Yes. It was true. There was no doubt about it. The telltale signs on the grass and leaves and asphalt were visible from her third-floor balcony. She took a big gulp of air and her nostrils confirmed what her eyes had seen. Frost. Givre, as they say in La Belle Province. The air smelt clean and crisp and slightly redolent of wood smoke. Just like the early mountain air back home.
Back home! Where was that? It seemed so long ago. So far away. She rubbed her eyes, shook her head and passed her fingers through her hair. This is home, she told herself resolutely.
Strange. A strange think, this frost. It somehow made the park in front of her house look like a pastel painting. But it also managed to highlight the ochres and yellows and reds and rich greens of early autumn. As if nature had suddenly decided to paint an already sweet landscape with a coat of sugar.
She let her eyes roam slowly over the buildings to her right and the park in front of her. The old folks home, Victoria Hall, the greenhouse. The three buildings were built in separate periods, but were connected by passages and tunnels, to show the continuity of life. The flower clock in front of the home. The inscription Tempus fugit which is removed before the first frost. Victoria Hall, named after that indomitable royal matron, has turned its vocation from law-making to Thursday Bingo and Saturday Weddings. The greenhouse comes to life with an Easter bunny and tulip show in spring and a chrysanthemum show in fall. This year, however, it was crippled by an unexpected hailstorm.
And the library, of course. Where would she be without her library? She was gradually losing her eyesight, but not her taste for books. Especially in winter, when there was no greater pleasure than to work through a pile of books, sipping cognac by the mock fireplace in her living room.
At the thought of winter, her eyes turned back to the glazed-over park. It was actually the park that had made her decide. When she first came to Montreal to take up an attractive post in a multinational corporation, she did not know where to live. Outremont, some colleagues said. Nice ethnic restaurants and quiet Hassidic neighbours. Boutiques and bookstores and bakeries displaying their wares with handwritten signs in Cyrillic and Greek and Semitic characters. Westmount, said others. Good schools, good transportation and you won’t have to battle with French. And besides, added a tongue-in-cheek loyalist, you’ll have the honour of sending the Queen her yearly ration of maple syrup. West Island, Laval, South Shore…In the end she had settled for Westmount.
Not that she cared that much about the Royal Family or her classy neighbours. No, not at all. It was the park that did it, with the library thrown in for good measure.
And there she was. Almost a decade of gracious living in a genteel apartment house which was falling to bits. It was gradually losing its quaint charm. Every year there seemed to be fewer wrinkled faces to greet you good morning in a reedy voice. Many of them simply crossed the street, went into the old folks’ home and never came back. “Poor dear”, would say the remainder, “she could no longer cope.” Others were taken away by those horrible screeching lime-green vehicles. One of them, as a matter of fact, never attained that much dignity: he was simply packed in a black plastic bag and taken away in the dead of night.
She will never forget that. Never. Ever. She had just come back from a lively party and would not have even realized what happened, had it not been for the drippy trail the leaky bag had left in its wake. “It’s all right, my dear,” had said the janitor, as he mopped the floor and puffed on his stinky cigar. “His relatives had been phoning and phoning the whole week and since he didn’t answer, they drove down from Toronto. By the way,” he continued, “hope you don’t mind my smoking. Matter of fact, had to give some cigars to the boys–the cops, you know–’cause of the stench.”
That had been over a year ago. Every time she passes that door she remembers the smell. And his voice. Or rather the fact that in all those years she had never heard his voice. And his Cheshire grin. Especially the last time she saw him and would not enter the elevator with him. Had she seen death in his eyes? Tempus fugit.
After a year of ostentatious emptiness, that apartment was rented out again. To an elderly couple. She never saw her, although she sometimes got to see him. Once, early in the morning, when she had come back from her run, he had opened the front door for her and grinned a toothless smile. A smile which he quickly aborted, “cause I don’t have my dentures on.” “Nevermind”, she had quickly replied, “it’s too early anyway.” As a matter of fact, what had the old geezer been up to so early in the morning? That’s right, now she remembered. He had been out feeding the pigeons and the sea gulls who had strayed away from the sea.
