Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 9 • Spring 2004 • Fiction

Excerpts from A House By the Sea

Shani Mootoo

In Another Country, A House By the Sea

Harry heads to the retaining wall wearing his waterproof work jacket and rubber boots on his feet. Only a narrow strip of Howe Sound's ivory-colored water in front of his house is visible. A curtain of mist and clouds hanging in the fjord for weeks now blots out the shore on the far side.

In the past week he has left his property in Elderberry Bay only once. That was some days before Christmas. Kay had telephoned him several times insisting that he spend Christmas day with her, have lunch with her family, but he declined.

He wears heavy work gloves and carries a long rod and a steel pick for swinging into and catching the logs. The odor of the sea, its floor churned and spat up by winter storms, saturates the air. At the side of the house, pine needles and twigs, and small boughs brought down in the storms, although not heavy enough to have done damage to its body, threaten to bury the truck. It is almost two weeks now since he and his men stopped work for the season and still he has not unloaded the truck. He should by now have scrubbed and put away the lawn mowers, shovels, wheelbarrows and the various shears in the shed, but they remain mud and sap-encrusted in the back of the truck.

It is supposed to be eagle season now, a time when one expects to see them by the hundreds, perched in the highest bare-topped trees along the shore, or cruising the length of the Sound as they scan for salmon carcasses. They should be easily spotted on the water, poised on spinning deadheads, a whole fish squirming between a beak or flapping in the talon of a raised foot. But, with this rain one minute, wet snow the next, the fog and the mist, not one is to be seen.

In spite of blowing rain, Harry has propped the front door and left a few windows slightly open; should the telephone ring he wants to be sure to hear it. He is tired, but the clump of deadheads banging against the retaining wall needs to be pried apart.

The New Year is just around the corner. Surely, he thinks, she wouldn't make him wait until then. If only she would telephone, and they could speak, even briefly, he would be freed, better able to celebrate the New Year. Otherwise, likely, he would spend that holiday alone, too.

But, he wasn't entirely alone on Christmas day. Anil, his first friend in Canada, had braved the hour-long drive from Vancouver to Elderberry Bay in the wet, dark morning, his two grandchildren in tow, to pay the Christmas-day visit, a tradition now.

They sat on the enclosed verandah and watched wet snow fall. Harry warmed milk for the boys. They had brought him Indian sweets, which he put out on a plate and offered back to them. The children had expected that Harry, whom they knew to be a landscape gardener, might have set up the yard with colorful prancing plastic reindeer, and the roof with a gift-laden Santa, one foot already down the chimney, but he hadn't. They pestered him with questions about what decorations he had in his shed, about why he hadn't put out any, about the neighbor's decorations, about those of his clients, and more. Their disappointment was eventually diverted by the competing prattling of the lovebirds he had received as a present that summer past. Harry had become so used to the birds and their mess that straightening the living room where they were kept any more than piling an array of landscaping and garden magazines and catalogues neatly beside the couch hadn't occurred to him. The boys were intrigued by the sour, salty odor of birds inside the house, by their scatter of seed hulls and flecks of paper the female used in nesting. They lost interest, however, when one of them opened the cage and, attempting to coax a puffed-up reluctant bird onto a finger, was nipped so hard that an inverted purple colored V-line blossomed instantly just under the surface of his skin. They left within an hour of arriving. That is how he spent Christmas day. That and waiting. He had expected, hoped that Rose would call, but she didn't.

Whatever made him think he could, by himself, fish out the logs, he wonders, some wide enough to hack into rustic-style lawn furniture? If he were to fall into that frigid salt water crammed with mountain slide debris and logs escaped from booms he would be beaten to a pulp so fine that he could be formed into newsprint on which his obituary could be announced.

He turns back toward the house; he will wait until after the New Year holidays, when he will call on one of his workers to help.

It would be good to see an eagle. Weeks into the season and, still, not one is visible.

The Spring Before That Summer

Last spring, during a visit to the Squamish liquor store, a woman he hadn't noticed before pushed a loaded dolly down an aisle toward him. She grinned so warmly that for a moment he thought they might have been acquainted, but he couldn't think from where he would have known her.

"Nice day to be out and about. A little sun finally, eh! Not going to last though! Weatherman's prediction: thunderstorm tomorrow! Of course!"

He couldn't place her. She swiftly slit open crates with a little pocket-knife, whipped bottles out of the boxes and began shelving them. "So what can we do for you today?"

