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He ended his time on the shore in a makeshift asylum cell, shut away with the profligate stink of fish that clung to him all his days. The Great White. St. Jude of the Lost Cause. Sea Orphan. He seemed more or less content there, gnawing at the walls with a nail. Mary Tryphena Devine brought him bread and dried capelin that he left to gather bluebottles and mould on the floor.

—If you aren’t going to eat, she said, at least have the decency to die.

Mary Tryphena was a child when she first laid eyes on the man, a lifetime past. End of April and the ice just gone from the bay. Most of the shore’s meagre population — the Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance — were camped on the grey sand, waiting to butcher a whale that had beached itself in the shallows on the feast day of St. Mark. This during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens went to rot in the relentless rain and each winter threatened to bury them all. They weren’t whalers and no one knew how to go about killing the Leviathan, but there was something in the humpback’s unexpected offering that prevented the starving men from hacking away while the fish still breathed. As if that would be a desecration of the gift.

They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.

Halfway along the beach King-me Sellers was carrying on a tournament of draughts with his grandson. He’d hobbled down from his store to make a claim to the animal as it had gone aground below Spurriers’ premises. The fishermen argued that the beach in question wasn’t built over and according to tradition was public property, which meant the whale was salvage, the same as if a wreck had washed ashore. King-me swore he’d have the whale’s liver and eight puncheons of oil or the lot of them would stand before the court he ruled as magistrate.

Once terms were agreed upon Sellers had his grandson bring down his scarred wooden checkerboard and they set out flat stones for the pieces gone missing through the years. His grandson was the only person willing to sit through a game with Sellers who was known to change the rules to suit himself and was not above cheating outright to win. He owned the board, he told the complainers, and in his mind that meant he owned the rules that governed it as well. His periodic cries of King me! were the only human sound on the landwash as they waited.

Mary Tryphena was asleep when the men finally rushed the shallows, her father shouting for her to fetch Devine’s Widow. She left the beach as she was told, walking the waterside pathway through Paradise Deep and up the incline of the Tolt Road. She crossed the headland that rose between the two coves and carried on into the Gut where her grandmother had delivered Mary Tryphena’s brother that morning. The landwash was red with blood by the time she and the old woman made their way back, a scum of grease on the harbour’s surface. The heart and liver already carted up to King-me’s Rooms on fish barrows, two men harvesting chunks of baleen from the creature ’s jaw with axes, the mouth so massive they could almost stand upright inside it. Women and children floated barrels in the shallows to catch the ragged squares of blubber thrown down to them. Mary Tryphena’s grandmother knotted her skirts above the knee before wading grimly into the water.

The ugly work went on through the day. Black fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber to oil, and the stench stoppered the harbour, as if they were labouring in a low-ceilinged warehouse. The white underbelly was exposed where the carcass keeled to one side, the stomach’s membrane floating free in the shallows. The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.

For a time no one moved or spoke, watching as if they expected the man to stand and walk ashore of his own accord. Devine’s Widow waded over finally to finish the job, the body slipping into the water as she cut it free. The Catholics crossed themselves in concert and Jabez Trim said, Naked came I from my mother’s womb.

The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.

King-me Sellers prodded at the corpse with the tip of his walking stick. He looked at Devine’s Widow and then turned to take in each person standing about him. —This is her doing, he said. —She got the very devil in her, called this creature into our harbour for God knows what end.

—Conjured it you mean? James Woundy said.

It was so long since King-me accused Devine’s Widow of such things that some in the crowd were inclined to take him seriously. He might have convinced others if he’d managed to leave off mentioning his livestock. —You know what she done to my cow, he said, and to every cow birthed of her since.

It was an old joke on the shore and there was already a dismissive tremor in the gathering when Devine's Widow leaned over the body, flicking at the shrunken penis with the tip of her knife. —If this was my doing, she said, I’d have given the poor soul more to work with than that.

King-me pushed his way past the laughter of the bystanders, saying he’d have nothing more to do with the devilment. But no one followed after him. They stood awhile discussing the strange event, a fisherman washed overboard in a storm or a suicide made strange by too many months at sea, idle speculation that didn’t begin to address the man’s appearance or his grave in the whale’s belly. They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought. The unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with.

There was no church on the shore. An itinerant Dominican friar named Phelan said Mass when he passed through on his endless ecclesiastical rounds. And Jabez Trim held a weekly Protestant service at one of Sellers’ stores that was attended by both sides of the house when Father Phelan was away on his wanders. Trim had no credentials other than the ability to read and an incomplete copy of the Bible but every soul on the shore crowded the storeroom to soak awhile in the scripture’s balm. An hour’s reprieve from the salt and drudge of their lives for myrhh and aloe and hyssop, for pomegranates and green figs and grapes, cassia and cedar beams and swords forged in silver. Jabez married Protestant couples, he baptized their children and buried their dead, and he agreed to say a few words over the body before it was set in the ground.

Mary Tryphena’s father lifted the corpse by the armpits while James Woundy took the legs and the sorry little funeral train began its slow march up off the landwash. There were three stone steps at the head of the beach, the dead man’s torso folding awkwardly on itself as they negotiated the rise and a foul rainbow sprayed from the bowels. James Woundy jumped away from the mess, dropping the body against the rocks. —Jesus, jesus, jesus, he said, his face gone nearly as white as the corpse. Callum tried to talk him into grabbing hold again but he refused. —If he ’s alive enough to shit, James Woundy said, he ’s alive enough to walk.

Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on. A man delivered from the whale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running for their homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.

Devine’s Widow turned the stranger by the shoulder, thumping his back to bring up seawater and blood and seven tiny fish, one after the last, fry the size of spanny-tickles Mary Tryphena caught in the shallows at Nigger Ralph’s Pond. Selina Sellers came down to the landwash while they stood over him there, her grandson dragging a handbar in her wake. Selina was a tiny slip of a woman and could have passed for the boy’s sister in stature, but there was nothing childlike in her bearing. —You can’t have that one in your house, Selina told them. —Not with a newborn baby still drawing his first breaths in the world.

Devine’s Widow nodded. —We’ll set him out in the Rooms, is what we’ll do.

—The cold will kill him for certain, Selina said.

They all stared at the stranger as they spoke, not willing to look at one another. His body racked up with tremors and convulsions.

—There’s only the one place for him, Selina said.

—I don’t think Master Sellers would be so keen.

—You let me worry about Master Sellers.

They hauled the stranger onto the fish barrow and started up the path toward Selina’s House on the Gaze. By the time they angled the barrow through the front door everyone in the harbour was watching from a safe distance. Someone sent word to King-me at the store and he was running after them, shouting to keep the foul creature out of his house. He’d sworn that Devine’s Widow would never set foot in the building and no one knew if he was referring to the old woman or to the stark white figure she was carting inside. Selina reached back to bolt the door behind them and they continued on into the house.

Mary Tryphena and King-me’s grandson stood back against the wall, lost in the flurry of activity as water was set to boil and blankets were gathered. King-me was pounding at the door with the head of his cane, shouting threats, and faces crowded at the windows outside. Mary Tryphena had never been inside Selina’s House but the grandness of it was lost on her. She had the queerest sensation of falling as she stared at the naked stranger. A wash of dizziness came over her and she took off her bonnet against the sick heat of nausea as it sidled closer. King-me’s grandson stood beside her and she clutched at the hem of his coat. —You’ll remember this day a long while, I imagine, he said. The boy had a fierce stutter — d- d- d- day, he said — and Mary Tryphena was embarrassed to find herself so close to him. She shifted away, though not far enough to be out of reach.

The man she would marry opened his eyes for the first time then, turning his face toward her across the room. Those milky blue eyes settling on Mary Tryphena. Taking her in.


There was nothing the like of Selina’s House anywhere on the shore. It was a Wexford-style farmhouse with a fieldstone chimney at its centre, polished wooden floors upstairs and down. Mullioned windows imported from the West Country of England, iron-latched doors. Selina was the daughter of a merchantman in Poole and the house was a wedding gift, a promise the girl’s father extracted before consenting to the match. She was newly married to King-me and only weeks arrived on the shore when the first signs of the big house appeared, the foundation laid when the frost lifted in June. But King-me lost interest in the domestic project once the fishing season began in earnest. The stones lay naked in the ground for years then, the lumber he’d imported on a Spurriers vessel going grey under layers of spruce boughs while stores and fishing rooms were built and expanded, while boats were scarfed out and floated in the bay.

Selina lived seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark. It had a dirt floor and a wooden roof sheeted with sod and was distinguished from the surrounding buildings only by a surfeit of windows, the one touch of grandeur King-me had managed. She birthed three children in the shelter while King-me promised to build next year, when the fish were yaffled and loaded aboard Spurriers’ vessels, when they came on a stretch of fine weather, next year.

On the morning of their seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. —I’ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house to close behind me.

Sellers let her lie a week before the depth of her desperation came clear to him. She wouldn’t even allow him to sleep beside her, in his own bed. It seemed a lunatic strategy, the logic of someone unhinged. And in a desperate act of his own he sent a servant to the widow woman, asking her to do something to set Selina straight.

Devine’s Widow was all they had on the shore for doctoring. Her Christian name passed out of use in the decades after her husband was buried and only a handful could even remember what it was. She’d seen every malady the fallen world could inflict on a body and seemed to know a remedy or a charm against the pain of them all. King-me waited down at the store to leave the two women alone at the stud tilt where Selina was staging her moronic protest. When he saw Devine’s Widow walking home along the Tolt Road he caught her up and demanded to know what was wrong with his wife.

