eye.”
Amelia got up and hugged Mary. “We're so lucky to have you looking after him. We're all very fortunate.”

Amelia felt that Mary, a widow in her late 60s, was inching her way towards retirement. She owned a condo in Florida but, attached as she was to her position, and to Uncle Edward, she only made infrequent short winter visits.

She helped Mary with the scones and  the tea.
“Is it one of Mr. Roquebrune's regular visits?”
“Yes, I believe so. It was on the calendar.”

Amelia liked Mr. Roquebrune. Even when she was a rambunctious youth, he had always talked to her as if she were an intelligent adult. His soft spoken cordial nature, quiet movements, and kindly eyes belied the stereotype of a lawyer. He was certainly not young, but he still retained an upright and elegant bearing. The firm he worked for, Wormwood & Verdigris, was a very old law firm. Mr. Roquebrune had been with the firm for many years, as had his father before him. Amelia remembered the first time she accompanied her Uncle Edward to the firm's offices, a large nineteenth century Jacobean revival greystone which she had thought ideally suited the name on the brass plate. The wood panelling, ornate wood staircase, mullioned windows and the rich furnishings within, paintings, statuary, and carpets, had been an impressive setting for grey-haired men in dark suits glimpsed in the shadows. Whenever she happened to drive past the building, she always imagined Mr. Wormwood and Mr. Verdigris at the windows, tea cups and saucers in their hands, ghostly presences looking out on a changing world.

“I almost forgot,” Mary said, “while you were off delivering George, your Uncle was on the phone with an old acquaintance from England, a Mr. Gough. Apparently he is in Montreal and is coming to visit this afternoon, and will be staying for supper.”
“I guess the casual meal of spaghetti squash I was thinking of is out.”
“Mr. Seymour suggested a meal. One that he shared with Mr. Gough many years ago, grilled herrings and mustard sauce. A meal to stir up memories I suppose. I had to phone around to find the herring.”
“Herrings? Do you think he would still like us to stay for supper?”
“Oh, yes, he told me quite definitely he wanted both of you present. Don't worry, we'll have the squash and let the men have their fish.” Mary looked out the kitchen window and said, “Mr. Gough certainly brought English weather with him.”

Sipping their tea while the scones cooled on a plate, they heard the front door close and then footsteps coming down the hallway.
“I followed the delicious aroma of baked goods, ah Amelia, good to see you. I hope George was behaving?”
Amelia got up and gave her Uncle a hug and a kiss, and said, “He was no problem, as usual. I think he enjoyed getting out in the fog.”
“Yes, it does seem quite adamant about settling in,” he said joining them at the table. “Has Mary told you of my imposing an old friend on our casual dinner tonight?”
“Yes, we all look forward to meeting him.”
“Noel, his name is Noel Welwyn Gough, came to Montreal last Thursday to visit his daughter who has been working here in finance for a few years. She is soon to be transferred to Paris, so Noel thought he would make a short visit.”
“How old is Noel?”
“Oh, dear, a youngster compared to me. I believe he is 72. He was a patient of mine when I practiced in London. An unusual case. I was in my early 40s and he was in his early 20s. When he heard I was leaving to teach in Canada, he was a bit distraught, so I invited him to dinner at Pratt's. Such a peculiar little club. It was, and still is I believe, in the cellar. Rather dark. It had a very small dining room and the cloak room was a billiards table. A lot of stuffed birds under glass, perhaps much like ourselves at the time.  But it was a warm and convivial place.”
“Has he been to Montreal before?” Amelia asked.
“Oh yes, he did come to visit with his wife in the 1980s. I remember we lunched at the old-fashioned art-deco restaurant on the ninth floor of Eaton's department store. It was a favourite of Lavinia's for lunch. It was full of odd characters. Quite a mix of people, business types and old fogies like myself. Mid-afternoons were often busy with elderly women in heavy make-up, perfume and fur stoles re-living the 1950s. We had a favourite waiter there, what was his name. . . Fred, I think. God knows what happened to them all. The restaurant has been closed for so many years now. I imagine it has quite deteriorated.”
“Duncan and I lunched there a few times in the early 90s before it closed. On one occasion, we were sitting on the balcony area overlooking the tables below, and Duncan dropped his napkin onto an older man's head.”
"Oh, ho, well, better on his head than in his soup! There will be no such concern tonight, as long as Duncan can restrain himself. Mary, we must watch Duncan's wine consumption."

