Monday, July 28, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Eighty

After setting the alarm—using the numbers of his wife's birth date—Arthur Roquebrune switched off the hall light and exited Wormwood & Verdigris. Even he, after so many years, still thought of the firm by the old dual name instead of the inclusive Wormwood, Verdigris & Roquebrune. Habit no doubt. The Wormwoods and the Verdrigris's were into their fourth, and seemingly last, generation of lawyers. Arthur thought of them as an alloy of addendums working out of the original, old Greystone mansion. He was a mere second generation Roquebrune following in his Father's wake—who had died young before attaining partnership status—and a name his dear wife had had previsions of being Roquebrune & Assoc., once the old guard, who Edward Seymour light-heartedly referred to as Dither & Bicker, had retired.

The secretary and his partners in the law firm had left hours ago, but he'd stayed on to finish up some loose ends and to make sure all the windows and doors were secured, all electronics turned off, and everything ship-shape—as Wormwood liked to say being an avid weekend sailor—for the holiday period. He'd spent the last hour in the basement archives, an unintended diversion having merely walked in to inspect that all was as it should have been. He had passed the empty shelves where David Ashemore's papers had been stored, and had shifted a number of filing boxes over to help dispel that memory of failed service. As he had been ready to close the door he'd looked up to see the Verdigris collection of Lovell's Montreal Street Directories from1842-1888, small volumes rebound in sturdy library bindings of oxblood cloth, gilt titles and dates on the spine. Scaling the small ladder, he'd taken down various volumes from the early years and turned the pages to read the names and professions from the past: grocers and painters, masons and joiners, tailors and carters, labourers and notaries, bricklayers and blacksmiths, ship carpenters and tinsmiths, coachmakers and hucksters, clerks and coopers, furriers and curriers, a diversity of professions that had swept all thought of the present aside and filled him with visions of skilled workers plying their trades in cold, ill-lit rooms. When he'd come across the firm of advocates with the name of Hubert, Ouimet & Morin he thought of the many contemporaries with those surnames, some he knew, and all likely able to trace branches of their families back to those servants of the law, who in turn could have traced their ancestry back to the earliest Huberts, Ouimets and Morins who had set foot in New France. The one name that stayed with him as he descended the old stone staircase to the sidewalk, however, was the wonderful name of Venant Huberdeau, and his profession, ashes inspector. Venant, what a wonderful old, and out of fashion, name he thought, much like the old Amable. He pressed the button on his key chain and heard the doors of his car unlock, a reassuring sound, a command of casual power and control. Ashes inspector? He had never come across the term before. He pulled out into the light evening traffic on Sherbrooke Street, a light drizzle falling, and headed to his home in Outremont. His wife had left a meal for him to reheat as she was out shopping and having dinner with her sister and no doubt exchanging stories of recent events and past family history, evocations of familiar anxieties and pleasures that the Christmas period tended to arouse, and no doubt confounding each other with conflicting memories as often befall siblings: It wasn't you who experienced that . . . No, it wasn't in the fall . . . You've got that all wrong. . . . their voices like witnesses offering inconclusive and contrary evidence. Ashes inspector? As he came to a stop at the corner of Guy and Sherbrooke, he thought of David Ashemore, the name stirred up by the strange profession. After the theft of the papers, and the occurrence with Thérèse he'd been worried over a possible threat to himself or his wife, visions of his car exploding upon pressing the ignition, images induced from watching too many spy and suspense movies. But no, it had only been a ghostly visitation, an unwonted spectral alluvion upon the shores of their normality. And then life had gone on as usual. He was thankful. There might well have been someone inspecting the ashes of his demise. Possibly a descendent of one Venant Huberdeau.

He drove up Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges towards Dr. Penfield avenue thinking he would have his dinner and then finish his glass of wine while looking over his translations of poems by Thomas Gray and Paul Valery. He'd thought of a few changes to the nineteenth stanza of Valery's Cimetière Marin while he'd been washing his hands in the office bathroom, the mundane everyday actions releasing the creative subrosa insights, acting as doors to that other mind working away in the shadows like an overlooked and under-appreciated associate.


Once more Mrs. Shimoda shuffled the Japan Air Lines deck of cards with their stylized cover image of cranes in flight. She looked to her side table where the Christmas card for Amelia and Duncan lay, an expensive paper envelope of weight and texture, a fine hand having addressed the envelope with what she could tell was a quality fountain pen, the name on the reverse, Declan-Westlake Entreprises with a flourish beneath. It had been put in her mailbox by mistake. She'd wait till tomorrow to bring it to them. She had no desire to disturb their first evening at home since Duncan's health dilemma.

She spread four cards out for her tenth game of Solitaire, Aces Up, a game that would soon reach a threshold of boredom, but she had been feeling open to the ways of chance, perhaps inspired by the accidental delivery of the Christmas card. The statistical variations of the fifty two cards and her manipulation of them were so different from her regular pastime of puzzles and Sudoku; she had to allow for the uncontrollable, the invisible hand that oversaw her shuffling and play. She wondered if the cards reacted to moods? They were recalcitrant tonight. She placed an ace of hearts beneath the king of hearts and realised it was unlikely she would be able to shift the ace up, so she swept the cards together and shuffled them once again. To forfeit a game against an invisible hand was no forfeit in this world. As she shuffled, she looked at her small white Christmas tree with its blue lights and decorations sitting on the table beneath the front window, and remembered the day she purchased it at Ogilvy's department store many, many years ago. Ogilvy's. How many times had they taken their son to look at the store's famous holiday window display? A good ten, twelve years she thought. A clever arrangement of moving toys, Santa's workshop or a landscape of gingerbread fantasy with cotton candy chimney smoke. What had it been last year she wondered? A farm scene, yes, animals at the farm. Now it was her son's turn to take her to see the display window. He would pick her up early on Christmas mornings, they would drive by the window, get out if the weather allowed, and then return to his house for the day and the festive dinner.

