Friday, 27 February 2015



When Duty Calls


My heater was in pieces on the dining room table. I’d cleaned and oiled all its moving parts. I was lubricating myself with 14-year-old Oban single malt with just the suggestion of a drop of water in the Scotch glass. I was listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and thinking about my sweet moll Ann Fatale. You could say I was busy.


I needed a break from doing something next to very little. I stepped outside onto the front porch to listen to the woodpeckers and watch the jays and chickadees compete for sunflower seeds at the birdfeeder. The sky was the same diffused blue as the shadows on the snow. I lit a cigarette. The smoke was almost invisible. I thought about the ghosts that haunt me.


The landline sounded in the kitchen. Cursing, I let myself back inside. Some ‘Microsoft’ con from India wanting me to turn on Ann’s computing device, I supposed. To my chagrin I was patched into a conference call with the Edmonton Police Service, the Mounties and the spooks in Ottawa. Because of my years with Joint Task Force 2, there’s a tacit agreement with certain authorities that my existence has been expunged from any and all records, a winking agreement that I’m no longer in the game. This contact breached protocol.


The name is Danger, Geoff Danger. My gratis advice to you is to live your life with as much honesty and dignity as you can muster. Worry about your mortgage and take advantage of the low rates, stay out of trouble; it’s best you don’t know that men like me exist. I can be your rusty knight errant or your worst nightmare.


Ann Fatale returned from her yoga class just as I hung up the phone. Her group had learned the lateral barking squirrel position; whatever that was. I knew her new knowledge would pay out to my benefit ‘round midnight. ‘Anything happen while I was gone, baby?’ she breathed huskily.


I came clean. ‘There’s a terrorist threat hovering over West Edmonton Mall, some third-rate little outfit that murders women and children broadcasting on that digital grid from some dirtbag African country. Who cares?’


‘Maybe that’s part of the problem,’ she sighed suggestively.




‘Nobody cares about those impoverished nations.’




‘They’re a lot like you – they get angry and they want to kick back.’


‘Hmm. Well, baby, I couldn’t face hanging around a glitzy shopping mall. The security itself is easy, nothing to sweat for a man like me. Let the uniforms do it.’


‘But, oh, Geoff, there’s a sale on. I need a new gown.’


‘One with a plunging neckline and slits up the thigh?’


‘Something like that.’


I grunted. ‘I told them I wouldn’t take the gig. Not for any price – WEM doesn’t have a good record store. But, for you, my darling, I’ll do it in exchange for your carte blanche in the shops.’


Ann Fatale looked happy. I like making Ann Fatale Happy. I like it when Ann Fatale is happy. ‘I’ll call the boys back,’ I muttered. ‘In the meantime, would you mind reassembling my gat? There’s a couple of clips of soft-nosed slugs in the buffet with the good silver.’ I picked up my glass of whisky and toasted my baby. ‘Here’s to you looking glamourous, kid. And here’s hoping I won’t have to squeeze that trigger.’

Ann contemplated the pieces of my automatic. ‘Blindfold me and get the stopwatch – I know I can still do this faster than you.’ She giggled. ‘Play Coltrane again, baby, you know that sax makes me hot enough to handle your pistol.’



One Side of an Old Times’ Sake Reunion Inadvertently Recorded in a Starbucks

Hey, look at you! It’s plain to see, you’re embracing life gluten-free
Say what? Oh, now you’re vegan too? God, I live for barbecue
Fossil fuels are the evil apogee? Lucky your tablet consumes no energy
I don’t agree vaccines are bad, mumps and measles don’t make me glad
Fitness boot camps and hot yoga? I work out with whiskey and soda
Some whine with your soy latte? Lululemon costs a lot, eh?
Anyway you’re feeling fitter, working as an activist on Twitter
Old friend, to your new values be true. Me? I still windmill to The Who
Yes, I’m dying for a cigarette, so I’ll excuse myself without regret
Out in the streets I’ll find more fun as I’ve since learned we’re one and done

Thursday, 26 February 2015



A Coke Smile and a Milk Moustache


It’s never easy to watch a good friend slosh downhill. Always beloved and up until very recently the world’s most valuable brand, Coca-Cola now seems dangerously doomed, destined to join Kik and Royal Crown in the cola crypt. What a long, strange trip it’s been for the red circle dowager queen since her 19th century pharmacy snake oil formulation. The dear old girl has lost her way.


