They met at an art college in London, England, not at the posh Slade or arty Goldsmiths, but at what was actually listed as a charity, near Covent Garden. It was 1969. The college had one communal lavatory in the basement that was of Thomas Crapper’s vintage – a chasse d’eau – pulling the chain to the overhead tank sent it into a coughing and gargling spasm.
For all that, it was a good school, with few pretensions; a roster, half-comprised of English students and half of overseas origin, flocked to the former warehouse. The staff, dedicated to technical training and the freedom to experiment, gave lectures at the roomy topmost floor that had old factory planking and a skylight offering a grandiose view of dismal weather. Wintertime, with no central heating, students often wore caps or hats to class; only two rooms were cozy comfy, the office belonging to the pot-bellied principal, and the registrar’s alcove where a secretary hardly ever lifted her eyes from her typewriter. The registrar was his lordship’s matrimonial solvent; flinty-eyed, but rather attractive, and tough as nails when it came to students avoiding her summons for late payments.
After two years of this gloomy dampness, brightened with students winning prizes at festivals, he and she met during the spring of the graduating term; the two had been like phantoms, as they had bounded up and down the whitewashed brick-walled stairwells, without ever taking stock of each other. He had broken his ankle skiing in the Alps during the spring break, and she wondered, seeing him in the corridors hobbling with a walking cast and a cane, why he bothered coming in at all. Approaching the finals, they felt but little prepared for the professional vicissitudes that lay beyond the heavy wooden street door. The buzz in the poorly lit antechamber, where two young women recently returned from India sold tea and sandwiches, was all about the prospects of finding work when ‘liberation’ came.
She had told him she was already in the film technicians’ union, as a seamstress, and how she wanted to parlay that category into a design job at the BBC. He felt bright and energized, but beyond that, launching himself into the world meant returning home to Montreal.
After spending their first night together in his Golders Green bedsit room, she showed him an unseen part of London. Fortified with modest picnics they brought with them, she led him to the canals that spread like leaf veins through the urban core. As they ate on a sunny embankment, he had said to her, ‘This is my first dill sandwich.’ He liked its thin but gamey taste. ‘After two years, here?’ she asked. ‘It’s as English as the Queen.’ He laughed. People lined up every day at Buckingham Palace to catch a glimpse of the Royals.
She had a sewing machine, her pride and joy that she had lent to an acquaintance of hers, who let it stray from his possession. When she finally reached this person by going to a call box – mailed letters, more efficient, reached any destination inside Greater London the same day if posted before 10 a.m. – she was informed by him that he had tried leaving her a message, to say he’d lent it to someone else, but this other person was presently on holiday. How long? Her friend wasn’t sure, exactly. But he would send her news as soon as possible.
He watched her, as she returned from phoning at her pub around the corner, flushed from climbing the stairs to the fourth floor. She didn’t immediately announce the devastating news about her sewing machine. She made them both a cup of tea, and then explained the situation; her hand, trembling, jiggled the cup in the saucer as she stared out the window of her three-and-a-half overlooking workaday Camden Town. ‘I’ll get it back eventually,’ she announced firmly, but barely audible to him, averting his gaze. ‘It’s just, I’ve some new fabric and I wanted to try a pattern for a dress.’ He came and put his arm around her, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, belatedly.
Standing by the window, her cheeks had a suffused glow, but he wasn’t sure how much was due to the slanting sunlight, or to her anger in the casual way her friend had taken liberties with her valued property. But instead of reassuring her of its imminent return, he went on a jag chiding the English as pusillanimous. She stood neutral, neither flinching nor disagreeing with his invectives against British inefficiency.
He made her chuckle over his story of Murphy, a classmate, an American draft dodger who had just married a sweet young English woman, and her parents had set them up in a cottage on the Northern Line, on which this Murphy commuted to school, intent as he was in getting his diploma in June. Murphy had explained to the principal as to why he was late for an exam. The morning train was late, and in arriving at the platform, was further delayed while the engineer and the conductor went into the station for a tea break. The portly principal, a former director of B films, and of whom the graffiti in the loo made passing remarks, such as ‘Bob should go to Hollywood, the walk would do him good,’ merely nodded at the imperious-jawed Murphy, and told him he would likely graduate just the same.
Murphy opened his mouth to say something more, about needing high marks to get a job at VizNews, but Bob raised his eyes levelly, and stared him down, like a Napoleon silencing an upstart general.
He imitated, to her, Murphy’s crowing to his classmates, ‘Everyone on the platform like a bunch of anxious penguins, and nobody says anything.’
