Young Jakob and his teacher Mr. McCloud get involved in a classroom row which turns physical. McCloud loses his cool and yells out a racist taunt. Jakob’s parents are notified of an emergency meeting between the school officials and the two combatants. The chapter focuses on the teacher on the day of the meeting. We learn that his life is in turmoil: his wife has thrown him out of the house and he has no idea about possible disciplinarian action that might be forthcoming. Also, the memories of his war years as a POW are beginning to haunt him again.
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BOOK 4 CHAPTER 5
THE TROUBLE WITH TEACHER
Splintered by faded and discoloured thread-worn drapes, random shards of a late morning sun penetrated the musty hotel room. High school teacher and recently evicted spouse, Ian McCloud had booked himself a ten dollar room at the Ford Hotel. The hotel was located in an east-facing room in the middle wing of the three-towered building. Once notorious for its luxury lodgings, the hotel had gradually fallen into disrepair over the years. ‘The Ford’, as it was fondly known amongst locals, sat adjacent to the Bay Street bus terminal, also a fading jewel from its well-appointed Art Deco past.
The Ford had become a popular temporary refuge for young single unemployed males, many from ‘down east’, seeking work and their fortunes in the big city. The cheap rooms attracted a medley of offbeat humanity: newly arrived immigrants, travelling salesmen, eloped couples, burlesque dancers from the Victory and Casino theatres, spousal cheats, prostitutes (male and female) and their johns, permanent residents (pensioners and pogey recipients), and obscure country singers; not to ignore the odd thief, murderer, and down-and-out with a history of suicide ideation.
Ironically, the hotel was the site of the honeymoon suite that McCloud and recently estranged spouse shared on their first night together as a married couple. But back then it was a swank joint, and not inexpensive—a hotel with a reputation for being quite upscale.
McCloud was in the throes of a half-woken state of sleep deprivation, fuelled by a night of heavy drinking downstairs in the ‘Tropical Room’, one of the several in-house hotel drinking establishments located at street level. His breathing was laboured, tempered by his still swollen nose, the victim of last week's dramatic collision with his contumacious student's elbow.
He grudgingly admitted to himself that he had lost complete control of a volatile situation, angered by the rude conduct and lack of respect from some of his students. Calling the lad ‘a filthy little Jew’ was beyond a lack of judgement. But the searing memories of the humiliation and helplessness from his years of captivity in a German POW camp had erupted with a savage force, triggering a paroxysm of rage that shattered any chance of reflective good judgement.
He recalled his own uneven youth in South East London; his old man coming home from his job at the Millwall dockyards to Canning Town where they lived in a run down flat above a greengrocer. Flushed with drink he would ramble on about an assortment of long held grievances: unsympathetic bosses, unscrupulous shop keepers, losing Millwall football clubs, Cattlelickers’ (his scathing term for Catholics), union activists who he complained were the lackeys of the “Commie Kikes,” and of course, Jews. It was always the Jews—‘those slimy Jews’, who he constantly blamed for his miserable life. He accused the Rothschild family and all the other international Jewish bankers for the Depression. He would rant on about ‘those bloody Christ Killers’, and though he professed to be a good Protestant, he rarely attended church and knew nothing about his own faith.
He and his mother would brace themselves when the old guy came staggering home from one or more of his copious collection of favourite drinking spots. As he teetered up to their flat, it was always a coin toss whether he would take out his venom on his family either verbally or physically. Often they could judge his potential actions by the tone of his cursing or the smell of his drink. Beer and ale meant the likelihood of a mere verbal tirade, hard liquor, a better than even chance of an ugly physical violence. As an older boy, Ian could handle the beatings, but couldn't bear the site of his mum getting the fist. How he hated the bastard then, often spending hours in his room angrily soliciting in his mind the best possible way of doing away with the pathetic old souse.
Sometimes he could be a decent chap: playing football together in the neighbourhood parks, taking him on August beach trips to Brighton, excitedly riding the Southern Railway train from Victoria Station, and the sporadic Saturday afternoon jaunts to the local cinema. There were times on a weekend afternoon, after a half day off work, when he would take him to nearby Rathbone Market: a quarter mile of open stalls where a symphony of smells, sights, and sounds surrounded the two as they slowly navigated the hordes of strollers and hagglers. The old man would take him to his favourite sweet shop where they would share a different treat each visit. However, each outing would inevitably wind up with a visit to a nearby pub, both returning home to an agitated wife and mother, scolding her husband for keeping the boy out so late. The night would usually culminate in a violent row.
