Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Three

He opened his eyes and found himself lying upon a small bed in a small room. He noticed a porthole above him framed with dark smooth wood. Kneeling upon the pillow, he looked out but could only see a fog of shifting patterns spinning slowly like a kaleidoscope of café au laits.

Out in the hallway, the walls were wainscoted and featured polished brass hand rails, and beneath his bare feet, a carpet runner leading to a set of narrow stairs. As he made his way to the top stair he could see a large wood-panelled room with four figures seated around a table. Approaching, he recognized Yves wearing a captain's hat and puffing on a pipe, and beside him, Melisande and Thérèse dressed in dark suits, white shirts and black ties, and beside them, Jerome in brown rags with a cigarette behind his ear. They looked up at him.

What's put on a table, cut, but never eaten?” Jerome asked.

Duncan didn't understand.

They all smiled as Yves produced a pack of cards and began to shuffle the deck while he hummed the tune to Gilligan's Island. His navy pea jacket sported a crest with a large fish. Duncan turned around and saw Amelia in a long evening gown with pearls around her neck, Hugh at her feet. She waved to him. Nearby stood Tom wearing a long green overcoat and holding an umbrella in one hand and a swinging pendulum in the other.

Don't worry Dunc,” Tom said, “I've brought my ultrasonic weapon in case we need to break down any walls. We'll find your old friend David Ashemore don't you worry. Have a drink, relax.”

Standing to his left he discovered P. K. Loveridge in a butler's outfit holding a tray with shot glasses arranged in a spiral formation. He took one, drank it, and found himself out on the deck of the ship. The life saver read: SS Qupode. Leaning on the railing, he looked down but neither saw nor heard any evidence of water, only foam. They were floating on foam.

How deep is the ocean?” asked Yves who now stood beside him puffing away on his pipe.

A stone's throw,” replied Tom, standing on the other side of him, swinging his pendulum out over the railing.

Yves took the pipe from between his lips, the smoke rising from the bowl of fading embers, and tossed it into the fog. “I feel we're close to L'Isle de Mont Lautré. It shouldn't be long now. Tabarnac Dunc, you'll be fine, just fine.”

Duncan felt extremely fatigued, and turning around, found himself back in his childhood bedroom, the den over the garage. The large twin windows were open and he was lying on his bed looking at the night sky, the strobe light of Place Ville Marie swept the underside of the clouds. He began to count slowly to eleven. One, two, three, four, five . . He remembered those early years going to the library with David to take out Tintin books. He could see the small, white clap-board library, the steps down to the children's library section, the Librarians at the desk, the colourful books, the path home through the park with its benches with elderly people feeding squirrels and pigeons. The path home. The light swept the clouds once again. One, two, three, four . . . The hidden lighthouse searching for lost souls. He breathed in the scent of rain. Petrichor Amelia had said. From the Greek petros for stone, and ichor, for the golden blood of the Gods. Petrichor. He looked beside him and there was the National Geographic map from his youth tacked to the fake wood panelling, a map he would gaze upon for hours dreaming about the Mediterranean Sea from the straits of Gibraltar to the port of Jaffa where Jonah set sail, and everything between, the place names magical, mythical, romantic. He could see the pencil lines he'd made as a youth, the supposed route of Ulysses according to some book he'd read and long forgotten. How ridiculous he now thought. How ridiculous. The light from Place Ville Marie swept past once more. He began to count, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . .


The Doctor checked the vital signs monitor and then looked down at the chart of test results. The Glasgow Coma Scale looked promising: GCS 11= E4 V3 M4 at 7:10 this morning. Eye response at 4 points: spontaneous eye opening. Verbal response at 3: random words exclaimed: haddock? Cupid? Motor response at 4: withdrawal from pain stimulus.

That was promising she thought. She lifted Mr. Strand's left eyelid and noted the condition of the pupil and then with two gentle movements, brushed his brown hair back from his forehead thinking he didn't look his age. There was something about his chin and the curve of his lips that seemed familiar. She rearranged the bedspread and held his right hand and bent down to speak softly into his right ear. “Hello Duncan, my name is Doctor Julia Yee. You're doing fine. Your wife Amelia was here with you and will be back soon. We're taking good care of you. Don't worry. You'll be fine.” And with that she gave his hand a squeeze. There was a slight response in return. Then, with the soft edge of her thumb, she swept a stray eyelash off his cheek.


A fragrance of sandalwood and jasmine overcame him. Memories were evoked, memories of Montreal's Chinatown and the Chinese soap he used to buy when he dated Yiyin, the Bee & Flower brand, so beautifully wrapped and labelled, everyday exotics, golden emblems of their time together. He was now sitting across from her in a booth at the Tean Hong Café, the restaurant that had burnt down years ago. She was explaining the various Dim Sum dishes to him while he practised his chopsticks. The waiter, a young student in black dress pants, white shirt and black bow tie, brought them a pot of Chinese tea, and she began to pour.

The light from Place Ville Marie swept by once more, and he began to count again. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . .


