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Authors: Elizabeth Hay

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BOOK: Late Nights on Air
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She smiled too and turned the loose watch around her wrist, but she wasn’t finished with her questions or he with his
evasions. She asked him where he got the parts he needed. He ordered them, he said. And they arrived in the mail? Exactly.

“What are you doing, Eddy? What are you up to?”

“Do I have to be up to something?”

Their eyes met and it was clear that she hoped he
was
up to something, and he knew it and didn’t mind.

For a few minutes she watched and said nothing. He was working with the tiniest of screws, using tweezers to pick them up. Eddy’s fastidious hands and the rolled-up carpets behind him worked on her receptive mind, and she was brought back to her home in Nijmegen, to their practice of spreading heavy and valuable rugs over tables rather than across the floor. Strangely, she smelled apples again as a light breeze came in through open windows.

Eddy asked her what her plans were for the next few hours.

“Do you want the truth?”

“Always,” he said.

“I think I’ll stay up all night. I want to see all the changes in the light, the sequence from sunset to sunrise.”

He offered to keep her company, if she liked. He’d make a pot of coffee at midnight, and he indicated the hot plate on the table. If she got tired he’d unroll one of those carpets and they could lie down together for a while. Dido laughed and shook her head. No, she said, she’d be fine alone. But her heart quickened and her body opened and ached.

“I’ll have the coffee on,” he called to her departing back. He couldn’t see her face and the big, shining smile she couldn’t keep from her lips.

Eddy was still at his workbench a little after midnight. She came in and stood close to him. Without looking up, he reached for her wrist and circled it with his hand.

She said, “I’ve come for my cup of coffee.”

Eleanor no longer found Dido in bed very often now—neither in her bed nor her own.

The first time she noticed her absence she got up and wandered outside, unable to sleep, and looked for Dido’s brown car. The shortest night of the year, and no sign of the woman or the car. She had to wonder at the loneliness she felt. Eleanor, Eleanor, you’re almost forty, working in a lowly job, writing poetry you don’t publish, essentially alone. What are you doing with yourself?

At the station the next day, Dido was as friendly to her as ever, but less talkative. Apparently, Dido wasn’t a woman who felt the need to explain herself, and Eleanor was left to read on her own the signs of something new between her friend and Eddy.

That night, once again, Eleanor couldn’t sleep. She’d made a mistake with the measurements when she’d ordered new window shades for her bedroom, and light poured in on all sides, giving her what she called Marilyn Monroe nights, they were so blond and sleepless. Finally, she went into her windowless bathroom, closed the door, rolled up a towel and shoved it into the crack between door and floor. Then she sat on the floor in the perfect darkness and suddenly tears were rolling down her face and she didn’t understand why. I’m
not unhappy, she thought. I’m really not unhappy. I’ve been much unhappier in the past.

About three in the morning she made tea and took her cup outside. She sat on the steps and fell to brooding about her ex-husband, his life with poor Barbara, his life with her, his unresolved life. Then her thoughts drew her back to childhood, to her father, to their joy in each other, their mutual devotion. Moved by some impulse, Eleanor went back inside, crossed to the bookshelves in the living room, and pulled down the first book her hand landed upon. Where the book fell open, she began to read, and the first words were
“like imperfect sleep.”

“Like imperfect sleep, which instead of giving more strength to the head, doth but leave it the more exhausted, the result of mere operations of the imagination is but to weaken the soul. Instead of nourishment and energy she reaps only lassitude and disgust: whereas a genuine heavenly vision yields to her a harvest of ineffable spiritual riches, and an admirable renewal of bodily strength.”

Eleanor read the passage a second time. Saint Teresa was justifying her visions, saying they came from God, not the devil, because they left her changed for the better: not feeling as one feels after imperfect sleep, but renewed and strong.

A lovely coincidence, thought Eleanor, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.

