Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty-Eight

“Well,” Yves Boisclair announced, “if it isn't Duncan donuts!”

“Baked fresh every day,” Duncan replied, approaching Yves with the cardboard tray with two coffees and fresh crullers, one arm spread out graciously to accept the acclaim,

“Coffee and donuts at 10 a.m,” Yves said. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Would your médicin happen to be called .  . Dr. John?”

“Ha, ha. So, how's the book biz these days? Pretty shitty I imagine, no?”

“Up and down, as always,” Duncan said handing over the coffee and bag of donuts. “Yup, sometimes pretty shitty. But how are you managing?”

“Cash only now,” he said taking a drink of the steaming brew. “Bloody bank fees are too high. Ah, mon vieux, this coffee hits the spot.”

“Ah, no problemo”

Duncan sat down behind the counter with Yves on one of the stools and looked around. Posters of concerts signed by musicians, signed guitars in cases, and facing them, a complete wall of fine wood shelving ten feet high housing the albums for sale. A few cabinets and shelving units in the middle of the long narrow shop with additional LP's and assorted islands of glassed-in memorabilia made up the eclectic, yet clean, decor of Disques Deux Côtés. Duncan spun around on his stool looking at the posters behind him. He liked the way a poster of The Clash was hanging beside a poster of Yo Yo Ma, and another of Miles Davis. Yves and his juxtapositions; just like the way he used to play his bass.

“La brume, la brume! Two days of this weather,” Yves said gesturing at the window with his half eaten cruller. “It's tough enough being on this side street without this fog!”

“Like being in the valley of Mordar perhaps,” Duncan replied, knowing Yves was a Tolkien aficionado.

“And the damn penny! Soon it will be no longer. More complications eh, pennies, taxes, bank fees. . . fog!” he said dramatically before licking his fingers.

“Yes,” Duncan said, “we'll have to start rolling those pennies we've squirrelled away.”

“Maybe we should regroup,” Yves said. “You, me and Tom. Hook up with a good looking female singer and get back into the showbiz, eh? Make some extra cashola. Smooth ride.”

Not wanting to deflate Yves's enthusiasm if he was serious, Duncan nodded his head and shuffled his feet before telling him his guitar cases were very dusty, having not touched them in many, many months. Looking at Yves, his fine bald head, his dark goatee, the earring, the tattoo,  he could see him back on stage. “I saw Tom yesterday,” Duncan said, “he's grown his side-burns again.”

“Eh bien!” Yves said enthusiastically, “that always means Tom's dying to get behind the drum kit.”

They sipped their coffees and listened to the soft voice of Chet Baker singing I Fall in Love Too Easily coming from the speakers.

“A good looking female lead singer?” Duncan asked arching his eyebrows.

“Yeah, sure. We could call ourselves . . . Celsius.”


“Yeah, we run hot and cold, Celsius!” Yves said sweeping a hand before him like a magician.

Duncan raised his coffee in a gesture of a toast, “To Celsius, may it clear the fog!”

“To Celsius!”

“So, how is Céline,” Duncan asked, helping himself to a sugary cruller.

“Good, good, but you know, office politics." Yves sipped his coffee as if in pain. “Céline is using the sauna a lot let me tell you. Lots of stress. Lots of stress.”

“Here we are,” Duncan said, “two men running businesses with few if any employees, and women are in the office world slugging it out with all its backbiting, and corporate ceilings of one kind or another.”

“I thought women would be different than men.” Yves said. “Less coo coo for coco pops than men.”

“In the old days,” Duncan said, “people would be called duplicitous, disingenuous, deceitful, two-faced."

“Coo coo for coco pops works for me,” Yves said.”

“How are the kids?”

“Hunky Dory, Dunc, hunky dory. Everything's dee dee dee, da da da,” he said gesturing with his thumbs as if he were texting. “They're good but man they live on their phones.”

A hip young couple sporting sunglasses entered the shop, “Bonjours,” Yves greeted them.

“Bonjours, bonjours. Avez-vous des disques de . . . Julie London?”

“Ah, oui, certainment. Un moment s'il vous plait.” Yves raised his eyebrows at Duncan, “Your albums are in the bag behind you Dunc. Take'em home, try'em out, keep the ones you want.”

“Merci mon ami,” Duncan said, tossing his empty cup into the recycling box under the counter. “Well, it was good to see you my friend.”

They shook hands and Yves pointed at him and said, “Celsius!”

Duncan laughed as he made his way to the door, pointing back, “Celsius, right.”


The folio sketch book lay open before Jerome, hours of preparatory sketches, cartoons, and studies overflowed from page to page. He looked down at the delicate hands of Lucrezia Panciatichi, one with her long fingers resting on a religious devotional text, the other spread sensually upon the arm of an oak chair, studies in delicacy, studies in subtext. The words, sans fin amour dure, and dure sans fin amour he had written across the top of the page in a flourish of black ink. These words were to be found on the long golden necklace worn by Lucrezia, one word per golden round plate, words that could be read either way depending on the word one had started with. The list of the required colour palette he had written along one side.

The portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi had originally been painted on a wood panel probably made of poplar, about 40 by 34 inches, a panel that would have required many hours of preparation by apprentices. He didn't know if his client wished for complete authenticity, or whether canvas would do. He had to be prepared for anything.

The many half-circle symmetries within the painting renewed his love for the portrait and the painter. The subject's slightly off center seated  position within the dark framing of the the architectural detail arching behind her, was to Jerome, utterly perfect. The top of the arch being left out was a brilliant observation of what would reinforce the subject, keeping the eye within. From afar there was the classical triangular structure rising from the hands to her mannerist long neck and up to her subtle facial features. Between the jewelled pendant hanging from the string of pearls, and the longer golden necklace draping underneath with the words in gold, Jerome felt the tightness in her bosom, felt the constraint upon her breath.

He wondered if his own subject would have such a melancholy look.

Bronzino had always been a favourite painter of Jerome's and the more he contemplated this portrait commission, the more he thought he would like to make a copy of the complimentary painting, the portrait of her husband, Bartolomeo, whose extraordinary beard and appearance reminded him of a friend of his, a jazz musician.

Art books and large reproductions lay open before him, numerous examples of the two paintings for him to study. The dark intelligent eyes of Bartolomeo and his long nose were subtly reinforced by the dark eyes and long nose of his black dog in the lower right corner, the dog looking out at the painter, and at the viewer with a sense of admonished curiosity. The aristocrat and future French Ambassador was only thirty years of age in 1540, the date of the painting, even though he would likely be taken for twice that age by a casual observer today. There was a wisdom and a scholarly aura that Bronzino had captured, one that perhaps had revealed a Humanist in a dangerous age of religious constraints. Jerome wondered if Bartolomeo could have foreseen the dangers of the Italian Inquisition when in the early 1550s he returned from France and was required to renounce his heretical Lutheranism. Jerome was fascinated that this son of a great Italian banking and commercial family should have had the courage to involve himself with the Protestants of Lyon, even perhaps in bringing Protestant books back to Florence.

Jerome looked deeply at the face of Lucrezia and felt it was a combination of the features which gave the total effect of melancholy, purity, and chastity. The delicate lips, the slight shadows around the wide, innocent, yet concerned eyes. The lips, however, he felt were the key to the melancholy, not the eyes. The eyes were brilliantly done though. The further away you were, the more they seemed to stare straight ahead. The closer you approached, the more you realized they were looking slightly over your right shoulder. Brilliant. The closer you got, the more you felt someone was standing behind you.

The doorbell rang. Jerome placed the sketch book in his large shoulder bag with all of his prepared art supplies, picked up his light-weight portable easel and descended the stairs to his front door. The bell rang again just as he was putting his leather coat on. On the stoop, a well-dressed, heavy set man, about 6' 2” looked down at him. “Is that all you have?” he enquired.

Jerome nodded his head, feeling less sure of this commission already.