Melisande sipped her tea and looked out the window. She could see Pavor scraping frost from his windshield and then brushing it off. He looked up, noticed her, and waved. She smiled and waved back. A few moments later, she watched as he pulled out from the curb and made his way east along Sherbrooke Street on his way to her apartment to feed Clio, and to stop by St. Viateur Bakery for a dozen sesame seed bagels and hummus. She felt somewhat guilty for not being there to feed Clio her early morning meal, but inversely, she luxuriated in the freedom from responsibility. Looking back to the parking space Pavor had vacated, she noticed an oily slick, circular rings of orange, then indigo, light blue and back to dark orange and the blues once more. Her Mother used to say such spots were evidence of rainbows touching down. She sat at Pavor's desk and stared at the small antique brass compass resting on a stack of leather bound notebooks and wondered if he'd ever witnessed a rainbow from this window.

She put her tea down and opened the central desk drawer, and slipped out the latest instalment of his work in progress. He'd told her it was there if she wanted to look it over with her keen-eye for typos, faulty grammar, factual mistakes, and implausibilities, and give him what he called his much needed 'elaborative and corrective reinforcements.' Rereading his own work was the most creatively draining task of any day, 'like retracing my steps across a beach looking for a cipher in the sand.' It was a sentence he often used. If she'd come across the sentence in his work, she might have to put brackets around it and add a question mark in the margin.

She opened the binder and began to read:

Rex Under Glass, Part Eight

Rex parked the Venetian green sedan in an unlit spot around the corner from Vernon Smythe's house. The digital numbers on the clock glowed like binary poison, 11:00. Too late for people to be walking their dogs. Most residents were likely preparing for bed, checking their emails, or hypnotized by the litany from the late night news. He folded the car rental papers and pushed them into the inside pocket of his jacket. It was a good time for him to make his surprize visit. With his collar up around his neck, hands in pockets, and a dark ball cap on his head, he counted the steps as he made his way to Vernon's front door: forty-two. As he pushed the door bell, he thought he saw something move on the lawn to his left. There was a faint hint of skunk in the air. A shiver rippled down his spine.

“Yes, who is it?” Vernon demanded, his voice sounding more annoyed than perplexed as it issued from the small intercom speaker above the doorbell.

“I come bearing gifts from the old city of Prague,” Rex said. He waited in silence, casting worried glances at the shrubbery. Then he heard footsteps approach the door, a hesitation as if he was being viewed on a video screen, and finally the door opened.

“Well Rex, you've caught me on my movie night. Come in, come in.” Vernon sniffed a few times. “A bit skunky out there tonight isn't it. Or is that one of your gifts?” He stood there dressed in a long, richly woven brocade house coat and matching slippers. “Have you ever seen the movie, The Dark Corner, 1946?”

Rex shook his head.

“Don't worry Rex, few have.” He motioned to the half open door revealing a fully furnished drawing room. “Please join me. Don't worry about your shoes. Yes, The Dark Corner, quite a film. You've arrived just as the camera panned away from the great Eddie Heywood on the piano in the High Hat Club. Ah, those were the days, elegance, savoir faire.” He motioned to Rex to take a seat at one of the two highback upholstered chairs facing the large flatscreen television on an antique table. The film had been paused leaving a still shot of an attractive actress sitting at a nightclub table wearing a striking black jacket with white stripes in a V design. “Lucille Ball,” he said, gesturing to the actress on the screen. “Perhaps you know of her from old reruns of I Love Lucy? The famous scene in the chocolate factory with the conveyor belt conveying confections unremittingly. Oh, my, such hilarity is rare indeed, rare indeed. How we laughed.”

“What's The Dark Corner about?”

“I'm sorry Rex, I didn't offer you anything to drink. You must be jet lagged and dehydrated. What can I offer you?”

“I'm fine. No need.”

“Well, if you change your mind, the bar is over there,” he said pointing to the corner. “Beer, orange juice, tomato juice, ginger ale, water. Help yourself.” Vernon sipped his Cinzano Rosso and crossed his legs. “So, The Dark Corner is a lesser known film noir. A private detective played by Mark Stevens—a part more suited for Alan Ladd but alas, he was busy with The Blue Dahlia, another film noir which came out the same year—the detective is framed for the murder of a playboy lawyer who was having an affair with the younger wife of a wealthy older art dealer. The art dealer set it up using a thug to do his dirty work. Lucille Ball plays the detective's secretary. Quite simple really, but the writing is decent, and Lucille Ball provides a very good performance.” He picked up the remote control. “I can start it from the beginning if you'd like to watch.”

“Evan Dashmore told me about the young man who had an affair with your wife, the files on the thumb drive, and how you were essentially responsible for his death.” Rex withdrew a thumb drive from his jacket pocket and held it in his open palm. “Evan wanted to mail this to you. He advised me to avoid you altogether. Change my name. Start a new life.”

