While looking for something on my old desktop, I stumbled across this.
Back in 2004, I started to write a piece of fictitious writing. This is as far as I got. There’s still a few typos that I am gradually correcting. It was interesting to see what creative juices & imagery were going through my mind over ten years ago.
WARNING: Contains swearing and graphic sexual & violent language (maybe that explains a lot).
THE BOXER OF SAINTE-AG
Connor was mad. Oh, he was really livid. He slammed his fork on the kitchen table and stood up with such a force that he knocked the wooden chair to the floor. Carelessly spitting out chunks of mashed potato “Fucking hell”, he screamed at the top of his voice. “This family is fucking shit! I’ve only just gotten settled here and now you wanna move again?! Well fuck you! The fucking lot of you!”
He stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs, making an exerted effort of banging on each individual step as he went.
“I hate this fuck-ing fam-i-ly!!!” he proclaimed with each thud of his foot.
None of this had interrupted the parents from devouring the remains of Mom’s homemade mash and ham pie. There wasn’t anything going to come in between themselves and the evening meal. In our house, food was sacred. The daily ritual of culinary preparation and consumption was the only communal activity, the only interest that we all shared with mutual enthusiasm.
I have no doubt that Connor’s decision to uproot himself from the table at which he dined was not one that was taken lightly. Seconds, maybe even minutes, of internal debate and moral conflict would have eaten away at his consciousness before he plunged in the direction of the kitchen doorway in a fit of rage. Do I eat or do I protest? But knowing that by not eating he would be sending the most powerful message to the parents, Connor was undoubtedly pleased that, this time, he had made the right decision. ‘I’m that angry that I’m not going to finish my food’. This was serious. This, as far as Connor was concerned, was political.
Only when the last remains of pie had been scraped clean off everyone’s plates (including Connor’s), the glasses, crockery and cutlery collected, the table cleared, the washing and drying done and everything replaced in its rightful cabinet, drawer or cupboard, did my parents even contemplate giving the rebellious teen their response. By now Connor was blaring Eminem at, what sounded like, top volume from his sound system. Only he would turn it even louder when Marshal Mathers spouted abuse directed specifically at his mother, or swore, or used language of a sexual nature.
“I suppose one of us better go and see what’s up with him this time”, Dad sighed.
“Well I knew he wasn’t going to take this very well.” Mom claimed a few moments later. “He hates your guts,”
“Thanks Andree. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. He must get tired of moving. I know I do.”
There was a moment of silence as we all just stood around the kitchen replacing the remaining pans in their cupboard. Each of us stared around, never once making eye contact, just looking, but listening, mainly, to the racket from above. Dad threw the drying cloth onto the sideboard. “Little fucking brat! I’ve had it with this nonsense!!”.
He headed towards the stairs, slamming the kitchen door behind him.
“I’m sorry” I said, as Mom and I stood there, waiting for the ensuing action, wondering and anticipating how Dad would resolve this chapter of Connor’s troubled youth.
“Pourqoui?” she asked, “c’est pas ta faute, mon p’tit.”
“I know. I just hate the way it happens like all the time. I’m fucking sick of it!”
“Eh, eh, eh! Sainte-Maire! Don’t you speak like that too! C’est “fuckin this” et “fucking that”. J’suis ta mere, parles pas comme ca avec moi!”
My Mother had seen and heard it all. She was the youngest child of seven surviving children, all the others boys, and had, at various different times and many different manners, been abused by every single member of her family. She was always very open with Connor and I about the torment, torture and tragedy that she had to endure during her childhood growing up in the small Quebec town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Lacs, or ‘Sainte-Ag’ as the locals affectionately called it.
Sainte-Ag was a sleepy town, one of just a handful that dotted the landscape of Eastern Quebec just north of Sherbrooke. It was nestled in, what felt like, judging by the popping in my ears every time we went there, a deep valley. All approach roads descended steeply from the neighbouring forests, through the edge of the community and continued at what seemed like a ninety degree angle right into the downtown core. Downtown was little more than a sprinkling of commercial properties: a Bank of Montreal, a convenience store, a post office, a gas station, a saloon bar and a café, ‘Maxines’ (the apostrophe had visibly been blanked out). Peeling lettering on the exterior of Maxines proudly advertised that it served “only traditional French-Canadian cuisine!” Hamburgers, hot dogs and fries were all that were served now.