Coke has long thrived on the legend of Merchandise 7X, a subset of ingredients within its fizzy, sugar-water formula. The fluid is the pinnacle of marketing mystique, above and beyond ’11 secret herbs and spices’ and ‘special sauce.’ As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Canadiens and the Bruins, it’s impossible to discuss Coca-Cola without referring to Pepsi. The cooler-coloured blue opposition has always been a canny and a worthy, worrisome number two. Initially Pepsi offered consumers twice the amount of cola for the same price as a bottle of Coke. Pepsi reached its Rocky apex in 1985 when it caused Coca-Cola to betray inexplicable doubt in its flagship brand and recalibrate its recipe. The result was disastrous and there’s a sense that the company has been a-wobble ever since.


Diet Coke is arguably the most successful brand extension ever. Beyond that triumph and the egg-faced, albeit welcomed, launch of Coca-Cola Classic, there hasn’t been much to cheer about. Coke is needlessly and manically determined to have a brand in every conceivable beverage category. It has a roster of second rate, market-reactive energy and sports drinks. The company had the gall to repackage municipal tap water in plastic containers which cost more than their contents and market the ‘product’ to the people. (It’s worth noting here that the vast majority of American states do not require a refundable deposit on non-carbonated beverage containers. And it would be a mistake to assume that lobbyists for the status quo are employed exclusively by the grocery industry.) A line of chilled coffee-based beverages went over like a cup of Nescafe at a Starbucks. Vitamin infused Diet Coke and a green tea complete with outrageous metabolic claims induced paroxysms of laughter in Washington’s Food and Drug Administration offices.


Coca-Cola and Pepsi (et al) are now being made the patsies for the apparent next phase of human evolution, a sedentary species of obese diabetics. The wolf criers may as well put Microsoft and Apple up against the wall too. Be that as it may, Coke’s counter-strategy is the 2015 roll out of a new brand called Fairlife. Milk. But not just any milk. No, Fairlife will be premium Frankenmilk. Nobody knows dairy like Coca-Cola. The lactose intolerant shrug even as United States Department of Agriculture figures show that milk and cream consumption in America has been in a steady and steep decline since 1975. There is another counter-intuitive and alarming aspect to Fairlife: a national brand of enhanced milk flies in the face of consumers’ current preferences for organic or locally sourced products.

There’s no question that soda sales in North America have dropped off in recent years. But they haven’t plunged over a cliff. A company with more than a century of expertise in selling a useless product should understand trends and cycles in the marketplace better than anyone. The irony is that 1985 is on rewind; deja-vu, Coca-Cola has once again lost faith in its flagship product. Why? Fear of litigation from the fat and lazy? A tort goes better with Coke! More likely, Fairlife milk is yet another ill-fated sop to Wall Street analysts and company shareholders mildly disappointed by slightly diminishing returns. Coca-Cola should stand by its core brand and unabashedly promote the world’s best tasting soft drink. Damn the torpedoes. There is history down south in Atlanta, a Coca-Cola museum for instance. But there’s little forward thinking in head office and seemingly less courage.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015



Chipping Away


I saw a bald eagle Monday. Its wingspan was enormous. It circled over the monstrous Cape Cod style infill across the street, soaring slightly higher than the tips of the fir trees visible beyond the property. It flexed its dark wings, caught an updraft and then coasted back toward the nearby river valley. According to my illustrated Birds of Edmonton this migratory beast has hit Alberta’s capital a month early. It’s been that kind of winter.


