Read My October Online

Authors: Claire Holden Rothman

My October (7 page)

BOOK: My October
11.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Hannah's father had been named a special prosecutor and given the politically sensitive job of dealing with the arrested individuals. He became an instant celebrity as the public face of government repression. Those who were arrested sat in jail for days, unable to contact their families or even a lawyer. It was an outrage, an aberration. For Hannah, it was the end of her childhood.

Although he eventually released nearly all the prisoners, Alfred Stern was reviled. Death threats were made. The family took refuge in a hotel. There was briefly talk of sending Hannah and Benjamin to boarding school in the United States. It didn't happen, but when the Sterns returned to their home after ten days, they found that soldiers had been assigned to guard them, camping in the garage at night, alternating shifts as the family slept. These two young men escorted Hannah and Benjamin to school and drove Alfred to his office. Hannah felt like a prisoner.

Her father had always believed that the arrests and his own actions were justified. He and Hannah argued bitterly about it for years. Which was why it was now off limits. Better not to broach it, or to mention the name of Luc Lévesque, the celebrated Québécois nationalist whom Hannah later married.

And so she never spoke to her father about her work as a literary translator. Her specialty was Quebec fiction, although she also liked biography. Her translations had won prizes. She'd rendered brick-like tomes on the lives of Gabrielle Roy and René Lévesque into English, and she'd done smaller works too, on artists like Ozias Leduc and Paul-Émile Borduas. She'd also translated essays and publications about Quebec culture and history. And, of course, she'd rendered her husband's entire oeuvre into English. Besides being Luc's wife, she was his official English voice. None of this was even remotely mentionable in the presence of Alfred Stern. She could speak to her father about her son, provided she restricted herself to his health and schooling, but even school had become a difficult subject after Hugo started attending the Collège Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

Hannah dipped a spoon into the pot and stirred. The soup was a rich orange colour. She wiped bits of ginger skin and sprigs
of coriander off the stovetop and retreated into the breakfast room overlooking the garden, where her parents frequently ate. This was where Connie had found him, on his back, wearing what looked like a grin.

Hannah's laptop was on the table in the breakfast room. Her screen saver was a photograph of Hugo at age seven on a swing, his head thrown back, laughing. It was her favourite picture of him: happiness distilled.

She clicked an icon and a too-familiar file came up:
Death of a Dreamer
, Luc's most recently published novel. The alliterative English title pleased her; little else about the book did.

This had never happened to Hannah before. She had always loved the books her husband wrote. Some more than others, of course, but every one of them had moved her. She loved Luc's agility of mind, his intuitive skill at telling stories. It had never occurred to her that this might change. There were writers you liked and writers you didn't. Sometimes a writer was uneven, but mostly it was a question of chemistry. Like love.

She'd been young when she met Luc, not yet eighteen, but despite her age she'd been neither blind nor stupid. She had always been a reader. Even as a child, she'd known precisely what books she preferred. Luc was the first published writer she had met, apart from an aging poet who had read once at her high school and tried to grope the girls. Luc was her teacher, so it was natural she would go to the library in the early days of term and look up his work.
Tanneur tanné
was the first Quebec novel she ever read. It told of characters living in her own city, thinking thoughts Hannah herself had thought. The characters had troubles like she had. In their lives she discerned the outline of her own. They were poor. They spoke French. They lived in
Saint-Henri, cultural light years from where she had grown up. Yet she inhabited their skin; they inhabited hers.

She and Luc became lovers that summer, a few weeks after she finished her first year at Dawson College. The following winter, she invited him to her family's annual New Year's Eve gathering. It was the end of 1976. René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois had just formed Quebec's first separatist government. The antipathy between her long-haired nationalist boyfriend and Alfred Stern was instantaneous. The fact that Luc had been her teacher didn't help. Twenty years of marriage had done nothing to mitigate it.

On New Year's Day of 1977, the morning after that first meeting, Alfred Stern coined a nickname for the man who would become his son-in-law: the Pied Piper. He never again used Luc's real name, with its echo of the new separatist premier. Her father was intransigent, and Luc did little to bridge the gap. He made no effort to be sensitive, never toned down his nationalist rhetoric.