All the businesses encircled (except for the northern side) a central square around the church, the focal point of the community. It was a modest wooden structure, painted white with black timber framing. It had a small turret with an exposed bell enclosed within that rang only on Sundays and on special occasions likes wedding, baptisms and funerals. In a town like Sainte-Ag, the church bell was rung more often than there were Sundays. The front door was never shut and there was always some kind of action taking place inside, always the priest and his female groupies preparing for the next ceremony. As soon as the coffin was loaded into the hearse, they were preparing the font for the next baptism, or sprucing up the floral display for a wedding. At least, that was how it felt. Sainte-Ag was a stronghold of the catholic faith. Few families had less than three children in them, and you usually had the same number of siblings lying in the town graveyard as you did sponging off your earnings. Hence why funerals and baptisms occurred in equal frequency. Weddings were a regular occurrence too and inter-marriage was not uncommon, in fact it was the rule.
The town consisted of four man families, the genetic pools of which had remained little changed since the days they had left the coast of Brittany and settled in La Nouvelle France way back in the 1700s, except for having been injected by a little fresh blood from one another now and then: the Levesques, the Lefebvres, the Huberts and the Potvins. Any townsfolk with any other last name were simply the result of a visiting doctor, a new teacher or lawyer or some other professional that had to be imported in order to fill a post that no local intellect could adequately fulfil. Now and again you would meet the odd Duplessis, or Trudeau or Dion even sometimes the occasional Patel or Shah or Ng, but any of these were very few and far between. To anyone outside of Sainte-Ag, whether they were from Sherbrooke, Montreal or Toronto, Calcutta or Ho Chi Minh, to them the town was a foreign, strange and hostile place. It didn’t matter where you were from, if you weren’t from Sainte-Ag you would never truly understand the town and the town would never truly let you in.
The church stood in front of a lakeside park with a narrow sandy beach which hugged the shores of Lac Labaska, a small body of water surrounded on all sides by steep hills blanketed by coniferous forests. It caused me immense feelings of claustrophobia to stand on the bay and be surrounded by hills on all sides, a 360 degree barrier to the outside world, a symbol of Sainte-Ag’s seclusion and, an almost self-imposed exclusion, from the rest of the planet. Many of the town’s inhabitants rarely left the security of the community, if at all. Families knew that if a child ever left it would never return, drawn by the distractions, the opportunities and, to most, the vices of the world around them. Any new arrivals in the town would spend the rest of their natural lives there, despising every day they chose to relocate, but never quite knowing how to get out or why exactly they should.
My Mother was a Potvin. In Sainte-Ag this meant only one thing – that you were scum. The Potvin’s were the white trash of the town. They lived on the edge of town, high up in the hill with an imposing view of the bay, the lake and the rest of the community. In Sainte-Ag however, the higher up you lived physically, the lower down you were in the estimation of the local mentality. Rich folk lived in bigger houses downtown around the church. Their Sunday treks didn’t involve steep, breath-taking, sweat-inducing hikes up and down hills. Their life was easy, flat, and also somewhat bland.
The Potvins lived just above the Huberts who, in turn, looked down on the Lefebvres, whilst the Levesques lived in luxury at the base of the hill. Each grouping consisted of a cluster of a dozen or so houses, divided further into smaller cul-de-sacs of two to three homes, of related families: cousins, grandparents, uncles, brothers and sons. Despite the division of the town into socio-economic/family groupings, all the houses were surprisingly similar in style, design and size. They were all white timber-framed structures (occasionally some daring family would deviate from this rule and opt for pink, or blue or yellow, but they would suffer eternal disapproval and tuts from passers-by – too much for most townsfolk to even begin to contemplate). Many of the residences had a porch, a front yard and a wooden fence. Such was the house that my mother grew up in. The paint on her house was always slightly peeling, never a brilliant white like the Levesques’ downtown, but a worn, shabby and lived-in look, much like those who now resided within her walls .
My Grandma, my Mother’s Mom, was always cooking in that house. There was never a day where there wasn’t something on the boil or roasting in the oven and there was inevitably the carcass of some creature, be it bird or mammal, hanging from the ceiling or lying on a chopping board on the kitchen table. The entire house smelt of food. It was constantly sitting in the air, covering it in thick layers of odour that would linger hours and days and mingle with the subsequent day’s feasts. For me, it was a pleasant smell, a reassuring smell. On weekend trips to Saint-Ag, Connor and I would be awoken from our slumber in the car by the smell emanating from that house. As soon as we turned the corner into their street, it would hit you and immediately your stomach would start to rumble and your mouth begin to salivate uncontrollably.
