Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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

Arthur Roquebrune sat at the kitchen table quietly stirring a cup of warm milk, the raw sugar granules at the bottom, grinding before the spoon like dirt in the escapement of a fine clock. 

A memory of his Father came to him. His Father sitting at the old homestead's long golden pine kitchen table, stirring his morning coffee, and then tapping the spoon on the rim like a call to order. So many mornings ago. So many coffees. So many spoons. He gently withdrew the spoon and looked down at the swirling foamy milk and thought of distant galaxies and how far back in time they were, distant stars and stellar gases perceptibly reducing his sense of reality, making him feel like he was hovering just above the chair, the house around him held together by a seemingly haphazard combination of forces, everything so conditional and temporal. The thought of his dead parents now being part of this universe or universes, energy, vapour, dust, spirit, brought him back to reality. There was a weight to sorrow, a weariness in the fundamental memory of family.

Getting up, he carried his milk to the kitchen door, paused to look at the clock which read 1:23 a. m., and then turned out the light and made his way down the hall to his study. Sitting in the large Wingback chair in front of his desk, he sipped his milk and imagined himself behind the desk, trying to imagine what Thérèse would see if she were sitting here this morning? A foolish man? A man caught up in a professional request he should have quietly shelved? A guilty man for introducing a young woman to possible danger? He shook his head at his imaginary self.

His mind went over the events of the evening. His driving down to the office and dealing with the alarm system; his search for the key in his desk for Jerome's apartment, then the decision to go to the locked vault to look at the files of David Ashemore with the thought that he should dispose of them without a discussion with Wormwood or Verdigris, and then finding nothing but a clean metal shelf gleaming dully in the overhead light where Ashemore's files should have been. How he had searched, with a mounting sense of possible danger, as if someone might still be in the building, but finding nothing. Ashemore's boxes and files were gone. Even the dust that must have surrounded them on the shelf had been wiped away. He had almost thought it all a dream.

There must be a reason for this he thought. Ashemore has been dead a year. Why the sudden interest and actions taken? A change of personnel perhaps? A command to clean up the previous mess, deal with the loose ends and close the file once and for all? Write David Ashemore off for good, cleanly with no repercussions? Mr. Roquebrune had not revealed any of the Ashemore story to his wife, a case which had turned into a misfortune of cascading importunities. His profession had already occupied too much of their possible time together, all those six and seven day weeks. The long hours. They added up to years. Years.

He had driven home nervously looking in the rear view mirror for signs of being followed, but only noticed the receding darkness interspersed with splashes of light from the street lamps overhead.

His wife had accompanied him back to Jerome's rented space behind their house, and together, like the aged sleuths Poirot and Miss Marple, they had begun to investigate. Little was revealed except that Jerome was fairly neat and tidy, was working on what looked to be studies of an old Renaissance portrait of a lovely woman, and that he was possibly reading an oddly titled book of poetry called Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra by someone called P. K. Loveridge. Everything had seemed in order. Mrs. Roquebrune, however, discovered that Jerome's answering machine had reached its capacity for messages. She pushed the play button and they listened to a string of automated messages, contests for cruises, a message from his dentist, one from someone called Pascal Tessier concerning a sale of a painting, and long mysterious silent messages in between them all, as if silence was a message in itself. Mr. Roqubrune wondered if Thérèse had been calling just to listen to his voice on the machine and wait to see if he picked up. As they had approached the door to leave, Mrs. Roquebrune had noticed a business card on the floor beneath a coat rack, a business card for Jonathan Landgrave, of Landgrave & Landgrave, Notaries. Arthur had tuned it over to see “the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi by Agnolo Bronzino” written on the back in a bold script. His wife had asked him if he knew the notaries. He knew of them he told her. An excellent firm.

They had walked back to their home each imagining differing scenarios. A missing painting? A request for a forgery? A possible death of a painter? Approaching the back door steps, they had both imagined a drawing room crowded with an assemblage of shady characters, one of them guilty, their imaginations fuelled by the British mystery series they would watch on Sunday evenings, their one television indulgence.

It had been with uneasiness that he had dialled the long-distance number for Thérèse in Bergen, his guilt  echoed with each dissonant tone in his ear, his index finger pressing down harder and harder as he went through the numbers, the sounds assaulting his ear like the self punishment of a penitent. She had answered almost immediately and Arthur had resigned himself to supposition and conjecture. No, Jerome had not been at home, but all was in order. He must be out for the evening he had said. Nothing was amiss he had assured her. He would phone her tomorrow with further information concerning Jerome and the Ashmore case. He had tried to reassure her there was no danger, but, all the while, had been indecisive whether to reveal to her that the files had disappeared from Wormwood & Verdigris. Would it make her feel safer to know, or the reverse? Since it was late, he had decided to leave it till tomorrow.

He would phone Jonathan Landgrave in the morning after checking to see if Jerome was at home. Then, the phone call to Thérèse.

What would a relatively poor painter be doing with the business card of a specialist in hypothecary and real estate law he wondered? Landgrave was involved in many large projects involving condominium and commercial developments, and had created a firm with his brother that had prospered even in the hard times. He fingered the card, turning it over in his left hand like a detective with a single clue. A portrait by Bronzino of Lucrezia Panciatichi?

He got up and went around to sit at his desk and pulled out a file from the lower drawer, a file that he turned to when faced with troubled thoughts. His pastime was translating poetry, and before him was Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and Paul Valéry's Le Cimetière Marin to which he was giving his attention of late. Translating one into French and the other into English provided an outlet for his creative talents and allowed him to forget the day.

He looked upon the next stanza of the Valéry poem to translate, and read it with faint hope.

Temple du Temps, qu'un seul soupir résume,
A ce point pur je monte et m'accoutume,
Tout entouré de mon regard marin;
Et comme aux dieux mon offrande suprême,
La scintillation sereine sème
Sur l'altitude un dédain souverain.

