Monday, July 29, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part 48F

Two slim pyramids of golden light glowed with lambent promise from Jerome's second-floor windows. Mrs. Roquebrune, sitting at her desk facing the dining room windows, had noticed. She finished sealing a letter addressed to her sister before seeking out her husband. She found him in the garage preparing to carry out the recycling.

“Someone's in the flat,” she said. “It could be Jerome.”

Arthur Roquebrune stood with the recycling bin in his hands—a bounty of glistening plastic, glass, paper and cardboard, the dry tailings of their life, their public offering to the spirit of the curb. “That's excellent my dear, thank you.” Thinking it unwise to venture blindly, he thought he would use the telephone as a first step. It might not be his tenant.

Hoping it was Thérèse, Jerome picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Jerome, I'm very glad to hear your voice. Are you busy?” Mr. Roquebrune nodded to his wife as they stood together in the kitchen and she nodded back breathing deeply.

He was tired, hungry, and in the middle of his take-out Thai noodles. “Ah, no, not really, I'm just having a bite to eat. Is there something wrong?”

“I'd like to come round and talk.” Arthur pursed his lips hearing Jerome hesitate. “It concerns Thérèse.”

“Is she alright? Has—.”

“No, she's fine, but I must talk with you. I'll let you finish your dinner. I can drop by in . . . let us say thirty minutes?”

Jerome's thoughts were now as dishevelled as his hair. “Sure. Right. See you soon.”

The minutes dissolved into seconds as if Roquebrune's request had drawn him into a tighter orbit. He stood before his back window looking towards their large well-lit house. Such normality and comfort. The darkness of early night permeated the scene before him, while the amber warmth from their windows cast positive shadows of light outwards. It was like a Baroque nocturne, a chiaroscuro contemplation.

A dark form emerged from the backdoor, and then he saw Mrs. Roquebrune, her husband's double, framed by the light as she watched her husband descend the stairs and then stop and turn towards her. Words were exchanged and then she closed the door. Arthur switched on a small flashlight and made his way across the lawn. The scene aroused an image of a gypsy among the hedgerows at night. Had he painted such a picture? He couldn't remember.

The flashlight bobbing in the darkness sparked an unpleasant memory and he closed his eyes and turned away from the window. He had been young, naive. It had been a warm summer night, and he had been late for a visit with his girlfriend who lived on the other side of Mount Royal in Notre-Dames-de-Grace, so, to save time, he had decided to take the mountain cinder path with his thin-wheeled ten-speed bicycle to avoid going around it. Little had he known that the mountain with its circuitous paths became a haven for delinquency at night, and little had he anticipated the absolute darkness of the path between the heavy tree growth on either side. He had been half way up the long gradual sloping tunnel-like path when he had noticed sinister lights ahead, bobbing like fireflies. Then the voices, anarchic, drunken. Laughter too, drunken, anarchic. The lights had been the burning embers of cigarettes. He had picked up speed—drawing all his strength thinking of his girlfriend waiting for him to arrive—for he had now fully realised he'd made a serious mistake in venturing up the mountain at night. His bicycle tires biting into the gravel and dirt and the strain of his grinding gears had alerted the unseen rabble ahead of him that an utter fool had made his or her way into their dark labyrinth. They were like unseen shadow-sirens luring him to destruction with their shouts and pleas to stop. It must have been a fear-inspired shot of adrenaline, and luck, that helped him evade their grasp as he passed their faceless voices. One of them had pursued him, swearing, cursing, but fear and love, fear and love focused his body's efforts. The moment he had heard his pursuer falter and give up had been one of a deep visceral sense of survival. He had continued unabated, cursing himself along the way for being so stupid, until he'd arrived at the stairs on the other side of the mountain. Coasting down past the enormous homes and mansions of the rich and well-established, past their finely landscaped properties and expensive cars in their driveways, past the depth of riches and security, he'd imagined what could have happened. He could have been beaten, stabbed, robbed, left unconscious in the dirt like roadkill, and, all the while, people in those homes with their faces immobilised by television sets, or doing the laundry, talking on the phone, or reading a book, would have been oblivious. It might well have been his ghost coasting down the streets to his girlfriend's home, arriving at the light over the door, passing through the wall like spirits do and watch over her worried concerns as she waited for the . . .

The doorbell rang.

* * *

Mélisande had arrived at Amelia and Duncan's front door resolved not to falter under the weight of the days' revelations, but when she had stretched her finger towards the bell, she had panicked. A memory of visiting Thérèse at this address with Pavor in tow had briefly undermined her resolve. She had been about to turn around when seeing Mrs. Shimoda smile at her through the window while watering plants, she had smiled back and regained her composure. A strange serenity had then overcome her as she had climbed the stairs listening to Duncan's small talk, his thanking her for bringing the computer bag with the strange Latin manuscript pages, Hugh's adorable face at the top of the stairs, and the light piano and vibraphone music tinkling in the apartment above her, setting a mood, creating an inviting ambience. The invitation to dinner had been prescient. She had been in need of the company others to avoid that lonely warm bath of self-pity. They had greeted and hugged her, brought her a drink, and after a few words, had left her alone while they continued dinner preparations in the kitchen. The apartment had felt smaller than she remembered. Books and antique furnishings dominated the space. Thérèse had always lived with few belongings and a much more modern decor, an Ikea decor, an Ikea lifestyle. Duncan and Amelia's art work was decidedly old-fashioned: Prints, Veduta of Florence and Rome, small oil paintings of flowers in vases. She had browsed their bookshelves in the living room, noting the mixture of English and French titles, the tendency towards Literature with a capital L, so different from Thérèse's non-fiction books on history and social causes, Lonely Planet travel guides, foreign language dictionaries and diverse magazines.