My Grandma would always be waiting for us on the porch when we arrived, watching as Mom forced the car, coughing and spluttering, up the steep drive. Usually it took her a few attempts. Mom was never a confident driver and seeing her family would make her nervous already, not to mention the hills and bends of the valley that she would have to navigate. Mom had always made it quite clear that if she never had to see Sainte-Ag again, it would be too soon, but she insisted on Connor and I remaining in contact with her family and retaining that link with our francophone roots. Father never came to Sainte-Ag with us, except occasionally for funerals to bid a fond “good riddance” to another departing Potvin. This was partially because he was a very busy man back in Ottawa, but mainly because my Mom’s family hated him and he was never too fond of them either. In the eyes of her family, my Mom committed three great cardinal sins: she left Sainte-Ag, she moved in with an Anglophone and she’s never gotten married! Her family, however, has somehow managed to forgive her and maintain a strong relationship with my brother and I, but continues to hold a grudge against my father. I can never understand that – hating my father, but loving me, it’s a double standard, but I was always too young and never confident enough in my French to stand up to them and now I just didn’t seem to care. Connor did enough father-hating for me to worry about what the rest of the family thought. That anyone seemed to like him anymore was a breath of fresh air.
Grandma was a short lady of slight proportions, but not fragile. Physically she seemed quite frail, but she had an enormous presence and real sense of charisma. She always had her dress sleeves tucked halfway up the length of her arm, as if she was ready for a fist-fight at any moment. In her youth she had been quite the lady about town, so I understand. The men flocked to her and she was in total control. Now she stood in a long dark dress, with a dirty dish cloth draped over her shoulders. She would grab my face with her greasy, blood-stained hands and kiss me on both cheeks. When she turned her back I would wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweater. She would herd us into the house and direct us into the kitchen muttering in French all the way, complaining about the time, all the cooking that needs to be done, and about how much we’d grown. There we would sit for the rest of the night as Connor and I were forced to recount stories from school and home and keep Grandma up-to-date with all our other news.
My Grandfather was very rarely home. Grandfather, or Bruno as we would call him, on account of the fact that my mother wished, and suspected that, he wasn’t her real father, was most likely to be at the bar or with another one of his lady friends. Bruno was a self-proclaimed alcoholic, bigot and womaniser and wasn’t ashamed of any of it. My Grandmother and Bruno’s marriage existed only on paper. He was father to many of the town’s babies, dead, alive, or still in a stage of foetal development, and put it about like it was his full-time job, even though he was now drawing his pension. He was also a bully and a thug and no holier-than-thou Levesque had the energy or inclination to disapprove of, or oppose, any of his indulgences. He was a fixture of Sainte-Ag as much as the church and the whitened apostrophe of Maxines. Although many wished that Bruno had, like the unsightly English grammar, been blanked out and banished from the town, his presence was grudgingly tolerated, much to the detriment of society at large.
In his youth, Bruno had been one of the Eastern township’s most promising boxing champions. He even fought and won titles in Montreal, Quebec City and all the way in New Brunswick and the state of Vermont, but his physical prowess allowed him the highest respect, instilled the greatest fear and afforded him the largest amount of sexual victories in his home territory of Sainte-Ag and the nearby city of Sherbrooke, about 45 minutes to the south. Most weekends he would leave my Grandma alone with the seven kids and head to Sherbrooke. Usually he would stay there until Monday morning, probably in some filthy motel, in the bed of a new lady, or spend all his winnings at a brothel on the edge of town. Back in Sainte-Ag, his weekdays were full of further rounds of fighting and fucking. Nobody would question him, nobody would get in his way. He was unstoppable. At that time he was a local hero, the girls loved him and the guys wanted to be him.
At the age of twenty-one Bruno married the most beautiful girl in town, my Grandma. To Bruno, she was a prize and a possession. I suspect Bruno never really wanted to marry, he loved fucking others and fucking around too much to settle down, but he married my Grandmother because he knew he could and because he didn’t want to let anyone else have the privilege. Bruno had a reputation to uphold. He was the tough guy, the hero, and married to the Belle of Sainte-Ag – nothing was more important than maintaining his pride and his place in the community. As far as he was concerned, he was King of the town, married to a Princess, treating the town as his kingdom and its folk as his subjects to be used and abused as he so pleased.
Bruno inflicted abuse on all those in his life, not just others in the town but those near him too. My Mother recalls how he regularly beat and raped my Grandma, often leaving her bleeding or unconscious. He was particularly violent when he found out she had been sleeping with other men, although these outbursts of violence occurred far less frequently than Grandma was able to cheat on her husband. Sometimes, my Mom explained, Bruno would come home with another girl and force my Grandma to sleep with them both. Afterwards, both the women would leave the bedroom in tears. As soon as my Mom started sprouting breasts, Bruno saw this as a licence to fuck her too, which he did on several occasions throughout her teen years from the age of twelve. But he didn’t stop there. The worst times, claimed my Mom, was when Bruno forced his sons, my Mom’s brothers, to fuck her. He would sit there and watch, sometimes physically move them into position while he screamed at them to get on with it and show what real men they were. He particularly liked getting as many of the brothers involved as possible and forcing them into an incestual gangbang. Bruno would sit there as compere, shouting at them like fans at one of his boxing matches, screaming at them to “fuck her good!” and cheering them when they would ejaculate over my Mother. Apparently, he would sit there masturbating throughout. Out the corner of her eye, my Mom could see how he made one of her brothers suck him off until he came. Every time a different brother, the one he thought had performed the best:
“Viens, ici ton prix!”, he would shout and shove his cock into their mouth.