His mum felt obliged to put up with the wanker for years, until one night after work, a week after Chamberlain declared war on Germany, the old guy was so bladdered up from drink, that he wandered off towards the blacked-out dockyard, and managed to drown himself in the murky Thames. He was only forty four years old.
The future teacher had just turned eighteen, and like other young East London lads, was seduced by the adventurous lure of war, and was soon to enlist with the British Expeditionary Force, and endure five years in a living hell. Soon after his father's funeral, his mum moved north to Bolton to live with her older spinster sister. But now, pondering over those times, he was stunned by a troubling awareness: he had slowly grown into a mirror image of his father.
The teacher had an afternoon meeting with Principal Stevens and his student Jakob Okker to discuss last week's incident and the possibility of disciplinary action. He was advised that the student's uncle would be present as an agreed upon proxy for his parents. Stevens had warned him earlier that the Okkers’ might threaten legal action, probably based on the alleged physical and emotional abuse of their son and nephew. McCloud himself had not excluded the possibility of pursuing a physical assault lawsuit of his own against the boy.
Except for his suit jacket, McCloud had fallen asleep fully clothed. He quickly doused his face with cold water and combed his hair. The bruising had subsided somewhat, but still framed both eyes with a half circle of yellow-purplish discolouration, giving him a racoon-like appearance. He decided to return home for a shave and change of clothing. He still had the keys to the house. His wife Judith would be at work, so there would be no confrontation, just a chance to have a quick shower and shave to allow himself to be presentable for the afternoon meeting. He had four hours to make the meeting, sufficient time to grab a late breakfast downstairs at Murray's.
He left the restaurant just after the noon hour. Out on the street the sun was bearing down from its morning roost, now uninhibited by any semblance of clouds. In deference to the heat, he immediately doffed his jacket and looked for a vacant cab. On the opposite side of the hotel he caught a glimpse of an eye-catching cherry red cab parked at a taxi stand. It looked like one of those New York City Checker cabs, rarely seen here in Toronto, but all pervasive in the streets of New York City.
McCloud opened the rear door and got in. The driver was wearing a newsboy cap of brown tweed and a leather bomber jacket. The car reeked of cigar smoke. “Where's your pleasure, mate?” He had an odd accent—it sounded like a mishmash of East London and possibly German. He called out to the driver his home address.
“Nice neighbourhood, the Beaches is!” the driver responded. “Been there long?”
“Almost fifteen years”, the teacher replied. The driver turned down the red ‘vacant’ arm next to the meter and accelerated east towards Bay Street. “Mind if I light up a fag, mate?” the teacher asked.
With a shaking hand, he fished out a cigarette from his suit jacket. He inhaled deeply, thankful for the nicotine's quick stimulating effect. He inquired about the driver's peculiar accent.
“Spent the war years in London with my uncle, but grew up in Amsterdam”, the cabby proclaimed.
“Sounds a bit like cockney.”
“You too!” the driver replied.
The teacher choked his butt into the door's silver ashtray and presented the driver with a snippet of his own background. He felt comforted to be communicating with someone other than a student or school staff member. “Well, I spent my childhood and youth in Millwall—my father was a docker.”
“Millwall supporter?” the driver inquired.
“To the bone!” McCloud proudly retorted. The driver glanced back through his mirror.
“Not much of a football nutter myself, but my brother and uncle were diehard ‘Hammer’ supporters—they hated your ‘Lions’. I got to a few games at the Boleyn—my uncle had a bookshop in Whitechapel so he often got tickets from his good customers.”
Whitechapel! McCloud pondered. Is this guy a Jew? There were lots of them in Whitechapel. Hard to tell, he thought—didn't get a good look at him, just the back of his head.
The cab slowed to a crawl along busy Queen Street, coming to a full stop alongside the Greenwood Racetrack. McCloud noticed the cabbie staring at him through his rear view mirror.
