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

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