Last Days of Montreal

Last Days of Montreal

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About the book

  • Winner of the Journey Prize
In this novel, peopled by colourful characters, John Brooke has captured that unique Montreal joie de vivre which survives despite bitter politics, economic downturns, language laws, record snowfalls, crumbling streets, and a baseball team on the verge of disappearing.

About the author

Brooke, John

John Brooke became fascinated by criminality and police work listening to the courtroom stories and observations of his father, a long-serving judge. Although he lives in Montreal, John makes frequent trips to France for both pleasure and research. He earns a living as a freelance writer and translator, has also worked as a film and video editor as well as directed four films on modern dance. Brooke’s first novel, The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle, was published in 1999. His poetry and short stories have also been widely published and in 1998 his story "The Finer Points of Apples" won him the Journey Prize.

Excerpt

from "The Finer Points of Apples"

"Mmm! you smell like apples." Bruce was nuzzling her hair, pushing his knee against her thigh.

"Le vinaigre de cidre," said Geneviève. "The apple man sells it."

"Cider vinegar?"

"C’est bon pour le...how do you say it?...itching."

"Smells good." Then Bruce asked, "Are we going to make love tonight?"

"Pense pas."

"Ah..."

"You would like that?"

"I could."

"Pas moi...trop fatiguée." Geneviève rolled over.

"Maybe the apple guy has something for that too."

"Peut-être...bonne nuit."

In fact, the apple guy did.

Gaston Le Gac had long fingers that knew how to reach deep into her different openings to places Bruce had never been, or scratch her breast at le moment juste, or slap her bottom with a calculated measure of playful malice which could make her insides flow. Or baking the apple: He would disengage completely—maybe softly kiss—while pressing an apple against her. She would ply herself upon its smoothness. It was birth in reverse, the head of the child she had never made. No, she had no regrets on that score. Far too late for that. Rather, it was this sense of being removed, of falling into a space between herself and the life around her. Pure imagination. The erotic far-side of procreation...The apple, after all, is forever. Gaston brought Geneviève fresh sex and immortality.

And it was conversation—of the kind Bruce, eight years into their liaison, had never quite caught onto. Oh, his French was mostly fine at this point; but what could an English Canadian ever really know of a French traveller’s soul? Of her blood-borne feelings?

They had determined that Gaston had arrived from Quimper via Paris the very week she had walked off her flight from Toulouse. That was twenty-three years ago. Now here at long last was the inevitable meeting with a fellow countryman, the kind she vaguely imagined as she’d set out, footloose, excited...then nibbled at from behind loneliness for the first two years at wine and cheese things at l’Alliance or brunches at friends of friends’, then forgotten for a time when she’d met her first stranger at a fern bar in Vancouver, and then encountered again from a different kind of distance as the trail had wound in ever more diffuse circles, back here to Montreal.

Where there are lots of us.

Yes, but all reattached, she thought. To them.

Twenty-three years, and it was this scruffy Breton, coming up from Frelighsburg to sell his apples at le Marché Jean Talon.

His wife’s apples, to be more exact. Well, her father’s, really. But almost hers and so Gaston’s. Geneviève had heard that part too. It meant this could only be une aventure. A fling? An affair? Something on the side? Positioning it in English was something she would leave for the time being. Just une aventure, thought Geneviève, without a sense of any wrong. Because we have the passion and the practicality, and these are meant to be separate. The ability to keep each in its place is in our blood. It’s what they know us by, our calling card...

Gaston’s wife was a sturdy Quebecoise. Micheline. She worked the stall the occasional day but there was no threat. And there were three children, and perhaps the eldest girl sensed something as she observed her papa chatting with this regular customer. This Française. But that girl was half French. His wife? Not a problem. She wouldn’t know. Too far from her. Just like with Bruce. Never in a million years.

It was a question of breathing the same way. Or the finer points of apples. They could talk for hours if they had to, right there in the middle of the market. The locals’ eyes would glaze over and they’d get on with other things. It was a kind of natural protection, especially here in Montreal.