Looking at her small calendar beside her cup of green tea, she saw that in a few days it would be Tozi, winter solstice, a time to follow the old ritual and drink cold saké and take a hot bath with slices of yuzu to keep her from catching cold during the long Montreal winter. She'd yet to have a flu shot. The bath with yuzu was good enough for her. And then after the Christmas period, would be the great last day, Omisoka, the threshold of the old and the new year. Her son had given her an internet link in an email where she could visit to watch and listen to the one hundred and eight strokes of the temple bells. She looked forward to sipping her amazake and hearing the tolling bells, one strike for each of the earthly temptations and illusions that so many were blinded by. She imagined people stumbling along a path, one they could neither see nor master, which reminded her of an old painting by a Dutch artist, the blind leading the blind into a river. Where had she seen it? In a book? Or had it been at the museum? The faces had been grotesque, nightmarish. A cold, northern cautionary tale.

She dealt out four cards to start another game and was bewildered by the appearance of the four kings. She was about to gather them up to shuffle again when she began to look at them closely, perhaps for the first time, noticing the richly coloured and geometrically patterned clothes and the fact that one of the kings, the King of Hearts, did not have a moustache. The younger king she thought, the sensitive, thoughtful one. How odd they depict him with his sword held behind his head making it look as if he was impaling himself.


A pale self-portrait of Jerome with his eyes closed, his thick brown hair, eyelashes and facial hair now grey, his features wan and almost glass-like. Thérèse read the title he'd had written on a back edge of the unframed painting, The Eidolon of Odilon Redon, and then turned it over once more to look at the what she could only see as a haunted, faded image of her fiancé.

“It was P. K.'s suggestion,” Jerome said coming up behind her with a wooden tray with various cheeses and sliced baguette.

“This?” she said, gesturing with the painting in her hands.

Jerome felt the negative sting of that one word. “No . . . the movie, The Third Man. Pavor was surprized I'd never seen it.” Putting the tray on the table beside the wine glasses, he stood beside her. “Just an experimental study in the techniques after Redon. Don't worry, it isn't my inverse Dorian Gray.” He kissed her on the cheek. “I was making copies of Redon's charcoal noirs, his nightmarish visions, and I decided to try a self-portrait inspired by his Les yeux clos.” He went over to the DVD player and inserted the movie he'd borrowed from the library. “I can always paint over the canvas. My phantom face hiding beneath a heavy striped mini Molinari, or even a Remedios Varo.” His mind drifted off as he thought of Varo's Coincidencia, a painting he'd wanted to replicate for its subtle colour palate.

Thérèse slipped the painting back behind a group of half-finished canvases leaning against the wall. “It's a bit creepy. You're as pale as that brie.”

“Sorry Tess. I hope you can forget . . . .” They looked into each others eyes and then began to laugh. “I'm so glad you're healthy,” he said, hugging her.

“Not after seeing that painting!” she said pinching his bum. They hugged each other tightly. “So, The Third Man? Doesn't sound romantic. I was hoping we could re-watch Prête-moi tas main, or Les émotifs anonyms, or even Bridget Jones's Diary.”

“We'll have time for those,” he said wondering how many Bridget Jones's Diaries he could take before he cracked. “It's all because of Redon. I was talking to Pavor about the noirs and he thought this movie would fit well, supposedly full of shadow and light, strange angles, atmosphere . . . and intrigue. I believe there's a love interest too.”

“Is it set at Christmas?” she said reaching for a slice of baguette.

“Umm, I don't think so. But Pavor went on and on about it being a classic, a must see.” He read the back of the DVD case. “I can understand why he likes the movie, it says here it's about a writer who goes to post-war Vienna to find an old friend.” Jerome put the case down and poured the wine.“He did say if they ever remade the movie, he thought the actor Colin Firth would be good for one of the parts.” Knowing she liked the debonair actor, he thought this might ease her into the movie.

“I wonder if he thinks he's . . . cursed?”

“Colin Firth?”

She laughed. “Yes, cursed with too much charm. No, I meant Pavor. First he goes to Italy and encounters a man who has an accident and falls into a brief coma. Then he comes back to Montreal, and the husband of Amelia collapses and also goes into a strange sleep. And then there's what happened to me in Bergen, and we meet him at the airport.” Jerome was silent. “You know, with his having lost his wife and child, he might think he's cursed.”

They prepared slices of bread with cheese as the question hovered between them like a hummingbird.

Jerome eased himself back on the couch and chewed. He didn't see a correlation. It was fanciful. Things happen. “I don't think he's cursed. It's just life. When you move around, things happen.”

She nodded her head. “Yes, but what's his perception?” She sipped her wine and looked at him sideways. “Remember the essay on Isadora Duncan I wrote?”

Jerome nodded but was vague on the details.

“She thought she was cursed by man-made machines.” Thérèse shook her head. “Remember she lost her two young children in a car accident? The chauffeur swerved to avoid an accident, the car stalled, and when he got out to crank the thing up, the brakes slipped and it bolted like a spooked horse across the road and down the grassy embankment into the river. The two children and their Scottish nurse drowned. Then she was pregnant with her third child and the doctor couldn't get to her due to being held up in traffic. A commotion about the war with the Germans. The doctor was too late. The child, stillborn. And of course her own death, her scarf caught in the rear wheels of the car she was in.”

“Yes, I remember now. Horrific deaths.” He sipped his wine and swished it through his teeth and over his tongue. “That holiday when we visited Neuilly, I made some sketches of you under the trees near the barges. It could have been the place where the car went into the Seine.”