I was outside with an ice-breaking tool, chipping away at the solid inch of blue-grey on the sidewalk, lifting opaque white shards under a low grey sky. It was mild enough for just a fleece and rubberized gardening gloves. Our extraordinarily eccentric neighbour Forest made his shuffling approach, head down, watching his feet. I heard the tick-tick-tick of his three-pronged metal cane first. I was working because I worry about brittle folk like him taking a tumble. He paused. I wondered if my Montreal Canadiens hat annoyed him; the past nine seasons have been tough on Oilers fans. After a moment he said, ‘The world is made of ice and I have no skates.’ It’s been that kind of winter. 


This month the freeze and thaw cycle has been as relentless as the plunging price of a barrel of oil. We’ve had days of Vancouver rain and nights of proper prairie cold. Some days there was no place to pile the snow, too much of it in one fall. Downspouts trickle like country creeks while icicles hang, suspended from uncommon places. Our streets and avenues are dimpled with potholes, some of which can be seen from space and will land unsuspecting drivers in China. The meteorologists who issue the increasingly frequent weather warnings must be using kittens, balls of yarn, shaved dice and Twister game mats to divine what’s coming next. It’s been that kind of winter.

Yesterday’s blustery six-above dropped to minus-11 overnight. The teeming rain fluffed into snow flakes and then diamond-hard ice pellets. I hope that early eagle made it through the night. Maybe it’s as confused as I am. It’s been that kind of winter.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015



A Sort of Homecoming


Calgary was a 20-year layover. My time in The Heart of the New West was great, good, bad and horrible. The same as it is for anybody anywhere else. The energy capital of Canada was the backdrop for a lot of the latter half of the prime of my life. But I never grew attached to her even as I made my way, established myself and then repeatedly made a mess of things. But I made a lot of friends who have stuck by me.


Six or seven years ago I was sitting with a local in a Liverpool pub called The Baltic Fleet. We were four minutes’ walk from the gussied up Albert Docks and the Mersey. My pint glass was half full and the rest was history. ‘I’ve heard of the Calgary Stampede,’ my companion said, ‘but other than that, is there any reason for me to go there?’


‘There are some absolutely spectacular national and provincial parks in the vicinity,’ I replied, ‘gorgeous. Do you enjoy hiking or skiing?’


‘But the city itself, mate?’


‘Ah, no.’


That was not an entirely fair remark. The archeological record suggests that the human footprint at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers is at least 10,000 years-old. Permanent settlement coincided with the erection of a North-West Mounted Police fort and the establishment of a Canadian Pacific Railroad depot. Calgary has since spilled across the prairie like the viscous cargo of a ruptured tanker car, the sprawl barely contained by the lines of adjacent counties. It is a young city, poorly planned around the automobile and it lurches in and out of gear, wedded to the boom-and-bust cycle of the energy industry. She needs another couple of generations at least to foster the eclectic neighbourhoods that characterize Canada’s older and more seductive urban centres. Perhaps she will find her funk and soul in the 22nd century. A city is never finished.


I’m gone already and I will most certainly be a goner by then.


The salt-white highway into town is as straight as a Roman iter. The surrounding landscape is a wrinkled, leathery and scrubby tan scabbed with patches of snow. Ann’s driving and concentrating on three ever-shifting lanes of crud encrusted pickup trucks, wild rose Alberta plates obscured by mud. She asks me if there’s anything special I’d like to do while we’re here. We’ve driven south listening to John Hiatt to attend two parties thrown by old friends whom I’ve missed since I moved back north.