—Nothing a proper house wouldn’t fix, she said.

—You were asked to put her to rights.

—If I was you, Master Sellers, she said, I’d set to work with a hammer and saw.

The frame of the building with roof and windows was assembled in the space of a month. The morning Jabez Trim hung the front door, Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home. Selina’s House is how it was known and how people referred to it a hundred years after Sellers’ wife was buried and gone to dust in the French Cemetery.

The stranger stayed only one night in those extravagant lodgings. An astonishing stink of dead fish rose from the man’s skin like smoke off a green fire, insinuating itself into every nook. Even with the windows left open to the freezing cold the smell kept the household awake. The following morning King-me ordered him out and Selina no longer had the stomach to argue. Two of Sellers’ servants carried him on a fish barrow past the houses of Paradise Deep and over the Tolt Road to the Gut, a train of onlookers following behind. The man too weak to do more than watch the sky as he was jolted along.

—He come right out of the whale’s belly, James Woundy announced, as if he had been the only one present to see it. —As God is my witness so he did. Just like that one Judas in the Bible.

—Not Judas, you arse.

James turned to look at Jabez Trim. —Well who was it then, Mr. Trim?

—Jonah, it was. Jonah was swallowed by the whale.

—You sure it weren’t Judas, Mr. Trim?

—Judas was the disciple who betrayed Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver.

—And he was thrown overboard, James said. —That’s how I minds it. Thrown into the ocean for betraying the Lord. With a millstone about his neck. And God had him eat up by a whale. To teach him a hard lesson.

—Jonah was fleeing the Lord God Almighty, Jabez insisted. —God chose him to be a prophet and Jonah had rather be a sailor and he ran from God aboard of a ship. And he was thrown into the sea by his mates to save themselves from a savage storm the Lord set upon them. And God sent a whale to swallow Jonah.

—That’s a fine story, Mr. Trim, James said. —But it don’t sound quite right to my memory.

—Goddamn it, James Woundy. Do I have to bring out the Book and show you?

—Now, sir, as I cannot read, I don’t see how that would go far to clearing the matter up.

—Well you’ll just have to take my word for it then, Jabez said.

There was no fuss made at the widow’s house. The old woman came out to receive the delivery as if she had ordered it herself, directing the servants through the door. She kept the man on the barrow near the fireplace and washed him down with lye soap and carbolic acid and a concoction made of spruce gum and ash, but the foul smell didn’t diminish. He hadn’t eaten a morsel since he first appeared and couldn’t keep down goat’s milk or the tea Devine’s Widow made for him. And Mary Tryphena’s infant brother, born healthy and famished, became colicky and inconsolable and refused to latch on to his mother’s nipple after the stranger was taken in. Everyone drew the obvious connection between one event and the other though no one dared mention it, as if speaking of such things increased their reach in the world.

Even Mary Tryphena fell into an uncharacteristic silence in those first days, spending as much time out of the house as she could. She walked up to the Tolt where she’d first spotted the stranger’s whale, trying to puzzle the bizarre events into sense. All her young life she had been ridiculed for asking questions about the simplest things, as if the questions put her childish greed on display. Don’t be such a nosy-arse, people said. Shut up and watch.

Mary Tryphena was four years old when her sister was born. She’d been told so little about life at the time, she didn’t even know her mother was pregnant. Her father walking her into the backcountry as far as Nigger Ralph’s Pond one morning, showing her how to catch spanny-tickles in the shallows with the dip net of her palms. The infant girl asleep in her mother’s arms when her grandmother came to fetch them back to the house that evening. —Who is that? Mary Tryphena asked.

—This is your sister Eathna, her mother said. —Found her in the turnip patch, naked as a fish.

It seemed too fanciful a notion to credit but she had to admit there was something vaguely turnip-like about the bruised and nearly bald head of the child, the vulgar purple and pale white of the skin.

Mary Tryphena understood the difference soon enough and felt she’d been made to look a fool. Watch and learn she was told a hundred times and she began following Devine’s Widow to the homes of the sick where the old woman treated fevers, impetigo, coughs, rickets, festering sores. Her grandmother said nothing to discourage the girl’s interest but she made a point of going out alone when a birth or death was imminent and the reality of those most elemental passages eluded Mary Tryphena. Entrance and exit. Eathna leaving them the way she arrived: suddenly and not a hint of warning.

There was no hiding Lizzie’s third pregnancy from Mary Tryphena and she was obsessed with the full bowl of her mother’s belly. She considered the entries and exits of her own body and there seemed no reasonable resolution to her mother’s predicament though she felt ready to stand witness, at nine years of age, to what promised to be an ugly, brutish struggle. But Devine’s Widow insisted she stay out of the birthing room when her mother went into labour and Mary Tryphena left the house altogether, wandering up onto the Tolt to sulk.

She felt she’d been delivered into a universe where everyone’s knowledge but hers was complete and there was no acceptable way to acquire information other than waiting for its uncertain arrival. She stared out at the water, the endless grey expanse of ocean below reflecting the endless grey nothing of her life. The nothing stretched for miles in all directions, nothing, nothing, nothing, she was on the verge of bawling at the thought when the humpback breached the surface, the staggering bulk rising nose first and almost clear of the sea before falling back in a spray. Mary Tryphena’s skin stippled with goosebumps, her scalp pulling taut.

The whale breached a second time and a third, as if calling her attention, before it steamed through the harbour mouth of Paradise Deep and drove headlong onto the shallows like a nail hammered into a beam of wood. Her throat was raw with shouting and running in the cold when she came through the door.

—You’ve a new brother, Callum said, trying to lead her to the bedroom where the infant was squalling through his first moments of life. But Mary Tryphena shook her head, dragging her father outside.

It was a childish conceit to think she was to blame that things stood as they did now, that her greed to know the world had brought the stranger among them and caused her brother’s illness. She felt her nose was about to be rubbed in something she’d have better ignored altogether.

The condition of both the stranger and the infant grew worse every hour, and the baby’s mother finally begged Callum to make away with the creature she considered responsible for the child’s turn, to take him out to open ocean and send him back where he came from. It was only Devine’s Widow that kept Callum from doing just that.

No one understood the old woman’s concern for the stranger except to say it was her way. In her first years on the shore, a chick with four legs was born to one of King-me’s hens. The grotesque little creature was unable to walk or stand and was thought to be a black sign by the other servants, who wanted it drowned. But Devine’s Widow removed two of the legs and cauterized the wounds with a toasting fork before daubing them with candle wax. She kept the chick near the stove in a box lined with straw while it recovered. Raised it to be a fine laying hen.

That story was offered up in the wake of every strangeness that followed in the widow’s life, as if it somehow explained the woman. And she was happy to let it stand in this particular case, telling no one about the dreams that troubled her before Lizzie went into labour, of delivering infants joined at the hip or the shoulder. She used a gutting knife to sever the children, slicing at the flesh in a panic and holding the two aloft by the heels, blood running into her sleeves. Both infants perished in her hands and she woke each time to the conviction that it was the separation that killed them.

The widow refused to let Mary Tryphena watch the delivery when Lizzie’s time came, expecting the worst. But the baby was born healthy and showed no obvious mark of her dream. And that absence disconcerted her. As if something more oblique and subterranean was at work in the child, something she was helpless to identify or treat. She couldn’t escape the sense now that the twinned arrival of her grandson and the salt-haired stranger was what she ’d foreseen, the fate of one resting with the other. And she was relieved to have the foul-smelling thing under her own roof.

It was the widow woman’s property and there was no arguing with her. But when Lizzie threatened to take herself and the children back to Selina’s House in Paradise Deep, Callum sacrificed an outbuilding that was used for hay rakes and scythes and fish prongs to make a bunkroom for the stranger. The change didn’t improve the condition of either the child or the sick man, and for a time Devine’s Widow doubted herself, seeing they might both starve to death.

Jabez Trim walked out from Paradise Deep and stood in the widow’s doorway to speak with Callum. The child was still unbaptized and there was no expectation of Father Phelan returning before the capelin rolled. There was little chance of saving the infant’s life, Jabez said, but they had still to consider the soul. He was a tree stump of a man, limited in his outlook but rooted and unshakeable in his certainties. A decent sort and no sober person had ever disputed it. —I’d offer what we have on our side of the house if you have a need of me, Callum.

—What about the other one? Devine’s Widow asked.

—He’d as like be baptized already I imagine, if his kind were so inclined.

—He don’t deserve to die out in that shed like an animal, Jabez.

Jabez Trim didn’t understand what was being asked of him, though he could see the widow was at a loss and grasping. —There’s not much else I can think to give him that you haven’t tried already, Missus.

—We could bring him to Kerrivan’s Tree with the little one, she said.

Jabez glanced up at Callum to see what he thought of the bizarre suggestion but the younger man only shrugged. —If you think it might be some help, Jabez said.

The dead on the shore were wrapped in canvas or old blankets for burial, but Callum couldn’t bear the thought of settling the child so nakedly in the ground, so unsheltered. He built a tiny coffin of new spruce before the baptism, tarring the seams with oakum, and the box hung from a peg in the children’s room to await its permanent occupant. Jabez Trim performed the sacrament in the house and they walked with their neighbours to the far side of the Gut where Kerrivan’s Tree stood. Lizzie carried the child while James Woundy and Callum carted the stranger on the fish barrow, James insisting on taking the head. —I’ll not stand below that asshole again, he said.

