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

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