Their laughter startled a rather sad looking stray cat who was exploring the fringes of the back door porch. After silence resumed, he was brave enough to spray his presence before disappearing into the shrubbery.

text and photo © ralph patrick mackay

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Fourteen

Extinction events. Don't you feel we're on the cusp of one?
Could be but I don't think we'll be around for the party.
Pas pire. C'est un Android.
Je pense à l'achat d'une tablette.
Honestly, I am so tired of struggling with them. The glass ceiling is becoming thicker and thicker.
Have you tried talking to the head of Personnel?

Jerome van Starke tried not to listen to the voices of those around him as he painted, with intention and finesse, a dark cave into the forbidding landscape of his espresso. Quietly, he placed the small spoon on the saucer and attempted halfheartedly to look out the windows of the Café Hermeticum, the view of the street and the passing foot sloggers was obscured by the humidity of warm bodies and their exhalations. But there was not much to see anyway, the fog having extended its veiled visitation. He crossed his legs at the side of his table and casually bounced his finely aged expensive leather boot up and down. An old habit. He took a sip of the dark bitter liquid and, glancing around him, noticed that the other customers were unfamiliar. A younger crowd was now frequenting the café. There was a time when he would overhear conversations about the latest Bertrand Blier film, or a discussion of Réjean Ducharme and the music of Renaud, but change was inevitable. Perhaps he too was involved in an extinction event. Our very lives, he thought, are extinction events.

Cusp. He liked that word. Cusp.

Of course, it was a Monday morning. Conversations were bound to be prosaic. It wasn't a Friday evening, sultry jazz dripping from the speakers.

A glass ceiling. That would be a challenge to paint. An image came to him of men and women walking on a glass floor, mirrored to reflect themselves while below, women and men looked up, seeing only the soles of the shoes walking above them. He tried to think of an old painting that would be adaptable to that image. Lost in this thought, Jerome didn't notice the dark outlines of three men in front of the café window. Two of them remained outside in a shadow play of cigarette rituals while the third made his way to the door. The expensive camel hair coat reaching to the man's knees was the first item that caught Jerome's attention, followed by the face. It was a mature handsome face that would not have been out of place in a magazine featuring models wearing expensive European suits and jackets. He was a customer visually out of place amongst the jeans, tattoos, piercings, and indie Icelandic music coming from the speakers. He watched him approach the counter and order an espresso, his reflection in the large oval mirror catching the mirrored wall behind Jerome creating a cascading effect. Jerome liked to sit in his spot to catch just such moments. The man carried his espresso over to Jerome's table and placed his cup down. He then took off his coat and draped it over the empty third seat. Sitting down with a sigh, he crossed his dark suited legs and looked towards the opaque light from the window. Half turning towards Jerome, he said, “English weather,” and then busied himself in stirring his espresso before tapping the spoon gently on the edge of the cup, a practice and sound that reminded Jerome of his Father. “At least it adds character to an otherwise, mundane world.” He lifted his cup and said, “Shall we toast the day?” Jerome, feeling like a vulnerable piece in a chess game, hesitatingly lifted his cup. They drank in unison.

After a pause, the man drew out a thin portfolio wallet from an inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a business card which he laid before Jerome. “My name is Landgrave, Jonathan Landgrave. I've been asked to make a request on behalf of my client. He would like you to paint his wife's portrait. He has heard of your reputation and knows of your great skill in reproducing older styles of painting.” Mr. Landgrave finished his espresso with a flourish. “The renumeration will be considerable.” He reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a folded piece of paper, and laid it before Jerome. “This is the initial payment to cover your costs. A minor cheque for supplies. He would like you to start tomorrow. My associates,” he gestured to the window, “will pick you up and carry anything you require. There is an excellent room for the sitting with the requisite light.”