I know that the first house I ever bought, a sturdy 1905 bungalow at 1312 Gladstone Road has since been demolished and replaced by a strikingly ugly cubist condominium. There’s no absolution to be had at the other four addresses although there are some former neighbours whose company I enjoyed and whose fates I wonder about from time to time. The old work places don’t matter much to me anymore. I’ve haunted indie record shops from Halifax to Victoria and every proprietor I’ve chatted with knows about Recordland, that musty, dusty rat’s nest of music across the Elbow from the hind end of the Calgary Zoo. Ann and I have our own vinyl walkabout in Edmonton, so, no, a stop in Inglewood is not essential. My two favourite pubs in Calgary, the Unicorn on the Stephen Avenue Walk and Bottlescrew Bill’s behind the Palliser Hotel, underneath and beyond the CPR tracks, are both downtown and therefore immediate victims of extortionist parking rates. We’re not there.


The puny pang of pain in the passenger’s seat springs from a surprising source. Not the pike teeth Rockies on the western skyline but rather, what has become of Amin Donair & Subs? Later that evening as we ride the train through the Seventh Avenue downtown transit corridor, I cross to the left side of the carriage and attempt to peer into the darkness. There’s the Canadian Bible Society block. Beside that, Amin’s dangling wooden sign has sort of been painted over: apparently he only serves samosas now. The steel shutters are secured though the night is too young to display amateur graffiti. The old Coroplast promise of 50-cent coffees “Take Out Only” is still there beneath the armoured sliding order window.


That stretch of Seventh, constrained by a brick furniture store (a shabby relic from the days when signs were painted onto buildings) and a lovely grey stone United church, used to be nasty. I began to buy my cigarettes three weekday mornings every working week from Amin. I walked a gauntlet of crackheads between the bus and the train to get to him. The desperate and the walking dead in their hoodies and track pants weren’t fearsome, they were too wasted and useless to be a threat, annoying wraiths in the freezing dark. I got to know Amin slightly over the course of a decade; I think he liked me because I was a marginally better class of customer.


Amin was a slight, brown-skinned gentleman. He always wore a long white butcher’s coat in his tiny restaurant. I do know that he was a devoted follower of the Aga Khan which makes me guess he was a Sunni Muslim. The various sects are mysteries to me. Every year at Christmastime he would present me with a Bic lighter, a gift. He often described his annual holidays which zigged to Toronto or Ottawa and then zagged to Cairo or Cape Town. If the price of cigarettes was going to rise, I got advance stock up warning.


Back home in Edmonton, I was so pleased to see that Amin Donair & Sub warranted five stars at and then distressed that the site indicated Amin’s had closed. The place was a dump, but the food was good and the sad lone toilet in the back was not overly disgusting. When Amin was cooking chicken on the spit I always lingered to inhale the aroma, contemplating skipping work to savour a decent sandwich drizzled with a sweet or hot sauce to be followed by a carefree, roaming day on the streets of Calgary.

Calgary cannot come of age without people like Amin presiding over their quirky little shops. He may not remember me but I remember him. A city needs its special places because not every visitor from Liverpool will be lucky enough to hang out and laugh with my old friends. Every place in the world, wherever it may be, is fundamentally us: ordinary, average, everyday people. Doesn’t matter where we are; doesn’t matter if a city’s builders have got it drastically wrong so far.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015



Zenodotus Rising


Years had passed. Some of the paving stones on the Mall of Heroes had cracked. Weeds, ever resilient, had rooted in the fissures. The grey man, since pensioned off by the Department of Heritage, took his daily walk among the statues. He mingled with the visitors and meandered through them, always studying the faces. Most were set and angry. Some were sad. The crimes on display were an open secret; the people gathered on the Mall but not in the way the Overlord had dreamed. There was something in the air and the armed guards at the great entry were always tense and vigilant.


He thought of his exercise as a vigil. The grey man wondered if today might finally be the day. He reached a bench situated by the statue of Zenodotus. As was his habit, he sat and contemplated the figure of the librarian. The ancient fellow held a scroll and seemed to peer into the distance, the future perhaps.


