Sunday, July 31, 2011

Saturday Afternoon

The sunlight poured through openings in the fir boughs creating upon the bright green lawn patches an even brighter green. It was too hot for sitting in the direct sun. Hart had moved his chair into the shade. A slight breeze. The smell of water from the lake.

He was reading a biography of Churchill, a massive book picked up in a garage sale. He was three quarters of the way through when he remembered an incident recounted in another book on Churchill he had read some years before. Suez Crisis, 1956. The Egyptians, under Nassar, had taken the Suez canal, the oil bloodline of Imperial Europe. The British government was Labor, thus Winston was in opposition. The debate was on the response of the government to the takeover. The Foreign Secretary had just given a speech equivocal on the question of military reaction. Churchill was livid. He came out from behind his desk, an old man of eighty-two, dangerously red in the face, wagging his finger at the Secretary and in a voice raised to a high pitch, screeched “You tell your Egyptian friends that if they don’t do what they are told we will sic the Jews on them and drive them back into the gutter from whence they came!”

Nice, thought Hart. The ancient warmonger howling his way towards death. No wonder the paintings are so lifeless and conventional – no passion in them. The passion was for Empire, Control, Glory. And so the Imperial History of Britain, Europe even, can be summed up in this – a nasty old man ranting at the servants in the tones of a psychotic gangster.

He closed the book and lay it on the arm of the chair. He shouldn’t be indulging himself in vicarious dreams of Imperial Glory, he thought. Just as bad as old Winnie. Little tin soldiers marching and the cash registers ringing.

When he was a child in grade six the homeroom teacher had a series of roll down maps. They hung from the top of the blackboard waiting to be unfurled in geography and history class. He remembered one of the maps especially – the British Empire coloured in red, the other parts of the map a dull gray. The Royal Lion had dominion over one quarter of the earth’s surface, admittedly mostly populated by ‘natives’ of various descriptions and colours, speaking languages Miltonless and Byronless, and possessed of quaint ethnic ways. Still, they loved the Queen. Or at least the teacher was sure they loved the Queen. The maps were hopelessly outdated but then everything where he grew up was hopelessly outdated. The Church was Irish Catholic funneled through Boston, a fusion of counter reformation triumphalism and Calvinist prudery. The teacher lived in a dream of 1912 when it was already 1960. The school was a cross between a prison and a indoctrination chamber where children of the working class, through a judicious application of abuse and lies, were being taught to be the obedient servants of an Empire which no longer existed.

The teacher was not without her virtues. She was kindly. She used the strap infrequently and applied it lightly. Unlike the many sadists who walked the halls she took no pleasure in the beating of children. She was possessed of certain harmless obsessions, which at times gave relief from the sanitized boredom of the curriculum. She had a fierce sentimental attachment to the Princes Royal. This was understandable for she was essentially a warm, maternal woman and yet a fifty year old virgin. During an especially boring geography class a student would ask her about the progress of the Princes, a subject upon which she was informed in detail from subscribing to many glossy royalist magazines. The oldest of these Princes would one day be King, the others great Lords of the Realm, perhaps commanding fleets and armies. Apparently they were precocious. As befits young Princes they were also handsome and charming. One day they would rule the world or at least that part of it coloured red on the map. It was implied that the other areas of the map, the non red ones, deprived by fate or Jehovah’s stern judgment, of the Princes’ wise guidance, would be left floundering in ignorance and confusion. The Americans were failed colonists led by hubris into rebellious ways and afterwards into the arms of unholy Mammon. The South Americans, despite the labours of the Church, lived lives of riotous sex, dancing and racial mingling and were thus entirely hopeless.

