Tuesday, 28 July 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 18 The Ashes of The Past

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Of course you cannot help but compare. Life is a progression between the two powerful poles of desire and memory. With each passing day the desire of youth, fueled by the fearsome attraction of the unknown, is gradually replaced by memories of the known, until eventually all you are left with are memories of desires, frustrated or fulfilled. It is a process as inevitable as the sunrise. You can never replicate the freshness of the first time you saw the turquoise blue of the waters around a Bahamian cay or the silent wonderous magic of the child's first snowfall. Instead the mind uses all experience to create a mosaic of new sensations which have the weight of comparison behind them. Tess was still asleep next to me as the sun streamed through the window. The covers had fallen open and one of her breasts lay exposed to the chill of the morning, her nipple dotted with goosebumps from the cold air. I looked at her in repose, her lips relaxed, the darkness of her eyebrows a horizontal line dividing a face that was both long and full. Suddenly I felt an surge of desire overcome me in waves that coursed through my body, a complicated interplay between emotion and reason as the magical machinery of memory and desire kicked into gear. I reached under the covers and slowly traced a line down from her breasts, feeling the muscles of her abdomen tighten. Her skin grow taut as my fingers approached like attacking soldiers sneaking up on a hillock covered with gorse. She stirred and I bent down to suck her nipple, feeling the initial cold stiffness grow warm and soft, then stiffen again as I drew a circle around it with my tongue. She let out a moan and I moved to quieten it with my lips. I felt her body turn towards mine, her legs opening slowly, a drawbridge to allow me passage through into a warm bottomless lake. "Oh dear," she murmured quietly as her eyes came open. "That was a nice way to be woken up." The word intimate has many meanings. As a verb it can mean to hint or suggest. It can also mean to proclaim. Dressed as an adjective, it can mean close, secret, or sometimes even essential. To become intimate with someone is to combine all these definitions, to shed the external skin that we all have and to enter into a hidden internal world--physical, mental, and spiritual--a world where secrets previously hinted at are confirmed or denied, where barriers are breached, where two people surrender themselves to each other willingly. We were on different ground now. It was as though a trapdoor had swung open from the world we had inhabited all our lives and deposited us in a brand new world, one which looked the same but was somehow very different. Was being with Tess different than Lydia? It is like asking if the blue sky is always blue. I read once that we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. Everything depends on your point of view, your place along the timeline of your life. I fell in love with Lydia almost immediately, yet it was a long time before I went out with her. Nonetheless, somehow that initial feeling remained constant, topped up from time to time, but never really exceeding the incredible surge of electricity I felt that first time in the attic at Valhalla. I didn't think it possible, but somehow we managed to keep up the same powerful flow through the years, and I never ever will forget the jolt I used to feel every time I heard her voice say my name, as I felt somehow honoured by God to be addressed by her. Was Tess similar? We were friends for the longest time. It was only after Lydia's death that my feelings for her began to grow in small increments, rising imperceptibly like the level of a tidal pool, not noticeable until I was surrounded by deep water. Comparing the two was impossible and not fair, since they were both different just as I was different. As I lay there, smelling the sweet cleanness of Tess's hair and feeling her body next to mine, I reflected on the two of us, veterans of some long campaign. I felt the strange mixture of contentment and relief tinged with guilt which comes with being a survivor. "Would you like soft-shelled crabs for breakfast?" I asked. "Oh yes, please," she said, wrapping herself around me and kissing my ear. There was a silence in the room, interrupted only by the sound of our breathing. "Thank you," she whispered softly and slowly, her mouth pressed against my ear. I knew it had nothing to do with my offer of breakfast. I looked at her and rubbed my nose against her cheek. "Tess." I said, and kissed her again. The cold floor was a shock to the system, but the day was bright with that newly minted look of spring. The leaves were just at the point of adolescence, changing