Read The Strangers' Gallery Online
Authors: Paul Bowdring
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #Literary Fiction
Copyright Â© 2013, Paul Bowdring
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission from the publisher, or, in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, permission from Access Copyright, 1 Yonge Street, Suite 1900, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1E5.
3731 Mackintosh St., Halifax, NS B3K 5A5
(902) 455-4286 nimbus.ca
Printed and bound in Canada
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and places, including organizations and institutions, either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Author photo: Don Austin
Design: Jenn Embree
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Bowdring, Paul, author
The strangers' gallery / Paul Bowdring.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77108-026-2 (pbk.).--ISBN 978-1-77108-027-9
(pdf).âISBN 978-1-77108-029-3 (mobi).âISBN 978-1-77108-028-6
PS8553.O89945S77 2013 C813'.54 C2013-903432-3
Vagrant Press acknowledges the financial support for its publishing activities from the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) and the Canada Council for the Arts, and from the Province of Nova Scotia through the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage.
Author's Other Titles
ALSO BY PAUL BOWDRING
The Roncesvalles Pass
The Night Season
Praise for Paul Bowdring's
The Night Season
The book draws Bowdring to the forefront of contemporary Newfoundland authors.
Globe and Mail
Bowdring's narrative voice is beautifully rendered.
Quill & Quire
[A] potent invitation to share something unique, hermetic and ill-digested: the experience of Newfoundland itself.
Bowdring is a superb stylist, with a deftness for metaphor that often astounds.
Canadian Book Review Annual
[A]n eloquent and compassionate map of the human soul.
The Toronto Star
The Night Season
isâ¦as much a love letter to Newfoundland as is
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Newfoundland and Labrador Studies
[T]he work of a writer in complete command of his craft.
For Marie and Pearl
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
. Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio.
. It would be spoke to.
“But then he returned to his work as if nothing had happened.” That is a saying which sounds familiar to us from an indefinite number of old tales, though in fact it perhaps occurs in none.
âFranz Kafka, “Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope, and the True Way”
ur little street
is green again. In the trees that Anton called “tulip wood,” iridescent starlings are chirruping in the light among the new leaves. Elaine used to call them yellow poplarsâdwarf poplars, cultivars. They may have been the reason we bought the house. I remember her surprise on first seeing them, her delight in finding others in the large garden at the back. How she loved their tulip-shaped leaves and flowers. Soon the new blossoms will be in bloom.
Across the street, against the white latticework Anton installed along the basement wall of Miranda's house, two rows of real tulips are tilting in the evening breeze: in front a chorus line of garish bicolours, and behind them, like shadows, a row of black tulips, grown from bulbs Anton ordered all the way from Holland. He planted them late last fall, just before the snow.
Next door, Mr. and Mrs. Morrow are standing in the driveway admiring their new Chevrolet. Last week a car salesman delivered it right to their door, but I haven't yet seen them take it for a drive. They come out every evening after supper and peer at it almost suspiciously, as if it might be a stolen vehicle that someone has ditched in their driveway and they're surprised that it's still there, that the police haven't come and taken it away. Perhaps it's a final Father's Day present from Mr. Morrow's seven children, something they all agreed to go in on, a big-ticket item, as the salesmen say. I hear the screen door clap shut as they go back inside.
Frank Morrow, who's in his early seventies, was diagnosed with bone cancer about a year ago and given only a few months to live. Over the past year, all his sons and daughters have flown in from various parts of the country to wish their father a final farewell. But Frank has stubbornly refused to leave. He still takes his daily walk “down the valley” (grinning at me if our paths cross and he gets to repeat that phrase) and makes regular trips to Milt's delicatessen for “cold cuts.” He raked every last leaf from his garden in the fall and shovelled snow from his driveway all through the winter, turned every mercenary snow shoveller away from his door. Though he never once used his old rusted Chevrolet, one miserable February morning he helped Miranda hack her way into her car, encased in a mould of ice a half-inch thick, after a weekend of rain, sleet, and snow. By the time I got out there, she had driven away.