He realized that she was just being friendly. After that first time, whenever he went into the store she seemed to go out of her way to chat with him. On one occasion, as he was leaving she lifted her work badge towards him and said, "Kay. That's my name. And you?"

He clutched his paper bag of wine, twisted it at the bottles' necks, reached in the pocket of his jacket for his car keys, and said, all at once, "St. George. Harry St. George."

"St. George! Harry! Now who would have guessed! OK, St. George. Don't stay away too long, you hear? You come back and see me soon." But she was already taking a bottle from the next customer, so he couldn't tell if she was flirting, being friendly, or just spewing meaningless words. As he reached the door to leave the store he heard her shout out, "Don't get too burned in that sun!" He turned to see her smile mischievously. He found himself thinking of her now and then after that, and whenever he went into the store she went out of her way to chat with him. He would walk in one day, he had thought, not buy anything but go straight to her and invite her to go with him for a quick coffee in the mall. But he kept putting it off. Then, summer came, and so did Rose, and Harry no longer had mind or heart for anyone but her.

It wasn't until Rose was back in Guanagaspar, and the days in Elderberry Bay were getting shorter and cooler that Kay and Harry saw each other again.

That Fall

Come Friday evenings, Rose from her home in Guanagaspar, and Harry from his in Elderberry Bay, would speak on the telephone. Harry would hurry from work so that they might have a chance to chat well in advance of her husband Shem's return from his standing night-out engagement with 'the boys'.

One late-summer-early-fall Friday evening, however, knowing that Rose and Shem were scheduled to spend the weekend at their beach house, Harry, rather than return home to an end-of-week evening without Rose's voice in his ear, ate his supper at the Squamish Hotel pub.

A mournful wail of country music from the juke box clashed with laughter, excited chatter, the pings, whistles and dings of pinball machines, the clack of pool balls, and an undecipherable buzz of commentary that accompanied car racing on a huge television screen in a corner. Two smaller screens hung from the ceiling near the bar throwing irregular flashes of blue light throughout the room. One ran a sit-com with a black family. Their chatter was inaudible, yet every few seconds a burst of audience laughter erupted. The other screened music videos, though no sound from it was heard.

Harry ordered the fisherman's catch item on the menu and a local beer and sat at a table in an area he had determined to be the least noisy. No matter in what activity he was engaged during those days, his body tingled with the awareness that he had come so far ahead in life that Rose Bihar had finally given herself to him.

Along with two of his workers he had spent most of that day, a cool but sunny one, crouched under rose bushes, tilling and turning powdered oyster shell and fresh compost into the soil around the plants' thick aged trunks where the toughest, largest thorns were. Long and unyielding spicules had gripped his clothing and etched his arms with inch-long, blood-beaded slashes. His body burned and his scalp stung. He felt alive.

Under the dim yellow light of a torch-shaped wall sconce he listed the following week's chores in a notebook, all the while thinking of Rose, imagining that she, too, missed their week's end telephone engagement.

Copper fungicide on fruit trees, he wrote. Spray can.

Telephone Asha's Garden Center for greasebands. Call Dalton's.

He absently looked up. Among a handful of male patrons there was a woman hugging the bar counter one minute, swinging around to lean her back against it, the next. She wore a cropped blouse, one of those handkerchief type tops that tie in a knot just below the breast area, and jeans that seemed to pinch her lower body into rigidity, so that she swiveled on the pointed toes of her high heeled shoes. Harry stared at the exposed belly and, when she swiveled, at the taut behind, of the flamboyant woman. Her roaming eyes caught his. She smiled. He bent his head again.

Apply greasebands to apple trees MONDAY!

Mountain Ash, strawberry flats for Osborne's.

Mildew spray/Dr. Chen's roses.

Suddenly, his name was shouted by a woman's unfamiliar voice. Not expecting that any woman he knew would visit a place like this he decided another patron named Harry was being addressed. The noise in the pub had certainly increased since his arrival half an hour earlier. He applied himself to the list again.

Bird seed

Sharpen pruning shears.

Cultivator rental.


Unexpectedly his shoulders were grabbed, thumbs shoved into his back and released before there was time to react. He swung around and there was Kay. He pushed his chair back and stood.

She ignored his outstretched hand and wrapped her arms around him. He imagined he smelled like a man who had been toiling in a garden all day. He looked to see from where she might have appeared: on the other side of the room was a congregation of women, some sitting at a long table, some milling about, all behaving rather raucously. She pulled back a chair and sat at his table. He lowered himself into his chair.