She had stood over their stereo turntable watching the record revolve slowly—Crystal Silence by Chick Corea and Gary Burton—mesmorized by the stylus, a still point travelling the grooves of a darkly carved labyrinth of sound. The longer she had looked at the motion of the long playing record, the more fantastical it seemed to her that sound could be imprinted into vinyl, stranger even than digital. She had browsed the small display of records, perhaps their choice for the evening, Hiroshima, Pat Metheny, Sade, Keith Jarrett, Roy Hargrove, Brahms.

The evening had been as smooth, pleasant and filled with golden warmth as the butternut squash dish Amelia had prepared. They had finished the bottle of wine while reminiscing and telling stories. Duncan had recounted a story of visiting the cemetery and happening across a misspelling of a headstone inscription, and Amelia had coaxed him into telling a story of how The Splices had been well known for splicing songs together for their cover arrangements, even providing Mélisande with a small vocal sample of how they used to slip back and forth between Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys and Kraftwerk's Autobahn. Feeling relaxed and at ease, Mélisande had told them about the collapsing shelf and the handsome young student, and when Amelia had teased her that Pavor might get jealous with her carrying on in the stacks, the wine had softened her reaction and she had replied that she was starting to feel like the old  man in the sea, and Pavor was the fish. They had laughed lightly. This had prompted Duncan to relate that Zane Grey had been a great sport fisherman and had written books on the subject, a comment so dry, flat and non apropos that, after a heavy silent pause, an irrepressible fit of laughter had overcome them, and they had fed off each others laughter in a triadic rhapsody, an eye-watering cathartic release of all their pent up anxieties and concerns.

Mélisande now stood in the hallway looking at a copy of John Donne's Courtier's Library that Duncan had found interesting enough to mat and frame. No. 9. Quidlibet ex quolibet; Or the art of decyphering and finding treason in any intercepted letter, by Philips. 'Anything from anything.' She didn't know John Donne had written this brief list of satirical book titles. No. 3. Ars excribendi omnia ea quae vere ad idem dicuntur in Joanne Foxe in ambitu denarii, autore P. Bale. That was an odd one she thought. To write down everything within the area of a coin, a penny, all truths told to John Foxe. A jab at Foxe's fabrications in his Book of Martyrs no doubt.

“The translations are on the back, not that you need them,”Duncan said, advancing down the hall to stand beside her and look at the curiosity upon the wall. “I like number 8.”

“Number eight,” she said, “'Pythagoras Iudaeo-Christianus, Numerum 99 et 66 verso folio esse eundem, per super seraphicum Io. Picum.'” She smiled. “Yes, that's a good one. 'The Judeo-Christian Pythagoras, in which 99 and 66 are demonstrated to be the same number if the folio is inverted, by the angelic Pico Della Mirandola.' Snap. I guess he was puncturing a few Hermetical balloons.”

“Hmm, yes.”

“Number 32 is quite good. 'Quid non? Sive confutatio omnium errorum tam in Theologia quam in aliis scientiis, artibusque mechanicis, praeteritorum, praesentium et futurorum, omnium hominum mortuorum, superstitum, nascendorumque; una nocte post coenam confecta per D. Sutcliffe.'” She laughed. “A confutation of all errors in Theology and the sciences and mechanical arts, by all men, past, present and future, drawn up one night after supper by Doctor Sutcliffe.” She searched her memory to recall a Matthew Sutcliffe who'd been a severe critic of Roman Catholics.

“Perhaps you two can come up with some satirical titles while I attack the dishes,” Duncan said as Amelia joined them.

“Duncan and his book lists,” Amelia said. “Are you still creating your own list of apocryphal book titles?” she asked, standing beside Mélisande smiling.

“Um, yes, and perhaps one day I'll complete it with long textual notes in an overtly scholarly style, and have it properly printed up for an amusement to roll into large homemade Christmas crackers. My favourites so far are: The Interpretation of Drams, or, Whiskies I Have Known, by Brandy “Shot Glass” Evans, Travels With My Ant, or the Peregrinations of Elwood Spinkle and his Pet Ant, and Eastern Simpsonianism, or,The Profound Manifestation of Homerologists in Outer Mongolia by Goforth Wheeless.  I'm working on textual notes to each title in the style of Pale Fire."

Amelia faced Melisande and rolled her eyes. “Come along, we can talk in the living room while Duncan cleans up. He enjoys it bless his heart,” and she kissed her husband on the cheek before following her friend to the front room. Hugh was at a loss at who to follow, but opted for the Amelia and the visitor who carried the scent of cat on her slacks.

Dishes were rarely a chore to Duncan. He had his most fertile thoughts while washing dishes, taking a shower, or brushing his teeth. These tasks were so well-ingrained after 53 years that his mind was let loose to be creative. Who knew what would pass through his thoughts. What fool's gold might glitter like the real thing.

© ralph patrick mackay 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part 48, part E

The smooth lustre of the celadon garden stool was a green memory surrounded by the decay of autumn. Mrs Shimoda gazed at it from her kitchen door. She would bring it in tomorrow, their wedding anniversary. She would hose it thoroughly to disperse any lingering earwigs—an unfortunate summer haven for the unpleasant insects—dry it off with a cotton towel and then place it in the kitchen, a ceramic pedestal for her pot of chives, the fresh herb so welcome in her Miso soup. She closed the door and went to the sink to wash the few dishes from her supper. Life had become less complicated, yet more subtle in her widowhood. Alone, every act was ceremonial. The days passed and seemed empty, but they were deeply rooted; the trees and shrubs were now surrounded by decomposition, but the roots were thriving; the branches were leafless but the buds were there. She dipped her small cup into the warm soapy water and performed the act of cleansing for the spirits around her.

