Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lost & Found (An Opening Chapter)

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Lost & Found (An Opening Chapter)

Lost & Found

Chapter One

London ● February 2003

The first time David rolled over and opened his eyes, he couldn’t remember the dream. He could sense that he’d just been having the dream, and did everything he could in his power to will it back, but with his every breath its details seemed to slip further away. He was left with that feeling of having left something behind, of something not quite remembered that still was close by, but he didn’t quite know where or how to reach it.

He strained to bring it back, willing his mind to travel to the very last thing he was thinking, hoping it would trigger a way back to the dream. But it had slowly moved away from him, drifting, unfocussed and out of reach. It was lost to him.

He didn’t like forgetting things, which had been happening a lot more in the last few months. Instinctively he knew he’d have to stop thinking about the dream before finding it again. He suspected that when the time came for him to remember, it also would be the time when things would be clear again.

For the first few moments, he wasn’t at all sure where he was.

The room was large and square, its colour a pasty green climbing the walls. Opposite the bed, a beam of daylight was streaming through a narrow crack in the floor-to-ceiling curtains. Small particles of dust drifted aimlessly inside the narrow shaft of light. He was lying on the bed, staring up at the ornate, circular molding in the centre of the ceiling. Inside its inner circle there was an intricate white maze that seemed to have no entry, beginning or end. It was beautifully complex and simple at the same time.

Then, from outside the room, he heard the muffled buzz of cars and loud voices. Someone on the other side of the wall behind him opened a door and let it slam shut.

He told himself it smelled like a hotel room. The pad of paper beside the phone quickly confirmed it: the Savoy.

Rolling over, he confronted the insistent and annoying sound of the TV.

CNN was on, part of its endless loop of reporting about the coming conflict in Iraq. A beautiful young woman wearing a tailored Anne Klein jacket and filmy white blouse was staring intensely into the camera and speaking about the anticipated turmoil. She didn’t blink once, which unnerved him, but instead played with her hair by repeatedly curling it behind her left ear. The outline of her bra beneath the cloth was visible as she shifted in her chair, its delicate swirl of lace disappearing into the folds. Running behind her were silent images of American soldiers practicing their war play somewhere north and west of Kuwait. They wore the military’s new desert camouflage uniforms, which were made up primarily of a blend of large shapes coloured in pastel green and light tan, with smaller numbers of alternating reddish brown patches, nicknamed the “Coffee Stain” pattern. Their ill-fitting helmets and large sand goggles made them seem almost extra-terrestrial. Gearing up for the coming conflict in their Interceptor body armor, the soldiers grinned as only those mugging for the cameras can do.

Alternating with these were the images of black veiled mothers mouthing incomprehensible curses into the camera. Further behind them were more women, standing motionless, dark rings around eyes staring blankly out from behind their sheltering veils.

The “crawl” at the bottom of the screen was busy reminding viewers about the latest additions to the Coalition of the Willing, the ever-growing list of weapons of mass destruction, followed by an update from a husband in California on what his pregnant wife had been wearing when she mysteriously disappeared from their home.

It was not how David thought the day might begin. He reached for the remote and pushed the “mute” button.

“I think we’ll need to be out of here soon,” said a red haired woman emerging from the bathroom. She wore nothing at all, and tried hard to ignore him as she wandered the room, finding and neatly folding her clothes.

She reached for a small Louis Vuitton travel bag. Out of it this came blue lace underwear, a complete set of toiletries, tissues, mascara, a pearl handled brush, lip gloss, Lancôme perfume, two sets of earrings with hessonite and tourmaline drops, a gaudy but expensive looking bracelet with amazonite, and a complete outfit change of matching Kate Spade skirt and sweater. There was even a spare pair of modest ankle-wrap sandals that she finally rejected after checking them out against the more stylish sling-back d’Orsay pumps from the night before.

“Well . . . Come along David,” she said, turning to face him, “I’ll need you to drive me home.”

He’d met her the night before. She’d said her name was Ellen Ternan – Nellie to her friends. She and her husband were throwing a party in honour of a German gallery owner who was putting together an exhibition of Marilyn Monroe images at the County Hall Gallery next to the London Eye. It was going to be quite a show, with dozens of the movie star’s most famous images captured by the likes of Avedon and Warhol.

The party took place in their Chelsea home, a huge white Georgian affair where Ellen said she had filled the rooms with dozens of framed photos of Marilyn.