* * * *
They were settling on Empire. The acidy element made the sweet more precious, the pulp required real teeth, had character. But Gaston was still loathe to dismiss the McIntosh.

"This is your basic apple," he said. "Sure, some will call it bland, flaccid. Myself, I say it’s soft, welcoming. This apple is fundamentally sweet. Sweetness is a quality where degrees begin in the ineffable and descend from there. A child will eat six of these McIntoshes before she realizes she is ill. None of them can match that. We are talking fruit, remember, something the Lord created and the Devil put to use."

"It is like our vin de pays," countered Geneviève, "solid, and there for anyone. But low. No, there are no two ways about it —the McIntosh is low. If you want to know quality, you have to move up."

"True. Absolutely true."

"Now the Cortland," she ventured, "is almost a McIntosh. That soft taste, as you characterise it...and almost Empire as well. Cortland’s pulp is a force to be reckoned with. And it lacks the sour bite. Yes, I would almost say Cortland is the best of both worlds."

"But are we here to deal in almosts?" queried Gaston.

"No...no," sighed Geneviève, smoothing her palm along his hairy back, "we’ve come too far for that."

"If you want to challenge Empire you must side with Spartan. You must go past the threshold of stringency. Spartan compels the mouth to draw in upon itself. Not pleasant to my taste—but vital!"

"But if we must explore those areas," and Geneviève was at a point in her life where she did not like to speak of dryness, "we must surely say Lobo is king."

"King of dryness, yes, no argument there... But it is flat. Lobo is soft but in all its negative connotations. Sweetness, character...there is nothing there!...much like those waxy things they send us from the west. Delicious. There’s a marketing triumph for you...Lobo is entirely too easy. If McIntosh is for a baby, Lobo’s for a sauce and not much else." He rolled over, sipped on her nipple. "It’s my biggest seller though. I have to love Lobo regardless of what I know is true."

"I know the feeling," said Geneviève, fingers in his stringy hair—jet black and so familiar.

"Do you?"

"Oui," she mused, suddenly weighed down by subtlety, "...some things are made to test us."

That morning she had tried to give Bruce a reason why fini could not be used to express his feeling of exhaustion after a fourth piece of toasted baguette, smothered, as usual, with peach jam from her mother’s village in the Midi, a half-hour north of Sète:

"Yes, to say you are finished—as in through eating, which anyone would be..." Bruce never flinched at her jabs. "And yes, if eating four pieces of toast like that will serve to break your reputation into crumbs. Your social standing, or your business credibility: these both could be fini...Mais, tu ne peux pas dire pour le moral. Jamais."

"I don’t mean to use it for my morale," said Bruce. "I feel fine. Wonderful! I’m just wiped out from eating four pieces of toast and two bowls of your beautiful coffee. J’suis fini. As in fatigué."

"You can’t."

"You can in English...whew! I’m finished!"

"Faux amis."

"Why?"

"C’est le moral."

"No...c’est le physique."

"No, Bruce...non."

"Think you’re wrong this time, Gen."

So she’d got the dictionary and it took an hour.

She should have been used to it by that point, but no, it was still surprising how much time they spent working with words. The mechanics. They were a shield against the gap and why deny it. Not a bridge; one cannot bridge a gap that will always, like sweetness, be ineffable. Just a shield. One more way to work around the gap so a bond could form. And it was not only with Bruce...with the English. It happened with all the Quebecois she knew as well. Gaston had said "and how!" (tu parles!) to that, referring to the three children he had engendered, but who lived here, in this slightly less-than state of culture.

Geneviève did not need to explain or argue language with Gaston. Of like generation and both with a Bacc A...philo or literature; not much real use like the B which was the economic sciences, and from a system that was now obsolete; but it meant they could speak the way one was meant to.

So they did, and were free to delve straight into each other.

Which is not to say that Geneviève and Gaston went gouging through the body to devour the soul. Not at all. A passion of sorts, yes, some days (self-respect demanded some); savagery, no. They were both too old for such behaviour. They both had things worth guarding.

