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Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Adult

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BOOK: Late Nights on Air
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“Who’s that?” whispered Gwen as the voice blared on about all the bullshit being shovelled around, since who in his right mind would give up clean water from a tap and a centrally heated house and food at the Bay to go back on the land? Why not talk about all the good things we’ve brought them, all the benefits that make life a lot easier?

“She’s been around for years. A settlement manager for a while. A teacher before that. She’s a pain in the neck, but she’s no fool.”

Years ago he’d paid a visit to her classroom in Nahanni Butte, where the children, using plasticine, had made uncannily accurate models of every kind of animal and every make of Ski-Doo. To her credit, she even had them writing haiku.

Harry paid the waiter for their beers, then studied Gwen for a moment. She was chewing her nails, staring at the floor.

He said, “I used to be scared too.”

She looked up.

“But then I learned that making a mistake is just something you go on from.”

Gwen’s eyes didn’t leave his face.

“I don’t mean I felt secure,” he said. “Feeling secure makes you lazy. You have to have an edge. The good ones are always nervous.”

But you weren’t good on television, she thought, you were terrible. She’d realized rather suddenly one day that it must have been him, must have been Harry, that night years
ago when she was watching television. On her small screen he’d been a blurry figure, who seemed out of focus he was so out of place; she saw him stumble and thought oh no, he’s going to fall, and she switched channels.

How it perplexed and disturbed her, this question of good nervousness versus bad nervousness.

They headed back to the station. This part of town was no different, really, to the place Harry had known in 1960, when he started out. In those days there were only three thousand people, instead of ten thousand, and there were no subdivisions in New Town, no high-rise, no Explorer Hotel. He’d arrived at the end of summer, a refugee from graduate school, and for a few months he’d worked at Cominco, one of the two gold mines in Yellowknife. Then he began to do some freelance radio pieces, and before he knew it he’d been offered a permanent job. Now, all these years later, he couldn’t approach the station without feeling nostalgic and depressed, both, about life in general and himself in particular. At the corner he noticed a dog limping towards them, and knelt down. A small husky, who allowed him to lift and examine her sore paw. A shard of glass from a broken beer bottle had lodged between two badly scuffed pads: he removed it.

“If only you could fix my problems so easily,” Gwen observed dryly, looking down at the top of his balding head and at his big hands, gardener’s hands, she thought.

He let out a short laugh and stood up. Gwen wasn’t bad company. He wondered if the dog might be the one missing
from the car that skidded off the gravel near Fort Rae; he’d hold on to her and call the police. The dog followed them across the street and into the radio station.

On Eleanor’s desk lay the pile of community announcements broadcast three times a day in five-minute time slots, a listing of events and of personal messages.

Would Henry Wandering Spirit please contact the R.C.M.P. as soon as possible.

Helen Jumbo, you have a C.O.D. parcel in the Ft. Simpson post office.

The pediatrician will be at the nurses’ station in Ft. Smith on Thursday afternoon from one to four o’clock.

To Albert Drygeese: The plane won’t be coming in today because of the fog. It will come tomorrow at three in the afternoon. Dad.

The Gene Bertoncini Jazz Trio performs in Yellowknife in the auditorium of Mildred Hall Elementary School this Sunday at 8 p.m.

To the Chocolates in Fort Rae: Debbie Lynn had a baby boy, six pounds, eight ounces. Both doing well.

They glanced at these and other announcements typed on the half sheets of yellow carbon paper. Nobody was looking for a lost dog.

Harry went searching for a water bowl for his new buddy, while Gwen reread the announcement about Saturday night’s Raven Mad Daze All Night Golf Tournament on the town’s nine-hole golf course, infamous for being made of sand and for having a special ground rule to cover the ravens that swooped down and stole your ball. Seize the moment, Gwen thought to herself. Time to jump. She went down to the technical shop in the basement to ask about signing out the Nagra tape recorder, and that’s when she heard what Harry had been meaning to tell her.

In the basement Andrew McNab gave her a careful lesson in operating the Nagra, a beautiful Swiss machine, he said of the heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder encased in black leather. “You might as well,” he allowed when she explained that she wanted to tape part of the midnight golf tournament. “You’ll be getting used to late-night hours.”