These days the grey man was deemed to be of little use to his former masters but he kept his contacts up and his ear to the ground. There were whispers that the Overlord had grown increasingly infirm and was beginning to suffer the effects of dementia. There were rumours in certain circles of machinations of succession. The Secretary of Heritage was said to be a player behind the scenes. Some said the Secretary was a power broker. Some insisted he was a candidate. Others said both.


A young man in a drab duffle coat approached the plinth of Zenodotus. He rested a hand on the sandaled foot of the Greek. The grey man watched him; the facial features had hardened into adulthood but there was no mistaking the resemblance to Stefan. The grey man glided up beside the young man. ‘I knew your father,’ he said.


‘I remember you.’


‘How’s your mother?’


‘She has her good days and her bad days. Mostly bad. You people give her no peace.’


‘No, we wouldn’t.’ Magda had been arrested moments after Gingras had got his mitts on Stefan. She’d been eventually released but red flagged. The grey man frowned. Officialdom in an analog state could grind very slowly. A driver’s license renewal could take inconvenient months. A tax audit, a preferred weapon, could take painstaking years.


‘These statues and everything they stand for has to come down.’


‘Who, what and where: always consider them before you speak. Your father was a good man. I told him what was going on here.’




The grey man nodded. ‘I’m still not sure how he got the word out.’


The young man sneered, ‘Do you need to close the file?’


‘In a way.’


‘When the goons came for my mother, they didn’t bother with me, a kid. I knew where to look in the paper for the Underground’s instructions. I went to the meeting and told them everything I knew. When Mom and Dad were talking, I listened at the door. Are you going to take me in?’


The grey man smiled, ‘You’re a bit of a natural. And no, I’m not going to take you in. Anyway, I’m retired. I’d like to help you.’




‘For too many years I did my job or averted my eyes. I have a debt to pay.’


‘You’re an old man. You’re no use to us.’


‘I’m old,’ the grey man agreed. ‘I can’t shoot straight anymore. But I know things. I know people who wish to help you. I know that if you want to tear down these statues, there’s no time like the present.’


The young man thrust his hands into his coat pockets. ‘Okay.’ He looked up at his father’s face. His glance moved over the forest of arms and legs stretching in every direction. This place would be even more horrific under a harvest moon. ‘Okay, in two days’ time there will be an ad in the classifieds -’


‘Companions Wanted, I assume?’


Stefan’s son laughed. ‘We’ve moved way beyond that. You’ll have to check under Real Estate. We’re taking back our country.’

(Part 10 of 10)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015



The Interview


The smell within the foundry, was it even more sickening and intense? Stefan had read of nosegays and Newgate Prison, the stench of the great unwashed but at least they weren’t being cooked. The grey man escorted the librarian through a maze of unfamiliar corridors. Evidently the meeting was not going to be held in the usual room. Stefan was struck by a minor revelation: throughout their years together the grey man had always known what they’d be doing and where they’d be going; he’d allowed himself to be blindly led and now he felt foolish.


Doctor Gingras sat beside the Secretary of Heritage. The Overlord’s cabinet minister wore a mournful, hangdog expression. He motioned for Stefan to take the lone chair across the table from them. As he sat he realized it was slightly lower than each of theirs. To see eye to eye he’d have to look up. As he relaxed his weight onto the seat he realized too that one of its four legs was shorter than the other three. He could shift yet never get quite comfortable. Subtle. The grey man hovered somewhere behind him, outside of his peripheral vision.


‘Oh, Stefan,’ sighed the Secretary, ‘my dear, dear colleague, oh, Stefan.’


‘A pleasure to see both of you gentlemen again,’ Stefan replied. He swallowed. ‘If we’re to dispense with formalities, I’m given to understand that we’re experiencing some production problems with regard to the Mall of Heroes?’


The Secretary said, ‘Surely you’d agree that the best way to rehabilitate a criminal is to transform him into a hero?’




