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Authors: David Macfarlane

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BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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You got your boarding pass. You checked your luggage. I had no idea how to say goodbye to a grown daughter I had only met three days before. But our farewell—our first one, anyway—was oddly unemotional. We had a quick, awkward hug. I waved you off at the security gate as calmly as if you were a visiting journalist returning home after an assignment.

Your re-emergence was the surprise.

At that particular moment I happened to be thinking it would be nice to meet my grandchildren someday. I was also worrying that I never would. I can’t help these anxieties. They occur whenever I have to remember what parking level my car is on.

I have a fear of being trapped forever in a complicated, multi-tiered parking garage. I worry that the machine won’t accept my credit card at the exit or that I’ll cause some paralysis of the entire system by ending up stuck going the wrong way on the ramps. I don’t picture objects in three dimensions very easily—especially when they are filled with floor upon floor of similar-looking automobiles. I’ve had difficulty finding my own more than a few times. Hospital and airport parking lots are the worst.

I looked up from the ticket that would not, I was sure, guide me very easily back to the right floor, and right colour code, and right parking spot. And there you were: pushing back through the oncoming throng of your fellow travellers as if you were digging your way out of what had almost buried you.

Robert Mulberry’s request for a letter was much less dramatic. He suggested calmly, from the enormous black leather chair behind his desk, that I write the letter I am writing now. The miniature marble replica of Michelangelo’s
David
that I had just given to him stood amid the files of our recent transaction.

Herkimer’s law firm is now situated on the eleventh floor of an office tower out near the highway, and not in the wood-panelled downtown offices that I remember visiting with my stepfather at the time of Winifred Hughson’s death in 1976. The demolition of the old offices was a shame—but hardly a surprising one. Things change.

By the time my adoptive mother passed away, central Cathcart was deep into the throes of its urban renewal. A misnomer if ever there was one. During Winifred’s protracted illness, the trees that lined the elegant little park between Cathcart’s two main streets were cut down: because they were grand and mature, and because their grand, mature boughs obstructed the views of the rushing motorists on Cathcart’s newly established system of one-way streets.

Once the trees were gone, it didn’t take long for the benches and fountains to go too. Who wants to sit in a park with no trees? Surrounded by traffic? Apparently, these were not the kind of questions that arose at city council. One wonders, looking at the ravaged remains of downtown Cathcart now, what kind of questions did.

Soon after the trees and the benches and the fountains were removed, the public washrooms were closed and the cool, damp stone stairs bulldozed. The facilities of the newly completed downtown shopping mall had made the underground washrooms redundant.

The marble floors and walls and counters are sealed like a pharaoh’s tomb now, along with the empty sherry bottles of the last regular users. Across the busy street, a bingo hall and some cheque-cashing outfit occupy the ground floor of an address that was once the front door of the Victorian building in which Herkimer’s had its brass and mahogany downtown offices.

Robert Mulberry was well paid for his work, of course. Lawyers generally are. Even so, he devoted himself, clause by clause, to the protection of the interests that now are yours in a way that seemed beyond professional obligation. That’s why I brought him the souvenir replica of the
David
. I wanted him to have a memento of the transaction through which he had proven to be so dedicated and skilful a guide. I knew he would be pleased with the gift. He was aware of the statue’s provenance.

Julian Morrow had sent it, with his business card, to Argue Barton, who had left it among his belongings for his son to wonder what to do with. And then Michael Barton, marking the sale of the swimming pool, had given it to Archie Hughson. Thus had it come to me.

Robert Mulberry was touched by my gesture. It’s the little things that stick with people.

I know that the pool will be filled in by NewCorp. It’s land they want, not an old, mosaic-edged rectangle of green water. There was no way around that. Sad as it is for me to imagine that this gently splashing grotto will soon not exist, preserving it was not an outcome I was going to be able to achieve. That was obvious from the start. It was a necessary surrender.

But that was my only accommodation to the developers. Once the pool was conceded, my bargaining position was strong. I was able to press the purchaser a little more aggressively than most sellers can.