She had Christmas in English now. Bruce’s blue-rinsed mother refused to consider chestnuts in the stuffing. His too-polite father really did believe in the English queen. But Geneviève had found the beginnings of a new family over in the western reaches of crumbling Montreal. Sure she fought it—the bond that could never be perfect. She was fighting it in this thing with Gaston. Or was wavering the better word? Balancer. Her instincts...fears? something had latched on to these people even while her mind continued to dissect their ways. Because Bruce had helped her shift up, at long last, into a more civilized way of living. He sent his daughter to college, and he kept his son supplied with music and those ridiculous clothes; yet he still contributed enough to allow Geneviève’s one-woman translation operation to be enjoyable now. No more panic if the calls did not come. Since leaving his disaster in Westmount and moving in, Bruce’s presence had allowed her to work with a view of the poplars in the lane and the Italian neighbours in their gardens, then, if she felt like it, leave it in the afternoon. Bruce; and their home together: the practical side...She would take her bicycle and pedal to the market, ten minutes away, for bread that was improving, sausage she had learned to like, real cheeses from France, good fish from the Greek, decent tomatoes in September. And apples.

Les Pommes Le Gac. You had to pass it. It was dead-centre, where the two closed-in aisles met in winter, the nexus of the expanded open-air arrangement that came with summer. There were eight varieties of apple, six of which came from Le Gac’s own orchards. They also offered apple butter, jelly, juice and cider, pies, a syrup...a taffy in the winter, and the cider vinegar—with herbs, or straight. Geneviève had a healthy mere growing in a large jar of wine vinegar and replenished it with the dregs from each and every bottle opened in her home. So she had never tried this product. But she was a regular. She had been stopping at the stall for several years with no real thought for the proprietor with the Breton name. Bruce took an apple in his briefcase every day.

It was September when it started. It had been hot, Montreal humidity lingering, but pleasant by then, and even cherished, with only three, maybe five more weeks till the seasons changed. She and Bruce had gone for their three weeks in Maman’s house, then come home to pass August in the back yard. A cousin—Yves, on her father’s side from Nantes—and his family had stopped over for a couple of days on their drive through Quebec. Visitors always liked the market so she’d brought them along. Yves and Gaston traded pleasantries in their Breton dialect, everyone was delighted...they came away with a complimentary bottle of the cider vinegar. Four weeks later Geneviève approached with a postcard from her cousin, to be forwarded to Monsieur Le Gac, and a bottle of the chewy southern wine she always brought back from Maman’s village.

"You must drink it with me," said Gaston.

Yes, she thought, chatting on about Chirac and his atomic bombs in Polynesia, perhaps I must.

It was not difficult. He kept a three-and-a-half opposite the police station on St. Dominique, hardly a minute away. Ramshackle. In need of a good fumigating. She watched officers tucking in their shirts as they got out of their patrol cars and slammed the doors.

"Handy," offered Geneviève.

"Practical," corrected Gaston, "otherwise I’d never sleep."

So it was September. But they did not rush into it.

They kissed on Referendum Day. A cold day, the bitterness of Quebec winter just arriving. It had been a joke actually, to show their own small solidarity. Yet it was also, they both knew, a recognition of its inevitability—the thing that was going to happen. But they did not consummate it until January, with Christmas and family well out of the picture, the day after Mitterrand died.

* * * *
Not difficult at all. There was the grotesque cold since New Year’s, historically unusual amounts of snow, a strike by the blue collars which meant it stayed there, and of course the politics. Apple buyers were sparse and sombre. Gaston wore two sweaters and a Montreal Canadiens toque, making him look more of a nul than Bruce’s son. Not difficult... But neither was it passion that first carried them through:

Her Bruce was disappearing into the cold several nights a week and on Sunday afternoons, leaving shows he loved unwatched to drive through the cramped and broken streets, out to the West Island, Westmount and NDG, or down to McGill for these meetings.

