Excerpts

In A Spin

All day long, Joanne felt nervous. Several times she snapped the floss cleaning her patients’ teeth, and twice she repeated to the same person, “Doing anything over the holidays?” When she got to her skating lesson at the end of the day, it didn’t take much to convince her pupil that she wasn’t feeling well and had to cancel. She was as white as the ice, and shaking.

Joanne had decided that she shouldn’t risk alerting Henry by turning into their driveway, so she parked her car a block from home and turned off the ignition. I can’t go through with this. There must be another way. Maybe, somehow, I can see them without their knowing, and then discuss it with Henry when we’re alone. That would be better.

“And less definitive,” Joanne could hear Max telling her. Henry might try to wheedle out of it, contend she was mistaken. Joanne checked herself in the rear-view mirror. God, I look awful. She rummaged in her purse for her compact and lipstick, and then stopped. What am I doing this for? He’s not going to suddenly jump out of her arms into mine. She snapped her purse shut, climbed out of the car, and locked the doors. I’ve got to do it. Now! I can’t bear this any longer.

Joanne hurried along the street, eyes fixed on the sidewalk, avoiding the risk of an encounter, someone who might stop her and ask why she had parked where she had, offer her assistance with the car. That was the last thing she wanted, any more complications. Not now when she was resolved to execute her plan.

But on the front steps, as she took out her key to unlock the door, Joanne hesitated again, going over once more the opening lines she had rehearsed for several days. “Well, this is certainly something I never expected to catch you doing.” Yes. That was definitely better than her original choice: “Well, how long has this been going on?” Save that for later. Beyond her beginning, she had no idea what she would say, no conception of what might unfold. She had envisaged different scenarios. Henry, pants yanked down to his knees, on top of a young woman barely out of her teens–what a slut–their legs flailing over the side of the couch in the den, totally oblivious to her having entered the room. Perfect for her opening line. A more mature woman–in our bedroom no less–desperately trying to hide her nude body behind a sheet and Henry, his hairy chest bristling, pleading with her, “Joanne, it’s not what you think!” Okay for that, too. Of course, there was another possibility. No woman there, only Henry, watching TV in the den. She was ready for that: felt sick so cancelled the skating lesson. And the car suddenly stalled a block away. Henry would tuck her into bed, probably make her some tea and then check on the car. He wouldn’t be particularly surprised when it started right away. “Women!” he would mutter, shaking his head stoically. “Don’t give them anything more complicated to turn on than a hair dryer.” Joanne slipped the key into the lock, and gently nudged the door open. Oh, please let that be what happens.

Chapter 14, In A Spin

At the Table: Nourishing Conversation and Food

After class, at 3:30 sharp, “X” steps into my office. He looks so stereotypically a spy that I can’t believe he can possibly be one. He is in his late fifties, short, stocky, and white-haired, and he has thick black eyebrows. His forehead is creased, the Volga, the Ob, and the Lena flowing across his temples in undulating lines….

Conversation is lively at our table that evening as I report on my meeting with “X” and the RCMP. Tim sounds confused. “I don’t get it. Are you a spy or something?”

“No,” says Karen. “Dad is going to be a double agent.”

“He’s going to be nothing of the sort!” Dot retorts. “There’s no way we’re having dinner with that man. It isn’t safe.”

“I’ll go if you won’t!” says Karen excitedly.

“I’ll go, too,” Deb says. “What will we get to eat?”

” ‘X,’ The Spy who Stayed Out in the Cold”, in At The Table

“Isto e chato,” Sam, seven, a demanding eater, complains–“This sucks,” in Portuguese. It’s a phrase I taught him at March break, sitting at our glass-top dinner table in a villa we had rented in a remote corner of the Algarve. Teaching the boys rude expressions was, I figured, a good way to interest them in memorizing some basic Portuguese as well as keeping them happily engaged at the table. I was aware, too, of the study done at Harvard that disclosed that dinner with the family is more important in developing vocabulary in young kids than play, story time, and other family activities.

“Just try the salad, Sam,” Deb says. “You might actually like it.”

His lips curl like wood shavings and his chin droops onto his chest, the blond fringe of his hair touching his plate. “I hate salad.”

“Back Home,” in At the Table

….we’re at our dining room table in Toronto discussing with friends and relations the endangered art of conversation. “People are on their cellphones all the time now, talking and texting–in restaurants, at the dinner table, it doesn’t matter where….”

“Yes, everyone seems off in their own space most of the time,” my cousin Nigel observes….”It’s as if people have turned their chairs around and are facing away from the table.”

“Singing for Their Supper,” in At the Table

Penumbra Press, Newcastle, Ontario, December, 2012

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Roaming the Big Land: Flavours of Canada

Trail riding in the Rockies is an easterner’s stereotypical image of Alberta. It conjures up cowboys, corrals, and chuck-wagons, saddles, Stetsons, and steaks….

We set off on a trail through the woods….Dot’s nag is really peckish, and she’s constantly pulling hard on the reins to haul his head out of the grass. Mine has a bite on his hindquarters that is really bugging him, and every so often he kicks up his heels without warning, vainly seeking relief. I feel as if I’m the rodeo rider at the entrance to the Stampede grounds, only in my case I’m holding on for dear life.