Thérèse kept to her subject. “She was a natural free spirit, the first to dance barefoot. When we saw Margie Gillis dance barefoot at Parc Lafontaine, she was channelling her inner Isadora.” She paused as she thought of the contemporary Montreal dancer and wondered what she was up to of late. “She reached back to the sibyls and sylphs, stirring up their mythological roots. Isadora was channelling the divine feminine”

“Dance has such deep roots, doesn't it. Elemental.” Jerome paused as he recalled that particular visit to Paris. “That was the same trip I dragged you from the river bank to see where Marcel Duchamp lived, remember? The corner apartment building?”

She lifted her eyebrows.

“Hmm, yes, not the most interesting of our little excursions. Not even a plaque.” He pressed the play button on the DVD remote control. A close-up image of resonating strings over the sound hole of a zither provided the background to the opening credits and they began to tap their feet to the jaunty music. “If Pavor feels he's cursed, he seems to be dealing with it well. It's a difficult subject to bring up with him.”

“Yes, I can imagine.”

“If we don't like this movie, or if it brings up memories of the intrigue you were involved with, we can stop it. I also brought home Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. Just in case.”

Thérèse drew her legs up onto the couch and snuggled close to Jerome. She sipped her wine. She didn't want to remember David Ashemore and his sufferings. The character assassination with its slander, traducements, hindrances, fabrications. His waking up in the middle of the night with ringing ears; his neck, shoulders and spine stiff with tension, his jaw muscles and gums sore from grinding his teeth due to what he had termed remote acoustic microwave provocation, or RAMP, the feeling that he'd been cooked and atrophied while trying to sleep. She hadn't told Jerome the details about the case. It was too fantastical. He would have raised his eyebrows. No one wants to know about such things. And the implant? No, he wouldn't have believed her. Better for him not to know. He had enough noir as it was. From now on, she thought, she would concentrate on writing about the arts, sports, travel and local history. She'd leave the intrigue to the intriguers.


Pavor relaxed in his chair at the Dominion Square Tavern and finished off the last of his wine. Seeing that Melisande was attending her librarian party, he'd decided to treat himself to a meal at one of his Father's old hang-outs. The place had been fairly quiet for a Wednesday evening, but there were office parties and Christmas shopping to consider. People were busy. He had enjoyed his witlof and blue cheese salad, musssels and fries, and two glasses of dry white wine. As he wiped his lips, he could almost see his Father at the bar with some of his fellow lawyers amidst plumes of cigarette smoke. What yarns they must have entertained each other with during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Episodic tales of golf shots, holidays and pretty barmaids no doubt. He looked around at the scattered diners and the small group at the bar and wondered what they did for a living. Stockbrokers, media personalities, engineers . . . or lawyers like his old man? May he rest in peace. Pavor's mind shifted to his work in progress. What to do with Rex Packard and Vernon Smythe? How to bring Evan Dashmore back into the story? How to develop a love interest? These questions ticker-taped their way through his conscious thoughts and back into the depths for more consideration as he decided to pay his bill and go on his way.

As he left the tavern and began walking towards St. Catherine Street, he welcomed the fresh air upon his face, but he felt it was too damp for the walk home. He would take the metro to Atwater and walk up to his apartment, make some green tea and look over his work. Bringing the collar of his long wool coat up around his ears, he made his way north in the evening air.


Not recognizing the voice, Pavor didn't quite hear his name.

The large man behind him called out again, “The writer, P. K. Loveridge?”

Pavor stopped and turned around to see none other than Fitz, the professor of contempt, walking hurriedly towards him. He'd lost the baseball cap and was now wearing a fur-lined aviator hat, ear-flaps flapping in the wind.

“I thought that was you. What are the chances eh?”

Yes, Pavor thought, what were the chances. “Fitz, from The Word bookstore right?”

“As we live and breathe.”

Pavor continued walking towards St. Catherine Street, Fitz scuffing along beside him. He was concerned that Fitz would tag along and find out where he lived. He might have to initiate evasive tactics. “I'm just on my way home. Very tired. An early night for me.”

“Yes, most writers tend to do their best work in the mornings don't they.”

Pavor nodded his head, feeling he'd gained a point, enough that he offered a response. “Well, some writers worked the night shift. Mishima comes to mind.” He couldn't think of another.

“Yes, an unfortunate case. I enjoyed his tetralogy though. The four different characters through time having the same arrangement of moles was a clever device to weave his story around metempsychosis.”

Pavor wondered if he was a literature professor. “So, what do you do Fitz? For a living.”

“Cultural anthropology. A small New England college. I'm just up here on a visit. Staying with friends on Chemin de Casson.”

Pavor inwardly groaned as the street was but a few blocks away from his apartment. They would exit at the same metro station. At least he was just visiting. “For a visitor, you seem to be well-known at the bookshop.”

“Ah, well, that's just my personality. I'm a talker. Not afraid to throw my name around. I've been dropping by the store every day this week. I've also made daily calls at another shop as well, on Stanley Street I think, Odyssey Bookstore. They have a high quality selection of scholarly books. Not many bookshops left these days. You're lucky to have two such fine establishments.”

Pavor thought that Fitz had achieved more familiarity in a week than he'd done in years of quiet, introspective browsing. He was never one to throw his name around. “Are you heading to the Peel metro station?”

“I am.”

“Looks like we're going the same direction then.”

The crowds of Christmas shoppers hindered Fitz's response and their parallel progress. It was only by the time they reached de Maisonneuve boulevard that they were able to resume their conversation.

“So, Pavor, do you set your novels in Montreal?”

How did he now his first name he wondered? The cars passed them, tires hissing in the liquid snow. He should have grabbed a taxi. “Some of the actions take place here, but many other settings as well. Europe, the United States.” He didn't like talking about his books. They made their way across the street and into the Metro entrance. Pavor stopped to give a young man holding an empty Tim Horton's cup some change. He noticed his ripped coat and torn running shoes, and wondered, ashamedly, if it was a set costume. As they made their descent on the escalator, he scanned the faces of those riding up searching for a friend or an acquaintance who could possibly forestall his literary inquisitor, but even smiling with his eyes at the pretty women did not elicit a recognition. His literary persona didn't have much caché in his home town it seemed. No fan with a copy of his book in their bag. No one looking for his autograph. No one knew who he was. He was just another tired commuter. As they made their way through the turnstiles, they heard the trains leaving the station and felt the warm, stale air rush past them as it it was trying to escape to the hallowed atmosphere above, the mothership.