The stories of the Princes, after the use of mental filters to rid them of the sentimental gloss, interested Hart. They were his contemporaries and he could imagine himself in their shoes. The teacher told the stories to inspire the children with admiration for the paths of glory stretching out before the golden Princes and perhaps to encourage in them emulation of the royal devotion to duty, etc, albeit in the more circumscribed conditions of the station in life assigned them by Divine Authority. But, actually, Hart was not much interested in the paths of glory. He saw the Princes as fellow children and had a fellow feeling for them. To him they were fancier versions of himself attending schools which, despite their fine appointments and honour rolls of social and state distinction, were, no doubt, as dark with cruelty and ignorance as his own. And despite their royalty and privileges, he considered that in the most important matter he was in fact superior to them, for after his period of incarceration in the Kafkaesque education mills he could chose a life suitable to his own desires, even to his own fancies. They could not. Hart, as poor and wretched and powerless as he was, could one day chose a life free of the social sadism of the Imperial state. They could not. The uniforms, the harness, authority, duty would swallow them whole forever. The sentimental, devoted love of millions like his teacher, useless to them in any real human way, would lockstep them down the processional halls as if clamped into a vice of steel.

Mary came out onto the lawn to bring him a glass of lemonade. They chatted for a few moments about the weather, who was coming to lunch the next day, the arrival of their daughter and grandson later in the afternoon. When she left he watched her go until she entered the kitchen door, closing it behind her. Then he lit a cigarette. He wasn’t supposed to smoke and there was a tacit agreement between them to pretend he didn’t. Part of this agreement was that he didn’t smoke in her presence. If she happened to look out the window she would, of course, see him smoking, but she didn’t look out the window and even if she did she would say nothing about it. Mary was very practical and very wise. If she challenged him directly his stubbornness would raise a great rebellion and he would smoke more than ever. As it was he smoked perhaps fifty percent less than he would have otherwise. Although in her heart of hearts she wished he wouldn’t smoke at all she was reasonably happy with this partial victory. Hart couldn’t remember how they had come to this agreement. It was not a matter of words but a matter of gestures and emotional arrangements, one of the many, many things not accessible to the world of reason and intellection.

Cigarette finished, Hart decided to go for a walk. He shouted his intention through the screen door receiving in reply a muffled acknowledgement. Mary was rearranging the closet in the bedroom. She had been rearranging this closet for forty years but Mary was an optimist, a fervent believer in the power of new beginnings. Although he sometimes teased her about this, in truth he admired her. Her optimism had nothing to do with laziness of mind as it often does, but with a deep rooted irreverence for the past. Mary chose to live in the present and Hart had to admit, considering the deep happiness of her personality, it was a wise choice.

He decided to walk downtown. He walked along the back lanes, a route which exposed him to the rough, utilitarian side of things – garbage cans, dilapidated cars, piles of lumber, mounds of gravel, broken furniture, retired washers and driers waiting for the scrap guys or the garbage men, leaning garages lined on the lane side with high forests of weeds and grass; much better than the military precision of the front yards, everything just so. It had rained last night and there were puddles gathered in the low spots on the gravel roadbed. He stopped for a moment to say hello to an old Ukrainian woman hoeing her garden. She gave him four ripe tomatoes, which he placed very carefully into the bottom of his backpack. In her youth the old lady would have been a great beauty. This was obvious from the fine, symmetrically sculpted bones of her face. Men like hornets round a spill of pop on a patio table no doubt. Now she worked her garden and made pastries for her many grandchildren. Not so bad. In the evenings he had often seen her praying her rosary on the back deck.

When he reached the main street he entered a coffee shop. When the young woman behind the counter asked him what he wanted he said, “An ordinary coffee.” He found it impossible to navigate the incredible array of choices. Sometimes when he was with Mary she ordered him some kind of latte which he liked but he could never remember its name. If he asked he would be given so much information in the clipped, staccato, practiced way of the clerks that his mind would reel. He took his coffee out onto the patio and sat on one of the stone benches. He nodded to a fellow old gaffer on the other side of the patio but took his eyes away quickly. A retired school teacher who bored everyone silly with psychological portraits of students either dead or retired now themselves. A relentless old man who had one topic and one topic only and who confused the weary resignation of his listeners with the slight hypnosis caused by the impact of good story telling. On days he felt generous Hart would sometimes sit listening for half an hour but he wasn’t feeling generous today. The old man was lonely, granted, but it was a self inflicted loneliness.

It was Saturday so the tourists and the weekend cottagers filled the streets. A motley crowd – middle aged women with enormous bums, skinny children, beautiful young people soaked in an erotic ambrosia . Old men wearing shorts extruding spindly shanks. Old crones pushing walkers before a slow, determined shuffle. There was a steady stream in and out of the department store on the corner. Packages. Everyone seemed to be carrying packages, shopping bags. Three young girls each with a handful of strings holding earthbound a cluster of helium filled balloons.