The apple tree was marked with a rock fence, the bare branches hanging low and reaching nearly to the circumference of stones. Sarah Kerrivan brought the sapling from Ireland a hundred years before but it had never produced more than crabapples too sour to eat. Last year’s frostbitten fruit still lay on the ground where it had fallen months before. The tree would long ago have been cut down but for the fact that Sarah Kerrivan and her husband William were never sick a day in their lives, sailing unafflicted through the outbreaks of cholera and measles and diphtheria that burned through the shore. Their transcendental health conferred an aura of blessedness on everything in their possession, including the tree Sarah had carted across the ocean. Every infant born in the Gut and many born in Paradise Deep during the last half century had been passed through its branches to ward off the worst of what the world could do to a child — typhoid and beriberi, fevers, convulsions, ruptures, chincoughs, rickets. No one considered youngsters properly christened until they had travelled that circle.

It was a ritual usually carried out with laughter and shouted blessings, but there was only a melancholy silence among the gathering as the sick infant made his way over their heads. Mary Tryphena stood outside the low stone fence with Devine’s Widow, watching Callum and Lizzie weep as if the child were passing from their hands directly into the hands of the dead. And then the awkward negotiation of the white-haired stranger among the branches, the man so much like an infant in his mute helplessness. Skin the white of sea ice. The fish barrow caught up on an angle that threatened to topple the stranger onto the ground and he had to be held by the shoulders while they disentangled his sickbed, the men shouting at one another and swearing. It seemed a travesty of something sacred and Lizzie walked away with the baby newly christened Michael in her arms. When the barrow was extricated from the maze of branches, the nameless man was carried back to his shed and set down on his bunk, Devine’s Widow sitting silent in the doorway to keep him company. To watch him die, is how she spoke of it afterwards, a note of satisfied wonder in her voice, to say how impossible it is to predict the direction events will run.

The summer that followed was uncharacteristically warm and dry and Kerrivan’s Tree produced apples sweet enough to eat for the first time in its purgatorial century on the shore.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Fabulous Girl's Code Red

The Fabulous Girl's Code Red

A Guide to Grace Under Pressure
tagged : etiquette
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Two wise women once said that manners make you sexy. Oh, yeah, that was us. In our first book, The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum, we set out to create a primer for women who crave both style and civility. We wanted to declare that far from making you a retiring bore, manners will make you a better and more socially desirable person.

In our own lives, there were so many women of great charm, wit and decorum that we wanted to celebrate the type: the Fabulous Girl. FG to her friends. She’s that stylish, witty and caring friend you rely on to make parties more fun and disappointments less painful. She is not interested in the much more travelled road of bad behaviour. She chooses to set off down another path, that of civility. The FG knows how to get the most out of life while still remaining a caring part of her society.

But it’s hard. Everyday we all encounter countless acts of selfishness and bad behaviour. Whether it’s a friend who is always late, a mate who forgets to introduce you at parties, the stranger who cuts you off on the road or a colleague who takes credit for your work, etiquette is at an all-time low. At a time when we so desperately need civility, we find an intense focus on personal satisfaction in its place. Although bad manners are not appealing, they are increasingly common. And who wants to be common?

Not the FG. Rather than become cynical as a result of the rude old world she lives in, she rallies to the cause of decorum. The Fabulous Girl is passionate. She may be well-mannered, but she is never mild-mannered. Her zest for life is one of her most charming attributes. It also means she finds herself in extreme situations. Despite the best-laid plans (or because of the best-laid plans), sometimes life spins out of control. An FG does not live to avoid these sorts of adventures. In love and work and in her friendships, the FG throws herself in deep -- which can bring her big success as well as, sometimes, big disappointments. The FG knows that her word to live by is “decorum,” not “doormat,” so she tackles these ups and downs with equal vigour. She defines for herself what it means to have it all, and she looks for balance among the jumble of responsibilities and relationships that make up her life. An FG never shies away from this challenge. She knows that these adventures are the very fabric of her great big life.

The Fabulous Girl’s Code Red is geared toward this very Fabulous Girl. The one who uses her style and social decorum to cope with life’s inevitable rollercoaster ride. We can all behave beautifully when things are going our way, can’t we? But an FG wants to maintain her grace even under extreme circumstances. Some crises and turning points will come as a result of her evolving life -- big jobs, big relationships -- and some crazy and uncomfortable moments -- cash windfalls, getting fired, discovering a philandering spouse -- will arise in ways that are beyond her control. These are the moments that really count -- when it’s hard, when you’d rather be selfish or rude than extend yourself for another person, when you just feel like stamping your little foot -- and they are true tests of character. But it is this ability to behave with grace under pressure, as well as her style, manners and wit, that sets the Fabulous Girl apart and, yes, makes her sexy. And just to add further illustration to this truth, we’ve included the story of the Fabulous Girl throughout the book. As she tackles the extremes of her fictional world she provides the perfect example of how to live life with verve.

CHAPTER ONE: The Workplace

What did you do to your hair? It looks good,”

Cheryl, a senior editor at Smack! magazine, squealed at me as she ran past my desk. Despite the backhanded compliment, I had to admit that I was having an unusually good hair day. Normally my hair misbehaves a few times a week, generally when I have a can’t-miss cocktail party to attend. But that day my tresses looked fab. I chose to take my good hair as an omen.

I loved my job as associate editor for the magazine. Smack! is known in the rag trade as a general-interest magazine, but I’d been hired to give it specific interest: young and hip. In other words, it was my job to tell our middle-aged readership about what the pretty young things were drinking and shopping for, where they went to listen to music and get their hair done. I’d been at it for over a year. And while I was happy, I was beginning to want to move my work in another direction -- upwards, that is -- but unfortunately I couldn’t yet grasp exactly where up was.

Whack! Something walloped my desk with a mighty slap.

“Do you read Dudley’s page?”

There stood John Bradley, Smack!’s editor-in-chief, the big boss, with a wad of rolled-up newspaper in his hand. I wondered if he was now going to swat me on the nose with it.

“He’s funny. Your writing should be more like his. You know, chatty.”

"But he’s a gossip columnist.”


“And I’m not.” I tried not to sound annoyed, but lately Bradley seemed to find fault in whatever I did or didn’t do.

“Well, if you’d rather have dull copy. Did you dye your hair?”

“No, it’s just a good–”

Bradley hurried away, leaving the offending paper on my desk. Dudley’s gossip column ran in a national newspaper. Since being on the job, I’d become an observer of sorts. Being out many nights a week gave me plenty of opportunities to people watch. I’d met Dudley on many occasions and he was not what you’d call gentlemanly. I wasn’t really on his radar -- he would barely say hello to me. And now there was Dudley’s sucky face sneering at me.

Truth be told, I hated his column. It was brash, tacky and rude. He was not the sort of gossip columnist who lived to suck up to local celebrities, he was the kind of creep who wormed his way into parties thrown by the well-known only to turn around and mock their choice of wine or fashion sense in his next column. But like the dutiful worker bee, I read Dudley’s words, most of it meaningless drivel. Meaningless, that is, until I got to the last paragraph, which was horrifying: “TV producer Bingo Jones was all hot and bothered with local celeb news babe Muffie (first name only please) at last night’s opening of the so-hip-it-hurts eaterie Spanks. If Bingo’s regular chica, mag art director Elenor Brown, had eye-spied the duo giving each other a good tongue lashing, it would have been spanks all right.”

Now, I’ve never been a fan of Bingo. He was an ill-mannered lout, the kind of guy who took cell calls at dinner parties, was rude to waitresses and, worse, was a terrible boyfriend. I knew this last fact to be utterly true because Bingo was in a long-term relationship, off and on, off and on, with my best friend Elenor. And the fact that Bingo was now a confirmed cheating bastard (during a supposed “on” moment) really riled me. As did Elenor’s public humiliation at the keyboard of Dudley.

My first reaction? Poor Elenor! My second -- I would never stoop to those depths in my writing! Bradley would have to find another writer to dish the dirt. The fact that I wanted to keep my job, however, prevented me from marching into his office to tell him so. I was hoping he’d just forget the entire conversation and continue with his latest idea for making over Smack!, which was more sex and gardening.

But first and foremost, I had to reach Elenor. She would need her friends. I called her work, her home and her cell. No answer. Which meant one thing: Elenor had read Dudley’s column. There was only one other person who might have known her whereabouts, our other best friend, Missy. I dialed.

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The Origin of Species

Part One

May 1986–

There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Benjamin
“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VII

Chapter 1

The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators.

She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain.

“I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone.

From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood.

“The rain,” he said.

“Oh!” She looked up through her thickish glasses at the now cloudless sky and her whole face seemed to twist with the strain of trying to follow his meaning.

“Chernobyl,” he said, making a botch of it. “The fallout. They say you shouldn’t go out if it’s rained.”

“Oh-h-h!” She drew the word out as if in understanding. “Really? They say that? Oh!”

“They’re saying the clouds might pick the radiation up over Russia, then dump it somewhere else. At least, I think that’s what they’re saying.”

It suddenly occurred to Alex, though the story had been practically the only thing in the news since the Swedes had broken it a few days before, that she didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

“You know, I heard about that,” she said, and Alex was relieved. “About Chernobyl. Isn’t it awful?”

They stood there an instant while Alex half-turned, not wanting to put his back to her, and awkwardly retrieved his mail, which was just junk, it looked like. But in that instant’s lull it seemed he’d lost whatever conversational thread there’d been between them.