© ralph patrick mackay

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty-Seven

It was 7 a. m. and Jerome van Starke was as fresh as his coffee. He had slept well. If he had dreamed, he couldn't remember. He blew down over the steam rising from his cup, and gazed out the window at the trees and shrubs bathed in a sepia hue from the vaporous conditions. A squirrel, unconcerned, nimbly ran along a fence, jumping the finials like a gymnast. All colour was drained by this tenacious fog. Turning, he went over to the bookshelf and looked at the old cassettes, cds and LPs for music to play, something to fit his mood. His emotional state honed in on three cassettes by Pierre Flynn like a dry brush to an ink wash in a Chinese bowl. Choosing the singer-songwriter's Jardins de Babylon, he shook the tape in its case, savouring the plastic sound which was as much a memory as the music itself. Placing the tape in his machine, he pressed down on the aged button and listened as the rich baritone voice carried him away with Savoir aimer.

One of his songs referred to the world as “le monde de bascule.” He couldn't remember if it was on this album, but he always liked the phrase. It would make a good title for one of his paintings. Perhaps the one he was contemplating of Sappho and Alcaeus.

Imagining Thérèse walking the streets of Edinburgh filled him with a sense of calm. She could take care of herself. 

He heard the phone ring. By the time he got halfway there, it had stopped. One ring. A common occurrence of late. He had little use for phones, but he felt his need expanding due to Thérèse and her leave taking. Perhaps he should give up his resistance to technology and join the fast moving mob with their devices and desires. As he stood looking down at the mute plastic sphinx, its old fashioned twisted plastic cord hanging off the table like a strand of DNA, he could almost feel the $2,000 cheque in his wallet swelling with the pulse of digital currents. He was holding onto the cheque until he cleared it with his conscience. For now, his portrait commission was a mystery. He would wait for the morning's revelations to unfold before moving back or forward, left or right.


When Duncan had dropped Amelia off at the small florist business in Westmount for 9 a.m., a business that wanted professional web page translation work performed, there had been a subdued feeling in the air. The traffic had been minimal. The pedestrians few. He felt he had been turning the page on a rather peculiar day.

At the shop, Julie informed him there was a message left on the answering machine from his friend Yves Boisclair, the former bass player with The Splices—the one who had had the van, the connections and the garage to rehearse—who now ran a shop selling old LPs and collectibles. The message related that a batch of albums had come in, some Dvorak with Kubelik, works with Tamas Vasary and some old Angels featuring Itzhak Perlman, items Yves knew Duncan was looking for. The message ended with “vien t'en donc, mon tabarnak!” It was a mutual light-hearted relationship. Duncan would inform Yves of anything interesting in his latest book purchases, certain authors Yves collected, certain editions he was looking for and Duncan would often end his messages to Yves with “au plus crisse!”

He would try to swing by Yves's place after dropping off the twines and ropes to Mr. Wing. Already the day was beginning to become one of those pages that fold out to reveal illustrative material within.

Tchaikovsky's violin concerto played by Kyung Wha Chung, with Charles Dutoit conducting the MSO commanded his speakers as he drove towards Chinatown. It was Yves who told him the story of one of the musicians of the Montreal Symphony back in the 1980s being a perfect mimic of Charles Dutoit, providing comic relief for the other musicians in the orchestra. He thought there must be a mimic in every business with over thirty employees. He tried not to think of the ancient orchestra politics as he listened to the music.

Moving his head from side to side to the sinuous lyricism, he felt he was outlining a figure eight infinity.

At the corner of St. Antoine and St. Pierre, he waited at a red light while memories rose slowly like the melancholy middle movement of the violin concerto. The towering hotels, the sprawling convention centre, the stylish Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec, and all the redevelopment of boutique hotels and condos still had the feel of a virtual rendering. Everything was so clean, neat and modern. Having lived through the undeveloped and lean decades of the eighties and nineties, it was still a revelation to behold. He thought nostalgically of the little shops, the corner tobacconist, the sandwich shop, the shoe and jewelry shops, and the old Tally Ho bookshop with the veritably unmovable heavy-set cigar smoking employee, who looked like he should be working at the horse track taking bets, who chewed on his stogie which bookmarked every page of every cheap paperback and pulp magazine with the aroma of astringent cigar smoke. The good old days. He started to feel like his Father. The light turned green and he drove on passing what used to be old restaurants, import businesses, Russell's Books, the Montreal Star and Gazette buildings, the old fire hall and the pub where the journalists would hang out. All gone but for memory. Stopping at another red light at the corner of St. Urbain, he looked ahead at the remnant block of crumbling early 20th century three story buildings, a row of nostalgia, where Steve's Music shop and Simon's camera shop still held dominion over time. The future had yet to level that block and throw up a forty floor hotel tower. He could still drop by Steve's and check out the guitars and feel he was that 16 year old rock star wannabe back in 1974. The same old creaky uneven floors, the same cramped space with every instrument and accessory, and possibly the same employees living in a time warp.

The car behind him honked. The light had turned catching him day-dreaming. He took the left turn on St. Urbain, and as he approached Viger, he looked up at the Holiday Inn lost in the fog—a building inspired by classic Chinese architecture—on a site where he remembered a few low buildings and parking lots. Montreal, he thought, must have so very many hotel rooms. He parked the car on Viger and with a shopping bag in each hand, made his way towards Mr. Wing's business, the string handles digging into his skin. The receptionist informed Duncan that Mr. Wing was not in the office at the moment, so he left his shopping bags with the young woman who he felt smiled almost sadly, as if she knew all about his slipping business and Mr. Wing's continued support, even though such supplies could be had much cheaper. Duncan smiled and thanked her, a tinge of self-consciousness overcoming him, feeling like the poor relative. He had included a slim, soft cover book on chess which he thought Mr. Wing would find of interest. Duncan knew he had a large collection of books on the game. If he already had a book that Duncan offered, he never let him know. Always a handwritten note of thanks with the cheque in an envelope addressed by hand.

At the corner of La Gauchtière and St. Urbain, waiting to cross, he stood gazing up at a corner building. He remembered when Yiyin had taken him up the stairs to the art supplies store. On the first landing an open door had revealed a windowless room with numerous elderly Chinese playing Mahjong. It was a vivid memory. The aged players nosily mixing the tiles and talking before turning and silently looking at the young Caucasian man and young Chinese woman staring at them from the shadows. The mixing of the tiles and the talking had resumed once they moved on to the art store, no doubt spiced with comments on the unusual visitation: 'What was the world coming to?' 'In my day, unheard of.' The year must have been 1978. Duncan still had the bamboo holders, inks, and brushes they had bought that day, though he imagined the ink must have hardened in the blue and white porcelain container by now.

He decided to continue along La Gauchetière enjoying the colourful window displays and the signage. Many new ventures with some old ones here and there. At the corner of Clark, he stood looking across at the modern corner building where the Tean Hong Café used to be, the restaurant where they had had many a dimsum and seemingly endless cups of green tea. It had burnt down long ago and this new structure had risen. It was as if the café had never existed. He still had the plastic chopsticks with the restaurant name though. Souvenirs from the past.

“Excuse me sir,” a voice said, “are you looking for a certain shop?”

Duncan turned to see his questioner, a pleasant young woman probably the age of Yiyin when they were together. “Oh, thank you, no,” he managed haltingly, “I'm just looking . . for the past.”
The young woman nodded thoughtfully before walking away into the foggy morning, the short melodramatic scene imperceptibly fading with every step.

© ralph patrick mackay

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty-Six

Adorable Hugh had tried to enjoy his quiet evening at home. Often when left alone, he would sit on the chair by the front window, prop himself up on the sill, and watch the neighbourhood dogs and their tethered humans. Many he knew by scent. Others he had met nose to nose. He had learned not to draw attention to himself. No barking. Such behaviour was quite immature. He remembered travelling in the car with Duncan and Amelia, and, coming to a stop, had noticed a tiny fluffy thing, sitting on a human, its little paws on the side window, yapping away at the dog on the sidewalk, a Great Dane. How embarrassing. There is observation, and there is . . . well, he didn't know, but barking from behind windows is just simply not done.

He sighed. It had been a rather tedious evening alone. Nothing to see out the windows for some reason, and only the ticking of that clock in the kitchen over his bowl. At least they had left enough nibbles and water. He sighed into his soft dog blanket on his soft dog bed, and looked up at them, huddled under their blankets.