As she aged, she was becoming frail, delicate, crooked, in search of peace, tenderness. On occasion when shopping for fresh produce at the Atwater Market, she noticed younger people look at her with a sense of tenderness. Not all of course. Only those who, though youthful in comparison to herself, contained within themselves perhaps, an understanding of these aged qualities. The sensitive ones her husband used to say were in the slow lane. There was nothing wrong with the slow lane. When first meeting her future tenants, Duncan and Amelia, she had sensed they were in the slow lane.

She heard Amelia, Duncan and Hugh above her, busy in the kitchen with the low sound of music. They had a dinner guest. A young woman had rung the bell. They only played music without headphones when they had guests.

She washed a small plate followed by the cutlery. If only she could find the missing piece. She had searched her flat, looking under furniture, in corners, waste paper baskets, the vacuum bag, but to no avail. The jigsaw puzzle her son had bought her depicting three Japanese woman in kimonos with oil-paper parasols and a prospect of cherry trees in bloom, would, it seemed, never be completed. Where one of the Geisha's hands holding the bamboo shaft of a parasol should have been, now only emptiness. Without that piece, it was as if the parasol would take flight in a breeze or fall to the grass. This emptiness near the centre of the puzzle, a flared square with round tabs on each side like a compass star, a symmetrical mirror image, one of artificial perfection, was an irritant every time she passed the dining room table. The longer she stared at the two dimensional image, the more the missing piece felt like a hole draining the puzzle of all semblance to reality. After awhile, she began to perceive the puzzle as a small abstract shape within a large rectangle of colour. The focus of her perception had shifted which reminded her of looking too long at a printed word on a page rendering it mere lines and curves empty of all meaning.

She dried the dishes slowly, methodically. Had it been a mistake at the factory? Or had she somehow lost the piece? What would she tell her son? He always liked to inspect the finished work. Would he think she was beginning to falter. First a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, next the kettle on the stove. . . .

Having finished the dishes, she made her way to the front room. A black lacquer cabinet concealed a small flat screen television, a gift from her son. She rarely watched television but he insisted she should have a modern one, even though it didn't even appear to be a television, more a dark window of forbidding depths. Another hole draining all semblance of reality. She liked it hidden in the cabinet. She heard her Mother's voice, 'Out of sight, out of mind.' So true, she thought, so true. She relaxed in her chair and anticipated watching The Wheel of Fortune. The word puzzles were enough to rouse her interest, and she enjoyed the host's sense of humour. There was also something cherubic about him. But it was early, so she picked up her newspaper crossword puzzle sitting atop a neat stack of Sudoku and crossword puzzle books.

Number 42 across, “Unlikely Memoirist,” starting with letters Am...?

Am . . . Ama. An irritant. A memory was aroused of her Father telling her stories about the cultured pearl industry. They had been to the sea shore and her Father had picked up an oyster shell from the beach, and proceeded to tell her all about the fascinating history of pearls. The Ama, or woman divers, braving the cold waters and dangerous eels, would swim down to the bottom to harvest oysters for seeding. The oysters would be left in the shaded open air for thirty minutes until they opened slightly, and then pegged to keep them so. An irritant was then carefully deposited within the oyster, and they were then returned to special baskets in the water where, with time, the oysters would cover the irritant in layers of nacre to eventually produce a pearl. And yet, even for all the hard work, a perfect round pearl was not to be expected in every oyster. She remembered how odd it was that Japan would import clam shells from the United States and process them for the seeding of the oyster. They would first cut them into strips, then in little cubes before they were polished with sand to form spheres of various sizes. And these would be the seeds, or nuclei, for the future pearl. So, in the centre of many cultured pearls, would be a calcareous American seed.

She rested her head and closed her eyes remembering reading a library book about pearl divers and a fishing village. She was fifteen, 1954. The book, Shiosai, had been popular. The love story led her to romantic daydreams of living in a lighthouse and finding love with a local fisherman's son. Such silliness.

She shook her head and looked down at the crossword puzzle. “Unlikely Memoirist.”

But the industry has changed, like everything. The Ama are now just a tourist attraction. Eventually, everything quintessential becomes a tourist attraction. She wondered if they still used American clam shells or if they imported shells from China. Perhaps they didn't use clam shells at all.

She looked over to her improvised tokonoma area with its picture scroll hanging above her floral arrangement of Chrysanthemums in the Teh-chi-jin style—heaven-earth-man—one of balance and simple lines. Her husband's favourite.

Perhaps the missing jigsaw piece was similar to the irritant. Perhaps the longer she concentrated on the empty space, she would, over time, envelop it in understanding which would lead to a metaphorical pearl. Of what, she didn't know.

Unlikely Memoirist.”

An answer came to her and she pencilled in the letters: Amnesiac.

© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Forty-Eight, part D

“Duncan Alistair Strand!” he said softly to himself.

Whenever his name was used in its triadic completeness—either by Amelia or himself—he knew he'd faltered, failed, or in this case, forgotten to buy a bottle of wine. If his first name was used with an extended emphasis on one of the syllables, it was a sign of mild frustration, but the triple reference implied a severe and formal rebuke. Duncan thought it must be a matrilineal inheritance. A requirement to help the less intelligent of their offspring, the males, survive as best they could. A chorus of Mothers sang in his ear all stating the full names of their children and scolding them for running into the street, climbing on the roof, or wading out into the water after their hand-made sailboat.

