Read The Incomparable Atuk Online

Authors: Mordecai Richler

The Incomparable Atuk (2 page)

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

‘Oh – sorry – forgot.’

The day at the office, clouded by the duty to be done, had been a waste. He had been unnecessarily rude to Miss Stainsby and he could have been more enthusiastic on the phone with Snipes. Yet getting drunk won’t help, he thought. In the end I’m going to have to take the parcel, walk in there alone in front of all those people, and return it. Rory called for the waiter. ‘Another Scotch. A double.’

‘Yes, sir, Mr Peel. Right away.’

Rory Peel lived in an enormous ranch-style house overlooking the ravine with his wife, Michele, and three plump, well-adjusted children: Neil, Valery, and Garth.

There was a sun-roof above the house and a pool in the garden below. Music by Muzak filled all the rooms with restful sounds. The toilet and the garage,
the bedrooms, the kitchen and the playrooms, were all connected by an intercom system. A bodiless voice generally commanded callers to identify themselves. All lighting was indirect and all heating automatically regulated. Five television sets could be operated by remote control. No air entered the house without having been filtered for germs. Everybody and everything in the house, including domestics, callers, delivery boys and guests, were insured, according to individual need, against death, accidents, fire, polio, acts of God, theft, inability to work through illness, rain on holidays and fall-out: even Garth, who was only seven, subscribed to a retirement plan.

We have so very, very much to be grateful for, Rory thought. When I think how far I’ve risen above my father. In only one generation from cringing greenhorns in the slums to a relaxed, secure life in the suburbs. Amazing. Only in Canada, he thought.
I ought to leave the bar right now
. But the offensive parcel was still lying in wait in the trunk of the car. I’ll bet I could dump it in a field without being caught. No;
she’d
find out.

‘I see no reason in the world,’ Michele said, ‘why you can’t take it back.’

‘Must we make a fuss? You know what people are.’

The bar bill came to eight-fifty. Rory signed it. Outside the supermarket he smoked three cigarettes in his car before he opened the trunk, got the parcel
out, and walked right into the store and asked for the manager.

Mr Toby smiled.

‘My name’s Peel,’ Rory muttered, his heart thumping, ‘I’m Jewish.’

‘Why some of our best customers are Jews.’

‘Oh, yes, certainly. How good of you-it’s this roast – my wife, yesterday – look I don’t want to make a fuss – not fresh – it’s not that I really want the money back, I’m not that kind of a – of a—’

‘But it’s no trouble at all.’

Mr Toby, still smiling, made out a refund slip.

‘Why this is just wonderful of you,’ Rory said.

‘You tell your little lady how sorry we are. It won’t happen again.’

‘I want you to know,’ Rory said, clutching Mr Toby’s sleeve, ‘that as long as I live, this is
my
supermarket.
I buy here.’

Rory, to prove his point, grabbed a carriage and began to load up. He felt wonderfully exhilarated. Grateful. Then suddenly his heart began to pound again. A fat dimpled lady picked up a box of strawberries, deviously sprinkled some of its contents over another box, and then placed the overflowing box in her carriage. Wouldn’t you know, Rory thought, that she’d be one of ours. He quickly filled two carriages, and as he wheeled over to the cash register – pushing one, pulling the other-he was overjoyed to see that he was going to be checked out by Mr Toby himself. ‘Hi,’ Rory said.

‘Wow! You must have an awful lot of mouths to feed, mister.’

‘You think I bought too much?’ Rory asked, his voice failing.

‘Not for me to say, is it?’

Rory kept his eyes lowered as a boy loaded eight cartons of foodstuffs into the trunk of his car. What am I going to do with it all, he thought. I know; I’ll send it to my father’s place. For Leo. Anyway, Michele ought to be pleased. I stood right up to that anti-Semite.

But Michele was distressed. ‘Mr Twentyman’s office phoned. They want you to call back immediately.’

‘Oh.’

‘Something to do with the … equipment.’

‘He’s just going too far. He’s really overstepping the mark this time.’

‘But what’s it all about?’

‘We’re not even allowed to discuss it with our wives. Sorry.’

Michele made a face. All right for you, Mr Spite.

3

Atuk’s landlady was waiting for him in the hall. ‘Your luscious lady friend phoned,’ she said.

Atuk called Bette immediately.

‘Oh, Atuk dear, I don’t want you to force it. I know it’s bad for you. Mentally,’ Bette said quickly. ‘But I thought I might be able to help you tonight.’

‘I see,’ he said, his voice faltering.