As he sharpened a pencil, he consoled himself that the sun was rising in Bergen, a fresh day with a renewed bustle of citizens and the safety of light.

© ralph patrick mackay

Saturday, March 23, 2013

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

Jerome looked out from the bedroom window. The black feather remained on the window ledge like a slender leaf, while below, an exterior light diffusely washed a small area of the gravel walkway revealing fallen leaves like footsteps of an errant wanderer.

He returned to the desk and sat down. He stirred the spoon in the glass of water before him and watched as it was transformed into a shrouded consistency much like the atmosphere outside. It had been recommended by Declan to overcome the richness of the dinner. His housekeeper's recipe. It tasted salty and slightly bitter, much like baking soda and something unknown to him.

He opened the journal he had started, and began to write.

It is late. It must be past midnight. Wednesday, in the dark, awakening. I was just looking out of the bedroom window at fallen leaves on the pathway below and thought of Thérèse, the leaves like her distant footsteps. I remembered that oracles used to write their answers on leaves and disperse them, the redeemers having to decipher the order and meaning. The leaves below could be messages from a forest oracle. If I gathered them, would I discover an answer to my question concerning the mystery of Thérèse, or would the ambiguity of the answer lead me astray, reflect my fears, mirror my desires? Or are they but scattered emissaries of oblivion, or mere dust in my hands, sans sign or symbol, a lure to coax me out into the night and its uncertainties?

This reminds me of my youth, staying up late and writing night thoughts while the city slept.

The night is foggy once again. Declan said it was a half-moon night. The evergreen trees in the distance seem to be one dark structure with Gothic carved pinnacles, a wilderness cathedral for a fairy tale land where panthers and unicorns wander secretly, tempting me to leave this comfortable warm room for its very inverse.

Oh, dear, the wine is still talking.

When Thaddeus escorted me down to dinner, we passed a fine Longcase clock with hands like a sword handle and blade cutting the day in two, six o'clock; there was nothing odd about that, except that it was still at six o'clock when I passed on my way back to my room. The strange thing is, I thought I heard it ticking.

When Thaddeus left me, I waited in the drawing room for my host and hostess, a comfortable space with antique furnishings and nineteenth century English art. Declan, husband of Lucrezia, took me by surprise when he entered the room. He is a fascinating man and a tempting model for a painting so unique are his features. He comes from humble beginnings, Irish Catholic poverty in Point St. Charles. Self-made he seems, self-made he is.

But the dinner! I've never eaten venison let alone squab. Foie gras stuffed squab at that. I overcame my resistance and looked upon it as an experience, but I admit to not eating all the meat—the vegetables helped me through. The wine was very robust and loosened my tongue. It was a fine dark red Malbec from France, Cahors, the very best according to Declan. Thankfully though, he's not a wine snob.

Lucrezia was dressed in dark slacks, and a blue blouse with a strand of pearls. Declan was in green. Even though they were both casually dressed, I still felt a bit shabby, but was not made to feel so. Lucrezia was at first quiet before dinner, but later became more talkative, a few gleams of fugitive wit. One phrase I remember was, “I generally look up when things are on the way down.” I can't quite remember in what context she said it though. I would think it more his sort of phrase. Perhaps it is and she used it. Stocks falling in value, birds falling out of the air, autumn leaves descending, or the decline of old money. Best to be out of the way if things are falling I would say. Or is it possibly a religious reference? Fallen angels? Back to my imaginary oracle.

I'm still a bit muddled from the wine. Not used to drinking so much, especially expensive wine.

If I wake early, I shall try and get out and explore the gardens and the maze, get some fresh air, and possibly a sense of where I am. Breakfast is to be at eight. Supposedly Thaddeus is to be my alarm clock.

It was just the three of us for dinner. A daughter is away at university in the States studying medicine. If she is anything like her parents, she should be interesting. What happens when two green-eyed people have a child? Mendel's pea comes to mind—my remnants of high school science.

Declan mentioned he had been interested in buying Boreas, a painting by Waterhouse that had come on the market back in the 1990s, but the bidding went over what he was willing to venture, the picture selling for close to $1.3 million. He described the picture to me, and used the word purple to describe the woman's diaphanous shawl and dress caught in the wind, but Lucrezia thought it more blue than purple. This discussion of clothes and colours, brought up a fleeting memory of a dream I must have had before coming down to dinner. I was in some kind of subterranean area like the métro, with modern art, and a purple SUV, which I felt was mine, but then I saw a man drive away in it, a man who I felt was my father. Very odd. There I was sitting at the table, my mind adrift with dreamscapes while they looked on as if I had entered some kind of catatonic state. Perhaps they were thinking I was contemplating the nature of painting and commerce, how certain styles of painting can be left behind and under appreciated, and then once more gain fashion, like Burne-Jones's The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. New art slays old art, and then old art rises like Lazarus when fresh eyes are born in another age. I managed to respond, somewhat hesitatingly, that I could try to paint a reproduction of Boreas for much less than $1.3 million. They laughed.

I seem to be rambling, the wine still pulsating in my veins, directing the pen. Some of this may appear senseless tomorrow morning.

We dined very casually. Declan at the head of the table, and Lucrezia across from me. We touched toes twice. The table was a very long Chippendale and it would have been rather ridiculous if they sat at opposite ends and me in the middle. There was a dumbwaiter cleverly disguised behind a Flemish still life, and Declan was our server. Yes, it was very odd. He told me, as he brought the first course to us, that he used to be a waiter at the beautiful art deco restaurant on the ninth floor of Eaton's department store. He said it had been a wonderful place to work, good for making powerful connections, and helped to pay his way through University. He said he never forgets his roots, and that it gave him pleasure to “pitch in” from time to time.