Amelia was thinking of Mary's retirement revelation. Mary had wanted to sound her out, see how she took the news. It wouldn't be for a year, she had said, but she thought it would be best to prepare for her departure. Edward would understand, she knew, but it would create a dilemma. Who would replace her? Mary had wondered if she and Duncan might consider moving into the coach house and looking after Edward like they sometimes did when she was in Florida. She hadn't told Duncan yet. She wanted time to think. How could they possibly replace Mary? She had become family. The more Amelia thought about the coming change, the more she saw themselves moving into the coach house and taking care of Edward. It would be the best for all. It was fortunate they had not purchased a home as yet. She would discuss it with Duncan tomorrow after dinner. Opening her eyes, she could just make out it was near one a.m. She would be tired for her nine o'clock meeting with a client.

Stretching out his foot into the cold nether regions of the bed, Duncan lay on his back and tried to clear his mind of all the flotsam and jetsam of the past few days. Think of tomorrow he thought. Think of tomorrow. He had to make a delivery of twines and ropes to Mr. Wing in Chinatown, a loyal customer from his father's day. It had been months since he'd last seen Mr. Wing. Always good for a word of wisdom or an occasional pun. Chinatown in the morning, followed by Noel Welwyn Gough in the afternoon to browse the books of Lafcadio & Co. He breathed in deeply and sighed softly thinking it should unfold like a simple turn of a page. Verso, recto, and home again. No more gallivanting about in the fog. Two simple events. Two purchases. And now, perchance, to dream. What did those distant navvies take to get to sleep? He imagined himself a sailor in his bunk on a Dutch galliot on a calm sea, the unknown medicine slowly taking effect. After a few minutes without success, Duncan rolled to his side and slipped his arm around Amelia's waist, and, falling into the scent of her, was adrift, at sea, asleep.


Souvenirs of the Vortex? The Vortex of Souvenirs? Such were the suggested book titles that his mind was . . curating. Curating! What an absurd abuse of a word. I curated my breakfast this morning: fresh coffee, croissant with kiwi slices. I shall curate the garden this afternoon. Pavor Loveridge drank his strong coffee, fingering a small packet of zucchero di canna, his laptop open before him. The morning was dull, cool, and a drizzle continued to fall; drops of water periodically dripped from the peak of the garden gnome's red, slightly bent, hat. He knew he should write Mélisande but the demands of his agent and publisher for a new book was, he felt, etching age lines into his face. Those wince marks at the sides of one's eyes, crow's feet. No, nothing so visual, more like the lines of agony, the agony of disbelief. The six books he had written felt like stepping stones beside an infinity pool leading to the edge; the drop is there, just over the line, the line of printed type which hovered invisibly on the empty page before him.

He looked to the lower right hand of his screen to see it was 7:35 a.m. Mélisande was undoubtedly asleep. What a strange world. If Earth began to spin faster, how would we still sleep our eight hours in shifts. We're all on shift work for the world. Gaia our overseer. She doesn't seem pleased with our work of late. We've been helping ourselves to the office supplies. Could that be the book he should write? A little departure into speculative fiction? The Vortex of Souvenirs?

The letter for Mélisande he was contemplating would take a week to arrive. Or more. Perhaps an email would be the right choice. No fancy stationery and interesting stamps with their cancellation, no smell of coffee in the paper, no whiff of the harbour under the stamp, but a direct, officious rather bland form of communication, the email. He opened his account and avoided looking at the messages with their enquiries, and began to write her a letter.

Dearest Mélisande,

I hope this finds you well. There is not a day that passes without you in my thoughts. Your love and companionship, your intelligence and knowledge are qualities that keep me inspired. Being away from you, my life is the poorer. Needless to say, I find myself quite alone. This is good for my work, and perhaps good for a renewed perspective and appreciation of life, but it is a challenge.

I am glad you have a good position. I am content in knowing your workplace affords a sense of contentment. In my experience, such places are rare, quite rare. It relieves me of much worry knowing your life is well-found.

I had planned to write with pen and paper, to scrape, scrape, scrape with my mordant pen as it were, and mail you a proper letter, but the factor of time has pressed down upon me and I have relinquished the pen for the keyboard. The better to reach you sooner. How did they manage in the past? Months might have passed before letters arrived. Lives changed in the interim. Intelligences rendered obsolete.

Travel in our modern world is so different. In the past I could write to you that I miss reading the local papers, or listening to my favourite French CBC radio shows, but now I can use the Internet to be connected with home. Montreal is but a few keystrokes away. I can see what weather befalls the city, what Aislin and other cartoonists are holding up for ridicule, and what artistic endeavours have risen to the top of the journalistic consciousness. I do though, miss the ease of merely turning the radio on and instantly hearing the rich deep voices of the French CBC radio announcers. I once asked a friend who works there why every radio announcer has such a deep rich voice, and he said, jokingly, smoking and a full life. When I was younger, I had applied for a job at the French CBC radio. I imagine, my voice was not rich enough.

Everywhere you look, statues and clocks, statues and clocks. Could be a title for a book. The clocks on churches and city buildings remind me of the works of the symbolist artist de Chirico. The city of Trieste has a rougher edge compared to Florence and Venice. A true working port city. There is be some sort of coffee expo or convention here soon. Trieste is, I think, the major import centre for coffee. They take it seriously. No milky dribble after eleven in the morning. They must roll their eyes when they travel. Blessedly, haven't seen a Tim's or a Starby's, though something tells me there might be a golden arch lurking.

As you know I am not staying in the city itself, which is fine by me. Too much distraction. I am here, ostensibly, to write a first draft of my next novel. The house belongs to a Triestine academic who is teaching in China and won't be back until sometime at the end of July next year, so the spring would be the best time to visit. The house is in Opicina and is quite modern and has all the conveniences. The garden comes with its own gnome. A gnome with a book. The owner also has a small flat in Trieste but he has rented that out. My staying here is a favour in a way through my agent. I just have to pay for the utilities and take care of the property. House sitting. I remember it well. He has left his little car for my use which has been extremely handy since the railway to Trieste has been undergoing repairs.

I've had a request for a travel piece by an American magazine. My agent happened to drop my name and location into a cocktail party conversation and voila, a request for so many words. Trieste has been done however, and I feel I should explore further afield. I have made a tentative trip across the border into Slovenia. Being part of the EU, the border passing was fairly smooth. Driving with plates from just across the border helped. I was stopped for a brief enquiry, and being Canadian, and having the first names Pavor Kristof, gave them more to think about than usual though.

When I was younger, I had thought of adopting a new name. I used to avail myself of my Mother's scholarly library of books, and the names I remember thinking of were, Perceval, Panurge, Porthos and Pangloss! I do have a distinct memory of reading Rabelais when young, the chapter where Pantagruel visits a library and provides a list of titles from the catalogue. Every possible target is satirized often scatalogically. I always remember the rather sedate title, The Hotchpot of Hypocrites. I must have been about fourteen, 1974, I had gone with my Mother into the Flammarion Bookshop on University Avenue—I know, you were only 4, before your time and long gone—and while my Mother was looking at dictionaries (and my Father was probably at Curly Joe's Steakhouse just a few doors away) I picked up Dumas's Les Trois Mousquetaires and thought perhaps Porthos would indeed do. That may have been the root of my becoming a writer. A desire to change my name. When I think of the four names I contemplated, I feel I have a touch of each in my character. I'm sure you could tell me which one is the dominate trait if any. Or am I dominated by my being a Taurus? Who knows.

I have a few items I always travel with: your picture, my pens, a small bottle of Quink, and that bookmark from the day I bought the Dumas. On the back of the Librarie Flammarion bookmark there are lines to pencil out “Mes prochaines lectures” with three columns for 'auteurs, titres, et notes.' My list of books and authors are of course, youthful: Poe, Conrad, Melville. . . . The bottle of Quink that I purchased over twenty years ago I've rarely dipped into. It is more of a talisman. It worries me though. Evaporation has carried 99% of the ink away. One day, I fear, I shall awake and find it dry. Perhaps that will be the day I am struck by an apoplexy like something out a ghost story by Henry James. I have always thought that Robert Louis Stevenson's death was one of the great apoplexies in the world of writers. Stevenson's last words were something to the effect of 'I feel something strange. Do I look as if something is wrong with me?' I know this must be morbid to you. Forgive me.

