C'pas facile d'être amoureux à Montréal
Le ciel est bas, la terre est grise, le fleuve est sale
Le Mont-Royal est mal à l'aise, y a l'air de trop
Westmount le tient serré dans un étau...
The Dept. of Self-Promotion at Autoliterate seems to working overtime these days. They wanted to remind you that Peter Behrens will be leading a writing workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, British Columbia Oct 17-22. There are still a couple of spots open. Check the link for details. And PB will be reading/talking at a Storyfest evening in Hudson, Québec next week: 7:30 PM, October 14 at the Hudson Village Theatre. You can book tickets using the link.
Here's a piece from PB's last short story collection Travelling Light. Check the link if you'd like to pick up a copy of that book, e- or real editions.
Shaun Breen told fire stories. He had come to Montreal from Newfoundland with his mother. She worked in the Snow Hill Coffee Shop at the corner of Queen Mary Road and Côte-des-Neiges but was always there to pick him up after school: a blonde woman puffing a cork-tipped cigarette, a ski jacket thrown over her waitress uniform.
Shaun was the smallest boy in our class. His clothes were covered with burns. There were black charred dots on the sleeves of his shirts, scorch marks on the seat of his pants. He told the fire stories at recess or while we waited in the cold mornings for the janitor to open the school doors.
His father had been a fireman who’d broken his back falling off a ladder trying to rescue a crippled boy trapped in the attic of a house on fire.
There’d been a blaze in a movie theatre in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and one hundred children had been smothered by smoke or crushed by crowds rushing for the exits, while Shaun and his mother had escaped by sliding through a trapdoor that dropped them into the waters of the harbour.
There was a fire at their apartment on Côte-des-Neiges Road and Shaun had awakened smelling smoke, had run downstairs and across the street, in pyjamas, to smash the delicate glass on a telephone-pole fire alarm. Water from the fire hoses broke through the windows and ripped holes in the walls; live wires, pulled down by the ice, snapped out blue tongues of flame upon the pavement.
Our school, St. Kevin’s, was in Côte-des-Neiges, a neighbourhood composed of grid streets and plain brick apartment houses that hadn’t existed before the war, when there had been only fields of snow and summer melons. It was the Catholic school closest to where my parents lived. That’s why I went there instead of Roslyn School or Iona, which were nearer but administered by the Protestant school board. My mother drove me to school the first day in our Buick Century. I wore a grey flannel suit with short pants, a white shirt, a red necktie, brown oxfords, thick woollen socks. My grandmother sent the grey flannel suits from England. I hated them, but whenever I outgrew one, another would arrive in a brown paper parcel tied with string.
The fire stories always ended the same way, with Shaun’s escape, while around him other victims, buildings, whole towns were consumed by fire’s voracious appetite.
I was at St. Kevin’s for five years before being dispatched to boarding school in the Eastern Townships. I was always first in my class. The other pupils at St. Kevin’s were Italians, West Indians, poor Irish. There were only a few like me who came from streets on the slope of the mountain, whose mothers spoke good English and whose fathers came to Parents’ Nights wearing business suits. Most of the parents were working people like Shaun’s mother, who took whatever shifts she could get at the coffee shop and probably never attended a Parents’ Night. Whenever I saw her, she was waiting for Shaun at the schoolyard fence. Even when it was below zero she was puffing a cigarette, shivering in her jacket and her half-undone, hurriedly-stepped-into snow boots. She took Shaun back to the coffee shop, where he would eat his supper at the counter, then do his homework in one of the booths until her shift was over.
Once there was a man in Newfoundland who had caught fire inside. He didn’t realize it until smoke started coming out of his mouth. There was nothing anyone could do. The man was burned to a crisp.
Shaun left that school in the middle of the winter. It was the sort of district where people moved around a lot, where children were being shifted in and out of schools all the time, so it wasn’t a big surprise when Shaun disappeared; half the class that had started in September wouldn’t be there by June. The janitor came in and removed his desk, rearranging the others so there wouldn’t be an empty space. Later a Trinidadian girl joined the class and the desks were rearranged again.
I forgot Shaun after a couple of weeks and I never saw him again. I left St. Kevin’s, left all schools eventually, left the country. It was decades later that I remembered the fire stories.
My wife and I had come from California to spend Christmas with my parents. Jean had never been in Montreal, so I took her downtown on the day before Christmas to look around, to see if the streets were as I remembered them — cold, grey, crowded.
We had a bitter fight that started on a bus coming down Côte-des-Neiges Road. Jean ducked away from me at the entrance to the Guy Street Metro station and I went after her, down and down those long escalators. I waited until the train pulled out, hoping I would see her standing on the empty platform, but she had disappeared. I waited for the next train, trying to decide what to do. Finally I took the escalator back up and started walking along St. Catherine Street. It was brutally cold and people were wrapped up, hunched into the wind. I bought a copy of the New York Times at a newsstand. I felt like going home but I didn’t want to turn up at my parents’ without Jean. I didn’t want them guessing we had had a fight.