After dinner, Declan brought me through to his library. A large room with beautiful oak shelving and panelling. Many sets, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Scott, Conrad, and interesting travel books. He collects R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the only author he tells me, who, as far as he knows, has dedicated a book to a horse. He showed me first editions, some inscribed, and told me a bit about the author; also a story concerning Solomon J. Solomon who, when preparing to paint a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh for the House of Commons, asked Cunninghame Graham to be the sitter. Declan opened one of Graham's books and showed me a sketch of the author. Very Raleighish. Impressive. An aristocratic socialist according to Declan. A right old Hidalgo who was active in Scottish politics

I then told him about artists and their search for faces. The story of how the unusual London artist, Austen Osman Spare would use local down-and-outers for faces from the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood where he lived, while Osbert Lancaster, the successful caricaturist, would use the faces of members of the clubs he belonged to. Artists in need of faces. High and low.

This just reminded me of the reproduction of Albayde by Alexandre Cabanel which I have over my desk, the nose of the woman is very close to that of Lucrezia's. Of course.

Memories, like built up layers, from gesso to imprimatura, from impasto to fugitive colours.

Declan then led me to a book shelf in the corner of the room. He pushed in one volume and the bookcase quietly opened towards us. A sham library door. The titles on the spines were amusing. Some of the many titles I can remember are “Lamb on the Death of Wolfe”, “Bleak Houses,” and “John Knox on Death's Door,” all beautifully bound in leather with gilt lettering. Perhaps the whole door was imported form England.

Declan's private study lay within. It was approximately 300 square feet in dimension, and contained a few old walnut cabinets filled with books, an old leather club chair, side tables, lamps, a large mahogany desk, a number of marble pedestals with bronzes, and on the walls between the cabinets, selected works of art, his Varleys, a few larger paintings of ships and rough seas, and one large Pre-Raphaelite painting. I was stunned. Overcome. He said it was the fourth version in oil of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Proserpine.” The model is obviously Jane Morris, but her hair is auburn. I was overwhelmed. The sonnet in the upper right hand corner, and his signature and date, 1880 in the lower left. I didn't know what to say. It was quite beautiful. Declan said it came with an old English house he purchased, “Castlebourne.” Many of the furnishings, books and bronzes as well. The old house had a history going back to the 17th century, with various additions and alterations through the years. The painting is stunning. The way the woman's clothing falls like ripples of water. Extraordinary. He appreciated the effect it had upon me and proceeded to his desk where he pulled out a leather case and opened it to reveal a locket of hair which he told me belonged to Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal. I looked upon this memento mori and I thought of Thérèse.

On the way out of the library, he stopped and gave me a two-volume set of Rossetti's poetry in case I was in need of reading material. It may have been around 9:00 when I returned to my room. I soaked in the bath for awhile and then read a few of Rossetti's poems but could only think of the painting. Perhaps the bed was too soft, the pillows too plump, but though I tried to sleep, I merely tossed and turned, the tapestries and their narratives watching over me. The ship above my head made me feel I was beneath the water looking up. Then I heard something pass in the corridor outside my door and I decided to get up and write in this journal. Now I feel properly exhausted. I am not used to such stimulation. Such richness in all its variety. If oblivion takes me now, at least it will be in luxury.

Jerome put his pen down and stretched his neck and shoulders. He reached out for the glass of cloudy water which he had been unsure of and drained the glass, feeling much like a romantic poet having his nightly laudanum. He closed the journal and made his way back to bed. One volume of Rossetti lay upon the sheets, and he picked it up and looked at the table of contents. One poem he noticed was called Insomnia and he thought that would be appropriate. He flipped to the page and read the poem:


Thin are the night-skirts left behind
By daybreak hours that onward creep,
And thin, alas! The shred of sleep
That wavers with the spirit's wind:
But in half-dreams that shift and roll
And still remember and forget,
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Our lives, most dear, are never near,
Our thoughts are never far apart,
Though all that draws us heart to heart
Seems fainter now and now more clear.
To-night Love claims his full control,
And with desire and with regret
My soul this hour has drawn your soul
A little nearer yet.

Is there a home where heavy earth
Melts to bright air that breathes no pain,
Where water leaves no thirst again,
And springing fire is Love's new birth?
If faith long bound to one true goal
May there at length its hope beget,
My soul that hour shall draw your soul
For ever nearer yet.

Jerome, thinking of Thérèse, closed the book and placed it on the bedside table, and turned off the lamp The darkness left him blind and he closed his eyes and let those half understood stanzas carry him like pall bearers into the realm of sleep.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, March 15, 2013

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

Thaddeus had quietly escorted Jerome along corridors and down staircases to what Thaddeus had called the 'heart of the home,' the public rooms. Other than that, Thaddeus had not been very conversant. When Jerome had asked if his host was a friendly man, Thaddeus had given him a sidelong smile and patted Jerome's shoulder. Having a sense of Thaddeus's character, he interpreted this gesture as a positive response, or at least, one that was somewhat reassuring.

In the large hallway at the foot of the stairs, Jerome had noticed a beautiful and very old mahogany Longcase clock, the hands pointing to six o'clock, and this had given him a sense of adjustment to the day.

“Jerome, Jerome, Jerome, what have you gotten yourself into?” he thought to himself, standing in the large drawing-room staring at the fireplace, the dry maple wood in its hearth crackling and seething, its colourful flames, reds, oranges and flickers of white drawn up by the draft, easing him into a meditative state and releasing memories of childhood. He was back in his Grandparent's house in Outremont, their cat, Pascal, basking in the heat before the fireplace, while he lay curled around him mesmerized by the hypnotic beauty of the flames. Such an ancient sight and so rarely captured in paint he thought.