‘You must keep at it, Atuk, if you’re going to succeed regularly.’

‘You are right. But—’

‘No buts. Remember what Dr Parks said.
What you dare to dream,’
Bette said, ‘
dare to do.’

Atuk cleared his throat and spoke with a sudden and surprising grimness. ‘O?. I’ll try.’

‘See you at eight, then.’

Bette Dolan was Canada’s Darling.

She was not the biggest TV star in the country, our only beauty queen or foremost swimmer; neither was she the first Canadian girl to make a film. But Bette Dolan, while in the same tradition as such diverse Canadian talents as, say, Deanna Durbin, Marilyn Bell, Barbara Ann Scott, and Joyce Davidson, surpassed all of them in appeal. Bette Dolan was a legendary figure. A Canadian heroine.

Bette’s beginnings were humble. She came from a small town in southern Ontario, the neighbourly sort of place where retired people live. Her fierce father, Gord Dolan, was a body-building enthusiast, a devotee of the teachings of Doc Burt Parks. Once Mr Best Developed Biceps of Eastern Canada he still retained the title of Mr Niagara Fruit Belt Sr. His
wife, May, was a long thin woman with a severe mouth. Formerly a school teacher, she was still active in the church choir. The Dolans would have ended their days predictably; he, enjoying an afternoon of manly gossip in the barbers and his sessions in the gym; and she, planning the next meeting of the Supper-of-the-Month Club, if only their surprisingly lovely daughter had not lifted them out of decent obscurity with one superhuman stroke.

Bette Dolan was the first woman to swim Lake Ontario in less than twenty hours.

As if that weren’t sufficiently remarkable, she was only eighteen at the time, an amateur, and she beat three others, all professionals, while she was at it: an American, an Egyptian, and a celebrated Australian marathon swimmer. The American and the Egyptian woman gave up early on and even the much heralded Australian was pulled out of the lake and rushed to the hospital after only fourteen hours in the black icy water. But the incredibly young, luscious, then unknown Canadian girl, coached by her own father, swam on and on and on. True, she had sobbed, puked, and pleaded to be pulled out of the water, but, the very first time that happened, Gord Dolan, ever-watchful in the launch ahead, spurred his daughter on by holding up a blackboard on which he had written,

DADDY DON’T LIKE QUITTERS

The young girl’s effort in the face of seemingly
invincible odds caught the imagination of Toronto as nothing had before. It’s true the much-admired Marilyn Bell had already swum the lake, but it had taken
her
twenty hours and fifty-one minutes, and it was much as if her accomplishment, remarkable as it was, redoubled interest in Bette Dolan’s attempt to better it. Anyway, the fact is that by six o’clock in the morning a crowd, maybe the largest, certainly the most enthusiastic, ever known in the history of Toronto, had gathered on the opposite shore to wait for Bette. They lit bonfires and sang hymns and cheered each half mile gained by the girl. Television technicians set up searchlights and cameras. Motor-cycle policemen and finally an ambulance arrived.

Back in Toronto, as morning came and radio and television newscasters spoke feverishly of twelve-foot waves, some people prayed, others hastily organized office pools or phoned their bookies, and still more leaped into their cars and added to the largest known traffic jam in Toronto’s history. Sunny Jim Woodcock, The People’s Prayer For Mayor, spoke on Station CKTO. ‘I told you when I was elected that I would put Toronto on the map. Bette Dolan is setting an example here for youth all over the free world.
More power to your elbows, kid!’
The
Standard
, never a newspaper to be caught off the mark, printed two sets of their late morning edition. One with a headline,
SHE MAKES IT
! wow!, the other,
TOUGH LUCK, SWEETHEART!

On the launch, Gord Dolan watched anxiously, he prayed, kissed his rabbit’s foot, and spat twice over his left shoulder, as his daughter struggled against the oncoming waves.

‘Please pull me in,’ she called. ‘Please … I can’t make it …’

He scrawled something hurriedly on the blackboard and held it up for Bette to see again.

THE OTHER BROADS HAVE QUIT. PARK AVE. SWIMWEAR OFFERS $2,500, IF YOU FINISH. DON’T DROWN NOW. DADDY

But Bette had already been in the lake for sixteen hours. The plucky girl had come thirty-four miles. Thrashing about groggily, her eyes glazed, she began to weep. ‘… can’t feel my legs any more … can’t … think … going to drown …’

‘All right,’ Dolan said, gesturing his girl towards the launch, ‘we’ll pull you in now, kid.’

But as Bette, making an enormous effort, swam to within inches of the launch Gord Dolan pulled ahead a few more yards.