Jerome looked at the cheque, images from Fragonard and Nattier flitting through his thoughts.
“Who is your client?”
Mr. Landgrave rose and proceeded to put on his coat. “That will be, I am afraid, undisclosed. He would like a degree of anonymity. I am his appointed agent.”
Jerome opened the folded cheque to see it was made out to him for $2,000, to be drawn on the account of Landgrave and Landgrave, Notaries.
“I shall leave you to think upon the offer. They will pick you up tomorrow morning at 10:30. Oh, the subject or painting to be reproduced is on the back of my business card. We do hope you will accept the proposition. My client admires your skill very much.”

Jerome was hindered in his reply by the very nature of Landgrave's direct and efficient approach. He wasn't used to such abrupt decisive interactions. The notary had already joined his associates and moved off into the fog before Jerome could think of a response. He turned over the business card and read: 'the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi by Agnolo Bronzino.' He was intrigued and tempted. This could cover his Triestine vacation. December, January and February in Italy would be a change. Not that much warmer but he could take trips to Florence and Rome and perhaps a diversion to Capri.

Jerome closed his eyes and laid his head back against the cold mirror and tried to visualize the Bronzino portrait. Much satin, velvet, and jewelry darkly framed. It would be a challenge. A fairly straight forward portrait though. No ponderous mythological or religious connotations. He could care less about the meaning of old paintings, he merely enjoyed using their settings. It was all visual to him. The art historians and critics could write their pages and pages of exegesis but it was, for him, form, colour, structure and, the faces. 

His curiosity and his financial self-interest began to dissolve his inertia like a sugar cube in coffee. He could go tomorrow and if he didn't feel at ease, he could back out. He hadn't signed any contract.

He withdrew a small brown notebook from his leather jacket and with his pencil he made notes

Cusp, elaborate.
Glass ceiling / floor.
Bronzino – supplies, size of orig. canvas, new brushes, etc.,
Any perceptive craquelure? Desired replication?
Look up Landgrave and Landgrave.

Then he sketched Jonathan Landgrave's face from memory. A caricature. He wondered if there was fog in the desert. Wondered if his coat was genuine camel hair. Wondered if camel hairs would make good paint brushes.

He walked to the window wrapping his scarf around his neck, and with three fingers, he flourished a thick line at eye level and looked out. The softness in the atmosphere muted the sharp-edged greyness of the fall, a foreground impressionism of wet pavements, bricks and dessicated leaves. Trieste, it could very well be Trieste in a morning fog.

© ralph patrick mackay

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Thirteen

“In the beginning, there was dust,” Duncan intoned, reading the first line of A Trifling Monograph on the Subject of Library Dust, an attractive little book that had been collecting that very subject on his shelves. He brought it over to his desk and hesitated before the two stacks of books on either side of his computer, the two Martello towers that represented his quandary over what to read and what to sell. He placed it on the left tower, on top of a dusty copy of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, the tower of books to be read. He picked up his cup of tea and walked over to the window.

A foggy Monday morning. It was still foggy. Perhaps Uncle Edward was looking out his windows at a nether sky beneath him, clouds of fog truncating skyscrapers, fingers of fog writing indecipherable messages on brick and glass, blankets of fog hiding wet dark streets leaving the bare grasping upper branches of the tallest trees to form a landscape like a haunted grave yard. In his 53 years he couldn't remember so many foggy days.Was it climate change he wondered. He had hardly been able to see his finger tips at arms length when he had crossed St. Antoine street twenty minutes ago, and, being startled by a bicycle bell—that classic old-fashioned bell he remembered having on his tricycle as a child—he had, for a fraction of a moment, hesitated, not knowing whether to move back or forward. 'He who hesitates is lost', he heard his father say, one adage of many his late father had often dryly pronounced. If it hadn't been for the bicycle bell he might have been dust himself. What had the bicyclist been thinking? His elbow had clipped Duncan and spun him round, and he had heard a muffled curse as he caught sight of the phantom bicycle, enveloped in its own wake turbulence, disappear into the brumous atmosphere. Rubbing his arm, he had continued on his way only to discover, after a few minutes, that he had been walking in the wrong direction. It would be odd, he had thought, if the fog lifted to disclose a completely different reality, an alternative world. One of the future or one of the past, Blade Runner or Bleak House.