“Set in the past, or contemporary narratives?”

Pavor loosened his scarf. “Present day. I'm not one for the recent past.”

They made their way down the short flight of stairs to the station platform and walked towards an empty bench. “Yes, writing about certain aspects of Montreal's past might be undesirable these days. No one wants to be reminded of the October crisis, or the CIA involvement with psychiatric experiments and such things.”

Pavor stopped and turned to look at Fitz, wondering exactly who he was.

“Water under the bridge and all that,” Fitz said. “Montreal's a city of festivals and savoir-faire. It's thriving again. The culture industry has a firm grip. Young people flock here to become part of the local scene. It's hip right? The past is behind them as my Montreal friends keep telling me. Avoid bringing up those subjects they say. Good advice don't you think.”

They sat on the bench. Pavor began to doubt his meeting Fitz was coincidental.

“Fitz is an unusual name?”

A broad smile revealed rather pointy eye teeth. “A nickname I picked up along the way. When younger I was smitten with Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo, and my fraternity brethren branded me thus. It stuck. Like a riverboat in mud.” He winked.

Pavor looked across at the eastbound platform where a young man stared at him. A mere stranger, or one of Fitz's accomplices? His earbuds really a communication device? Paranoia began to colour the narrative unfolding around him.

“Do you sell many books?”

“Enough to keep me going.” Pavor crossed his long legs. “Amazon certainly helps. My agent tells me I sell a lot of ebooks through them.”

“Ah yes, no doubt, no doubt.” Fitz crossed his legs and slightly turned towards his companion. “It's interesting how they named the company after the Amazons of our classical past, co-opting a feminine archetype for an aggressive male dominated business. A little pun there. Mail, male.”

Pavor nodded broadly. “Ah, very good.”

“The Amazons were emblematic defenders of the old Matriarchy,” Fitz continued, “battling at the threshold of change. Male rituals and the exclusion of women developed. The overt displays of body paint and tattoos. The beginnings of the plough cutting into Mother earth.” He paused as a loud indecipherable announcement issued from the speakers. “Have you ever noticed their logo?”

“It's just their name isn't it?”

“Well, yes, but underneath there is a curved arrow which is also a smile, going from the letter A to the letter Z. Very clever indeed. Everything from A to Z. But if you look closely, the arrow, or smile, looks very much like a penis. Patriarchy personified. Domination of the feminine principle. Practically an image of penetration.”

Pavor raised an eyebrow. “That's quite an interesting observation there Fitz.”

They paused as a group of students passed with their shoulder bags and cell phones, a happy group, smiling, laughing, the exams being over. Pavor recognized they were speaking Cantonese, a language he'd tried to learn once.

“The matriarchal religion of the Minoans with their Snake Goddess was perhaps the true end of the line. Such an astonishing image, her large breasts bared as was the norm in that society, a snake in each hand, firmly gripped and controlled. A feminine principle and a spirit to bow down before. And of course the Minoans had those athletic female bull leapers.” He gently touched Pavor's arm. “Spain's bull fight is rather a sad inversion of this don't you think?”

Pavor could feel the air pressure change as he heard a distant hum emerge from the train tunnel, but he was unable to tell from which direction it emanated. Spain, bullfights, Hemingway. Perhaps Fitz was right he thought.

“And of course the Cretan labyrinth and the defeat of the Minotaur by Theseus reveals the rise of the Greek power over the waning Minoan culture with its matriarchal roots. Patriarchy and paranoia can perhaps be brought back to that point.”

After having enjoyed a lovely meal and put his mind at ease with two glasses of wine, Fitz's revelations were over-stimulating. Pavor's cup was running over.

“It's my belief,” Fitz went on, “that the prevalence of tattoos is the unconscious reaction against the rise of women's power, and the women who take part in these decorative displays are fighting back, unconsciously of course. These are all cultural undercurrents that most of us are unaware of.”

“I'd never thought of it that way. Interesting.”

“GPS and Siri could be seen as modern day divination. Do you use them by any chance?”

Pavor shook his head to the negative. They stood up and awaited the arrival of the blue and white train.

“Siri is a Norwegian word for a beautiful woman who guides you to success,” Fitz said, slightly raising his voice to compensate for the rising noise. “Woman's voices are used in the United States and Australia but in Britain, it's a man's voice. Telling that.”

Pavor nodded his head, feeling a bit unsteady on his feet. The metro slowed down before them.

"Are you on of those authors who pontificates about how to write?"

Pavor was surprized by the question. "Actually I find writers who blab on about how to write are generally ones who are defending their own particular style. Very reductive. Why restrain the imaginative approach to anything?"

The doors to the metro opened before them like on the old Star Trek television series.  “Into the dark labyrinth of tunnels we go,” Fitz said, as they entered.

When Pavor finally arrived home, he slipped his boots off and dropped his coat on the chair and flung himself down upon the chesterfield. It was still early but he felt he could easily get into bed. He could leave a note for Melisande. He placed a hand over his eyes to shield him from the lamplight, and though he tried to clear his mind, the words of Fitz kept revolving in his thoughts. They had parted at the corner of Sherbrooke and Atwater after he'd listened to Fitz's parting joke about knowing an author who could draw a crowd: give him a pencil and paper, and he'll sketch one out with great skill. He'd done his best to find it amusing. They'd shaken hands and exchanged best wishes for the holidays, and after about thirty paces, Pavor had stopped to look behind him to see Fitz stride along the farther sidewalk in the other direction, his earflaps flapping like an oversized bird trying to fly, an extinct bird, a dodo. As he lay upon the chesterfield, the image carried his imagination back to his childhood school visit to the Redpath Museum where he had found himself spellbound by the stuffed dodo behind glass. Unlike the nearby passenger pigeon, the dodo had a strange human-like quality. How could they have killed such intriguing animals he had wondered? And with that fleeting thought, Pavor fell into a light doze where amazons, minotaurs and dodos would mingle in his dreams.