Sitting down on a tapestry covered chair near the fireplace, the warmth of the fire radiating through his jeans and cotton shirt, he felt, all of a sudden, under dressed; he imagined a formal dinner with guests in dark suits and dresses, the looks, the murmurs, the glances, the condescending remarks. 'I believe he's an artist,' 'What did you say, an anarchist?' His neck, stiff with a touch of social anxiety, cracked as he stretched it sideways. This seemed to brighten his eyes and he lay his head back and looked at the oil painting over the fireplace. He estimated it to be approximately five feet by seven, an English bucolic landscape, probably early nineteenth century. The colouration was rich. The varnish less so. Do we all darken with age he wondered? Looking about he noticed two small watercolours in a corner above a small writing desk. He got up and walked over to have a closer look and as he bent down to look at the signatures, he heard the double doors at the far end of the room open.

“Copley Fielding, early paintings of the Lake District.”

Jerome straightened himself as successive waves of surprise washed over him; the initial one being the unannounced arrival of what he took to be his host, the second being the name of the water colourist thrown across the room like a ball for him to catch, and lastly the physical appearance of the man who approached him across the large pastel coloured carpet, an appearance that failed to fit any of Jerome's preconceptions.

The man's pale green crew-neck cashmere sweater was tucked into his dark green trousers; a brown leather belt echoed the supple brown leather loafers, all expensive but casual and unassuming. His sinewy physique was revealed beneath the close fitting sweater, and in the lightly pushed up sleeves showing his powerful yet slim forearms. But it was his face that captivated Jerome. A face he would have followed in a crowd. There was vigour and physical strength to be read in its lines, both unique and intriguing. The high cheek bones and the sharp nose produced bold contrary lines leading to a series of parentheses around the large mouth and down to the strong chin, the green eyes flashing with intelligence and energy, all under a head of light brown hair, parted off center, slightly long with natural waves, the boyish forelock still full and lively. The man stood about five foot ten and though Jerome felt he must be in his late fifties, he carried himself like a man twenty years younger.

Jerome had stood before the paintings speechless as the man approached.

“He was a student of Varley,” the man said, his voice a raspy dark nuance of vowels. “Do you know their work?”

“I've heard of their names, but I'm not familiar with their work,” Jerome said. “He captures light very well in such a difficult medium.” He couldn't stop looking at the man who stood beside him gazing lovingly at his Copley Fieldings. Jerome followed in his mind's eye as he captured the man's features with imaginary sweeps of his soft pencil, precursors to what Jerome hoped would be a realization.

“Declan,” the man said offering his hand and his name. “So pleased you could stay for supper. I hear your initial sketches have been successful.”

Jerome shook his hand, feeling the man's long fingers enfolding his hand in a brief yet strong clasp. “I've a number of Varley's in my study,” the man said, turning back towards the fireplace. “Perhaps after dinner we'll have a look. Extraordinary families, the Varleys and the Fieldings, so many of them were painters.”

Jerome returned to his chair and watched as Declan went to the fireplace and began to poke and jostle the fire like a knight challenging a dragon with a sword. “I hope your room is satisfactory?” he said turning around with the end of the poker glowing with heat.

“Yes, thank you,” Jerome said, clearing his throat of nervous tension. “Lovely tapestries.”

“Good, good, ” he said before walking over to an old high backed settee. “It's a quiet part of the house,” the man added somewhat mysteriously. He reached out to a bowl of mixed nuts on a side table and cracked a walnut in his hand. “I remember telling an old associate of mine that I had a few Varleys and he assumed they were by the Group of Seven painter, Frederick Varley and not the lesser known English painter John Varley. I indulged his presumption. What else could one do?” he added with a wide smile before popping pieces of walnut into his large mouth with its fine uneven teeth.

Jerome nodded to the sound of his crunching. “Do you like modern art?”

The man considered his question for a moment. “We have numerous residences, Jerome. Our city homes and our winter retreats tend to have our modern art. But not in this house, no, I wanted it to be old-fashioned and rather,” he paused looking around him, “timeless.” He seemed lost for a moment, gazing up at the painting over the fireplace. “I find these surroundings very comforting. And what about you, have modern styles ever captivated your eye?”

“Some modern art certainly, but I've never been very comfortable producing it.”

“So,” he said, eyeing Jerome as if he were a visual puzzle, “you have the talents and knowledge of an old master, and yet you struggle to make a living. Meanwhile, there are pundits with paint cans who make veritable stacks of currency. Yes, Jerome, we live in a world that my daughter refers to as a 'rave' new world.”

Jerome laughed lightly,  “I have a friend who's a jazz musician. He tells me he has hundreds of standards in his head, all to be embellished with his improvisational techniques, and as he struggles with large instruments travelling about, he sometimes thinks of the Dj's with their flash drives who zip around the world making those 'stacks of currency' you mentioned.”

“A 'rave' world indeed,” the man said, brushing his hands of walnut fragments. “Did you ever consider sculpture?”

Jerome, looking deep into the embers of the fire, thought about the question. “I think it was Michelangelo who said painting was a liberal art, and sculpture was a servile art. Painting suits my character better. I can sit calmly and observe my subject and daub away, but sculpture, no sculpture is a physically demanding pursuit. Chipping away with hammer and chisel, polishing down. Dusty, sweaty work.” He took a sip of his Sherry. “And it requires space and can be expensive, the stone, the need for heavy machinery to move it, bronze casting and all that business. I can see the seductive nature of working with clay, terracotta, or marble but it's just not for me.”

“Where did you study?” Declan asked.

“I did a degree in fine arts at Concordia University, but I had started young, and had mentors if you will. Then a good deal of travel to Europe where I copied old masters and took various courses.”

“Ah, an alumni. I too attended the University but at the time it was known as Sir George Williams. I was accepted at McGill but I gave it a pass. Will you join me in an apéritif? I have a fresh bottle of dry Sherry that's asking to be opened.”

“Certainly, yes, thank you.”

Jerome watched Declan walk over to a Birdseye maple cabinet and open it to reveal a small display of bottles and glasses. Declan poured a measure of amber liquid, Amontillado, into two tulip shaped glasses and came back to the fireplace, handing one to Jerome.