But back to my little sojourn into Slovenia. We must visit when you come. I just did an explorative drive in a small circle essentially. First to the Skocjan Caves and the park around them near Divica, and then back towards the Lipizzan horse breeding farm. We can go horse back riding. (I haven't been on a horse since I was a child. Do we all secretly feel we are horse whisperers?) The horse breeding started in 1580! Giordano Bruno was in Toulouse, Montaigne finishing up his Essays, and the Mother of Quevedo was experiencing birth pains. Quite a fin-de-siècle. On the road from the caves to the horses, is the old town of Lokev, its red tiled roofs and white buildings nestled in the valley of low rolling green hills. Picturesque. We must visit. There is a museum in an old Fort Tower built by the Venetians I believe. A defense against the Turks. Late 15th century. Takes you back doesn't it? There is a bar underneath for a refreshing beer, or two.

I had an unusual experience over the border. I chose to drive the smaller road instead of the very modern highway. It was the scenic route as my Father would say when we used to get lost on our holidays. The scenic route. And indeed it was. The road was to pass the towns of Merce, Povir, and Gorenje pri Divica before reaching the area of the caves at Divica. Passing the town of Merce (the orange tiled roofs and white buildings are to be found in each village) I followed a small road which my map, speechless and dumb as I am, said would bring me to an abandoned church on a hill. I lost my way. The church was unreachable with my little suburban car. Beautiful countryside though. I retraced my route back to Merce and for some reason I turned up a certain street. I don't know what made me think to turn up that street. My Father always said trust your instinct. So I turned, and came across a sort of flea market selling vegetables, fruit, woodwork, and some household items and junk. Amongst the junk I came across a slim volume which had some water damage to the back cover, but overall, was intact. It was underneath some old bibles and books in I imagine Slovenian. I managed to converse with the young sales woman in my basic Italian and  bought some fruit, a little wood stool, and the book. I wasn't sure what it was at first, I just slung it in the back seat with my purchases and off I went. When I drove back through Trieste in my circle home, I stopped for a refreshment and looked at the book further: The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi / A Lay of the Higher Law / Translated and Annotated / by / His Friend and Pupil / F. B. / London: Privately Printed. No date or publisher. On the flyleaf, an inscription: For Daisy, 'Reason is life's sole arbiter, the magic labyrinth's single clue.' R. F. B.

I had thought of visiting the antiquarian bookshop so wonderfully situated at the end of the Via del Rosario not far from the Roman theatre—a shop we must visit—but I held off, thinking I could research it myself. It astounds me that it appears to be a copy of a work by Richard Francis Burton. He published it as if it was merely a translation but it was his work. The edition is very rare for only a few copies were issued without the name of the publisher—Quaritch—on the title page. The inscription seems to be for the sister of an artist who visited Trieste and produced paintings of Burton. I have been reading about her and supposedly she was a close friend, and when Burton died, she experienced his ghostly visitation, so she knew when she awoke that he had died in the night. And she was correct. Such stories. Such stories. And how it found its way into a pile of odds and ends in a small town in Slovenia is a mystery. Perhaps, to follow the line, it was the spirit of Burton or Daisy who led me to the site. Stories upon stories.

I am so sorry. I have written far too much. I may have lost you on the border!

I have been mulling over what to write for my next novel. This morning I was even considering a possible foray into speculative fiction, but I feel I will stick to my idea of writing about love and life. I have had a title in mind for some time: The Under-Glasse. My publisher will probably baulk at the name. It comes from Herrick. I didn't bring many books with me since I have my tablet, Kobo, and laptop, but I did bring my Anchor Books copy of The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick. Something about the smell of old Anchor books is intoxicating. I bought this one at that shop Lafcadio & Co.

The title is from a poem by Herrick. I shall type it out for you.

The Houre-glasse

The Houre-glasse, which there ye see
With Water fill'd, (Sirs, credit me)
The humour was, (as I have read)
But Lover's tears inchristalled.
Which, as they drop by drop doe passe
From th'upper to the under-glasse,
Do in a trickling manner tell,
(By a watrie syllable)
That lover's tears in life-time shed,
Do restless run when they are dead.

I send you all my love and hope all is well.

He directed the cursor over the 'send' button, hovering for a brief moment, a hesitation of his editor's mind, but pressed down and off his letter went into the digital ether.

© ralph patrick mackay 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty-Five

Midnight slipped into the new day as Mélisande Bramante set her alarm o'clock for 7:30 a.m. Clio, her seven year old orange tabby, stretched out on the end of the bed, her paws resting on the cd case of Plans by Death Cab for Cutie.

Mélisande adjusted her earbuds. snuggled under the covers, and smoothed out a fresh page of her journal. Clio opened and closed her eyes content that she was finally settling down.

Tuesday, October 22nd, 12:02 a.m.
I had planned a quiet night at home; so much for best laid plans.

Today was like a C major triad: first the arrival of Pavor's book of poetry (Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra!) arrived in the mail, then the husband of Amelia dropped by with a Latin text for me to decipher, followed on his heels by Jerome who was in a state of longing and uncertainty. Where did I read that three occurrences are considered lucky? I suggested to Jerome we talk over dinner. He picked me up after work in his little car. I suggested we go to Mnemosyne for a meal. Monday would be quiet. I like their booths and the vegetarian food has only improved. Butternut squash pasta dish was very good. Stuffed. Drank far too much wine.

Pavor's new book was a surprise. Personal to the point of embarrassment. His dedication to me quotes Giordano Bruno which is perhaps typical of him. Seems he has used our walks about Montreal to frame a number of poems. I seem to be his guide!

He sent a copy to Jerome as well. Who else? We talked about the book over dinner. Jerome has only read one poem. The obscurity of the publisher, Oxtoby & Snoad based in England, was a relief. I hope the print run was small.

Jerome said he was sure Pavor was not running away from me, but only from the religious trappings of marriage. Pavor's Catholic upbringing has driven him away from the concepts of sacred ritual. Such is Jerome's opinion. Pavor's Mother was Catholic, from Prague, and his Father Anglican, from Montreal.  I agreed with Jerome when we discussed the tug of war within Pavor's upbringing. A conflicted writer. How unique. 

I told him Pavor invited me to Italy. He said I should go. Just the thing. Maybe I could overcome his resistance and get married there in an ancient chapel, Venice, Florence or Trieste, if such a thing was possible. Jerome knows how to cheer me up, ever the romantic. 

We talked of Thérèse and her mysterious, though not unusual, departure. I heard from a mutual friend that she was seen in Edinburgh. I told Jerome. He was excited by the news. He asked me to pursue it and find out more. I promised. 

A day of demands.

His painting, he said, was passionless at the moment. He said he felt like he had been rowing long and hard, and now he was just resting on his oars. He is not happy with the painting he has been working on. He said he'll probably leave it unfinished and use the faces for another picture. He has been thinking of an Alma-Tadema painting he'd like to do: Sappho and Alcaeus. . He explained the painting to me and said he would modernize it by having the figures in modern dress and the writing on the marble would be modern graffiti. Irony has nothing to do with it he says. He loathes irony. Thérèse to be Sappho? I didn't ask.

I do love his painting of me. His reproduction of Marianne Stokes' Melisande without the interesting long sleeved blouse, but revealing my tattoos. It is always a topic of conversation when I have people over. Jerome said the Alma-Tadema would have to wait for he has a commission. A portrait. He said he wasn't sure whether to take it, though it would pay well. I told him to take it. He has to make a living.

When he drove me home, he thanked me for listening and for relieving his sense of dread. There was one of those awkward moments, the wine and emotions had swirled together and we kissed each other on the cheeks, embracing perhaps rather longer than usual. His cheeks slightly rough and smelling of almonds. 

I made some chamomile tea and tried to read Wilkie Collins' Armadale. Didn't get very far. Took a bath and listened to music. Clio being affectionate.

I haven't had a chance to look at the Latin text that Duncan dropped off. I left it at work in the laptop bag. Will try to give it some time tomorrow if there is a slow moment. Duncan is his gentleman self, and he still looks youthful for his age. If he wasn't married.... Haven't seen Amelia in months. Should try to connect.