“You look kinda familiar!” Do you happen to play the ponies?"
McCloud lit another cigarette. “Yah, I spent the odd time tossing away my hard earned pay,” McCloud lamented. The driver whistled excitedly as if he just unravelled an onerous puzzle.
“That's it! I spotted you at Greenwood. You used to buy the Daily Race Form at the smoke shop across the street! Years ago my brother had the radio repair shop on the same block!”
McCloud thought for a moment. “Yes, I do recall a repair shop there. Last time I looked the place was empty.”
McCloud's house was located on a tree lined cul-de-sac appropriately named Lakeview Avenue, in a neighbourhood known to locals as the ‘Lower Beaches.’ It was a mere stones throw away from the popular wooden boardwalk that straddled the sandy beach along Lake Ontario. It was a turn-of-the-century white clapboard cottage: a one and half story structure with an enormous veranda out front and a giant maple, probably as old as the structure itself, holding sentry beside the rough gravelled driveway.
He and his spouse Judith had bought the house from a retired elderly couple who were moving to British Columbia to live with their married daughter. Back then, McCloud's twin girls had just started kindergarten. He recalled the warm summer days when Judith, him, and the girls, picnic basket in hand, along with pails and shovels, walked eagerly to the nearby beach to enjoy a day of sun. He found it hard to to fathom how quickly the years had departed—his little girls were now grown up women attending McGill University in Montreal!
He paid the driver, handed him a healthy tip, and agreed with a cursory smile, after exchanging names, to join him for a beer at the track the next time their paths met. McCloud thought to himself: What kind of name is Okker? I've heard that name before...someone in sports... tennis?”
Thankfully, the driveway was empty. He put his key into the brass lock, tarnished from the ravages of age. The key failed to turn. Bloody hell! The bitch must have changed the lock already! He walked to the back of the house—same result. He tried to jimmy the side and back windows, but without success.
The early afternoon had turned sultry. He took a seat on the creaky, well-used Muskoka chair on the front veranda, still a piece of usable summer furniture left by the previous owners. He reckoned it was a good time to get his thoughts together so he could decide on a useful strategy for the upcoming school meeting.
He heard the door slam from next door. His neighbour Neil, cold beer in one hand, waved with the other. He was preparing to mow his lawn.
“Hey teach: You look like you’ve spent the night in a bus terminal!”
“Don't ya scuffers have some bad guys to turn in, mate?” McCloud replied sardonically.
Neil was a city cop who worked strange shifts.
“Not 'til the sun goes down and the ugly underbelly of this town arises from their hellish underground grottos! But seriously Ian, you look like shit. You need this more than me!” He handed McCloud his beer. “How's the beak?”
“Only hurts when I'm sober! the teacher half heartedly joked, adding: “Stupid me got locked out—left my keys inside!”
Neil didn't want to call out his neighbour on the lie. Last night he heard yelling and doors slamming. He knew the couple were having marital issues for months. “Wanna lift somewhere? he asked McCloud.
"No, thanks. I've got a meeting at the school in a few hours—reckon I'll take a walk to clear my head.” After a generous swig, he handed the empty bottle to Neil. “Thanks for the wallop, mate! Jesus, I needed that!”
McCloud sauntered on towards Queen Street, the neighbourhood's main drag. He had a throbbing headache, no doubt from last night's drinking binge and his sporadic sleep. He stopped at the Lakeview Smoke Shop, and bought a pack of Export A's and a coke. As he made his way westward, he was overcome with a desperate need for another drink to take the edge off his misery. Crossing Queen Street, he decided to pay a rare weekday visit to his usual after-work haunt: ‘The Blighty Arms’, was a local pub owned by a transplanted Brit from Liverpool. Before entering, he glanced at his image on the reflective glass door. Bloody hell, he thought, l do look like shite!
The bar was empty, save for an elderly couple exchanging photographs and laughing. Sid, the owner was tending bar, absentmindedly drying beer mugs with a towel. “Oi! What brings Mac to my esteemed establishment in the light of day?" He stared at McCloud. “Blimey mate! Ya look like you've gone through a car wash!” McCloud eased his way up to the bar and removed his dishevelled jacket.