One last look at the park before she went in. The old routine had become such a habit that she could almost do it with her eyes closed. In fact, most mornings, she did it with her eyes half shut.
Measure three scoops of coffee and put them in that lovely stainless-steel coffee pot that had belonged to Mrs. Cross, the wife of the General. Or was he the Governor of Connecticut? Anyway, it had been a great buy. At one of those garage sales.
Then squeeze two or three plump oranges with the help of that contraption she had bought at another garage sale. And a couple of slices of bread. Dark, as a rule. Pumpernickel or Russian or rye. And a thick dollop of Quebec butter. With plum jam. From Hungary or the Soviet Union or from one of those Iron Curtain countries where they still haven’t learnt to use chemicals or preservatives.
And then sit down to breakfast. Listed to CBC. Or Vermont ETV. Or whoever is playing Vivaldi or Bach or Schubert or good old Ludwig. Not to forget Amadeus, of course.
Because then the day would start in earnest. A straight, predictable, linear day, like her way to work. Like Sherbrooke Street itself, that bisected the city from North West to South East. Except that Sherbrooke Street did not bisect her day. Rather, it gave it a thread of continuity. In fact, she almost believed that Sherbrooke Street was the very backbone of her life.
She often congratulated herself on her smart decision. Her decision to take up residence on Sherbrooke Street, in front of the park, a straight line that ran from her house to her office, in the heart of town. Because, and this is very important in her life, because her office is also located on Sherbrooke Street.
Yes, she had been wise to choose such a conveniently located apartment. A mere thirty or forty minutes’ walk. She liked to walk, you see. Rain, hail or shine. Or snow, of course. Except when the snow started thawing in spring and rude drivers splashed their mucky brackish slush on her red coat. Every morning, except Saturdays and Sundays, she walked down Sherbrooke Street on the North West side, to walk against the traffic and catch the sun from the South East. Every evening, she reversed the process. Every evening, except Saturdays and Sundays, she walked back home, on the South side, to catch the dying rays of the setting sun, Of course, in the height of winter, it didn’t make that much difference. It was dark when she left for work and it was dark when she came back from work. In a way, she was lucky to be working in a concrete-and-glass-and-chrome high-rise cage. That way she could convince herself that winter was simply a state of mind. Or mindlessness, perhaps, since long nights gave you plenty of time for oblivion.
It is wrong to say that her life is completely linear, like Sherbrooke Street. In a way, the street and her life resemble each other, but not for that characteristic alone. The street, after all, has a slight bend or two. At the confluence of St. Antoine and Sherbrooke, for example. Where there is a war memorial. No, it is not a memorial to war, or so she would like to think. It is a memorial to those gallant young men who gave up their lives for their country. The Great War. The war to end all wars. Except that there was another great war after that, and they had to tag on some more names. All quite pointless, actually, she thought.
And if you look from the opposite direction, the confluence could be called the parting of the ways. Like in the Bible. This is where she and a travelling companion would go there separate ways, on their way back from work. Until he retired.
Her life has also had a few turns. Like bends in rivers, that appear to be subtle but change your course forever. And, like the street, her life also reflected the changes in the seasons, the time of day, the shifts in the mood of the city, the prevalent fashions, a changing urban landscape. And people, of course. The people who walked up and down that street were a tangential part of her own life. They too, underwent gradual change, also known as ageing.
Was she beginning to look as old to them as they seemed to her? Maybe. Age, unlike beauty, is not in the eyes of the beholder. She couldn’t help smiling at her attempt at humour. In any case, people seemed to suffer the same rate of attrition in the street as in her building.