Palmyra. When I first read Pavor's title, I thought of Lady Hestor Stanhope. Shipwrecked and forever changed, tamquam tabulata naufragii. Or was her trajectory formed in the luxury of her past? That early political background and the loss of her future husband? I dipped into her Life and Letters which Duncan had sold me a few years ago. I reread that letter from 1813 that opens: “Dear Wynn, --Without joking, I have been crowned Queen of the Desert under the triumphal arch at Palmyra!” Not a sentence likely to be repeated again. Pavor knows I was interested in Stanhope and have this book. I wonder if he is playing with this? But a 'yacht off Palmyra?' Perhaps if and when I continue reading his book, it will become apparent. Stanhope died so alone. From a wealthy elite family at the top of the social scale in England, to a deserted fort in the desert, alone, all possessions taken. Could she have foreseen? 

Clio rose and arched her back before stepping delicately towards Mélisande. She circled herself into a cozy nook beside her. A sign she was ready to sleep. Lights out please. Mélisande gave her a kiss, put her journal and music away and picked up Pavor's book off her bed side table. Opening it, she read the third poem:

And yet you guide me to this spot, this field-
Stone wall, whose gate—of horn or ivory--
Remains as those within, it does not yield.
What private consolations would I see
If only I could pass? What acts of patience?
What modes of self-reliant reticence?

In looking through the window in the wall
(Much like the horse that's blinkered on the street)
Its iron work as black as cannon ball,
I feel the rough-hewn history's latent heat,
So cold, so obsolete. I call his name,
'Dollier,' but no one hears my melodrame.

Unless the stones themselves absorb the sound,
Repositories of syllabic time.
The clock from 1701 goes round
To timelessness within. The minutes climb,
And fall. The ancient clock's for you and I
Yet few remark its face against the sky.

Well, fourteen minutes have elapsed. So much
For the regressus in infinitum.
Reality's no paradox to touch.
This circular volition and the hum
Of life turns round their tended turtle peace,
This seamless Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice.

She placed the book under the bed, and turned out the light. She rested her arm around Clio hoping she had left the day's troubles on the page. 

© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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

Edward's synoptic tale of his distant relative settled upon each of his listeners with differing reverberations. Noel crossed his legs and sat back with a sense of loss. Why hadn't Edward told him about his relative long ago? This was his field of study. It could have been an interesting book. He felt left in the cold, forgotten, rebuffed. But his mind, resilient and mature, shifted. He was still young. There might still be a book behind this picture. He envisioned a finely printed volume bound in leather, all edges gilt, front board blind-stamped in gilt with heretical Rosicrucian symbols. Duncan, meanwhile, was trying to tie the story up with his Latin text and was constructing romantic tales of chivalry and courtly spies in The Hague. Backstabbing, slander, capes, scabbards and false evidence. For Amelia, having known the story, she wondered what happened to his wife back in London, and their children. For Mary, she too had heard the story before, and having dusted William Philip Seymour and his eyes and the ancient picture frame which surrounded him for so many years, all thoughts of intrigue and romance were as evanescent as a single snowflake melting on a warm windshield.

“Duncan, if you could come with me to the study, we will uncover Noel's Chapman," Edward said, touching Noel's shoulder as he passed.

“So, where have you been staying while you've been visiting Montreal?” Amelia asked.

“The first night I stayed at my daughter's condominium," Noel said. "A small, but very efficient and modern dwelling. But my dear daughter is, like my wife, a parsimonious jam spreader, so off I went to the University Club where jam does flow like the wine of ancient Rome.” He watched their reactions to such a statement, enjoying his little foray into humour. Winking at them he admitted he was only pulling their legs—he quite preferred marmalade. Noel welcomed their laughter never knowing if his humour was effective. Timing, he realized, was everything. “But now,” he continued, “for a treat, my daughter has set me up at the newly refurbished Ritz-Carlton for my last five nights.” He rolled his r on the name of the hotel. “It is indeed, very elegant. I fear my wife will be quite jealous.” After a pause, thinking of the luxury of his future abode, an idea occurred to him. “I should have you all to dinner. My treat. I could make reservations for say . . . Thursday night. I am sure my daughter would enjoy meeting you. It could be a celebration of Edward's 92nd birthday. How does that sound?”
Amelia could see no reason to refuse such a generous and rare opportunity. Mary likewise agreed.
“Fine, I shall let you young women surprise your men with the news,” he said helping himself to a small piece of short bread.

“How does your daughter like Montreal?” Mary asked.

“Very much, very much. However, a promotion has been offered and she will be working in Paris come the new year. My wife is pleased she'll be closer to home.”

“That's wonderful,” Amelia said. “Your visit, then, is... one of a congratulatory nature?”

Noel shifted in his seat, his eyes upon the painting over the fireplace. “Well,” he began hesitantly, “my daughter's surprise was fresh news to my ears when I arrived. The underlining reason for my coming to Montreal was to attend a memorial service for an old school chum who passed away of a heart attack in August. So, a memorial service, a family visit, and a re-connection with Edward.” Noel avoided the one-stone-three-birds phrase that almost reached the tip of his tongue.  He looked at Mary and Amelia to gauge their interest, and then continued. “My late friend, Frederick Jones, came to Montreal in the early 1970s to teach History at Lower Canada College. He was well-loved. I heard many warm appreciations from fellow teachers and former students.”

“We're sorry for the loss of your friend,” Amelia said.

Noel nodded his head and said thank you, and wondered if he should continue spinning out a thread or two with this story of loss, but was relieved when Amelia bridged his story with one from Duncan's past.

“Yes, it was about a year ago,” Amelia said. “Duncan noticed the name of an old friend in the obituaries.”

Duncan, hearing his voice being mentioned as he and Edward returned with Chapman's The Shadow of Night, said “What's this about an old friend?”

“Your friend David, the one who went to LCC.” Amelia said, telling Duncan of Noel's multiple reasons for visiting Montreal.

“Yes, David Ashemore. We were best of friends when very young. His house backed onto a small local library branch and we would go there after school to take out Tintin books, which were our great preoccupation during the first and second years of elementary school.” Duncan sat down, placing the Chapman on his lap, its gilt edges glowing in the warm lamplight. “I believe that LCC was looking for students and we both took the entrance exam, and both passed. David was a single child. His parents were educated and I imagine had funds to send him. My dear parents had hardly passed high school, and funds or knowledge of scholarships was beyond them as far as I know.” Duncan felt like he was one of those tiresome unreliable narrators of modern books, for his memories of that distant time were honestly quite vague. Did his parents say no, or was he given the last word, and, thinking of his brothers, agree to forgo the private school?

“After David left for LCC, strangely enough, I never saw him again. Our orbits were forever changed. It wasn't until I came across a paper left open to the obituaries in a busy coffee shop, that his oblique circle finally crossed mine again. It was one of those 'suddenly' obituaries.”

Noel shifted his legs and asked Duncan if it was a tragedy or natural causes.

“Honestly, I really don't know,” he said, looking down at the book and running his right hand over the supple dark green leather. “I attended the visitation at the funeral home. Sad in itself, but more so due to the lack of . . . visitors. It reminded me of one of those authors like Edgar Allan Poe who died with a paltry show of mourners at the graveside. I arrived near the end of the time allotted and my name was the only signature in the book. Within the room, I found only a young woman sitting in a chair.”

There was a dramatic pause as everyone sipped their tea, and looked at Duncan with interest.

“Her name was hard to forget, Tess, Tess Sinclair. She said she was a friend of David's and was hoping to meet his family and colleagues. My story was of course brief and of little relevance but she said she appreciated all she could learn.” Duncan placed the book on the side table and picked up his teacup, sipping while thinking of where to go with this story.

“It was a bit odd, wasn't it?” Amelia said.

“Yes, it was. A bit awkward, yes.” Duncan said. “I began asking questions of her. How did David die? What did he do for a living? Was he married? Did he have any living relatives? She told me he had been single, a researcher and had been ill with cancer. No living relatives had attended. She had been there all afternoon. Very few people had visited she said. A handful of colleagues had briefly appeared but didn't stay long, and were not forthcoming.”

“That is indeed a sad tale,” Noel offered to the silence that followed Duncan's story. “He may have well been a student of my friend Frederick Jones. A small world, a small world.”