Vernon sipped his drink and rested his head back as he contemplated this revelation. “William Powell might have been good for the part as well, but I imagine he was on contract for the Thin Man films. Yes, good old William Powell,” he said, looking up into the darkness seemingly lost in nostalgia. “Jean Harlow, such a tragic loss. Love of his life, dead at 26. And then his son, a suicide. Yes, Rex, even the high and mighty have their afflictions.”

“What's the truth Vernon? Did you drive the young man to his death?”

Vernon placed his tumbler on the side table and rested his hands on the arms of the chair. “Rex, Rex, Rex. Evan has played you. He's taken the shark out of you. The young man in question worked for the service and was planning to reveal certain secrets about our contracting of certain operations. He was discredited and fired. As for having an affair with my wife, that is neither here nor there. As for myself, I have been retired from the service for a year now. The private contract companies I oversee provide solutions for international problems. We use finesse, not hit men. We provide training and techniques, expedience and methodology. Today's science and technology has made our work much more efficient. You've worked for me, not the service. Cash on the barrel. You should have no quarrel with me.”

“Maybe I'll have that drink.” Rex walked over to the bar and opened the small fridge and took out a bottle of orange juice, popped open the cap and drank deeply. “Evan thought you might have sent me to Prague to set us up like your film noir detective.”

“I think Mr. Dashmore has been reading too many European spy novels.”

“Why did you send me to Prague?”

Vernon directed the remote control towards the television screen reducing it to a dark shadow. “If you must know, it was sleight of hand. I needed someone to draw attention away from the man I sent to Prague on your flight, make it look like you were the courier. Information was purposely leaked concerning your connection with my interests. Did you notice extra attention to your passage through customs, the taxi driver, the hotel workers. Probably not. They're very good.”

Rex reviewed his memories of the trip, his arrival and subsequent movements, and could now see how people's interactions with him could be reinterpreted. He'd been followed and watched. “What about Evan? Won't he be under suspicion now?”

“Evan works for Czech intelligence. I imagine he's now recognized he's been played. You were my smoke screen. Your final payment is in the second drawer, on your right.”

Rex opened the drawer and took out a legal size envelope. He placed it in his jacket pocket without looking at the contents. “So what about the thumb drive?”

“A souvenir.” Vernon drank the remnants of his vermouth and stood up. “The world we inhabit Rex, has a custom of misfortune. Civilization is a thin topsoil easily swept away by barbarity. Stoics cultivated the soil for the nihilists to sow and religious extremists to waste.” He walked towards the bar, hands in his house coat. “This is not a world for jaded postdocs, cynical ambivalents and hip divines. You may think I have an endless Rolodex of disreputables, but really my work is the very syntax of international cooperation. The sand in the mortar that keeps the masonry of relations intact.”

“You know Vernon, I don't know who, or what to believe anymore. I don't think I'm suited for your world.” Rex placed the half-finished orange juice on the bar and taking the thumb drive from his pocket, dropped it into the wide opening of the bottle. They both watched it sink to the bottom, a shadow in the glass.

Vernon looked at his watch. “Ah, 11:30, half-past hanging time. I want to thank you Rex for your work. If you have second thoughts, you know how to contact me.” He held out his arm as a sign to escort him to the door.

In the foyer, Rex noticed the painting leaning against the wall, “Why don't you put that up on the wall?”

Vernon turned his head sideways. “Ah, yes, de Chirico's The Nostalgia of the Infinite. A decent copy, but a fake as they say. Those two figures in the foreground and their dark shadows are us Rex. The tower and its flags dominate our lives. We're just shadows in the sun.” Vernon approached the painting. “Why don't you take it. It requires a new home.” He picked it up and held it out towards Rex.

They shared eye contact for ten seconds, then Rex accepted the gift.

Vernon opened the front door and Rex stopped, and held out his hand. “Good bye Vernon.”

A brief solid handshake passed between them.

“Not at all, not at all,” Vernon said. “Careful as you go . . . mind the skunks.” He watched Rex meld into the shadows of the street and then closed the door. He walked towards the staircase and stood with his hand on the ornately carved newel post, one foot on the lowest stair, and listened. Nothing. Not tonight he thought, not tonight. He would not see his ghostly double tonight.

He entered the main floor powder room to pee, and standing before the mirror, noticed the two vertical lines that rose between his eyes to meet the horizontal wrinkles of his forehead, a crossroads which produced an outline reminiscent of the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, the one that loomed over Rio de Janeiro on Corcovado Mountain. Looking directely ahead, he rested his gaze upon the bags under his eyes, crescent shaped dumplings, puffy, plump. He stared at them until they brought to mind the rounded scales of a balance, weary with the weight of decision. How ravaged his face seemed. How grim. In another dimension he was certain he'd found a sense of the sacred, lived a life of beneficence, of honours, and one night that munificent soul would be waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, and would lead him away.