“The walls are dressed up as Marilyn,” she said to David as she introduced herself, and pointed out that the exhibition’s curator saw it all as confirmation of Marilyn’s immense influence on the art and culture of today.

At the party she and David had backed into each other in one of the crowded rooms, the one devoted to images from The Misfits. David could remember the slippery, satin feel of her skirt as he’d turned. She’d smelled of spicy soap, fresh from the bath.

They’d talked for hours.

At first, it was about the fun she’d had outfitting the house with copies of the various pictures of Marilyn. It was done on a whim, one that had given her a strange sense of freedom. The more she’d dressed the house with the images, the more she was filled with a spirit of something she couldn’t quite describe.

“It was like traveling to a place you had no idea you wanted to be,” she said. “Traveling to somewhere new is like that . . . very liberating. Only it was much better. Both rational and irrational at the same time. Marilyn was everywhere I looked. I could almost feel her guiding me as I filled each room.”

Their conversation soon moved on to Susan Sontag and photography, about cameras being able to “fix the fleeting moment,” and whether the images we create really do consume reality, or simply create another. After a few more drinks, they wound their way to what was about to happen in Iraq. This, in itself, was not unusual. Almost any conversation at the time was strained through the daily filter of the media’s own stories and impressions of Iraq.

Nellie had just read Robert Kagan’s new book, Paradise & Power, and was eager to debate the differences between Europe and America. David had not yet read the book, though he impressed her with the fact that he had briefly worked with Kagan at the State Department during the mid-eighties. So he fell back reluctantly on Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy to hold up his end.

Not long after, their conversation took a final turn. And, a little later in the darkness of their room at the Savoy, a spray of red and yellow static sparks lit up her hair as she slipped off her sweater and tossed it across the room.

“Is it possible that your husband might wonder where you are,” David said, hoping to fill in a few of the blanks left over from the night before.

“Silly boy, you’re not thinking that he’ll actually have something to say? Besides, if it really comes to that, I simply won’t tell him the entire truth. We have an agreement about that sort of thing – it can be whatever you need it to be; the real truth is never there unless one of us is actually looking for it.”

David wasn’t quite sure why her response made sense to him . . . these days the truth about almost anything seemed a rather quaint request, something lost in favour of moving forward an array of personal or national agendas. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were already cherry-picking their facts and being very selective in their claims. They’d long ago lost the notion of needing or believing in the truth. And besides, in a way he really didn’t want to know why. Given the present unusual circumstances, he was so much more inclined to follow her lead in this. He was not the sort of man that women normally picked up at parties. He was one of the “safe” ones. In fact, this kind of thing hadn’t happened to him since his early twenties, and the odds of it ever happening again were probably astronomical.

“Behind the TV,” he pointed.

Nellie walked over to the huge solid maple armoire that housed the TV and threaded her sweater free from the mesh of wires and cables.

This was the best part, he thought, watching her dress slowly, methodically . . . she, knowing he was watching . . . and he, pretending he wasn’t. It was wonderful how men and women played to each other’s needs. He’d almost forgotten this simple pleasure, the way a woman brings herself together in the morning. Part muddle, part model, a friend had once described it. More like a gradual persuasion was David’s thought.

His wife hadn’t dressed like this in front of him for years.

It was hard to say why or exactly when that part of their life had drifted away. Whenever it was, it was gradual, gone before he even realized it was missing. By the time it was gone, he had difficulty remembering their life together. At one time their lives were fluid and accommodating, the way water assumes the shape of the space it occupies. Then, like a thin film of ice forming, a cold stillness overtook them. Their life together now defined whole new boundaries of separation. The early cheerful sounds of their marriage had progressively given way to long absences. More and more he’d abandoned their house for the solitude of his work. By not talking he thought he could shape his life into something simple and unadorned. But instead the growing silence between them grew more complex. Something had been lost.

It was then that David remembered his dream.

It’s the middle of the afternoon and his father has gone into the spare bedroom to take a nap. His crinkled gray hair pushes out in unmanageable tufts from inside and behind his ears as he lays his head against the pillow. It takes him a minute to comfortably arrange the Hudson’s Bay blanket before looking over to David, who is standing in the open doorway. His father is dying of cancer and he has flown west to visit him. As David walks over to the foot of the bed, their eyes meet. They don’t look away as they might have done in the past, but watch each other with a mutual patience and curiosity, as if re-discovering something about the other they hadn’t known or had lost long ago. Whatever it is they see, it is there with a familiarity that feels like it has always been with them. They watch together, father and son, unsure of what is to happen next, but somehow aware they are floating on the edge of something about to change. The longer David stares, the more it seems the room, the curtains, night table, the bed – everything around them – is gradually disappearing from sight. The light recedes, but to something that is neither light nor dark. The sounds of the house also slow to a silence caught between beats of sound. Soon, even his father is invisible. David hangs there unanchored and suspended in a space where nothing is seen or heard or felt. He is there, and yet not. His solitude is more than merely a distance from those who might see him. It is a place so well hidden, and hiding, that even the world itself cannot entice him to be seen.