Esther was still standing at the doors, neither going out nor coming in.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?” she said finally, looking right at him. “I mean, if you could spare one.”

That was how the day had got started. Alex did indeed have cigarettes, but up in his apartment, and although he’d considered lying – he didn’t like the idea of giving a cigarette to someone who was clearly Not Well – it finally ended up, despite his protestations that he simply fetch one for her, that Esther followed him to his place to get one herself. There weren’t any more awkward silences from then on: in the elevator Esther launched at once into a disarming rush of revealing personal anecdote, so that by the time they got out at Alex’s floor he was dizzy with excess information.

“What about you? I don’t even know your name.”

“Alex. It’s Alex.” Then he added, stupidly, “Alex Fratarcangeli.”

“Oh! Really? Frater – oh! That’s interesting.”

“Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I can’t even pronounce it myself.”

Alex’s apartment was on the seventeenth floor, which had been the chief selling point when he’d rented the place, some feeling still surging in him – hope? vertigo? – each time he opened his door to the expanse of cityscape and sky through his living room windows. He’d left the radio on, tuned to the CBC: there was an interview coming up with the prime minister that Alex was perversely anxious to catch, largely because he despised the prime minister, from the very depth of his being, despised every false word that dropped from his big-chinned false mouth. He could hear the interview coming on as he unlocked the door, Peter Gzowski’s honeyed coo and then the mellow low of the prime minister, false, false, although Peter, and this was the side of him that Alex couldn’t stomach, simply carried on in his fawning amiability as if the man was actually to be taken seriously.

Esther was still talking. So far, Alex had learned that she was a student, like he was, at Concordia, though he hadn’t been able to gather in exactly what; that she’d grown up in Côte St. Luc, a possibly Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on the outskirts of the city, though he couldn’t have said exactly where; that she lived in the building because it had a pool in it, though he couldn’t quite reconcile this detail with her condition, which seemed to involve some issues of motor control. The fact was he was finding it hard to attend to her, not only because he was a bit overwhelmed by her barrage of talk and because he couldn’t quite help trying to catch the interview going on in the background, but because of a host of other matters clamouring for attention at the back of his brain: his appointment with Dr. Klein, for which he somehow already seemed destined to be late; his class at the Refugee Centre, for which he’d hardly prepared; his final lesson at Berlitz with Félix, his cash cow, and the concomitant prospect of a depressingly low-income summer; his theory exam the following day, for which he’d hardly studied. Then there was the phone call home he had to make, the post-exam party he had to host, the grant forms he had to fill out, and in the middle and not-so-far distance the questions he did not even dare to give a shape to at the moment, though they were the pit above which everything else seemed precariously suspended.

In the background, the prime minister, having dodged the subject of Libya, was going on about Chernobyl, trying to cast himself as the calm leader in troubled times. Please, Peter, please, Alex thought, ask him a tough question. Though in truth, Alex revered Peter: he credited him with his own discovery of Canada, which had happened, ironically, in the couple of years since Alex had left Canada proper for the foreign country of Quebec. And he revered him despite his occasional fawning, his boyish stutter, his too-frequent feel-good pieces on apple baking or native spiritualism or peewee hockey; and also despite, or maybe because of, the comments you sometimes read, usually buried by timid editors in the last paragraphs of lengthy profiles, that the instant the mike was turned off – though Alex could understand this perfectly: the mike was who he was, what he gave everything to – he turned into an unmitigated bastard.

Esther, who by now had settled herself on his couch, was explaining to him the notion of something she called “an exacerbation.” With a start, Alex realized she had been telling him about her illness. It began to sink in that she’d actually named it and he’d let that crucial bit of information get by him. Somehow, she’d managed to slip the thing in as if it were just a casual aside: Oh, by the way, I have blah­blah.

“So what about you, Alex? What do you do?”

“I’m at Concordia, too,” he said, realizing, guiltily, that he ought to have brought this up earlier. “I mean, I study there.”

“Really? You don’t say! What a coincidence!”

In fact, it wasn’t much of a coincidence at all: probably half the people in the building were students at Concordia, whose hub, the infamously ugly Hall Building, stood just kitty-corner to them.

When Alex tried to explain his program his description struck him as even more convoluted and opaque than Esther’s had been of her own. He’d initially been admitted to the university under Interdisciplinary Studies, in a mix of literary theory and evolutionary biology, of all things. But then the university had decided it couldn’t handle such a broad crossing of disciplines and he’d ended up in the English Department.

“I guess I’m trying to find the way to bring the arts and sciences together,” he said. “You know, a sort of Grand Unified Theory.”

“Oh – you mean – art and science –”

The shadow had crossed her ­again.

“That’s just a fancy way of saying I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

Alex had long ago handed over the cigarette Esther had come for, but she had placed it carefully in the little pink handbag in padded silk that she carried over her shoulder, struggling a bit with the clasp, though he hadn’t known whether to offer help. To have with her cappuccino, she’d said, which was where she’d been heading when Alex had run into her.

“Do you really think it’s dangerous to go out?”

“I dunno, the rain’s probably all evaporated by now. Anyway, I doubt we’re any safer inside.”

She had risen and stood leaning on her cane at his door. Alex didn’t like to admit to his relief at finally seeing her go – they hadn’t been together more than twenty minutes, yet he felt exhausted.

In the background, the prime minister’s interview was winding to a close.

Well, Peter, I know Canadians just love what you’re doing here.

“Say,” Esther said, “you know what? I have an idea. I could buy you a cappuccino, in exchange for the cigarette. I mean, if you’re not busy.”

Alex’s heart sank. It seemed unfair somehow to brandish his excuses at her, exactly because he had such good ones. It was that face, the transparency of it, the bit of desperation he saw in it now. She’d met a man, it seemed to say – even if it was as poor a specimen as Alex – and wanted him to like her.

“That would be great,” he said, “I’d love that,” feeling himself draw a little closer to the pit.

The entire mood between them shifted with Alex’s acceptance. Esther’s bright, false, coming-on personality replaced with a kind of childlike triumphalism. In the elevator, she hooked an arm in his and batted her eyes at him with exaggerated coquettishness.

“I guess you’ll just have to help a po’ little sick girl like me,” she said, then added “Ha, ha, ha,” to make clear she was joking. Alex had instinctively tensed when she’d taken hold of him as though expecting some jolt, some clammy frisson of diseased flesh, but in fact her grip was warm and firm. She had taken possession of him, it seemed to say, and would do what was needed to hold on to her claim.

Outside, they found the rain had indeed misted off into the ether, though whether the air hummed with evil ions in its wake, Alex couldn’t have said. In Sweden, radiation had reached a hundred times the normal level, and people were taking pills to protect their thyroid. No one knew if that was the worst of it – on the news reports so far, there hadn’t been a single image from the site. Instead, they kept replaying the clip from Soviet TV where a matronly anchorwoman, posed against a background of washed-out blue, had given the first official announcement of the thing, in four bland, unhelpful sentences.

Everything about the day, however, belied Alex’s sense of threat: the sun was out, the air was crystalline, and winter was gone, gone. There’d been ice on the ground only two weeks before, right into mid-April, the bane of Montreal living. But then a warm wind had come up and thawed the city overnight. The trees in the little church park at St. James the Apostle already had the intimation of leaves, a flock of something, starlings or sparrows or finches, chattering in their limbs.

Then there was Esther, for whom Chernobyl seemed little more than a conversation point. It was indeed true that everyone knew Esther: there was hardly a person they’d passed on the way out who hadn’t greeted her, and then once they were on the street all the shopkeepers called out to her as well, from the little depanneur on the ground floor of their building, from the hairdresser’s next door, from the little sandwich shop at the corner of St. Catherine. Almost to a one they winked at her for the good fortune of having a man on her arm. If Esther saw any condescension in this she didn’t show it, refusing nothing, no attention or offering.

“Oh, that’s Ilie,” she said, “he’s the one who usually gives me my cigarettes,” and, “That’s Claire, she gives me free haircuts.”

To his surprise, Alex actually found himself liking the attention they were getting. The world seemed different with Esther by his side: he’d hardly even noticed the sandwich shop on the corner before, or, for that matter, the church park. He also had never been to the Crescent Street strip, where Esther was leading him. It was only a couple of blocks over from their building, but had always seemed hopelessly tawdry and touristy next to his former haunts on the Plateau. Today, though, in the spring sun, radiation or no, he couldn’t understand why he’d avoided the place – it looked so sprightly and European and gay, with its little cafés all with their tables out front and their fancy railings and stylishly dressed servers.

The place Esther brought him to, however, was one of the cheesier ones, a glitzy bar called Chez Sud done up in an overwrought tropical motif like some Club Med resort, their cappuccinos actually coming out with little coloured umbrellas on them. Normally, Alex would never have ordered a cappuccino; it somehow irked his ethnic sensibilities, this passion everyone suddenly had for them. But he had to admit he liked the taste.

“I love this place,” Esther said. “I come here all the time.” And indeed it was clear from how everyone greeted her that she was well-known here, though the waitress gave Alex a conspiratorial smile behind Esther’s back as if to sympathize with his having got saddled with

Alex pulled his chair a bit closer to Esther’s.

“It’s just great,” he said.

Alex had planned to quickly down his coffee and then beg off back home to his work. But he wasn’t quite as anxious to be going as he ought to have been: the sun was shining and he was out here in the world, with Esther.