It turned out Harry had consigned her to the night shift, the radio wasteland of 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., but he hadn’t quite got around to telling her.

The dog lay at his feet on the floor of his office when Gwen positioned herself in the open door. “Harry, there’s something you haven’t told me.”

He looked at her over his glasses. She had seen this look before on her father’s face when she’d come in tenth in a foot race, having previously done rather well in the hop, skip, and
jump. Then he removed his glasses and asked her to sit down.

“I’m thinking of calling her Ella,” he said, “if the police don’t call me back to say someone’s got a prior claim.”

They both gazed at the dog, who didn’t take her eyes off Harry.

“Old Eller,” he quipped.

Having made Gwen smile, he said, “Don’t take the night shift personally. It’s where every apprentice starts and where some of us choose to end up.” He was working the arms of his glasses, tapping them together. “Let me put it this way, you’ll be able to work out your kinks a lot more easily.” And he told her how much he’d enjoyed the solitude and freedom of being the only one in the station, hour after hour. He’d found his feet in radio again, regained some of his old confidence. After seven o’clock the station was pretty quiet, he said. There was a certain amount of busywork, tapes to set up, the logging machine to maintain, sound carts to record, sometimes a news feed to send or receive, weather stats to be gathered by phoning the weathermen at the airport, and the live station breaks every hour. But there was plenty of time to listen to music; he’d needle-dropped his way through innumerable records, selecting songs for the hour from midnight to 1 a.m., when local radio took over from the national network. At 1 a.m. you signed off and shut down the station. He missed it, he said. It was a great place for trying things out, you could be as creative as you liked. Besides, he added, she’d be doing him a favour; the casual who had been filling in for a month had taken full-time work elsewhere.

Gwen listened and adjusted, and by the end of their conversation felt almost pleased. Until the next day, that is, when she learned that Dido, who among other things had been
doing Radio Noon, would become the permanent newsreader as well.

Later that day, Gwen took the gradual slope downhill to Old Town. To have water on both sides, to know which way was north, to be walking towards it—this was comfort by any measure.

It came to her suddenly that what she missed most was frankness. So much of the time you weren’t allowed to say certain things. You weren’t allowed to say you were lousy. Nobody wanted to hear it. You weren’t allowed to say you were jealous. As she walked along, the voice started up inside her head, asking her about the biggest obstacle she had ever faced. Probably my own jealousy, she confessed to the shadowy, sympathetic, ever-impressed voice. In my early years in radio, I was very bad. I know, it’s hard to believe, but something about radio made me even more self-conscious. In Yellowknife I worked with Dido Paris and she was such a natural. The name means nothing to you? Well, she was wonderful on air. I wasn’t like that at all.

“You’re deep in thought,” said Ralph Cody.

She had slowed down and was saying these things to herself, so busy being a famous old woman looking back on her past that she wasn’t aware of anything else.

Ralph had his camera bag over his shoulder and was heading to the causeway that joined Old Town to Latham Island, so Gwen went along, glad of the company, and learned that in the 1930s, before they built the causeway, a woman named Bertha used to row people across the narrows for a
nickel a head, and that a family named Cinnamon had moved up from Vermilion and become prominent in Yellowknife, “creating a veritable rainbow of names,” crowed Ralph. In those days, he said, you could meet a woman in the Wildcat Café and get married by a priest who doubled as a magician and have your wedding in the Squeeze Inn.

Ralph’s fine grey hair blew about and his small, nicotined hands were deft with tripod and camera. To Gwen he seemed old and thin and irresistible, like her high school English teacher who taught her to love Shakespeare. Mr. Smiley had been a pilot in the war and had lost his sense of smell, a stroke of luck, he liked to say, since thereafter he was spared the smell of women’s perfume. A cynic. Yet for all that, you knew he loved women, perhaps too much.

