Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy Seven

It hadn't been funny at the time, she thought, as the laughter of co-workers and friends encircled her like the plaiting of a holiday wreath. She must tell the story again they insisted, so-and-so hadn't heard it yet. So-and-so was new. New to Sophie's Christmas party for librarians, an annual event which had been held in her flat on Esplanade Avenue for the last eight years, and at which Melisande had first related the story with great dramatic energy, and a panache that had surprised, and later embarrassed her, due to the absurdity of it, and the underscoring of cathartic joy at having left the environment in which it had occurred, a story which now, in its eighth holiday incarnation, had withered somewhat, at least to her, before the bureaucratic expectations of saint-hood when it came to dealing with library patrons. She sipped her wine, smiling at the laughing faces around her as she remembered the actual day, when, on her first job at a downtown public library, one frequented a great deal by the homeless, the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the eccentrics, the local characters, and those with time and nothing else on their hands, she'd been called to the circulation desk from the office and told that there was a disturbance in the reading room. It had been a Saturday. She'd been in charge. The circulation staffer had pointed out the individuals involved and had whispered to her that the young man had complained that the person facing him across the table had been looking at him and giggling. The individual in question, a youngish woman with her head wrapped in tin foil, was sitting very low on her chair, her arms on the table, her head resting on the back of the high wood chair. Melisande had conjured up a sentence she hoped would be sufficient to ease the situation: “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patrons.” She had approached the table, the two patrons looking up at her, the young man with relief, the young woman with uncertainty, and she had said, “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patients.”

It hadn't been funny at the time.

The young woman had looked up at her, a smile breaking upon her face like the reflections of florescent light upon her aluminium foil, and, having caught the Freudian slip, had begun to laugh quietly which had made the young man indignant. In that moment of embarrassment, having reduced everyone to a patient of a psychiatric ward, she'd managed to look around the reading room at all the faces turned her way, many haggard and weary, beaten down by life and circumstances, their bodies frozen in the act of reading papers, magazines, books, a nightmarish vision of reverse judgement, and not knowing what else to say, she'd turned around and made her way back to the office, made a pot of tea to sooth her nerves, and thought a job in a private or university library would suit her better, feeling that her undergraduate degree in religious studies and her graduate degree in library science had not prepared her for dealing with such encounters.

“It hadn't been that funny at the time,” Melisande said over the thinning laughter around her, feeling that every ounce of amusement would be accounted for in some grand Karmic register and there would be hell to pay as her Father used to say.

“Patients,” Sophie said, tapping the new girl's arm with her hand, “It's still funny after all these years Melisande. What a wonderful transposition of words.”

“In the library I'm working at,” the new girl said, “we've been instructed to call library users, 'customers.' They think library user, patron, and client are outmoded. Customers. Sometimes I think I'm working in retail.”

The sound of Randy Travis's rich voice singing Meet Me Under the Mistletoe overlay the awkward silence that settled upon the party goers as they struggled to respond to this rather mundane remark.

Jonathan, a subject specialist at the university, came to the rescue: “At least that'll keep the word patient out of the equation.” A wink to Melisande. “Here's to customer,” he said, raising his glass, “may the Walmart greeting be soon to follow.” Having saved the party from a minor denouement, everyone raised their glass, and after they drank, a scattering of ideas for conversation, like the multiple trajectories of a fireworks explosion, spread through the room, their voices reduced to more intimate levels,

“So Jonathan, how's Frank doing these days?” Melisande asked, trying not to stare at his expensive mock-tortoiseshell—at least she assumed them to be mock turtle—glass frames.

“Well my dear, he's working away on a new book, provisionally entitled The Rake's Profit, or Tally Hoe: John Cleland and his Publishers. He's up to his earlobes in research. Just last night he was regaling me with details of one of Cleland's bookseller publishers and his stint in the pillory for publishing Fanny Hill.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.

“I guess Fanny Hill seems pretty tame compared to reading material these days. I overheard a woman at a bookshop tell a friend that she'd been reading one of those Fifty Shades books and how she had laughed her way through it.”