“Here's to a good dinner,” he said. “I hope you're not vegetarian. We've a fine private chef, originally from Shropshire, he's a magician with foie gras, morels, truffles, pheasant, squabs, quail and venison.” Declan sipped his Sherry looking over the glass at Jerome for a reaction. “I believe the menu tonight will include squabs stuffed with foie gras and then roast venison.”

Jerome tried to control a slight shiver as he sipped his Sherry. “Well, there's always a first time.”

“Good, good. First experiences can be memorable, but if it is your first time eating game, go easy, it can be rather rich. We can always send up a plate of sandwiches later if necessary.” Declan placed his glass down and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head in a luxuriant pose. “I was out hunting in the fog today, such an odd stillness in the forest. I imagine the night will be a dark one, a half moon fit only for owls." He looked up at the painting over the fireplace and closed his eyes briefly as if tired. "The fog was a handicap for the small game today, but I managed a few ducks. Good exercise for Beaumont and myself—my black Labrador retriever. Yes, the smell of wood smoke and organic decay.” He paused as if he were imagining himself out in the forest, the fluttering of wings overhead. “The scent of autumn is like perfume to a hunting man.”

“I've never hunted," Jerome said with a sense of oblique resistance. "I don't know if I could.” 

Declan looked at him with a compassionate eye. “At your age, I too had never hunted.” He ran his right hand through his thick hair remembering the past. “Yes, I was still deep in the forest of stocks, bonds, options, derivatives and futures. Amidst the shadows and shades of higher finance. Like you, I found my area of ability when young, though my colour palette was a mix of numbers, facts and quick analysis for my creations.” Getting up, he went over to the small stack of carefully chosen wood and placed a quarter log on the fire defying it to burn him so slowly did he lay it upon the rising flames. Standing with his back to the mantel, his hands in his pockets, he looked around the room with a satisfaction that comes with achievement. “My roots are in earthy poverty. My Father, a mechanical minded man, came back from the war suffering what we today call post traumatic stress, but then it was called life, get over it. He managed to become a tool and die man and raise a family in Point St. Charles. But money was a rare commodity in our house. He drank away a lot of his earnings and my poor Mother did her best with what she had. My life is one of those hackneyed rags to riches stories Jerome. As a kid I sold newspapers, delivered for a drugstore on a bicycle, worked in restaurants, shovelled snow, whatever to make money. I was smart, managed to get through school and pay my way through University.”

Jerome sat there sipping his Amontillado, wondering if his mild reference to hunting had truly prompted such a revelation. He was fascinated, the face of Declan taking on for him all the lines of experience and struggle, the filigrees of burning ambition and desire.

“The Montreal Stock Exchange has an interesting history and evolution. Did you know it started in a coffee house in the 1830s?”

Jerome not wanting to stem his host's narrative with a placid shake of his head, what might be interpreted as a symptom of indifference, quickly responded with much feeling that he didn't know of its origins in a coffee house, and it was quite fascinating to learn this, very interesting.

“I know it sounds like two rival gangs of gun-slingers in the old west, but the Exchange coalesced around two sets of brothers, the MacDougall brothers, and the aptly called Bond brothers. In fact, I own a condo in one of the old Exchange buildings where MacDougall had an office.” He sighed and returned to his settee. “Life is indeed strange Jerome, very strange indeed.” He sipped his Sherry thoughtfully.

Jerome was uncertain where to take the conversation, so astonished he was at this opening up of a man he had just met. His own life felt quite parochial in comparison. “You must have had quite a career to achieve all of this,” he said.

“Well, more a 'life' than a career, much like yours, just different. So, Thaddeus tells me you have a Citroën, a deux chevaux. Where did you come by that one?”

Jerome was not surprised by this knowledge, realizing that he must have been vetted in some manner before being approached for the job. “It was my Father's car,” he said. “He left it with my Mother and I took it on. She found it impractical in Montreal weather. Of course I put it in storage during the winter months.”

“Yes, of course, of course,” Declan said nodding his head. “I too own a Citroën, a white four door Traction Avant. The front of the car gets me every time, the head lamps, the grill, the hood, the windscreen.” He sighed, picturing his car shimmering in its waxed perfection. “Perhaps tomorrow I can take you out for a spin. Weather permitting.”

They both heard the wood floor creak behind them and turned to see Lucrezia, dressed in dark slacks and a blue blouse slowly approaching them. Declan rose and greeted her with a kiss and a whisper in her ear, his soft graceful movements surprising Jerome with the versatility of this interesting man who could seemingly shift so effortlessly into a soft loving husband from the rather hardened self-made man. Declan proceeded to the cabinet to make his wife a drink while Lucrezia sat down on the settee. Jerome began to see her through the eyes of her husband, and realized that his perception of her had changed and that he would now alter his depiction of her in subtle ways, slight nuances that perhaps no one else could divine. She was very quiet and Jerome sensing an awkward moment, thought he would ask if her daughter would be accompanying them for dinner, but she then asked if Jerome's room was to his liking to which he replied that it was without doubt, the most interesting room he'd ever come across.

Declan returned with a small tumbler of clear liquid with a slice of lemon. “A little dutch courage for you my dear.” Sitting down, he turned to his guest, “So Jerome, do you have a sweetheart who is wondering where you are?” Declan asked, his arm around his wife.

“Yes, well no,” Jerome said somewhat embarrassed and taken unawares. “I do have a girlfriend, a freelance journalist. She travels quite a bit. The last I heard, she was in Edinburgh.”

“Ah,” Declan said somewhat remorsefully. “And what is her name?”

“Thérèse, Thérèse LaFlamme.”

“Well, let us raise a glass to Thérèse, may she find her story,” Declan said. The three of them drank from their glasses and looked towards the now diminished fire smoking slightly under the new log, the embers of the old ones, fiery coals of spent energies.