© 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.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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

A timeless luminescence played off the bathroom tiles as the flames of the tea candles shivered and flickered in their faceted glass holders. Amelia remarked the translucent glow upon her exposed skin as she swept a cloud of bath bubbles towards her breasts rising from the hot water like tropical islands. Alacrity and Karma she could call them, those odd words Duncan had spoken one night while in his liminal state. Alacrity and Karma, twin tropical islands in the south seas of his unconsciousness. She closed her eyes feeling the welcome flush of warmth upon her cheeks, grateful for this moment of calm and normality as the lavender-scented bathwater released her from layers of psychological restraint, layers reaching back even to that nascent aversion to the idea of giving birth, one that had passed through various stages of denial, self-reproach, selfishness and acceptance. It was fortuitous neither of them had wanted children. As she swirled water around her hips, she imagined Duncan and his twin brother in their Mother's womb, each in their own amniotic sac with their umbilical cords making her think of astronauts floating in space, or deep sea divers with oxygen hoses, or monkeys swinging on lianas under the rain forest canopy. With the loss of his twin brother, and his unlikely-to-be married younger brother, Duncan was forever going on about being the last of the line, and she sensed he derived a stubborn dignity in this preponderant closure, almost one of negative pleasure. Perhaps that was why he'd wanted to visit his childhood home that afternoon, before they'd even returned to theirs. They'd driven past his old elementary school, now condominiums, and then stopped at his old church across the corner from it, where they had got out and walked around. The trees had overgrown concealing the substantial presence of the large church. Duncan had recalled the time when as a young teenager, he'd followed his Father, who was on the church house committee, through a window and out to an attached roof ladder and up to a small door to the massive square towered belfry to inspect the excessive build-up of bat and pigeon droppings; a dank and fetid smell had risen from the dark and slippery interior where the bells had long ceased to ring. Many bags of guano had been redeemed by a contractor hired to clean it up. So many memories he'd said, so many. His parents had been the first to wed in the new building's chapel, but now the structure was up for sale. When they'd gotten home, he'd searched his files for an old magazine he'd inherited from his parents, a copy of the The Presbyterian Record from June of 1964 with a photograph of the church on the cover, a flood of parishioners cascading down the main entrance to the sidewalk, a photograph in which he was sure he could see his parents in the crowd and he and his brothers hidden in the sea of suits, hats and dresses. There were so few people now left to attend. “I wouldn't be surprized if it was turned into condominiums,” he'd said, before describing an imaginary series of rooms in the belfry tower with a spiral staircase between them, rooms filled with books and antique furniture, an impossible future Gothic fantasy of his desire. They had then left the car at the church and walked down the street to look at his childhood home, which was well-kept and in better condition than he remembered. The school, the church and the home were three points forming what he had said formed an isosceles right triangle of childhood that could fit into a football field. The growth of neighbourhood trees and the rise of a four-storey apartment block on the corner across from the family home—on the empty lot of an old Esso gas station—blocked the views of the sky from his old den windows. The slender Linden tree of his childhood had grown to an absurd thickness for such a small front lawn, it's breadth just defeating his encircling arms. It would outlive him he'd said, his life was as ephemeral as the aphids that used to live within its dappled expanse.

From her initial fears that Duncan would awake without memory, as if he'd sipped water from a mysterious river running through his dreams, she felt that his strange sleep had had the obverse reaction, arousing his deepest recollections and stirring up the silt of pale nostalgia. She had experienced feelings of relief and thankfulness before finally settling upon a sense of delicate uncertainty, retaining an unspoken concern for a sudden relapse. Except for his novel propensity to strip the prosaic and habitual of its banality, he seemed quite normal. His having cleaned the fridge was perhaps a welcome side-effect, but she hoped he would soon loose interest in the mundane. Life was complicated enough without awakening the auto pilot of daily life. As for the Norwegian outbursts, she was baffled, and had given up trying to record them for later translation possibilities. She hoped they would just stop. Seeing him standing before his bookshelves casually reading a small paperback entitled The Spirit of Aikido, after dinner, she'd been reassured that his old self was intact. Books were still his great love, as language was for her.

A new assignment to translate a popular young adult novel provided a structural resilience to her life for the next quarter, allowing her to feel confident in the approach of the holidays and the new year. She'd already performed a quick read through of the text, one overladen with adolescent love triangles, physical transformations and dark forests. She would have to resist her temptation to embellish the narrative with too rich a vocabulary, a propensity she noticed in herself, and one she would monitor as she followed the line and the voice of the adolescent narrator. If there had been such an abundance of young adult books when she'd been young, she wondered if they would have helped with her anxieties and doubts. As for own her reading, she recalled going from Nancy Drew to Catch 22, a book pinched from her Aunt's bookshelves. Then there had been the shelves of Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers, books by Margaret Miller and Helen MacInnes, and the large selection of classics in her uncle's collection. She wasn't sure if her reading choices had been a symptom of her fleeing adolescence, or mere circumstance.

She drew the sponge up and squeezed hot water behind her neck. Was this new assignment, she wondered, due to her agent having pressed the emotional button? The young translator whose husband was in a coma, his businesses in limbo, their livelihood in jeopardy? A woman in need of the proverbial helping hand? Pity? Concern? She slipped her chin down into the water and blew soapy bubbles with her lips, the hypothetical question transformed into opalescent structures moving upon the surface of the water, an evanescence that slowly drifted towards her distant toes.