“Sid, you bloody scouser, just shut your hole and divvy me up a couple of boilermakers!”
The owner quickly placed two pints of draft and an equal number of whiskey-filled shot glasses. The teacher quickly downed the whiskey and then finished half his pint. Feeling more relaxed, he prepared himself for the anticipated barrage of questions.
“How's the snotter feel?” Sid commiserated. “Looks like the swelling has gone down a bit.”
“Only hurts when I breath, or when I get questioned by nosey bartenders!”
McCloud finished his beer and lit a cigarette, welcoming with great relief the alcohol's settling effect on his fractured nerves.
“Do ya feel like talk'n mate?” Sid inquired.
McCloud downed his second shot, took a long chug of beer and decided to share his story with the owner. “Me and the wife had a bit of a row early last night. I said some things I now regret, so she turned me out. I ended up at the Legion Hall over by the bus station. I had a guest pass from a vet friend. Got myself rightly bladdered so I took a room at the Ford.”
“Aye, the ‘Big F!’ Sid chuckled. “Colourful spot that place! And popular for the coppers sniffing around for punters and crooks!”
McCloud finished his beer and lit another cigarette. He declined another round, advising the barman that he had a pressing meeting at school later that afternoon.
Sid bent over closer to McCloud and spoke candidly, “Listen Mac, you can't show up in an esteemed house of learning looking like a car wreck! I've got a fresh razor and some shaving cream downstairs in the lavy. Do yourself a favour and freshen up. I'll lend you a nice tie and blazer—I reckon we're roughly the same size.”
A few minutes later McCloud returned to his stool, face clean shaven, and hair neatly coiffed. Sid brought out from the back room a navy blue blazer with gold coloured buttons and a beige silk tie. The teacher went back to the basement and tried on the jacket. Happy with the transfiguration, he sauntered back.
“Lookin' all spiffy, Mac. Better be careful out there on the street—the birds fancy well dressed blokes!”
“Cut the smarmy mate and fetch me one more pint for the road.”
The educator lit another cigarette and settled into his beer. “I guess you're still all chuffed about your ‘Reds’ winning the league."
“Ya bet, mate. A good year to be a scouser! Everton wins the Cup, and Liverpool the league—a Merseysider’s dream!” You have some celebrating yourself—your lads at Millwall got promoted to Second Division!”
“But your club owner has the dosh to buy the best talent”, McCloud carped, taking a final swig of his brew. “Our Lion's owner can't compete with the big boys on the pitch, so I doubt if we'll ever get promoted to First Division.”
McCloud stood up, a tad wobbly, and fixed his tie. “Put it on my tab, Sid”.
“Can I call you a cab, Mac?”
“No thanks, mate. I need to walk a bit—get the cobwebs out!”
He glanced at his watch—he had a good hour and half to spare before the meeting. Sid accompanied him to the door. “Will we see ya tonight? We're 'aving darts night—Jimmy Billam is taking on all comers for a fiver!”
McCloud's thoughts were far from a night of darts. He wasn't even sure where he would be sleeping tonight, although as a precaution he had pre-booked another night at the Ford. The impending meeting was causing him additional anxiety.
“Will do my best, Sid. Ta for the jacket and tie rental. Cheers!”
The midday sun temporarily blinded the teacher as he set out for the meeting. He decided he would walk to Greenwood Avenue, a good mile trek eastward. He passed Kingston Road and made his way towards Greenwood race track, a sore spot in his spouse's lengthy inventory of cavils, including his drinking habits which she constantly pressed upon him with an irritating self righteous reproof.
He mentally revisited the recent events that led to last night's blow up. He had been at home on medical leave for almost a week, spending minimal time socializing or leaving the house, in fear of having to explain his appearance, and all the events that precipitated his current disfigurement. Judith and him had not been in a good conjugal space for over a year. They had not been physically intimate for months—his performance anxiety had become chronically debilitating. Judith blamed his heavy drinking. He blamed her constant nattering about his perceived faults.
He slipped into a reverie, recalling the long gone past.