Arthur Roquebrune sat at his desk in his study, eyes shut, head back, listening to a recording of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question. Perhaps it was the weather that made him choose that particular piece of music to listen to he thought. As the woodwinds made a short interruption to the strings and horns, he wondered if he heard the phone ring. A minute passed and he heard a light knock on his door. He opened his eyes as his wife entered just as the music briefly became busy, dissonant and cathartic. He put his hand up and walked over to turn the music off.

“Artur, I'm sorry, but there's a client of yours on the phone, a Thérèse LaFlamme. She seems upset.”

His eyes widened and his mouth opened in surprise. “Ah, very good. I can take it in here. Thank you my dear.” He walked over to his desk imagining all the possibilities that could have taken place, a magician's half-moon spread of playing cards for him to choose from, from specious through serious, from severe through to seismic. Sitting down, he stared at his muted old-fashioned phone before picking up the receiver.

“Thérèse, are you alright?”

“Yes, I'm so sorry for disturbing your evening, but something has happened concerning the Ashemore case, it has made me worry about Jerome and yourself as well.”

“Calm down. Now, where are you?”

Thérèse told him where she was and of the experience that occurred during the day. She told him she was worried that the files held in Wormwood & Verdigris might be taken and that Jerome might also be at risk by his indirectly being involved with her. She also admitted she had sequestered a copy of Ashemore's journal extracts at her old apartment, a copy in code. He took her phone number and promised to check to see if Jerome was in his house at the back of the Roquebrune's property and phone her back. This was getting out of hand he thought. He would burn the files tomorrow. There could be no value in this any longer. None of them were fit for such sleight of hand intrigues.

In the hallway closet, he was getting his coat on when his wife approached him asking where he was going.

“That was the girlfriend of Jerome, our tenant. She's worried about him. He's not answering his phone. I told her I would take a look.”

“Oh, well, Gaston, you know our neighbour across the street, nosey Gaston, well he stopped me on the sidewalk this afternoon, telling me he saw our tenant get into an enormous black car with a very large man who had put something in the trunk, and then off they went.”

“Did he mention what time that was?”

“He said this morning,” she replied. “I hope there's nothing wrong.”

“No, I'm sure it's fine. But I'll just go check the house.”

“Let me come with you,” she said.

He hesitated, but together they went out the back door, an old married couple arm and arm, making their way through the fog across their now damp lawn towards the back gate which led to a path along the side of the building they rented. They noted the lack of lights on in the house. Mr. Roquebrune peeked in the one window of the garage door and could see the glint of Jerome's car. They then went up the stairs and rang the doorbell only to be met by the reverberations of silence. Arthur realized that the spare key to the apartment was at the office in his desk drawer and cursed his lack of foresight. As they made their way back to their warm and inviting home, he wondered whether to withhold from Thérèse the information about the sighting of Jerome in the morning. And should he tell her that his car was in the garage but he didn't answer his door? Would he have to drive down to the office and get the key? He felt guilty for feeling upset his night was not what he had planned. He must do what he can for Thérèse he thought. It was all his fault after all. If it meant going to the office at this hour of the night, then so be it. Ultimately, he thought, Thérèse would be safe. He couldn't see violence in the cards. No skeleton reaper. No transformation. No sacrifice of the hanged man.


© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

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

Floral knowledge was not one of Amelia's strengths: Matsumoto Asters, Monte Cassino Asters, Pink Alstroemeria, Pittosporum, Statice. Her acceptance of the small translation job for the florist would be, if not lucrative, at least informative. Some of the more common floral names stirred memories of her wedding flowers—and her bouquet, white peonies, lightly scented, subtle, classic, so simple and yet, she thought, so reflective of her personality. She sighed remembering the long months of planning, the search for the dress, the location, the invitations, the food, the cake. The cake! She didn't want to remember the cake. It had looked wonderful, but the knife found nothing but recalcitrant fondant; the cameras had captured the happy moment, but not the sound of the knife ringing off the icing as she and Duncan held the knife, smiling, trying to find a method of slicing through what Amelia thought must have been a window display model it being so hard. They had laughed, in the moment, the one fault in an otherwise perfect day.

It had been Mélisande who caught the bouquet, standing, resolutely and somewhat solemnly, at the back of the group of multi-coloured dressed young woman, a bouquet in themselves, playfully avid for the prize. Was it chance that she had tossed it so high and far, or did she somehow understand the psychology of the participants and had unconsciously directed the bouquet in the almost slow motion arc high in the airy hall, landing, yes, landing upon the outstretched arms of Mélisande's placid incertitude? Everyone had cheered around her and had given her hugs of encouragement much to her embarrassment. 

A nervous shiver of responsibility came over Amelia as she recalled the evening when Mélisande and Pavor had met. It was ten years ago. She had invited Mélisande, newly single after a long relationship with a baroque violinist, to join her and Duncan at an author event, a book talk and signing. Pavor, a lawyer who had yet to find himself as an established author, had also been in attendance, and Amelia recalled her presentiment of possibilities when she had watched them, the petite dark-haired librarian and the tall, fair-haired lawyer, as they had joined the queue together to have their books signed, and had begun a conversation in the languid atmosphere so common to slow moving lines.

Amelia wondered when Mélisande's fiancé would actually don his tux and slip the ring. The last she had heard was that Pavor was in Europe researching his next novel. She must have Mélisande over for dinner.  She would see. She would see.
She heard the light tapping of Hugh's nails on the wood floor, and then she heard the front door opening and Duncan wrestling with a bag of some kind.

Duncan climbed the stairs and came down the hallway whistling four notes. He paused, looking at her from the dining room door and said, “I'm quoting Elgar, from his. .”

“Yes Cecil, the Enigma Variations,” she said before they gently laughed and Hugh looked on expectantly.

“Spaghetti squash from the market,” Duncan said, holding the pale yellow oblong winter squash up as if he were a shot putter. “A little string theory for dinner I thought.” He walked over and kissed the top of Amelia's soft brown hair, her scent fragrant with well-being. “I picked up a nice bottle of red wine too.”

