Authors: Claire Holden Rothman
ALSO BY CLAIRE HOLDEN ROTHMAN
The Heart Specialist
CLAIRE HOLDEN ROTHMAN
or Jacob Holden
Remember you shot a seagull?
A man happened to come along,
shot it and killed it, just to pass the time.
A plot for a short story.
I wish there would be no story to tell.
James Richard Cross, 2001
JAMES CROSS, A TESTIMONY
y first introduction to the violence that was to come was at the St. John Baptiste Day parade in 1968. This is the Quebec national day and is usually marked by processions and floats through the streets of Montreal. On the reviewing stand that day was Pierre Trudeau, who had just been elected leader of the Liberal Party and who was a convinced and vocal federalist. American consul Harrison Burgess and I attended with our wives. Both of us were to meet terrorism again within two years. The parade was marked by demonstrations against Trudeau, ending with bottles being thrown at the reviewing platform.
Over the next couple of years, there were a series of terrorist incidents, the most important being the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange. In the summer of 1970, I went on leave in England and returned in mid-summer. I learned then that there had been an attempt to kidnap Harrison Burgess, our American consul, but that the police had raided a farmhouse near Montreal, captured the intended kidnappers and seized a quantity of documents, including the demands that they intended to submit. These included the release
of a large number of so-called “political” prisoners, the payment of a ransom and the reinstatement of certain workers who had been dismissed under a privatisation contract....
Though Harrison Burgess was protected by police, there was no general warning to consular officials in Montreal that any further incidents were expected. In fact, when the new American consul, General Topping, arrived later that summer, no special protection was given to his house.
October 5 was a typical bright Montreal autumn day. My wife and I were facing a busy week with a number of important engagements, including a visit from the president of the Confederation of British Industries, for whom we were organising certain functions, and we were discussing the week ahead as I walked between the bedroom and the bathroom dressing. I then heard a ring of the doorbell and was surprised that anybody would arrive that early in the morning. My wife suggested that it was probably Hydro Quebec come to read the meter, so I took no further notice. I then heard raised voices but did not pay much attention as our maid was inclined to speak loudly sometimes to her small child. The next thing I knew was, as I was walking back towards the bathroom dressed only in shirt and underpants, a man came through from the opposite side holding a gun and said, “Get down on the floor or you'll be fucking dead.”
âfrom “The British Diplomatic
Oral History Programme,” 1996
October 5, 2004
t's eight in the morning. The breakfast dishes are done, the kitchen is swept, and the newspaper is already in the recycling bin. I haven't written in my journal yet, or checked my emails. The computer isn't even on. I'm sitting in the pantry with a cup of Japanese tea, doing nothing in particular and enjoying the silence.
Although “silence” is a bit of an exaggeration. The garbagemen are down below in the street, banging cans and shouting at one another. The living room window is wide open. It's like summer today, even though the leaves are hanging from the trees in heavy golden clusters, ready to scatter with the first gust of wind. There is always a lull like this in October, a moment in the grim march toward winter when the foot refuses to fall. It never lasts long. A single day, perhaps two in a good year. But while the moment endures, the entire city seems to pause and take a
collective astonished breath, recognizing, as if for the first time, its own beauty.
I'm alone here in the apartment, with no obligations other than to collect my garbage can after it's been emptied and put it back on the patch of yellowing grass beneath the stairs. I'm sitting here, appreciating this fact, feeling the day and all of its possibilities opening before me, when the doorbell rings.
It's too early for the mail. And besides, the mailman usually leaves my cheques and bills and other correspondence in the locked metal box on the ground floor. As I run toward the door, it occurs to me that I am a woman alone, but almost immediately I brush the thought aside. Luc says I should get a spyhole like the one Lyse has in the flat downstairs, but he's overreacting. This is Montreal, after all, one of the safest cities in the world.
The man standing on my welcome mat is not my regular mailman. He's in regulation shorts and shirt, however, a special delivery man from Canada Post. He grins at me, flushed and panting slightly with exertion, and holds out a large box.
“It's heavy,” he says in French, and then translates the sentence, just in case.
He's not young, but he looks fit. His legs, which have just climbed sixty-seven steps, are muscular and smooth, marred only by a single protruding vein snaking down one of his calves. He places the box on the floor at our feet, and we stand together for several seconds contemplating it. Then he hands me a chit to sign. I squat, intending to use the box as a writing surface, and see the company's name staring up at me. Beneath it is the logoâa stylized
that looks like a bird taking flight.
“What's in there, anyway?” the delivery man asks as I hand
over his chit. We seem to have settled on French, though I haven't said a word. “Bricks?” he presses, smiling.
He's flirting. I smile but don't encourage him.
“Well, whatever it is,” he says, nodding in the direction of my many steep stairs, “it made me sweat today.”
I laugh in commiseration. I sweated too.
