Monday, August 05, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part 48G

Jerome's sense of guilt was a lament to his complacency. Why had he not involved himself more? Why had he not enquired further as to Thérèse's journalistic assignments? He felt as if he'd been using unstable pigments all along. The colours were fading, the paint flaking, cracking.

Mr. Roquebrune sat on the wooden chair in the living room explaining the events to him—the Ashemore request, his recommendations to Thérèse to cease investigating when any resistance was encountered, the unexpected severity and the single-minded thoroughness of this resistance—but Jerome wasn't listening. He'd grasped the situation immediately. Yes, he would fly to Bergen to meet Thérèse. Yes, he would bring his small sketches of her and their photographs together to help her fill in the swaths of white canvas devoid of colour.

“I'll book the flight Jerome, right away,” Mr. Roquebrune said. “The Ashemore file will pay for the expenses. Stay over one or two nights and then escort her home. Having you beside her will be a tremendous benefit.”

Jerome was nodding, envisioning a discouragement of ruins.

“Once again, I'm so sorry. I firmly blame myself for what's transpired. As for shining a legal light into the affair,” he hesitated, shaking his head, “I fear it would be reflected back at us, a blinding proposition for all concerned.” Mr. Roquebrune took off his glasses and massaged his eyes. “We would be scaling an endless staircase in the dark.” He stood up to leave. “The important thing is to bring Thérèse home and secure her health.”

Jerome remained seated in the shadow cast by his landlord. “Yes . . . I'll get myself ready to leave,” he said almost absentmindedly feeling himself pulled deeper into the circle of intrigue. “I'll . . . be ready.” He followed Mr. Roquebrune to the door. “I'll wait for your call.”

“We'll get through this Jerome, we'll get through this. A fresh start, a clean slate, a . . .” the idiomatic phrases failed him. He touched Jerome's arm and then made his way down the outside staircase, and was halfway across the back lawn before he realised he'd left the flashlight on a side table in Jerome's flat.

Jerome stood at the door, his memory a scattered series of dark silhouettes. The whereabouts of his passport was paramount. Approaching the oak sideboard, an inherited piece valuable for its storage space, he pulled open one deep shallow drawer and began to rummage. Double 'A' batteries rolled in the wood dust beside Italian wine corks stained on one end, pierced on the other as if wounded. Miniature plastic sealed bags with thread and buttons for long forgotten clothing—orphans that would never find their chosen fabrics. Keys to forgotten locks whose teeth would never again taste the steel of a tumbler, miniature luggage locks lacking their flimsy notions of a key. Unused index cards, their red lines fading, old thin-papered and blurred purchase bills, a nail file with a Chevron design, a thumb drive in the shape of Batman, a dual headphone adaptor plug—memories of shared musical pleasures. Shading sticks on their way to becoming substitute charcoal, coins: pfennigs, pence, francs, and a lira with the fine profile of what he took to be Casanova, multi-coloured elastics, scuffed-edged white erasers, a black leather bookmark with a crest of green and gold, stamps framed by the clipped brown and white envelopes sent to him by Thérèse and others: Norge: a train, Sverige: a lighthouse, Hellas: Pegasus, South Africa: the long tailed blue swallow, Strzelec: a figural piece. A purple plastic pencil sharpener with a remnant shaving of yellow painted wood protruding like a diseased tongue, paint brushes, their bristles hardened into pointed uselessness, pens whose ink substitutes had evaporated with time, a clutch of multi-coloured and scented eraser ends like a school of tropical fish, and an old black and white series of 20 mini snapshots of Holland, the topmost revealing a dated photograph of the cheese market, white clad and hatted men carrying a low slung wooden sleigh-like device surmounted by a hillock of white melon sized cheeses ready for sale. But no passport. He almost slammed the drawer shut out of frustration, but caught himself and eased it back. Each item, silent dusty vestiges of shared experiences, could possibly be memory triggers for Thérèse.