None of the brothers ever abused my Mom sexually without prompting from their father. Sometimes they would hit her and beat her, but never fuck her. This, to them, was more like a punishment, a chore to be carried out in the presence of father, not a game to play with your little sister while Daddy wasn’t around.
Now Bruno is in his mid-seventies. Although his body has withered and his strong, muscular physique has shrunk, he still remains a cunt. Only now he is reliant on alcohol, he stinks and his bent nose, bloodshot eyes and ruddy complexion make him look like a psychopath, which would largely be true. Ladies are no longer drawn to him, now he mostly pays for any action he gets or forces himself on them in the same brutish manner he always employed. His rate of success, however, has diminished.
My Mother treats Bruno with the contempt a man of his calibre deserves and is used to. She dislikes, but doesn’t hate him. She always says that it would be wrong to hate another human, even Bruno. “I’ve had so much shit in my life”, she confesses “If I had to use my energy hating all those I should detest I wouldn’t have enough left to give any love.”
I don’t always know why my Mom was so open about the scenes she had witnessed and the abuse she had endured from Bruno, but we had always, for as long as I could remember, been aware of the violent nature of our Grandfather. Gradually, over the years, we had been fed new pieces of startling, gruesome, and horrific information about life with the Boxer of Sainte-Ag. And yet Bruno was also quite loveable. On the occasion that he did come home, he would shower Connor and I with love, with gifts and money and affection. His breath always stank of alcohol and one of his eyes would usually be looking in another direction, but he always made an effort when he knew we were in town. Sometimes he would parade us in front of the locals, saying how proud he was of us and how we would grow up to one day be great boxing champions in America.
“Felix est un p’tit Fighter! Regardez ses muscles!”, he would boast, grabbing at my arm and forcing me to flex my tiny, sinewy bicep. “Le champion du monde a Madison Square Gardens! Vous allez voir!!!”
Everyone would humour him. No-one insulted him or shouted at him or called him a “crazy drunk fool” like I always feared they would. When I was little he would lift me onto his shoulder and hold me in the air like a boxing title belt, everyone would stare at us like we were celebrities, like I was indeed a prize. It quickly became apparent that we had become yet another trophy on the King’s display cabinet. Along with the beautiful wife, the large family and the house on the hill, the grandchildren were easily used as another booster to Bruno’s inflated ego.
As Dad and Connor commenced their shouting duel upstairs, I begun to wonder what could be so bad in my brother’s life that would cause him to behave like this? And why did I not feel the same way? Nothing either of our parents had ever done to us could even begin to compare to the strife that Mom had to endure during her childhood and that continues to scar her mind. Life for us had been idyllic, almost enviable. We are sons of a diplomat, Raymond Robinson, senior officer in the external department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Connor was born in Manila, the Philippines and I was born two years later in Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto. We maintained a residence in Ottawa, but had spent three years living in Nairobi when I was very little, two years in Frankfurt, and, most recently three years in Buenos Aires. It had been over two years since my father had been sent on another overseas assignment and we had been living happily in our beautiful home in Ottawa’s leafy west-end during all that time.
I was now of the ripe old age of thirteen, Connor fifteen, but teenage angst and anguish, confusion and imbalance had yet to hit in, I hoped it never would. Connor, however, had been through it all. If it was there to be had, he’d had it and if it was there to be done, he’d done it. Our parents though were very liberal. They had allowed him to smoke in the house, to drink, to take drugs, and they even allowed him to bring girlfriends over and let them share his bed – all of it illegal under Ontario law and all of it happening under the roof of a senior diplomat and civil servant. Connor had even been arrested a few times; two that I knew of for sure, although I suspected there were others. My parents were never too bothered by this, and the police didn’t seem to want to pursue it any further. I was never told why he was arrested, maybe I was too young, too naïve to understand, but suspected it was either under-age drinking or substance related.
My father had blamed much of this on my Mother’s attitude towards disciplining her children. She never wanted there to be a repeat of what she had had to go through with Bruno. As a result, she took the extreme measure of allowing her children to do absolutely anything they wanted and never coming down hard on them. She claimed it had worked for at least one of her children, “Look at Felix!” she would say proudly, much to the annoyance of my brother “he never causes any trouble.”