“It’s very interesting what you were telling me,” Esther said. “About the arts and sciences. That’s very interesting.”

“Oh, well. Maybe not so interesting.”

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Port Mungo

Chapter One

When he first came back to New York, and that would be twenty years ago now, my brother Jack was in a kind of stupor, for it was shortly after the death of his daughter Peg. What can you say about the death of a child? She was sixteen when it happened, and the impact on all of us, Jack of course in particular, was devastating. When I glimpsed the extent of his grief, after the first shock wore off, and he awoke to the grim slog of flat, empty days that yawned before him—all meaning, hope and pleasure drained from life—I called out to him from across what seemed a chasm, and got back only the faintest of answers, which might have been no more than an echo; I mean I did not know what to say to him to bring him back into living contact with the world, and more immediately with myself, his sister. I don’t suppose there’s very much you can say.

I never feared for his sanity, however. I never feared that he would attempt to do harm to himself, and for this reason: he had his work. And with the first, weary, reluctant attempt to pull himself together came a return to the studio, a loft I had rented for him in an old warehouse building on Crosby Street. I remember watching him silently building stretchers, the very mindlessness of this familiar activity giving palpable relief to a soul in pain. I sat in that loft drinking tea and trying to make conversation as he nodded and grunted and nailed his stretchers, and the next day he cut canvas, and began to staple it to the stretchers, and again I was the one who sat there with him, talking or silent, whichever he seemed to prefer, simply a familiar body in the same bleak space during those slow wretched days. I was also there when he mixed paint in a bucket, Indian-red and black pigment, and thinned it with turpentine to the consistency of soup, and I remember how he turned the brushes over in his fingers, running the fibers across his palm. He had discovered second-hand paintbrushes in a hardware store a couple of blocks east, in Chinatown, big floppy decorators’ brushes softened by long use by working men.

And as I watched him I saw what the years in Port Mungo had done to his hands. Jack’s hands were once like mine, our best feature, I used to think: thin, and long, with slender tapering fingers, elegant white bones intricately assembled for fine work with the violin, perhaps, or the fountain pen. Mine were as white as ever, Jack’s by contrast had become purely functional entities, and like any tools put to daily work they showed the marks of use: scarred and chipped, horny-nailed, the skin burnt brown, old paint baked into the beds of the nails, and the backs matted with bristles pale as straw. And as he nodded and grunted I began to see that the cast and temper of the man were similarly coarsened and scarred, and it struck me that he had spent too many years working in the harsh sunlight of that shabby town.

Then one day quite without warning he told me he didn’t want me to come to the loft any more. He said I was suffocating him—me suffocating him! I was wounded by the abruptness of this rejection, also by his lack of gratitude, though not entirely surprised. For it confirmed that the years in Port Mungo had done nothing to civilize him, in fact I had the distinct impression that he’d deliberately destroyed in himself all remaining traces of a social decorum learned as a child in a country he no longer called home. It wasn’t until six weeks later, and with no word from him in the meantime, that he called me up and suggested we have a drink.

We met in a bar on Lafayette Street, and I have to say I was dismayed at the state of him. In six weeks the man had turned into a husk, no flesh on his bones at all. I subdued the gust of irritation his appearance provoked in me, and aroused the familiar dull wave of rising concern. We sat at an obscure table at the back of the bar, he took off his glasses and I saw in his eyes what I can only call an extinction of the spirit; and I strongly suspected it had to do with something other than grief. I waited for him to speak. He played with his cigarette. There was a trembling in the yellowed fingers as he lifted his drink to his lips. He tipped back the vodka in one movement.

—What’s the problem, Jack?

He said something about not being able to eat, or sleep, or work, or think properly any more.

—Why not?

He flung a look at me, then turned his head away. I knew the gesture well. He’d mastered it years ago, it was meant to suggest depths of torment no average mortal could be expected to comprehend, such sentiment being reserved for a certain few select noble souls. It had intimidated me once.

—You’re not using needles, are you?

For a moment it looked as though he’d rise from his chair in a towering rage and sweep out into the night to do more damage to himself because nobody understood him. He was nearly forty years old! But he hadn’t the juice in him to make such an exit. A bit of a sigh, sardonic and private, and he rubbed his face. I wondered if he wanted money, if that’s what this was all about. I paid his rent and gave him an allowance—this we had organized immediately on his return to the city—but perhaps he had a habit and his habit had outrun it.

—No, Gin, I’m grieving.

Then it all came out, how lonely he was without his girls, for not only had he lost Peg, but his younger daughter, Anna, had been taken away from him and was now living in England with our brother, Gerald. He said he felt utterly friendless and bereft in New York, it was too much for him, he couldn’t stand to be by himself in the loft any more—could he come live with me for a while? I had thought this might be what he was after. I wanted to say yes but something prevented me, and I think it was connected to this intuition, or intimation, rather, that he had drifted far from civilization’s ambit down in Port Mungo, and had much to conceal from me. But it broke my heart, him coming to me in need, and me prepared to give much, but not everything, no, I had to keep some distance from him, and I said this. I’d sort him out if he wanted me to, but I couldn’t have him in the house.

—You can’t have me in the house.

The way he said it, I might have been speaking to a dog.


He nodded, he accepted it without argument. I think he heard it in my tone, and understood that I was not the compliant adoring uncomplaining sister I had been once, and he said yes, that was just what he needed, a good sorting out, and he grinned at me, which created such creasing and cleaving in the taut flesh of his bony head that I realized he hadn’t grinned at anyone in quite some time. It warmed me to see it, and I grinned back, and there we were, Jack and Gin, just like old times.

We got drunk and talked about Peg, also about Vera—Vera Savage, the painter, the mother of his girls. He wept a little, and I did my best to comfort him. The depth of his emotion impressed me, but he had squandered much of his strength and had few resources left with which to cope with his grief. We parted warmly, and with various resolutions made. I told him to go straight home, no drifting about in the night. He said he would. I didn’t altogether trust him. Jack’s will, once roused, was fierce, but he was weak, and he was drunk, and drink undoes the will like nothing else. But when I got to Crosby Street the next morning he was clear-eyed and alert, having slept, so he told me, better than he had in months. I was gratified to know I had some influence over him still. Nobody else could have turned him from the trajectory he was on, even if I did apparently suffocate him. So we got the loft organized, we put his work table in some sort of order, and talked about what he wanted to do. All rather dark and bleak, his ideas, but this was not the point. Work itself was what he needed, and if his brief season in what he regarded as hell was the engine of fresh creativity, then so be it. I left guardedly confident that he was once more on course. I visited him again the next day, and for several days after that, and I saw him steadily resuming his old habits, the long hours of daily work, I mean, the deepening immersion. A corner had been turned, and having begun to work he never again sank quite so low as he had in those first weeks. Of course he never properly recovered. To the end of his life there was a chord in Jack’s character, softened with the years to a kind of melancholy drone, but once a howl of misery: Peg’s death created it, and Peg’s death sustained it. But Peg’s death did not stop him working, and working, for Jack, generated a kind of stamina which dissipated the worst of the grief.

As to what he was painting, it was disturbing because so strongly pervaded by what I understood to be the emotional residue of loss. Tones and values were heavy, laid thick on splintered armatures of black brushstrokes, and the dominant impression was of heat, sickness, darkness, decay—he referred to them as his “malarial” paintings, and certainly they aroused in the viewer ideas of dank swamps steaming with disease and such. To me they lacked the force of the paintings done in Port Mungo, being sombre where the others were vivid, but of course I did not say this.

When he stopped work, and came away from the canvas, and flung himself onto the couch, he would talk about Port Mungo, and his thoughts emerged so disjointed and fractured I would have thought him psychotic had I not understood the state that the act of painting put him in. I remember him talking about the night when Vera in her rage seized a kitchen knife and attacked not Jack but their bed, tearing and slashing at the mosquito netting, stabbing the mattress and ripping the sheets to shreds, this insanity not exhausting her fury but inflaming it, rather, and then she went for his canvases, and he had to disarm her, and this, he said, was not the first time she had attacked his work, far from it. Peg was woken by the noise, she was screaming, it was all about alcohol, of course—I was appalled, I wanted to know what happened next. He had to throw her out of the house, he said. For an hour she hammered at the locked door, but he was so angry he refused to let her back in, so she went off somewhere else, to her lover, most likely—

I believe it was matter like this, drawn from events still raw in his mind, which fuelled the passion evident at least to me in the dark pictures he painted that spring: his tempestuous relationship with Vera, and of course the death of their daughter. And I think he was punishing himself, for more than once, late at night, when drink had cleared the way for honest thought to come through, he hinted as much, and I tried to tell him that he’d done all he could, no man could have done more, though in fact I had no evi- dence that this was so; and given the mystery that still seemed to enshroud the girl’s death, I admit I did occasionally imagine other scenarios, though I took none of them seriously.

A year later he was ready to show the canvases from Port Mungo, as well as several from Crosby Street, the so-called malarial paintings. Dealers visited the loft, and the following autumn he had his show at Paula Cooper. It sold out. It was a critical success. How proud I was. Jack Rathbone was on the map, and if he allowed his star to fade in later years then that, as he himself said, was his choice. In fact it was always his choice, everything he did, though I seem to be the only one who remembers that now. This was not a man who ever lost his moral compass, as Vera seems to believe—and certainly not a man who would take his own life! It’s unthinkable. It makes a mockery of everything.