“We're just going to give Hugh a short walk,” Amelia said to Duncan who was in the process of putting the dry dishes away, “and then I'll drive Mélisande home, she's had a long day. Come and say goodbye.”

“Always nice to see you Mélisande,” he said hugging her. “Thanks for bringing the Latin text back. I'll make a photocopy of the pages and drop them off one day so you can take your time over it.”

“Sure. Sorry I didn't get to it over the past few days.”

“Oh, not at all. No rush. Thanks again.”

Duncan waited as they descended the stairs and winked to his wife as she closed the door behind them thinking Mélisande did seem rather tired.

He made his way to the office and started the laptop, the glow of the screen capturing him in a beam of leaden white. He'd remembered wanting to look up the publisher of Noel Welwyn Gough's edition of the obscure George Chapman book, and also the unimportant curiosity as to Washington Irving's middle name. But first he opened his word processing file to add a title to his list, one that came to him as he had scrubbed the pot gilded with butternut squash remnants.

Knots of the Argonauts, and Other What-Nots of the Dreadnoughts of Old
by Ariadne Brightsides

He added the title, pleased with himself and then opened Google to search for Washington Irving's middle name. He came up with an article from 1914 demonstrating he was certainly not the first to look into the meaninglessness of Irving's middle name. There had been, according to this intrepid early inquirer, a Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain from 1814 to 1819, named George W. Erving, and the author of this article had assumed it to be a misspelling, and therefore assumed the famous American author's first name must have been George. But on further investigation, this inquirer discovered the dates were wrong, for Washington Irving had been Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain much later. So, with further hard research he had discovered there had been two ministers to Spain with almost identical names. But oddly enough, the author of this article, Duncan read, assumed that George W. Erving's middle name must have been 'Washington,' and Washington Irving's first name must therefore have been George. Duncan doubted such assumptions. He wondered how many other individuals had sought out the middle name of Washington Irving and come across this swirl of Borgesian doppelganger confusion.

Oxtoby and Snoad seemed wholly more attached to reality. Their web page was elegant with touches of maroon and blue, and seeing a drop down menu he chose About to discover who exactly were Oxtoby and Snoad. He read the short paragraph to learn that they were, in fact, two well-fed Corgis, pets of a retired married couple with backgrounds in academe and art, Sebastian and Clare Bishop, the true purveyors of the finely printed and the well-bound. From the menu, he chose Authors to find Noel's name but his eye flitted past N. Welwyn Gough out of curiosity as to whether he'd recognize anyone else in their stable of wordsmiths. He drew in a breath when he came upon the name P. K. Loveridge. There could only be one P. K. Loveridge. Clicking on the familiar letters he was brought to a simple page for one book of verse, Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht Off Palmyra. He remembered the book hiding under Mélisande's modestly illustrated arms and realised it must have been this very book. He knew Mélisande's friend wrote suspense thrillers—he'd managed to get through Pavor's Olivaster Moon, a literary detective story featuring a protagonist named Ormond Develle in a style that reminded him of the work of Dibdin or Gill—but hadn't suspected him a poet. A black and white photograph of the author with his face half in shadow was clearly the P. K. Loveridge he knew of, the angular features, the blond hair curling down over his right eye like a question mark. There was a brief description of the poetry collection as one describing a series of excursions around Montreal on foot with a companion—Mélisande he assumed. One poem, a teaser, was provided and Duncan, eyebrows pinched with judgement, read the lines:

This ruddy stone I touch, not quite the same.
This New York Life Insurance pile that plays
Audacious red amongst the limestone greys.
The urns, the garlands, arabesque, the name-

less masks—green men in red—Renaissance style
In modern dress. The first to scrape the sky,
This jolly corner with a clock. The spry
Old arrows point the time, an office dial-

alectic still. The hour-hand with the sun
And moon, a mythic touch, a piece of time
That Harold Lloyd's intrepid eyes would climb.
You say not long ago the view was won-

derful, a spyglass on the roof and you
Could see La Chine, but now on view, the west
Is one dark sentinel, a Kubrick jest,
A non-reflective tower in the blue.