Melisande closed the binder and put it back in the drawer. Her tea was cold. She stared at the passing clouds and wondered where Pavor was going with this narrative. Swinging around in his chair, she got up and looked at the painting hanging over his small fireplace, Jerome's copy of the de Chirico mentioned in the story, The Nostalgia of the Infinite. She breathed in deeply and thought a quick hot shower would clear her mind.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, April 18, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Two

Mrs. Shimoda sat at the dining room table performing her monthly Saturday morning ritual of going through her purse, purging it of loose change, bills of sale, old tissues, slips of paper with appointment reminders, crumpled grocery lists like shadows of every list made and every one to come, pink post-it notes with numbers for fashion patterns desired and notions required, individually wrapped candies from restaurant visits with her son, ATM bank receipts as thin and smooth as India paper, and the inevitable dross of dusty lint in the seams of interior pockets. Hesitating, she withdrew a small strip of cloth in a pale shade of purple, one she had brought to the fabric store to seek out the right buttons for the blouse she'd been making; she rubbed it between her right thumb and forefinger, and recalled the Sunday afternoon she wore it to her grandson's birthday party, an afternoon overflowing with moments of gratitude and pleasure, moments of lucid smiles and gentle laughter no camera could possibly capture. She placed it on the table beside the loose change, and in doing so, shuffled a few coins off the edge with her sleeve. She heard them fall and noticed one rolling in a long arc towards the corner cabinet like a rogue car wheel after an accident. With a sigh, she made her way over and bent down on her knees to look underneath, and as she reached in to sweep the ten cent coin out, she saw the rough side of a jigsaw puzzle piece nestled behind one of the front legs. Picking it up, she recognized the shape. She turned it over to the shiny side glazed like a porcelain bathroom fixture, and there was the hand of the geisha holding the parasol, the missing symmetrical jigsaw piece reaching out to embrace and complete the image with the other 999 interlocking fragments she no longer had. Her son had returned the puzzle to the shop seeking a refund. She could hear his laconic explanation, 'defective' he would have said, 'missing a piece'. She looked down at this now redundant fragment in the palm of her hand thinking of a compass, a delicate hand holding the shaft of the bamboo oil-paper parasol, the thumb pointing North.

She couldn't conceive how it found its way under the corner cabinet.

Back at her seat, she began to return items into her purse: wallet, keys, pens, a vintage compact with an image of pale flowers which reminded her of an Aubusson carpet, lip gloss, a notebook, a package of tissues, a comb, a folded blue nylon tote bag in its pouch which mimicked her dark blue and white embroidered omamori (a gift from her daughter-in-law as a charm for her travel safety, one she hoped would bring green lights, never red), a tape measure, miniature scissors for coupon cutting, spare reading glasses, a nail file, and a few adhesive bandages for small cuts. Picking up the jigsaw piece, she thought, for the briefest of moments, of placing it in the bottom of her purse, but quickly dismissed it as an idea induced by a mischievous spirit. She would dig a hole in the earth at the base of her small bamboo shrub in her back garden, and bury it deep enough to avoid the reach of squirrels. Best place for it she thought. She looked out the dining room window and was reassured that such a task was still possible. The snowfall had been minimal over the last week. The ground was still friable. Tomorrow, she thought. She would bury it tomorrow. Her morning shopping lay ahead.

Halfway down the hill on her way towards the Atwater Market in search of a nice piece of fish for her dinner that evening, she recognized a car coming up the hill, the driver looking tired and expressionless, her hands grabbing the steering wheel at the eleven and one position as if it at a ship's wheel and lost at sea. Mrs. Shimoda smiled and nodded her head, but Amelia didn't see her. Poor girl, she thought, preoccupied with Duncan's business closure. Amelia had told her all about it and had jokingly reassured her that they wouldn't be bringing the weight of a bookshop home. She had been reassured, though the thought of lying on her bed beneath a dangerous weight of books on the floor above had given her a singular nightmare one evening. She'd dreamt of waking up in her room with books pouring from the ceiling like sand into the bottom of an hour-glass, an unstoppable influx of print, and there she was clambering up the growing pyramid of books only to slip down to the bottom perimeter where the door of her room had been wedged shut. She had awoken, the sheets in disarray, the ceiling intact, mumbling the word hashigo, hashigo, hashigo.

The sidewalks were more slippery than she'd expected, the patches of ice and city-spread sand were distributed along the concrete path like frozen ponds and hazards of a golf course. Carefully she made her way down the hill. She decided she would take a taxi back from the market, and she wondered with anticipation if she'd be fortunate to come across Olivier. Such a pleasant smile and so polite. So helpful opening doors and helping her with packages. She was usually disinclined to participate in small talk, but with Olivier it was different. He asked how she was, talked about the weather, asked after her family, discussed his, all with his Haitian-accented English which charmed her into amiable and relaxed responses as she breathed in the sandalwood aroma of his car, making her feel as if she was sitting on a sofa in his living room. She had to admit, she accentuated her elderly qualities when around him, stooping slightly, walking a little slower, sighing with a touch of dramatic nuance. It was all give and take, authentic and studied, like life itself she thought.