It had been fortunate he decided against bringing Hugh to work that day. On Mondays, Duncan liked to arrive early with Hugh at Strand Cordage Ltd. in order to grasp the week by the lapels like Sam Spade dealing with an unruly crook. The time between 7 and 9 were the hours he felt he had a modicum of control over the business week. It was like the calm moments before getting on a roller coaster, the ups, downs and curves inevitably awaiting. He felt there were to be many curves on the horizon.

He sipped his tea and looked out at the vapourous miasma on the other side of his windows, and pondered over what he was going to do with the two businesses he was juggling. Having inherited Strand Cordage after his Father died in 1991, he had decided to move most of the 10,000 books of his Lafcadio & Co. bookshop into the large unused store room on the second floor of the family business, the store room where, as a child, he and his brothers would play among the coils, flats, bales and heady scents of rough and soft fibres imported from such exotic places as the Philippines, Russia, New Zealand, Mauritius, Ireland, Yucatan, Bengal, Belgium and Holland, with strange names like Manila Hemp, Sisal Hemp, Palma Istle, Flax and Jute. They would play pirates and pretend they were aboard ship. There was a climbing rope attached to the ceiling and they would swing on that like dashing swashbucklers, swinging their swords, wooden yard sticks with the business name printed on them. The pine floors creaking, the yard sticks slapping, he could almost hear the sounds. There had been two hammocks his father had fastened near the front windows, and Duncan would often lie there, one leg dangling over the cotton edge, reading an array of adventure books from his Grandfather's collection at the back of the office below, Henty, Marrayat, Ballantyne, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, intermixed with his own gunslinger comic books and the complete Hardy Boys series. He had been a keen reader of western comic books, and yet they were long gone: The Cowboy Kid, Kid Colt, The Apache Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Rawhide Kid. The brothers had shared them till they must have fallen apart. He had not been one for collecting, only reading mattered at the time. He felt that those old comic books had vanished much like the demand for what he had to offer.

Duncan stared at the lustrous fog and thought once more of the papers he had found in his Father's files, an expansion project planned for the early 1970s. A plan to become a manufacturer of rope products, mountaineering and search and rescue ropes, circus and athletic ropes, and specialized marine and aviation ropes. Losing his wife in 1970 had taken the wind out of his Father's sails. The projected expansion had been filed away and never mentioned. Adrift, the business had managed to stay afloat, but only just. The competition overtook Strand Cordage with the slightest of momentum.

He turned his back on the recalcitrant morning. Sometimes he thought he had ruined Amelia's life. If it hadn't been for a dumb waiter in need of repair, they would never have met, and she might have married an engineer or a lawyer, someone who could have easily financed her desires, fulfilled her wishes.

If he could only sell the family business and some of his book stock, he could possibly raise enough to enable Amelia to take that post-graduate course in England she had talked about so often. They could sell up and move. Live in England for a year or so. He closed his eyes thinking he should have sold them both back in 1991. The Internet had been an exciting new prospect for bookselling, and those first ten years were good, but the ebook revolution had dawned with bright force. Becalmed in an era of digital tailwinds, his book business had faltered. More Blade Runner than Bleak House.


He sat at his desk and pushed the computer back. Out of a large deep drawer, he pulled out an old ledger from 1881, the red leather spine drawing lines and shedding small musty fragments on his pale green blotter. It was a somewhat unusual ledger for it had finely marbled endpapers.  He had been going through the company's files, interested in the day to day operations. His forebears had been a source for many retailers of the day, the grocers, the dry goods stores, mattress manufacturers, shoe companies, ship builders, fish mongers, spice factors, coffee roasters, stationers, plumbers, printers, newspapers, laundries, florists, flour mills, butchers, glove makers, furniture manufacturers, fruit merchants, awning, tent and carpet manufacturers, and many, many others. Rope, twine, and string were products of necessity.