He recognized the buildings in Old Montreal facing Place d'Armes that Pavor was making reference to. The Kubrick sentinel reference would be that tall dark banking tower from the late 1960s on the west side of the park blocking the view from the first Montreal skyscraper. The poem seemed an odd choice. “Not quite the same” as what he wondered? Perhaps that's why the publisher chose it for a teaser. Make the reader interested perhaps.

Having satisfied his errant curiosity, Duncan thought he'd look over the Latin manuscript pages before Amelia returned. The computer bag appeared unusually fresh to his tired eyes but he swung it up from the hallway floor and opened the zipper. Keenly attuned to the feel and sound of books, he sensed that something was amiss. Books were moving against each other like tectonic plates. Two stout softcover volumes in heavy paper boards lay in the plush black synthetic nest in place of his family business cashbook. He sat in the chair by the front window thinking some poor sucker would be going to do a stint of study and come across Strand Cordage, Cash Book, 1881, and not the two volumes of philosophy he or she had anticipated. He noticed the price marked in pencil on the flyleaf and recognized the bookshop. The cost seemed fairly representative of their recent second-hand values and he theorized they were newly bought. A small blue circle stamp with three initials within it was also on the flyleaf. A previous owner's subtle ex libris sign perhaps. The three letters however could be in three possible arrangements due to the circular device. He looked at them and saw PMR which reminded him of Place Ville Marie, PVM. The scent of the ink and paper roused memories of similar books by this publisher, Princeton University Press, and he carefully fanned the pages remembering handling older versions of this two-volume set of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's Either/Or. A long slip of paper fell out of the first volume and he failed to snag it before it found it's sinuous way under the chair. Retrieving it from the dust along with one of Hugh's yellow plastic chewing toys in the shape of Bart Simpson, he looked at the paper inscribed with notations in purple ink, two quotations:

In the labyrinth of metaphysics are the same whispers as one hears when climbing Kafka's staircases to the tribunal which is always one floor higher up. - John Wisdom, Other Minds, 1952.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it). He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. -Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus 6.54.

If the slip of paper was a provisional bookmark, he'd lost the reader's place. He randomly flipped pages until he saw the name Mozart and slipped it between the pages. He would have to drop by the library and explain to Mélisande that a mix up had occurred. She did seem preoccupied and fatigued tonight.

He walked over to the bookshelf and reached down to the bottom shelf with an assortment of reference works to get a thick blue cloth biographical dictionary of philosophy and began turning pages towards the W section. Warnock, Weber, Weil, Whitehead . . .

Wisdom, John (Arthur John Terrance Dibber ) 1902-1993.

Duncan read over the details of his career as a well-loved Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge and later at the University of Oregon. Influences, Moore, Wittgenstein, Freud. Author of numerous works. Not to be confused with his cousin, John Oulton Wisdom, vide infra.

Wisdom, John Oulton, 1908-1993.

Duncan could see that this cousin had had a more circuitous academic route but likewise had been a well-appreciated professor of philosophy ending up at York University in Canada and had written an early book on Bishop Berkeley which was controversial due to its treatment of the Philosopher's fascination with Tar-Water.  Duncan found it charming that contemporaneous cousins both known as John Wisdom—the surname punningly apt for such a calling—had both been active as academic philosophers with interests in psychoanalysis, and had both seen the metaphysical light in 1993. Librarians must have had disambiguation tags for them. Duncan wondered if they had looked alike.

Between the exchange of the computer bags and the mirrored Irvings and Wisdoms, Duncan felt lightheaded. The front door opened and he heard Amelia and Hugh coming up the stairs. He shelved the reference work and put the two Kierkegaards back in the computer bag and placed it beside the chair as Hugh made his way towards him, tail wagging.

