Authors: Caroline Adderson
Cape Breton is
Centre of Canada
A Night at the Opera
Going Down Slow
Lord Nelson Tavern
A History of Forgetting
The Camera Always Lies
Canada Made Me
Copyright Â© Caroline Adderson
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll free to
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
A history of forgetting / Caroline Adderson.
First published: Toronto : Patrick Crean Editions,
Issued in print and electronic formats.
Readied for the press by Dan Wells
Copy-edited by Andrew Steinmetz
Canadian cover and text design by Gordon Robertson
US cover design by Kate Hargreaves
Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. Biblioasis also acknowledges the support
of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit.
For John Metcalf
hank Zsuzsi Gartner, Ingrid MacDonald and Mary
Tilbergâmy three Gracesâfor their advice and
encouragement. For their translations, I am indebted to Tobi Panter, Joelle Regnier, Margaret Stefanowicz
and Christina Gerber. I thank the Canada Council for its financial support. To Patrick Crean and John Metcalf, extraordinary editorsâmy gratitude, my
admiration, my respect.
The first of the taxi drivers in the line is wearing mirrored sunglasses that reflect back in miniature and reverse the entrance
to the Muzeum. It looks, in fact, as if he's thinking about the
Muzeum as he sits there smoking and waiting for a fare. Open the
door and he immediately starts the engine, but doesn't turn around to ask where you want to go, just looks at you in the
rear-view mirrorâat least, you think he's looking at you. You
can't see his eyes. Tell him you want to go to the train station, âThe
train station,' and before you have a chance to look up how to say it in the guidebook, the taxi pulls away from the
Even now, this late in the day, the parking lot is filled with tour
buses and cars. Look at your watch. You've been here for almost seven hours and at some point it must have rained, for the asphalt is a darker black and water pools between the cars. Strange you didn't notice when you were in the Muzeum walking from block to block. It was a bully wind that dominated, that sucked and gusted up and down the avenues. Something fittingly menacing about it,
but now the wind has died away and under the sky's grey shroud, everything feels colourless and completely still.
The taxi driver turns onto the main road, the cigarette between
the fingers of his hand on the wheel. Smoke thickens in the small space you occupy together, yet if you coughed, if you unrolled the window even a slit, his contempt would be too much for you.
Almost a tyranny, the power they have over you, the downtrodden cabbies and discourteous waiters, the surly tellers and aggrieved clerks. What are you doing here? they seem to ask with their glowers and their sighs. Who in their right mind would come here? In truth, you see a point to their indignation. What have you come for but to rake up the horrors of their past? Where you are fervent about remembering, they, living at the wrought iron gate to hell, they just want to forget.
But look at his jacket. Black leather, it is so new that when he
turns the steering wheel, the leather speaks. And his cigarettes are American, Camels, you know because he has been careful to display the package on the dash. How downtrodden can he be driving this lucrative route, barely ten minutes back and forth? He will likely earn more today shuttling passengers than you will for the months that will turn out to be years that you will spend writing about this day.
Over your shoulder, glance and see the Muzeum receding. See
the spiky grey hairs on the back of his neck disappearing down the new collar of his jacket. What does he think about all day as he drives? Does he believe in the Muzeum and the lessons that it teaches? Ask him because you're curious. Ask: âHave you ever been inside?'
He seems to understand you. Heaving burly shoulders, he grunts,
Mid-fiftyish, he might have stood as a child and stared
through the barbed and electric wire into the Muzeum before it was a Muzeum. He knows exactly what it means, more than the
average visitor who can only imagine how it was. So do you pity him for the way he has to keep on coming back, or do you despise him for making his living off tourists? All at once, you find you want to despise him. He may have lost family here; it is more than likely, yet you discount it because you have already judged him and found him deserving of your contempt. It is a conscious decision, entirely wilful and self-righteous and, of course, misplaced. By the time the taxi pulls up at the station, you have not once looked out the window, but sat the entire ride staring with a fixed loathing at the furrows made by the comb on the oily back of the driver's head.
He quotes you his outrageous fare in English, not really that
much, only that the currency is so devalued. Toss him the bills and watch him drive away, back to the Muzeum again.
Left standing in front of the train station, all you have for baggage is this sudden, acid shame and a line remembered, though you can't think from where: at the start of every nightmare waits a train. The OÅwiÄcim town station is a glass-and-concrete box, circa
. You have just come from the Muzeum, the old station. From Auschwitz.
IN THE MIRROR
woke Malcolm in the night. For that one instant, as his eyes opened in the dark, he understood how Denis felt, not knowing what city he was waking in, or what room for that matter. The ceiling above him, an unremarkable square of grey, could have been any of the ceilings he had stared up at through the years from different beds. Utter disorientation, but after a moment his eyes adjusted. He saw where he was and remembered. He remembered that he wished waking were the dream.
For Denis, though, it just went on and on. Yesterday, doing the laundry, Malcolm checked his pockets and found yet another note.
Je m'appelle Denis Cassel. J'habite Ã Paris. Je suis coiffeur.