After getting his discharge from the military, he attended a local teacher’s training school in London. He always wanted to be an engineer, but couldn't afford the tuition to study at the university, so he decided a year of school would at least allow him a salary while he decided on his longer term future. Later, he found out from a friend about a teacher shortage in Canada. He decided to reply to a local newspaper’s ad for a high school math and science teaching job in Toronto, Canada.
He knew little about the city other than its large settlement of British expatriates. After a job offer from an inner city school in Toronto, he got his working papers in order. Several months later, on a late August morning in 1948, his ship docked at Pier 22 in Halifax. A week later he started his teaching career at Eastmount Secondary School in downtown Toronto.
At the same school, a young and very attractive English teacher started shortly after McCloud. Her name was Judith Bannister, a recent star graduate from the OntarioTeacher's College, who after only a few months of teaching, was much beloved by her students. Not surprisingly, he was instantly smitten with her. Although they were often in the presence of each other in the teachers' staff room, little more than a sheepish smile and a polite ‘hello’ ever passed between the two.
It was a much later serendipitous meeting on a Saturday afternoon in the classical fiction section of a large downtown bookstore, that brought them together socially. After some skittish small talk, he asked her if she wanted to accompany him to a popular ice-cream shop across the street. He remember clearly that it was a glorious early spring afternoon, the first truly warm day following a brutal Toronto winter. He remembered the shop had a makeshift outdoor patio with small wooden tables and chairs for sitting. With the good fortune of an elderly couple leaving, they were able to get a table.
Both of them talked cautiously about school matters and the upcoming onerous task of grading final exams. They agreed to share a malted milk shake. As both relaxed, the work conversation segued into the more personal. She was the only daughter of a tenured classical studies professor at the University of Toronto (father) and a senior curator of the Greek and Roman gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum (mother). Her mother would often be gone on lengthy archeological digs while her father, a visiting scholar at universities throughout North America, would be absent for weeks, sometimes months. She unveiled with surprisingly candid detail her childhood: the terrible loneliness of being an only child (an older brother had died before she was born), and the lengthy times being left alone with her Welsh nanny Gwenyth who had evolved emotionally into a surrogate parent.
The Bannisters lived in a huge three-floor Queen Anne styled Victorian house on St. George Street, an enclave for well-to-do professionals, conveniently located near the university campus and museum. The street had changed little to this day, with the exception that many of the larger homes were being bought up by the university, converted into sorority houses, student residences, and various administrative offices.
Judith had also reminisced about the happy times she experienced as a child, especially when each year, on a November Saturday, the annual Santa Clause parade would wind its way along her street, past their house towards the Eaton's Department Store, it's final destination. Gwenyth would bring out warm Hudson Bay blankets and a thermos filled with hot chocolate. Together they would watch the procession from the perfect vantage point of their veranda, often accompanied by invited her school friends and cousins.
Their courtship was intense and brief. She was twenty-one, six years younger than him, a self confident and assured woman, bolstered by a head-turning willowy figure, auburn hair, and flawless skin. He was mesmerized by her beauty, but even more so by her family's social class standing. They had money and prestige, and were prominent members of a privileged professional fraternity. It was something totally alien to a son of a working class family from East London, growing up in the lower rung of London's social ladder. He would spend countless moments mulling over the puzzling question of what attracted her to him. Later, it became a recurring spanner in the spokes of their relationship.
He would constantly ponder the judgemental orbs of passersby: What does that beauty see in this bloke? Surely, he must have money! However she was not sheepish in her fawning account of the attraction to this dockworker's son. She adored his ‘cute’ accent and the ‘romantic’ account of his war years. He had conveniently lied to her about the war, refusing to reveal the hellish five years of starvation, physical deprivation, and humiliation, not to mention the survival guilt that shadowed him like a lonely wayward dog.
She had a naive, sanitized vision of war, common in countries where the horrors were absolved from its shores. Before he was deployed across the Channel, he and most of his soldier mates had similar romantic notions of combat. Although she never mentioned an attraction to older men, he had a growing reckoning that she mollified some kind of Freudian need to have a father figure in her life—not exactly a revelation, considering her father's absences.
It so happened that they were both renting flats on opposite ends of the Annex neighbourhood located north of the downtown core, popular with the college crowd. While courting, they loved to stroll the western stretch of Bloor Street, dining at the numerous Hungarian and Polish eateries and shopping at Honest Ed's, the newly opened schlocky discount store. Further west, they frequently walked to the museum to meet up with Judith’s mom.