“I had had such high expectations of his life and career,” Duncan continued. “Seeing his name in print made me feel a part of myself had died, that wistful, innocent youth." Duncan looked up towards the ceiling and stared at the linear shadows cast by the crown molding.  "I remember we used to spin ourselves around and around, and then fall upon the lawn in dizziness, the world itself spinning within our heads, our thoughts overcome with the vastness of the universe."

“That was the day of the accident too, wasn't it?” Amelia asked, prompting him back to reality.

“Yes, it was an odd day all round. When I left the funeral home, the parked car in front of me backed up and hit our car. The driver got out and was apologetic. He wanted to make amends for the slight damage to the bumper without bothering the police. So we exchanged names and numbers. After many weeks, I thought I would phone him to see if he was willing to pay for the minor expenses.” Duncan paused to finish his tea. “The phone number was no longer in use. And the name, well, I couldn't find a trace.”

End of Chapter Two

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, January 11, 2013

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

Mrs. Shimoda prepared an early light meal, a miso soup with arame and mushrooms. The rich aromatic broth simmered as she listened to the local radio. The weather was first and foremost on the minds of people, so the news led with a report from the streets of Montreal on the reaction of citizens to the persistent fog. She turned the radio off and began to gently ladle the soup into her special bowl, the last of a set her husband had acquired many, many years ago. She heard the light footsteps of her lodger above, Amelia and her 'adorable Hugh' as they descended the stairs to the front door on their way out for a walk. Clockwork is comforting to animals too, she thought.

Sitting at her small kitchen table, she sipped her soup while thinking of the jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table. She didn't want to finish it too quickly. A prolonged enjoyment came with visualization over time. There was great pleasure to be found in standing for a few moments over the puzzle, and, with fresh eyes, overcome the resistance within the diversity of shapes and colours, and firmly snap the piece into place. A modest fulfilment. A modest contentment.

Looking out the window, the colourful leaves were falling, slowly, desultorily, as if the fog provided a buoyancy for a soft landing as they made their descent. It could be an early winter. She would have to finish putting the garden to bed. The squirrels had been active, digging in her pots again, hiding their precious reserves. She did, however, enjoy watching their movements. Especially when they secreted their peanuts or sunflower seeds in her small lawn. The first tentative search, then deciding on a location, the vigorous hole digging with the shoulders involved, followed by the reverse action of pushing the nut down and in, followed by the act of camouflage as they delicately finessed the grass shoots with their little, yet versatile fingers, in such a way that reminded her of a hair dresser. It also reminded her, inversely, of raking clean the squirrel footprints in the sand of her little zen garden.  The subtle curves around the rocks and stones were part of the natural setting, and subject to wildlife, leaves, twigs, and freshly fallen snow, always in transition, like life itself. Such was the nature of her small backyard.

She heated water for green tea while she washed the dishes, envisioning the completed lower right corner of the puzzle.


Duncan stood on the patchwork cement sidewalk in front of Strand Cordage Ltd. waiting for Amelia to pick him up. The strangeness of the weather and the older architecture on the obscured half-deserted street must have touched a deep memory, for Duncan felt like he was a character in an old original Star Trek episode. He saw himself as the character Bones, abandoned on Earth in the 1920s. The phrases Dam it Jim, I'm a Doctor not an engineer, and Beam me up Scottie, flitted through his brain. He rolled his eyes and paced back and forth kicking spent cigarette butts and pebbles to the curb. Looking up, he made out their car coming towards him, the fog dispersing in a way which made him think of a street scene in Blade Runner.

“How was your day?” Amelia enquired as Duncan secured his seat belt.
“Unusual, my love, like the weather. How was yours, everything alright with George?”
“George is fine. He had a shampoo and a trim so he's content.”
“A spa day for George. Sounds like a P. G. Wodehouse title. 'A Spa Day for George.'”
“So what was so unusual? A big sale?”
“No, unfortunately, not a big sale. I came across an odd Latin text though and decided to drop it off with Mélisande to see if she could . . .” he was going to say translate but juggling words in his head came out with, “tell me what it is. Then I dropped by to see Tom to ask him about what I found in the kitchen, and finally a brief visit with Rebecca to ask about the watermark on the paper of the Latin text.”
“There's a scratch on the frames of your glasses.”
He told her about his fall, his lunch at Café Hermeticum, the painting, and then he remembered about seeing the young man in the Redpath Library and told her all about him.
“This morning on my way to the vet, a car just like the one Natasha mentioned pulled up beside us at a red light. George got a look at the driver and made a strange little noise. All I saw was the car drive off. Maybe our so called homeless man is really the bohemian artist, boyfriend of Thérèse.”
“Did you follow him?”
Amelia came to an Arrêt sign. “I'm not Miss Marple. Anyway, in all likelihood we'll probably see the car and the young man all over the place now.”
“Is that how it goes?”
“Probabilities, my love. Ask Tom, I'm sure he knows all about it.”
Amelia was so much better at math, and most things, that he didn't really doubt her.


“I would like to raise a glass to Mary and Amelia for all their devotion and hard work in caring for Uncle Edward and George. To Mary and Amelia,” Duncan said, Amelia gently touching his foot with hers in affection.
“Hear, hear,” Noel intoned.
They all drank from their glasses and resumed their meal. Then Noel stood up and raised his glass. "A toast to Edward and his upcoming 92nd birthday, may he let us know where this fountain of youth resides."
 "Thank you all, you're very kind. This herring in mustard sauce is quite superb Mary, quite superb,” Edward said.
“It was a last minute challenge to find, but I'm glad you are enjoying the meal," Mary said.  "I didn't want to be fobbed off with a bit of menhaden. True herrings if you please. We do have very good fish shops in the city so it was not too difficult to find." 
Amelia didn't know what menhaden was but she thought it would be a good time to change the direction of the dinner conversation and ask a question of their guest. "So where were you born, Noel?”
“Humble origins, my dear. Seventy-two odd years ago in a small village called Bala in north central Wales, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. Picturesque, untouched, pristine in memory. It is beautifully situated on a lake, Llyn Tegid, which gives it a feeling of a Scottish landscape. I have many fond memories, many fond memories. It was a village lost in time somewhat, complete with its own mound, or moat-hill behind the grammar school. As children we used to pretend we were Roman soldiers battling for the top.” He paused, placing his fork and knife down, and picking up his glass. “I was seven when Lake Bala froze over. That was a cold winter. I remember the wonder of it but my parents must have experienced the concerns of privation. The war was over but commodities were no doubt still scarce.” He took a sip of wine. “Today it is thriving as a tourist location. Water sports, hiking, and there is a small-gauge Railway for scenic views along the lake.”
“Sounds lovely,” Amelia said.
“You must visit someday. If you're in the area, you won't be disappointed.”
“From Bala to an Oxford professorship,” Duncan said. “I always enjoy hearing stories of people coming from small towns and villages and achieving greatness in the greater world. How did you find your way into Renaissance studies at Oxford?”
“Greatness might be too strong a word for my achievements, but I was fortunate to receive scholarships when young and the path towards Oxford was not hindered as it can be for some. As for my area of study, I was drawn as a youth to the literary works and the history of the period, Spenser, Sidney and their brethren. My last book was a slim critical edition of George Chapman's The Shadow of Night published by Oxtoby and Snoad,, issued in a small edition, in a fine binding. A difficult book to lay one's hands on though I sent a copy to Edward here, so you may be able to peruse its contents if Edwards allows. My wife is the greater scholar though. She is younger and still active. She has a book coming out soon, a critical biography of Lady Mary Wroth.”
“I'm not familiar with the name,” Duncan said.”
“She is lesser known to be sure, but very interesting. The daughter of Robert Sidney. A fine poet and according to my wife, a feisty little thing, though don't quote me on that,” he added with a wink. “I know a few of her sonnets, let me see:

'In this strange labyrinth how shall I turn?
Ways are on all sides while the way I miss;
If to the right hand, there in love I burn;
Let me go forward, therein danger is;'”

Noel gestured with a sweep of his hand to his right where Amelia sat, and then a sweep of his hand to his left where Duncan sat.