Discouraged, he crumpled it, squeezed it tightly in his palm. Every night of the last three months they had stood on the balcony together, Malcolm pointing to where the river funnelled to the ocean, the Fraser, not the Seine. The ocean looked static at that distance. âThe Pacific,' he explained. But Denis did not remember from one day to the next, or even an hour later. âWhat do you see?' Malcolm asked once and Denis had replied, as if by rote from a French primer,
âVoilÃ la Tour Eiffel.'
Rubbish, Malcolm had thought. In Paris, they had never lived anywhere near it.
Now, in the middle of the night, Denis was up again and walking around the apartment. Malcolm heard footsteps and a bump against what must have been the china cabinetâthe dishes tinkledâthen something was picked up and set back down ungently. In a different life, Malcolm might have thought it was a break-in, could imagine the scenario, a tragicomedy like everything else: the intruder running smack into Denis in the dark and blurting, âWhat the fuck?' as Denis asked in genteel French who he was and, once on that tangent, what time his appointment was.
An unholy crash. Malcolm sat up with a start. All at once, he remembered it was Christmas. âPÃ¨re NoÃ«l?' he called out. âIs that you,
came the faint reply.
He felt around with his feet for his slippers. The living room, when he reached it, was completely dark, more so for its contentsâthe dark wood and upholstery, the paintings with their black backgrounds. The winking coloured lights on the tree had been unplugged for the night. In this dimness, Denis appeared slight and spectral, his hair silvery, his skin white. He was completely naked, restless, padding his luminescent way around the room. He touched everything, patted it, the ashtray now, the Egyptian head on the coffee table, trying to make it all familiar. When he turned and looked at Malcolm, the hair on Malcolm's arms and the back of his neck liftedâas if Malcolm had seen a ghost and now the ghost saw him. His great, great fear was that Denis would not remember him and, thinking that he must have been standing too far in the shadows, that this was why Denis didn't speak, Malcolm took a step towards him, but Denis remained mute, staring on with an expression Malcolm could not make out until he drew nearer.
There it was: the half-smile broadening, the spark behind the eyes. It was the same delighted expression he would have put on if they had met by chance in the street.
he told Malcolm. âI'm so glad to see you.'
Relieved, Malcolm extended his hand for Denis to come and take. Lately Denis had adopted this vaguely simian posture, arms heavy in their sockets; he moved as if he were carrying the weight of a large stone in each hand. âCome on, King Kong,' Malcolm said as he led him back down the hall to the bedroom. He switched on the light and almost got him to the bed when suddenly Denis drew his hand from Malcolm's and backed away.
âWhat is it?'
âIl y a quelqu'un lÃ -bas!'
âWhere?' asked Malcolm. âIn here?'
âJ'ai vu quelqu'un!'
âThere's no one here but me.'
In the doorway, still squinting from the light, Denis looked young. Despite decades of dishes laced with butter and, yes, lard, Denis had never gone to fat. Almost imperceptible, his transition from blond to grey. And his hair had barely thinned and was worn the same way, short all around with a thicker lock between the two crescents of a high hairline, like a comma punctuating his glowing forehead. Sixty-nine, and he was as boyish as ever, his penis retracting to thumb length in the cold air.
âThere's a man there. I saw him. I tell you, he's hiding in there.'
Malcolm went over to the window and drew the cord on the drapes. Red velvet, they jerked open like a theatre curtain; no one was on stage.
Denis was unconvinced. Sighing, tugging his pyjama legs at the thighs, Malcolm got down stiffly on one knee and flipped aside the brocaded bed skirt. Behind it, dust congregated on the hardwood floor in little bales. He went over to
the closet, too, made a great show of scraping the hangers
back and forth, crossed to the wardrobe, opened the mirrored door and called inside, âYoo-hoo?'
He invited Denis to come and look himself. Denis stepped nervously into the room, craned to see inside the closet without daring to go near it. âBut I saw him,' he muttered.
âJe l'ai vu.
I swear it.' Shaking his head, he allowed Malcolm to lead him to the bed.
âWhat did he look like?' Malcolm asked, drawing back the covers on Denis' side.
âSkinny with white hair. A shrivelled little cock.' He pursed his lips in disgust.
âYou idiot,' said Malcolm. âThat was you!'
He went back to the wardrobe and, shutting the door, beckoned to Denis who came and stood with Malcolm before the mirror. Pale eyes narrowed sceptically, one hand pressed against his hairless chest, the other squeezed his cock. Warming, it swelled a little and, all at once, Denis chuckled.
âSo it is,' he said. âSo it is.'
In the morning, despite his nocturnal bumpings, Denis was first up and making coffee. The aroma woke Malcolm, who remembered right away that it was Christmas Day, but didn't give a ho ho ho or a sweet fuck, would have liked to forget the whole charade except that Yvette had decked out the apartment like a department store display to keep Denis on the calendar. He brought to the breakfast table a gift. Denis came over with the coffee pot and the carafe of hot milk, his shirt buttoned incorrectly, but other than that, dressed for success.
âQu'est-ce que c'est?'
he asked, seeing the gift next to his bowl.
He met Malcolm's eye, a blank blue stare.
âIt's Christmas,' Malcolm said.