“Yeah, but he’s a boring fag!” would be the usual response my brother would give.
“He might be a fag”, she responded, not even attempting to defend my sexuality, “but he’s an A grade fag! Unlike you, p’tit chretin!”
Suddenly the music went off, although I could still hear Eminem’s shrill voice shouting in my ear, much like the constant ringing noise you get after a night at the discotheque. There was a brief moment of silence and then the sound of stumbling from upstairs.
“Get your fucking hands off of me!” screamed Connor.
Mom looked up and rushed out of the kitchen, up the stairs and into Connor’s room. I followed seconds behind her and listened from the comfort of the next room, my bedroom.
“Qu’est qui ce passé ici? Huh? Qui a touché qui?!” She demanded.
“It was him” Connor said “He was trying to hit me. Fucker!”
“Andree, your fucking son was going to hit me in the face with his god damn fist! I had to stop him, I gotta defend myself! He’s bloody bigger than me!”
“Oh, now he’s ‘my fucking son’, huh? He’s always ‘my fucking son’ when shit like this happens, huh? When is he ever your fucking son? Take responsibility sometimes, Roy!”
“If it wasn’t for you they wouldn’t behave like this!”
“Excuse me? But Felix does not behave like…”
“Shut the fuck up, Mom!” interrupted Connor. “Just get the fuck out of my room, both of you. Get the fuck out!!!”
“Roy, can you leave me and ‘my son’ alone for a moment?” pleaded Mom.
“Both of you get the fuck out!” continued Connor.
“Well good luck, Andree.” Dad left the room, slamming the door behind him. I heard him go downstairs, back into the kitchen. No doubt he had gone to console himself by raiding the fridge and filling his, already protruding, mid-section with yet more food. Food was always the answer. It made us happy when we were sad and even happier when we were happy.
“Mom, you can get the fuck out too!”
“Connor, sit down and shut up.”
“Sit down, Connor!”
“No, you fuckin’ make me, bitch!”
“SIT THE FUCK DOWN!”, Mom screamed in the loudest voice I had ever heard her use. I was sure there was a slap as well, but I cannot be sure for the noise that emanated from her vocal chords was so overbearing.
Their voices dropped to just a low murmur. I had to put my ear next to the wall to continue my eavesdropping.
“Ton pere, il me blame pour ton comportement.” Mom said in a calm, collected tone. “Connor, what have I done here? Je te n’ai que donne de respet, pendant tout de ta vie – seulement respet! None of us deserve to be treated like this, not me, ni ton frere, ni ton pere.”
“Rien! There is nothing that we cannot talk about, Connor.”
“I try fucking talking, but you guys never friggin’ listen! Every fuckin’ time!”
“Dits-moi, Connor, tell me what the problem is.”
“Man! I dunno…”
“I’m just sick of moving like all the time. Dad always gets his way, I fucking hate him. He’s never around, he never does anything we wanna do, but the moment he wants to do anything we just have to kiss his ass!”
“You know its not like that, Connor. You know your Dad is a busy, hard-working man and the only reason we move is because of his job.”
“There you again! Always taking his fucking side!!”
“Il est mon mari, Connor! Your father works hard to provide for you, for us. You think I could do it on my own? You think I earn even half of what your father does? Besides, we haven’t moved for a while, we’ve been here for a couple of years, you know this is the way it works.”
“Well I don’t wanna go anywhere anymore. I don’t wanna play the diplomat’s son anymore!”
“You are the diplomat’s son, l’accepte! Besides, you know what the option is. You can either come with us to London or go to St. Mary’s”
“I’m not going to any fucking boys school. They’re all a bunch of fags, and the teachers fuck the kids up the ass in their dorms. How can you be so fucking blind?!”
“T’as le choix. You might even like London. There’s a lot going there for young people, I’m sure… Listen, Connor, this is important for your father, and for the rest of us. I’m not going to let you ruin this for us, Connor. You’re coming to London whether you like it or not!…. Now tidy up your room, its filthy!”
As soon as she left his room, Connor cranked up the volume once more, which infuriated my parents no end. We all desperately wished that the Real Slim Shady would please stand up and get it over with, but after several minutes we were still wishing and still waiting and still too afraid to do anything about. We also knew that after Slim Shady had stood up he would proceed with further ditties full of abuse, slur and general filth that, once all this started, we all begun to regret seeming so keen to have him leave his seat and make his presence known in the first place. But, as we all knew by now, nothing was going to shut the trailer park trash from Michigan up. He had a message to share and, whether we liked it or not, we were going to hear it.