Likewise, Mothers of famous writers might well have raised their voices he thought. Perhaps even with a finger and thumb to the earlobe in a form of auricular elongation:

Edgar Allan Poe! No you may not bring that bird in here!
Herman Nimrod Melville! No you may not have a goldfish!
Henry David Thoreau! No we won't do your laundry and bring you meals while you loaf about in the woods!
Washington Ambrose Irving! Stop maundering about in the shadows and get out and play!
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr.! You're going to the party, and you're going to mingle, mingle, mingle!

(Not knowing the true middle names of Melville or Irving, Duncan improvised accordingly.)

He entered the SAQ in search of a bottle of wine that would fit their budget, their self-respect, and their desire to accommodate. A narrow scope. Twenty dollars to him was two hundred to another. Two hundred to that one would be two thousand to yet another. And so on, and so on. He was near the bottom of the wine chain, a few stones up from the base with the majority in this highly taxed pyramidal world.

A Québec wine for their meal with Mélisande seemed apropos. Manoeuvring between the well-clad aficionados with their shopping carts overflowing, the empty-handed uninitiated looking lost, the ultra-stylish with their cell-phones to their ears discussing vintages with their distant partners, and the hard-liners with their bottles of liquor making a beeline to the cashier and future redemption, he observed his fellow shoppers and thought some of them reminded him of book browsers. Browsers eyeing the shelves looking for style or substance, rustic or sophisticated, fruity or dry, light or heavy, unbridled or reserved, quirky or old fashioned, charming or classic, earthy or elegant, polished or transparent, florid or simple, formulaic or innovative. Writers should go in for wineries he thought. Golfers and musicians had invaded the field, why not writers: the Joyce Carol Oates Pinot Blanc, the Margaret Atwood Organic Chardonnay, the John Irving Shiraz, the Thomas Pynchon Cabernet Sauvignon, the Danny Wallace . . . hmm, perhaps Lad lit and Chick lit were in the ales and spritzers.

Were there not as many styles of writing as wines? Were they not all drinkable—to a degree? Sometimes he enjoyed a light read after a complex one, and was unnerved by those who read only one type of book, one writing style, enough to wonder if there was something wrong with him. Was he all-embracing or non-committal, broad minded or devotion impaired? Did he lack conviction?

He chose a light-bodied red from Québec Eastern Townships, Domaine Les Brome Cuvée Julien and made his way to the cash, eyeing the other customers' purchases with interest.


Noel Welwyn Gough nodded his head to his daughter Elizabeth's reference to the talented Dame Clara Furse, her role model for achievement in the world of high finance.

“You remember the kerfuffle when she became the CEO of the London Stock Exchange?”

Noel nodded again, bracing himself against the taxi door while Masud, the taxi driver he'd befriended—one of many drivers he'd learned, with higher education degrees working as cab drivers—turned a corner a bit sharply as they made an approach to the Stewart Museum on Ile St-Hélène. “Profit and loss my dear, profit and loss.”

“She had to deal with the Old Boys Father. She must have put their knickers in a twist. I can only imagine their conversations over a glass of port at their clubs,” she said, looking at the taxi meter's green digital numbers mounting like the temperature in the car. “She certainly deserved her DBE for those eight years.”

Masud pulled up beside the gates to the old fort. “Le Festin du Gouveneur,” he said, turning off the meter.

“Thank you very much Masud,” Noel said, handing him the bills to cover the fee. “Keep the change my good friend.”

“Enjoy your meal sir, and call me, you have my cell number. No problem. I pick you up.”

“Thank you Masud, very kind of you sir.”

Elizabeth took her father's arm and together they walked towards the open gates of the tawny and grey field-stone wall. Jacques Cartier bridge, its cantilever arches rising in the distance like an enormous abstract sculpture of a Bactrian camel, provided a steady hum of rush hour traffic punctuated by the percussive rumble and shudder of large trucks. In the quieter moments, they could hear the occasional cry of the gulls over the high clear whispers of the St. Lawrence river, an endless susurration of memory flowing to the east, cleansing the shores along the way.

“My secretary at the office told me we had to try this restaurant before it moved to Old Montreal. It's their last season at the old fort.” She looked around her as if for someone she knew. “She said we might even see a ghost or two roaming the grounds later on. Many died on the island. Soldiers.”

“Yes, so I've heard. The old buildings certainly have a charm to them. Very . . . oh my, Elizabeth, look, a pillory,” he said tapping his left hand on her arm as they came upon the wooden replica of a period punishment device in the forecourt of the restaurant. “You must take my photograph in the pillory. Your Mother will relish it for certain. She'll place a framed copy on the mantle.”

She helped her Father position himself in the contraption and lowered the hinged upper board over his neck and hands trying not to pinch him. He felt a strain on his neck as he tried to look up for his daughter's cell phone camera, a lamentably modest punishment for his possible failures as a parent. He smiled and wriggled his fingers and acted the fool. She took numerous shots taking time to judge them worthy or not, while Noel looked about thinking how painful it was just to be in such a position, let alone be humiliated and abused by the rabble and mob as happened in the days of . . . yes, in the days of Daniel Defoe. He remembered the author had been pilloried for a pamphlet concerning dissenters. Yes, he wrote a poem to the device, A Hymn to the Pillory. “'Hail hieroglyphic state machine,'” he quoted as loudly as he could considering his position and the constraints upon his verbal projection.

