Ann Tresillian is the seventy-five year old granddaughter of the famous Confederation Poet, Childe Chauncy. She is visiting Fredericton, New Brunswick to inter his ashes beside the mortal remains of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carmen, his mentors and confreres. Forde, as UNB’s Writer-in-Residence, is charged with her care and entertainment. Happily married and some thirty years younger than Anna, Forde, over the course of a day and a very long evening, becomes infatuated. Childe Chauncy is a wicked figment of imagination, though intensely real to his creator.
The roadways had been plowed black. Away from the scrubby trees and bushes, the white of the snow—thicker than white, a cheese-cake sort of colour—the grave stones, the fall of light, suggested to him a fantastic gateau studded with stick-up wafers of milk and dark chocolate.
Here and there, topped by stubby crosses, grander monuments to the presumably illustrious, some leaning now, lichen.
“Yes, Anna, of course.”
“Well, I didn’t come up here to bury my grandfather’s ashes, well, I mean I did, but I was really hoping to meet someone, talk to someone… You see, I have all Chauncy’s stuff and―not to put too fine a point upon it―I need to flog it.”
“What sort of stuff?”
“There’s packets of his letters to my grandmother, letters to my mother, there’s a big box of letters to publishers in Boston―Small, Maynard and Something and Dodd, Mead, and Company. Contracts. Magazines he had poems in. Letters from Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. He always addressed him as ‘Old Man’. Fawning, really. And Roberts’ replies in this relentlessly jocular style. Cringingly unfunny. God! How they loved themselves! And stuff about his getting an honorary doctorate from here in Fredericton, a Doctor of Laws. I don’t know why Laws but anyway tons of manuscripts of poems and rough versions of things and magazines and newspaper articles and there’s the complete hand-written manuscripts of the books―they’re in big ledgers stamped in gold on the covers The New York Insurance Company― Bliss must have got them for him from Dr. King. So I don’t have the first one but there’s April’s Benediction, Anthem of the Hermit Thrush, The Open Road and A Pealing Cadence Thrills. Oh, just tons of stuff. There’s two steamer-trunks full of it.”
“Sounds good,” said Forde, “but these university buggers are always crying poor. The thing is…”
She tugged them to a halt.
“It just struck me,” she said. “A lot of young people these days wouldn’t even know what a steamer-trunk was.”
“My dear Anna,” said Forde, “they wouldn’t even know what a steamer was.”
“Doesn’t do to dwell on it,” he said.
They were silent for a few moments.
“What I was going to say,” he went on, “I imagine it all depends on whether the Americans consider Childe American or Canadian. He lived there most of his life, all his books published there. Don’t know. Just don’t know. I shouldn’t think―no offense―that Austin, Texas would be in the running but Boston maybe or The Rock at Brown, big manuscript collections there. And then there’s the Harriet Irving Library here―oil, lumber, stingy bastards. I believe I heard somewhere….
Was it bloody Beasley who’d been braying on about it?
“…that they’ve got acres of Bliss Carman. And there’s the university in Kingston―Queen’s, it’s called, and they’re fairly rich and collect this period.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I flogged some of my own stuff to the University of Toronto and I did some looking around at the time.”
“So who should I talk to?”
“Well, I can tell you straight off, if you talk to librarians or university people, they’ll tell you they’re broke but if they’re interested they’ll offer you a tax credit. Which is bugger-all use to you or me because we don’t earn enough to need a tax credit and in your case doubly useless because you live in the States and don’t pay tax here.”
“Ooh,” she groaned, “all things like this oppress me.”
“What you need to do,” said Forde, “is go on the attack. Bypass the bureaucrats and make the matter public.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well―for a start―after they’ve buried the ashes tomorrow you should buttonhole the savant from the Daily Gleaner…”
He recalled yesterday’s photograph of a swamp from which moments before this study a family of mallards had taken wing.
“…and gush at this seedy scribe about how you have all these Confederation Heirlooms and precious blah-blah.”
He told her about the mallards.
“If they run a photograph of non-ducks, they’ll go ape over Poets’ Granddaughter, Confederation, Precious Canadian Manuscripts, precious New Brunswick manuscripts…and you’ll have done an end run through their tightass obstructions.”
How about this! You go right to the top. A letter to the Premier. You were so impressed by his Vision in the Cathedral. A Childe Chauncey exhibit! On the Hop-On-Hop-Off Cultural Trail. Bung in some scraps of Carman and Roberts. Unique Confederation Manuscripts of Unchallengeable Authenticity, the cost for the Province a mere bagatelle.”
She nodded her head slightly.
“I like this, Forde.”
“I’ll organize some letters for you.”
“A widow,” she said, “a poor old widow woman.”
“Yes, good, good.”
“Poor but the Guardian of Canada’s Treasures.”
Forde groaned with mock-relish.
“The Faithful Guardian.”
“Exquisite!” said Forde.
‘Your style is not so shabby,” she said.
He leered at her.
“Dangerous men,” she said. “Always my downfall.”
“You little minx, you!”
“A masterful play,” she said, nodding vigorously in confirmation. “Plenty of wristy follow-through.”
“And a P.G. devotee, too.”
“What do you mean ‘too’?”
“As well as knowing about―Worcester, was it? We must be near there now. I’ve never been but there was a photograph in the UNB Bulletin. The taller monument is Sir Charles and the other’s Bliss.”
“I can remember seeing Sir Charles,” she said. “When I was small. He was in the kitchen with my mother. And I remember him because he was wearing pince-nez and they were attached to a button on his waistcoat by a flat black silk ribbon that lay down his cheek and I’d never seen that before. And he used to take pellets.”