from the yellow green of new growth into a darker green slightly more care-worn. "What shall we do today?" she asked. I think back now on that moment, and I somehow wish I had said something different, that I had left well enough alone and suggested that we take a walk or a sail or make love again all day or do anything but continue to poke around the ashes of the past. It would have been simpler, and who knows what might have happened. But I didn't, and to this day despite my regret I don't know why I didn't. What I did say was: "Why don't we go visit Mary and Jake again?" A flicker of disappointment, the most miniscule trace, flashed across Tess's face, but she said "Okay," and the day's concrete mold began to set, a footprint that I wish somehow had headed off in a different direction. We called them before going, speaking first to Jake, who despite the early hour sounded as though he had already been drinking something stronger than orange juice. He passed the phone over to Mary, who seemed to have retraced the few friendly steps she had made toward us and was non-committal at best, if not downright unfriendly. We were in no hurry and said we would be over in the afternoon. We spent the morning moseying around Valhalla, cooking a first class breakfast and revelling in what for us was a world with only the two of us in it. We were sitting out on the dock by the boathouse looking out towards the buoys in the distance where only six months earlier we had scattered Lydia's ashes together. What could have been awkward seemed like a natural progression. "You know, life is strange, isn't it?" Tess suddenly said to me, her head leaning on my shoulder. "I used to dream when I was young that we would be doing this, you and I, only I thought we would be doing this twenty years ago. When you got married, I gave up ever thinking it would happen and even when Lydia was killed I never thought..." Her words tailed off as she struggled with what to say. "I hope you don't think that I am gloating that things turned out this way." I hugged her. "Tess," I sighed. "One thing I've learned in life is that we have no control over the big things and only marginal control over the small things. So you have to be grateful when the big things go your way." I paused and looked at her. "And this is a big thing." By the cusp of the afternoon, the sun had warmed up the air sufficiently to take a swim off the boathouse. We went skinny dipping like teenagers, washing the salt off under the water tower. The day meandered by at a languid pace, seconds lurching into minutes and stumbling into hours like drunks with nowhere to go. By three, we were very peckish and decided to stop on the way to Jake's and pick up a barbeque. I was still wiping the remnants off the corner of my mouth as we rolled up to Jake's house, where Mary was sitting out front on an old chair dragged out from inside. "Well, don't you two look like the cat who ate the canary," she cackled as we got out of the car. Tess and I looked sheepishly at each other. I was taken back to the night of my initiation into sex at age sixteen, when I returned home to find my parents and my aunt and uncle surprisingly still on the back porch, drinking coffee and chewing the fat. I felt as though I was different, as though I now sported a badge on my forehead which said THIS BOY IS NO LONGER A VIRGIN. They might have noticed I was acting a little strange, but in retrospect I think their knowing looks were mostly in my imagination. Still, it seemed as though Mary could tell that Tess had found more than a friend. Tess had brought Mary some gifts, a basket with fruits and canned goods and a Christmas pudding that was noticeably out of season. We had also brought a bottle of nice wine for Jake, who had taken advantage of knowing we were coming by disappearing off somewhere. Mary poked through the basket and picked out the pudding, holding it aloft. She had a broad gap-toothed smile on her face. "Lord, child, how dj'you remember I love this?" Tess grinned. "I remember once when I was eight and you and I lit the pudding for the Aunts and you let me hold the match. I know it's not Christmastime..." she said apologetically. "Honey, at my age you don't wait around for Christmas in case it don't come," chuckled Mary, obviously pleased by the gift. Tess had done the right thing. Mary's smile was genuine and it suddenly seemed as though she was on our side. "How long you two stayin'?" she asked. I let Tess do the answering. "We're heading back tomorrow," Tess said, "so I didn't want to leave without seeing you again." I knew Tess was trying to make amends for her family's half-decade of neglect. "Ain't that a pity," Mary said. "I could have cooked you something." Her tone had changed since the phone call. Tess let the conversation wander back and forth