Nothing in my brother’s reaction indicated that my parents had won any kind of victory over his hormone-driven rebellion against them. Despite this, I knew that Connor would be deeply affected by what he heard and by the way he had been treated tonight. My mother rarely raised her voice. The usual recipient of her anger would be Dad or her mother, but never would she shout at us kids. Connor would never forget that he had made her do this, but above all, he would never forget that he brought her to the point of swearing and, if my suspicions were correct, of a slap across the cheeks. My mother did swear, but usually it was of biblical reference and most often in French. Mom learnt English fairly late on in life and was never truly at ease with conversing in the language. To hear her that night use the F word with such confidence and such conviction was both shocking and impressive. I was immensely proud of her, but also quite scared. This, I felt, had been a life-defining moment for her too. She had crossed a linguistic barrier that she had never dared to tackle before, but she had done it. God knows if she would ever do it again.
From the open window, a cool breeze entered my room and the leaves on the tall oak tree outside rustled soothingly as another day drew to a close. An early heat wave had made the last week of June almost unbearable and the air-conditioning had been on full-blast for the past four days. In the evenings though, I liked to open my window, to hear the sounds of the city around me: the birds, the children playing in the streets, the water sprinklers of the neighbouring yards, the police sirens from downtown and the planes beginning their descent into the airport. Although the residents of the big Edwardian houses of the ‘burbs were winding down for the end of another sweaty Spring day, in the distance, the hum of the traffic and the lights of downtown left me in a state of curiosity. What are these people doing on a Thursday night and should I be doing it too? My life until now had been uneventful. It revolved around my family and the few friends I made who lived predominantly very similar lives to that of my own. I was so naïve, so inexperienced of life and so unsure of my place in it and the opportunities that it had to offer.
But as I lay on my bed that evening, staring at the map of the globe on my bedroom wall, a smile was drawn all across my face. I was the happiest I had been for a long while. For the first time ever, I craved new experiences and yearned to leave the limits of the suburbs and discover new cities, new countries and new peoples. My father’s news was the best thing I had heard for a while. I had never been to England and London sounded magical. The only thing I knew of the place was what I had seen in films or read in books or learnt in class. England was the motherland and London the capital of an Empire! Ottawa seemed such an outpost when compared to the grandeur and the splendour of London. London to me was all about stately homes and gentlemen, about bowler hats and big buses. It was a huge metropolis with a great sense of being and purpose, a capital of a proud, a strong and a great nation. Not all of this seemed to tally with the Ottawa that I knew and loved. But London was also the centre and birthplace of so much of the now, of youth culture, of the contemporary: the Spice Girls, Hugh Grant, Oasis, James Bond, Blur, and other bands, or actors and artists that, if I was more cool and more ‘with it’, I’d know more about. Now I had the chance to be part of this Cool Britannia and I quietly revelled in this prospect.
In the past, it had always been Connor who was excited about moving abroad and seeing the world. In fact, he hated having to come back to Canada. But since we had returned from Argentina things had changed. Connor had gotten himself quite established here in Ottawa. He had begun to discover himself sexually and how attractive he found himself to be to the opposite sex. He had explored and experimented with all types of sex and he always knew where to go to get it. He had also established firm contacts within the high school drug scene. He’d gotten a regular supplier, quality stuff at the right price and never went without. He, in turn, had built up a decent clienetele for himself amongst kids in the lower grades who had more money or were even more foolish than himself. Whatever he wanted to have or to do, Connor always knew a way, or knew someone who knew someone who knew a way. Ottawa was Connor’s playground, his territory and he wasn’t prepared to let any other tom cat replace him.
Connor was scared of leaving all this behind and of having to rebuild his reputation and his contacts from scratch. He also knew that Dad had been rooting for a London posting ever since Connor’s ‘troubles’ started. He thought that a British education would provide better discipline than the Canadian school system and would provide just what was needed to keep Connor in order and put him back on track. With this in mind, Connor didn’t like the sound of going to England and suffering under potentially stricter teachers and Principals than the ones he was used to. The only other option was to go to St.Mary’s Catholic School For Boys, which he hated even more. I was never sure if it was just an idle threat, but my parents had always used the “well you can always go to St.Mary’s” line as a sure-fire way of getting us to go with them. It used to be a family joke, but St. Mary’s had a reputation and they knew it. Academically it always scored very highly, but from rumours they had heard and, no doubt, issues relating to their histories, Mom and Dad had never really considered St. Mary’s as a realistic option. Besides, if they really thought we should go there, then why hadn’t they sent us there already? But now I was beginning to be convinced that Connor’s behaviour may drive Mom and Dad to taking extreme measures and a single-sex, religious-based education my not be such a bad option. Plus a few nights of inter-pupil or teacher-student buggery might teach him a lesson or two about what real abuse is and be a little more appreciative of the life he had left behind. Connor though, would never choose St.Mary’s, even if it meant he could stay in Ottawa, to living with the parents in England. This I was sure. A life without girls, without ready access to heterosexual intercourse was a life, in Connor’s judgement, not worth living.