“Ah, lovely,” she said, “you read my mind.” She followed Duncan and Hugh into the kitchen and helped him with the few groceries.

“How did the florist go this morning?” Duncan asked as he unscrewed the cap of the Shiraz-Malbec and retrieved two glasses.

“Good, good. The owner was very nice. It won't pay much but it will help.” They clinked glasses and said cheers and then sat down at the kitchen table. “So how was your day?”

After telling her about his morning delivery to Chinatown, and his brief visit at Yves's record shop, they sipped wine quietly as Duncan wondered whether to bring up Yves's idea of regrouping The Splices to make extra money.

“How is his business doing?” she asked.

Duncan dropped his arm down to pick Hugh up and put him on one of the chairs to be closer to them. “I'm not sure. His overhead must be a hurdle.” Duncan bent down and gave Hugh a kiss on his head. “Yves actually joked about regrouping The Splices, try to make some smooth money or something.”

Amelia reached out and caressed Duncan's shoulder. “Is that . . .” she paused, searching for a word that would not upset Duncan knowing that his deceased brother had been the lead singer, “Is that feasible? I mean, you haven't played together for quite a long time.”

Duncan sighed. “Hmm, I guess The Splices are lost in the musical wilderness. We were really just a glorified cover band. But it's possible to find our old palm tree out there, give it some water, prune the . . branches, and well, give it a try."  He looked at Hugh and said, “That's right Hugh, you've never seen me on stage. You lucky dog.” Duncan took Amelia's hand and kissed her soft skin. “Yves actually thought of updating the group, getting a . . new singer and calling ourselves Celsius. Running hot and cold he said. He even put a double CD of a modern successful band in the bag that he gave me with a few older classical albums to look over. A little surprise to kindle the flame as it were.”

Celsius? Well, it does have similar letters.”

“To . . .?”

“To your old music band name," she said, looking over Duncan's shoulder as if she were reading letters on the wall. "Splices and Celsius have very similar letters, except for u of course.”

Duncan tried to visualize the words and nodded, still somewhat vague, his wife's intelligence being so much sharper than his, he generally agreed with her quickly. “Yes, except for u. Interesting. I wonder if Yves was rearranging letters and came up with that name?”

Amelia petted Hugh and lifted her eyebrows and nodded. “Oh, I received an email from Jacqueline. If you remember I had invited her for a possible meal at the end of the week or this weekend, but she and Didier will be busy with relatives. But,” she said, looking down into Hugh's eyes, “I was just thinking of Mélisande, and thought of inviting her over for dinner.”

“Great. She may have something to tell us about the Latin text too.” Duncan got up and went over to the counter to prepare the squash. "Is she still engaged to the writer?"

Amelia followed him over and took out the cutting board and dishes. “As far as I know." She began to peel a few cloves of garlic. "If you prefer, I could meet her for coffee, reacquaint myself with the lay of the land. Oh, did Noel show up this afternoon?”

"Oh yeah, he browsed for awhile. I left him alone while I handled an order for nautical rope, a phone request from a fellow who's refurbishing a thirty footer. That will be a nice sale, oh, sorry, unintended pun. Anyway, when I came back I made some tea and we had a chat.”

“Did he find something to buy?”

“Yes, three older volumes for . . . about $125. I threw in two paperbacks, a Richler and a MacLennan.” Duncan scooped out the seeds of one half of the squash placing them on a paper towel. “We had a good chat.” Duncan related the ghost story that Noel told him about the nun and the maze and how she strangely haunts an old pub near Oxford.

“How did you get talking about ghosts?”

“Well, I was telling him the story about . . .” Duncan hesitated, but the door was already open and he couldn't see how to open another. “I had told him the story of MacLennan and the needle, and he wondered if the scream was due to having seen a ghost.”

“Oh dear, well, as long as you don't tell the story tomorrow at The Ritz to Noel's daughter.”

“Don't worry my dear, I will not bring it up again.” He stood by as Amelia prepared the sauce, sipping his wine. “We were like two old crusty sailors, smoking our pipes near a warm stove, telling stories.” Duncan paused, and then said, “Since we were talking about ghosts, I actually told him about my Mother and the funeral home.”

Amelia turned around, mouth open in astonishment, feeling that her solidarity of affection had been breached with this revelation to an outsider, a relative stranger. Duncan, sensing that she was hurt, hugged her and held her close whispering his apologies for revealing such a personal story, one that she felt was too intimate for sharing outside of immediate family and close friends.

“I'm sorry, I shouldn't tell you what to do. They're your stories,” she said, understanding Duncan's tendency towards substitute Father figures.

“I know, but you're right, you're right,” Duncan said. “I'm either quiet as a mouse or I'm  running off at the mouth like the march hare or the mad hatter. My moods often dictating—literally.”

She held him tightly and they swayed as the garlic began to sizzle, and Hugh, looking on, waited to be included in this show of affection, waited to be hugged and kissed and whispered to, and waited, yes, for his dinner too.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, March 01, 2013

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

She was unsure whether sleep was an option. Martine would not be back from Stavanger until tomorrow. Thérèse Laflamme double checked the locks on the doors and peeked from the edge of the curtains. The winds had not abated. A large puddle rippled as if ghostly fingers raked its surface. A few small branches were down. Leaves levitated and swirled beneath the fractured scudding clouds. She had tried to calm herself by drinking green tea and listening to Martine's cd's of a local music group, The Kings of Convenience, a soft and soothing acoustic music, but it was all too unsettling.