Coffee done, Hart dropped by the table of the old man, receiving a brief (only because Hart refused to allow it to be anything else) tribute to the class of ’49, no doubt little different from the class of ’59, ’69 or ’79 but for the old man a luminous highlight. He headed toward the pier but on the way stepped into the department store. He slipped through the crowd to the section containing lawn ornaments. Here he bought a red rooster, crowing, apparently, to the morning sun. Made in China. Very cheap and probably not very long lasting but who says a lawn ornament should last forever? A brief, tinsel joy, what’s wrong with that? He paid at the cash register, put it in his backpack, exited skillfully through the packed doorway and continued down the street to the pier.

Here there was a drinking fountain bubbling up a water blossom from an artesian well. He drank deeply for the walk had made him thirsty. The water had a slightly metallic taste, very quenching. Beyond the drinking fountain was an ornamental fountain shooting water twenty feet into the air. Below, receiving its fall was a basin, twenty- five feet in diameter, one foot deep. At one end of the basin was a cut ushering the water off into a concrete channel emptying into the lake. Off to one side in the basin was a young boy, perhaps three or four, eating an ice cream cone, a beautiful boy with straw blonde hair. He wore only a pair of shorts and the combination of licking the cold ice cream with his tongue and having his bum immersed in the cool fountain water had sent him into an ecstasy of enjoyment, which excluded the attention given him by the adults around. It was as if he was on a paradisiacal island and the voices and eyes around him were merely the murmur of the surrounding sea. His mother, who was talking to an older woman ten feet away, kept half an eye on him, her lips composed into a wry smile and her eyes full of indulgent happiness. She didn’t care that there was a rule which said little boys should not immerse their bums in the fountain and Hart blessed her for it. When the boy was finished crunching the last of his cone, he rose like a young Neptune from the waters, stepped over the concrete wall and rejoined his mother.

The pier, jutting out into the water some three hundred and fifty feet, had along its north side a concrete wall five feet thick at its base, thinning out to two feet at its top and taller than a tall man. It protected the boat moorings from the prevailing winds from the north. During storms the waves would smash into it tremendously, sometimes hurling slashing heaves of water over its top onto the concrete deck. On the wall the local arts society had arranged for artists to paint pictures on it’s somewhat pebbly surface. For its entire length these paintings followed one another in colorful procession ending where the wall ended to expose the calm surface of the green water stretching out as far as the eye could see under a mild blue sky.

As is usual in such a collection, many were humdrum, reasonably well executed, but embodying nothing more than obedience to some artistic convention. But there were three or four that were quite exceptional, endowed with great liveliness of line and color. One was of an Indian village, perhaps meant to be from a time before the Europeans came, the figures painted round a campfire against a background of darkening poplar trees. Hart always stopped before this painting and studied it carefully. The skin of the figures was colored a soft golden brown illuminated by the reds, blues and yellows of the blazing fire. There was an old man, a little off to the side, shoulders draped with a fur robe and gazing into the fire. On either side of him, leaning into his lap was a child, a girl and a boy. The old man’s gaze was fixed on the fire yet it seemed to include these little ones fumbling about his knees and reaching up to tug the braids hanging down past his jawbone on either side of his face. Such a serious man but still there was something in the expression on his face which made it clear that he was happy to have become a playground, that he thought himself privileged in his old age to act as a focus of delight for these little children.

On the walk home the Ukrainian lady was not in her yard. She was always absent between one and three, probably having a nap. He opened the gate and pushed the skinny rod upon which the eternally crowing rooster was mounted into the soil at the end of the garden. Then he let himself out and continued homeward along the lane.

When he came into his yard his daughter’s car was in the driveway. Out the door came his grandson squealing his welcome and clutching him tightly round the legs. When he released his legs Hart swung him up onto his right hip and kissed him on the cheek.

“I have a new train grandpa.”

“And what color is this new train?”


“A very good color for a new train.”

They went inside, Hart being careful to allow his grandson to open the door for it was something the boy so very much loved to do.

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