The last retailer whom Duncan could remember wrapping a package with string was Stuart Grange. An old world ritual. Stuart would first wrap the books in brown Kraft paper and then tie them up, neat packages that felt special when you walked out onto the street with them under your arm. It was as if you had been browsing in a bookshop in the 1880s and emerged to find a bright loud world a century older where plastic bags were ubiquitous. Grange Stuart Books had been a veritable time machine. He missed Stuart and his old shop. When he and Amelia would eat at the Commensale restaurant, he would often look out the window and re-imagine the buildings that had been demolished, buildings that housed an F. W. Woolworth store and Stuart Grange's bookshop among many others. Or had it been a Kresge's store? The buildings had been taken down long ago in order to expand the street and construct a new shopping complex and business tower. Duncan remembered the day he came across Stuart Grange sitting on a street bench facing the new complex and they had sat there reminiscing about the old shop, the old buildings, Stuart pointing with his cane towards the spot where his shop used to be on the upper floors, pointing to open air. They had both agreed that though physically the buildings had vanished like a morning fog, there was still a remnant manifestation that drew them to the spot like a vortex exerting its pull. A black hole of the past. They had sat there seeing themselves moving about in the past, walking on air, phantom walls and books surrounding them. Stuart wrapping a package of books with twine while modern day Montrealers walked beneath his imagined self oblivious to their past.

Duncan also missed his one-eyed cat. An abstraction of ashes in an urn remained. A picture of his cat, he realized now, would have been a better memento mori. The weighty urn had become exceedingly non-representative. It was placed on the shelf to his right where books on the Far East were shelved. Lafcadio was presently propping up The Story of the Geisha Girl by T. Fujimoto, and Japan by Walter Dickson both rather frayed and faded with age, behind which lay many works of fiction, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Dazai, and more modern practitioners like Murakami. Lafcadio used to enjoy snoozing on the shelves.

Duncan came to the end of the ledger for 1881 and yet there was a facing page with an ink stain in the shape of Sri Lanka, the Serendip of old, like a dark tear drop of an ink God. The paper seemed to be older and of a completely different type. He lifted the volume and looked through the page and could see an edge of an old watermark. Turning the page over he came to a blank page, and he continued to turn a few more pages until he found a half page of printed text, upside down. He fanned the pages and realized the last section of the ledger was made up of old paper signatures bound-in upside down. Turning the book over he opened it from the wrong end and came to a half-title page with a finely written inscription in purple ink.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, November 16, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twelve

To J. van Starke
c/o Pascal Tessier
Galerie d'Art Crépescule
Montréal, Québec

Bergen, Norway.
October 21.

Dear Jerome,

I know you have been used to my absences in the past, weeks, and sometimes months, so my departure and my note, I felt, would not be unusual. I had hoped you had read between the lines. Why did I leave so suddenly? Forgive me. My apologies for any emotional trauma. I waited three months to contact you hoping this would help counter the momentum, and provide us both with a safe distance from the obscure events that were aroused by my investigative work. All I will say at this moment, is that I had been researching a story and was beginning to receive flak. A few shots across the bow as my Father used to say. Samples of threats that were spreading outwards, to friends, associates and family; efforts at cutting away my connections to those who support me in any way.  I have stored most of my few belongings at my Mother's house in Varennes. I have addressed this letter to your friend at the gallery to cover its tracks. I know this sounds bizarre, it is Canada not Russia, but I quickly felt endangered and did not want it to spread to those I love. My lawyer in Montreal is looking into the grim details while I am away.

But enough of this, for now. 

I spent two months in Edinburgh staying with my friend Judith. A wonderful place to live, but the cost of living there is very high. I wrote a few occasional pieces for arts magazines using my father's surname, Sinclair, Tess Sinclair. It is still my official surname. I am fortunate in having the two names to use as I wish. What is that classical reference I am looking for, Janus faced? I can't remember if it would be appropriate but there it is. While in Edinburgh, I met a woman from Bergen, Martine, and she invited me to visit. So, here I am, living in uncertainty. In limbo. She is a lawyer and has a very nice house with a number of rooms which I rent for very little. I even feel she may be keeping the money to reimburse me somehow. I take care of the shopping and help keep the place tidy, do some cooking. Just like my old roommate years. My savings have been seeing me through.

I was up early this morning and out for a walk, the showers of yesterday gave way to a light blue sky with an azure promise. The dark puddles on the pavements reflected images of the few passing clouds, clouds that reminded me of the ones in some of your paintings.