“God knows where all those millions of copies will end up. Elderly pensioners burning them in their fireplaces for warmth perhaps. Throw on another Fifty Shades Darker, my dear,” he said imitating an elderly voice, “I feel the draft on my back like the frigid breath of Dr. Freeze .

“So, when do we get the wedding invitations Melisande?” Sophia asked from across the living room.”We're all looking forward to the day.”

Trying to appear her regular organized self, not wanting to let on that she and Pavor had yet to choose from the examples available, with their plethora of fonts, shapes, sizes, colours, embossing, ribbons, lace, textures, and photograph options. Pavor had offered to write a short short story to include with the invitation as well. A keepsake. “January, the month of Janus, the doorway to the new year, looking back, looking forward” she said, not wanting to commit to a specific day, “it will be a simple wedding.”

Sophie raised her glass, “Here's to Melisande and Pavor, may their wedding day be blessed with good friends and good weather.”

Jonathan gave her a squeeze with his left arm and whispered in her ear, “So, since it was a leap year, did you propose to Pavor or did he finally man up?”

Melisande slapped his thigh and gave him a playful nudge with her shoulder. “On bended knee between the pews of the McGill Chapel no less.” As the memory came back to her, she recalled the dual nature of the proposal, the confession before the request, the past before the future, the revelation of a predeceased wife and child, and how their ghosts had thrown a shroud over the proposal, one she hadn't noticed at first, but later had felt settle round her like a gloaming mist upon a farmer's field.

 © Ralph Patrick Mackay

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Monday, June 16, 2014

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

The scent of old books greeted Edward Seymour as he entered his study, the gilt stamped titles and the varicoloured bindings speaking volumes to him of distant pathways taken, memories, and relationships. At ninety-two, he knew they were unlikely to be revisited with anything but nostalgia. He went to the shelves where he kept books inscribed to him by old friends and associates, and breathed deeply as he gazed upon them. Wilder Penfield's novel The Torch, stood with his The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, and his No Man Alone: A Surgeon's Life; beside them, books by Karl Stern, his Pillar of Fire, his The Third Revolution: A Study of Psychiatry and Religion, his The Flight from Woman, and his novel Through Dooms of Love. Edward recalled the year of 1960 when both Penfield and Stern had come out with a novel and many had wondered who would be next. Even he had contemplated writing one, and having produced twenty pages, had but it aside. It must be in one of his old files he thought. He reached out a wrinkled slender finger towards Stern's The Flight from Woman, an interesting study of its time, and with his striated fingernail like old ivory, pulled it out and put it on his desk to hazard a glimpse of the past. Then, seeing Rainer Maria Rilke by Willem Graff, he pulled it off too, and opened it to to see Willem's inscription to him. He fanned the pages and a paper fell out and slipped down to the carpet like a glider making a perfect landing upon an Aubusson field. Carefully, he bent down to retrieve it and went to sit at his desk. A letter size sheet, folded in half revealed two poems, typed, one from each end as if mirrored, and when folded, resting upon each other in an intimate alphabetical embrace. He remembered. the attractive woman, a former patient, who had transferred her affections to him in the mid-1970s. She'd fallen for Rilke, and then for him. Or had it been the other way round? She'd left him with these poems after he'd discussed the issues with her and made her cognisant of the transference, as well as the boundaries of propriety and professional duty. The temptation now seemed less significant, but it was tinged with longing like the fragrance of musk. The paper itself was like a desiccated leaf preserved as an emblem of a path not taken.

C'est le paysage longtemps . . .

C'est le paysage longtemps, c'est une cloche,
c'est du soir la délivrance si pure;
mais tout cela en nous prépare l'approche
d'une nouvelle, d'une tendre figure . . .

Ainsi nous vivons dan un embarras très étrange
entre l'arc lointain et la trop pénétrante flèche:
entre le monde trop vague pour saisir l'ange
et Celle qui, par trop de présence, l'empêche.

Dans la multiple rencontre

Dans la mutiple rencontre
faisons à tout sa part,
afin que l'ordre se montre
parmi les propos du hasard.

