Read Julian Online

Authors: William Bell


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Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House of Canada Limited.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Bell, William, 1945-, author
Julian / William Bell.

ISBN 978-0-385-68205-3
ISBN 978-0-385-68206-0

I. Title.

84 2014     jc813′.54     

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Jacket design: Leah Springate
Jacket image: © sparth/Getty Images

“Which Way Does the River Run?” lyrics copyright © Lennie Gallant (
), used with permission.

Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House company


For Jia Han


March days when all four seasons took turns playing hide-and-seek in the streets. Rain, sleet and snow rode across the city on blustery winds, and sunlight appeared only briefly through gaps in the roiling clouds.

A strange day, threatening or promising, Aidan couldn’t decide. Maybe both, he thought, watching the buildings on University Avenue slide past the school bus window under a grey sky. Unpredictable? Definitely. He had awakened that morning with traces of an unfamiliar mood in a corner of his mind, like the residue of a dream. He couldn’t shake the almost overwhelming feeling that something was going to happen, that his life was about to be altered.

By the time the bus drew up to the curb in front of the Ontario Art Gallery—joining a half-dozen others—the winds had calmed and a chilly drizzle had given way to snow. Around him, Aidan’s grade ten classmates jumped
from their seats, pulled backpacks from overhead racks and surged noisily toward the bus doors. Aidan waited until the tide of bodies had cleared, then stepped down from the bus, keeping apart from the boisterous throng on the sidewalk. Tall and fit, his team jacket tight across his shoulders, he could easily have passed for a young man four or five years older. He stood alone at the curb, still lost in the mood that had been with him since the day began.

He gazed across Dundas Street toward a row of old houses converted into boutiques and cafés, his attention seized by the falling snow. It seemed as if a hush had fallen over the city. As in a photograph or a painting, the space between the sky and the street was filled with white flakes that magically appeared out of the low clouds, thickened, then descended lazily through the still air to crumble and melt and disappear the moment they touched the ground.

A hand on his shoulder broke Aidan’s concentration. A passing streetcar clanged its bell, rumbling along rails shiny with moisture. Cars and taxicabs hissed by. Snowmelt dripped from branches and overhead wires onto the pedestrians hustling along the sidewalk.

He turned to see his art teacher smiling up at him.

“Van Gogh awaits,” she said. “It’s not hockey, but you might find it interesting.”

Ms. Sayers began to herd her students through the gallery doors into a lobby already packed with teens from other schools. Aidan hung back. A flash of colour had caught his eye—a sky-blue beret worn by a girl whose thick auburn hair was gathered at the back of her neck with a scrunchie. She was wearing a roomy camo jacket, cargo pants and military-style boots, and she was leaning
against the gallery wall, her eyes on the crowd. Suddenly she slipped through the doors and blended with the mob.

Aidan followed. While he and his classmates checked their coats and backpacks, Sayers picked up their tickets at the reception desk and handed them around, reminding everyone to stay together and enter as a group. Strident young voices echoed as students massed before three harried ushers impatient to get into the exhibit.

Aidan saw the girl again. He watched as she insinuated herself deeper into the crowd. A few of his classmates began to horse around, bored by their slow progress. Someone lurched forward, falling against the back of the girl in front of him. She whipped around, red-faced, and shoved the already off-balance offender away. He collapsed into the mass. Raucous laughter. Jeers. People craned their necks, seeking the source of the disturbance. In the confusion, the blue beret moved quickly toward the exhibit entrance. Aidan watched the girl slip past the distracted ushers and disappear up the curved staircase.

Nice move, he thought.

In the first gallery given over to the Van Gogh exhibit, a large, dimly lit space with spotlit canvases ranged along the walls, Aidan sat on the long upholstered bench in the centre of the room and fished his assignment sheet from his inside pocket. Apart from drumming up enthusiasm in her class and lecturing briefly on the life and times of Van Gogh, Sayers had said little about specific works. She wanted her students to experience the paintings fresh, to see them as Van Gogh’s contemporaries had, free of reputation and prejudgment. The task was a sort of treasure hunt. The students were to search out about a dozen paintings
Sayers had identified and note each one’s place and date of composition. The second part of the assignment asked for personal impressions and thoughts on any paintings that stood out. “There are no right or wrong opinions,” Aidan read from the sheet in his hand.

He reached down and massaged his ankle, still sore from last night’s game. Aidan had slipped Daryl Findlay’s check inside the blue line and swooped in for a shot on goal. Humiliated, Findlay had slashed him in retaliation, then sneered as he skated past him on his way to the penalty box.

Aidan got up and began a slow circuit of the crowded gallery, looking over shoulders and between heads for the works Sayers had identified. He made notes on each. Then he returned to the first of the paintings that had appealed to him.
The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing
depicted a horse-drawn cart on a stone bridge over a stream where a few women were cleaning laundry. As he began to write down his impressions, the blue beret bobbed into view among a clutch of middle-aged women and men with audio guides pressed to their ears. Together, they stopped before a canvas showing a sunlit field of flowers. The girl had opened her jacket and freed her hair. The thick auburn tresses brushed her shoulders, gleaming in the spotlights as she stepped closer to the canvas. Aidan consulted his notes.
Wheat Field, 1888
. The girl’s beret was the exact colour of the sky above the field. She stepped back, melting into the preoccupied crowd, sidling closer to a grey-haired woman in a long leather coat. Aidan watched the girl dip her slender hand into the woman’s tote bag, remove a purse and slip the prize into her own coat pocket. Nonchalantly she
drifted to the next painting, paused for a few minutes, then sauntered into the next room.

Nice move again, Aidan thought. But he had read enough detective novels to know that the girl wasn’t exactly a professional. The first thing a pickpocket wants to do is blend in. Her camo clothes and beret were like beacons.

Unsettled by the girl, he turned his attention to the papers in his hand. One of the questions asked him to identify his favourite paintings from the exhibit. Although there were more rooms of Van Goghs, Aidan decided to make it easier by writing about two he had already seen.
Wood Gatherers in the Snow
depicted a family trudging home at sunset along the edge of a canal or lake, dead tired under their bundles of sticks and probably looking forward to a soft seat and a cup of something warm. The painting caught the mood of a northern winter landscape already drained of light, the sky grey and cheerless and the snow dull. He liked the fact that Van Gogh had painted a family and that they were all together, but he didn’t put that in his notes.
Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries de la Mer
couldn’t have been more different. Four playfully coloured fishing boats rested on their keels under a Mediterranean sky bursting with light. The sails were furled, the gear packed away, the day’s work done. Fishers and boats safe and sound at home—a feeling Aidan seldom experienced. He omitted that from his observations, too.

Sayers dropped down beside him on the seat.

“So, any thoughts? Which one are you writing about?”

“The one with the boats,” he replied, not looking up from the page.

“Good choice. One of the more famous in this room. Any questions?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Alright, then.”

Sayers rose and walked across the room to a quartet of students who seemed more interested in what was happening on the screen of a smartphone than the art surrounding them. Aidan finished his note and walked into the next room in the exhibit, hoping to see the girl-thief again. She was there, standing before a painting of a yellow house. Aidan approached slowly and stood beside her. She wasn’t pretty in a movie star way, but there was something about her. The background murmur of people fell away. He could hear the girl’s breathing, smell her skin. He wanted to feel her breath on his neck, to take her thick glossy hair into his hands.

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