Twenty minutes into the ride, my right buttocks feels as if I’ve been pointlessly banging it hard against a rock, and the left feels as if I’ve been jabbed with a hypodermic needle the nurse has neglected to remove….I try to imagine I’m floating above the ground on the back of a blue heron, its feathers serving as a soothing pillow. But it doesn’t work. ‘Geez, my knees are starting to ache now, too,’ I say to the Texan riding in front of me. He just laughs….

Another excruciatingly painful half-hour passes. I’m checking my watch every few minutes now, and looking for the stable that ought to be in sight. ‘Shit!’ the Texam exclaims at last. ‘You know, my knees are starting to ache, too!’

“Rocky Ride” in Roaming the Big Land

Now we had travelled to both the western and eastern extremes of Canada–Toe Head in Haida Gwaii and Cape Spear at the northern end of the Avalon Peninsula. On a map they look like the misshapen wings of an awkward, gangly bird. Our Canada. An improbable confederation with an overload of geography, as Mackenzie King noted in that famous quotation of his, and embracing more history than he was prepared to acknowledge. I wouldn’t want to choose between these bookends–or among the treasures stored between them–but the two wings are in some ways alike. They are desoloate wilderness outposts, windows that face and greet the wider world.

“Salty People” in Roaming The Big Land

Penumbra Press, Manotick, Ontario, November, 2010

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Missing the Bus, Making the Connection: Tales and Tastes of Travel

The efficient Father O’Leary shepherded us, along with several of his flock, out of the pub through the back door…”Now, we’ll all go over to the rectory for a nightcap,” Father O’Leary exclaimed….

Fantastic! I thought. We’ve actually been invited into the home of a parish priest. What more could you ask for?”….

“Right then!” The parish priest strode into the parlour with a large, full bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm. “I’ve locked the children in the kitchen. Let’s have a drink!”

“Looking for Irish Experiences,” in Missing the Bus, Making the Connection

The road ends abruptly just past the headquarters of the desert patrol, and from that point on there are only tracks across the sand to Aqaba and the sea….After skidding and sliding from track to track as Sepp sought a firm route, his ever-reliable Teutonic camel with the specially reinforced chassis finally packed it in. Several kilometres into the desert, it went down on all fours, deep into the red sand….

I pulled a scarf over my nose and mouth and, squinting (I hoped like Peter O’Toole), surveyed 360 degrees of vacant desert under a clear blue sky….How far were we, I wondered, from the famous spring where Lawrence bathed and watered his camels?

“In the Desert with Lawrence,” in Missing the Bus, Making the Connection

Penumbra Press, Manotick, Ontario, 2008

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The Common Touch

“Now, Ditti, when we get to Kotala, the first thing I want you to do is to go to the Yange Lee Company and pick up the material Madame has ordered for the living-room curtains.”

“Yes, master.”

“You know the place I mean?” George Sutherland leaned forward from the comfort of the back seat to ensure the driver was following his instructions.”

“Yes, master.”

“Then you should come back to the hospital and wait for me. I won’t be very long. I just want to say hello to our aid team and the hospital administrator this evening, then go to the hotel and check in.”

“Yes master.” Ditti gripped the wheel of the big limousine tightly and peered past the pelting raindrops to the dark road beyond the windshield. He could see the vague outlines of occasional pedicab drivers along the sides and he knew they must now be on the outskirts of Kotala….

“Do you know someplace where you can stay, Ditti?” Sutherland continued to lean over the front seat. His brown leather dispatch case lay on the seat at his side and he absent-mindedly ran his fingers over the bold gold letters GOVERNMENT OF CANADA.

“Yes master.”

He counted out some bills from the loose change in his pocket. “Here’s a hundred dree for the two nights and another hundred for meals. That will be enough, won’t it? he asked, wondering vaguely what sort of accommodation one could find for roughly the price of a bowl of fried rice and two or three glasses of tea….

“Yes, master.”

He….leaned forward again. “Certainly a bitch of a night. Looks like the monsoon season has really settled in now.”

“Yes, master”….

A large truck without headlights loomed out of the dark, scant yards away. It was backing around on the road blocking half the lane ahead.

“Ditti! Look out!”

Ditti pulled hard on the wheel. The Lincoln Continental swerved, but not enough. It thundered into the left front bumper of the truck, and Ditti catapulted through the windshield. The limousine spun sideways, and flipped one and a half turns into a ditch on the right side of the road.

As it came to rest, a swarthy figure dressed only in shaggy short pants and a sleeveless undershirt leaped from the cab of the truck, vaulted the ditch on the left side of the road and darted off across the rice fields beyond, following the banks of the terraced paddies….

Ditti lay on the road immediately in front of the truck like a half-open jacknife, his head on the ground, tucked under his shoulders, and his back arched skyward. Beside him lay the small red maple-leaf flag which had been yanked from its holder on the front of the limousine. A thin trickle of blood oozed from Ditti’s head. It mixed with the rain water still driving onto the road and broadened into a red stream as it crossed the tattered flag.

The Common Touch, Doubleday, 1977

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