Tout autour veut qu'on l'écoute,
écoutons jusqu'au bout;
car le verger et la route
c'est toujours nous!

The poems didn't arouse in him a dormant longing for youth, but did arouse the feeling that poems were embedded in timelessness, waiting silently for the next passerby to grab hold and briefly experience a sense of eternity. She had been a doctor of internal medicine which had made him think of poets being the doctors of eternal medicine. She had laughed at his play on words. He folded the paper and put it back in its old resting place almost hearing the echo of her laughter. He opened his desk drawer and withdrew his journal and began to write:

Wednesday December 19, 2012 - 7 p. m.

It has been many days since I've written this journal. Preparations for the holidays, doctor's appointments, fatigue and forgetfulness have all played their part.

A mild day, a light drizzle, and now, a light snow is falling.

Received two Christmas cards this morning. One rather special. It is lonely at the top of the age chain.

Nostalgia overcame me this evening. I dipped into old books. In one, I came across a slip of paper given to me by an old patient of mine, a woman who had transferred her affections to me, the classic therapist dilemma. It's good to know she worked through her issues and led a happier life. I wonder if she is still with us? She was very beautiful I recall. Having dealt with the fallout of such temptations over the years in treating a diversity of patients suffering at one of the three points of the classic love triangle, perhaps I'd been conditioned to resist such extreme emotions. So many affairs had ended in broken families and ultimately, loneliness. Very few had been successful diversions. Thankfully I resisted the temptation. Happily married to my dear wife, my friend, my equal, I had been fortunate. The latent affairs of the heart had stayed within my imagination.

Another Christmas will soon be upon us. Every year I think it might well be my last, although young doctor Bergeron thinks I'm 'bien fort.' I feel like a man in an hour glass, or a life-glass perhaps, standing on a small mound of remnant sand, a mountain beneath me in the other sphere. If only I could push on the sides of the glass, pound my fist upon the surface, rock the glass back and forth until it fell sideways to form a symbolic sign of infinity, and I could sweep the remaining sand into the concave feature of the glass and lie down and rest, cupped in eternity. I wonder why it is that some individuals when they reach a great age, catch a second wind and become avid for life? More to lose perhaps. Looking back, there seems to be a life hurdle that takes so many in their fifties and sixties due to lifestyle or genetics, but if they pass through, or over, that barrier, those last laps can be richly fulfilling. They have been for me, though a sense of guilt surrounds my willpower like the piping on my dressing gown.

Amelia and Duncan are doing well. She keeps me informed every other day as to Duncan's well-being. It has now been ten days since he emerged from his three day coma. He is functioning very well, his memory is solid, and what physical effects he sustained, he has overcome with minor therapy. The doctors are still uncertain exactly what caused his fall. A close call with an aneurysm like an asteroid passing through the Earth's atmosphere and burning up perhaps. The only oddity of his three day coma seems to be strange and random expressions in Norwegian, a language he did not know previously. A mystery. He seems to understand what the expressions mean, but he is unable to control their capricious and seemingly unconscious eruptions. Naturally, specialists and postdocs have been interested in his case. I have advised him to avoid researchers. Let it work itself out I told them.

This has me somewhat worried.

This special case of Duncan, along with today's card from Isabelle Cloutier, have convinced me to tell Amelia the truth about her Mother and Father. If I should falter, hesitate, or pass away before I can tell her, I will write it here, in brief, in the hopes she may some day read my journals which I will bequeath to her:

My youthful half-sister Catherine, the progeny of my wayward Father and a young secretary, was sent to Canada before my arrival. Suffering from depression, she found herself ushered into the care of Donald Ewen Cameron where she was exposed to his experiments with Electroshock and drug therapy, leading to her later spiral of dysfunction. What an unfortunate place to have met a husband, but meet Richard, Amelia's father she did, another patient of that misled research. When I arrived to teach at McGill, Catherine and Richard had already found a hippie haven in the Hare Krishna movement. Though I tried to help, they'd distanced themselves from us. Amelia was young when they left that group and changed religions once more, following a Yogi off to California and we secured legal custody of their children. I never broached the subject of Cameron's experiments upon them with Amelia. I had thought it best to avoid creating a need to stir up the truth. The players involved were too powerful. The whole unfortunate affair had been sealed away, an episode from the cold war no one wanted to revisit. The truth revealed in these cases is as rare as elephant eggs in a rhubarb tree.