Her father had gotten at least one thing right with the nickname. Luc Lévesque had enchanted her. The year they met, he'd just turned twenty-four. To a seventeen-year-old girl, that had seemed outrageously grown-up. Teaching at Dawson College was his first real job. He smoked cigarettes in class, tapping ashes onto the floor, because, of course, there were no ashtrays. The students watched, rapt, all of them loving him, even the boys, many of whom grew their hair and sported beards in emulation of his scruffy style. Privately, they called him Lucky Luc.

And lucky he was. A big man, muscular and well-built. Girls went quiet or else giggled in his presence. But it wasn't his looks that made Hannah's legs go weak that first day. It was his voice.

Tanneur tanné
had been published the previous spring and had catapulted his life onto a new path. He was hailed across the province as the literary heir to Gabrielle Roy. When he spoke in the classroom, he was sonorous and self-assured.

He won a Governor General's Award, stirring up a scandal when he declined to go to Ottawa to pick up the prize. A publisher in Paris bought French rights for Europe, and Luc received a wildly favourable notice in
Le Monde
. And then Hannah translated the book. He could have had any translator he wanted, and he chose her. How she had laboured. By that time, of course, she had moved into the triplex in Saint-Henri. People said he was crazy to trust her. She was a child. His English publisher tried hard to dissuade him, but Luc's mind was made up. He sheltered Hannah in the flat and fed her a steady diet of encouragement and praise until the job was done.

Her translation won its own Governor General's Award, which she accepted with gratitude. It helped Luc gain an English readership across North America. And it established Hannah as a literary translator. Luc had gone over every word of the text with her, answering all her questions, alerting her to the slightest nuance of meaning. They were used to the roles of student and teacher. He was opinionated, full of loud certitudes, a lover of argument. Very much like her father, she eventually realized. But by then, she knew how to handle it. She welcomed him into her work as easily as into her bed.

Now she scrolled dispiritedly through the text on her screen. The book was late. Allison March, her editor at the Word Press, had been sending frequent, increasingly uneasy emails. The unease diminished after Hannah explained about her father, but the emails kept coming, incessant pricks to her conscience.

Hannah's resistance to this book had begun long before Alfred Stern's stroke. She'd been slow from the start, limping along, unable to find her stride. She had a reputation for being reliable with deadlines, but suddenly with
she did not care.

And yet. The writing was lovely. The structure worked. Luc's protagonist faced a series of ever-greater obstacles. But there was no pleasure in the book. No lightness. And it ended in death: a suicide. Perhaps Luc had meant the ending metaphorically, but a metaphor for what? When she asked him about it, he shrugged. That was what had come to him.

She read over the most recent paragraph she had translated, days ago, in Montreal. The young Cuban woman had just told the protagonist she was pregnant. Her eyes were radiant. She wanted this child, their child. But the man had turned away. He already had a son. The reality, he told her, would only mock the dream.

Hannah couldn't help taking it personally.
The reality would mock the dream.
She and Luc had dreamed once too—of a marriage that would do away with the old divisions of language and culture, and make for them a space in which to live and work, side by side.

Luc had enrolled in an English class. Every week for a year, he'd walked to the basement of a local school and returned home dutifully to read the English newspaper. He'd asked Hannah to list her favourite novels in English. He had actually planned to read them. Hannah had no idea where that list now was.

These days he was writing nonsense—men turning their backs on paternity and on the women they purported to love. What had happened to the dream?

The story was loosely based on Jacques Lanctôt's life. Very loosely, because Lanctôt didn't have merely one son. He had
something like seven or eight kids, maybe more. He had never been one to refuse paternity. The scene with the Cuban girl had little to do with this aspect of his life. It sprang from Luc's own dark fears.