The fight had actually been going on for a long time and had to do with all the pain of living together, the fact that we didn’t have enough money, that Jean was unhappy with me and beginning to suspect my moods. We were living in Los Angeles, ten blocks back from Venice Beach, in a neighbourhood of drug dealers, murders, abandoned cars, sunshine. I can’t remember what we thought we were trying to do there. I do remember riding the Super Shuttle from Venice out to LAX at the beginning of that Christmas trip and seeing a car, a BMW, on fire on Lincoln Boulevard — pulled over onto the median strip, flaming and casting up smoke in the December sunshine.
I went into a restaurant on St. Catherine to have a cup of coffee and read the paper. The Times was the only paper I could bear to read in those days. I’d been living in so many different cities that local papers didn’t make sense to me. I loved the Times for the same reason I loved highway atlases and airports: it symbolized removal, success, escape.
I ordered coffee and toast and started reading news of the world. On the fourth page there was a feature article about parents who punished their children by forcing them to sit on hot stoves, searing their flesh with the tips of cigarettes, pressing electric irons against their buttocks.
I thought right away of Shaun Breen and the fire stories, surprised at how easily the details came back to me after twenty-five years. A tired-looking waitress kept refilling my cup. The manager was standing behind the cash, shaking hands with a customer. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood — the next day was Christmas. Montreal seemed like a cheerful small town.
I finally put on my overcoat, gloves, and scarf, left a tip on the counter, and pushed through the revolving door onto St. Catherine Street. Walking from Phillips Square to Guy Street and back again, cheeks hurting with the wind, I told myself I was searching for Jean, but I wasn’t, not really. We’d always needed time to cool down after a fight. We wouldn’t have had anything to say if we’d run into each other in those crowds doing last-minute shopping. I’d have ducked into a store to avoid her or crossed the street quickly against the light, and she’d have done the same.
If I’d happened to meet someone who recognized me, someone on St. Catherine Street who knew me from the old days, and if they had asked me how things were, I’d have told a fire story.
I would have described the dozens of winter bonfires that burned at night out on Venice Beach, the crowds of the homeless and crazy that gathered around the flames, and the sick smoke that hung across our neighbourhood in the morning. I would have admitted to an obsession I had been developing about the gas stove in our kitchen: checking the valve a dozen times a day; phoning the gas company almost every week; worrying that the thing would blow up while we slept, blow us from our bed, blow the whole ramshackle building into the sky. I might have told about the flaming BMW out on Lincoln Boulevard, how it had seared itself into my memory while so much else that was more important was being neglected, put aside, forgotten.
In the fire stories Shaun himself was always being rescued. He was never really in danger. Dogs would awaken him by licking his face, then lead him to safety through rooms packed with smoke. His father would take him by the hand and bring him to a window and, saying a Hail Mary, would finally pitch him outside. Shaun would fall slowly, tumbling and turning the way he had been especially trained, falling like an acrobat through the smoke, the flames, the cinders; bouncing on the rubbery net the men held out, bouncing so expertly he was high up in the air again, climbing slowly, slowly; down below they were cheering as once more he began his descent.
It was the middle of the night in Montreal, Christmas Eve, in the room that had been mine when I was a boy, and I was telling my wife, after we had made love, all that I remembered of the New York Times article and Shaun Breen. I was describing the pattern of concentric black rings that could only have been scorched onto the seat of his pants by an electric stove burner. Jean was so upset that she finally got out of bed and went to find a phone directory. She brought it back to the bedroom and started searching to see if a Shaun Breen was listed. She wanted me to find him, to telephone him in the morning. Shaun, are you alive? Did you survive?
Luckily there were no Breens in the Montreal phonebook. Then I remembered the reason Shaun had left St. Kevin’s was that he and his mother were returning to Newfoundland. The rest of us learned where Newfoundland was by looking at a map of Canada the teacher unrolled over the blackboard. She described the long journey Shaun and his mother faced, by train, by bus, by ferry across the Cabot Strait in midwinter.
Everyone else in the house was asleep. After a while Jean slept, but she awoke after an hour, disturbed by my restlessness. Finally she switched on the light and started to read a Henry James novel that she’d picked up at the bookstore on the Venice boardwalk, near the café where we sometimes ate breakfast on Sundays, when the winter sky was clear and California sunlight sparked on the waves.
I got out of bed, telling her I was going downstairs to make some tea. We could read all night if we wanted to. We could sleep all the next day, which was Christmas.
I heard my father snoring as I passed my parents’ bedroom. I went downstairs and into the kitchen, where I filled a kettle and set it on the stove. A full moon shone through the windows and there was no need to switch on any lights. After a couple of minutes the steam ripped out a high-pitched whistle and I recalled Shaun’s oval, darkened face; his hair, cropped short by blunt scissors; his tense, nail-biting expression.
My parents’ house smelled clean, dusted, polished, at peace, and I stood with my feet bare on linoleum while upstairs my wife waited for me, my parents slept, and Shaun repeated stories that possessed a terrifying power and were fixed, like dreams, with perfect detail. I was thinking of our marriage, our apartment in California, the Pacific Ocean, what it meant to have come this far and to be bending around now, falling backwards, returning.