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.

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