“Just a few more photos Father,” Elizabeth said, thinking he had mumbled something like 'hey get me out of this thing,' which she thought odd considering her Father's rather formal word choice.

Noel relaxed and shifted his legs to ease the pain developing in his lower back. He felt extremely vulnerable. Good old Defoe. What a challenging life. A time of shifting loyalties, uncertain futures and quick wits. Tempted by Janus Defoe was, yes tempted by Janus. He played himself up to be the martyr to the public for speaking truth, while accepting the King's or Queen's shilling on the sly. He'd written the Hymn while awaiting trial, and had it published and distributed before he trod that board. Always covering his back in a back stabbing world. Always trying to be a step ahead in a world of shadows.

“There you are,” she said, lowering her phone so he could look at the photographs. “I'll email them to Mother tonight.” She helped him out of the wooden constraint, and with hands on hips, he leaned back in a stretch.

“My God, that was only a moment,” he said. “Imagine hours, days. Here I must take one of you. Yes, yes Elizabeth, you'll want one for posterity.” She slipped easily into the grooves, plenty of room to move. “Smile Elizabeth. Who knows my dear, you may well be the CEO of the stock exchange one day!” She rolled her eyes and smiled.

Knowing his daughter was not greatly inspired by literature like her parents, he hesitated to bring up the subject of Defoe, but the opportunity seemed unique and timely, and the awkward silences between them could be dutifully filled.

“Daniel Defoe was pilloried once,” he said looking up at the ghostly thin mist. “But he was a smart man Elizabeth. Prior to his conviction, while sitting in a cell in Newgate, he composed a poem where he listed politicians, military leaders, clergy, lawyers, and yes, bankers and stock brokers as fit for a visit to the wooden throne, while innocent men, often authors trying to reveal the truth, like himself, bowing with a hand on his heart, found themselves unjustly within the wooden hoops.”

“Now we have social media Father. The pillory of the digital age.”

They laughed as they reached the heavy wooden doors to the restaurant, where period clad actors were preparing to sing, dance and tell stories from Montreal's historic past while their guests dined and quaffed from old pewter plate.


Jerome was roused from a light doze as the car came to a slow stop. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he was home already, waiting at a nearby red light. The smell of Montreal had alerted him to its proximity awhile back, its special sour odour preceding it like most large cities. As he sat up and stretched, the black privacy glass between the back of the car and the driver was lowered revealing either Bartholomew or Thaddeus at the wheel.

“There's a slight delay Mr. Van Starke. We're on Jacques Cartier bridge. Possibly an accident.”

“Okay, thanks for the info, Bartholomew.” He looked through the front window and noticed a large truck taking up most of the space in front of them, Phoenician Imports Ltd. in dark letters across the back doors. “Could I possibly look out the window while we wait?”

“Sure, no problem.”

Jerome watched as an inner sheath, black and impenetrable, was lowered revealing the outer layer of regular see through glass. Very clever, he thought, very clever. He was on the eastern side of the bridge and so positioned to look down at La Ronde amusement park on the site of the old Expo 67. He remembered strolling with Thérèse along the waterfront in the summer months, hearing the screams of thrill seekers carried on the winds. The bridge, he often thought, looked like an enormous green roller coaster itself, a cast iron monster, a prelude to the miniature reality below. Thérèse. Thérèse. The first thing when he got home was to try to phone her. Perhaps he could convince her to find a local job and settle down with him. They could find a place together, one of those very large eight and a half duplex flats in the east-end of the city, space for his painting and for her office and all of their books. Perhaps get a dog or a cat.

The dark waters of the river drew his attention and he shivered. “Pierre, Pierre, Pierre,” he whispered with his warm breath against the cold glass. He pictured the grave stone of his lost friend, P. H. Sable 1975-1993. He shivered again at the thought of jumping from such a height. It almost seemed like an act of courage. How much he's missed over the years. If only he'd held on. Persisted. The currents took him, the whirlpools spun him, and nature stripped him of all semblance having spent months below the down river ice. A winter suicide into frigid icy waters, washed ashore in the spring near Varennes of all places. Jerome shook his head. “Pierre, Pierre, Pierre.” That odd man at the morgue giving him a coin from Pierre's pocket, both sides eroded of all letters and images, rough, pitted, antique. A memento mori. A warning. A coin for the ferryman he'd said.

They advanced a few car lengths and came to a standstill again. The Olympic stadium stood out to the east like a giant curling stone. He pressed his head against the glass and made out the lines of the old Pied-du-courant prison on the edge of the far shore, now the headquarters of the SAQ. The house for the Gouveneur of the old prison had been turned into a centre devoted to promoting wine and wine culture and somehow Thérèse had discovered it was going to close its doors, so she'd invited a group of them for a series of wine tastings and a dinner. Pavor had been in a good mood that night, making them all laugh with his jokes about wine tasting vocabulary, imitating the voice, in good fun, of their beloved television culinary expert Daniel Pinard, whose rich expressive voice was one they had all grown up with and enjoyed. Then all the photographs they'd taken in front of the old prison door and beneath the statue nearby in la Place des Patriotes. Those were good times he thought. Everyone close together busy with their work. And the after dinner party at Pavor's apartment on Sherbrooke Street overlooking the remnant towers built in the 1690s for the old Fort des Messieurs. Jerome laid his head back and closed his eyes. What a great apartment he thought. His copy of Giorgio di Chirico's The Nostalgia of the Infinite looked stunning over Pavor's mantlepiece. One of his better copies he thought. Colours just right.