He remembered the reaction of her parents when they announced their engagement. They insisted on a large traditional marriage, particularly her mother. Her father, at that time more concerned about his research for a book on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, offered no opinion. A letter was sent to McCloud's mother and aunt in Bolton along with a photograph of him and Judith. He offered both of them passage to Canada, but his mother was prone to sea sickness and her arthritis was acting up.
Both of them decided on a modest, secular marriage at City Hall with only family and close friends invited. Needless to say, Mrs. Bannister was not impressed. Friction between Judith and her parents became increasingly the order of the day. They picked a tentative date: the end of the school term. He painfully recalled the ensuing uproar. The professor (probably with spousal pressure) threatened to cut his daughter out of the will. Her mother refused to talk to her for weeks.
They got married by a Justice of the Peace in the City Hall's wedding chapel. He vividly recalled the day. It was a warm, cloudless early summer day—a late Friday afternoon, the 25th of June. Several of their fellow teachers, close friends, and roommates were present. They had booked the honeymoon suite at the nearby Ford Hotel. As a wedding gift, the guests had pitched in to pay for a reservation in the Gold Room at the newly opened Lichee Garden Restaurant, an opulent Chinese restaurant located in the Ward neighbourhood just a few blocks from the City Hall.
All of us were impressed with the immensity of the eatery. It seemed they held nothing back: the plush chairs, red carpeting, white linen tablecloths, the opulent motifs of Oriental paintings garnishing the newly painted cream coloured walls, and the polished look of the white-suited waiters. The huge stage accommodated an impressive grand piano.
The wedding group arrived during the busy dinner hour. Her parents looked stiff and uncomfortable. He remembered what appeared to him to be a large contingent of tourists, who he surmised were mostly American, simply by their loud, bumptious demeanour. There was a bar next to the dining room which was a unique accessory in the city—the bartender proudly proclaimed that it was only the second restaurant in Toronto to acquire a liquor license.
After dinner a pianist and two accompanying musicians took to the stage. The pianist was Freddy Grant, a transplanted German who I recalled was a popular musician and songwriter back in London. The poor bloke, along with other German and Austrian nationals, bore the humiliation of being sent to prisoner camps on the Isle of Man shortly after the war started.
McCloud's fondest memory of that night was dancing to the band until the wee hours of the night. Even the other diners, with help from the bar, joined the festivities, making for a wild night.
A week after the wedding, the newlyweds discovered that Judith was two months pregnant.
His thoughts suddenly returned back to the events of last evening. He had been home on medical leave. The idle time provided him with an opportunity to start drinking early. Judith had just returned from Ottawa where she had spent a few days at a province-wide convention of private school teachers. She was teaching English literature at St. Regent Private School For Girls, a century old institution located in the wealthy neighbourhood of Rosedale. The school was notable for ‘educating’ the female offspring from the old monied hoity-toity pedigree of WASPish Toronto. They had the means to pay stiff tuition fees, in the hope of keeping their ‘innocent’ girls from being besmirched by the insidious common rabble populating the public school system.
That morning he had received a frantic call from Judith expressing her exasperation of having misplaced her purse. She asked him if he could check the laundry room. He found the purse on top of the dryer. He offered to bring it back to her school, but she declined, which was fortunate as he was in no condition to drive, already having finished his third rye and ginger. He took the purse back upstairs and placed it in the kitchen.
Later, he went through her purse in search of matches. He found a lighter hidden under her makeup pouch. While grabbing the lighter, a half-used packet of rubbers fell out of the pouch. Shocked by his discovery, he dug deeper into the purse's contents and found a matchbook from the Lord
Elgin in Ottawa. There was a note inscribed on the top fold: room 302, 9pm--Tom.