The northern light here is, at times, seemingly filled with vestigial reflections. A special light. I sometimes see ourselves in the shadows of this city, as if we have been here long ago, penumbral presences on the narrow cobblestone streets, turning corners, looking back, laughing.

I have been taking pictures. Autumn surrounds the city like a mosaic cloth, a rich complement to the colourfully painted wooden houses. The mountain as a backdrop reminds me of Montreal. There is graffiti here as well. Montreal graffiti is so commonplace now, and I know you have your opinions on graffiti, but what we have gotten used to in Montreal as expressions of a youthful Zeitgeist, is here more shocking. The buildings with their wood-clad siding of soft blues, yellows, greens and reds are, to my fresh eyes, exquisite, a pastel landscape with red-tiled roofs, like a picturesque fishing village that retains a miniature toy-like feel. I still find the graffiti on these buildings disturbing, but I know that some of the younger locals must have a different perception of their own city.

It is beautiful though. I can see us living here.

This morning I walked down by the wharf, the Bryggen, where the old Hanseatic fishing buildings face the water and the tall masted Statsraad Lehmkuhl, with its webs of attractive rigging lies at anchor. The hordes of tourists have diminished and to wander about in the early morning, the shop keepers busy with their preparations for the day, the pedestrians and cyclists on their way to work, makes me feel like a local, breathing local air. This harbour city exudes its watery essence much more than Montreal which seems to have turned its back on the water as it developed,  its barricade of high rise buildings blocking out the view. Bergen is so much smaller that it still retains its direct connection to the port.

The old Hanseatic buildings, their multicolour exteriors and their peak roofs reminded me of a visit to Port-Menier with my parents when I was small. My Father had business in Havre St-Pierre, and he decided to combine the trip with a short family vacation. I remember a picture in Havre St-Pierre as we waited for the Ferry to take us across to Ile Anticosti, my Mother standing beside me, her hand behind my back as I sat on an enormous dock horn or cleat they tie ships to, my little foot resting on the thick coiled rope. Such innocence and momentary pleasures we have in youth. These very old buildings on the Bryggen stirred up a memory of a street in Port-Menier, one facing the water with a row of colourful homes, old fisherman's houses, running obliquely off to the south west, a natural perspective of diminishing colour. Aren't we all just a storehouse of memories waiting to be aroused? That visit included feeding the white-tail deer that roamed the streets of the small port town. I wonder if they still wander freely. Probably. It is safer in the town nibbling people's lawns, than in the scrub forest eating blueberries during hunting season. Very human of them.

You probably know the story of Ile Anticosti. I remember reading about Henri Menier when I was in my young teens. I was fascinated. A man from France who made a fortune by making chocolate buys an enormous private island in Quebec, builds a huge Scandinavian-style mansion, introduces white-tail deer, and tries to develop local industry; it had many elements that led to some of my early romance writings while in my teens. Yes, a romantic recluse in his mansion in the woods, white-tail deer roaming about freely, a heroine and, yes, chocolate. Unfortunately, the mansion was purposely burnt down in 1954. What a loss. Would have made a wonderful Inn for tourists. Reminds me of the loss of many of Montreal's old mansions during the 1970s. A twenty floor high rise apartment makes for more tax revenue than a deteriorating mansion... I am sorry, here I am writing you a letter and I have gone off on a journalistic rant about the architectural history of Montreal. My apologies.

Bergen is indeed lovely. So much to tell, but I want to get this in the mail this afternoon. I will write again soon. Write to me at Martine's business address but do not put my name on the envelope and do not put your name and address as a return either. Just draw Mercury's helmet in the return area. Martine will know it is for me.

I hope you are finding inspiration for your paintings. I have been wondering what you have been working on. My lawyer has kept his eye on you from a distance, providing me with assurances that you are alive and well. Since he owns that odd little building you live in, I imagine Maurice is, unknowingly, his source of information.

As I write this, the red ink drying before my eyes, I worry over its passage to you. It feels as fragile as a paper boat. The time between the last touch of my fountain pen on the envelope and the moment your hands touch it, will be a test of fate. May the water between us be accepting.

All my love and seeking your forgiveness,

End of Chapter One

© ralph patrick mackay