"Seinfeld, The Health Show, the hockey game, even his stupid Super Bowl!...And twice to the Townships, just near your place."

"They call it l’Estrie now," muttered Gaston, whose Micheline had put everything aside while she prepared a speech she would give at the town hall down in Burlington, Vermont, less than an hour from the border which was five minutes from their farm; "to tell them the real history of Quebec ...and not to be afraid of it. That’s her message. They have a network. They’re determined to spread the good word from the Adirondacks over to Maine."

"Bruce’s group is going over to the Outaouais next week...a weekend workshop, is what he’s calling it."

"They don’t have a chance."

"They don’t care. They’re expecting contingents from the Gaspé, the Megantic, Pontiac County, even from up in Val D’Or."

"It’s provocative."

"It’s what they’re thinking," shrugged Geneviève. "He says they’ve got the Indians on their side."

"Not really. That’s a whole other thing."

"Try telling him. He says his country had a near-death experience and he’s vowed never to let it happen again. It affected him."

"Micheline says she has never felt more alive." He rolled his bony jaw around in its sockets, shook his head and stared down at the messy melange of police cars amid the drumlins of dirty snow. "...alive in front of the computer for sixteen hours a day. My children have it too. Not just from Maman. It’s their teachers."

"So where do you stand, monsieur?"

"I don’t care," said Gaston, glum. "I don’t feel it."

"Mm," agreed Geneviève. "It all seems so unnecessary."

"Yes," reaching for her, "and so does all the snow."

"I’ve never been homesick," whispered Geneviève, "but I feel quite left out by all this...I feel cast aside."

He nodded. He knew.

And so, like that, they made love.

Then, sitting there in the apple farmer’s pied-à-terre, they watched a tribute to the wily Mitterrand. Wily? Some American journalist’s word. But yes: a survivor—in the face of controversy and even, for a while, mortal illness. They both identified with that.

They continued making love through the winter into the spring. It was nice. It was necessary: a step back from the tense bleakness colouring the cold. Endless Montreal winters made life seem directionless in the best of times and these were anything but. She was glad she’d done it... In the rusty shower, Gaston showed Geneviève the right mix of water and cider vinegar. A simple rinse, to close the follicles after the shampoo. With regular use, it worked; her itching all but disappeared. So did Bruce’s, once she’d started him on it. (It was, she felt, the least that she could do).

Yet, when it’s up in the air like that—in three lime-coloured rooms with water marks on the ceiling—you have to begin to wonder where it could ever lead. Gaston seemed sustained by the sex, a sharing of the odd perception, a laugh together at Paris-Match. But Geneviève felt a need to push it; she found herself saying things she had tried to stop thinking. "Every time I go back I marvel at the cleanliness, the stream in the gutters every morning. It’s such a beautiful place because they keep it that way."

"They?"

"We..."

"That’s more like it."

"But if I went back, I’d be taxed through the nose the second I put out my little shingle.’

"To keep the water running in the gutter."

"They don’t give you time to get going like they do here."

"But your money’s stronger there. The franc fort—European money..."

"But would I make any? Who needs a French translation in France? And especially in the south. I won’t live in Paris...never again."

"They still take care of you if you fail."

"They’re trying to get out of it...they seem determined this time." Juppé had sat tight and taken the strike right through Christmas. "Can’t afford it, just like anywhere. We’re supposed to care more about Europe than France now—for our own supposed good."

"You know that’s impossible," scoffed Gaston. "Besides, there will always be a place for you. Monsieur Le Pen will see to it."

True. Fifteen percent last time out and expected to rise.

"But do I want that?" she asked.

"Do you want a job—or a clear conscience? The man speaks from the heart...our heart."

"Not mine...not the one I left there."

"Nor mine," he sighed, eyes on the ceiling. Gaston could make the dream of returning difficult.