In the past six months, some curious things have happened. The old Grim Reaper, as if in grudging admiration of Frank's tenacity, or to put everyone else on their guard, has cast a few heartless trumps on his behalf. Frank's eldest son, Llewellyn, died of cancer himself at Easter, just a few months after his farewell visit and only a week before his fiftieth birthday. And the young doctor who diagnosed Frank, or, as he put it, “handed down my sentence,” is now terminally ill as well.
“You never know, Michael, do you, my son,” Frank said to me the day after returning home from his son's funeral. We'd leaned our bags of garbage, as we usually did, against opposite sides of the yellow fire hydrant that stands like a bright, inverted exclamation mark at the end of the brown and barren hedge that forms the border between our gardens. We were standing around with our hands in our pockets and our heads nodding over this and that. Then, with a great sorrowful sigh, he reached for a rusty rake that was resting against a tree, but I saw him retrieve a scythe. I was only a few years from fifty myself, and my friendly next-door neighbour seemed to have taken on an alien and complicitous aura.
Miranda has come out onto her verandah holding her evening drink, though her doctor has warned her about drinking because of the baby. She did agree to give up smoking. I'm sitting on my own verandah with a cup of coffee and a coffee table book of Vermeers that Anton left me as a gift.
Vermeer, The Complete Works
contains a mere thirty-five paintings, a lifetime's work, but there has always been speculation about lost Vermeers. Miranda herself is a painter, mainly “portraits” of flowers, as she calls them, and an itinerant art teacher in the secondary schools. She will paint those black tulips by and by, though she refuses even to look at them now. All she can see, I'd say, is Anton's black heart blooming. When I see her looking across the street, I wave, and she lifts her drink up out of her lap. Her bare feet are resting on the railing.
Last night, we looked at the Vermeers together. Perhaps this is not a good thing to be doing, I thought, and, sure enough, when we came to
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
she began to cry. I put my arm around her, and she laid her head upon my chest. I felt her tears dampen my shirt. Her body felt so hot it began to arouse me. I gave her a brandy to calm her down. (I forgot about the baby myself at that point.) I had another brandy, a larger one this time. Miranda sat in the wingback chair, then complained of being cold, so I put a blanket around her shoulders. It was the middle of June, but the nights could still be cool.
I tried to distract her by talking about the other paintings, told her that my favourite was
The Little Street.
It wasn'tâit was Anton'sâbut I wanted to get her reaction without actually telling her that, without mentioning him at all. Considering the emotionally turbulent nature of Anton's early life, I could see why he was so affected by this painting, a quietly reassuring domestic scene. He said that when he had first seen it, in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, it had brought him to tears.
“It's so bare,” Miranda said, as if offering another explanation for Anton's response. “So remote, so coldâeven the sky. The climbing plants look more like fungi than flowers.”
I looked into the sad, dark eyes of the beholder, at first thinking that what she was saying, and seeing, was due to her own agitated emotional state, but then I remembered that she was colour-blind, or partially colour-blind, could not distinguish red from green, saw them both as shades of grey. But
The Little Street
was mainly a warm brick-red.
Later, I walked her back across our own little street and said good night at her door, kissed her forehead like a father, though perhaps a little more lingeringly than a father. Then I thought (and not for the first and only time): I
old enough to be her father. She touched her fingers to her forehead, pressed them against her lips, took my hand, and led me in through the door. I stayed overnight, but left before she awoke in the morning. I had to be at work by ten, a rare Sunday morning shift, and before that I had to drive my mother to church.
And so began my life as a surrogate father. Not really the one I had in mind, but I think I had fallen for Miranda on the very first day she appeared at my door.
Only tonight do I notice that Vermeer's
Woman in Blue
appears to be “with child,” as Anton said when he told me about him and Miranda. I thought he was joking, his command of English was so good. The baby is due around the end of September.
The air is so warm tonight it feels like a late summer's evening, though summer will not arrive, officially, for five more days. Our little street is empty now. It is seven o'clock, and all the young familiesâit's a street of mostly young families, except for the Morrows and Miranda and meâhave either gone out to their favourite family restaurant or are gathered around the dinner table for their Father's Day meal. Perhaps some have already moved into the living room where Father is now opening his gifts: from the children, small-ticket ties and socks; from the wives and mothers, silk robes for summer, or moccasin slippers. No need for anything as emotionally extravagant as a car.