Raising herself, the shifting water echoing off the smooth white tile, she reached for a towel and dried her hands and forearms, then took up the sheets of paper resting on the toilet seat nearby, printed pages of Duncan's recollection of his dreamscape while in his coma-like sleep. The day after he'd awoken, he'd asked her to bring her laptop to the hospital so he could describe the inner world before it faded from his memory. She had watched him type with his fine, ten-finger skills—the most practical course in high school he'd said, telling her all about his typing teacher, an older woman with her sleeveless dresses revealing the slack upper arm flesh that wobbled when she pointed to a line of text on the blackboard with her yardstick as the class pounded away on the late 1950s Royal Aristocrats seeking speed and accuracy, speed and accuracy, the watchwords for their future lives. It had not taken him long to type it out, but he had been briefly overcome with exhaustion at the end, much to the concern of the nurses who had popped in to take another battery of tests.

His description was but another text to interpret and translate, she thought. One she hoped would provide clues to understand his experience. She'd read his halting sentences a dozen times wondering if he'd just made it up out a mania of past emotions and memories, but she still found herself drawn to them in the hope of finding meaning, significance, insight, and perhaps a silhouette of some form of truth.

Dream Fragment

It all began aboard a large sailing vessel. I awoke in a small cabin with a porthole. I remember my landfall, my disembarking. I found myself alone, descending a sloping gangway to the dock, a young man ascending at equal pace, an approaching simulacrum of my younger self. Without stopping, he passed me a rusty skeleton key before vanishing in the fog and mist. All of a sudden it was night. The narrow streets and dark alleys running off from the quay were wet and slick. The occasional store windows revealed empty display areas like theatrical stages between performances. A full moon provided light. I found myself before a tall brick and stone wall and began following the course of it in the hopes of finding a door. Letters in an unknown script were occasionally scratched into the rough stone. I came to a large upside down Gothic arched door made of stout oak and decorated with richly carved rosettes that upon closer inspection, revealed a diversity of faces, Green Men with differing expressions. The point of the arch lay near my feet, the keyhole in the middle, eye level, the open mouth of one of the faces. I looked through but only the only thing visible was darkness. I inserted the key sideways and turned it and the tumblers silently, effortlessly aligned, and the the door opened inwards of itself and I stepped carefully over the narrow point and pocketed the key. A passageway ran to the left with a gradual downward grade and as I began to walk, I ran my fingertips against the dark walls feeling ridges like the wales of corduroy, or spines of books, reminding me too of running a stick along fences as a kid. Coming to large double doors without handles or knobs, I pushed them open and found myself beneath a geodesic dome structure, moonlight reflecting angular shadows, grids and triangles, upon the pathway before me, one that led to fifteen foot high bookshelves on either side, each with a rolling library ladder attached to a smooth runner rail. I breathed in the intoxicating alchemical aroma of paper, cloth and leather bindings feeling I'd found a hidden paradise, a lost or forgotten library. I looked down the path and noticed it came to an end, and thinking it odd, I walked the long distance to that supposed dead end only to discover that it opened to the left with a gradual curve which I continued to explore. I had to overcome my desire to look at the books, their buckram, leather and cloth bindings diverting my attention, their gilt titles seducing me to withdraw a volume, breath in its particular scent, feel its unique shape and texture, and behold the imagined title pages of elaborate design. Only when I came to the end of the curve which abruptly turned right and then back towards the direction I had come, did I begin to recognize a familiar layout, one that Amelia and I had walked with Melisande, a layout of a medieval labyrinth. I then gave in to my desire to look at the books themselves and I scaled one of the ladders and randomly pulled a book off a high shelf, a heavy full leather binding with panelled boards and gilt tooling, one of a multi-volume set with the title Canticles of Sand. I opened it to see exquisite green and blue marbled endpapers and fore edges; it was a finely printed book with engravings of strange coastal landscapes. Putting it back in place, I glanced at the titles around me and many were in foreign languages. Deciding to explore the pathway, I descended the ladder and continued along the path, occasionally stopping to look at a book that caught my eye—the books only had titles, neither author names nor publisher's imprint at the foot of the spine. I vividly remember these titles: Perpetual Conceptions, Gelid Harmonies, and Specular Apothegms.

It was about then that I heard the footsteps. At first I was unsure from which direction they came, and remembering Melisande's explanation of labyrinths having but one entrance and one path, I realised that if the footsteps were following me into the labyrinth, I could not escape them. They would find me along the way or at the centre. The bookshelves were back to back and didn't have spaces between. The only possible hiding place would be to scale a ladder and somehow manage to clamber on top of the highest shelf, their tops forming what I imagined would be a mirrored pathway of the one below, an additional pathway with the hazard of vertigo. To slip and fall would not be inconsiderable. All of these thoughts passed through my mind as I listened to the footsteps echoing in the passage, and still I couldn't decipher from which direction they issued. I remember trying to lower my breathing rate and stay calm, but even though I possessed the key, I felt I was trespassing. With my senses heightened due to fear, I listened to the footsteps which were firm, even and resounded with a frightening persistence. I made the decision to walk towards the centre, and I began as quickly and quietly as possible. The footsteps increased in their speed. I began to lightly run, and likewise, my pursuer, who I sensed was a man, began sprinting. From that point I remember starting to run wildly, bouncing off the edges of bookshelves as I turned corners, the occasional book falling to the path. It then occurred to me to pull books off the shelves to hinder him, but my love for books got the better of me, and I reasoned it would take the same amount of time to dislodge them than I would gain in frustrating his pursuit. It didn't matter in the end, for as I came round a large bend which I conjectured to be at the top of the labyrinth, the path was blocked with four foot stacks of books. I climbed one of the ladders and seeing it was free from obstacle, I positioned myself near the top and began pushing myself along the rail with my right arm and my right foot. After careening around large curves and long straight sections, I had to occasionally stop at the sharp turns to transfer to another ladder. I heard him behind, travelling the other side, the sound of metal on metal, the rubber wheels squealing along the floor, his vigorous and aggressive physical exertions knocking books off as he went.