But Gaston was all she had to share it with, and she persisted. Some days it would be the fast train and the brilliant auto-routes, signs at every rond-point that never left you guessing. And look at Mitterrand’s new monuments; only a true giant would have dared! Pride was an ongoing sub-text; even, ironically, pride in Algerian bombs along the railway track—as if to say, what do Canadians know of trouble? Or the climbing rate of male suicide, the highest rates of AIDS and psychiatrists, the neurotic line-ups at pharmacies for sleeping pills and tranquilizers. (She and Gaston both admitted to having brought this inclination with them to Canada.) The declining state of French film was discussed at Oscar time. And how the rampant cheating, from Juppé’s rents to Tapie’s matches, was making the best and brightest look so bad. And the growing malignant shadow behind the Church that was l’Opus Dei...

Everything, good and bad, was set against the obsession surrounding her. Her adopted home was trying to kill itself. The wish was building, morbidly—les moutons de Panurge; or as the English would say, lemmings to the sea. Either way, Geneviève did not need that. She was a citizen, but she did not know how she was meant to participate. She could not see herself as one of them. She should leave it.

Yet the more she prodded her lover and explored her Frenchness...and the France that existed now, the more she thought maybe she was too old and too far from the France she’d left to really think of going home. That Cosmo magazine had even determined that 87% of married French women were faithful. Well, she was not married, but—

"Home?" asked Gaston, to challenge her...to keep it going, the talk that sculpted clarity. That very French thing.

"Home," she murmured, "...like Bruce says: where does it start? Where does it end?"

"And like Micheline," echoed Gaston, soothing her. "We’ll see what happens...Look," slicing an apple into perfect halves, "each side shows a five-pointed star, the sign of immortality, the sign of the Goddess in her five stations from birth to death and back to birth again. It’s a Celtic thing. You have that. Lots of it, according to your cousin Yves. Who you are lasts forever."

"I suppose it could."

And une aventure could become a holding pattern.

* * * *
The Jean Talon Market is a cultural crossroads in the north end of the city proper. The stalls in the centre are owned mainly by Quebecois farmers selling fruit, flowers, vegetables and eggs. But there is an Italian with his own kind of tomatoes, an Anglo egg man called Syd. Merchants in the shops surrounding are Greek, Italian, mid-eastern and north African...with one Quebecois butcher, baker, one more selling fruit. Everything is fresher and cheaper, and every sort of Montrealer goes there. Some Chinese can even be spotted, lured away from their own market downtown, and also some regulars from the cluster of Thai and Vietnamese grocery stores two blocks away at the corner of St. Denis. Any politician fighting for the hearts of the people will naturally find his way to the market, to glad-hand and smile, and be seen with all the various kinds of faces. Look! says the image: our bustling community, happy together amid the bounty of our land.

It was May and finally warm. Six months of soul-draining winter lay between the comfort of that morning and the cold night of the former Premier’s ugly words in the face of a most narrow defeat. The idea of partitioning Quebec still simmered, but without the fervour of those initial cries of war. It was a good time to start reaching out again. The new Premier showed up in corduroy and cashmere with his wife, two sons and the usual entourage of handlers and media representation.

Geneviève and Gaston had adjusted to Bruce on a Saturday. They dealt with it without a blink. And they surpassed themselves when Micheline would decide to work the weekend, with the silent daughter behind her, keeping the $1 and $3 baskets full.

Bruce was deliberating between Cortland and McIntosh when everything suddenly stopped. A crowd formed and pressed close. Lights went on over the eyes of the cameras. Gaston pushed the hair off his forehead and Micheline, looking good in tight denim (Geneviève always gave credit where it was due) beamed as the two boys sampled her apple juice. The Premier chose a basket of Lobos, and, being from Lac St. Jean, made a glib comment about blueberry season, still a good three months away.

"We close up for three weeks," joked Gaston. "They make our apples lose their point."

That was untrue. Les Pommes Le Gac was never closed. But it sounded good and everyone laughed.

Then Micheline presented his wife with a bottle of the cider vinegar. It came with Gaston’s small brochure explaining both the gastronomic and medicinal uses. The woman, an American, seemed impressed.