She was instantly full of chatter. She and her friends were celebrating the end of "summer camp for grown-up girls." She had won the prize for having the season's highest number of bogus golf shots. The details of her chatter -- something about not really being much of a golfer, about preferring to drive along back roads -- momentarily escaped him. He was amused by her presumptuousness, but, nevertheless, happy to see her. It was good, to tell the truth, to have her come up to him and greet him so warmly in such a public place. It made him feel as if he belonged -- nowhere in particular, and yet everywhere in general. Sometimes, she was saying, she just got in her van and headed to a lake to do a little canoeing.

And what about him, she perked up still more, startling him. He had no chance to consider the most meager of answers, for she continued: He was a wine drinker, that much she certainly knew. In fact, she rolled on, just the other day she had been thinking about his club, and was curious about how it had come about.

"You don't too often see people from the islands -- you know, people like yourself, darker-skinned I mean, if you don't mind me saying, is it kosher to say that? You don't see them paying close attention to the wines. Well, at least not as carefully as I've caught you doing. The ones you buy are always, and I mean always, winners."

He enjoyed the flattery.

She simply couldn't pass up this opportunity, she said, to hear about the club. "So, who else is in it?"

She was welcome relief from the isolation of his secret and enveloping liaison. And, the topic of the club did concern her. It was she, after all, who, though still unknown to her, through an ill-conceived bit of deducing on her part had planted the notion in his and his friends' heads that they were a wine tasting club. When they called themselves that, it was in jest, mocking the eager clerk he had once mentioned to them.

As he turned in his mind what it was that this rather forward woman was wanting from him, and what he might offer her that would have no strings attached, his impulse was to provoke her. He imparted that on arrival in Canada, to put himself through school -- for he was a qualified gardener now, he injected -- he drove taxi. He paused for a response, a show of surprise or some noticeable loss of interest, but she merely nodded her head to indicate her attentiveness. A few of the drivers in the company he worked for became friends, and long after they had moved on from that line of work they maintained their closeness. Kay's attentiveness intrigued Harry. Could women be as forward as she and still be good? he wondered.

Harry, happy now to be socializing, expounded: at one of their regular rum-drinking get-togethers one of the ex-taxi driving friends, a man named Anil, waxed on with inebriated eloquence that fine-wine-drinking was nothing but status-mongering; it served only to exclude immigrants and to imprison them -- in particular those from the non-grape-growing equatorial climes, the darkies of the world -- in what was supposed to be their rightful place: that of backwardness.

Although these were indeed Anil's sentiments, by divulging these particular notions Harry had intended, again, to shock Kay. Unfazed, however, she merely asked,

"And is this man still with you guys today?" He nodded affirmatively.

"So his position has changed then. Good. You're definitely a first. You've got me hooked. Carry on."

She was indeed a brassy woman. He noticed that the roots of her red tinted hair were brown and that at the temples there were gray strands. He decided to relay what Anil had said, as if reciting a well-known piece of lore.

"'Fellows like we could smell curry a hundred miles away. We born with taste buds that mourning the scarceness up here of scents and flavors like hurdi, illaichi, dhania, the tandoor.' Do you know what those are?" He interrupted himself to ask her. "Tumeric, cardamom, Indian spices and that sort of thing. So, to continue, Anil said to us, 'you ever hear of wine that have those flavors? Is a simple fact, man: people like us not born with a wine tasting gene.'"

Harry's audience of one did not hesitate to show she was mesmerized by his unexpected loquaciousness. Alertness brightening her eyes, she opened her hands in a gesture of impatience, saying, "And so?"

And so, with an embellishment here, a little facetiousness there, Harry St. George did not himself hesitate to elaborate on the origin of the taxi drivers' eventual interest.

At the following gathering of the old friends, continued Harry, another ex-driver, Partap, deciding to prove Anil wrong, showed up with what had been determined for him -- and Harry pointed to Kay as he said: "by someone exactly like yourself" -- to be a so-called fine red wine.

Kay nodded her head as if she were accepting a compliment that had been slid to her across the table.

To the surprise of the old friends they had indeed discerned the distinct aroma of oak and an unlikely tang of black pepper -- exactly as the bottle's label had promised. Kay nodded her head aggressively, as if to say, "Of course!" Their curiosity piqued, the following week there was another bottle of fine wine, and then the week after that yet another. The jaded Anil proclaimed in good time that after one of their sessions he had felt a tingling and a twitching deep inside of him, so deep he could hardly identify where, but he knew instinctively that it was the awakening of his latent wine-tasting gene.