Isabelle Cloutier closed her eyes and listened to the coffee machine. The inhalation and exhalation of water and air sounded like a Jacques Cousteau underwater adventure, the clicks, the bubbling, the drips and splashes of the dark tinted liquid leading to the heightened finale as the machine coughed and burbled, an expiration akin to the scuba diver taking the mouth piece from between their lips and releasing the oxygen into the water.

Breathing in the aroma of the fresh-brewed coffee, she felt as weightless as her imaginary diver rising to the surface of morning.

Pouring herself a cup, she walked over to her bistro table by the window where a sun-catcher in the shape of a snowy owl cast an opaque reflection upon her. She turned her tablet on and clicked on her Twitter account with its made up name and Twitter handle, AtheneNoctua. Her profile image, a small owl, looked back at her as she entered her password. Each Tweeter's distinctive profile picture acted as an immediate sign post to their content, a diverse news feed for her interests. Her eyes quickly scanned the tweets, skimming the surfaces, reading the first words and passing on:

A question of . . .
Scientists find . .
Do you have . . .
Watch this . . .
A look at . . .
Is the . . .
When asked to . . .
How crime will . . .
Who was responsible . . .
Your voice will . . .
Around in circles . . .
So excited . . .
Looking for a . . .
I can't be the only . . .
Nothing's more . . .
What does it say . . .
RIP . . .
Good morning . . .
Excited about all . . .
In a cab with . . .
Scientists have made . . .
Sad news . . .
Oh joy . . .
If the weather continues . . .
Still buzzing from . . .
I've decided i don't . . .
The top 20% of . . .
On this day . . .
Are Saturn's rings . . .

Between her hangover and her work week exhaustion, her concentration was as passive as a cat lying in the sun. She logged out of Twitter and checked her personal email. Messages and updates from a science magazine, online shoe sale, Clearly Contacts, travel opportunities, and one from Sotheby's with a catalogue of an upcoming sale of nineteenth century art. She knew her energy was low as she logged out of her account without looking at the catalogue, usually such a pleasurable weekend pastime as she searched for possible depictions of owls in paintings or sculpture she might conceivably afford.

Looking down into the back yard, she noticed her empty garbage can on its side, possibly knocked over by the wind, its dark opening like a tunnel entrance. This triggered the memory of a dream. She'd been walking into a tunnel, about twenty feet in circumference, and after a long trek in, the tunnel had begun to narrow, gradually at first, and then dramatically so, until thirty feet ahead of her, her flash light had revealed a convergence of the circle into a point like the inside of a steeple. Turning around, all had been dark. She couldn't see the light of the entrance, and she thought the tunnel must have curved. It was then she'd awoken wrapped and tangled in her sheets feeling frantic and trapped. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and wondered if it was symbolic of her evening spent with her girlfriend Carol at the book launch she'd dragged her to. 'You might meet someone new,' she'd said, 'someone literary, artsy.' She sipped her coffee recalling the evening spent drinking cheap red wine while a University of Montreal professor read from his latest book of poetry surrounded by hipsters with facial hair, plaid shirts, small fedoras, tattoos, dark rimmed glasses, and sloppy jeans and running shoes. The young women had worn outfits with shear panels, visible zippers, tall leather boots, and looked like they lived off cigarettes and carrot juice. And everyone had been so bloody young, and seemingly more concerned with the activity around smart phones and selfies than the obscure meanings of the poet's offeringss. What had Carol been thinking? But they'd had fun afterwards at the trendy Baldwin Barmacie on Laurier, where they talked, releasing all the stress and demands of their respective jobs while confirming each other's woes in soft voices and undertones. She smiled thinking of Carol's wordplay concerning the young men and women at the reading: Between the sad men and the Mad Men, you have the plaid men. Between the tattoos and the Jimmy Choos, you have the whose who's.

In the living room, sitting in her comfortable high back corner chair, she curled her legs up and wrapped a crochet throw around her shoulders and stared at the painting entitled Phantom of the North, a Great Grey Owl in flight, its piercing yellow eyes and hooked yellow beak facing her as if she was the prey, the enormous head and its heart-shaped face with semi-circular feather arrangements in curving lines of super-symmetry and its extraordinary outstretched wings showing off its banded feathers ready to wrap her in an embrace before the talons found their mark.

After a long, seemingly dreamless period of moody darkness—imageless dreams sightless people are said to experience—she thought of the abundance of evocative dreams she'd had this past week. A dream with owls was not uncommon with her but this one had been unusual. She'd awoken on Thursday morning to recall one of finding an owl in a barn-like modern house; she'd looked up to see it in the peak of the rafters, and she'd opened a door and called to it as if to a cat. As it swooped towards her, she'd prostrated herself on the floor facing a glass-fronted China cabinet which reflected the owl's flight over her, a baby owl she could see. Then fear had entered as she'd sensed a large mother owl swoop down and join the owlet. Realizing the owls were still inside the building, she had opened a further door and followed the same procedure only to find herself in a large screened in porch and she had to reenact the process once more. Finally, the owls had been released and she was standing in the sun, a sense of great contentment and freedom overcoming her. If it signified a revelation in her life, she had yet to see how.