And she nodded, in that puzzling way she had about her, often leaving him entirely confused. He had been meaning to tell her about this growth he felt inside her, during their love making, and he wondered how he might broach the subject to her, concerned that she should see a doctor, when one night, after they had awoken together and responded to their passion, he had heard a rubbery suction, that he passed off without mentioning it, and she had apologized for it the next day, in that endearing, quiet manner of hers, and said it was her contraception device, and that she would remedy the problem. Flummoxed, more than embarrassed, he had said, relieved, ‘Oh well, sure, so you’re all right, then?’
‘It’s a good thing,’ he had said to her during their ‘budding’ romance – it was spring and he made bad puns – ‘we’re not competitive. You’ve got talent. I’m not sure I do.’ He wanted to get into films but had no real idea how. He felt she knew what she was doing. Yet, she disdained the go-getter world of the professional arts.
Her mini-skirt slashed across her thigh. It was the height of Mary Quant’s bold fashions. He loved riding on the London busses and watching the matrons clucking over the risqué attire. And once, seated on a bus, he made her giggle by imitating her, squeezing his legs together (as modesty dictated for the mini-skirt), and he recognized that, though not high-spirited, she was adventurous just the same.
He couldn’t stay in England, not just because of the visa problem, but his attitude and lack of connections would have made it an arduous if not insurmountable task of landing a job. And she could get a one-year work permit to return with him, as they found out at Canada House, where he often went to lounge in the comfortable lobby, to read his home newspapers.
It was on a leisurely springtime walk at Kew Gardens – the rhododendrons were in a cascading bloom – when she had turned to him, and asked him, ‘What’s the equivalent in Canada?’ And he had described the subtle shades of lilacs and their deeply scented arbors. And she decided on the spot she would come to Montreal with him. They would leave just as soon as their year-end results were posted.
Once – and it amazed him how gentle she was, like a filly nuzzling his hand, expecting a treat, a carrot or a lump of sugar; at how she found the exact moment to tell him things – she had said to him, ‘I don’t get really turned on with you, not like I used to with this fellow I once went out with.’ And her comment felt like a silver rapier piercing his heart, hardly feeling the thrust but understanding the deeper implications. And he thought, ‘Uh oh. Trouble’.
Eventually, they talked about their intimacy, and the question was defused, of whether she enjoyed their love-making more, simply because he became more adept, or that she appreciated his concern for her pleasure. She would take his hand and squeeze it sometimes on a walk. ‘I like when it’s spontaneous,’ she had said about their flights of ardor.
And upon their arrival to Montreal, he immediately did well. He found a three-and-a-half on MacGregor Avenue, near the heart of town – a bit too glaring with arborite kitchen counters, but she softened the brightness with a few touches – just like she smoothed out his rough edges. A colleague in London had shown him the intricacy of loading an Éclair camera, used in news and sports reporting, and his newfound free-lance work as an assistant cameraman paid a king’s ransom, compared to the humble begging they were used to in London, hanging about fish-and-chip stands late at night, just before closing, and the good-hearted vendors giving away fresh leftovers, plaice and fries, in a large newspaper cornet – all you had to say was please, and that you were a student.
He bought an old Dodge Rambler. She marveled at the changing autumn leaves, quince and scarlet and brilliant yellow. They went on camping trips into the northern wilderness, and got caught out a few times – an unexpected overnight snowfall obliterating an unplowed logging road, or the panic of losing their bearings while bushwhacking. And she marveled at how he remained very collected; she tempered his other extremes, now his outpourings were all about Canadian ‘dorkiness’ – everything from CBC kitchen-sink dramas, to the ‘demolition derby’ going on with Montreal’s downtown heritage buildings. ‘Little boy,’ she would respond to his diatribes, half-amused, half-concerned about him.
He became extremely fond of her, and she appreciated his concern for her happiness. His friends bent over backwards to make her feel welcome. But no amount of February fairytale-like snowfalls can make up for the slog of March and endless slushy days. The man next door to their apartment sold Scott’s Industrial Directories over the phone, his gargly laughter in dealing with clients pierced the wall; they bit their lips laughing over his products and prices that they soon knew by heart; they rolled their eyes in mute derision at his oily manner in calling up airline stewardesses from a nearby apartment building that often saw them coming and going in their prim uniforms, sexy scarves and carry-alls.
But she soldiered on. She loved the needle trade, the vast, old-fashioned showrooms with their ogee windows and the offices with their ‘detective story’ transom corridor windows; the hearty, energetic, quickly calculating managers, and she found part-time work doing routine designs for lingerie. She also found an old tailor who taught her the art of sewing buttonholes. The tough-talking salesmen loved her British accent; it made her sound efficient.