‘Come on, honey. Come to Daddy.’

Again she started for the launch and again Gord Dolan pulled away. ‘You see,’ he shouted to her. ‘You can do it.’

(When Gord Dolan spoke on television several weeks later, after accepting the Canadian-Father-of-the-Year Award, he said, ‘That was the psychology-bit. I’ve made a study of people, you know.’)

Initially, the prize money being offered was five thousand dollars, but once the last of the foreign competitors pulled out, as soon as it became obvious that Toronto had taken the surviving Canadian youngster to its heart and, what’s more, that she was on the brink of collapse, Buck Twentyman made a phone call. Minutes later a helicopter idled over Gord Dolan’s battered launch, a uniformed man descended a rope ladder, and Dolan was able to chalk up on his board,

TWENTYMAN HISSELF OFFERS TEN MORE GRAND – IF YOU MAKE IT. DADDY IS MIGHTY PROUD. GO, BABY
.

When Bette Dolan finally stumbled ashore at seven p.m., after nineteen hours and forty-two minutes in the lake, she was greeted by a frenzied crowd. Newsreel cameramen, reporters, advertising agents, some who had prayed and others who had won bets at long odds, swarmed around her. Souvenir-crazed teenagers pulled eels off Bette’s thighs and back. The youngster collapsed and was carried off to a waiting ambulance. When she woke the next afternoon it was to discover that her life had been irredeemably altered. Bette Dolan was a national heroine.

As was to be expected, she was immediately inundated with offers to endorse bathing suits, health foods, beauty lotions, chocolate bars, and so forth, but Bette turned down everything. ‘I did not swim
the lake for personal gain,’ she told reporters. ‘I wanted to show the world what a Canadian girl could do.’

SHE SWAM THE LAKE – BECAUSE IT WAS THERE
, was the title of Jean-Paul McEwen’s prize-winning column. Seymour Bone’s approach, in his column on the next page, was considerably more intellectual. Quoting Frazer, Jung, Hemingway, and himself from a previous column, he elaborated on man’s historical-psychological need to best nature. While he was able to accept Bette as a symbol, Bone reserved judgement on the girl and her motives. He needn’t have bothered. The rest is part of the Dolan legend. Surely everybody now knows how she turned the bulk of her prize money over to her town council to build a fantastically well-equipped gym as a challenge to the crippled children; how the Red Feather, the United Appeal, the White Cane, and innumerable other worthy organizations all profited from Bette’s television, film, and public appearances. Bette Dolan was incorruptible.

Harry Snipes wrote in
Metro
, The Girl With All The Curves Has No Angles.

She has a heart, Jean-Paul McEwen observed in her column, bigger than Alberta.

Bette was also lovely, unspoilt, radiant, and the most sought-after public personage in the dominion. In earlier times she would have come forth to bless churches, but in Canada, things being what they were, she pulled the switch on new power projects
and opened shopping centres here, there, and everywhere.

Wherever Bette went she was instantly recognized. Ordinary people felt better just for having seen her. But if Canada loved Bette Dolan it was also true that she so loved the country that she felt it would be unfair, sort of favouritism, for her to give herself to any one man. So although many, including cabinet ministers, actors, millionaires, and playboys, had tried, Bette remained, in her mother’s words, a clean girl. Until, that is, she met Atuk.

Bette first met Atuk at the party for him at the Park Plaza Hotel and saw him again at another party a couple of months later. Atuk was enthralled and promptly asked if he could meet Bette again. To his amazement, she said yes. Actually, Bette was more grateful than he knew because, by this time, nobody bothered to ask her for a date any more. Bette made dinner for Atuk at her apartment. Carrot juice, followed by herb soup and raw horse steak with boiled wild rice. Atuk, thoughtful as ever, had scraped together some money and brought along a bottle of gin. Bette, lithe and relaxed in her leotards, told Atuk about her father and how his life had been changed by the teachings of Doc Burt Parks. She sensed Atuk felt depressed, maybe even defeated by Toronto, and tried her best to encourage him. ‘You’ll be a success here yet,’ she said.

‘I don’t know. It is so difficult.’

‘But success doesn’t depend on the
size
of your brain,’ she assured him.

Atuk hastily added some gin to the carrot juice.

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Coronation Everest by Jan Morris
Fear and Laundry by Elizabeth Myles
Playing by Heart by Anne Mateer
In Search of Auria by Alexis Rojas
Pirate Ambush by Max Chase
Midnight Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner
True Colors by Thea Harrison