A small stack of envelopes and flyers, Friday's mail, lay on the table by the door. She got up and brought them back to her chair and sorted through them. An envelope with Edward Seymour's distinctive script caught her eye. No stamp. Hand-delivered. She opened it and found a card with an image of a Dutch interior. Her eyes first lighted upon the dog in the foreground beside the leaning broom, then the grey-striped cat with its arched tail in the middle distance, then the parrot in the opened cage above, then the white piece of paper, an envelope, on the bottom stair to the right, and only then did her eyes wander down the black and white tile floor to the the depths of the painting and notice a framed picture in a room to the right, but quickly concluded it was a mirror and the reflection of a black-hatted man with his back to her facing a young woman in blue to his right. It was such a richly detailed interior, it pulled her in, instilling a desire to be there, petting the dog, cuddling the cat, calling up to the parrot, and reaching down for the letter and opening it to read its contents. Isabelle turned the card over and read that the painting was called, View of a Corridor by Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1662, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Dryham Park, National Trust. Within, she read Edward's short note.

Dear Isabelle,

I was rummaging about in desk drawers and found some old cards I bought when on vacation in England in the mid-eighties, my foray into the Cotswolds and environs, all Chipping this and Chipping that. Such lovely stone buildings in that area of the world. Such golden warmth. I remember visiting Stanway House and from there, making my way south west exploring Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bristol, Bath and all interesting sights along and around the way, including Dryham Park which has, I seem to remember, an astonishing collection of Dutch art. You must make a trip my dear. Well worth the time. The cage door is ajar. The cage door is ajar.

I just wanted to let you know that our Thérèse Laflamme visited me unannounced this week, and her memory of the David Ashemore case had returned to her. Something about reading a friend's work of fiction in progress had triggered her recall. I just wanted to warn you in case I had possibly mentioned your name to my niece who is now friends with Thérèse, and who could possibly mention your name and your enquiry on my behalf. My old brain. I can't be sure if I mentioned it to her or not. In any case, I told Thérèse to get on with her life. If there were wrong doings involved in Ashemore's death, time will work it out. It is out of our hands now.

I can't guarantee anything. A strong willed young woman like Thérèse is a force of nature.

Anyway, my dear, we must get together over the coming holidays. If you're alone for Christmas dinner, consider yourself invited. Please let me know.

All my love,

She held the card wondering if she was indeed called upon, would she take up the cause? Or would she take that vacation?

© ralph patrick mackay

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-One

The small coin rose up high above them flickering with a crescent of reflected light—whether merely wavering back and forth or fully rotating they couldn't tell in the dismal street lamp's glow—before reaching its acme of freedom in the cold December air, a moment that would likely decide its future before its descent. Heads they would go to Hurleys, tails, to Brutopia, and if they flubbed the catch, and it dropped to the slush and snow at their feet, they would go to the Madhatter, the five cent coin a donation to the distant spring thaw when some keen-eyed waif would perceive it as a coin of incremental value and pocket it carefully with its kind. Whether it was the dimness of their surroundings, the chill in their fingers, or the rowdy Concordia University students who passed them making a joke about referees and the Montreal Alouettes, they missed the catch. Madhatter it was. Crossing the street, they settled their thoughts upon the warmth of a corner seat, a pitcher of beer, a mound of crispy hot onion rings, a dish of steaming chicken wings, and the pretty face of a server who could probably take out an unruly customer with a flick of her serving tray.

“My stomach's been growling all afternoon,” Tom Culacino said, bringing a rough-edged onion ring to his lips. “I don't think I had lunch.”

“Tabarnac, that's what you always say.” Yves poured beer into their glasses. “Growling all the time your stomach. It's like a little animal down there. Feed me, feed me.” They laughed. “Remember that song by Dunc's brother, that punk anthem with da growling stomach?”

“Hmm, how can I forget. I think it etched a little place in my brain forever.” Tom looked to the scuffed wood floor, and began to tap his foot while recalling the lyrics. “I don't know, but I have a hunch, day to day's no poetry. As they say, there's no free lunch, our stomach's are growling with poverty. It was the repeat of those last five words over and over that ground itself into the consciousness of the crowd, their heads bobbing like those plastic novelty drinking birds.” He selected a chicken wing and held it over the plate as if contemplating a chess move. “I used to wonder if Gavan's break away band, The Spliced Off, would have gone anywhere if he hadn't died.”

Yves concentrated on the appetizers, hoping to avoid one of Tom's digressions on the nature of names and their statistical anomalies.

“There are some lovely multi-syllable names on the roster of the CBC these days.”

Yves was dipping and crunching, munching and sipping. He gave Tom a “hmm.”

“Pia Chatapati, Ian Hanomansing, Paolo Pietropaolo, Ann-Marie Mediwake, Martina Fitzgerald, and Anna Maria Tremonti which just gallops along. Such lovely names.”