Saturday mornings were dedicated to speaking French; she had learned a bit at her private school. But they invariably ended up giggling in mid-conversation, making up silly phrases – ‘Je vous demande le spoon en marriage pour le sucre.’ He remembered an anecdotal elementary school lesson about an Englishman staying with a friend at a Paris hotel, when rooms still had fireplaces, and on his way out, of having the misfortune to say to the concierge, ‘Ne laissez pas sortir le fou.’ And then his poor travelling companion confined to his room all day by a locked hotel door, and the concierge implacable to his plight.
Towards spring, she clarified what she missed the most about London. ‘I always get a buzz going out into the street, there.’ And which – understandably, he thought, as Montreal didn’t have as exotic-sounding places as Elephant & Castle, the south London Tube stop that meant Enfant de Castile, and referred to Henry VIII’s Catherine of Aragon – she didn’t get here in Montreal. ‘Perhaps St. Denis Street, a bit,’ she had relented. And to which he had no ready answer.
He felt he couldn’t compete with her English upbringing, but he could make her laugh. Once, when she had worn her mini-skirt on a cold spring day, he had walked alongside her pretending he was Groucho Marx, imitating the comedian’s crouched duck walk. ‘Little boy,’ she had said, blushing, but amused nonetheless.
He was waiting for her to say she would leave. Of course she could stay if she wanted to; she could re-apply at Immigration Canada. He watched with brooding calculation, as the mist and the rain drew winter to a close, while the slush melted in brown stews around the curbside drains, and the yellow mounds of dog pee and runlets of sidewalk sand disintegrated under lashing storms. And she appreciated that he had grown so attentive, they spent large swaths of time at home, reading, listening to music, and simply threshing old straw, about what had become of their classmates.
There was Tirosh, who blew an interview with Granada TV, that he’d obtained through pull, when he’d said he didn’t think much of Coronation Street, the network’s mainstay; or Aubrey, who had spent the summer at the hippie caves at Matala, the fabulous ocean beach on the far side of Crete, where one cave was the communal toilet, that stank to high heaven, where they all shat and then jumped into the water to clean their bums, and who had returned to London, convinced that enemas were a natural elixir, and through his enema-minded circle, had landed a job at Apple recordings; or of Luigi and Carla, who had started a modest casting office that had now picked up bigger productions – and yes, he couldn’t deny this was exciting, and to which she responded as if it were a magnet luring her back to London.
She had been very ‘open’ with her mail, the aerograms and finely printed envelopes that seemed like invitations to pop over for tea. And both they laughed heartily over a story of hers, that actually brought tears to his eyes: she’d recounted the recent marriage of a friend of hers, an old classmate from Lady Compton’s School for Girls. This friend had married a fellow her mother considered unsuitable to their social standing, and how, tipsy at the marriage ceremony, the mother had referred to her new son-in-law as a good ‘starter husband’.
And so he found himself on a late March day, blustery, walking west along Sherbrooke Street, with gales of east wind pouring in from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, and rather than returning home right away, lugging his grocery bag up the hill to MacGregor, he entered the stone portal passing through the long fortification wall of the Sulpician college.
In the grounds lay a 500-foot long mediation pool, under an alley of spreading maples. Here, he and she had often come in the fall, while the ducks were gathering prior to migrating, and the days had grown grayer, and chillier. An old shambling priest brought the mallards crumbs – and the ducklings, grown like a spanking new football team, flocked around the man’s soutane, splashing out of the water as they hopped up onto the footpath, rising on their webbed feet, imploring him with their beady eyes for handouts. Only the mother duck stayed in the pool, summoning her brood back with an imperious quacking. Soon, they flew off, and the old Sulpician, his eyes grown dim, told them that the original pair had been returning for nine years.
‘I wonder if he married them,’ he quipped to her, as they went trudging up the hill to their apartment.
And so, on this spring day, laden with his food bags, going up the hill to MacGregor, he detoured to take a look at the long pool – banks of snow still lingering in the glade that had brought such welcome shade in the heat of summer, but the mallard pair had not yet returned.
And he knew that when the inevitable came, as he sensed it would, soon, he must be supportive of her, and her decision. And in his luckless way, he wondered at the supremacy of natural mating, how anonymous the pairing seemed, the wild yonder, and the return to mystical habitats.
He knew that they would think of each other, just as memories recede in time but do not grow dim, their defining elements sparkle in the worldwide orbit of goings and comings; they might even correspond by mail, or gossip heard via his milieu, or recall each other, as with the passing of geese overhead that summons a peculiar joy; they might even meet one another, if the occasion befitted the quick flutter of a lark, and they might – this would truly be a mistake – spend the night together if he happened to find himself in London while working on a film. Their bond, he felt, as haunting as the fluting call of a loon.
And tethered to no name.