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Flying Blind - excerpt
by Robert Harlow

Why not tell them about the war? The answer came quick,

almost too quick. It was a personal thing, unshareable..

MORNA HIS MIDDLE CHILD, WAS AT CANDACE'S WHEN MICHAEL arrived with his guitar and the bottle of Freixenet. She answered his knock, and her agate eyes appraised him before she leaned forward at the hips and gave him a kiss. He loved her name: Morna. It should belong to Candace, and coot Candace to this tall, lean woman. No one should name a baby until they've lived with it long enough to find out who it is. A child comes with a personality, and part of bonding with it should be finding out what its name is.

But Nora, who had borne all three of his children, always had a boy-name and a girt-name ready on her lips in the delivery room, and he imagined the gyno hauling a new creation out of her and sliding it up onto her belly. "It's a girt," he says. "Morna," Nora answers. The nurses beam at this lovely efficiency during such a gut-bucket, but stilt sentimental, time. He put his guitar down by the piano he'd bought for Candace when she was 12, an instrument she had hopeful young men deliver to all of her new addresses. John was not hovering. Perhaps he'd been forced out into the kitchen to help because of the importance of this occasion, but Michael found Candace alone there, her cheeks pink and triumph in her eyes. "It's going to be fucking super, Daddy," she shouted, and gave him a hug. He produced his two litres of sparkling wine, still cold from Mr. Chong's inexpensive fridge. "Morna," joined them, her smile edged with unnameable concerns.

"What I like about you is you think," Candace told him, taking the bottle. "My Chablis would've been nice, but maybe it'd be a little limp-wristed at a gathering as seminal as this."

There was a knock at the door. "Paul," she said. "Get it, will you, Big Sister?"

"Where's John?" Michael asked.

"Morna," suddenly alert, didn't leave.

"Gone. John's gone. Down with John, down the john with John. Happy sewers, John."

"My God, but you're awful," "Morna," said, and laughed short and sharp.

"No, I'm literate and lovable, and let's not ruin the evening."

"Licentious," "Morna," said, and went out to answer the door.

"You go, too, old man. Give Paul a hug for me."

He disliked instructions; why could he take them easily from Candace? The obviousness of the answer made him go and stand with an arm around "Morna," white he shook hands with Paul. His son's eyes looked at him for a moment with a mixture of anxiety and alarm, and then he grinned. Michael had always suspected this facial manoeuvre was something friendly and ingratiating to hide behind, and it had served Paul well since he was a teenager. They stopped shaking hands, gave each other a one-armed hug and the three of them walked through to the kitchen, exclaiming about the rarity of events such as this one during the past 10 years. Paul had graduated from UBC and had gone to York on a scholarship. Michael had sent him the extra money he needed to live in Toronto, but Paul had given up his degree to go to Central America with CUSO. Aid became his life. He was in charge now of some part of whatever it was Canada was doing for Ethiopia - a government man, on contract at the moment, he told them, but his trip to Ottawa was about being taken on staff full time. It felt odd to have whelped and raised a civil servant. "Morna," was now at last an assistant buyer at Eaton's. He must check to make sure Candace was still working with a friend at a new boutique on South Granville. Was John still paying the rent, or was the boutique a success? Somehow he doubted both, and expected a new request from her for help soon, perhaps tonight.

In their own ramshackle way they got on, these three, who were unmatched enough to have had separate fathers. That couldn't have been true, however. Nora had slept with two men before she slept with him, and had married them both. Their own marriage in 1955 had been more scandal than celebration. It had been hard to find a minister who would marry them in his church, but Nora wanted a real wedding, because she was sure their coupling would be permanent. It very nearly was. It lasted for a month short of 20 years.

The kitchen in this apartment - the second floor of a 1912 house -was as large as a farm kitchen. Perhaps it had originally been the master bedroom. They stood by the small table and two chairs where breakfast was meant to be eaten while Candace got the glasses down from the high cupboard and Paul opened the Freixenet.

"There's very little champagne in Ethiopia," he said, pouring.

"This is only carbonated white wine, so I think you can excuse it," Michael said.

"Oh, don't mistake me, I'll take the real stuff anywhere I can." Paul passed a glass to each of them. "It's your wine, Dad, so you can do the toast."

On stage and without any tines teamed, he looked at the ceiling, not able to invoke family or cosy love; quality time was drum-hollow. He had a crazy urge to further expose himself by saying, "Yesterday I helped a stranger die in Pioneer Park." It was a story not yet ready for telling. He felt kin with the woman from Montreal and her aloneness, but not yet in command of the meaning of her death. "Listen," he said, hoping for inspiration, and then babbling a tired sentiment: "Moments like these are the very best. Let's savour this one."