It has been decades since I've written in my journal about Catherine and those difficult years. Guilt? Catharsis? If you are reading these words Amelia, please forgive an old man his sins.

As to Isabelle's letter within her Christmas card—un hibou comme d'habitude—she informed me that she had received a cryptic letter signed with the initials of what must be Thérèse Laflamme, with the names of David Ashemore, an arrow pointing to the name Jarvis Whitehorne, and the acronym, P.R.I.S.M. It seems Amelia must have heard me discuss Isabelle's name or I absentmindedly mentioned it in passing. Isabelle researched Jarvis A. Whitehorne and discovered a rogue researcher in the footsteps of Cameron. This man seems to have his own research company, Whitehorne & Associates. The acronym seems to stand for Peremptory Remote Intra-Sensory Manipulation. No longer is it necessary to have a patient in a room to experiment upon according to Isabelle, now they can insert devices and activate them remotely, or, by the use of acoustic devices, disrupt sleep patterns and manipulate the body's chemistry from afar. It all seems so far-fetched but Isabelle assures me such experiments are taking place. It is a great abuse of science and technology. The rational male mind has objectified the other and is able, without conscience, to break their very spirit. Isabelle sees the abuse of such types of scientific and technological advances as a greater threat in the future to individual freedoms than concerns over big brother listening to their phone calls, or is it reading their emails now? The rational male mind and the objectification of the other will always be the source of great evil. Isabelle suggests that David Ashemore had come across the activities of Whitehorne and had begun to write reports about them, only to find himself, she thinks, a target. She fears that Ashemore was told to desist in his investigations, but continued. Much conjecture on her part she admits.

A sense of dread overcomes me as I think of such abuse. I will tell Arthur all about Isabelle's discovery on Saturday over our chess game. I just realised we won't be playing chess till the New Year. Well, it will keep. Best not disturb his holidays anyway.

I shall wait till after Christmas to tell Amelia about her parents. She has too much on her plate right now with Duncan's still delicate health, and the closing of his business. Good news is that Duncan has a buyer for most of his stock, and some of the funds will be put towards a new car and a trip to England. I would not mind seeing England once more, but for the travelling. And I'm sure a third wheel would be unwelcome. They never did take a decent honeymoon. I shall add to their financial purse and also provide them with addresses of our living relatives on that distant island.

Edward drew a line beneath the last sentence and taking up Isabelle's letter, pasted it down upon the facing page, then closed his journal and returned it to his drawer. Walking over to the window, he looked out upon the limbs of the naked trees with their layer of light snow like Gothic tracery. Here he was, with the night birds and cobwebs, the city glittering below like distant stars. He closed the curtains and his eyes alighted upon the framed piece of paper hanging between the bookshelves and the drapery. He had discovered it in a strange book published in 1918, a book explaining the details of the gas mask created by a research group under B.F. Goodrich, a book with haunting images of a soldier modelling the mask, and looking like an undersea monster. Images enough to haunt a child's dreams he thought. One of the authors was a certain Major R. G. Pearce, who he learnt through the head librarian at McGill, had been a medical doctor in Ohio, and a sometime poet. The piece of paper was Pearce's poem entitled Entropy. Edward never felt closer to the words:

When the night raven finds our hearth and fans
The dying embers with his wings, and space
Which time has warped into our frames expands
In unstrained rest, there will remain no trace
Of us on earth, but in the firmament
Perhaps a Protean cloud will hold my form
And it will catch the light your star has sent.
When like my song your molten heart was warm.

Since crumpling power shares not in our estate
Contented we should lie in dreamless sleep;
And hurried time will never confiscate
The tryst which mutual souls have sought to keep.
Our elsewhere and our here will then be one
Beyond the reaches of the cyclic sun.