One last incident from this period, which for me expresses the pathos of their failure perhaps more vividly than any other—Jack and Vera’s, I mean, and the culmination of that breakdown in the tragedy of Peg’s death—came in the stifling summer of 1982. In those days if you lived in Soho you had to go to Chinatown for your supplies, and Jack had acquired a large black bicycle with a basket on the front and a pair of saddlebags behind. His build- ing had a steep set of iron steps, and one day that August, as he came wobbling along the cobblestones with his groceries, he saw a woman sitting beside a suitcase on the top step energetically fanning herself with a newspaper.

Poor Vera, Port Mungo had not been kind to her. The tropi- cal sun had destroyed what had once been a porcelain complex- ion, and she had been struggling for some time with alcoholism. But Jack later told me that she had kept alive the flame he first glimpsed in London when he was a youth of seventeen, and herself a woman of thirty, and this, he said, despite the fact or possibly, perversely, because of the fact that she had been so thoroughly battered by life. Listening to this, I knew the sexual charge between them was far from dead, it was not even dormant! Down the steps she came and then she was in his arms, and the bicycle went clattering into the street and groceries spilled everywhere—broken eggs, spilt milk, apples rolling along the gutter, and the eggs, he told me, actually starting to fry on the sidewalk, that’s how hot it was.

They climbed seven floors in dusty gloom to reach Jack’s place, twenty-five hundred square feet of high-ceilinged, brick-wall loft with large windows over the narrow street below. Vera made no effort to conceal her curiosity, she was at once sniffing about, one painter in another painter’s space, an animal event, a canine activity. She was envious, and what painter wouldn’t be? It was a good studio. I’d found it for him, I knew what he needed. He wasn’t short of wall space, or of light. A little later they were settled under the fan in what passed for Jack’s living area, which comprised a smelly mattress and an old couch dragged up from the street. She told him she was living up the Hudson now but was on her way to London, where someone had given her a show.

—But I think I’ll move in here instead, she said.

—Like fuck you will.

That got him a flash of the old Vera, the old trouper who’d got him out of England and taught him how to be a painter. The mother of his girls.

—I’ll give you three nights on the couch.

—You call that a couch?

It was a good time, a sweet time, but it was outside of time, Jack said later, outside of everything, a cocoon in which they gave themselves over to a reunion that could not be sustained or even prolonged beyond those five days and nights. Time turned torpid, tropical, sluggish as the Mississippi River—they slept till noon and stayed up till five because it was cooler in the small hours. The city sweltered and stank, there was a heavy, humid stillness, a silence in which they seemed the only living souls. People say that Manhattan breaks down the separation of inside and outside but it was not true of Jack’s experience, I think because he was an artist. When his door closed he was not in New York he was in his own head, or in his own guts, he would say, and the joy of it, when he was a younger man, was in leaving his work and opening the door and stepping back out into roaring humanity. He had two standing fans on either side of the mattress. They ate, slept, had frequent sex on that mattress, leaving the building at midnight to sit in some bar and drink beer. Mostly they talked about Peg, and after weeping alone so often for his dead daughter, how good it was to weep in Vera’s arms. They talked about Port Mungo, and about Anna, Peg’s little sister, who was now eight. For three years she had been living with Gerald’s family—he and his wife had three children, all older than Anna—and Vera planned to visit them. This was how the time passed; and in that still, quiet interval Jack’s hectic creative momentum slowed to a standstill and briefly, through Vera, he made spiritual if not actual contact with the family he had lost.

Her proposal came the night before she was to leave for London. I think she knew it was hopeless, but it had to be done. That was Vera all right: if a possibility occurred to her she was not the one to suppress it, the fact of its occurrence demanded at least an attempt upon it; she is the same today. So she told him they were going to rebuild a life together, not as it used to be but in a new way, a better way. They would buy a barn upstate and make two big studios, each with a view of the river—Mungo-on-Hudson—what about it?

—But I don’t want to live up the Hudson!

—Then we’ll live in New York. We’ll live here.

He regarded her fondly. He didn’t say, you’re only after my loft. She was serious, and at the same time she knew it was hopeless.

—No, darling, he said, and sweet Jesus it cost him—he would have been angry with her for putting him through it, but he’d known she would, she had to, he’d known it the moment he told her she could sleep on his couch. He didn’t go out to Kennedy with her, she wouldn’t let him. They hadn’t slept. He went out onto the fire escape and watched her emerge from the building. She looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the early-morning sun. She stood in the middle of the street and gave him just a little of the flowery bow he’d first seen on the Charing Cross Road when he was seventeen, sweeping her Panama down close to the sidewalk—a quotation, yes, from the Book of Better Days. She made him sad. Off she tottered up the street with her suitcase, shabby woman in a tight skirt, over fifty now, quite alone, penniless, to catch a bus to the airport to go to a show in a nothing gallery in London. Jack thought: Her promise is all behind her and her talent all burnt up. What is to become of her? What happens to painters who run out of talent—spent painters? He stood on the fire escape watching her up the street. She had lost everything, all except her eye. She still had her eye, and when he had hauled out his canvases, the work he had done since coming back to New York, how generously she had spoken of his accomplishment. There was much of her in them, it’s true, but he who had recently come to the city and was just starting to know success, at Vera’s praise he had swelled and glowed as he had swelled and glowed for no other. Reflecting on this later I realized he painted for her, he painted only for her, hers was the judgement, hers the approval that counted.

Ten years ago Jack left the Crosby Street loft and came to live with me on West 11th Street, this at my suggestion. I saw him change during his last years in New York, but the changes were superficial. A certain wild shyness, that famously farouche quality—it became more tempered—he began to guard his fire, hold his best energies for the studio. He stopped going out and his appearance grew distinctly odd, as he came to resemble a kind of urban Apache, with his hair turned silver and bound up in black headscarves, and the baggy clothes flapping about his lanky frame, all dark blues and blacks, and his long bony face, burnt and weathered from the tropics, ever more scraped and taut and hawklike. He restricted himself to wine, apart from the one cocktail at six, and managed to give up cigarettes. Superficial changes, as I say; what remained constant was the discipline of work, the daily return to the studio, the finality of the closing door. . . .

In his later years, then, my brother lived like a recluse and towards the world sustained a posture of indifference and even outright hostility. By day he painted, and I did not disturb him. His studio was at the top of the house, with a window from which he could look down into the garden, one of those narrow city gardens condemned to perpetual gloom because sandwiched between taller buildings which hogged the light. I let it grow wild, rather like a Russian garden, though on a smaller scale of course. I thought of it as pasture. But Jack was high enough to get good light from the north, and he also had a view of the street, and when he closed the door behind him no telephone rang, no voice spoke unless it was his own; here he could think. I remember saying this to him once, and—“think?” he said—“no, not thinking, Gin”—I can still hear the bite in his tone, that hint of the fang—“Sinking, rather, into regions of the mind”—and here he paused, I remember, and made a steeple of his fingers, and set his chin there, frowning, as he uttered this solemnity—“where I submit to imperatives alien to all worlds but art.”

They hung trembling in the air a few seconds, those portentous words, and then with a bark of laughter he scattered them to the winds. He was not a pompous man.

But a large part of my brother’s life was spent in creating precisely the conditions in which this “sinking” could occur. And he did this despite the demands of other people—I mean the clam- our of domestic responsibility and the claims of intimacy. I now believe he paid a terrible price for this daily turning away, but I also know it was as necessary for him as oxygen. Deprived of it too long, he became a nightmare. He needed to sink, he said—to immerse—so as to grope towards some primitive understanding of what he was about. What was he about? Impossible to say, exactly, but Jack once told me he believed art to be primarily a vehicle for the externalization of psychic injury. Certainly a great part of his own activity was the attempt to master the disorder aroused by the emotional turmoil he had come through—loss and pain, guilt, failure, rage—master all that, yes, and in the process find a little truth. Which I suppose is what I am after too.

As for the pattern of our days, at six we would meet downstairs and talk. That’s what we did of an evening, Jack and I, when he’d finished in his studio, and I’d mixed us a nice cocktail, we would sit in the big sitting room and talk, largely about the past. I say the past, I should say Jack’s past, for his life was a good deal more eventful than mine, in fact the most remarkable event of my life has been Jack himself! He travelled more than I did, he accomplished more, and he certainly suffered more—in short, he had more memories than me. Almost all his stories I had heard rather often but I mustered an interest every time, and occasionally I even made him see himself afresh, which provoked in him a kind of affectionate sarcasm. He liked to say that he’d known a number of women like me, bohemian kinds of women, dilettantes, he’d say, dabblers, wary of experience but at the same time curious about life: women who would rather think about life than go to the trouble of actually living it.

This stung, but I did not argue with him: there was a grain of truth in it. I am a tall, thin, untidy Englishwoman, I drink too much and yes, I suppose I am rather—oh, detached—distant, aloof—snobbish, even, I have been called all these things, also cold, stiff and untouchable, though those who think me untouchable never saw me when I was perfectly touchable indeed! I should also say that I have an independent income, which has been quite adequate for my own needs and also, I should add, for Jack’s. Which is why it always impressed me that until the very end he continued to work. Not with the fervour of his youth, of course, or with the sustained intensity of his middle years, but he worked, he worked every day, and I took a close interest, inasmuch as he would let me. I admit this was partly out of concern for his health. He was plagued by arthritis, and while through will-power alone he could usually ignore the steady grumbling ache of it, and the sporadic stabs of pain, the restriction of movement in his knuckles was a sore trial. At times it was debilitating. We were told the cause was uncertain, but that it might have been a sustained allergic reaction to his own tissue, which was ironic, to say the least. Curiously his old malaria medicine from Port Mungo would control the inflammation when it got too bad.