As soon as the door shuts, I go back to the pantry and get my Opinel, the penknife that Luc bought me years ago in France. I break the tape with its tip and make a long slit down the box's middle. The carton flaps spring open. Inside are sheets of recycled brown wrapping paper and, under these, squares of bubble wrap. I pull it all out, and there they are, gleaming up at me in rows.
I pick up one of the books and run my fingers over its cover. The delivery man was right. It's solid, brick-like. Which is a paradox, because its contents are the opposite of solid. But that, I am discovering, is the wonder of this enterprise. This book is made of words, insubstantial, weightless things I dreamed up and strung together to make a plot. Nothing at all really, and at the same time everything.
uc stared at the page, or at least the section of the page visible on his screen. The screen he had spent the last fifteen years of his life staring at. The background was blue, slightly darker than the shell of a robin's egg. The blue of the sky at dusk, just as the light begins to fade. Luc had been thinking for some time now about a laptop. He'd mentioned it to Hannah last week, before she'd left for Toronto. He had informed her that he might go on a little shopping spree while she was away. She'd laughed, her eyebrows rising in amazement. Luc LÃ©vesque wasn't big on gadgets. It had taken him years to switch from his old Smith Corona to a computer. And he hadn't gone on the spree yet. If he never did, it would come as no surprise to his wife. She knew him better, in many ways, than he knew himself. He ought to do it. All it required was turning off the screen and getting out of his chair.
Laptops were better for you, apparently, than desktops. Something about the endocrine system. Male rats with reduced
libido. Luc sighed and rubbed his eyes. He hadn't had sex in weeks, although the computer was hardly to blame.
He ought to will himself to stand up. He wasn't a gardener or a garbageman or a mailman. Words were his life. And this, unfortunately, was the technology for generating words. At the end of the year, he would turn fifty. Luc had been trying to push it from his mind, but when the work went badly, as it had today, thoughts he normally kept at bay flooded in. The date was October 1, 2001. Luc would be in his forties for exactly three more months.
The signs were starting to appear. An athletic past helped. His chest would always be broad, even if the hair covering it was silver. His stomach was softer than it had been, but it wasn't a complete paunch. The beard was what gave him away. It was thick, like the hair on his head, but empty of colour. Hannah said he looked like the Zeus in the d'Aulaires'
Book of Greek Myths
, which they'd bought in the days when they still read to Hugo. The god's face was proud and handsome, and even though his beard was white, his naked chest was muscled. Hannah had made the remark on one of their good days, a rare moment of conjugal tenderness of the kind they had once enjoyed quite often.
He grimaced. The writing was going terribly. Every sentence came out stiff and lifeless on the virtual white page. Easier to think about loveless rats than deal with a book going sour.
His narrator was too close for comfort: the father of an uncontrolled adolescent son, living in Saint-Henri. There were differences, of course. The character he'd created was a taxi driver with a francophone wife. She was half Irish, though, from her father's side. And their son was showing signs of his
mixed heritage. In the scene Luc was at this moment failing to write, the father had just discovered the boy had dropped out of school and was hanging out with members of an Irish gang. The father had observed them as he drove around the city at night. Boy-men from Griffintown. Boy-men who spoke English.
Luc had the ending already. That part would write itself. It was death.
The image of this middle-aged man dragged from his cab and beaten senseless in the freshly fallen snow on a street in Saint-Henri was the reason for the book. Every book has something at its heart: the tinder that ignites. In this one, it was parricide.
There was a knock at the door. Luc sat up from his slouch. He was never to be bothered when he wrote. Everyone knew that. It was the rule.
The knock came again. Too forceful for his mother, Lyse, who would come downstairs only in the event of a true emergency. It couldn't be Hannah. She was in Toronto with her own parents. Luc stood up and strode through the darkened living room and hall. His brother, RÃ©mi, had left some furniture, but the place was largely empty. Not a home, a workspace.
He was dressed strangely, he realized too late, as his hand closed around the doorknob. Silk long johns under baggy black gym shorts, a purple cotton jersey, red Converse high-tops, and fingerless red gloves that his mother had knitted to protect his hands from chafing: the clothes of a writer at work. Or a crazy person,
He opened the door and gasped, actually gasped. Then he laughed. “Serge Vien!”
The curly hair was grey, still ungoverned by any comb. The nose was too big for the face, now lined. And the lazy eye
was still there, winking behind thick-lensed glasses and aimed disconcertingly at something off to one side behind Luc's head. Vien laughed too. The same honking laugh.
They shook hands, grabbed each other's shouldersâthe awkward gestures of middle-aged men who knew a handshake wasn't enough but couldn't bring themselves to embrace. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It is a pleasure, for sure,” said Vien, grinning his same old grin. “But actually, I'm here on business.”
He stepped aside, revealing a second person standing behind him on the walk, hunched in the neck and shoulders as if trying to shrink out of sight. Squinting in the midday sun, Luc made out the familiar fleshless face. The pale shaved head.