He felt again that sense of dark fear. It had been months since he’d thought about his father.

Nellie took the remote from David’s side and released the mute button. She was a woman who believed in moving things along, just as she’d done with the party.

The Anne Klein anchor had turned her attention to an extremely fit, gray haired man in a black turtleneck sweater. He was what the networks described as a “person of knowledge”. There seemed to be a lot of them around lately – almost always ex-military, retired, each one simultaneously emerging from some anonymous suburban life into a national and very political spotlight. This one now worked for a design and manufacturing group specializing in missile guidance ordinances. Business was good. He carefully described the relative limitations of the Patriot Missile and the advances contained in its next generation, the PAC-3. He half smiled each time he paused to take a breath, and repeatedly adjusted the sound cable that wound around his ear and disappeared beneath his black turtleneck.

“Clearly, the Iraqi theatre of operations is a ready-made test site for the latest in long-range target selection,” he said. “States like Iraq need to be contained and met with pre-emptive strikes. And now, Iraq has lost its way and is a threat to the free world.”

He then quoted a senior Bush official as saying “Without Sept. 11, we never would have been able to put Iraq at the top of our agenda.”

David could take no more. He swung his legs out from under the sheets and began a search for his own clothing.

It was beginning to rain as he and Nellie finally pulled away from the Savoy. David turned left into the flow of traffic on The Strand and gunned the car towards Trafalgar Square. The buildings began to flash past as Nellie opened her window and leaned her head back, hardly even noticing the large red truck emerging rapidly from one of the narrow side streets. Suddenly there was the severe sound of metal screaming against metal, shards of car bits rocketing through the air like small missiles, and the odd, unsettling, slow-motion feeling of becoming airborne and floating high above the road.

Then, silence.

David’s initial loss of consciousness at the accident site was caused by the acute head injuries he sustained from severe whiplash. The doctors at the scene were able to stabilize his vital signs as well as to tend to his other more minor injuries, but his arrival at the hospital was soon followed by a deep and profound coma.

A little over six weeks later, they pronounced his condition to be that of a persistent vegetative state.

Maine ● December 2006

The last week in 2006 saw the departure of an unlikely threesome, as well as their competing funerals, vying for the world media’s attention.

It has always been understood that the uncompromising complexity and timing of events in history are incongruous and unforgiving at best. Simple things can sometimes give birth to very complex outcomes; we daily find both large and small world events interacting independently and simultaneously, but when combined with the narrow glare of TV and the rapid and ubiquitous distribution of the internet, almost anything is possible. In this case, on that final weekend the airwaves and print media were awash with the coming funerals of Gerald Ford and James Brown. As competing media edutainment goes, it can be fairly said these two events were the equivalent of Washington grand opera and Harlem soul-and-funk showmanship at their best. As one might expect, Ford made it to his grave on time, while the “King of Soul” took over two months more, with the added news that, great performer that he was, even in preparation for his own funeral he was put through three changes of clothing.

But that last weekend in 2006 really belonged to Saddam Hussein whose crimes against humanity finally caught up with him at Camp Justice, as it was still affectionately known, a joint Iraqi-American military base in Kadhimiva, Iraq, a suburb northeast of Baghdad.

So it was that nearly three years after the accident, when David finally awoke from the coma and opened his eyes for the first time, he was confronted once again with the insistent and annoying sound of the TV.

1 comment

It has always been understood that the uncompromising complexity and timing of events in history are incongruous and unforgiving at best. Simple things can sometimes give birth to very complex outcomes; we daily find both large and small world events interacting independently and simultaneously, but when combined with the narrow glare of TV and the rapid and ubiquitous distribution of the internet, almost anything is possible. In this case, on that final weekend the airwaves and print media were awash with the coming funerals of Gerald Ford and James Brown.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Edward Carson

Edward Carson is twice winner of the E. J. Pratt Poetry Award in Canada and is the author of three books of poetry — Scenes, Taking Shape and Birds Flock Fish School.

Go to Edward Carson’s Author Page