If this would be, our lives may not be vain
For smiles might ripple over space again.

The head librarian had given him a short lecture on the prevalence of poets who had trained as doctors, offering a long list of names, some well-known, others obscure. Such individuals were able to maintain a balance of science on the one hand, and the intuition of poetry on the other. It gave Edward hope, acted as a soothing balm for his sense of dread. From the door, he looked back and scanned his bookshelves for an instant, then, turning the light out, carried the books by Stern and Graff to the living room to spend an hour or two with his hands in the past.

© Ralph Patrick Mackay

Thursday, June 05, 2014

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

With the visibly evanescent fingers of frost on the windshield leading the way, Pavor drove along Sherbrooke Street enveloped by the aroma of fresh baked bagels while the words of the eccentric Fitz resurfaced in his thoughts like pieces of academic flotsam. He certainly lacked inhibition, he thought. A coffin fly no less! There was something about Fitz, something dispassionately erudite that irritatingly lingered like the itch of a mosquito bite. Perhaps he was a new professor at one of the Universities. As this thought settled like a well-placed puzzle piece, he recognized Amelia driving towards him, her face bathed in a shard of angled sun created by the tall buildings. He waved but she didn't see him for the light in her eyes. Probably on her morning errands, he thought, much like himself, a translator and a novelist out and about while their respective partners, a bookseller and a librarian, kept the books. A fanciful notion passed over him: perhaps in another dimension their relationships were inverted, Melisande and Duncan the symbolic bridge partners to Amelia and himself. Two bibliophiles and two wordsmiths, the cataloguers and the scribblers. The notion faded quickly as he considered how little he knew of Amelia's character and personality. She was much like an artist's picture to him, lightly sketched and enigmatic, but disturbingly more real than his late wife and child who now seemed to have faded into a haze of natural evocations, manifestations of seasonal intimacies; unwonted, diurnal creations of his imagination. In bed at night, looking out at the framed darkness, he often wondered if they had existed at all.

He would have to deal with the storage locker with their archived belongings. It was time.

Approaching his apartment building, he noticed the street parking was a clean sweep, the other residents also having sought distant landfalls: Saturday morning breakfast diners, glistening powder on the Laurentian ski slopes, or shopping malls with their echoing fountains and endless sales. Or were the drivers all one night stands slinking off to their private worlds? He pulled into his old spot and noticed the space in front of him had a circular oil stain on the asphalt which resembled one of those coloured NASA images he'd seen on the Internet, a supernova, or some kind of gas emanation, captured instants of the past, like colourful paintings on black felt, interstellar art. As he walked towards his apartment, however, he realised that the position of the stained pavement was indeed from his last departure. The possibility of a leak took the sheen off his morning, the fresh air dulled to hints of exhaust.


Amelia released her foot from the gas pedal and coasted along Sherbrooke Street towards the red light in the distance, passing between the towering modernist Le Port-Royal Apartments on her left, and the human scale span of the late-nineteenth century row houses on her right, buildings clad in grey limestone with rusticated front entrances, oriel windows, gables and attics updated with modern, dark jade green awnings dusted with snow, buildings long ago transformed into upscale art galleries and boutiques. As she came to a stop at the corner of Bishop, she thought of all the translation work she'd performed, all the local writers she'd been reading, both in English and French, writers who were creating their own version of the city, laying claims like stake holders in a gold rush, and an overwhelming impression of a tiresome tug of war overcame her. A city with contentions lay all around her camouflaged by the calm effects of habit. Perhaps she should have been reading and translating the text of the city itself. She felt a wave of exhaustion overcome her as she thought of all the local books and authors being pushed and marketed by publishers and the media like the latest in fashion trends. She massaged her neck. She must be burnt out. The stress of Duncan's condition and their uncertain future had stripped her of her resiliency. Pessimism and defeat had seeped in. Taking a deep breath she imagined having experienced a simpler life: to have been born in a small town in Ontario without language issues, to have married a high school sweetheart, to have bought a house in the hometown, to have raised children, travelled, bought a cottage. To have had normal parents to act as grandparents instead of ones lost in the semi-spectral existence of post-hippie, blissed-out blindness. If only they'd waited for the new age to fully break upon the shore, they could now be taking advantage of the alternate medicine, the yoga, the acupuncture, the Tai Chi, the organic foods, and the mindfulness that had finally spread to the mainstream. But no, they had forged ahead seeking the golden horizons of self-fulfilment and were now left behind by the shifts of time and twists of cultural evolution. Amelia stared ahead of her wondering what it would have been like to have experienced a plain, uncomplicated path. Normality, consistency, continuity. Continuity. The light turned green and she drove on, passing between the the old and the new buildings of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with their promise of high culture, enough to unsettle her confusion of thoughts for a moment and make her think of her imaginary double in that imaginary small town, driving her own imaginary streets at this very minute, thinking how wonderful it would be to escape the clinging communal knowledge and suburban restraint of the small town and move to the stimulating anonymity of a great city like Montreal.