Gwen wanted Ralph to know the reason she was free in the middle of the day, and Ralph asked how she felt about it, being moved to the night shift. He himself was something of a nighthawk, he confessed, working on his educational contracts after dark, when he wasn’t reading the books he reviewed for radio; daylight hours he saved for photography, though in the summer he could photograph around the clock. Gwen said she felt all right, but she wished she were better on air. Ralph told her she sounded fine.

Gwen considered this. “I wonder if you mean that.” And her bleak challenge made him smile.

“A woman trolling for compliments,” he said. “You sound fine. But if you
to be jealous,” he added mischievously, “you’re not as good as Dido.”

He set up his tripod on a flat rock that extended into the water, then stepped back. “Take a look.”

Gwen bent over and peered through the lens at weeds in water. To her eye the sinuous grasses were like long filaments of silver drowning in a watery sky. She came from a family of jewellers, after all. Her father and uncle, and a great-uncle too. The great-uncle had gone west from Ontario and opened up a jewellery store on the Prairies, and she liked to imagine him working with tiny, intricate objects under a vast Saskatchewan sky.

She said, “I don’t want to be jealous, but I am.” So jealous she’d even gone shopping for the kind of scoop-neck T-shirts Dido wore. She was wearing one now, as well as a short necklace of blue beads.

“I don’t photograph people as a rule,” Ralph said. “But I’d make an exception for Dido.”

The hair on his head blew in the other direction and his scalp shone as he bent over his tripod. Thinning-haired Mr. Smiley used to lean against his desk and read Shakespeare’s sonnets aloud, weaving in jokes about beautiful women losing their looks. We aren’t here for long, he would say. And that turned out to be true, for he died very suddenly in his sixties.

“Dido’s my first Dido,” Ralph added after taking several shots. “Apart from the opera.”

Gwen folded her arms. “Well, don’t enlighten me. See if I care.” And it relieved her feelings to speak with rough humour.

Ralph looked up and chuckled. So she wasn’t a pushover, he thought, and he eyed her with more respect.

The opera he’d meant, he said, folding up his tripod, was
Les Troyens
by Berlioz—about the tragic passion of Dido and Aeneas, and the founding of Rome and the fall of Carthage.
“Dido was the Queen of Carthage and Berlioz learned her story at his father’s knee. He was reading Virgil when you were reading Dick and Jane.”

Ralph liked to talk, liked having a curious and attentive listener. He said the opera wasn’t popular but it was very powerful, especially at the end when Dido kills herself, since in her dying moments she has a terrible awareness of what’s to come—not only has Aeneas ruined her life by leaving her and sailing off to found Rome, but in founding Rome he’s set in motion the last days of her beloved Carthage. “Do they teach you about Carthage these days?”

Gwen waved her hands to indicate vaguely, she knew vaguely.

“The Romans razed it to the ground. Then they sowed the surrounding fields with salt. That’s the North, if the pipeline goes through.” He was struck by his own analogy. “Not bad, Ralph. Write that down. Building the pipeline is like sowing the ground with salt.”

They walked back to the road, and he told her that last year, during the opera season, he and Eleanor and Lorna Dargabble went into the station on Saturday afternoons and Eddy fed the broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York into the lobby, since CFYK, in its wisdom, preempted the Saturday afternoon opera in favour of a country and western request show. “Bring on Merle Haggard,” he intoned, revving himself up. “Get down with Johnny Cash. Let’s hear it for Conway Twitty.”

Gwen laughed, but she couldn’t picture Eddy listening to opera, and she said so.

“Eddy’s a surprising guy,” Ralph said. “Eddy’s the kind of guy who could be running guns for Angola or writing odes to his mistress.”

“I don’t think he likes women very much,” she said, expressing a reservation she’d never articulated before. “On some level he
them. Except for Dido, of course. He can’t take his eyes off her. Any more than Harry can.”

like women.”

“I know you do.” She smiled. “I’ve seen you flirting with Eleanor. I don’t mean Eddy’s interested in men,” she went on, “I don’t mean that at all. I just have the feeling he’s got contempt for women.”

“I would never underestimate a woman’s intuition,” said Ralph easily. But later, he would have reason to think back on young Gwen’s assessment of Eddy.

BOOK: Late Nights on Air
6.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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