âJe ne crois pas,'
he said. âI would have remembered that.'
So it would have been better not to mention it at all. As
for the Styrofoam snowman centrepiece in the middle of the tableâthey could just go on ignoring it, as well as the cut-out paper snowflakes taped to the window. That a man as cultured as Denis sat there every morning doing what Yvette called âcrafts' was, as far as Malcolm was concerned, the truest symptom of his decline.
Denis muttered, taking his place across the table.
âWhat is?' asked Malcolm.
âWhat is what?'
âExactly. Here. Let me pour yours.'
He took the coffee pot back to the kitchen, but when he returned to the table, Denis was turning the damn present around and around in his hands. âWhat's this?'
âBecause you're special.'
âBah!' said Denis, pleased.
He tore away the paper. Inside was a hairbrush with a blond wood handle. Denis took it out of the case and, stroking his palm with the bristles, nodded his professional approval. He stood, came around the table and, one hand on Malcolm's shoulder, drew the brush through Malcolm's hair. Malcolm, head bowed, felt all atingle with Denis' small hot hand on his shoulder and the hard bristles against his scalp.
âOÃ¹ est Yvette?'
âShe's not coming today.'
Denis stopped brushing,
and Malcolm lifted his head. Pressing his fingers briefly to the corners of his eyes, squeezing the bridge of his nose, he sipped from the bowl of coffee.
âShe is spending the day with her family. We are not the only ones she loves.'
âQuel jour est-il?'
âTuesday.' Mistake. He should have lied. He should have said Saturday or Sunday and the whole matter would have been forgotten. But he couldn't seem to start lying after all these years.
Off Denis staggered. From the kitchen came the commotion of slamming drawers and cupboards.
âWhat are you doing?' Malcolm called.
âJe cherche quelque chose!'
The noise ceased. All was quiet. Malcolm finished his coffee and got up.
He found Denis in the living room, running one hand through his hair. He looked drunk, but it was only that he was stuck. He couldn't remember what he was looking for. Malcolm knewâit was a calendarâbut Malcolm was not about to tell him that it was hanging above the toilet so that Denis could refer to it throughout the day. Instead, Malcolm crossed over to the stereo, lifted the lid and, seeing a record already on the turntable, lowered the needle.
Heureuse comme tout. Heureuse malgrÃ© tout.
He approached Denis, who was listening and at last
remembering, something from long ago.
Heureuse, heureuse, heureuse!
Their palms touched, fingers laced and Malcolm put his other hand on Denis' waist. Close together, he realized neither of them had shaved. There was the roughness of whisker against whisker and the softness of Denis' breath inside his ear.
Il le faut, je le veux, mon amour, pour nous deux.
Around the carpet they turned and Malcolm saw over Denis' shoulder what made that racket the night beforeâthe Christmas tree toppling, the coloured balls rolling in the grate.
Heureuse d'avoir, enfin, une part
. . .
âIs it really Christmas?' Denis whispered.
âNo,' said Malcolm. âIt's not.'
Denis pulled his hand out of Malcolm's grip. âThen where is Yvette?'
De ciel, d'amour, de joie.
Malcolm sang along so as not to answer,
âDans tes yeux, dans tes bras
. . .'
Heureuse, comme tout.
Heureuse, n'importe oÃ¹.
Denis drew back his arm and struck Malcolm in the face, his fist meeting Malcolm's mouthâtwo parts that had
never been acquainted even after thirty years. So unexpected and out of character; Malcolm immediately struck back. He swung out, then stumbled back against the stereo, setting the record skipping. Instead of âhappy' she began singing âhour, hour, hour' impassionedly.
His hand over his mouth, his mouth filling up with blood. Denis on the floor, blood streaming from his nose, begging, âPlease don't hurt me! How could you hurt me?'
âHow?' asked Malcolm, stunned.
âWhat have I ever done to you!'
âChrist!' Malcolm made a move towards Denis, to help
him up, to embrace him, but Denis shrieked and crawled away.
âI'm sorry, Denis. Please forgive me.'
Denis squeezed behind the couch.
âI can't believe I did that,' said Malcolm. âDenis. Darling. Please come out.'
A long condemning silence, then Denis sniffed. Malcolm came hopefully over and peered behind the couch. Denis was curled foetal, bleeding on the carpet. âCome out, Denis. Come out.
Je t'en prie.'
âOÃ¹ est Yvette?'
âJe veux Yvette.'
Malcolm sighed. âShe's coming, darling. She'll be here.'
Christmas was in full swing chez Yvette, or so it sounded when Malcolm called. He heard the screech of het up children, the television, women in the kitchen speaking the gravelly French so different from what Malcolm and Denis spoke.
Yvette answered when the phone was handed to her.
Hearing it was Malcolm, she switched immediately to English. âIs it?'
âActually,' said Malcolm. âNot so much merry here as catastrophic.'
In the background, the oven door yawned and slammed, a knife struck staccato against a block, the tap ran: a meal being prepared by many hands. Yvette was smoking. Despite all the noise, he heard the very faint pop of her lips releasing the filter the second before she asked, âWhat happened?'