Take William Holden’s brother, for example. She hadn’t seen him in a long time. Not that this man was the late actor’s brother. But he resembled him so much. Once, when he was walking towards the parting of the ways and she had almost reached the confluence, this question intrigued her so much that she decided to follow him to his office. She read the inscriptions on the memorial while he crossed the street and entered a building. She waited for the next light and then crossed over to the other side. As she was trying to think of an excuse to ring his doorbell, her eyes fell on a brass plate. It read Holden, something-or-the-other Holden. A company of lawyers or architects. She can’t remember which. It might just be a coincidence. Or it might just be a synchronicity of events, as Jung was fond of explaining. Had they ever greeted each other? No, she did not think so. In fact, their eyes had seldom met. She had read that in Africa people don’t like to have their picture taken, because that way you can steal their soul away from them. Well, as she soon found out, in Canada people don’t like you to look into their eyes, because you might just get a peek at their soul. And that would invade their privacy.
And then, there is the crazy man. He also walks up and down Sherbrooke, although he marches to a different drummer. She had met him many years ago, although not in the same street. On that occasion, she had actually looked into his soul and what she saw had frightened and disturbed her so much that he must have become aware of her fear. And there is nothing like fear to engender fear. As he swiftly hit her on her breast with a closed fist, she reacted and was partially able to deflect the blow. Today, as she catches sight of him from her window, or meets him in the street, she is no longer afraid. She had learned that he is not crazy, merely wounded. And in pain. A pain not unlike her own.
And talking about pain, she has not been able to decipher Kundera’s pain. She calls him Kundera because he vaguely reminds her of a Czech man she used to know once. For a couple of summers she would see him walking up and down the street, in the middle of the traffic, lugging a very heavy cart full of empty bottles and newsprint. His grimy clothes, his swarthy body and the ink-smudged newsprint seemed to be covered with a heavy layer of soot. He looked, not so much like a man trying to eke out a meagre living from the cast-offs of an opulent society, but rather like a man who had sinned deeply and was trying to expiate his sins. She had never managed to looked at his eyes but she had certainly seen his soul — it was a dark fathomless well of sorrow.
Not all was darkness and pain in her life. She remembered these events because they crisscrossed her path the way the street was segmented at regular intervals by other streets. Atwater was the street that crossed Sherbrooke and told you that Westmount had ended. It was also the street where she once met one of her regulars and they walked together all the way to work. Except that he hadn’t really been a regular. He was actually the husband of a colleague and she had met him briefly several years before. From that time on, she cautioned herself to remember that people actually had lives outside that street.
The growth of a city. After some turmoil, and then retrenchment, the city had started to grow. New buildings along Sherbrooke, new planters on the sidewalks, a proliferation of parking meters. All mute witnesses to progress, change, renewal and growth. Everything on her street seemed to be expanding and flourishing, while she herself shrivelled and seemed to turn inward into a mythical world.
In her journey through time, in her meandering through space, she felt that going somewhere was always easier than coming back. Perhaps getting there was easier because it was till early in the day, her body was lighter and stronger, her vision sharper, the air crisper and the rest of the day was still before her. With its potential for novelty, for new discoveries.
Coming back was another matter altogether. By then the day was all in the past and the daily burden that she carried on her shoulders seemed heavier and more cumbersome.
Also, the road seemed longer, because darkness limited her sense of vision, making things appear more threatening than what they really were.
Besides, by then, she had seen it all. The repetitive landmarks along her path, the weary faces, the noisy crowded vehicles eager to disgorge their tired stinky crowd.
And then her apartment building, with its dwindling population of ancient gentility and its growing influx of anonymous strangers.
And finally, her own little nest. With its mock fireplace and a balcony facing a beautiful park. The library, with turns off at 9:30 p.m. The swings in the playground, which are now still.
Time to shut the windows and close the curtains. Time for her to shut her eyelids and still the turmoil in her breast. Time for a reprieve. Before a new day takes over. Before life calls her insistently back.