book-mord.jpgPhoto by Lin Pernille
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, To sweeten my imagination; here’s money for thee. SHAKESPEARE, KING LEAR JAMES REANEY Poet, Professor, Playwright 1926-2008
On a drizzly October evening, after spending the afternoon driving around Toronto with him while he tried to recall what my father had been like as a student, I had dinner with James Reaney at Matisse, in the Yorkville Marriott. He would rather have talked about Blake’s biblical symbolism, or rural life in the London area, or his teaching career at the University of Western Ontario. Plus the staging of his plays in small Toronto theatres, and the creative genius of Northrop Frye. Still, he said he remembered how my father had loved listening to him read from his epic poem, A Suit of Nettles, and from various works-in-progress, such as Twelve Letters to a Small Town and The Killdeer. He said the whole class had been intrigued by his dramatic approach to the 1880 Donnelly massacre. As a matter of fact, he thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that he’d mentioned my father in his book, 14 Barrels from Sea to Sea, which details the trilogy’s cross-Canada performances. One thing he was sure of was that he’d published my father’s offbeat stories in his literary magazine, Alphabet, a publication dedicated to the “iconography of the imagination.”
I asked him if it was true that he’d once brought a vial of civet musk to class and let his students sniff it for inspiration. “It’s true,” he said. “They needed poetic stimulus, for which there’s nothing better than a good whiff of civet.”
No sooner had we sat down at Matisse that evening and ordered appetizers from Nathaniel, our taciturn waiter, than the maître d’ seated two Irish ladies at the table next to us. They were well-dressed older women, one tall, the other short, and their lilting Irish accents, as they asked for French onion soup and coquilles St. Jacques, were pleasing to the ear. I couldn’t help but notice them staring at Jamie, and thought this quite remarkable, since his plays are rarely performed outside Canada. It’s true that Ireland is a very literate country, but these two matronly colleens looked more like the George Bernard Shaw type.
Jamie didn’t seem to mind their scrutiny. In fact, he raised his glass to them and nodded in their direction.
“You’ll forgive me, sir,” the taller lady said, returning his salute, “but you bear an uncanny likeness to that decadent writer, Mordecai Richler. Sure, and it’s a distinctive face you have, with your spectacles and moustache. You could be mistaken for him, you could indeed.”
To my surprise, Jamie said, “Well, I should hope so, madam. You’re very astute. I’m flattered to be recognized. Would you care to come and join us? My friend William and I are also contemplating the onion soup.”
Which is how we met Dora Dundalk and Polly Roscommon, pensioners from Tipperary. Jamie probably viewed them as potential characters in a play. Polly, a widow since 1967, was tall and thin. She had greying hair and furtive eyes, and wore bifocals. Her friend and travelling companion, Dora, who had never married, was shorter, less noticeable. She had bobbed brown hair and a perpetual though at times vacant smile. The interesting thing about Dora and Polly was that though they differed in appearance, they could have been sisters. They finished each other’s sentences and seemed able to communicate telepathically.
When Jamie asked what had brought them to Toronto, Polly said, “Sure, at this time of year, when the crowds diminish and the leaves turn, we always take a trip to Canada. One year we crossed the continent by train, from Halifax to Vancouver. Another year we spent a month in Montreal. We’ve been to Niagara Falls, Banff and St. John’s, Newfoundland. Travel is an Irish obsession, it is. We’re a nation of wanderers, all the way back to St. Brendan in his leather boat. He discovered Canada, you know. He brought shamrocks with him to the New World for good luck. He sailed with Ulysses on the Mediterranean and I daresay knew Columbus and Jacques Cartier. And you yourself, Mordecai Richler, whose skill with a scandalous tale I rank next to our own native son, Brian Moore, what brings you to Toronto, which is surely not your home?”
It took Jamie a moment to answer. “You’re quite right, madam. I live in London, to which fair city I return tomorrow morning. I’m here being interviewed by my journalistic friend, William, whose father was a student of mine in 1959 at the University of Manitoba. He’s doing a piece on me for his hometown newspaper. We’ve spent the day discussing my recent memoir, This Year in Jerusalem, as well as my unfinished, untitled novel.”
Polly put down her knife and fork. “Your unfinished, untitled novel. Fancy that. And what might it be about, if a person could be so bold?”
I was sure Jamie would tell her it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress, but he fooled me. “It’s about a closet transvestite, Pierre Herbois, presently Crown Prosecutor of Quebec. On his mother’s side, he’s descended from Buisson Pampellone, inventor of the bidet.”
Dora put down her knife and fork too. “Faith, now,” she said. “Imagine that. Descended from the inventor of the bidet. Better, I suppose, than from the inventor of that other French device, the guillotine.”
“We don’t have bidets in Ireland,” Polly said. “But we’ve seen them in various hotels. We have one here in our bathroom upstairs, as a matter of fact. I’ve never really understood its purpose.”
This was met with silence, and I was not entirely convinced that they were telling the truth. Bidets at the Yorkville Marriott?
Jamie said, “Unless I’m mistaken, Monsieur Pampellone intended the bidet for the benefit of women. In French, the bidet is also a small horse. One sits astride the bidet, supposedly as one sits astride a pony.”
This produced further silence, but people at nearby tables had begun eavesdropping.