I wanted a very good price for the property—well above market value, frankly. And I wanted to save the swimming pool statuary and some hint of the original terraced gardens of the pool and the old grounds of Barton House. These were conditions of sale on which I could insist.

I wanted all the statues to be incorporated into the landscaping of the new condominiums—all the statues that is, except one. The three-quarter life-size partial nude in white Carrara marble, the central figure of the fountain, is excluded from the chattel of sale. That one piece—a female, leaning forward, pouring water from her jug—will remain in my possession. It’s the gift that I will bring to your mother.

Robert admitted that my conditions were unusual, but he was not in the least deterred.

He knew that the land I owned was central to NewCorp’s development plans. The swimming pool property happens to be a lot that would connect an interior laneway in the block. Construction would be difficult without this access. Parking for townhouse and condominium residents would be awkward were I to cling to ownership. It was not a piece of land on which NewCorp actually intended to put a building, which may have been why its importance to the development was not given the careful pre-consideration that it deserved. But their package of neighbourhood properties was much less commercially viable if the pool were not part of their acquisitions. Without it, the cavity at the centre of their holdings threatened everything.

NewCorp’s initial response to my demands was outrage, naturally. But Robert’s politely but firmly stated rejections of their first three offers eventually resulted in a price generous
enough for us to entertain. “A good starting point,” Robert informed his counterparts in negotiation.

This was not what NewCorp expected to hear, but a starting point was what their fourth offer proved to be. We had even more unreasonable demands to make.

Robert Mulberry was adept at appealing to those commercial interests that could most easily be disguised as philanthropy. He pointed out to NewCorp that history is a great thing. They weren’t so sure. But then Robert went on to say that local history is something new homeowners like to buy into. People like to think they are purchasing a past when they are buying a home.

“My client isn’t causing you a problem,” Robert said with great forbearance. “He’s giving you a branding tool.”

It was Robert’s idea to frame my demand as an effort to make an important gift of public art. And once the Cathcart city hall and
The Chronicle
got involved, NewCorp began to see that our position was not without merit. There had been some pushback from concerned local residents about the development, and Robert pointed out that a few statues would go a long way to demonstrating good corporate citizenship and concern for community—whether or not NewCorp possessed either. The sidewalks, the lobby entrance, and the underground parking garage of what will now be known as “The Carrara Estates by NewCorp” will be decorated with the statues that Lino Cavatore installed along the pathways and by the pool of Grace and Argue Barton’s landscaped grounds so long ago. There were even tax benefits.

To be perfectly accurate, the estate is Archibald Hughson’s. The earnings from his geography textbook, and the stock portfolio he established once he had some money to invest have always
remained its core. My income from my work has not greatly added to it, I’m afraid. My salary as an arts reporter for
The Chronicle
and as the host of a cable-television program, along with my going rate as a luncheon speaker and occasional lecturer are rarely more than honoraria—a level of remuneration, typical of the cultural sector, that pretty much requires either an indifference to poverty or an inheritance.

Archie’s financial success has allowed me to live comfortably in my adoptive parents’ Cathcart home. My lifestyle has been far from extravagant. I almost never travelled, for one thing—a curious fact that makes me think that your mother really did place a curse of eternal provincialism on me in her fury. But this strange inertia was something I managed to keep quite successfully to myself. For some reason, people I saw in the fall whom I’d last seen in the spring assumed I’d been away—somewhere in Europe seemed to be what they imagined. So I let them. But the truth is: I hardly went anywhere.

I lived beyond what would normally be the means of a freelance culture critic in a small town not exactly obsessed with culture. Let’s put it this way: I was the only columnist at the Cathcart
Chronicle
who spent his summers sitting beside his swimming pool.

Of course, living at Hillside Avenue on the trust fund Archie established for me was not what I had ever planned to do. I came very close to having another life entirely—the life that would have included you. But that’s not what happened.

What happened was I left your mother. And what happened was time passed.

