Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Thirty

Photograph | Lady Galt's house, Mountain Street, Montreal, QC, 1899 | II-128067
While looking out of the upper window anticipating Noel's arrival, Duncan tapped his feet and slapped his hands on his thighs to the beat of the song Waves by the group Metric. One visit with Yves and here he was listening to pop music. The street below was quiet. A few parked cars. No one on foot. The fog had lingered, an atmosphere wavering up and down like a pious spirit in  prayer. Then he saw a taxi cab draw up, and Noel, well-dressed, or 'spiffy' as his brother used to say, emerged. Duncan turned the cd player off and quickly went down stairs to the front door of the shop.

Noel mimicked a salute as he approached. “Permission to come aboard, Sir?”

“Glad you could make it,” Duncan said, locking the door and flipping the sign for potential customers to ring for admittance.

Duncan gave him a quick tour of the remnant cordage business on the main floor and then they scaled the stairs to the upper level where his Lafcadio & Co. Bookshop was sequestered in shadow. Duncan turned on a few overhead lights, and went around turning on lamps to warm the space up. He pointed to the bookshelves towards the back of the large space, “Please browse freely,” Duncan said sweeping a hand towards the books. “I'll boil water for tea. If you need help, just call me."

Noel began to explore the space with his eyes. In front of the large front window, two comfy chairs and a small round table, then Duncan's desk covered in books and papers and his computer, then to the far side near the front, a little area for his kitchen amenities, and behind it all, the floor to ceiling bookshelves arranged on either side of a central aisle which ended with a pedestal table upon which stood a large porcelain angel holding an open book in its hands, staring at him from the distant shadows. The bookshelves came out from the walls to form U shapes, individual private browsing spaces, so if one stood at the front and look towards the back, there could be twelve possible browsers lost in the their bookish browsing nooks. Noel turned into the first one on his left side. He noticed a wooden sign tilting down from the uppermost shelf, Sir Lancelot, the letters in gilt. He turned around and looked across the aisle at the facing nook, Sir Percivale. In order to grasp the overall arrangement, he walked out to the aisle and made his way towards the angel, looking left, Sir Gawain, Sir Geraint, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Bedivere. Pausing to inspect the porcelain angel with its finely detailed feathered wings, a shiver came over him as he looked into its eyes, seemingly blind in depiction. Noel looked up to see three small prints, scenes of fantastic sea ports, fortresses on hills, sloops and barks with their canvas sails full with the breeze, and in the foreground, locals in exotic dress. He continued his tour looking into the nooks on the opposite side, Sir Galahad, Sir Kay, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Lamorak, Sir Tristan, and once again, Sir Percivale. Noel shifted his glasses to the end of his nose and looked at Duncan who sat at his desk writing. He checked himself from asking him about the arrangement, and continued where he had begun, discovering, after a few moments, that the books were seemingly on all subjects, intermixed. Only with a second look did he realize they were alphabetical, by author: Kobo Abe, Irving Abella, Douglas Adams, Addison, Alfred Adler, Aeschylus, Mark Akenside, Agricola, Alighieri, Amis, Piers Anthony, Apollinaire, Apollonius, Apuleius, Hubert Aquin, Aquinas, Matthew Arnold, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Arrian, Artaud, Ascham, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, John Aubrey, Auden, Audubon, Austen, Auster, J. L. Austin, A. J. Ayer. . . .

He heard a phone ringing in the distance, then the sound of Duncan going down the stairs. Looking around the end of the bookshelf, he heard the kettle beginning its reluctant whine and hiss. He walked over to Duncan's desk and looked down to see a manuscript held open by the weight of a dark blue cd case, Metric, Fantasies. The manuscript was a  meaningless jumble of numbers and letters that resembled a text. He walked back and quietly resumed his browsing, mystified.


Noel was dipping into Chats on Old Pewter by H. J. L. Massé, when he heard a knock on the end of the wood shelving unit, and Duncan appeared.

“Hello, anyone there? I thought I lost you.”

“Well,” Noel said, closing the book on old pewter, “I could easily lose myself here for quite a few hours.”

“Are you finding my arrangement a bit of a puzzle?” Duncan asked, looking down to the stool to see a small stack of books, Lucian's True History, Heliodorus's An Ethiopean History in a limp vellum binding, and an 1853 copy of The Works of Apuleius.

“I see you follow the Knights of the Round Table cataloguing system.” Noel said gesturing to the sign of Sir Galahad. 

 Duncan laughed. “If you would like a break, I've made a nice pot of tea.”

They made their way to the upholstered chairs by the window, a teapot under a cozy, cups, milk, sugar, and a plate of biscuits were on the table.

“When I moved my stock here,” he said as he poured the tea, “I decided to make it simple. All books, no matter what the subject, shelved alphabetically. Milk?”