Then the doorbell rang. I heard Mom open the door. “Hi Mackenzie”, she said, as if she’d been expecting her. “He’s upstairs in his room.”
Mackenzie ran up the stairs and knocked on Connor’s door. They talked for a while, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying over all the music. Then he stopped. Mathers finally shut the fuck up. But no sooner had the music stopped than those other noises that kept me awake at night began. This was all I knew of sex. The rattling and shaking of the bed, the banging of its frame against the wall in a certain, quickening rhythm, and the grunting and the groaning and the swearing: much like the music that had finished just minutes before. It never lasted long, but this was all I knew of ‘making love’. I had much to learn.
Mackenzie was a girl in my brother’s class. She had known my parents for a while because she had been Connor’s first girlfriend way back when he was the tender age of twelve. Now she was just his fuck buddy and my parents knew this. At times like this, they encouraged it. They knew that a quick fuck would shut him up, get rid of some of that frustration and make the home environment just a little pleasanter, for a few days at least. Mackenzie was an attractive, fit, sporty type, who lived a few streets away in a poorer neighbourhood. Mom and Dad didn’t know her parents and they didn’t know mine and that was they way they wanted it. I doubt they could have looked Mackenzie’s parents in they eyes knowing they encouraged their daughter to indulge in under-age sex with their son. Mackenzie was like candy, a toy or a pacifier, they would use her to shut Connor up, to please him, particularly where they had failed or lost control.
Through the open window I could hear Mom and Dad on the deck outside. I could smell the smoke of Dad’s cigarette rising into my room. It was a pleasant smell, another reminder that Summer had finally arrived. I could hear him sipping from a bottle of Labatt’s, which he did as a daily occurrence at this time of the evening.
“Got me beer, got me smokes!” He’d say like a kid who had just been given some candy. “And I got me lady! What more do I need in life?”
Mom always laughed when Dad said this. It was never funny, but it was his line.
“Ya know, we got a couple o’ great kids there, Ray” she chuckled. There was a pause. A moment of contemplation. Maybe they were nodding in agreement, or kissing, or hugging, I just couldn’t see.
“Can I have a drag?”, she asked.
Now Mom had given up smoking about five years ago. Back then she was a chain smoker. Being from Quebec, the propensity to fill one lungs with copious amounts of tobacco in the shortest time possible was in your blood. On frequent trips to Montreal, I had to forgive myself for thinking that the entire city was at contest with each other over who could consume the most amount of smokes in the space of an evening. A cigarette to Mom was like a prop, an accessory, she wouldn’t be seen without one and if, for some reason, there wasn’t one wedged between her index and middle finger or her upper and lower lips, she would feel naked, anxious and start to behave frantically until she had located her pack of Du Maurier Lights, much like an insect caught in a jar, searching for air, for a way out and not stopping until it finds one or until it dies. This was a cigarette to Mom. It was the first thing in the morning and last thing at night. She couldn’t breathe without one and she couldn’t live without one. Cigarettes were her life.
Then, one weekend, one dark winter weekend back when I was about eight, Mom went and stayed with a friend in Chicoutimi, a friend she had met when she worked in Montreal before she had met my father. She stayed with her friend just for two days and when she came back the following Sunday night she told us that she had given up smoking. And to this day, she hadn’t touched a cigarette since then. I don’t know what happened in Chicoutimi, whether she had been put through shock treatment, or a smoker’s boot camp, or if she had been traumatised by having to recount terrible and tragic stories from her past in order to face her enemy of today – the cigarette. Mom never talks of what happened during those two, life-changing days in Chicoutimi. She has never said a word about it.
But there she was, after all that hard work, after all those years, about to throw it all away by getting hooked on those evil cancer sticks once again. I was glued. What was Dad going to do? He can’t possibly allow her to start again, could he? Then, as she exhaled on the longest breath I’d ever heard her use, Mom exclaimed in a state of almost orgasmic climax:
“Aaah, that’s heaven! I’d forgotten how good that felt.”
Nothing in life is ever simple. London Transport made sure of this. Buses, subways, trains and taxis, none of us were quite sure which was the best way to get from Heathrow to East India Quay. In fact, none of us quite knew where East India Quay was. I had heard of many places in London, but the idea that London had a ‘Quay’ seemed quite strange to me. It sounded more like something you would expect in Sydney, San Francisco or Miami. It conjured images of yachts, of restored piers and trendy promenades full of wine bars and roller-bladers. I looked at the grey skies looming above the airport terminal, inhaled to try and detect at least the feint smell of nearby saltwater, but it all seemed to indicate that my interpretation of the word ‘quay’ was incorrect, or at least broader than I had imagined.