“'If to the left, suspicion hinders bliss,
Let me turn back, shame cries I ought return
Nor faint, though crosses with my fortunes kiss;
Stand still is harder, although sure to mourn,

Thus let me take the right, or left hand way;
Go forward, or stand still, or back retire;
I must these doubts endure without allay
Or help, but travail find for my best hire;

Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move,
Is to leave all, and take the thread of love.'”

“Bravo, bravo,” Edward said raising his glass.
They all raised their glasses while Noel graciously nodded his head. “If not for my wife, such words would have been unknown to my heart.”
“Well, now I will have to do some reading about this Lady Mary Wroth,” Amelia said.
“Yes, do so, there is much to be enjoyed.”
“My being a translator, I realize I am a bit of a collector of words, so I know that the word labyrinth was used to designate maze in the past and was often interchangeable. Perhaps it is only now that the labyrinth has fully defined its usage as there has been a 'renaissance' in labyrinth walking over the last fifty years or so.”
“Has there indeed,” Noel said.
“Our friend Mélisande, a religious studies librarian, is also a labyrinth facilitator, and Duncan and I have walked labyrinths with her as a meditative practice. One curving path in and the same path out. It's a very calming and peaceful experience. No forks in the road, no decisions as to right or left.”
“I've never walked a labyrinth,” Noel said, looking up at the ceiling as if searching for a memory. “It does sound like a lovely way to clear the mind, quite different from getting lost in Hampton Court Maze.”
“Are you enjoying Montreal and our Scottish weather?” Duncan asked, ever keen on non sequiters.
“Yes, today does seem rather like being in the Highlands doesn't it. I have been here a week exploring the art galleries and museums. This morning I went out to breakfast with my daughter Elizabeth in Old Montreal and when we passed the Nelson Column, the one-armed duffer was shrouded above, couldn't get a glimpse of him.”
“The real Nelson is in the nearby history museum. The statue I mean. They took him down in the late 1990s and replaced him with a replica,” Duncan said.
“Duncan knows quite a bit about the monument,” Amelia added before feeling Duncan's foot gently nudge hers in embarrassment.
All eyes turned to Duncan and he felt his temperature rise.
“It's due to my Father really. When my brothers and I were young, he brought us down to the column and held us up and explained it to us each in turn. My Father pointed out proudly the thick cincture at the base of the column, a hawser rope which represented its nautical importance. Then the crossed anchors, the cannons, and the crocodile which represented the Egyptian period of Nelson's experience. From that moment my imagination conflated Captain Hook with the one-armed Nelson. Such was my child's mind,” he added, feeling foolish in leaving out the serious knowledge of the type of stone involved and how and where it was made, for his personal imaginative and childish memory.
"So Duncan, was your family originally from Scotland?”
“Yes, my Father's side of the family, a long history of cordage sellers. My Mother's family, however, came from Macclesfield. That wouldn't be too far from Bala I imagine."
“No, no, not too far," Noel said, gazing into his wine recollecting distant memories. "On one family vacation we passed through Chester and Macclesfield on our way to the Peak district. A fine little city with old stone homes I remember, though it must have changed since the 1950s.”
“Did you often go to the Peak District?” Mary asked.
“No, just the once. Our family generally passed a few weeks in summer  on the northern coast of Wales, at Rhos on Sea, renting a cottage. It was so quiet then. So peaceful even though it was a summer holiday location. Now with these noisy water crafts, jet skis and such, it is just not the same.”
“Have you been back to Bala?” Edward enquired.
“No, not for decades. I hear the old grammar school is now a restaurant however,” he said with raised eyebrows.

One of those pauses that overcome a dinner party descended upon them, their cutlery taking over with its silver banter; an interregnum, as if the empty sixth chair, the vacant seat at the end of the table ever set in memory of Lavinia, had subsumed their thoughts into silence,

“The old elementary school in NDG where my brothers and I attended is now a condominium,"  Duncan managed to break out with.  "Condominification, is taking over. Chocolate factories, cigarette factories, schools, churches, such is the world we live in. Some of them are quite well preserved and developed, but the prices are rather steep, and the unit space is rather limited. Not much room for bookshelves.”

“Yes, so true," Noel agreed. "The lack of space hinders and conditions the modern lifestyle. Our older choices of large homes filled with all the furnishings and trappings available seems quite divergent to the modern view of living. Indeed, where does one put all of one's books?"

“Now you boys can go to the living room and talk books while Amelia and I will talk about you and prepare some tea. Or perhaps you can take George out for a walk,” Mary at once demanded and suggested.

Duncan agreed to take George out, and Noel saying he could use a breath of air, accompanied him, leaving Edward to relax in his chair.

“I noticed a cat this afternoon when I arrived. Not Edward's I assume?”
“No, it's a stray that Amelia and I have been trying to trap and find a good home for. The winter is coming and the mountain's no place for a weak cat. Owls, hawks, and other dangers.”
“So, Edward tells me you're a bookseller on top of your continuing the family business. How are you managing?”
“Well, I've had my .  .  . discouragements. I'm walking a tightrope between them.”
“Ah, you are a funambulist.”
“Yes, you could say that. Possibly a somnambulant funambulist.”
"That would be quite a feat," Noel said, only realizing his pun in its aftermath. "No pun intended."
Duncan laughed. 
Noel, remembering his talk with Edward about Duncan and his affection for nautical terminology, said "Well, I am sorry to hear your ship is somewhat becalmed. But you do have books for ballast.”
“Hmm, it is more a lowly bark at the moment, and the ballast is aloft—the books are on the second floor. Perhaps the ship has been upside down and I haven't realized."
"Hmm, you're lacking some .  .  . leverage perhaps. Well, I hope you right yourself and the winds shift in your favour.  Don't make yourself walk the plank. No point in that I can tell you. Things will brighten up. They generally do."

They made their way down towards the crossroad of the loop.

“I've never heard of the publisher Oxtoby and Snoad. Where are they located?”
“Southwest of London in the town of Rye," Noel rolled his r with relish. "An old building hidden away. They publish fine bound editions, generally limited, although they have been branching out I hear.”
“Rye! We've been interested in visiting the town due to its literary associations with Henry James et al.”
“Oh, my God, it's a bit of a tourist haven, overrun during the summer months. If you do visit, try to visit early or late in the season. Many make the pilgrimage to Rye House, and of course The Mermaid Inn is famous, or infamous, for its ghosts. Yes, there is much in Rye. The husband and wife who run Oxtoby and Snoad are a peculiar pair. If you find them, say I sent you. They might even let you in.”

George stopped to do his business and they both looked up to the sky.

“I am surprised to see evidence of the strobe light through this heavy fog.”
“It comes from Place Ville Marie. Four large lights that turn slowly about, rather like a lighthouse. As a child in NDG . . .”
“I am sorry to interrupt but what is this NDG?” Noel enquired.
“A district to the west of here, down towards the very beginnings of the slope of Mount Royal. Notre Dame de Grace, anglophied as NDG, or No Damn Good as my cousin from Lachine would call it. Humans, we're so tribal. Anyway, I had a room over the garage, a den, with two enormous windows facing the north east. I have wonderful memories of lying on my bed, the two double windows pulled open, the smell of light rain in the air, and I would watch the strobe light scanning the undersides of the clouds. I used to count the seconds between each sweep, and dream I was on a ship at sea passing a lighthouse.”
They stood there silently, watching the light and counting the seconds.
"I seem to remember it being fourteen seconds but it seems faster now."
"Ah, time does move faster as we age," Noel said with a smile in the dark.

Tea and shortbread were served in the living room. A general silence overcame them as they swirled and clinked their spoons waiting for Noel to return from the washroom.