“Really?” Dora said. “Fancy that. I would have thought the man’s name would be Monsieur Bidet. Something else we have upstairs is mirrors in the bedroom. I could never see the need for so many mirrors in the bedroom. Did your Monsieur Pampellone invent those too?”
Jamie smiled. “I believe he did, madam. But for use during sex, not after. They say he had a Basque mistress who enjoyed watching the action, especially when she entertained Monsieur Pampellone’s brother Henri, the minister of finance.”
“And that’s what your unfinished, untitled book is about?” Polly said.
“Oh, no, madam. It’s about the Canadian prime minister, and the premier of Quebec, and the brothels of Montreal. After publication, I may have to go into exile.”
Dora reached across the table and touched his hand. “You could always come to Ireland, Mordecai Richler. We could put you up at the Gresham Hotel and you could drink the dark Guinness all day long. We could erect a statue of you beside Brendan Behan in O’Connell Street. Sure, wouldn’t that be grand, with yourself as important a personage as Jonathan Swift. I’m sad to say, the only useful thing the Irish ever invented was the condom. Out of a sheep’s intestine. What puzzles me is why it’s called a French letter.”
The evening ended with Dora asking Jamie if he’d favour them with a reading from his unfinished, untitled book. To which he replied, “No, madam, I never give readings from unfinished books.”
“James Joyce gave readings,” Dora said. “So did Sean O’Casey. So did Samuel Beckett, in both English and French. He taught school in Paris, you know. And in Cork. Polly and I once went to hear him read Waiting for Godot in Dublin. It was a marvellous thing, it was, at Kitty O’Shea’s pub on Grand Canal Street. They took up a silver collection.”
“I seldom if ever give public readings.”
“Is it that you’re afraid?”
“No, it’s that I don’t give readings in bars or restaurants. Not even at Matisse in the Yorkville Marriott. I’d have to go up to your room.”
People at other tables were snickering, and Nathaniel and the maître d’ stood off to one side, faking indifference.
“If we’ve learned one thing in our travels,” Dora said, “it’s to be wary of men with moustaches claiming to be Mordecai Richler. You could be an impostor, trying to lure us to our doom.”
Jamie pretended to bristle. “That’s wise of you, madam, but I assure you, I am Mordecai Richler. I wrote The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I wrote St. Urbain’s Horseman.”
“Well, so you say. But I think Mordecai Richler lives in Montreal, not London, and I don’t believe he ever taught classes at the University of Manitoba.”
That’s when Jamie, like an aging athlete, knew he’d been bested. Polly and Dora had beaten him at his own game, although ten years previously they wouldn’t have. Around the room there was a smattering of applause from our fellow diners.
I suppose I should have gone to Jamie’s aid, but I didn’t. When the two ladies finally excused themselves and headed for the elevators, he sighed and said it had been a long day and that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He said he hoped my article on him turned out well and that I’d send him a copy. Then he got up and left. The last I saw of him, he was asking the doorman to hail him a cab.
Moments later, Nathaniel presented me with the tab for everyone’s dinner.
“See here, Nathaniel,” I said, “the Irish ladies are staying in the hotel. Their meals should be billed to their room.”
Nathaniel smiled condescendingly and shook his head. That’s not how things were done at the Yorkville Marriott. “Sir, you invited them to sit at your table.”
“But surely James Reaney meant to pay for his own dinner. And probably mine too.”
Again Nathaniel shook his head, but this time he didn’t smile. Neither did the maître d’, who was striding toward me from the other side. This had been an entertaining evening, but now it was turning into a rather expensive one. Fortunately, I already had my train ticket home. With Nathaniel and the maître d’ standing beside me, neither of them smiling, I reached for my wallet.
“Tell me, Nathaniel,” I said, “did you know that in French the bidet is a small horse?”
His condescending smile reappeared. “Yes,” he said, tapping himself on the forehead, alerting the maître d’ to the fact that he was dealing with an idiot. “I knew that. Everyone knows that. I also know that the man you dined with tonight was not Mordecai Richler.”
“Oh?” I said. “And how can you be so sure?”
Barely able to contain himself, he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Because, my journalistic friend, Mordecai Richler is dead.”
Out on Bloor Street, I climbed into the rear seat of the first taxi in line. “Union Station,”
I told the driver. “But take your time.”
As we turned down Yonge Street, I wondered how truthful a profile of James Reaney I should write. On the driver’s ID card in front of me, I saw that his name was Ismail.
“Ismail,” I said, “are you aware that James Reaney is an authority on the bidet?”
I couldn’t see Ismail’s face, only his eyes, looking at me in the rear-view mirror. “Who?” he said.
“James Reaney, the poet and playwright.”
“I am not hearing of this person, sir.”
“Do I detect a faint Punjabi accent?”
“I was born in Chandigarh, sir, two hundred kilometres north of Delhi.”
“Then I doubt you’ve ever heard of Mordecai Richler either.”
“Oh, yes, sir. I am hearing of this famous person.”
“Do they have bidets in Chandigarh, Ismail?”
He pondered this a moment. “I think not, sir. Possibly in certain hotels.”
“Did you know that in French, a bidet is a small horse?”
“This is news to me, sir. My knowledge of French is limited.”
At the traffic lights on King Street, Ismail adjusted his rear-view mirror so that I couldn’t even see his eyes. Then he turned up the volume on his radio, and we rode the rest of the way in silence.