Caught in the sequence of red lights, she came to a rest at Mountain Street with the exclusive Holt Renfrew on her right, and the revitalized Ritz Carlton Hotel ahead, luxury and exclusivity of wealth surrounding her, and as she watched the pedestrians in their diversity pass by, she concluded that ultimately, it was all about adaptation. Having lived all her life in the inner city, she'd be ill-adapted to small town existence. With this thought, she continued on to her Uncle Edward's with a renewed sense of will, and a reinvigorated, though shaky, desire to deal with the crumbling facade of her life. She had to be strong for Duncan. She had to be strong for Uncle Edward. She had to be strong for Hugh.


While Jerome inspected the fine-haired points of a selection of brushes, Thérèse looked down at his studio table and searched for music among the papers, pens, pencils, erasers, tubes of pigment, cotton rags, and opaque glass jars sprouting paint brushes like perennials at the back of a garden. Seeing as they both leaned towards a laissez-faire attitude to house cleaning, she wondered how they'd manage living together. She assembled the scattered cassette tape cases and created an arc like a spread of playing cards, a curved mixture of colour and black and white images: Pierre Flynn's Jardines de Babylon and his Le parfum du hasard; Etienne Daho's Paris ailleurs, and his Pour nos vies martiennes; Renaud's Morgane de toi, Mistral gagnant, and Marchand de cailloux. She then saw the edge of an eighth cassette tape and slipped it out from beneath pencil sketches of eyes. It was a band she was unfamiliar with. The La's, with a photograph of a woman's eye on the cover. Jerome was in a retro mood.

She heard his approach and felt him kiss the nape of her neck and gently run his hands down her arms. “Creating order out of chaos,” he said

“You and your old cassettes,” she said turning around to give him a squeeze. “Why not get an iPod?”

“With my fingers covered in paint, cassettes are good. I can toss them around and not worry.” He reached over for Pierre Flynn's Babylon. “Anyway, I like the feel of them, the sound of them, and they've taught me to wait for the better songs, or at least, my favourite ones. Have you ever noticed how after listening to the sequence of songs on a tape, you get to know which song is coming up, and in the silence between songs, you can anticipate the first chords to come, the words, the melody? You can almost hear them, recreate them in your mind. Why should I purchase their digital phantoms? Little ghosts unconnected to each other, mixed up and shuffled like a deck of cards.” He gave her a hug. “I'm all set if you are.”

Thérèse sat in the arranged armchair by the window and opened the book she'd chosen to occupy her, a Boris Vian novel she'd never read before. Jerome pressed the cassette into the machine and soon Pierre Flynn's rich baritone voice was singing Complainte du chercheur d'or. She couldn't concentrate on the text before her, the music and lyrics leading her thoughts astray, but she continued to look at the open book as a prop for her portrait. She hadn't told Jerome she'd recalled the name of the man who she thought responsible for the death of David Ashemore. She hadn't told him she'd learnt of the name of Isabelle Cloutier from Amelia who had mentioned it in the hopes of giving her some confidence that the Ashemore case was being taken care of. And she hadn't told him she'd found Ms. Cloutier's address and mailed her a card with the simple inscription within, David Ashemore – Jarvis Whitehorne, the acronym, P.R.I.S.M., an acronym representing a program instigated by Whitehorne, and she had added her initials, T. L. / T. S. She didn't want to know of the resolutions, conclusions, retributions. The card was her closure. An arrow shot in the dark. An arrow for Jarvis Whitehorne.