And so, The Once A Taxi Driver Wine Tasting and General Tomfoolery Club, as they eventually dubbed themselves, was still uncorking. Kay clapped her hands as if she herself had triumphed. A mischievous impulse to reign in her too -- eager enthusiasm prompted him to blurt out, "But, tell me something, have you ever tasted the flavor of coconut in a wine? And lamb vindaloo? Because, I will tell you, we have tasted mango, curried crab, red fish and chicken stew. We have even identified in certain South American reds a variety of styles of garlic -- sliced, smashed, minced, roasted."

Kay showed no surprise, but looked dazed and eager, as if she had slipped into a world she did not want to leave. She asked him if he had a preference for a particular grape, or for the wines of a specific region. Before he could answer she slipped in that she hardly ever drank anything but Italian, and mostly the heavier reds, the barolos and barberas, and she couldn't honestly say that she had ever tasted anything like curry or garlic in them. Harry was compelled to take advantage of how readily she indulged him.

He reveled, now, gilding fact and fiction, that he and his friends vowed to shun Old World vintners, the wines of Europe. They, the dark-skinned island people, he said squinting mischievously at her, had been too wounded by centuries of Old World greed and exploitation to unbegrudgingly partake of its stuffy fare, the result of which was that he and his ex-taxi driver friends agreed to drink only the less expensive but lighthearted wines of Chile and Argentina, those of Australia since it was, after all, a commonwealth country and, one way or the other, their consumption would benefit the aboriginal population. They conceded, Harry added, to support the British Columbia wine industry, and still drank Californian wines because they were all in agreement that much of the labor propping up that industry was immigrant, and it was the support of the immigrant -- not the consideration of taste -- that was of significance to them. Kay laughed raucously, blurting out that she thought he and his friends were wonderfully mad, and she drew out the word wonderfully. Her fawning amused and charmed him. Abruptly, she reached out, slid aside his beer mug, and cupped both her hands over the tiny blood-beaded dashes on one of his forearms. The fingertips of one hand, wet from the condensation on the mug, startled him.

"Animal, or roses?" Her voice lowered now in the noisy room, it was a few seconds before he realized what she had said.

He answered. She nodded knowingly, moved her cupped hand lower then higher, resting it lightly each time for a few seconds. Her forwardness was beguiling. On account of it he had just revealed things about his life, made light of his insecurities, and suggested that there could be a frugal side to him. After being faced with Rose's discomfort of Harry's early Canadian work experiences, hardly any of this -- even in jest -- would he have dreamed of disclosing to her. But his friends, their club, their antics and their delight in inventing off-color moral justification for their actions, meant a great deal to him, and Kay's indulgence was a much appreciated validation.

Her hot hand, still on his arm, only made the rose bush wounds sting more.

"Well, I know a whack about you -- still not enough, though -- but fair is fair: let me tell you about myself," she said, causing him to suddenly realize that he knew hardly a thing about this person in front of whom he had just so unreservedly revved himself up. She proceeded to impart that she had been married to a man from Iran. Peeved by this revelation, by way of adjusting himself in his chair he slid his arm away from her; he mused that perhaps he was not special after all -- it was merely that this woman liked foreign men, immigrant men. Perhaps his wine club story wasn't really all that interesting, he thought, and admonished himself to exercise more discretion with his babbling in the future.

After the second of two daughters was born her husband left them and returned to his country, and ever since, she has been on her own, she said abruptly.

To break the awkwardness that immediately ensued Kay asked Harry if he had ever been on a mountain lake, out in a canoe. He gestured that he hadn't. "Not very Canadian of you," she said with a tone of mock accusation. "We're just going to have to fix that, aren't we!"

Getting up as the waitress arrived with Harry's order of deep fried seafood, Kay suggested that since fall was just around the corner they take advantage of the good weather forecast for the weekend and head out the very next morning. Harry thought again of Rose; with Shem ever-present there was hardly a chance this weekend that she would try and contact him from their seaside home. Besides, he had no other pressing engagements. It was a well-timed opportunity, he reasoned, to do something out of the ordinary.

Shani Mootoo's first book, Out on Main Street, is a collection of short stories. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, was nominated for The Giller Prize, the Chapter's First Novel Award, and the BC Book Prize; and she was awarded the New England Book Sellers award in 1998. Her book of poetry, Predicament of Or, was published by Polestar/Raincoast in 2001. She has just completed her second novel, A House By The Sea, which is soon to be published by Grove Atlantic. Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo resides in Edmonton where she teaches Creative Writing in the English Department of the University of Alberta. Her visual art work and videos have been exhibited internationally.

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