“Yes, please, and just a touch of sugar. Thank you.”

“Since I would only be selling over the Internet, such an arrangement was possible. My computer database has all the subject catalogues.” Duncan handed Noel his tea. “As for the Knights and the Angel, they were a purchase from an estate sale.  I was called one day and asked to come round and look over a private library for sale. Finding that I was the first dealer to see the books and other items was a pleasant and rare occurrence. I bought twenty large boxes of good books that day. The couple overseeing the estate sale didn't know what the signs were used for, and they were glad to part with the Angel for a pittance. Twenty dollars I think I paid.”

“Are you still out there buying books?”

“No, not so much these days.” Duncan sipped his tea and looked at Noel who seemed truly interested. “I've attended book sales for over thirty years. The long line-ups in the cold autumn and spring mornings, and the hot physical scrums of jostling pickers and dealers is behind me.” Duncan finished his cup of tea, his thirst overcoming him. “One of the saddest sights in that world was seeing an older dealer, Mr. Belkin, holding his broken glasses that some young turk had knocked off his face while in the heat of a McGill University Book Sale.” Duncan sighed and filled his cup and offered more to Noel. “The image stays with me. It's like an engraving on my wall of memory. Mr. Belkin was in his fifties at the time, a large man. I'm sure he could haves squashed the punk who did it, but he carried on, the older ladies running the show provided some tape for his glasses.” Duncan stared at the plate of biscuits, as if it was the source of memory.

“Sounds like a competitive sport,” Noel offered.

“Yes, the search for the valuable among the dross can be competitive. I don't miss it." Duncan paused thinking of those who were still out there scrambling for books in this baffling new market. "So, how is the Ritz Carlton Hotel?” 

“Superb, an old-world elegance to be sure.”

“I've lived in Montreal all my life, and I've never set foot in the place. Passed it countless times, watched rich people helped in or out, peeked in as I passed, and said hello to the square-shouldered doorman, but never once have I been over the threshold.”

“Well, Duncan, we will fix that on Thursday evening.”

“Yes, Amelia told me of your invitation, thank you, I look forward to the dinner.” Duncan said.

"A fellow Hotel guest mentioned to me in the elevator, that the Montreal novelist, Mordecai Richler had been a regular patron of the Ritz Carlton Bar."

“Yes, that's right," Duncan said, "and a few other convivial watering holes too I believe. Oh, sorry, that doesn't sound very good, the Ritz Bar as a watering hole!"

"Maybe I should read one of his novels," Noel said ignoring Duncan's last remark. "Any recommendations?”

Duncan thought for a moment, gauging Noel's sense of humour, and going over the story lines in his head. “They're all good, but perhaps St. Urbain's Horseman might be just the book. I have a signed hard cover copy if you want, or if you're travelling light, a paperback.”

“The paperback will do, thank you,” Noel said taking a biscuit. “Did you ever meet him?”

Duncan threw his head back and laughed lightly. “I did meet him once, but it was not auspiciously.” Duncan munched on a cookie, the crumbs falling onto his corduroys. “My brothers and I were working at my Father's little cottage in the Eastern Townships, cutting trees, chopping wood, and various other manual jobs. I said I would go check the mail at the small crossroads town of Austin. Blink and you miss it back then. I imagine it's built up these days. Anyway, there I was, sweaty, dirty, dressed in my work clothes and baseball cap, and looking altogether like a local farm hand, when up drives a car, and who emerges, Mordecai Richler. I was sitting on the stairs eating french fries.” Duncan sighed and brushed the crumbs off his trousers. “Not how I wanted to meet a famous author.”

“Did you say anything?” Noel asked with much interest.

“I managed to mumble, 'I enjoy your work very much,' gesturing with a french fry. Not my greatest moment,” he said shaking his head.

“Did he respond?”

“I think he was as surprised as me,” Duncan said looking out the window shaking his head. “He had a supple, soft, rich voice and as he passed me, his aromatic schimmelpenninck cigarillo in one hand, he thanked me very much and said my fries looked good.” Stretching out his legs, he took a sip of tea. “I knew he had a cottage in the area, but I never expected to bump into him. Life adds a little . . . trajectorial fun, when you least expect it. ”

“Trajectorial fun? I like that. Not sure if it's accepted English, but it has flow,” Noel said waving his cookie in the air before him. “I noticed a few books by a Hugh MacLennan. The title Two Solitudes seems familiar.”

Duncan nodded his head not quite sure where Noel was leading the conversation. “Yes, it's a very good book, important in its day, but, for me at least, seems a bit dated. I prefer reading the novels of Brian Moore," Duncan added as an aside. "MacLennan believed there was an affinity between the Scottish people and the French in their historical experiences, so he was sensitive to the issues in Québec at the time. He taught at McGill for many years. I was fortunate to take his course on the modern novel in the last year he was teaching, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and even Waugh's Brideshead were covered among others which I can't remember.”