"This moment," Candace said. "Morna," and Paul repeated the words and they all touched glasses and drank. Candace had made the toast work. He hoped she'd do the same now for the rest of the evening.

She put him at the head of the table she'd set in the room where the piano was. Candace sat at the foot, and Paul and Morna faced each other across blue candles. There were four small framed snapshots, one to face each of them; the one facing him was of the family they'd once been, taken the Christmas the children were seven, nine, and 12. He tried unsuccessfully not to stare at it or try to think what the purpose of it was. If Paul or Morna had put it on either of their dinner tables, the implications would be clear. But Candace he'd only ever think of as ingenuous. Nora's pose and her big mile took all of his attention. She was very pretty. She loved cameras, and cameras loved her back. She also loved Christmas. At her childhood home there had been both enough love and enough money, enough of both so that the day had never been a disappointment to her.

Morna picked her picture up, laughing, and flashed it to all of them. She was three and was sitting on her tricycle. Behind her was the house on 2 7th where they lived a year before moving to Nora's great discovery in North Van - a house that turned out to have carpenter ants. The main beam, and the front and back porches (the front one collapsed, which was how they discovered the ants) had to be replaced.

"Where'd you get this?" Morna demanded. "Mother?"

Candace nodded. Paul held out his hand and took the snapshot from his sister. "Cute," he said, and handed it back.

"I needed my nose blown, Morna said.

"You always did," Paul told her. "I think the only two things you liked to eat then were snot and Kraft Dinner."

"That's nasty, Paul," Candace said.

"Sorry. But haw-haw anyway."

"Eat, there's nummy dessert."

"Let's see yours, Candace," Morna said, and picked it up.

"I wasn't cute," Candace said.

"Like hell you weren't." Morna showed the photo. Candace was 14 in the picture, and the young man on the motorcycle with her appeared to have a terminal disease and a week to live. Candace looked as if she should be hired by Suzuki to sell bikes. "It's unfair," Morna cried. "Where's your snot?"

"He's driving."

"Jimmy Crowe. I remember now. He was awful. And mother was so nice to him,"

"Strategy, Big Sister. If she liked him, I didn't. The only boy I wanted to let stay around for more than 10 days was Red Lewis."

"Right. He had a Harley."

"When he walked in with me - I was three weeks away from being 15 - mother looked once at him and told him she and I had something we had to do, and when he was gone she slammed me against the wall and took a handful of my hair

"You're making this up," Morna said. "Her thing was the two-hour lecture."

"It was positively atavistic - dripping caves full of carnivores as far as you could see. Scared the shit out of me, and made me so excited I couldn't sleep. Red was something else then."

"What happened?" Paul asked.

"Jail. His hero was the train robber who got away to Brazil and The Life. Red always said The Life like Christians say Heaven. He robbed a pharmacy. The judge gave him seven years, and except for joyriding it was a first offence. Red didn't have money to appeal, and the prosecution thought it was the best day they'd had in months."

"I gather you weren't with him," Paul said. "At the pharmacy."

"And I didn't keep in touch. But four years later I went to see him when I was doing a criminology course at SFU. I wanted to do an essay on him. He was 22 and looked 40. You know, he couldn't remember me, thought I was somebody else, which riled me, and I asked him how The Life was. Struck a nerve, I guess. He called the guard and the visit was over."

"Good story," Paul said, laughed his disbelief and poured more wine.

Morna shivered. "Then it was Red Lewis who

"Hush," Candace said, "we're not among strangers."

Paul had got away with not showing his snapshot, and there was no request to see the family picture. They ate in silence, and Michael knew that he and Paul were trying to remember Red Lewis, probably for the same reason: "Red was something else then." The law trimmed your antlers; the exciting alpha male was always in some animal way lawless. He glanced at Paul and thought that trying to imagine someone else in bed was only one way of reaching out toward a comic put-down, but imagining your son there working over the equation that says penetration equals violation (and with an Ethiopian) was simply perverse. He finished the last of the scampi on his plate and sat back in his chair, feeling mired again in a rotten place where he was sure he belonged.

Candace rose and took their plates to the kitchen; Paul poured wine again. It was the blueberry season. Her dessert was a cobbler, less successful than the scampi but, as she said, what can you do to ruin fresh blueberries? The crust was thick enough, but Nora's dab hand at pastry had not been passed on to her daughter. They had coffee and Candace said, "Come on, Paul, you're the only really interesting person here, tell us about your new co-vivant."