Nevertheless, she kept reading. The book was
Varieties of Religious Experience
by William James, and she found herself especially affected by the chapters about sick souls, the divided self, conversion. She came upon the old, recurrent phrases in use for centuries, “inexpressible joy took hold of my heart,” “a great change came over me,” and thought, These people who
find God assume a new flesh tone. Instead of being clothed and lumbered with self, they step naked into a new world. She thought she understood how it worked. Just as you can know by the wreckage of a moment that life will never be the same—your father dies one night when you’re eighteen—so an awakened soul understands that from this moment on everything will be different, but rather than pain and sorrow, a reliable joy will be yours. If you take up the challenge.

Eleanor set down the book and closed her tired eyes. Such a big
if
.

Later, as she stood under a hot shower, she wondered if any of her feelings would ever be consummated, or if she was one of those people who is religious without ever having a vision, just as she’d been married without ever making love.

 

 

 

WHEN GWEN WAS FOUR YEARS OLD
, she had a yellow summer dress with an ice cream pattern. To eat an ice cream cone in that dress, to watch her cone melt and disintegrate while the pretty cones on her dress remained frozen, perfect, gave her a sensation not unlike this one, of seeing typed words on the page turn into a great big mess in her mouth.

She tried to describe to Eleanor what it was like being on air—feet dangling, heart pierced with doubt, head all tangled. And Eleanor thought of Absalom in the Bible—Absalom fleeing an angry King David by riding his mule through the woods, dodging trees and ducking under boughs, until his mass of curly hair got so entangled in the low branches of an oak tree that he hung there, suspended; then along came Joab and thrust three darts through his heart.

Eleanor didn’t burden Gwen with her recent Bible reading, she just listened and sympathized and understood that time was running out for Gwen. She knew the two newsmen, Bill Thwaite and George Tupper, had stormed into Harry’s office, demanding he get rid of her as the newsreader.

Harry had fobbed them off, telling them to have patience, the girl had been reading the news for two weeks, what did they expect? But privately, he began to alter his plans.

A week later, he took Gwen to the Gold Range for a beer. The bar had its own atmosphere. Winter or summer it was the same seedy, over- lit, smoke-filled, hotdog-smelling tavern of small round tables covered with fitted dark-red terry cloth and glasses of beer. “You have to let yourself enter the story,” Harry told Gwen with a new note of impatience in his voice. “Enter it and let your eyes move ahead to the end of the line and down to the next line, and your voice will pick up and follow. Read as if you’re searching out the meaning of the words.”

“But you have a great voice,” she told him.

“I’ve never cared for it.”

“It’s great.”

She noticed Jim Murphy, the morning man, at a table in the corner. He’d been there for hours by the looks of it. Jim had given her a couple of lessons in editing tape. Tight-lipped and rushed, but not unhelpful, he’d sat in front of the old Studer in the editing cubicle and threaded the dark, slippery, quarter-inch tape through the playback head and up onto the take-up reel, then pressed fast-forward until he reached the part of the interview he wanted to cut. He liked to jockey the reels back and forth by hand, rather like a man screwing lids on two jars at the same time, his ear attentive to the dragged-out whump and thump of words on tape. Having located the precise end of the word he wanted to keep, he marked the tape at that spot with a red grease pencil, then let the expendable sentences spool onto the floor until he came to the next word he wanted, backed up to the intake of breath, marked the spot, smoothed that portion of tape into the grooved cutting slot of the editing block, and sliced the tape with his razor blade. He did the same with the earlier spot he’d marked, then he made the two ends
meet, butting them up against each other, before pressing an inch-long piece of white splicing tape over the join with his fingertip. Jim was fast, Gwen quite slow at first. But she found the handwork restful and took pleasure and pride in making cuts that no listener would be able to decipher, and in eliminating the stumbles and repetitions and bad grammar of voices on tape. It felt like kindness and a form of magic.