Yet no one paid for the apples. Geneviève wondered if anyone else had noticed. Perhaps money was not a part of this sort of thing, and someone else took care of it later. Then the Premier, just another shopper with a sack of fruit, moved to shake some hands.

What are you supposed to do? It’s Saturday, the market...Geneviève took his hand, looked into the baleful eyes and said, "Bonjour."

But Bruce, who was beside her, said, "Are you kidding? No way!"

"Dommage, monsieur." In that rumbly voice.

"Hell of a lot more than a pity, monsieur."

"I mean your manners. You are very rude."

"And you’re dishonest."

"I am a democrat."

"Try demagogue..."

Geneviève watched it from that distance she had been allowing herself to feel, the voice inside saying oh, these people...and still from that removed vantage as Bruce was suddenly yanked away from in front of the Premier’s face—and smacked. By Micheline.

"Va-t-en! we don’t want the likes of you around our stall!"

"No...I’m sure you don’t," said Bruce when the blush had faded. "Well, to hell with you and your apples, madame. Your children won’t thank you when they wake up in the Third World!"

A dour man in sunglasses made a move, but Bruce indicated there was no need. The cameras panned away from the Premier, following as Bruce pushed through the throng and walked away.

Geneviève hurried after him. Of course she did.

Her aventure was over before the next weekend. Gaston’s daughter had said something in the aftermath of the ugly incident. Something about la Française, the Anglo’s wife. Yes, he knew she was not Bruce’s wife. That was not the point. He was someone’s husband and that someone had caught on. Gaston said that’s it—fini.

Geneviève would have said the same thing, regardless of his wife, la militante. It was as good a time as any. She and Bruce would be gone by mid-June, back to the village in the south—for a month this time. She would be recharged. Maybe they would be renewed. Even Bruce wouldn’t be able to think about his politics with all those topless teenagers wandering around on the beach.

But that was cynical and, happily, something that was burned away by the Mediterranean sun.

Because she had watched the thing on television, in both English and in French, and then again at eleven, with the sound turned off. In fact she had taped it, and watched it again, alone, brown and relaxed, the night they got back. Geneviève watched herself: her reaction; the way she went straight-away after her man—no hesitation. She realised she had a purpose, if not a cause, right there in Montreal. A passion for something new had brought her life to Canada and now she was involved in it. The place and its people. She had been reattached through love. Yes, she thought—it had to be. It was there on Canadian television...just look at my face: Jeanne Moreau. Arletty. Deneuve or Fanny Ardant. Very noble. Very knowing. Very right. Surely Gaston would have watched and seen as well.

Bruce never knew. For his sake, Geneviève bore the prick of feeling like an enemy whenever she passed Micheline Le Gac, there most days now, defiant in her stall. The apples were just as good at the other end of the market. Apples are apples. Unfortunately none of the other merchants were as ambitious or creative as Gaston when it came to developing spin-offs. No more cider vinegar. Although her scalp itched in the dryness of the next winter (Bruce’s too), Geneviève forced herself to live with it. Besides, it was $10 a bottle—an outrageous amount to pay for vinegar.


There would be something in France to solve the itching. They would find something the next time they went, and bring it back.

Reviews

Last Days of Montreal follows Yeats’ adage about writing on sex and death. The novel is ribald, serious and fun, and it treats the “death” of Montreal with humour.... >>

subTerrain

…skillfully and humorously explores the political tensions in Quebec society in the 1990s and their impact on daily life. >>

Prairie Fire

John Brooke shows himself to be the kind of writer who can consistently achieve that noblest of fiction’s aims: to render the local so faithfully that it becomes,... >>

Montreal Review of Books

Short stories that spin, challenge and surpise The annual Journey Prize anthology heads a quartet of savoury collections.  . . .The future looks equally rosy for former... >>

— Judith Fitzgerald The Globe and Mail

Journey worth taking  An annual light shines on that fiction-writing bedrock, the wee literary magazines  . . . Of the few non-adolescent pieces in the collection, John... >>

— Ray Robertson The Toronto Star


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