In preparation to make a batch of vegetable soup, Mary withdrew the large soup pot from the lower cupboard and placed it on the counter near her cutting board. Taking the top off and looking in like a magician into a top hat, she noted the faint rings of colour, orange, green and blue, a remnant gleam of olive oil embedded in the fine metal burnishings, and she thought of the demonstrators last spring who had walked the streets of Montreal banging their pots and pans in defiance of a legislative bill. There's always something, she thought, there's always something. What can you do? What can you do?

The aroma of her fresh baked carrot muffins had made its way down the corridor into the living room where Arthur Roquebrune sat musing over the chess board. The aroma confounded his concentration as he began to anticipate the arrival of Mary's baked goods, with the promise of melting butter on their fluffy, dark bronze-tinted cake-like textures, the touch of fresh jam, and the pot of tea with its cozy in the shape of an orange cat. Edward Seymour looked on as he massaged the scalp of George III who sat on his haunches beside his chair. “Do I have you there Arthur?”

“Oh, it's far from over Ted, far from over.” Arthur liked to use the shortened form of Edward's name when they played their weekly Saturday morning chess game. A subtle handicap to deflate the home team. “Let's hope we don't find ourselves in perpetual check like last week. Somewhere out in the ether your echo is still moving the Queen back and forth ad infinitum.”

“I had a patient once,” said Edward, the image reminding him of an old case, “who was taken with the game, taken rather too far. It had turned into an addiction.” Arthur nodded his head as he mapped out the possible moves and countermoves before him. “He began to see games in patio stones, floor tiles, women's patterned dresses and gingham tablecloths. He did like Italian bistros. Well, we tried behavioural conditioning, but the bio-feedback didn't seem to work. I suggested he take up another game, distract him from the chess. I suggested tennis.”

“Hmm, and so, what did the patient do?” Arthur said not looking up.

“Well . . . he became addicted to the game of Go. Instead of squares, his attention was drawn to the interstices: the crossing of phone lines, the pound sign or octothorpe, the lines and points between squares of floor tiles and patio stones. The cross hairs in the very fabric of life. Lines, lines, lines.”

“Ah,” Arthur emitted somewhat distractedly.

“And then he took to carrying a box of candy M&M's because they aped the convex shape of the playing stones, and were cheap enough to leave behind on bistro tables and friend's bathroom floors.”

Arthur looked up. “Montaigne thought chess was absurd and trivial,” he said, and then shook his head. His thoughts drifted back in time and he wondered if Jacques Cartier and his men had played the game at Charlesbourg-Royal during that difficult winter of 1541-42. Did they have the necessary leisure? Would it have soothed their nerves? Had it been a welcome distraction from the dangers facing them?

“Ah, yes, your Montaigne. Are you still reading his diary of that journey to Italy?”

Arthur moved his black Bishop to King Bishop's fourth, and then sat back. “Yes, yes. There are some interesting moments and details. Local customs, food, that kind of thing. The spas, baths, the drinking of the waters, but the sections recounted by his hommes d'affaires dwell too much on Montaigne's bladder and stomach ailments yes, due to his suffering from the stone. Perhaps some are more interested in how many stools he passed that day, how many stones, or the quantity of urine.” Arthur shook his head. “But I will continue. The good outweighs the bad.”

Edward rested his chin on his clasped hands in a semblance of prayer, and scanned the chess board in an overtly secretive manner, pursing his lips and blinking his eyes as if communicating in code.

“The Montaigne is not as entertaining as the Vathek by Beckford though,” Arthur continued. “This Vathek wasn't on my list of books to read, books I wanted to read when young but never had the time, but my bookseller pushed it on me saying he thought I'd enjoy the tale. Somehow I think I'll never get through my list. It keeps growing.”