I have perfectly healthy hands, in fact my hands are my best thing. I used to say to Jack that if there were some way of making a hand exchange, I would do it at once.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Go to the Net

Go to the Net

Eight Goals That Changed the Game
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It has often been said that baseball must be a wonderful game to withstand the people who run it.

That’s true not only of baseball.

Hockey, too, is a great game–a lot greater than baseball, in my opinion. And it has travelled a much tougher road than baseball when it comes to withstanding the impact of those who have directed its course.

Like most Canadians, I grew up with an inherent love of hockey. One of my fondest early memories is scoring on a breakaway for King Edward VII Public School in a game we won 1—0.

I try not to remember with the same degree of clarity that the only reason I got the breakaway was that I was so far behind the play that there was no one within thirty feet of me. And that the only reason I scored was that I fell as I approached the crease, took a wild swipe at the puck while sliding on my stomach, and somehow batted it past a goaltender who was too confused (or possibly amused) by this unorthodox approach to make the save.

In Windsor, Ontario, in those days, you were either a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. Even though Detroit was right across the river, the Red Wings were generally viewed as the Evil Empire because they had the right to prevent the Windsor CBC-TV outlet from showing games the rest of the country was watching – and they exercised that right with disgusting regularity.

We were Detroit Tigers fans. We were Detroit Lions fans. But never the Detroit Red Wings.

I switched allegiances on a regular basis, rooting for whichever of the two Canadian-based teams was having a better season at the time. If the Leafs played the Canadiens in the playoffs, my choice that year would be determined by some long-forgotten whim.

As a hockey writer, I followed basically the same principle, but with a slight alteration: now I admired not just the best Canadian team, but the best NHL team.

Over the years, I’ve been accused of being a flack for almost every team in hockey – well, not every team. Only the good ones – a fact that puts the lie to the beliefs of thousands of readers who, upon seeing some criticism in print of their own favourite team, fire off nasty letters accusing me of taking this stance because I live in Toronto and am therefore in the pocket of the Leafs.

Suffice it to say, that isn’t a view that would receive a lot of support from the Maple Leafs themselves. As I said, my soft spot is for NHL teams that do well.

At the time I undertook to write this book, no NHL team was doing well. The owners had locked out the players at midnight, September 15, 2004, and there was to be no major-league hockey for the foreseeable future.

Nothing could have had a more profound effect upon the society in which I exist.
The hockey world is like a village, a small community of two thousand or so people in which, to varying degrees, everyone knows everyone else.

A tragedy that affects one member affects everyone. Consider how many hockey people from all over the continent turn out for a funeral for one of their number.

The common thread, the defining characteristic, in this “village” is not the location in which one lives – quite the contrary – but the avocation one holds.

At the core are the players. They are the elite tradesmen. Without them the lifeblood of the village would dry up. The NHL governors would be the landed gentry, the ones who own the means of livelihood. Their managers would be those same people who do that job in hockey – the general managers, coaches and assistant coaches.

The media? Well, they’re the village gossips, the ones who spread the news about who is doing what to whom, and how often.

But if you’re going to make the analogy work, you have to accept the premise that there are two types of hockey media people/gossips.

There are those who cover a number of sports, whose knowledge of hockey ranges from abysmal to acceptable and who are basically visitors. They are comparable to migrant labourers who merely visit the village when their job demands it.

The other type of media person is the specialist whose life revolves around hockey and who rarely gets involved with any other sport. These are the hometown experts. Some would say they’re idiots savant, capable of rambling on about the minutiae of the game for hours – even days, weeks, months and years – on end, but incapable of intelligent discourse on any other subject. That may or may not be true. Certainly some of them come perilously close to fitting that description. But for better or worse, this is the group to which I belong.

When you’re in this group, you’re a genuine resident of the village. You may not be accepted as an insider by everyone, but you are certainly “one of us.”

You are recognized and called by name. Like any village resident, you have your detractors and your confidants. You are part of alliances that evolve and devolve over the years. You share with the other residents the inherent details of life on this planet as they relate to each other – births and deaths, illnesses and recoveries, marriages and divorces, joy and sorrow.

The hockey village isn’t just a place to live. It is your life. You can never get away from it.

Other people go home in the evening and watch television. If you do get home at all in the evening–if you’re not in an arena covering a game – you watch hockey from cities across the continent.

Other people go out amongst society and discuss a variety of subjects. You go out and face the hockey questions of the day. In the autumn, people want to know about their favourite team’s chances. In the winter, it’s the issue of the moment – a suspension, a firing, a slump or a hot streak. In the spring, the impending playoffs are the subject du jour, as well as the cornucopia of potential trades before the deadline. In the summer, it’s the playoffs themselves, followed closely by the draft and the free agents.

Rarely do those you meet in the larger world want to talk to you about the things normal people use as a basis for discourse–recent movies, current events, the weather or the latest political scandal. They want to talk hockey.

Underlying it all is the implicit assumption that if you write about sports for a living, you’re mentally incapable of discussing anything else. Either that, or they’re simply not interested.

As a result, the inclination of those within the hockey community to rely on each other becomes even more pronounced. You tend to restrict your circle of associates to people of like interests – the other residents of the village. You have friends in every major city in North America, as long as that city has a hockey team.

Your closest friends are people to whom the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” has not the slightest relevance. Saturday and Sunday are working days like all the rest. There will be days off, but not generally on a weekend.

All of which is to say that when hockey is your life, not your pastime, and the owners decide to shut down your sport – as they did in 2004 – you know how the people of Morrisburg, Ontario, felt when they learned that the government had decided to flood their town in order to create the St. Lawrence Seaway.

This is hockey’s darkest hour, and unfortunately, there’s no reason to put any faith in the adage that the darkest hour is just before dawn.

Hockey has had its ebbs and flows, its peaks and valleys. Like the other sports, it has evolved over the years, and a cursory study of natural history would indicate that the course of evolution is not a steady one. There are periods of rapid progress and periods of slow, gradual development. And periods of stagnation.

We don’t know what the game will be like when it comes back after this latest trauma, but we do know where it has been. At the moment, by virtue of stirring victories in both the 2004 World Cup and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, not to mention other recent triumphs in junior hockey, women’s hockey and the world championships, Canada is the reigning hockey power in the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Lines on the Water

As a boy, I dreamed of fishing before I went, and went fishing before I caught anything, and knew fisherman before I became one. As a child, I dreamed of finding remarkable fish so close to me that they would be easy to catch. And no one, in my dreams, had ever found these fish before me.

I remember the water as dark and clear at the same time — and by clear I suppose I mean clean. Sometimes it looked like gold or copper, and at dusk the eddies splashed silver-toned, and babbled like all the musical instruments of the world. I still think of it this way now, years later.

As a child I had the idea that the trout were golden, or green, in the deep pools hidden away under the moss of a riverbank. And that some day I would walk in the right direction , take all the right paths to river and find them there.

In fact, trout, I learned, were far more textured and a better colour tan just golds and greens. They were the colour of nature itself — as naturally outfitted in their coat of thin slime as God could manage. They were hidden around bends and in the deep shaded pools of my youth.

I had the impression from those Mother Goose stories that all fish could talk. I still do.

My first fishing foray was along the bank of a small brook to the northwest of Newcastle, on the Miramichi. A sparkling old brook that lord Beaverbrook took his name from.

My older brother and a friend took me along with them, on a cool blowy day. We had small cane rods and old manual reels, with hooks and sinkers and worms, the kind all kids used. The kind my wife used as a child on the Bartibog River thirteen miles downriver from my town of Newcastle, and her brothers used also, at the same time that I was trudging with my brother.

It was a Saturday in May of 1955 and I was not yet five years of age. Fishing even then could take me out of myself, far away from the worry of my life, such as it was, and into another life better and more complete.

We had packed a lunch an had got to the brook about ten in the morning. Just as we entered the woods, I saw the brook, which seemed to be no deeper in places than my shoe. In we went (a certain distance) until the sounds of the town below us were left behind.

Leaning across the brook was a maple, with its branches dipping into the water. At the upper end of the tree, the current swept about a boulder, and gently tailed away into a deep pocket about a foot from the branches. The place was shaded, and the sunlight filtered through the trees on the water beyond us. The boys were in a hurry and moved on to that place where all the fish really are. And I lagged behind. I was never any good at keeping up, having a lame left side, so most of the time my older brother made auxiliary rules for me — rules that by and large excluded me.

"You can fish there, " he said.

I nodded. " Where?"

"There, see. Look — right there. Water. Fish. Go at her. We'll be back."

I nodded. I sat down on the moss and looked about, and could see that my brother and his friends were going away from me. I was alone. So I took out my sandwich and ate it. ( It was in one pocket, my worms were in the other. My brother doled the worms out to me a few at a time.)

I was not supposed to be, from our mother's instructions, alone.

"For Mary in heaven's sake, don't leave your little brother alone in the woods." I could hear her words.

I could also hear my brother and our friend moving away, and leaving me where I was. In this little place we out of sight of one another after about twenty feet. I had not yet learned to tie my sneakers: they had been tied for me by my brother in a hurry, for the second time, at the railway track, and here again they were loose. So I took them of. And then I rolled up my pants.