When I felt I was gaining on him, my ladder shuddered to a stop almost throwing me off, but I held on with one hand and pulled myself back. The wheels had broken. Looking forward in the dim light, I couldn't see any other ladders, so I climbed up and reached for the top of the bookshelf unit and hoisted myself up. I tried to dislodge the ladder but failed. Kneeling, feeling slightly dizzy, I glanced back and I could see a hooded figure in dark clothes, his pale hands gripping the ladder as he pushed off with one foot. Standing up, I looked across the expanse of the labyrinth and found I was not too far from the centre, but if I followed the path, it would take me back in the direction of my pursuer, so I contemplated vaulting the path below to the tops of far bookshelves across from me. It was then I felt the impact of a heavy book on my shoulder thrown by my nemesis from below. He then began scaling the ladder and I picked up the book at my feet, and unable to overcome my curiosity I quickly read the title that almost did me in, Cordis Divisio, then I threw it down at him, hitting his back and stalling him momentarily. I ran along the tops of the bookshelves and could hear him following. Books skidded by me, one hit my arm, another almost hit my head. I could see that I was approaching the middle of a semi-circular arc with a straight line running towards the centre of the labyrinth, and I made my way carefully there only to find it broke to either side in short dead-ends arcs, and across from me, the circular outline of the centre. Looking back, I saw he was slowly coming towards me, still holding a book in his left hand. I ran back to the beginning of the straight path, turned around again, and ran quickly as I could and made the leap across the pathway below.

I made it across, but overshot the leap and found myself slipping over the inner edge. I was clinging to the top of the bookshelf unit, trying to find a foot hold, when I heard him land above me. Looking down I could see a large, sharply pointed sun dial on a stone pedestal. I then looked up, and the man was holding a pale hand out to me, and with the other, he began to pull back the hood on his jacket, but before I saw his face, I lost my grip and fell towards the sundial.

I then awoke and found myself in the small room aboard the ship once more. And the whole sequence started over, and over, and over. I was caught in this nightmare loop until I awoke in the hospital and not in the ship's cabin, the machines around me beeping, the nurses hovering over me, and Amelia behind them with a look of deep anxiety upon her face.


Amelia shivered, put the pages back on the toilet seat, turned the hot water tap on, slipped down into the bath, and contemplated if, and when, she would tell Duncan he'd been calling Gavin's name before awakening in the hospital. 

© Ralph Patrick Mackay

Saturday, July 05, 2014

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

For Duncan Strand, the world was becoming an endeavour of renewed recognitions.

Having finished his breathing exercises, he lay on his back, his calves resting upon the upholstered living room chair like an astronaut ready for takeoff, his head upon a pillow, rocking gently to the repetition of four songs on his old Walkman CD player positioned upon his chest, songs by the Psychedelic Furs: In My Head, Heaven, The Ghost in You, and When She Comes, his right index finger rested on the skip button, his left arm spread out towards Hugh, who, with his large, brown limpid eyes, lay beside him, chin on his outstretched front legs, looking at him with a greater sense of affiliation and affection as they shared the soft carpet pile and a similar perspective, enjoying the occasional tummy rub as he sniffed the essential odours of Duncan mixed with the fusty nuances embedded in the carpet around them.

Duncan had forgotten how much time he'd spent on floors as a child, under tables, behind Chesterfields, on stairs, under them, and beneath the covers, the early environments of childhood imagination. Looking through the open passage to the next room, he gazed upon the dining room table he'd inherited from his parents, a heavy, dark Chippendale inspired number with a footrest between the legs, one he used to sit upon pretending it was his submarine, or lie supine like a vampire in his coffin, and how he'd get yelled at by his Father for doing so. The cracks were still there, the repairs weakened with age. The table was fraught with memories of tension-filled suppers: the solemn graces, the baptism with spilt milk, the daily incarnations of the potato, and his recalcitrance before the salmon cake. But also the joys of birthdays with their 1960s Woolworth Department store pastel confections with their inevitably dried-out red roses and candied silver ball-bearings he'd leave behind on his plate, and of course the shaky inscriptions in occasionally misspelled or abbreviated names—accepted with a reduction in price; the holidays too, with their turkeys—legs in the air like him now—and the hams with their Argus-eyed pineapple slices pinned in place with sharp edged cloves like miniature tomahawks, and those seemingly endless games of Monopoly, Gin Rummy, or Crazy Eights. An embarrassing memory came back to him. He must have seven or eight, eager to relate the details of what he'd learnt at school that day, an exploration of the inner ear, and how he had used the word 'Fallopian' in place of 'Eustachian' tube and watched his parents mysteriously turn to stone, only their eyes shifting to each other in a paroxysm of shock. Nothing had been said. The silence, like an exhalation, had dwindled in the renewed clatter of forks and knives, and no doubt a change of subject. Only later did his brother tell him of his mistake. How had he known of it at that age he wondered? Or had he? Had it been in the Junior Encyclopedia Britannica, the one his brother had written on the bottom edges of volume seven, '100% Junk' in what must have seemed, at the time, an epic act of defiance? He couldn't remember. His youth felt over-weighted with innocence and ignorance, the latter a great regret—how he wished he'd been one of those precocious geniuses found in books—but the former, a characteristic he cherished like the lost stone with the perfectly round hole he'd stubbed his toe against at the water's edge on Cavendish Beach in Prince Edward Island, an innocence best exemplified by his youthful spinning round and round on a summer's day until the light-headed dizziness warped him out of orbit and he fell to the grass trying to hold the azure sky and fair-weather clouds from being sucked into the vortex of his self-induced wonder, lying there overcome by the mystery of distant galaxies and endless space, a feeling of organic oneness with the spinning earth beneath him, and the numinous above.