“Was he a good professor?”

Duncan tilted his head to the side as if such a motion would help shift memories to the fore. Looking over at Noel, a man who had held a professorship at Oxford for many years, he didn't want to say anything obnoxious about academics. “I don't think he wanted to teach, though he was extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, Latin and Greek were his solid foundation. He could shift between a joke and a serious point in one sentence. I remember his voice was resonant due to his heavy smoking habit, and his accent was an odd mixture of East Coast Canada where he was born, and a mid-Atlantic flare possibly from his years as a Rhodes scholar.” Duncan looked up to the ceiling and crossed his legs once more. “I stopped and talked to him once outside his office, and asked him about his years teaching at Lower Canada College.”

“Oh, he taught there,” Noel said. “It must have been before my late friend Frederick Jones made an appearance.”

“Yes, it was in the thirties I think. It must have rather bleak back then." Duncan sat up straight and crossed his arms. "Even I remember many corner lots were mere overgrown swamps with cut-through paths when I grew up there in the 1960s. My grandfather had settled in NDG in the first decade of the twentieth century when it was mainly farm land and summer vacation homes. He ended up having quite a few houses built for his children, my Father's house included, only a few blocks away from LCC which appeared on the scene as a boarding school in 1909 I believe. Sorry, I'm rambling. Anyway, Professor MacLennan said it was indeed bleak, the pay was poor, and the teaching level was beneath what he knew he was capable of. I remember he quoted a Latin phrase with a wink, and I just nodded like I knew what he was talking about," Duncan laughed and looked at Noel for acceptance. "His smile was elusive. He would keep his upper lip over his front teeth and only rarely would you get the full smile. I sensed he was a decent kind man.”

Noel nodded, sipped his tea, while memories of his teaching days reemerged after years of forgetfulness.

“The wife of a friend of mine told a story about MacLennan,” Duncan began. “It's so odd I don't think it's apocryphal."

Noel was aroused from the past and said, “Oh, yes.”

“Supposedly the author was staying at the large old home of her parents and they heard a scream coming from the guest bedroom.”

“A ghost?” Noel asked.

“No, nothing so dramatic. A needle.”

“A needle?”

“Yes. Her parents went to investigate and called through the door to see if the author was all right. He responded by telling him that upon getting into bed, a needle had pierced him in the .  .  ," Duncan hesitated, unable to decide upon the word to use, "scrotum," he said finally.

“Oh, dear,” Noel said shifting his legs about. “I'd rather have the ghost.”

“Yes, me too.”

“A needle in the bed linens, not a pleasant thought to be sure."

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Duncan asked.

“Britain is overrun by ghosts, Duncan, real or imagined. I've never experienced one, but Oxford has its share.” He paused and helped himself to a chocolate biscuit. “There is a story my wife likes to tell visitors. It is the tale of Rosamund, a nun who had caught the eye of King Henry II. Supposedly, he kept her as a concubine in a special garden within a labyrinth—or no doubt, a maze as your good wife elucidated for us last night—and it was guarded by a Knight who held a thread of silver, which when followed led to Rosamund. The Queen killed the Knight, quite a feat in itself, then followed the thread and offered the fair maiden a chalice of wine,  poisoned wine. And so this poor Rosamund haunts the Trout Pub in Wolvercote, which is only minutes from central Oxford as the crow flies.”

“A fascinating story,” Duncan said quietly. “I had an experience when I was younger." Duncan looked at Noel who looked back with interest, nodding an encouragement. "I've only told a select few, my brothers, Amelia, and Edward." He paused while he gathered the facts from memory. "My Mother passed away in 1970, when I was twelve. My Father arranged for her visitation and funeral service to be held at a prominent funeral home on Mountain street near St. Catherine Street which had catered to many Protestant families over the years. After the visitations were finished, I remember going into the washroom of the old elegant building to wash my face, the image of my Mother's open coffin still haunting my inner eye.  I was so young. I was still in a state of shock I guess. But I stood in front of the sink which had a very wide large mirror above, and as I finished washing my hands and face, I looked up to see a circle of condensation on the mirror, to the right and above me. It had not been there when I first looked in the mirror. I got up on my toes, held my breath, and looked at this strange circle of what appeared to be a warm breath on a cold mirror, in a perfect circle the size of a silver dollar. It lasted for what seemed minutes, and then gently evaporated to a central point and vanished altogether.”

“That is an extraordinary experience Duncan. Striking, very striking," Noel said. "We know so much these days, yet there are mysteries beyond our comprehension."

"I've never known what to think. Was it the spirit of my Mother, or was it some other presence? Was it a hallucination? A trick of the light?"