I had four worms in my pocket. They smelled of the dark earth near my grandmother's back garden where they had come from, and all worms smell of earth, and therefore all earth smells of trout.

I spiked a worm on my small hook the best I could. I had a plug-shot sinker about six inches up my line, which my father had squeezed for me the night before. But my line was kinked and old, and probably half-rotted, from years laid away.

I grabbed the rod in one hand, the line in the other, and tossed it at the boulder. It hit the boulder and slid underneath the water. I could see it roll one time on the pebbled bottom, and then it was lost to my sight under the brown cool current. The sun was at my back splaying down through the trees. I was standing on the mossy bank. There was a young twisted maple on my right.

Almost immediately I felt a tug on the line. Suddenly it all came to me — this is what fish do — this was their age-old secret.

The line tightened, the old rod bent, and a trout — the first trout of my life — came splashing and rolling to the top of the water. It was a trout about eight inches long, with a plump belly.

"I got it," I whispered. " I got it. I got it."

But no one heard me: " I got it. I got it."

For one moment I looked at the trout, and the trout looked at me. It seemed to be telling me something. I wasn't sure what. It is something I have been trying to hear ever since.

When I lifted it over the bank, and around the maple, it spit the hook, but it was safe in my possession a foot or two from the water.

For a moment no one came, and I was left to stare at it. The worm had changed colour in the water. The trout was wet and it had most beautiful glimmering orange speckles I ever saw. It reminded me, or was to remind me as I got older, of spring, of Easter Sunday, of the smell of snow being warmed away by the sun.

My brother's friend came back. He looked at it, amazed that I had actually caught something. Picking up a stick, and hunching over it he shouted, " Get out of the way — I'll kill it."

And he slammed the stick down beside it. The stick missed the fish, hit a leaf branch of that maple that the fish was lying across, and catapulted the trout back into the brook.

I looked at him, he looked at me.

"Ya lost him," he said.

My brother came up, yelling, "Did you get a fish?"

"He lost him," my brother's friend said, standing.

"Oh ya lost him," my brother said, half derisively, and I think a little happily.

I fished frantically for the time remaining, positive that this was an easy thing to do. But nothing else tugged at my line. And as the day wore on I became less enthusiastic.

We went home a couple of hours later. The sun glanced off the steel railway tracks, and I walked back over the ties in my bare feet because I had lost my sneakers. My socks were stuffed into my pockets. The air now smelled of steely soot and bark, and the town's houses stretched below the ball fields.

The houses in our town were for the most part the homes of working men. The war was over, and it was the age of the baby boomers, of which I was one. Old pictures in front of those houses, faded with time, show seven or eight children, all smiling curiously at the camera. And I reflect that we baby boomers, born after a war that left so many dead, were much like salmon spawn born near the brown streams and great river. We were born to reaffirm life and the destiny of the human race.

When we got home, my brother showed his trout to my mother, and my mother looked at me.

"Didn't you get anything, dear?"

"I caught a trout — a large trout. It — it — I —"

"Ya lost him, Davy boy," my brother said, slapping me on the back.

"Oh well," my mother said. "That's all right, there will always be a next time."

And that was the start of my fishing life.

That was a long time ago, when fishing was innocent and benevolent. I have learned since that I would have to argue my way through life — that I was going to become a person who could never leave to rest the idea of why things were the way they were. And fishing was to become part of this idea, just as hunting was. Why would the fish take one day, and not the next? What was the reason for someone's confidence one year, and their lack of it the next season, when conditions seemed to be exactly the same?

Or the great waters — the south branch of the Sevogle that flows into the main Sevogle, that flows into the Norwest Miramichi, itself a tributary of the great river, What infinite source propelled each separate individual fish to return on those days, at that moment, when my Copper killer, or Green Butt Butterfly — or anyone else's — was skirting the pool at exactly the right angle at the same moment, and when was it all announced and inscribed in the heavens — as insignificant as it is — as foreordained.

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Hockey Dreams

Hockey Dreams

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If you think that you are a Canadian, then my boy I will show you I am a Canadian too—if they check me from behind I will get up, if they kick and slash I will get up. If we play three against five for fifteen minutes I will get up. I too am a Canadian. They will not take this away from me. Nor, can I see, will they ever take it away from you. At the moment they think we are defeated we will have just begun. I will prove forever my years on the river, on the back rinks, on the buses, on the farm teams. I will prove forever that this is what has shaped me.

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Mad Dog

Mad Dog

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Nauta agricolae cancrum dat; agricola, malum nautae.

(The sailor gives the farmer a crab; the farmer [gives] the sailor an apple.)

The first time Sheryl-Anne saw Peter Angelo was in the summer of 1964. The Summer of Freedom and race riots, the summer everyone argued about the maple leaf. That summer Sheryl-Anne MacRae was fourteen.

He arrived one hot afternoon in July, while she was lying in her favourite tree, listening to Motor City’s Motown Hour. All day long the cicadas had been whining in the heat. Sheryl had dozed off momentarily and dreamed, awakening to Dr. Beat crooning into her ear: Now here’s a witty ditty from our favourite high school girls from across the border ... and Diana Ross, the queen of all girls that summer had come on singing “When the Lovelight Starts Shining in his Eyes.”

Then her uncle’s Pontiac came up the drive. Sheryl hung her transistor on a branch and pressed the binoculars to her eyes. The orchard zoomed into view along with the weathered cedar grey barn and the gardening shed with its metal corrugated roof, where her eleven-year-old cousin Joshua crouched in the dirt playing war, mimicking explosions and gunfire. Sheryl could see the Victorian house with its steep gables and gingerbread trim, its wide white veranda with the rickety porch swing and frowning gargoyle of the god of the wind.

Sheryl watched her Uncle Fergus get out of the car, then the passenger door opened and out stepped a young man. He carried a guitar and stood nodding his head like one of those crushed-velvet dogs in the back windows of cars. He was blond and willowy. He had a red bandana tied around his neck, worn the way cowboys did in Westerns. He took it off and mopped his face as if surveying the future writ large in the landscape in front of him.

Dr. Beat introduced a gospel tune by Ray Charles, the brother who touches all our hearts, who was blind, and therefore, in Sheryl’s mind, somehow closer to God. The background singers broke into a harmony that sounded like a heavenly choir, and Sheryl thought to herself that she was dreaming, surely she was daydreaming again.

Through the binoculars she could see the boy looking around, smiling and showing all his teeth in a grin that said he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Sheryl saw the valley too for a moment through his eyes: the purple-singed hills and the blue craggy face of the escarpment, the green-drenched orchards and the silent trees in orderly rows like obedient children lining up outside in the schoolyard.

He moved, walking over to the front window of the Bonneville and then a strange thing happened. He leaned a shoulder onto the hot car, and the sun tilted off the chrome and showered his golden head with a sudden blinding metallic halo. Sheryl felt her heart beat in her throat. A wind came up, sneaking through the collar and arm holes of his white shirt and filled the cloth like a sail, and the sleeves billowed with light behind him. In a moment he moved away and was just a boy again but she already knew that everything was about to change in her life. And she got down from her perch and flew down the hill like the wind to meet him.

Peter Angelo, this here is our niece, Sheryl-Anne, her Uncle Fergus said introducing her, and the young man grinned.

Sheryl stared at him, her dark head cocked to one side, one hand idly scratching a mosquito bite. He had a small girl’s nose, thick dirty-blond hair, a little bit of stubble on his chin. He was older than Sheryl, but he wasn’t too tall and still boyish looking. His eyes were hazel with little flecks like small blue fish swimming in them. At first glance he looked a bit rough, but then he smiled and his face lit up and he was beautiful.

Pete here was just hitchhiking to Toronto when I gave him a lift, her uncle said. Looks like he’s going to stay with us for a few days, maybe help out a little.

Sheryl stood drawing circles with the toe of her sneaker in the dirt. Something was not quite right. It was too quiet, and all at once she knew why. Their dog Lupus was silent. On any other day he would be hoarse by now, but there was nothing. No barking. No rustle of the chain.

The screen door whined and Sheryl’s Auntie Eleanor called her in to help with dinner.

Nice to meet you, Sheryl said, and smiled shyly.

At supper later there were introductions all round, hands offered and shaken, names traded and repeated out loud, ample smiling with lots of teeth showing. In the kitchen Sheryl’s Auntie Eleanor had laid out a big country spread with a ham casserole, Paul Newman’s favourite, mashed potatoes with gravy, waxed beans and baby carrots. There were candles on the table and hors d’oeuvres like they had only at Christmas. Eleanor fussed about the kitchen, glamorous in a shiny blue shirtwaist, trilling, Welcome, welcome, seat yourself, in her special party voice, wiggling her hips and humming along to CFRB, bossing Sheryl around, who rolled her eyes but did as she was told, passing around a plate of little blocks of ham and pineapple on toothpicks, saying: Cigars, cigarettes.

Peter Angelo seated himself where Eleanor indicated and sat looking around the kitchen, taking in the yellow-flowered wallpaper, the sparkly silver faucets, the white counter and endless family photographs that checkered the walls.

At the head of the table sat Sheryl’s uncle, Fergus MacRae, his hair jet black and Brylcreem slick, his large blue eyes magnified by Coke bottle glasses. He sat smoking, his hors d’oeuvres untouched, long lanky legs crossed.

Peter here is from Sault Ste. Marie where his father has an automobile repair business, Fergus said. He pronounced it otto-mow-beal, making it sound like the Rolls-Royce of garages.

From the Hardcover edition.

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