He looked startled and frowned at Morna.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I peached on you. They know she's Black, too."

"My God, you say that like it's a disease."

Morna looked at once uncertain, hurt, misunderstood. "Not that, Paul," she said, pleading. "An adventure."

"Tell us about her," Michael urged him, and understood that he was cutting off contention by exercising his fatherhood.

"We can skip saying she's beautiful," Candace said, helping out. "Paul's women always are."

"She's an economist. I met her in Nairobi where we warehouse some of our supplies. When I'm taken on permanently, I'll be posted there." He looked around at them, his eyes serious. Wanting, Michael thought, family banter to stop and for them to I listen. Paul leaned forward, picked up his empty wine glass and twirled it around by its stem. "When we are married there's got to be her divorce first -perhaps we'll be able to go as a team to places where we might be useful. She's from Toronto - her grandparents came from Trinidad -and she's been in this business as long as I have."

"Sounds good," Michael heard himself say.

"It's terrific," Candace said. "A role model for us, Paul; it's what you've always wanted to be."

"Seeing Daddy's not." Morna's hands flew up around her face. "I mean, oh God, I've done it. I mean just that Paul's so dignified - "

"Not my strong suit." Michael said, and reached Out, feeling close to Morna because of her truth-telling. He touched her arm. "I've had a bit of trouble with that." They were looking at him, listening. "Since the war, anyway." Babble. Why did he say that?

"More," Candace said, softly. "You've never talked about it." She was trying to make another family moment, like the toast they drank in the kitchen, only this time larger.

Again he had no lines rehearsed. "I'm not like Paul," he began.

"No no, you," Candace said.

He gave them a shrug, hoping to dismiss the topic.

"Everybody was changed by it. Some for the better."

"And our father, Michael Bryden?" Morna asked, and he was happy that she knew he loved her.

"It was fun," he said, escaping them. "Good people to fly with, a few bad times, the usual snafus, a wing-and-a-prayer every now and then." They were still paying too much attention. "But Vera Lynn too."

"Vera Lynn?" Candace giggled. "That's who your sex life was overseas?"

"She was a Brit singer," Paul said, still the eldest and a male.

"All the great old war songs," Michael said, and got up from the table. Why not tell them about the war? The answer came quick, almost too quick. It was a personal thing, unshareable, like - what? A short shank? An awkward birthmark? Two assholes? No, more an inexplicable loss. A permanently misplaced self He took his guitar out of its case, which was a reminder of something now only dimly felt at this great distance from Michael the child, the youth who had been growing in a direction that would have led to open country and who had been wrenched around and shoved into territory that could never be comfortably lived in.

"Play with me, Candace. You know the songs. I just never told you who made them famous." He tuned the strings, but she

didn't join him, and finding himself committed, he began to play and sing about the bluebirds that flew over the white cliffs of Dover. Not a lie. They were there. So was the nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square. After a while they hummed along with him and every now and then remembered some of the words. He did "You Are My Sunshine" and "Roll Out the Barrel," which they sang without embarrassment. As an exit number he changed key and tempo and did "We'll Meet Again." Then he ran a few changes, put his guitar away, and glanced at them. Morna and Paul were looking comfortable; Candace was edgy and he braced himself, knowing she was going to let her emotions speak.

"Songs," she said. "Birds, people, I don't give a damn who sings them, they're propaganda. These days they're mostly about how it's okay if I get into your pants. Penny and Celia and I are rehearsing a new band. We're going to make our own propaganda."

"Oh?" Paul said. "Got a good name for it?"

"Cunt." She drained her wine glass. Morna and Paul looked as if they'd been punched. Michael felt helpless; she had inherited his distresses and shaped them for her own use. "This is take-back time, folks," she said.

"Aren't you a bit old for this?" Paul asked. "I mean, eight or 10 years ago you could've done green hair and a safety pin in your nose.

"And nobody would've noticed."

Morna said, "What are you going to sing about - ?"

"'It Ain't Yours, It's Mine.' 'You'll Get It When I Give It. 'The Vagina Rag.' We've invented a sweet little 1930s tune for a number called 'Blue Pudendum'...."

"For old cunts," Michael said. It was time to stop her. "You're pretty mad at John, aren't you?"

She went stiff and sucked in her breath, then she nodded. "Cunt's a fib." She began to cry. "Shit. Shit-shit-shit. Look at us. Mother, you - six fucking marriages between you. Is that the way it is now? I mean, what am I to think? Is that all I have to look forward to?"

"You're young yet. You've made a few experiments." He felt impotent, guilty, and knew he sounded that way. "We screwed up, but the world didn't - "

"Bullshit, Daddy. Ten million yous did so screw up the world."