“I remembered him because of that, too. ‘Pellets.’ It was such a peculiar word to use and it stuck in my mind because I thought pellets were what we fed the hens so I thought he ate hen-pellets. But ‘pellets’ was what he called pills, tablets. He had angina.”
“Angina,” said Forde.
“Forde, Forde,” she said, “we grow old.”
“Let us not repine,” he said. “Let us grasp gaiety.”
“When we were quite young girls, all the Lifwynn kids had heard it…”
“Sir Charles,” she said, “His party trick. It involved a quarter and his membrum…”
“Quite, quite,” said Forde. “Quite.”
“…well, on his membrum virile.”
“What!” said Forde. “On?”
Mittened palms up and out towards him in a gesture of refusal,
“Absolutely,” she said…
averting her eyes
She was, thought Forde, without doubt, without doubt, flirting with him.
He smiled at her.
“Tony left me some money,” she said, “but I worry about Harold. I do have to make some sort of provision for him.”
“Jeeves is not required,” he said. “We will give it of our best.”
They walked on in silence. A blue jay squawked and fled. A dollop of snow plopped.
“When you talk to the Gleaner tomorrow you refer almost exclusively to the Premier’s speech―the cultural benefits to the Province, the unique treasure trove of manuscripts, Native Son blah-blah―and stress the Premier’s stress on Authenticity. In a way, the Honourable Richard Toomer has sort of trapped himself. You can’t get much more authentic than Childe’s holograph manuscripts and his mortal remains.”
“But do you think he’ll read it?”
“His aides with the shaven necks sure as hell will.”
She walked on.
“What?” said Forde.
“It’s getting towards the hour,” she said, “for an Old-Fashioned.”
“Resolve waning?” said Forde.
“Yes, Anna, of course.”
“Coming back to what the Premier was saying.”
“Well, you see, they’re not.”
“Well, my mother always referred to the box as her father’s ashes and if you shook the box there was definitely something inside, it made a thumping noise, but the key was lost.”
“But when she died I was looking through some old photograph albums with puffy covers―you know the sort, they used to have black or brown pages and photographs stuck into four little black triangular corners…”
“And people wrote who people were and dates and so forth in white?”
“Well, in one album there were photos headed ‘The Ceremony’ and pictures of my mother and her consort at the time and other people I didn’t know with drinks and straw boaters and there’s the black casket on the lawn and a black Labrador with a huge bow around its neck and they each have a spoon. And there was one of them all standing in a semi-circle behind the casket holding their spoons up in the air like d’Artagnan.”
“For scooping out…”
“So I think,” she said, “they did it around the big horse chestnut tree. It’s still there, white candles in the spring, so beautiful. My mother exactly―a drinks party with straw boaters to scatter ashes.”
“But there was still something left in the casket you said?”
“I got a locksmith to open it up and what it was―I don’t know if you have this up here―it was a bag that Chivas Regal Crown Royal came in, very plush cloth, very posh, almost like velvet, purple with stitched yellow writing on it and a drawstring.”
“Actually,” said Forde, “It comes from here. Anyway what was it?”
“Earth,” she said.
“With bone in it or anything?”
“No. Just soil.”
“So then what?”
“I threw the soil out when I’d arranged to come up here and I put ashes in the box from the fireplace. But they didn’t look right. They smelled like wood ashes.”
“But you locked the box again?”
“No. I didn’t have a key. So I went to Home Depot and I bought some of that special glue you mustn’t get on your hands.”
“That’s it. You have to mix two tubes together on a piece of cardboard. The man said it was so strong you’d have to chop the box open with an axe.”
“Hmmm,” said Forde.
“And I gugged up the keyhole with glue so no smoke-smell can get out.”
“No one can open it,” said Forde, “and no one can smell it.”
“And,” she said, “I wanted it to sound right. I mean, I’d read somewhere that ashes have bits of bone in them that they didn’t completely crunch up so if someone shook it, do you see? So I put a unicorn in there.”
Forde stopped and stopped her.
“A unicorn,” he said.
“When you say, ‘a unicorn’―”
“It was a neighbour’s, her toddler had left it, it was white plastic. Solid. Quite heavy and it had a spirally golden horn. So before I did the glue I went down to the basement, there’s an old workbench down there with a vice fixed to it, and I cut the unicorn into little bits with a hacksaw and mixed them with the ashes.”
“So if you shook it there’d be a sense of bigger bits.”
Forde nodded in a considering way.
“Well,” he said, flipping his left hand palm-up, “ashes,” flipping his right palm-up, “are ashes.”
“No essential difference between this lot of ashes and that lot of ashes. Any thought of hugger-muggery is merely in your head alone. Just bury the box with an expression on your face of solemnity and loss.”
She took his arm again and they walked on.
Then she stopped again, paused.
The light was thickening.
“I think that’s why I did that.”
She looked puzzled, sounded unsure.
Taller crosses aspired to the sky, black against it.
“Why I put the unicorn in there.”
Up ahead of them, Poets’ Corner. A parked miniature back-hoe-thing, yellow. A man moving about. On the snow, a bright green tarpaulin with a small mound of earth on it. The glint of a spade.
“That’ll be you,” said Forde.
The man was standing now in the square hole. His back was to them. Along the yellow arm of the backhoe-thing the word BOBCAT.
She brought her hand up across Forde’s stomach, halting him.
Her frown smoothed.
He heard her intaken breath.
She seemed to expand.
She called out to the man.
The stooped donkey jacket and flat cloth cap stiffened but did not turn.
“Hola, gravedigger!” she called again. “How’s my hole?”
The novella Lives of the Poets appears in a collection of novellas and stories appearing this fall from Biblioasis. The collection is entitled The Museum at the End of the World.