like a hooked fish, gradually reeling it in and keeping enough pressure not to lose Mary's goodwill. I remained mute in the background. Curiosity had replaced Tess's earlier reluctance. Suddenly she gaffed the conversation. "Mary," she said. "I know you didn't want to talk about it yesterday but I wonder if you could tell me something about the boat trip with my great-grandfather again." Mary's expression changed slightly, but I couldn't tell whether this was good or bad. "You know child, when you left yesterday I was thinkin' bout that trip and it was all comin' back to me jes like it just happened." She shook her head. "I ain't thought of that for a long time, maybe because...because it changed my life so." She looked around at the chaos of her front yard. I knew she was wondering what a life in Washington would have been like. "I was so young..." she said. She shook her head with a mixture of regret and acceptance. Suddenly she leaned forward in her chair and looked at Tess. "Whatch-you wanna know about that trip, child?" Her tone made it clear that she had just opened a door and invited Tess inside. Tess was a bit taken aback, but quickly recovered. "Yesterday you said that you had never seen two partners go at each other like my great grandfather and Mr. Mackenzie. What did you mean by that?" "Well, child," the old woman said. "You gotta remember that I was a young girl. I hadn't never seen much of what goes on in the real world, you know, how people really act and all. I hadn't never seen Mr. Hoeflinger angry before. He was always so nice to me. Course I knew he must be really strong, else why would he be rich?" She paused for a second. "Mostly on that boat the men they kept to theyselves and so during the day I didn't see much of them. I was busy cleanin' and preparin' the beds and gettin' ready for supper. It only took a day and a half to sail down from Washington, you know. Anyway, after supper they was all playin' poker, and Mr. Hoeflinger, he asked me to stay and serve drinks. Schnapps. That's what they was drinkin'. I know, because I took a swig myself." She giggled and put her hand to her mouth like she was hiding something. She then continued, secretly proud of her audacity as a young girl. "By and by they started talking about their machines and Mr. Ford, he and your great grandfather were doin' most of the talkin'. Finally Mr. Mackenzie, he began to butt in, sayin' how his company could solve Mr. Ford's problems. I remember he kept sayin' "Big isn't bad, Henry. Big isn't bad. My company can help you manage." "I remember it clear as day because that was when your great grandfather he broke in. He shook his finger at Mr. MacEnzie, and said loud, real loud like I never heard him talk before." "Your company, Tomas. Your company. Perhaps you have forgotten ve are partners again." "I remember it cause his face was red and his moustache blew out when he talked and he said Thomas like only he could: 'Toh-mas.' He was pokin' his finger in Mr. MacKenzie's face." She was shaking her head. I spoke up, bringing her back abruptly to the present. "Mary, you're sure he said we are partners again? You're sure he said again?" I said it twice for emphasis. I knew that probing the memory of a ninety year old woman talking about a conversation three quarters of a century before was expecting more than was reasonable. Mary looked at me quizzically. "Yes, I remember it well. I remember it zactly, 'cause that was the last thing I ever heard Mr. Hoeflinger say to someone else. The very last thing." Her head rocked back and forth, as if for emphasis. "After he said it he turned to me and asked me to get the coffee, and when I came back he told me I could go to bed. I could hear them still arguing for a long time, but I didn't hear nothin' they said after that. The next thing I knowed, the Cap'n was shakin' me awake and your great grandfather was dead." Her shoulders hunched up. "Anyway what's past is past, child. Ain't no use in rakin' over coals 'cause the fire went out a long long time ago." She was right, as most people are who have seen ninety years of the ebb and flow of life. The younger you are though, the less you heed their words and the more you plunge forward. My mind was still on that boat, replaying the scene she had just described. "Mary," I interjected, "when Mr. Hoeflinger was yelling at Mr. MacKenzie, what was MacKenzie doing? Did he say anything?" This may seem difficult to believe, but I knew what she was going to respond even before she said it. In my mind I had already seen it. I had already seen it as if the two men had been standing directly in front of us. "No, child, that was the strange thing. He didn't say nuthin'. He just looked at Mr. Hoeflinger and he smiled. He just smiled, child, was all he did."

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