The Secretary produced a copy of the Nation’s Eye which he’d been concealing on his lap. The paper was folded to the classifieds. He laid it on the table. ‘Stefan,’ he said, ‘it’s not wise to publish secret messages where everyone can read them.’


‘I’m not sure I understand, sir.’


‘Oh, Stefan, are you really wanting a companion, a sexual toy?’


‘Come now, Mister Secretary, we’re both men of the world.’


‘We are. And we both understand that truth is entirely subjective, don’t we? I have the means at hand to make you tell me the truth. Of course, I can utilize these same means to make you say anything I want to hear and that too would be a form of truth.’


‘If I may interject,’ Doctor Gingras said. ‘The spoilage issue has been, admittedly, problematic. We’ve also found that some of our models can survive a day or more within their castings. The experience is not pleasant.’


The Secretary of Heritage shrugged. ‘You’ve been betrayed, Stefan. Your wife? Your son? One of our agents in the press or the Underground? It’s difficult to know. So many redacted documents cross my desk daily,’ the Secretary sighed sadly. ‘So many.’


The librarian shifted and felt his chair rock and totter. ‘This is all a mistake, Mister Secretary.’


‘Not this time. My mistake was involving you in this great public project. My informants indicated you were something of a contrarian, dedicated to your work and relatively harmless. But you’ve proven to be less than compliant. Your actions -’


‘But I’ve done nothing!’


‘Your actions have made my relationship with the Overlord increasingly delicate. The difficult with dissent, Stefan, is that would-be rebels believe the opposition to be a unified bloc. The reality is a cacophony of factions, all with different desires, visions, what have you. Only the Overlord can maintain order and keep the trains running on time. Enemies of the state seem unable to grasp this simple concept.’


Doctor Gingras said to Stefan, ‘Have you heard of a man called Zenodotus?’


‘Of course I have.’ What an odd question. Where was this interview going? ‘Zenodotus was the librarian of Alexandria.’


The Secretary of Heritage stood. He folded the newspaper. He looked down at Stefan. ‘That man deserves a statue, don’t you think?’

(Part nine of 10)

Monday, 16 February 2015



Fresh Eyes


The ad had been placed in the classifieds section of the daily. It would run for five consecutive days. Genuine replies, if any, to Stefan’s fictional peccadilloes were directed to a rented post office box. The actual answer, the one the librarian was waiting for from the people whom he truly wished to contact, would appear in two days’ time in the Nation’s Eye as a seemingly unrelated Casual Employment ad. Even though Stefan was literally wedded to the Underground, there were no shortcuts around its security protocols.


The cloak of plausible deniability embarrassed him: he was cast as a deviant and lovely Magda as a prim, frigid and wronged woman. If this inaugural part of the operation came to light for any reason he knew he’d be a laughingstock and his reputation shredded absolutely. He imagined the manic joy of some of his former and rival colleagues at the Institute and the utter humiliation of his son. Perhaps potential public shame was a small price to pay for truth.


He was struck too by the hidden cost of his past life. His devotion to the arcane and the existing fragments of the Classical World had blinded him to the present, to the subtle and almost invisible undercurrents in his marriage and his home. It was hurtful that Magda had kept her secrets from him. He felt a certain childish satisfaction now that he knew her keeping her secrets had hurt her too.


Despite his recent turn of revulsion at the Mall of Heroes, Magda had simply instructed him, “Business as usual.” The grey man drove. Stefan leaned back in the rear seat, the newspaper beside him. They were en route to a meeting at the statue foundry with Doctor Gingras and the Secretary of Heritage. A routine internal audit of the past six months’ production had revealed a significant creep beyond the acceptable spoilage allowance. He understood the nature of the crisis: the celebration of the Overlord was imminent and they were running out of convicts.