He sighed. Things keep slipping away. Doors closing, people leaving. He felt he must be going through an early mid-life crisis. Or perhaps it was his reaction to the two days in the country with Declan and Lucrezia. A form of withdrawal from the stable life of the well-to-do. She had kissed him lightly on his cheek before he got into the vintage Citroen Traction Avant, Declan already at the wheel revving the engine and adjusting his sun glasses. The tour along the finely paved and fenced roads around his property was one tinged with anxiety, Declan shifting gears with precision and speed, taking the corners slightly fast, the rubber tires voicing their grievance.

A flush of embarrassment overcame him as he remembered he'd left behind the journal he'd written in. Where would that end up, he wondered. Something for the next visitor to peruse or continue with.

The car moved forward and continued on without disruption.

“Won't be long now Mr. Van Starke. Home sweet home.” Bartholomew disappeared behind the rising dark glass divide.


Dusk descended on the Clock Tower Quay as a stout man in a long coat, his back to the iron fence and the dark waters behind him, looked at his watch with impatience. Dwarfed by the white tower looming above him, he looked up to compare his Swiss watch to the tower's imported British precision time piece at the top, once the time-keeper for all landfalls and departures.

 His man was late. Cheap wrist watch he thought. Or did they rely on cell phones now?

The headlights of a car drew up beside his own vehicle parked a hundred feet away and he watched as his driver got out and approached the car to retrieve a briefcase. Finally. He turned around and looked across the water at Ile St. Hélène with its brown stone tower rising from the trees like some kind of medieval keep. Finally he could close this file for good. Get on with his job. The footsteps of his driver approached and he looked down river towards the lights of Jacques Cartier bridge. It reminded him of a bridge in England, another time, another meeting. He liked meetings by water. They offered avenues of escape. His driver was behind him now, holding the briefcase towards him so he could easily open it and withdraw the contents.

He faced his driver and, with his large powerful hands, he removed the contents sensing already the weight of a fool's misreckoning.  He turned from his driver and propped the volume on the railing and flipped the pages. Accounting entries in an old hand, dates from 1881. He flipped towards the end and came across a handful of pages in Latin text, obviously from an old manuscript. He held it up and shook it, but nothing emerged. The spine title was plain. Strand Cordage - Cash Book -1881. He looked up and sighed deeply. He turned to face his driver raised his eyebrows, then as if he were tossing salt over his shoulder, propelled the volume high into the air behind him. The driver watched as it opened its covers like a bird taking flight, but, like Icarus, it plummeted, unseen, unheard, to the dark fast moving waters below, sinking quickly, absorbed into the language of the river. A mistake had been made. It wasn't over yet.

© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part 48, part C

Rex Under Glass, part 3

The front door was as red as a brothel lampshade. A power tie for a suit of stone and brick. Rex Packard walked up the curving flagstone path to the house on the large corner lot and noticed something scurry on the lawn towards the well-trimmed shrubbery which girdled the house like a sound-proof barrier. How a salamander came to be on the lawn of a mansion on a quiet street in Upper Westmount was beyond him. Nature wasn't one of his things. Above the door, a stained glass entablature of green leaves and red flower petals supported the numbers 31, the address Vernon Smythe had given him. He hesitated before the choice of the bronze lion's head doorknocker on the mullion which beckoned to him like a windup key for a music box, and the simple self-effacing plastic doorbell button on the fluted door jamb to his left. Push or pull. He rapped three times. Loudly. The door was as solid as the knocker and the sound waves reverberated inwards as if into a vast cathedral. Three knocks were sufficient he thought. One knock could be interpreted as a mistake, two knocks, reluctance, four knocks or more, impatience. Three was just right. Firm. In control. Three knocks. He listened, his left ear—his good ear—turned to the lion's head as if waiting for a whisper of acknowledgement. A brief buzzing sound followed by a click was his reward. He looked up and made a salute for a possible hidden camera and then made his way in. A broad, long entrance hallway lay before him, empty but for a framed painting with its feet in the dust. A wide spiral staircase rose from the far end of the hallway, while two large Gothic arched double doors stood guard on either side of him a few feet away. He looked down to see he was standing on a finely woven WELCOME mat which had been turned over, the lettering visible through the back of the weave as EMOCLEW to his eyes. Footsteps echoed down the staircase, slow, easy steps, leather soles, heels as hard as hockey pucks. First the shoes, black patent leather, then the pant legs began to appear. Rex stood firm with his feet over the letters M and O while he watched Vernon Smythe make his way down the stairs and towards him from the far end of the hallway. The old oak floorboards provided the dry conversation as Vernon approached, his right hand adjusting his watch strap as if signalling Rex was late. He stopped beside the painting looking down at it while pursing his lips.

“Do you like Georgio de Chirico?”

Rex thought it sounded like a drink. Would you like a glass of Georgio de Chirico? Ice cubes? One or two? He approached Vernon and looked down at the painting which stood about four feet tall by two feet wide. A white tower, the base surrounded by columns on two tiers, an orange roof with flags aloft, an orange foreground with two figures and their shadows. Simple. Childlike. Rex didn't respond knowing Vernon's tendency to ignore answers.

“It's unfortunate it's a copy. Well done but . . . a fake nonetheless.” He turned to Rex and put an arm around his shoulders giving him a brief squeeze as if he were a Father welcoming a son home. “Come along Rex, all shall be revealed.”

He followed Vernon down the hallway to the staircase.