“Thomas Culacino works too,” Yves said, in the hope this would lasso Tom's run away thoughts.

“Yes, that does seem familiar.”

“I wonder where Dunc is?” Yves said checking his watch. He then took out his smart phone and dialled the bookshop. Placing a finger in his other ear to overcome the loud music from the sound system, he began to shake his head. “Just got the answering machine. Maybe he forgot.”

“Yeah, it's possible. He could be at home with a glass of wine in one hand, an open book in the other, Amelia nearby likewise, Hugh at their feet, and a piano sonata tinkling in the background.” Licking his fingers, Tom looked towards the door. “Though if he's on his way he'll find us. I tried to convince him to get a cell phone, but no, he says he doesn't need one. Too expensive.”

“I bet he went to Hurleys. He likes that triangular corner table in the front.”

“Yes, he likes that corner. Snug as a bug in a rug.”

They looked up as they heard three young women enter. The three graces stood for a moment, hesitating in their expensive coats, boots and handbags as if they'd expected an Alice and Wonderland interior instead of the rather seedy no frills pub before them. Tom and Yves exchanged looks expecting the women to turn around and deprive their sad eyes of a welcome sight, but the trio found a table and ordered pale ales.

With a voice slightly louder than before, Yves began, “There I was last night, watching les Canadiens on the tv, and Céline was looking at a magazine on fashion eh, 'Look at this,' she said, shoving this magazine in my face, 'a handbag that costs $9,000 dollars.' Tabarnac, a handbag for $9,000! I told Céline that would cover the cost of that new roof we need. Handbag! Roof! Crazy.”

“Yes, but it's all relative. That kind of money to the movie star is like 90 bucks to us. Milly bought a new bag recently for about $70 and I thought that was a lot. Her money though. I told her it was lovely.”

“But $9,000 dollars? What did the designer do? Hire a private jet to fly to the Amazon to kill the animal for the leather? Then travel to the Himalaya to find the rare bird for the rare colour to dye the leather? Then get someone to weave the gold thread to stitch the bag together? A roof is tar paper, wood, nails, shingles, man hours, blah, blah, blah, profit added in. Understandable. But a handbag? C'est incroyable.”

“You forgot the generator and the portable radio blasting 80's hits to keep the roofers happy.”

They laughed and glanced over at the young women who were talking into each others ears seemingly oblivious to their loud conversation about handbags and roofers. They were working their smart phones, their safety lines to the wider world, and Tom wondered if they were tweeting about their exploratory excursions into the grottoes and warrens of Montreal's pub life. They began to take selfies, having fun, smiling, laughing. Youth he thought, so much more connected and sharing. As a computer geek, albeit an old one, he felt it was progress. He gnawed on a chicken wing thinking of his twenty year old self in 1978, a time that had offered the novelty of Walkmans and chaos theory, Fortran punch cards and fractals, pocket Instamatic cameras and Apple IIs, digital watches and DRS-80s. The slide rule, ruled, but the future hadn't come quick enough.

“Tristan's into shredding now,” Yves said, changing the subject.

Tom dragged himself back from the past. “Shredding?”

Yves mimicked the style of guitar playing by running his left hand fingers quickly up and down an imaginary fret board. “Like you know, metal guitar, what Randy Rhoads was doing in the seventies, but faster. Tristan wakes up, eats his Shreddies and those little Oateo's or whatever for breakfast, and then he practises the shredding. Sounds like scales to me. Céline bought him the headphones so he could hear himself, and we don't have to.”

“I thought he was into computing?”

“Yeah, yeah, he still wants to be a geek billionaire, but one who is cool, you know, one who can shred like his heroes, those oddballs, weird guys with names like Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and zillions of others. Mon dieu, there's like eight year olds on the Youtube shredding away like masters.” He shook his head in astonishment.

“Yeah, crazy fast times we live in.”

While they continued to diminish their plates of appetizers, Tom was thinking of the books he liked to read, postmodern, speculative works, pages thick with rapid, metaphorical riffs, ones that reminded him of the guitar virtuosity of a Joe Satriani whose riffs not only impressed, but moved, not only shook, but stirred. It was all in the emotion funnelled into the slide in and slide out, the pull off and hammer on, the melodic overlay on the rhythmic underlay. “I'm sure Tristan will go from scales to adding some emotion. The rough edges of youth are mellowed with age and experience aren't they? Look at us?”

“Hmm, yeah, mellow, like when I shovel the snow in front of my shop, and I'm fine, but an hour later, I bend over to pick up a pencil, and bam, there goes my lower back, eh, sacrifice!”

Tom laughed. “Yup, I know that feeling. Surprizing what reaching for a thumbdrive can do to you.” He looked at his watch. “Maybe we should phone Dunc at home. He's already a half hour late.”

“He's got a lot of books to pack, but, he as said, he has to do that himself.” Yves withdrew his phone and began to dial. “One thing you can say about Dunc, he knows how to pack a box of books.”