Stefan shifted in his seat. He was aware of his stomach dropping into his bowels. Was it in anticipation of the smell of the foundry or just the everyday horror of his job? He stared out the tinted window and absorbed the vandal signs of resistance he’d never paid much attention to before. The complaints had migrated from back alleys to the streets and avenues. He knew now that the swatches of fresh paint on walls in the city obscured graffiti demands for one man, one vote. That a poster trumpeting the Overlord’s great plan of public works covered previously posted cries for the end of continental partition; that rogue states should not be conquered and annexed but welcomed back into the old fold.


As they passed the prison Stefan looked again at the front page of the Nation’s Eye. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections was publicly musing about transforming the ageing and now almost empty facility into a tourist attraction that would provide visitors with a fully immersive experience or perhaps it could be renovated into luxury condominiums? Research and results had proven that enhanced criminal rehabilitation therapy was far more effective than the archaic punishment of incarceration and the sublimation of one’s constitutional rights.


The librarian folded the broadsheet into quarters. He contemplated the back of the grey man’s head. This is what we want, he reflected, the colourless reassurance of progress. Everything’s okay. Good news. I’m just a man on a train. I read the newspaper. I go to my job. I come home from my job. The Overlord, the government, looks after everything else. My hand is held but the grip is crushing.

(Part eight of 10)

Sunday, 15 February 2015



Household Secrets


The teenager sat by himself in the kitchen. His father’s bottle of liquor and his ice bucket and tongs were on the table. He flipped through the pages of a notepad, names from every era and aspect of human history falling before his eyes. The pocket door to the front room was shut. He could make out his father’s voice. The teen could not remember Stefan being so upset. There’d been ivory tower squabbles when his father had been with the Institute of course, but nothing of this mysterious magnitude. He crept over to the front room entry and pressed his ear against the wood paneling.


‘I am complicit, Magda! As guilty as they are! It’s state sanctioned, mechanized murder. They’re killing inmates and turning the bodies into statues for the Mall! The people, the country… the world must be told this!’


‘And what of you, Stefan? Isn’t it best for you, for all of us, if you remain silent?’


‘How can any decent man stand by and say nothing?’


‘You did just that when the state aborted our first two children, your daughters if you recall.’


‘Those were different times, Magda.’


‘Were they?’


The teenager stepped away from the door. He recalled a lifetime of inexplicable fear and sadness of the night. How his parents had always doted on him and lately almost to the point of irritation as he had gradually grown older. He closed and wiped his eyes. He inhaled silently and deeply to stifle a sob. He leaned back in.


‘We can’t leave the country,’ his father was saying. ‘They know I know. There’s no independent media. There’s no one to tell. What can I do? I ask you that, what can I do?’


‘Under a regime such as ours there is naturally a secret opposition, a resistance. Perhaps they can help you spread the truth?’


‘Oh, the fabled Underground. And how do I reach these people? Take out an ad in the Nation’s Eye?’


‘Something like that, although I would suggest a classified ad under the heading of Companions Wanted.’




‘Stefan, it’s common tradecraft to use a state organ against itself. So I am given to understand. I could help you compose the text. It’s important that you meet with the proper people.’


The teenager thrust his spine against the door jamb. He felt the finishing bevels hit his vertebrae. Was his mother was an agent or a spy of some sort? It was as if she’d been having an affair and his father had been blind. The revelation and the recrimination were strangely muted. He listened closely once more.


‘Everyone leads a secret life, Stefan. It may be in the Underground, it may be completely inward. You know that, you and your passion for antiquity.’


‘I do. I do. And so, I’m to advertise for a sexual partner?’


‘Yes. You will have certain tastes.’


‘I will?’


‘You will.’


‘What are they, exactly?’


‘You must learn to think of me as barren, frigid and cold.’


‘But, Magda, you’re anything but.’


‘I am now in your mind. Anyway, my dear, you can talk all night if you want. Stay up and beat yourself up. I’m going to bed now.’


The teenager padded hurriedly back into the kitchen. He stared down at the notepad. What did his father used to say about issues at the Institute? ‘Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s anything but.’ Still, sometimes some things, some people, were best left alone in the dark.