I think I might have been a doting, contented father, especially if I'd had a daughter, and perhaps it's not too late after all. Elaine, as it turned out, was one of those rare women who are physically and psychologically afraid of having children. She was afflicted with teratophobia, an unusual but well-documented condition: literally, a fear of bearing a monster, a fear of something horrible growing inside you. Perhaps this is not so unusual anymore.
In April, in the weekend paper, I was reading about the effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the psychosomatic effects, which are very hard to see. But ten years after the accident, the writer, reporting from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, said he saw no pregnant women in the town, no women pushing prams, no small children. The women of Minsk, he said, are still afraid of having children because of the fallout from Chernobyl, even though the city had not been contaminated by the radiation plume that devastated up to five hundred towns and villages in the south.
Elaine couldn't talk about her phobia at all. Most of what I know about it I've gathered from books, most of what I know about everything, really. So she took to her garden as another sick person might take to her bed. I took to my study and my desultory researches. We grew apart, then decided to live apart. No, let me say it: Elaine left me. She left, left everything, more than two years ago. Perhaps she felt sorry for me, felt guilty. Maybe she felt sorry for herself. But I certainly never made her feel that way. In all the time we were together, the word “children” never once passed my lips. It was all very civilized, as these things go.
Last year she gave up her job in the library and opened up a flower shop in the west end of town. One of our colleagues, Stuart, who went out with her for a short while before we met, likes to keep me abreast of these things. I think he has an abiding, if forlorn, affection for her. The humourless Stuart Augustus Rowsell, or Stuart A. Rowsell, as we used to refer to him, has a permanent five o'clock shadow. “The Shadow” was the epithet we settled on for him. The smell of loneliness hangs about him like garlic, keeping any woman who might wish to relieve it at bay. Stuart, Elaine had once revealed to me, after much coaxingâI was very curious about someone who could not bring himself to look at you when he spokeâwould kiss her entire body but avoided her face, unless he really got carried away. And Stuart A. Rowsell liked to arouse her by moving the chin of his swarthy sandpaper face up and down her back, preferred, of course, to “enter” her, as he liked to put it, from behind, and always referred to sex as “coitus.” In Stuart's and Elaine's company, at coffee or at a dinner party or wherever, I had only to stimulate the conversation with the word “arousal,” or make a whispered proposal to Elaine for
at the end of the evening, and the two of us would be giggling like kids at the supper table.
Elaine would be sad to see her garden now: unmowed, unweeded, and unpruned for so long, the grass and flowers buried under a soggy compost of stalks and leaves. I take a pair of shears to it every now and again, especially to this small patch of lawn at the front, just to keep on good terms with the neighbours, who are into lawn culture in a very big way. Pickup trucks with weed men, lawn menâlawn doctors!âare up and down this street from dawn till dark.
The newspaper carried a report last summer (I still have the clipping in my files) about a gardener who lives on a street nearby, a Mrs. Godden, I think her name is, who had cultivated what the reporter called a “wild lawn.” One of her neighbours, however, had called it a swamp, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. All around her house, which sat on an eight-thousand-square-foot lot, was an untamed garden of “wildflowers, grasses, reeds, sedges, and rushes.” Interviewed, Mrs. Godden said she was “
Astroturf.” But the aggrieved and persistent neighbour had written a formal letter of complaint to city hall, and its legal counsel had informed Mrs. Godden that the flora on her property “clearly indicate that it is more meadow and marsh than lawn and is in violation of municipal bylaws.” She was ordered not only to mow it, but also to drain it. Other neighbours, however, came to her defence. Taking courage, she hired a lawyer of her own, appealed this harsh directive, and won her case. I was happy for her, and I'm sure Elaine would have been as well. Still, one has to consider the neighbours, regardless of how petty and particular they might be. Maybe one of them will not like those black tulips across the street and will suspect Miranda of being into the darker arts.
I still have the brochure that came with the black tulips. (Archivists, like misers, never throw anything away.) From the West Frisian Floral Institute in Friesland, it has detailed cultivation instructions in English, French, German, Dutch, and
, all of which Anton could speak with ease. The brochure begins: “After twenty-five years of intensive work with dark tulips, the Institute has eliminated the last intrusive strain of purple and finally produced a flower that has eluded Dutch gardeners for centuriesâthe black tulip.”