The four of us stood outside the exit of terminal three with our two trolleys. Dad pushed one and Connor the other. I was considered still too weak and still too useless to be able to cope with this task. Besides, both seemed to have faulty wheels and brake systems and both pushers moaned constantly but were too proud to accept any assistance. Mom pulled out her pack of smokes and proceeded to light a cigarette. We all stood there, frankly clueless as to what to do next. We all seemed rather anxious and frustrated, much like most travellers when they step off a plane, wanting to get on and see it all but too unsure of their new surroundings to proceed with much confidence and their bodies too tired to keep up with their enthusiasm.
“I’ll go hail us a taxi.” Exclaimed Dad.
“Woah, attends! I don’t wanna be stuck in a taxi. Je veut prendre le metro, le ‘tube’.” Mom said indignantly.
“C’mon Andree, I just wanna to get home as quickly as possible. Besides, look at all this luggage.”
“Well, we’ll need two cabs anyway, one for the luggage and one for the rest of us. You go with the cases, we’ll take the subway.”
Mom hated taking taxis from airports. You see the ugliest things between airports and downtowns she used to reckon. You would always start travelling through the compulsory clump of standard airport hotels, a Hilton here, a Sheraton there. Then you pass a smoky chimney on some industrial estate, rows of huge trucks would flank you as you enter a six-lane expressway, skimming through the suburban jungle of detached family homes and garages and SUVs. As the bigger buildings and skyscrapers appear on the skyline, the houses would get smaller and closer together and grotty apartment blocks and flashier glass condos would sprout along the banks of the highway, getting either more impoverished or more impressive (or both) the nearer to the downtown core you drive. This was the rule and few cities deviated from it.
Besides, Mom was a people person. She liked to be among the populace, to be near them, to smell them and to hear how they spoke and laughed and see how they dressed. From the outside, she reckoned, cities all generally look the same, but take a bus, a subway train and it is there, she believed, that you would find the heart, the soul and the true defining character and characters of any given city.
Dad, on the other hand, could not tolerate the smells of a crowded subway train, the pushing and the pulling and the general inconvenience of it all. He was past being fascinated by it all. To him, most people were the same the world over. Similar things made them kick and the same things pissed them all off and one man’s sticky armpit hanging from the safety bar of a subway train smelt the same the world over. To Dad, the real definition of a metropolis was to be found in its architecture, its statues and its boulevards and bridges. But even Dad was growing tired of all that. His real motivation for always choosing a taxi was to catch a quick nap. Dad enjoyed long flights and journeys to relax from his demanding job without being disturbed by cellphones or pagers. Sleep was a much-valued commodity of his and he took every opportunity to experience more of it that he could. The prospect of travelling in a taxi, on congested streets, filled to the brim with traffic jams and delays, without the added disturbance of his family was sheer bliss.
Dad had barely had a break since the first day he stepped in the office building of Citizenship and Immigration Canada with his brand new tweed jacket and burgundy leather briefcase. Fresh out of law school and ready to face the exciting world of asylum cases and deportation hearings. He may no longer want to soak in the delights of local cultures and enjoy the intimate company of a stranger’s armpit on a crowded subway train, but back in the day he was quite the social interactor and political activist.
From his early days growing up on the barren, frost-bitten streets of Yellowknife, Dad had been on a mission to right the wrongs of the world he knew and the one he had yet to discover. Unlike mother’s monocultural franco-catholic, inbred childhood, divided only by the class and the ritualistic snobbery of the townsfolk towards those of a lesser calling and lower economic strata, Dad’s origins are extracted from a cacophony of gene pools and ethnic origins. Despite this, Raymond Robinson is nothing but Canadian. He is a simple man of simple pleasures – Beer, Hockey and summer weekends at the lakeside cottage.
Dad talks very little of his childhood. In fact, he talks very little. Never have I spent longer than brief periods in conversation with my father and everything Connor I have learned about his past has invariably come from the mouth of my mother. Its accuracy therefore, cannot be corroborated. According to Mom, Dad feared ever getting too close to us in case, one day, he may lose us or discover that, despite Mom’s reassurances, we weren’t in fact his. Despite his broad, burly exterior and his reluctance to show any real sense of passion for, well anything really, my father is a man who is deeply scarred by revelations and events from his past. Emotionally, he is drained and has become almost immune to its expression. Throughout my life, he has remained present but never too involved, always with, but never actually part of us. If I didn’t know better, I would say that he didn’t love us. But I would be wrong. Very wrong.