(Part seven of 10)

Saturday, 14 February 2015



Work to Date


Miniature forklifts and mobile cranes scurried like armoured beetles between the rows of statues. Stone masons worked on their knees ahead of the vehicles, laying differently coloured slabs of granite in random patterns. Crated statues stood stacked upon one another and cast a wall of shadow. Elegant wrought iron fencing was being erected inside the perimeter of the construction hoarding. The pageantry poles lining the great entry had been raised and secured. The country’s schoolchildren had been directed by the Department of Education and Human Resources to submit design considerations for the as yet to be installed decorative banners and bunting.


The grey man walked beside the National Librarian. Together they stepped over cables and skirted tools and machines enshrouded with dirt and dust. He’d been Stefan’s adjutant, his secretary, his chauffeur, his bodyguard, his right hand for a little more than four years. ‘Hasn’t the progress been astounding?’ Stefan asked him, shouting. ‘Absolutely remarkable. So far ahead of schedule. The Secretary says that the Overlord is well pleased with our work.’


The grey man’s reply was lost in the din of motors and buzzing saws and drills. Stefan hooked his arm, turning him abruptly, pulling him backward the way they’d come and away from the noise. ‘I’ve a mind to take the afternoon off and watch the World Cup match. I like our chances against Quebec. I’ve even made a wager with Gingras,’ Stefan confided.


‘I wouldn’t be so confident if it was hockey.’


‘Of course not,’ Stefan agreed. ‘Anyway, I believe it’s your turn to buy.’


‘What about the National Library, sir?’


‘I’ve minions now, my friend, they have their instructions. They won’t miss us,’ Stefan laughed.


You, thought the grey man, are still the little fellow I first met at the train station, to have power and mock it, to remain willfully naïve, a remunerated pawn in days like these.


Stefan paused at the entry and looked back at all the posed figures. ‘Absolutely remarkable,’ he repeated. ‘The Mall has become a bit of a parlour game at home. One evening a week I sit with my wife and son and create a new list of proposed statues to submit to the Secretary. “This week our candidates will be explorers or scientists or poets!” My son always insists on military generals,’ he chuckled. ‘And Gingras keeps accelerating production and so the lists keep getting longer. I mean does Ogden Nash really rate with Shakespeare or Homer? It’s a bit of a game.’ He pointed to a stack of unopened crates. ‘There’s a pyramid of painters!’


Stefan continued, ‘Seriously, I was cynical about this endeavour at the outset. I didn’t even want the job. I’ve since come around to the Overlord’s point of view.’


‘Always best to agree with the Overlord, sir’ the grey man murmured.


‘This Mall really will inspire the people,’ Stefan said. ‘I believe that. It celebrates the absolute epitome of human achievement.’


‘Or scare them to death,’ the grey man replied, ‘if they knew its secret.’


‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’


‘You haven’t made the connection, although I don’t know why you would. If you were to compare the published statistics regarding the reduction of the prison population to your statue production, it’s likely that you would see that they match almost exactly.’


The National Librarian stared at the grey man. ‘I don’t…’


Stefan marched down an avenue gazing up at the statues on both sides of him. All of their facial features were unique and most resembled their subjects as far as his excavated records showed. Some of the heroes seemed to be watching him. Had every name on his lists, his family’s Friday night fun lists, condemned a prisoner to death? No! It couldn’t be. He remembered the stomach-churning stench at the artisanal facility beside the penitentiary, the apologetic Doctor Gingras, the reek of chemicals snaking beneath wafts of something akin to roasting meat, the grey man’s expressive blue eyes.


Stefan reeled and bent over. He dropped to his knees. He vomited into his cupped hands. The lovely polished stone. Stains. He examined his complacent dripping palms. He half raised his head and saw the grey man standing there a few metres away watching him, his clean gloved hands thrust into his overcoat pockets.

(Part six of 10)