“I see the young man is still hanging on the landing,” Noel said, standing quietly at the door, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of hot tea.
“The only place that will have him,” Edward said. “I find I rarely look at him these days. His eyes, you see, never let you go.”
“As a child, my sister and I would race up the stairs trying not to look, but we felt  his eyes on our backs as we ran up to the second floor,” Amelia said. “Then we would peek around the corner, and sure enough, he caught us peeking every time. When we got older, we both rather fell in love with him. He is handsome and dashing and . . . dominating.”
“A rival for your heart I see,” Duncan said with a smile.
“What is his story Edward? I don't think you ever revealed it to me,” Noel said before sipping his tea.
“Well, to make a long story short, his name was William Philip Seymour, and he was connected with the English court in The Netherlands. When Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I married Frederick V, Elector of Palatine of the Rhine in 1613 or so, there was great hope the achievements of the Elizabethan period would be transferred to the German court at Heidelberg and possibly carry on with the great liberal intellectual pursuits that had taken place in Prague under Rudolph II. It was a time, as Noel well knows, of political intrigues. Protestants of England and northern Europe versus the Catholics of Spain and the Hapsburgs. When Frederick attained the status of King of Bohemia, they settled in Prague for the year 1619-1620.” Edward paused, dunking a shortbread piece into his tea, and munching it while he looked thoughtfully up at the portrait of Lavinia over the fireplace mantel. “I've told the story many times but with every telling, details fall between the words. But, I shall continue. There was a failure of the Protestants to come together to defend the territory from the Catholics. James I, the Princess Elizabeth's own Father failed to support them. In short, they had to flee to the Netherlands where they set up court in exile while the Thirty Years War raged. You can imagine the destruction. The rare libraries and records destroyed. A terrible time. Well, my distant relative was involved in the intrigues of the day and the relationship with the court in exile. He had the painting done in The Hague sometime in the 1620s, I believe, by a Dutch artist. I have been told the artist could be Jan van Ravestyn, a very talented portrait artist.”
“I could just make out two books under his left hand,” Noel mentioned.
“Yes, two volumes of some kind. The painting is very dirty and no doubt would sparkle with a cleaning. Perhaps enough to reveal symbols and signs on the bindings."
“And what became of him?” Noel asked.
“He died not long after the painting was completed. The stories vary as to how.” Edward finished his cookie and drank tea while everyone's thoughts were in the past.

© ralph patrick mackay.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

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

“That's one of the ironies of being in space,” Noel Welwyn Gough said.
"What is that sir?” the taxi driver asked, his lively dark eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror.
“Well, the astronaut in the space capsule or space station doesn't have much room, and yet, looking out of the window . . . boundless space.”
“Very much ironic, yes,” and he chuckled. Noel braced himself in the back seat of the small cab, while the driver took the corner with one hand on the wheel and the other gesticulating to the space beyond the window, “boundless space. Yes, quite humorous.”

North American cabs, a complex diversity of models, sizes, shapes and colours, were forever a challenge to Noel, conditioned as he was, to the singularly iconic London cabs with their spacious interiors and their ease of entry and exit. Having to lean down and slide in through the narrow angled opening of taxis in North America seemed like a stretching exercise for a contortionist. How did the elderly manage he wondered? Although he was 72, he didn't think of himself as elderly. Such a demographic was still represented somewhat by his long deceased parents. Somehow, his parents were forever old. He imagined his elderly Mother trying to get in and out of one of these vehicles, then added snow into the bargain, and shook his head, inwardly, ever sensitive to taxi drivers and their sensitivity to admonishments as to their driving habits. Montreal, he was told by his daughter, was famous for the manoeuvres of its taxi drivers. If you were in a desperate chase of a vehicle ahead, like some private eye in a movie of the 1950s, 'follow that car cabbie!' Montreal was your kind of place. Montreal, where the pedestrians had a breadth of interpretation when it came to red lights, and jay walking was as common as pigeons on the sidewalk. A city to keep you on your toes and on the edge of your seat, he thought.

The taxi drove up the curving street, the large older homes and enormous looming trees on the slope of the mountain seeming to hover in the darkening thick atmosphere. Approaching the juncture, Noel instructed the driver to keep to his right and make his way around the loop to the far side. As they passed the fork in the road, Noel realized the police cars were no longer in evidence. When he had visited his friends Edward and Lavinia in the early 1980s, two police cars were forever stationed on the street, one facing up, and the other facing down on the opposite side of the fork. Thomson and Thompson Edward had called them with affection. Ever since the 1970 abduction of the British Trade Commissioner, the street had been supplied with these supernumerary security eyes. The locals must have both loathed and appreciated them. Loathed for the reminder of the incident and for the unpleasant constant sight of security, and appreciative for the sense of protection they provided for their homes. He must remember to avoid mentioning them. The city has moved on. Without them, however, Noel felt he was passing between an unseen Scylla and Charybdis.

He tipped the cabbie generously and told him to drive safely. He watched as the taxi disappeared down the street, making its passage towards the perils and possibilities of the unknown in the vibrant shrouded city below. A beautiful city, now austere, grey, and humming with its covert movements in the mist. A wealth of experiences lay before a young man like that he thought with a touch of envy. A new generation and its own discoveries.

Pressing the doorbell, he heard the muted Gothic sound within, a sound which reminded him of his bell-ringing days in Bala and beyond. Out of the corner of his vision he glimpsed a rather forlorn looking cat scurry amidst the shrubbery. Then he heard the clipping footsteps of a dog approaching the other side of the door. It couldn't be George II. That would be a miracle. The door opened wide with theatrical aplomb, “Welcome, welcome, welcome! And you brought English weather with you,” Edward said greeting Noel with open arms as George III sniffed and gazed upwardly with circumspection.
“Welsh weather, my dear Edward, Welsh weather, a marriage of heaven and earth” Noel laughingly replied shaking Edward's hand with a gentle strength and great warm feeling.
“Come in, come in. And what is this?” Edward asked receiving a package from Noel.
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. A bottle of Port to remember the good days. You're looking very well. You haven't changed a bit. When was the last time we met? Was it in London, no it was in Florence, in . . 1998.”
“Yes, that's right, Florence,” Edward said. Then after a pause, “Fourteen years. Well, they've been good to you as well. You're looking healthy, hale and hearty, or is it the other way around?”
“Well, there is more than a touch of winter in this old beard.”
“Dapper as always I see.”
“I have reached the age Edward when a bow-tie is almost expected. I have tried to resist the cravat however. One has to draw the line somewhere,” he added with a wink. “I remember as a child of seven and eight, a bow tie was de rigueur. Perhaps the Bard got it wrong after all. It should be the three ages of man: bow tie, straight tie, and bow tie.”
“And what would the ages of woman be?”
“I'm quite sure Miriam could tell me. Probably one endless age of looking after men.”
“How is your dear wife?”
“She is well and she sends you all her love.”
They made their way into the living room, George III sniffing at the cuffs of Noel's trousers.
“And which George is this?”
“George the third.”
He turned, and bending low, introduced himself to the dog formally and proffered his hand. George promptly took advantage of this offer and sniffed and licked the clean and slightly chapped fingers. “Perhaps the reason for your youthful looks is all the Georges you've had,” he said looking into the lovely liquid eyes of the dog and petting his soft yet stiff curly hair. “Or is there a painting in the attic we should know about?”

“It might be a bit early in the day for a glass of Port, but this is a special occasion,” Edward said handing a glass to Noel.
“I think we should raise a glass to Lavinia and Miriam.”
“To Lavinia and Miriam,” Edward said. They raised their glasses and gently clinked them together.
“Please have a seat Noel, have a seat. Mary is just having a wee nap and we have some time to chat. My niece Amelia and her husband Duncan, the bookseller, will be joining us for dinner.”
“Excellent. Five for dins. A toast to the wonderful Mary.”
“Yes indeed,” and they raised their glasses. “So, how is your daughter?”
“Elizabeth is very busy, very busy, and prospering. She has a condo. An investment. Whether she sells now or rents it while she is in Paris, she will make a profit. It's a rum business.” Noel's occasional rolled 'R' was highly emphasized on this word. “A parking space cost $35,000!” he said taking a sip of Port.
“Ah, my annual tax bill.”
Noel raised his eyebrows at this revelation. “An expensive bit of air to be sure. But you made an excellent investment here considering what you must have paid for it in the mid 1960s. A toast to you Edward.” Another glass raised. A brief silence overtook them while George looked on, at ease.
“Why Paris?”
“Paris? Oh yes, a transfer. Up the ladder. She will be a hop away from Miriam and I, so that will be very nice. I believe there is a man involved as well. A Parisian named Philip. Perhaps Miriam and I will have a new son-in-law.”
Edward raised his glass, “To Elizabeth and Philip.”
Both recognizing the unintended Royal reference, they laughed.

© ralph patrick mackay