Edward nodded absentmindedly. “Hmm.” He moved his white Knight to King Bishop's third. He crossed his arms, and in the silence that fell upon the game with its counterfeit infinities, Hugh made his appearance. His clipping nails upon the hardwood floor drew their attention from their wooden officers and foot soldiers to Hugh's sprightly curiosity. George III lowered his head and sniffed him as he passed by.

“And who do we have here,” Arthur said dropping his hand down to entice Hugh with a stranger's scent.

“Hugh, an orphan for the night. Amelia's pet. She dropped him off last night. George here is uncertain what's going on.”

“Yes, yes, territory and all that.” Arthur scratched Hugh's ears and rubbed his back. “That reminds me,” he said, “last week when you were telling me of your friend Ms. Cloutier who was looking into the David Ashemore case, I wanted to tell you he was an orphan, adopted by the Ashemore's when a baby. When Amelia walked in, and we stopped our discussion of the Ashemore case, I never got to mention it. Perhaps it would help your Ms. Cloutier with her interests.”

Edward looked down wondering if he should reveal that Isabelle had reached a cul de sac. “That's an interesting fact Arthur. I'll let her know next time we talk.”

As Arthur returned his attention to the checkered square between them, Mary made her way into the living room with a tray laden with muffins and mugs of steaming tea. She didn't like to see grown men mincing about playing Mother with fine china cups. Big mugs of tea it was. The chess players preferred them as well, something to warm their hands, stimulating distant memories of hot chocolate and childhood.

“Thank you Mary, something to keep us going,” Edward said.

“Yes, yes, thank you Mary, your muffins are ambrosia,” Arthur said smiling up at her. “My dear wife thanks you for the recipe.”

“Ah, well she's very welcome Mr. Roquebrune. Glad you both like them. So now, who's winning this week?”

“Hard to say at the moment, but we may be here some time.” Edward winked up at her.

“I'll be making a quick vegetable soup for lunch. It might be ready before you are. I'll be back to top up your teas. Enjoy gentlemen.”

They thanked her again and watched her departure with a sense of admiration and guilt at being so pampered. Hugh, looking up at the tray, sniffed the air, a physical language that still resonated with his human counterparts.

As Edward busied himself with his muffin and tea, Arthur contemplated taking his pawn with his own pawn, but then quickly considered that moving his Bishop to King's fifth would be the better choice. He did so, and raised an eyebrow on his opponent.

Arthur, now relaxed and confident, prepared a muffin with butter and a touch of marmalade.

“That move seems familiar Arthur. Are we repeating ourselves?”

Arthur's laughter faltered with the appearance of Amelia and Mary holding an arm around her shoulders. He stood up out of concern and respect, pieces of his muffin falling to the floor where Hugh and George quickly competed to snuffle them up. “Now sit yourself down and have a word with your uncle and I'll bring you a nice cup of tea.” Mary exchanged a glance of deep concern with Edward before going back to the kitchen.

“What's the matter my dear?” Edward said, quickly running through the possibilities of distress: Duncan running off with a circus performer, money woes, car failure, the reappearance of her parents.

She told them how she had been phoned on Friday night by Duncan's friends wondering where he was. How she'd phoned the shop and then driven down to find him lying unconscious between the bookstacks, and how she'd called an ambulance and spent the night at the hospital hoping he'd survive what ever caused his collapse. She was wiping tears away as Mary brought her a big mug of hot tea, and together with her uncle and Arthur's kind words, she began to feel the solidarity of family and close friends fortify her belief that all would be well. “Don't worry Amelia. I'll make some phone calls. I still have many connections with the Royal Vic. We'll make sure he gets top notch care,” her Uncle said.

Arthur sat down heavily upon his chair, overcome with a nauseating dread that Duncan's collapse may have had some connection with Thérèse LaFlamme's in Bergen. He glanced at the chess board and saw nothing but randomness and escape, and he recalled the words of Montaigne: quelle corde de son esprit ne touche et n'employe ce niais et puerile jeu? 

© ralph patrick mackay