It took a moment, but he connected the name. It had to be Thomas Carson, Judith's boss, the principal at St. Regents. He had met Carson and his wife on numerous social occasions: staff Christmas parties, retirements, and the occasional dinner parties with other staff couples. The principal had always struck McCloud as a self assured, almost cocky individual. He dressed with an Ivy League flair: dark blue blazers with bold brass buttons, camel hair polo coats, buttoned down Oxford shirts, pleat-less chino slacks, and penny loafers. The ever present school crest was emblazoned in a half circle on the left flank of his blazers with the Latin motto: per augmentum cognitionis. Although he had three children, the youngest in middle school, he looked a lot younger than his stated age. Judith had told him that Carson was in his present position for eight years following following ten years of teaching. So, McCloud reckoned, he must have been at least forty.
He recounted the St.Regent's staffs' last Christmas party at the Ports of Call, a popular downtown multi-themed restaurant. He and Judith were seated at same table as Carson and his wife. There was a disquieting way that Judith and Carson were exchanging glances, a little too ardent for his comfort. Carson's wife Margaret was pretty in a subdued kind of way. Her matronly figure conformed with many of the approaching middle aged housewives who had completed their childbearing duties, and were now beginning to lose their struggle to look desirable. She was quiet, with a perpetual generic smile etched on her face. She appeared content to nurse her wine, and listen to the lively conversation at the nearby tables, while intermittently eyeing the gyrations on the dance floor.
As the evening progressed, he and Margaret found themselves alone at their table, watching their spouses on the dance floor. He was bewildered at how tranquil she appeared, seemingly comfortable watching a host of obsequious teachers vying for his attention. Maybe, he thought, she was resigned to the reality of her husband's lofty station in the school's hierarchy, a reality she was obliged to accept.
He passed much of the time at the cash bar trying to quell his growing anger, but mostly to keep a vigilant eye on his spouse. As he evolved further towards a state of impairment, his rage increased incrementally, especially when he lost contact with the couple for a good half hour.
The cab ride home, he recalled, turned volatile. The night turned into a full blown verbal row escalating to the point of near violence. He accused Judith of flirting with Carson and called her a slut (maybe ‘whore’)—it was hard to remember after all these months. She retaliated with her own round of standard expletives crafted by years of marital spats.
By the time he reached the northern entrance of the racetrack, he was exhausted. He immediately caught the eye of the tiny leather-faced man behind the newsstand. “Hey Mac, haven't seen the likes of you for awhile! Christ! Where d'ya get that shiner?”
“Long story, Shakes.” He glanced at his watch. “No time to treat you to the exciting details!”
Shakes, he thought, was one of those blokes whose actual age could swing from either end of the chronological pendulum. Although his sun-weathered face was carved with deep furrows, he had a round baby face. Curiously, his face showed no signs of facial growth. Sid told him that he once heard Shakes talk about a rare genetic disease he had since birth. Apparently, besides affecting his growth, he was unable to grow body hair.
During the winter months Shakes worked as a hot walker at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Although he never spoke about it, the regular track-goers were aware of the rumour that he was once a jockey who worked the smaller tracks in the American Midwest until a spill resulted in a severe head injury that left him with the chronic shakes.
McCloud bought the afternoon edition of theTelegram and a Daily Racing Form. The Telegram’s headline highlighted in huge print: SURVEYOR 1 LANDS SAFELY ON MOON. McCloud responded with a meagrely smirk, adjusted his tie, and lit a cigarette.
Shakes, nonplussed by the teacher's blasé reaction, blurted emphatically, “Two-to-one odds that we'll beat those sneaky Ruskies at getting a man on the moon first, Mac!”
McCloud did not reply. His thoughts were less focused on the celestial, rather more on his own tiny grain of sand struggling on the planet's shoulder.
He walked slowly towards Coxwell Ave. By now his feet were aching, and the heat of the mid afternoon, coupled with his lack of sleep, was piquing the increasing awareness of his weariness. The sound of his shoes, repeatedly hitting the hot sidewalk, reminded him of the war years when he was on a much different kind of trek, the horrific memory of which he had been trying to repress for years.
He decided to have a coffee at a near empty pastry shop. There was over an hour to spare before the meeting. His thoughts once again regressed back in time. He kept an old leather bound journal in his briefcase which he read whenever he was hit by the need for retrospection, especially in times of personal entanglement. He slowly sipped his coffee and picked at a generous slice of cherry pie. He removed the journal from his briefcase and began to read.