“Do you hear anything Rex?”

Cocking his good ear to the spiral above him Rex shook his head. “Nope, just you.”

“They say the house is haunted. Voices in the stairwell. Silver shadows at night. They can't sell it for love or money.” Vernon imitated Rex with his ear to the spiral. “Such a load of rubbish. Come along, follow me.”

Up the stairs they climbed passing an empty round-arched niche. “They say the niche held a fine porcelain funerary urn for many years. Imagine passing that every time you went to bed. 'Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass,' he said, the stresses of his footsteps in time with his voice, a voice having shifted to one of oracular intonement. Rex had known Vernon long enough to sense he was quoting lines from literature, lines learnt by heart as an avid student, the qualified memory of an Oxonian. What led him from Oxford to intelligence work in Canada he'd never discovered.

Reaching an expansive landing with many closed doors, they continued up a further flight, a further niche. Rex envisioned a voluptuous marble female nude in its place rather than another funerary urn in need of dusting.

“Do you wander the house at night?” Rex asked, looking at Vernon's right hand slide up the banister before him, a few liver spots and wrinkles, rites of passage written on the skin, its signet ring on his little finger, connections beyond concealment.

“Hmm, yes, I've been known to wander at night. 'Close the door, the shutter close, Or thro' the windows we shall see, The nakedness and vacancy, Of the dark deserted house.' Vernon scattered quotations like seeds upon a wasteland, his voice echoing in the stairwell before sinking into the twisting aperture beside them. “There is a sense of liberation in an empty house Rex, especially if the walls are all eggshell in colour, clears the mind of unborn thoughts. You can breathe deeply. Freedom from reference, from the signified and signifier.” They were approaching the final stairs, a bounty of light spreading out towards them. “And yet, it's also egotistical, reducing and merging all to one, one to all.”

“I didn't know you were a philosopher?” Rex said.

“Secundo piano nobile,” he said, stamping his shoes on the oak floorboards. The third floor was an open space with six foot windows hooded in rounded alcoves, quiet sentinels of light. An antique desk, compact, leggy, with leather inlay, was positioned near one of the windows; a lamp, a tea cup and saucer, books, and an open laptop computer were positioned upon it like a still life. In a corner, an upholstered high back chair of indeterminate age and an upright lamp completed the decor. “Avail yourself of that chair and join me over here,” Vernon directed. “At my age Rex, if one hasn't become philosophical, then one's likely philosophically . . . dead.”

Rex looked at the lamp and chair and thought of Bert and Ernie, tall and thin, short and stout. He managed to manhandle the chair over, and as he passed one of the windows, he watched a pigeon on the window ledge walk back and forth as if impatiently waiting for an appointment. Vernon settled himself in his elegant leather chair before the desk with a sigh. “Sometimes Rex, I think we're all in the dark, all in the dark.”

“So, what's it all about Vernon?”

“How long have we known each other Rex?”

Rex looked at Vernon noticing the loosening of the skin around the jowl and neck. “I met you when I was nineteen.”

“Twenty years, yes. Fleet of foot the hours have passed. Well, Rex, we have a rogue on our hands.”

“Did someone jump ship with a whistle around his neck?”

“Do you know what a whistle blower is Rex? . . Someone tooting their own horn. They see the sharp wedge of light from a crack in the door and are seduced. They have Jason Bourne in their minds, travelling the world looking over their shoulder, visions of romantic romps, renown, money, their name in the media, picture in all the papers, in the history books. Then there's the other whistle blower, the one with a grievance, their career crumbling, nothing to lose.” Vernon crossed his legs and looked at Rex like a sheep dog staring down a lone wolf. “The relationship between a whistle blower and Joe Public is symbiotic. Good old JP knows deep down their freedoms and benefits are resting on certain foundational necessities. Whistle blowers pull the curtain away and good old JP starts pointing their finger of self-guilt at the Father in charge. No, not a whistle blower telling the public what they already know deep down. It's someone with a . . . with an audacious reticence.”

Rex raised his eyebrows. “Audacious reticence?”

“Have you ever heard of someone called Evan Dashmore?” Vernon asked, pressing a key on the laptop computer.

Rex thought in earnest, but had never come across such a name. He shook his head.

“That's what I always liked about you Rex. Information about staff and their personal lives never interested you. Too much liability involved. Anyway, Dashmore was a field man, used the name of Harris occasionally. No recollection?”

“No, our paths never crossed. I remember hearing about a certain Harris though. Reputation of being a bit of a Casanova.”

Vernon, with his reading glasses on the end of his nose, was typing, two index fingers pecking away like starlings in the lawn. “He's just a few years older than you. Currently he's in . . . Prague.”

“Ah, that's what you meant by nostalgic.”

“Yes, 1994, a successful operation. Promotion for the both of us I seem to remember. Since you know Prague, I thought you'd do nicely.”

“Well, what did he do?” Rex looked around him, “Steal the furniture?”

Vernon ignored the sarcasm, reached within his finely tailored pinstripe suit jacket and withdrew a long envelope. “The flight leaves tonight. Gives you the afternoon to arrange yourself. I do hope you have your passport?” Rex didn't move so Vernon laid it upon the desktop. He opened a drawer and withdrew a thick envelope. “Cash. Hotel is all arranged.”

“Why aren't you availing yourself of internal leather gloves? Why an outsider like me?”

Vernon looked over his glasses at him. “It's a case that has . . let us say . . . considerable outside interests.”

“What do you need from me then?”