Candace yelling at him: it hurt. "Would you like to be East

Indian, say, and pair up with someone you hardly know and then -"

"You wanted a war story," Paul said, pointedly interrupting. He leaned forward and took his sister's hand.

"How do you know it's a war story?" Candace wiped her tears with her free wrist.

"Because it's one that goes round and round and has no end."

Michael went back to the table and sat in his chair. This was what seriousness got you: maybe an answer. "Nice going," he said to his son, a person he'd somehow missed while he was growing up.

"Is it?" Paul asked. "That's the way my war feels."

"Greed and other natural disasters just go on and on. I doubt your war wilt ever stop. The problem with mine was that it did." The idea had not occurred to him so precisely before. The ramifications of it. He looked at his watch and thought of Howard waiting for him at the Billy Bishop. Now, damning the consequences, he exposed himself as he'd wanted to earlier. "I think I was someone else before I joined up. Maybe everybody else was, too."

"Not everybody else helped get six divorces," Candace said.

"Daddy and Paul are only saying if people are altered by whatever war they're in, then everything changes," Morna said. "Would women understand how destructive blaming the victim is if changes hadn't happened? How about that?" she finished, weakly.

"Penicillin," Michael heard himself say. And jet engines, smashed atoms, microchips.

"Nobody," Paul said, "would've let the Pill onto the market before the war. Or countenanced abortion."

"Or divorce," Candace said. "We've been taught, goddamn it, that moving on is what it's all about. I just move on, and every time I do it I feel more and more a failure." She took her hand away from Paul's. "Look at my father, took at my precious dad, a man I love. just look. He's down there on Point Grey Road in his new apartment, 65 years old and looking again. Man must have his mate. There's no father there, just another male smelling of - goddamn it, I'll be polite smelling of rut. And I do too."

"But maybe you're growing up - maybe we all are - and don't know it," Paul said.

Morna stood up. "I can't stand any more of this. Thanks for the lovely meal, Little Sister."

Michael got up too. "I'm not down there - doing - rutting." At that moment he hated lying, lies: Ann, hazel-eyed, comfortable, and beginning to visit.

"I said I loved you," Candace told him, and remained seated. Paul didn't get up either; he leaned back in his chair. "I'll stay here, I think."

Morna was drifting toward the door, her face a mask trying to change from grimace to smile. She came back to Michael and gave him a hug. "I'll come see your new place soon. I will. Promise. Paul, have a good trip to Ottawa. Phone. I love your phone calls." And she left.

"I meant it," Candace said. "What do I do?"

Michael looked at Paul, knowing neither one of them had an answer.

"I'm sorry I upset everybody. I'm fucking selfish, but it feels good to unload my stuff onto you guys." Candace got up. "Two weeks. Give me two weeks and I'll be stupid in love again, and the man will be perfect. Is that my war, the big bloody conflict in my life that pushes me around and leaves the real me - if there is one - in some unmarked grave?"

"Shut up," Paul said, softly. "Just stop talking. You keep letting your smarts become smartass."

"I have to go," Michael told them. He picked up his guitar and gestured in a direction he thought might be the Billy Bishop. "Howard Tate's in trouble. I think he is. He hardly ever wants to see me alone, and never at a Legion club."

"Go," Candace said and came to give him a hug. "This has been the best dinner party I ever gave. I said it all, and now the whole family knows about me."

"That you're good, and you're coming out of this move fighting."

He hugged her back, kissed her, and took Paul's outstretched hand. It was easy to hug him, too. "Could I do some good if I went over there and worked with you?" By the time he was halfway through the question he knew he needed help to rescue him from what he was saying.

Paul shook his head. "You'd hate it, Dad." He laughed gently. "You would, you know. There aren't any comforts of home."

The three of them were very close now. He felt it and knew they did too, and he had to be careful not to damage the moment. "Love you," he said. "Proud too - of who you've both become." Candace kissed his cheek and held herself close again. "Phone you tomorrow. Tell Howard hello." She opened the door for him.

He stood in the hallway and felt forgiven. They always do that, children. Or want to. It is a shame they have to have humans for parents, ones that fuck and fuck up. He went down the stairs praying for Candace, and wishing Paul would take him away somewhere and teach him presence - at least that, if not a little decorum, some seriousness. It would be easy for Paul to do, because Michael suspected that his son might someday become not just dignified but an eminence. The thought was not a burden. He wanted his children to be what they wanted to be.

This is an excerpt from Flying Blind, a novel-in-progress by Robert Harlow.


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