Pinned by gravity, he lay upon the carpet in this most comforting of postures as the memories of childhood faded. Breathing deeply, he pressed the pause button and he imagined the CD's rpms descending to zero. His collapse in the bookshop, he thought, was strangely similar to that childhood pastime, the world spinning round, his head at once weightless and heavy as granite. Perhaps it had been a result of all those adult years of not spinning round and round, all those years of non-attentiveness to . . . innocence? No, he wouldn't go there. Amelia would think he was going down the path her parents had followed to everyone's eventual dismay. Yes, he must keep on the rational side, the “A” side of interpretation, even though his random, and apparently mundane, utterances in Norwegian were a mystery to him. He agreed with her Uncle Edward: leave it be, let it settle, get on with life. What were they but syllables and sounds? Nothing to worry about. He was no stranger to the quirks of language. Only last month he remembered ordering a pear tart from a fine French pastry shop and had used the words 'tarte de poivre,' in place of 'tarte de poire.' What was an extra 'v' but an accidental amusement between the clerk and himself? He was always fumbling with words. He wondered now if it was an inherited trait. His Mother, who had no real French, having been born in Notre Dame-de-Grace in the late 1920s, and had never studied the language like many of her generation, had still been willing to try with her simple salutations and her 'comme ci, comme ça.' and had even tried to converse with the non-English speaking wife of his Father's business associate who he'd invited to dinner one evening, a dinner where his Mother had related how she'd been out in the rain that day with her new umbrella and had used the word 'pamplamoose,' in place of 'parapluie.' Duncan smiled to himself. Yes, he was a chip off the old block.

As well as this verbal side-effect, he felt his recent medical ordeal and symbolic rebirth had enabled him to shed a hardened skin of habit, an integument of reason, allowing him to regain an enlivened perspective on life, and with fresh eyes, observe the world around him. He'd already become fascinated with the mundane, the overlooked, the absurd, like the five jars of semi-finished pimento stuffed olives that had migrated to the back of the fridge looking much like a mad scientist's collection of extraterrestrial eyes in briny formaldehyde, or the button plackets on all his shirts with their horizontal button holes that framed the vertical ones—like a birth and a death—a detail he'd been unconscious of after five decades of his own fashioning. Not an hour ago he'd found himself re-buttoning them all as they hung in haphazard attention upon their plastic hangers, less in the desire for order than in a renewed fascination with the clever device and the urge to keep the shirts as human-like as possible. The crisp shirt collars had also stimulated the now distant memory of attending the Knox Crescent and Kensington Presbyterian Sunday services as a child: he and his brothers dressed in their white shirts and bow ties sitting on the little benches in front of the first pew, fidgeting and squirming while their cherubic minister, like an actor on a thrust stage, stood at the centre of the altar steps and extemporized on his homily of the week, a simplified story for them, his hands gesticulating expressively before returning to each other and gently clasped upon his stomach. And then the Sunday school volunteer would lead them away along the red carpet to the side door to the sounds of the muted organ and a soft hymn, leaving the adults like those forsaken to deal with a sinking ship. A backwards sequence of recollections had been triggered and his Saturday morning excursions with his parents to the old Atwater Market in search of the rump roast for Sunday dinner were brought back to him. The butcher's stalls with their cold room windows revealing the carcasses, half carcasses, the oxidized blood mimicking slabs of marble; the pig carcasses yellow and orange with various triangular and circular marks like passport stamps; pig, beef, lamb, veal, ageing in the dim light; he could almost smell the sawdust upon the floor behind the cutting tables where the mustacheoed butchers in their white shirts, hats and pink-stained coats conversed in French, content in their profession, content in their skin. Notwithstanding the horrors of factory farming—if they had existed as such in the 1960s—at least he'd known where his meat had come from, and had given thanks before meals, though to his mind it should have been given first to the poor animals, and second, to his Mother for preparing the meal, but such truths had been overlooked for the greater truth, whatever that might have been. The circularity of the weekend ritual of seeking out the roast beef and its final consumption had been a subservient shadow to that great abstraction. And now he was meatless, having followed Amelia into vegetarianism for what seemed forever. Only the memory of a succulent smoked meat sandwich made him feel at all nostalgic for his meat and potato origins.

He shifted his eyes to the corner of the room where the lamp light reflected back from the ceiling in two soft arcs like female breasts and he thought of Amelia taking her bath, no doubt trying to soothe her worries over his health and her concerns over whether he'd wake from his first night's sleep at home. Dr. Yee had assured them he would be fine, the tests having failed to uncover any hidden dangers. She'd been confident in his recovery through the use of medication and exercises. There was something about Dr. Yee that reminded him of Yiyin however. Cheekbones? Lips? Eyes? He'd been tempted to inquire if they were related, but a sense of formal restraint had held him back. Perhaps another time. Perhaps with a followup appointment in the future, if it felt appropriate, the atmosphere relaxed, the timing right.

He removed his earbuds and put the CD player aside. Hugh, now stretched out, was dreaming, his little legs doing the dog paddle. Perhaps he was running alongside the shy Greyhound from down the street, the one who shivered in winter not wanting to go further than the corner and back with his owner. Or maybe Hugh was dreaming he was the Greyhound with its svelte figure and long slender legs, galloping like a horse across a field of dandelions in bloom. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply feeling that if he didn't have a residual fear of sleep, he did retain a fear of revisiting a certain dreamscape, one he felt he'd lived within for the three days he'd been 'away' as Amelia had referred to his anomalous coma, his brief vacation from reality. He too had been running. But away from a shadowed pursuer.

© 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.