“Yes, but he'll welcome us when the heavy lifting comes round.”


A sacred geometry of soap bubbles floated above the sink, an emblem of some distant harmony beyond everyday life. Melisande gently blew the bubbles towards Pavor who waited with a fresh drying cloth before the wood dish rack, and he too added his breath to their trajectory and together they watched their fairy-like progress as they rose and fell towards the floor between them, attracting the attention of Clio sitting on her haunches in the act of licking a forearm to wash her face.

“I was thinking of a having a labyrinth walk on the Sunday after the Saturday wedding. I could make one of my seven circuit birdseed classical labyrinths. Depends on the weather of course.”

“We've walked labyrinths together in the rain before.”

Melisande ran a soapy sponge around the edge of a plate. “Yes, but I've never created a birdseed one in the rain. I'd be wet right through. Anyway, perhaps I could create one at Pavor's friend's art gallery if it has a room big enough. Easy to sweep up birdseed after.”

“True. Nice fit with an art gallery too.”

“Walking the labyrinth would help everyone shed their habitual thinking, reawaken their centre balance, overcome their self-consciousness and open themselves to each other more fully. A new beginning for everyone.”

“It would be wonderful.,” he said, giving her a little kiss on the top of her head. He dried a plate with solemn clockwise motions. “I really am glad you asked Pavor to join us on the day. Hopefully Thérèse will agree.”

“I hope she's all right.”

“Yes, I feel responsible for triggering her involuntary memory. I shouldn't have used the fictional name Evan Dashmore. Jerome told me it was too close to David Ashemore, but I couldn't resist the evocative symmetry.”

“Maybe it's for the best. Jerome said she was more like herself. Maybe it was just what she needed.” Handing a bowl to Pavor, she imagined herself watching them all walk a labyrinth together, but then the field of vision shifted up and she rose like a soap bubble and looked down on them walking and could see they were really all walking in closed circles around each other, circles within circles, no access to each other, like the rings around some planet. “I had the oddest dream last night,” she said.

“Tea with the Queen?”

She laughed. “No. I was on a plane and in front of me was the actor Colin Firth, and beside him was a woman with a child. I figured they were his family. Then I fell asleep on the plane and dreamt I was in an absolutely enormous old house, rooms upon rooms, and a vast open gallery and entrance as well. I sensed my sister was there but I didn't see her.” Melisande stopped washing, and taking a towel, dried her hands and rested, leaning on the counter.

“You were dreaming within a dream?”

“Yes, I've never dreamt I was in a dream and then falling into a dream before. Anyway, we sensed someone was coming home, and Colin Firth showed up and was in a bad mood. He went straight to the smallest room in the house, a book-lined study and locked himself in. I went up to the door and there was a peep hole which allowed me to look in, and he was sitting at a desk, surrounded by books.” She looked down at Clio who was now in a yoga position licking her right foot.

“Then what happened?”

She looked up at him with moist eyes. “I was back in an enormous open gallery, full of sunlight, and I was twirling around and around and around.”

“Wow, that's quite a dream. Colin Firth eh?”

Dipping another bowl into the soapy water, she smiled. “The poor actor must be in many women's dreams. Mr. Darcy and all that.”

“Ah, right. That reminds me of my own dream last night. I was in the old public library you used to work for before McGill. I had two pencils and was trying to sharpen them on that old-fashioned wall mounted pencil sharpener, but they kept snapping, grinding improperly. I ended having pencils with squared ends instead of points, and so I returned to the large high marble topped circulation desk and began to make a list. I think it was groceries of all things.” Pavor tilted his head sideways trying to recall the details, details as elusive as a handful of fog. “All of a sudden the library was full of people, and the man at the desk, who seemed to be my double, began to sing opera. No one reacted. I went to the front door, the aria following me. Next I was in the metro, but had just missed the train, and, remembering a bus could get me where I wanted to go, I made my way up and caught the bus, but it was soon apparent it's route had been changed. I got off and began walking, thinking of the street I was supposed to be on, a street I dream about often, have dreamt about for years, one with the same shops, ones that sell antiques, books, flowers. I've often dreamt of entering the bookshop and browsing the shelves, picking up and handling volumes, their colour and titles palpable with felt existence, but it's a street that doesn't exist in reality, only in dream, only in my dream memory.”

Melisande washed the cutlery and then rinsed the small handful before giving them to Pavor. Their dreams seemed divergent, desperate, the beginnings of two constellations swirling towards each other. “I sometimes dream of that old library,” she said. “Dreams of finding people wandering at night when it's supposed to be closed. Anxiety dreams of having forgotten to lock the front door. I go up to them and tell them the library is closed, but no one hears me, they sit there looking through me, they walk around like ghosts. I haven't worked there for years. Places stay with you. We carry them inside.”

Pavor put down his towel and pulled her towards him hugging her tightly and rocking her back and forth as the familiar echoes of their dreams dissipated in the reality around them.

© ralph patrick mackay