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.

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