The day had initially appeared to be one of no consequence, just another day of new experiences in Bergen. The city, freshly born with its light mist clearing by mid-morning, had found Thérèse making her way down its narrow streets, over cobblestones and past windows of unknown lives, to the post office to buy stamps and mail her letter to Jerome. Two older ladies, arm and arm, kerchiefs and handbags their fashionable defence against the rising winds, had greeted her with 'god morgen' and she had returned the simple phrase with a smile. She had found everyone so friendly. At the post office, she had browsed the delightful stamps for sale, and was surprised by the dual language, English and Norwegian, stamp information booklets. The classic Post horn stamps were colourful, a nursing stamp was interesting, and a stamp with the musician Sondre Lerche was a surprise, but she wished the Edvard Munch stamps advertised for the new year had been available. The stamps promised details from Munch's Self-portrait, the Madonna, and The Scream, stamps that would have been ideal to slip inside the letter for Jerome, stamps he could paste into one of his sketch book journals as souvenirs. Who knows, she had thought, perhaps she would still be in Bergen when they were issued. Her future was undetermined. Her life, day by day.

After asking the clerk, 'kva kostar denne?' she provided the required currency and watched as her letter was stamped and tossed with others, adrift on their silent passages around the world, or down the street. Out of her hands. She had made her way over to the Café Aura for a cappuccino and a brownie, relaxing with a local arts paper and the Bergens Tidende in her continued efforts to learn the language by sight and reference.

Only with hindsight did she now think it odd that she kept seeing the same youngish couple during her morning of errands and wanderings. She had taken them for tourists. Bergen was a small enough city that such coincidences were understandable. The couple had entered the café after she had settled at a window seat. The man wore a leather coat that seemed, for a reason she couldn't understand, dated in both style and colour. They had taken a table in the corner and she couldn't hear what language they spoke. The man had gone out to have a cigarette and talk on his cell phone and other than that, she had paid little attention to them.

When she left the café, she had walked down and over past the old train station to the beautiful public library on Stromgaten and spent about an hour browsing the stacks and perusing the journals and enjoying the comfortable and attractive communal space filled with natural light. It was near the reference desk at the library that she again had caught sight of the couple. They had seemed oblivious to her and never made eye contact as they fingered the library pamphlets. When she left the library and walked around to the shopping centre for some groceries, she had spotted them in Rimi buying coffee and bananas. That was the last time she had seen them before making her way home along the pedestrian path beside the Lille Lungegardsvannet with its sea gulls gliding in the brisk winds, and then catching a taxi up to Martine's three storey stone home with its back to the mountain.

She didn't mind walking down, but the trek up with a few bags was too much. The winding narrow streets reminded her of parts of upper Westmount. Martine's home, passed down to her from her Father's side, with its pointed pedimented second floor windows and stone facings also reminded Thérèse of older buildings in Montreal, quite anomalous, surrounded as it was, by the predominantly clapboard buildings of various colours. It was from one of these Renaissance Revival windows that Thérèse looked down upon the narrow street below, and the lights of the city beyond.

When she had arrived home, everything was quite normal. Nothing had been disturbed. It was only after her lunch that she had discovered something was missing. Her flash drive in the the chipped porcelain cup at the window desk was gone. The flash drive with all of David Ashemore's files. She had checked the drawers of the desk, and then broadened her search to the rest of the house. Nothing. This unexpected disturbance had left her exhausted and her head literally reeling with nervous fear. She had begun to question whether she had indeed tossed it in the cold North Sea, a question which her mind must have brought up to release the pressure of the possible truth that someone had been in the house while she was being monitored by the young couple on her morning pedestrian excursions. They must have searched meticulously, carefully, probably with tightly gloved hands. Completely the reverse of so many film depictions where a character arrives home to discover their room a shambles and the object of their search taken. The manner of the lifting of the flash drive revealed to her that they were extremely intelligent, logical, methodical and precise.

She paced back and forth in the living room wondering what to do. It was 11:45 p. m. in Bergen, so it was six hours behind in Montreal. Mr. Roquebrune might still be at his office. She had resisted the desire to phone him, not wanting to disturb his busy life with her unsettling experience, but she now searched her notebook with all her contacts and dialed the long-distance number. Tuesday, she thought, did he stay late on Tuesdays? The answering machine picked up on the third ring. “Vous avez bien fait le numéro pour l'office de Wormwood & Verdigris, s'il vous plait, laisser un message après la tonalité. You have reached the number of Wormwood & Verdigris, please leave a message after the tone.” It was not what she wanted to hear, but the voice of Claire, the secretary, was reassuring. She then decided to call Jerome. It was necessary to break her paltry attempts at secrecy and make contact. She heard the phone, his phone, ring in his apartment. It continued to ring as her thoughts of unease mounted. One, two, three, four. Ten. Twelve. Fourteen. She hung up, frustrated and upset. Why wasn't his answering machine working? What had happened?

If they had only wanted the files, then she should be safe she told herself. Their methods didn't reflect a tendency towards violent resolutions. What could be gained for them? But then, she had knowledge of the information, the facts as related by David Ashemore. And, she had made a copy in code and sequestered it in her old apartment. A fail-safe in case anything happened to her. What if they searched that? Was an innocent renter now under their eyes as well? And what of the original files and journals in the vault of Wormwood & Verdigris? Have they too been taken? She would have to phone Mr. Roquebrune at his home, disturb his evening.

Paranoia had stripped the day of her harmonious pleasures; the discordant note of the continued sightings of the young couple had ended in a crescendo of twelve tone abstraction. It was as if her day had been picked up and dropped like a mirror, the shattered pieces reflecting sordid portentous illusions. Her thoughts began to merge with those of David Ashemore's, his isolating experiences reflected in hers. She realized that her perspective had been forever changed by reading his journals. There had been occasions when she remembered details of a situation and realized that she had transferred them into her own memories. She had told Martine a story of seeing someone on the Metro in Montreal, a diminutive young woman struggling with her very large double bass, and realized it was not her memory, but that of David's, a transference that had steeled her self-possession, hardened her resolve to disentangle the facts from her subjectivity. And yet, here she was, faltering with the unfathomable, the inconceivable, grasping at window curtains as if they were the sails of a ship in distress.

© ralph patrick mackay