“Evan Dashmore has damaging information and photographs on a USB flash drive. We need it. Simple, clean document retrieval operation. One man job Rex. In and out.”

“Sounds like a dangerous job. Perhaps he knows of me. Knows my face.”

“Highly unlikely Rex. He spent most of his career abroad.”

“What steps have been take against the man so far.”

“We've used the three step CA system. We began with THAW, then moved on to SIFT, and applied RAMP at the same time. He was breaking.”

Rex was sick of the three step program. The Russians praised him for teaching them these methods, but he sensed they would never adopt such time consuming techniques. Their methods were more abrupt. Rex felt he'd changed, his morals and ethics had begun to be exposed due to the erosion of his indifference. Such psychological character assassination techniques were now more unsettling to him. The slander, the fabrication, the isolating, thwarting traducements. He'd heard of the abuse of them by organisations outside of intelligence.

“Is Evan Dashmore a threat?”

“No, not at all. No worry. He thinks he's Scot-free. You'll figure out a way without physical contact I'm sure. I've included Dashmore's info and photographs in the envelope with the airline tickets.”

“I don't know Vernon, this doesn't have a good feel to it.”

Vernon held the thick envelope open so Rex could see the thickness of hundred dollar bills like rings on a freshly cut tree trunk. “Think of your kid's tuition Rex.”

“I don't have kids.”

“I would never have hired you if you did.”

Rex made his way out of the empty house, each door tempting him with its apparent emptiness, but he contained his curiosity. He could  consult a reference book at the library to find the address and discover  whose house it was. As he approached his SUV parked on the street, he turned around and looked up to the third floor of the Renaissance Revival home and saw Vernon standing before one of the windows like a representation of a 20st century man captured behind glass at a wax museum. He waved but Vernon wasn't looking at him, his sight was further off, over the trees towards the city below and the horizon to the south. The big picture.


The sharp-edged cornice of the Palazzo-inspired architecture cut the blue sky like a prow of a ship. Rex climbed the old stone stairs of the library and quietly entered the foyer and made his way across the pink marble floor towards the reference desk. The librarian, a young woman with brown hair and dark glasses, was on the phone. She nodded to Rex and raised the one minute finger, a common gesture in librarianship. “That's right ” she said looking down at a large book open before her, “the equivalent I Ching hexagram for the Zodiac sign of Scorpio, is one long line upon two stacks of five short lines. . . . Yes, that's right. . . Not at all. Anytime Mrs. Whipple. Glad to hear you're feeling better. Goodbye.” She hung up the phone. “Can I help you,” she asked Rex, closing the book on her desk as if embarrassed by its contents.

“Yes, I hope so. I think you have something called Criss-Cross, a book listing addresses to names.”

The young woman looked from Rex towards the corner of the reading room, resting her gaze upon a little man hunched over a table, his books and papers surrounding him like a protective fort.

“The book's presently in use I'm afraid.”

Rex followed her gaze to the man in the corner of the reading room, and as they gazed together at the scene of a mind gone astray, the little man looked up from his books and papers like a prairie dog scenting the approach of humans.

“I'm sorry, I don't have much time. I'm off to Europe tonight. It will only take a moment to look up one address.”

She smiled up at him. Europe. Escape. Freedom. “I'm sure we can convince Mr. Musil to lend us the book for a moment.”

She wore a patterned dress which reminded Rex of honeycombs. She was not tall, coming only to Rex's shoulder, and as he followed her through the maze of chairs and tables, he felt like a Knight accompanying a Queen to meet a mad archivist.

“I'm sorry Mr. Musil, this patron needs to consult the Criss-Cross for one address only. We won't take it from you.”

“But, but the connections can't be broken you see. It's all connected. We are immersed in truth like a vast ocean. All the names. All the addresses. All the phone numbers, yes, all connected.”

The librarian nodded wearily, her shoulders sagging with the weight of such dusty thoughts. “It will only be a moment, we'll use the book over there on the corner of the desk, and bring it back to you here. It won't leave your table.”

Rex had wandered off to the periodicals not wanting to upset the man by hovering nearby like a menace. He noticed an advertisement for a music venue featuring The Sylphs, Ariel and the Psychic Overtones, The Paranoids and Zizek and the Detectives. Damn, he thought. Some good old retro rock for the weekend and he'd be in Prague skulking around corners.

“Excuse me sir,” the librarian said, coming up to him. “The window of opportunity is open.” She pointed to the large thin papered tomb on the corner of the table. The little man was standing up holding his hands before him imploringly, anxiety at the corner of his eyes.

“Thank you so much, Miss . .”

“Mary, not at all. Glad to help.”

Rex nodded to the man as he approached. “Thank you very much. I'll just be a sec.” He bent down to search for the address, the sound of thin pages being turned was like the sound of waves breaking upon a shore. The little man was pacing back and forth nervously as if worried Rex might abscond with the volume. Rex put his finger on the address and ran it across to the name . . .V. Smythe. A number in parentheses beside the name indicated how many years at that address: (30).

* * *

Pavor Loveridge let the papers slip from his hand as he closed his eyes and rested his head deeply upon the pillow. Thirty years. He was seventeen thirty years ago, the age when he first met Victoria at a party held at the Baie d'Urfé Yacht club. Victoria Ondine. From Pointe-Claire. Victoria would be his age if she had lived. He reached over to the lamp and turned it off. He conjured images in the dark of the next stage of Rex's adventure. Feet on the ground, running, fragments of scenes, buildings, the river, the bridge, rooftops. Pavor's chest rose and fell with the sweet ease of sleep.

© ralph patrick mackay