Gwen sent a tentative smile Jim’s way and got back something less, a raised-eye acknowledgement followed by a hostile glance at Harry. For the first time, she felt worried not for herself, but for Harry. One of the newsmen, it was skinny Bill Thwaite, joined Jim and then the dirty looks directed Harry’s way became double-barrelled.

“Harry?”

He stopped drumming the table with his fingers and smiled at her, an honest shambles of a man who couldn’t bring himself to tell her what he had to tell her.

“Is it hard being the manager? I mean, going from the night shift, when nobody bothered you, to all the hassles of running the station.”

“Acting manager. I have no illusions. I’ve got the job while they figure out their long-term plans for television and the new station they’ve got in mind. But I’m going to use my time to do a few things.”

She watched him tap another cigarette out of his pack, grateful for his faith in her so far, dubious about how much longer it could possibly last. “Such as,” she prodded.

“I’m going to defend radio from
TV.”

His mood became more expansive, and she relaxed a little, believing he wouldn’t bother to tell her these things if he’d
written her off. Radio was like poetry, he told her. At its best it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one made you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. “A radio program isn’t a ‘show,’” he went on. “It’s not showbiz, it’s not an assault. It’s about one person learning something interesting and telling it to somebody else. You’re speaking to one person, remember that. And don’t say who you are every fifteen minutes, or give time checks to the second. Is there a listener alive who really cares if it’s going to be 5:28 ten seconds from now? Just say it’s five-thirty. We’re not in Toronto, for Christ’s sake.”

She looked over at Jim and Bill, who were ordering more beer. “Jim never makes a mistake,” she said, her voice envious, wistful. “He’s so sure of himself.”

“That’s his problem.”

A remark that made her eyes glisten with interest, for she’d had exactly the same thought. Jim was too smooth. He was so smooth you tuned him out.

Leaning forward, “What’s his problem?”

“He doesn’t think it’s hard. To be any good you have to believe it’s hard. It’s called creative tension.” Harry looked at her pale, intense face and read her mind. “And you won’t be any good until you’re dedicated to something outside yourself.”

Gwen considered this. “Is Dido dedicated to something outside herself?”

“Dido’s ambitious.” His voice was bleak. “She won’t stick around radio very long.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” she said.

Harry smiled. He was impressed by these young women, who seemed to know what they wanted, and it wasn’t marriage
and children. They seemed smarter and more aware of themselves than men. On the other hand, they lacked what he would call proper arrogance—the arrogance necessary to succeed at something over the long haul, despite your insecurities. Not that he was one to talk, of course.

“You’re competitive,” he allowed.

“I don’t think I am,” she answered slowly. “Except maybe in an ingrown way.”

Harry laughed and drained his glass. He felt his pockets, patted himself front and back.

“I suppose you’ve forgotten your wallet,” she cracked.

“Hang on.” He located it in his back pocket, slapped it on the table, then narrowed his eyes. “But I bet my mother is cheaper than your mother.”

“That’s impossible.”

“My mother was so cheap,” he said with energy, “that when she made raspberry jam it was mostly rhubarb. And she never turned on the oven unless she had several things to bake. ‘Not for twenty minutes, for
one
thing.’“

“Mine too,” cried Gwen, “mine too. She had to have something in every corner of the oven or the heat was going to waste. We used to make a game of hunting for the chips in her chocolate chip cookies. ‘Mom? How can you call these chocolate chip cookies?’“

Harry snickered. “They don’t call them chocolate
chips
cookies for a reason, Gwen.”

They became aware of the bar again—of Jim Murphy and Bill Thwaite on one dark horizon, while from a nearby table came the low and thunderous rumble of a female voice talking about all these well-meaning left-wing lawyers from southern
universities coming up here and telling the natives what to think and what to say to Berger. She personally thought, she did, that everybody should cut the dramatization and stop talking about the past. What matters is now and tomorrow.

BOOK: Late Nights on Air
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