Lanctôt was a man of dreams, in fathering children as in all else. Even now, after all the years, all the failures, he clung to his ideals. Luc admired him for it. So, paradoxically, did Hannah. It took faith and stubbornness after all that had happened. The novel was set in 1995, during the second referendum on Quebec independence, when the province had failed, yet again, to reach nationhood. That autumn, in the bitter wake of that defeat, Luc had lapsed into depression. His sleep had turned fitful. He had spent mornings in bed, unable to get up. He probably should have seen a doctor, but he'd chosen not to. Instead, he spent an apathetic year doing nothing. And when the year was up, he began writing

The phone rang. Hannah stood up, startled. She ran back to the kitchen and located her mother's cordless phone.


“Hannah?” It took her a moment to recognize Luc's voice. “Hannah?”

“Oh,” she said, “it's you.” She saw herself reflected in the dark panes of her father's liquor cabinet. A thin little person, thin and tired.

“Something's happened.”

There was a pause, the pause of a man steeling himself to deliver bad news. And then it came spilling out: the gun, the meeting in Principal Bonnaire's office, the suspension.

She closed her eyes.


A gun.

“Are you there?”

The thin little person in the panes of the liquor cabinet had a hand cupped over her mouth.

“You have nothing to say?” His voice was low, clipped. A dangerous sign. She pictured his forehead, the line between his eyebrows deepening till it turned black, the same way her father's did.

“No one was hurt?”

“No. The thing was in his knapsack, in bubble wrap. He says he bought it this morning before school. In a pawnshop on Sainte-Catherine Street. The school is checking the story. Why would a pawnshop be open at eight in the morning?” He sighed. “There weren't any bullets.”

Hannah exhaled.


“That's good.”


“No bullets.”

There was another pause. Hannah wasn't sure what Luc was doing on the other end. She couldn't even hear his breath. Was his hand over the receiver?

“Christ, Hannah!” The shout was so sudden she almost dropped the phone. “He brought a gun to school! A gun! They had to call in the police. If he'd been anyone's son but mine, he'd be in jail right now. The detective couldn't have been clearer. It's a crime. There is nothing good about this, Hannah. Are we clear on that? Nothing good at all.”


“Don't make excuses for him.”

She wasn't making excuses, not that she would say so now. The little person in the glass had her mouth closed in a flat, determined line.

“There is no good here, Hannah. Not even a drop.”

She wasn't about to argue. There was a long silence before Luc started talking again, his voice a little calmer.

He told her Hugo was home for the week. There was a ban on video games. And television. Hugo could do homework, play music, read. He was allowed outside for two hours a day. And if he did go out, Luc had to know where he was going and with whom. Evenings were to be spent in his room. Meanwhile, Monsieur Bonnaire was making arrangements at the school for a disciplinary hearing.

“You will be there,” he said.

“Of course I will.” Did he honestly think she might decide to miss it?

“When are you coming home?” He sounded suddenly like a child. The anger was spent and now need was calling out. The need for her.

“It's awful, Hannah. I moved my computer upstairs this afternoon so I could watch him. I feel like a prison guard.”

“I'll do my best,” she said, thinking of what lie she could tell her mother. Hugo had broken a bone. He had mononucleosis. Something serious but not life-threatening.

“It was a Luger,” Luc said, interrupting her thoughts.

The little person in the glass looked back at her, startled.

Luc cleared his throat. “You didn't tell him, did you?”

“No,” said Hannah, although this was not strictly true. In Hugo's last year of elementary school, he had asked her about it, and she had set out the facts as clearly and simply as she could
to a person who was eleven years old. She had mentioned the gun, certainly, but not what kind it was. At least, not that she recalled.

They said goodbye, and for a moment Hannah stood staring at her reflection. She looked so unhappy. Had she somehow been the cause of this? Her eyes ached. Her skull ached. She pulled a phone book from the drawer where her parents kept it. “Metropolitan Toronto,” it said on the cover, with a helpful picture of the CN Tower. She was searching for the Via Rail listing when she heard the front door open. Connie.

BOOK: My October
11.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Marble Kite by David Daniel
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Poems 1959-2009 by Frederick Seidel
Jane and Austen by Stephanie Fowers
The Spy Wore Red by Wendy Rosnau
Magic Resistant by Veronica Del Rosa