"Certainly a unique story to my ears. Condensation on a mirror, perfectly formed." 

“The story continues though. A few years later, about 1978 or 1979, when I was dating a young woman from Hong Kong who was into dancing and discotheques—not my thing, but one adapts—she wanted to go to this new disco simply called 1234. When she told me the address was 1234 Mountain Street, I remember feeling nauseous. A discotheque where there had once been solemn services, pain, weeping, sadness . . . death." Duncan shook his head.  "But we went. We went numerous times. There I was dancing in what used to be the chapel surrounded by a mob of glazed-eyed merriment and exaltation of the physical senses. Dancing trance-like in a celebration of life, energy and youth. Hormones mixing with liquor spirits and powder substances in a rite of sensual colour and movement. The big hair, the laughter, the broad smiles, the make-up, the perfume, the cigarette smoke, the disco ball above, spinning out its flashes of light, the strobe lights, the deafening music, the pulsing of the beat rising up from the floor into your legs, the scrum at the bar, the young men in the bathroom  prepping their hair and straigthtening their leather ties and brushing their suits, padded at the shoulder in the fashion of the day. It was bizarre. And yet, I never told my girlfriend of what I had experienced there years earlier. I held on to the sacred memory and the unusual experience.” Duncan felt himself flushed with emotion and fatigue. “I'm sorry, I haven't thought about it for awhile. It just came rushing out, fresh and vivid. Forgive me.”

“Not at all,” Noel offered, “an extraordinary experience indeed.” He reached over and patted Duncan's shoulder. “An extraordinary experience indeed.”

“After that, I proceeded to do research into the house. I guess I became slightly obsessed with the address. It had started as a private residence back in 1859. Owned by a . . . David Wood, yes, he was partner in a firm of wholesale wool merchants. The house number began as 188 Mountain, then 290 Mountain, and then at sometime in the twentieth century it became 1234 Mountain. This Mr. Wood became an advocate after his business went into liquidation. He then appears as Secretary and Treasurer of a mining company owned by a man who lived nearby on an adjacent corner of the street. Then, in 1872, no more Mr. Wood. The house is purchased by Alexander Galt, the youngest son of the Scottish author and poet John Galt."

"And did you research them as well?" Noel enquired with interest.

"Yes, to a small extent," Duncan said resuming his tale. "Alexander was a prominent politician and one of the main proponents of Canadian Confederation, making a trip to London with a few others to put their case before the British Parliament. At one time he had an audience with Queen Victoria. Anyway, that was his Montreal residence. He died in 1893. His widow in her widow's weeds lived there till 1902 when the funeral business took it over.” Duncan got up and stretched looking out upon the grey day.

“Well, here we are exchanging ghost stories as the fog oozes around the windows and under the doors like it was 1912 and not 2012,” Noel said, joining him at the window. I've enjoyed our chat, but I best be on my way. I'm to meet my daughter for dinner this evening. We are going to something called Le Festin du Gouverneur.”

More ghosts Duncan thought. “Oh, you'll have a wonderful time. Amelia and I have had dinner there. Great fun. So, I'll just get that paperback for you, and are you interested in buying the other books?”

“Yes, yes. The Lucian, Heliodorus, and Apuleius, but not the book on Pewter. Tally it up, let me know the damage.”

Duncan went to find the Richler book, and picked up a paperback copy of Two Solitudes as well. He sat down and tallied up the books, then gave Noel the 15% discount he usually gave friends and other dealers. He looked down at the adding machine, $123.40. He sat at his desk frozen with the peculiar and singular coincidence of the price, the phosphorescent numbers glimmering before him. He wrote out a receipt for $125.00 “I'll  throw these paperbacks in as a gift, and of course our lovely bookmarks wouldn't go amiss.” He wrapped the books in paper and taped the ends like a present, wrapped them in a plastic bag and placed them in another plastic bag for the best protection against the elements. Handing the bag to Noel with the receipt he told him he could pay him anytime, cheque or cash was fine. Noel thanked him, and as they waited for the taxi to pick him up, they stood in awkward silence. The revelations that had passed between them were  heavy weighted secrets that had cleared their minds of everyday minutiae. Stories that deserved a solemn and quiet leave taking. They shook hands as the taxi arrived. Noel thanked him and wished him well.

“See you Thursday evening,” Noel added as he opened the car door.

“Enjoy your dinner tonight,” Duncan said with a wave, hoping Noel would experience a ghostless encounter in the old Fort where so many soldiers died and supposedly roamed the grounds after dark.

© ralph patrick mackay

Note: The image of Lady Galt's house, 290 Mountain Street, Montreal, c.1899 by William Notman & Sons, is care of The McCord Museum, the link to the original photograph can be found here..

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