“Did you have a good walk Hugh? Did you have a good walk?” he said giving Hugh a rub up and down his spine and then a kiss on the nose. “You'd probably enjoy meeting Oxtoby and Snoad wouldn't you Hugh, yes, yes you would.”

“You won't believe what Mélisande told me on the way home,” Amelia said leaning on the door jamb looking like she'd just taken Hugh on a trek up the mountain.

Duncan raised his eyebrows and held himself mute while he rubbed Hugh between the ears.

“She learnt from a colleague today that Pavor had, when young, been married and had a daughter and . . . his wife and daughter perished in a car crash. No one knew.” She made her way to her chair and slumped down upon it, legs out and head back. “Poor Mélisande never knew.” Her mouth was open in astonishment and Duncan realised his had fallen open as well. This trumped his Irvings and Wisdoms hands down.


The door lock of Strand Cordage Ltd. had been an effortless endeavour. It was unfortunate, he thought, that the fog had dispersed, for it would have added a touch of atmosphere to his surreptitious pursuit. His directions were to search the premises of Lafcadio & Co. Booksellers, on the second floor, for an alpha-numerical manuscript. No fuck ups, or you'll be looking for ice in Greenland. He switched on his wrap-around silicon LED flashlights on each wrist and found his way to the staircase at the side of the cordage offices. The striking scent of sisal and hemp followed him up the stairs like a sinuous shadow. Wooden picture frames kept pace with his ascent, photographs or prints of famous authors, names in the corners, Lafcadio Hearn, Jane Austen, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Machen and a nameless photograph of a bald headed man in stout shoes, long socks, shorts and a waist length wind breaker carrying a butterfly net, an expression of youthful content on his clean-shaven face. He recognized the name Jane Austen from the cover of a zombie book. The young woman who'd been reading it at a café had given him the full ninety degree shift when he gave her his best pick up line: “I think something's wrong with my auto-aim. I can't take my eyes off ya.” Really. No sense of humour. He stood at the top of the stairs and scanned the area, moving his wrists about like a martial artist or Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies. The large desk covered in books and papers was the natural first choice. Bingo. This was too simple. A large envelope on the blotter revealed itself as the target text. He now had time to kill. He listened and relaxed, just the ticking of a clock. He started the laptop computer and looked at the stacks of books on either side of the blotter. The Lone Rider of Sante Fe with an illustrated dustjacket caught his eye. On the other side, a piece of paper lay upon what looked like very old books. He read the words written on the paper: Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, Or A Brief Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Kinds and Cure of Enthusiasme, by Henry More, 1656. Must be nice to be your own boss he thought. No one telling you what to do and how to do it. From an inside pocket, he retrieved a flash drive and began the process of copying the computer files. While he waited, he swung round and faced the rows of bookshelves behind him. The light from his LED's brought the shelves to life with glimmers of gilt and reflections of mylar. Bookselling! It seemed unreal that someone could make a living selling this junk. He approached the aisle and turned to face the first alcove on his right; a sign above in gold letters, Sir Percivale drew him in. Who'd have thought there would have been so many writers with names beginning with W, X, Y and Z. Waugh, Wells, Wharton, White, Wilde, Williams, Wilson, Wodehouse, Wolfe, Woolf, Yates, Yeats, Yoshimoto, Yourcenar, Zafon, Zamyatin, Zizek. All of the names were but names to him. He made his way out of the alcove and paused. Something glinted at the end of the aisle in the darkness at the back of the shop. He raised his wrists and shone the lights as if into a cave. He was startled to see a large porcelain winged angel staring back at him with blind porcelain eyes. A shiver ran along the back of his neck. The angel was holding an open book in its hands and as he got close enough to inspect it, he saw that the pages were as blank, smooth and glistening as Antarctic ice.  

End of Chapter Four - Wednesday

photograph and text © ralph patrick mackay

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