Time passed in a sequence of little things that I was not observant enough to see as a sequence. And as it did, something else happened: I became the oddest thing.

The blue jeans gradually disappeared. The conversations
with neighbours about what I was going to do and where I was going to go gradually stopped. I slowly became the no-longer-young man, in pressed slacks, open-necked oxford cloth shirt, and loafers, who, for reasons people always wondered about, never moved away from the house in which I had grown up.

I liked my work at
The Chronicle
. I found something satisfying in meeting deadlines, having beginnings and endings, working within the limitations of the quotidian. Such work is not inglorious—much as your mother thinks otherwise. Writing my column at
The Chronicle
, lecturing the bored camera operator at the Cable 93 studio about Impressionism and Renaissance sculpture, giving the occasional luncheon speech to Rotary, and teaching an adult education course on art appreciation at the local community college kept me busy. Occasionally, I wrote program notes for an art gallery or a local theatre company.

I settled into the idea of never moving away from the Hillside Avenue house a good decade after I had settled into the fact. I helped Archie during Winifred’s long decline. Then I stayed put, helping Archie look after the house and the pool. I filled the niche of Cathcart’s roving freelance cultural expert—a niche that was extremely small but, probably for that reason, entirely empty.

Archie came to rely on me. First, for company after his wife died, then for getting the groceries and returning his library books. I took over the driving when the policeman who was very kind about a red light suggested that might be a good idea. I got used to helping Archie in and out of the bath. I became the cook. I looked after the bills. I dusted the Royal Doulton figurines on the mantelpiece. I got up to turn over the Reader’s Digest symphonic classics when, on winter nights, we sat in the living room listening to the hi-fi.

The pool was always Archie’s job. When he was frail and shaky and old, he sat on a white patio chair while he worked. Cleaning it was his job, and so long as the pool was open—so long as the old filter was humming in its shed and the water was not yet covered for the winter—the job never ended. He poled hand over hand, drawing the head of the vacuum slowly across the bottom. He had mastered this task long ago.

But I shovelled the walk, raked the leaves, and took out the garbage on Sunday nights. And I was the one who, at Archie’s suggestion, went down from the pool to the kitchen to get crackers and lemonade when visitors came to call in the summertime.

The time it took me to make my way through the garden, put the crackers on a tray and fill the plastic tumblers with lemonade was about the amount of time it took for Archie to manoeuvre the conversation to the point at which someone asked him something about his late wife. Winifred Hughson was Archie Hughson’s favourite topic.

“She was no bigger than a minute, you know” was what I heard Archie say. I was often coming up the steps of the pool gate and across the flagstones to the bathing pavilion with the tray when I heard his introduction. This was always how he began.

Like most stories, it had departed from certain facts and had taken on certain embellishments over time. Not that I doubted the story’s essential truth. It was just that when I listened to Archie Hughson telling it to his poolside visitors as he raised a trembling iced lemonade to his lips, I could always picture the ghost of Mrs. Hughson leaning forward on the brown and yellow and green plastic weave of her patio chair. I could
picture her bright eyes, and her girlish posture, and her cropped bowl of white hair. I could see her smiling at her husband with more pleasure than embarrassment. She was saying, not so much to Archie as to the friends who had come to call, “Well, dear, no, that’s not quite how it happened.”

The success of Archie Hughson’s geography textbook had allowed Mrs. Hughson to devote herself entirely to her volunteer work. She took this seriously. She sat on hospital committees, chaired the ladies’ auxiliary, oversaw the candystripers, organized bake sales to raise money to refurnish waiting rooms and replace the drafty windows of the Victorian brick hulk of the Cathcart General. She was devoted to her work. But it was the Second World War that gave her a calling.

“You see,” Archie would say, “when she became president of the women’s auxiliary, she asked for a tour of the whole hospital. She’d been working there for some years by then. But she did not know all the wings. There were floors she hadn’t been on. And it was while she was being shown around that she noticed a door that said No Admittance.

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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