Lost and found
'It was the first moment when the wrong choice would have been disastrous. It was the first time I knew what terror felt like.' Our summer fiction series concludes with an excerpt from Michael Redhill's new novel, Bellevue Square
My doppelganger is walking up Augusta Avenue with her buggy. Coming from the south. Does she see me?
She's in her pillar of light. I'm not sure how she does it. Gliding up the road toward the Mexican restaurants, gilded with sunlight. She wears grey pants and a black shirt. With lowered head, she looks lost in thought. Her hair is unwashed. Where is she spending the night? Does she live anywhere? I look down and my feet are a blur of tapping.
Her squeaky wheels roll past and then I'm staring at her back as she turns down Baldwin Street. Does she ever put anything in that thing? I check for traffic and run across. When I get to the corner, she's gone. Baldwin is paved with rose light spreading east to Spadina. A balm? A blessing? She's gone.
When I was seven, I lost my mother in Dominion in the then-new strip mall at Bayview and Sheppard. I'd been talking to her while she shopped in the canned goods aisle, and I found something colourful to turn over in my hands. When I looked up, she was gone. I went to the end of the aisle, afraid to leave it, and swung my head left and right. She must have thought I was behind her. If I searched to the left but she'd gone to the right, the problem would only get worse. But if I stayed where I was, surely more distance would open between us. I chose a direction, I don't recall which; I found myself frantically navigating the aisles up and down, walking quickly and then running, and the aisles were full of mothers none of whom were mine. We were living in our first house on Dunview. I looked all over for her; we'd been separated for only a few moments, a minute at the very most, but I was electrified. I started shrieking, "MUMMY! MUUUUMMY!"
Someone's hand clamps down on my shoulder and it's one of the men trimming the vegetables on Baldwin Street. He wears a white apron stained with dirt and smears of green and red. "Go from here," he says to me.
A couple sitting in the window of a bakery are staring. My hands are in mid-gesture. Maybe my mouth has been moving, too.
I continue along Baldwin.
Of course my mother found me, and when I later reconsidered that endless minute in Dominion, I concluded that I should have stayed where I was. She would have known to find me, and she did. I went back to the memory of this day throughout my preadolescence and my teenagehood and I think of it still. It was the first moment when the wrong choice would have been disastrous. It was the first time I knew what terror felt like. A minute of it was a huge dose.
I tell my kids to stay where they are. Someone will find you, or the police will come, or the part of the plane you're in will spring free of the wreckage. I'll find them as soon as I notice they're missing, they know that.
I get to Kensington Avenue. The coffee smell meets the fish smell, the weed smell, and the pee smell. I see her again, crossing the road in front of a produce store on St. Andrew, the one whose casabas are always overripe. This territory is strictly vegan. Just walking past the Peacefood Lovecafé, I can feel my stool bulking.
I don't know whether to cross the road and speed up, or stop and be satisfied that at least I have seen her! A stupendous thing.
Ingrid glances up the street behind her and I turn my back. Wait a minute. I look again: she's going south. She'll be easier to track from the other side of the street. I cross quickly, afraid she'll look back again.
At Dundas she turns left, and I hurry forward, following the top of her head.
I think the signal memory of losing my mother in the grocery store eventually gave rise to some of the unwanted thoughts I suffered as a teenager. Certain things were impossible to disprove. I believed there was a spirit intruder that could control my thoughts and make me sound like myself to myself. I had to fall asleep on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin. I chose this position so I could see my entire room opening only one eye.
When I first began to sleep on my back, I imagined that in the dark, forms joined together and came alive. This never happened, owing, I believed, to my mantra, which was: "That would be impossible. I HOPE." Hope was the operational part of the mantra. I thought hoping was supplication.
It was only when I was older that I envisioned the unseen intruder as a vampire, something that had control of my self. I saw what he looked like: an etching of a face with a square beard and slippery lips. I was a silly girl, and I knew other of my silly friends had their own crazy-thoughts.
I left these fantasies in adolescence and forgot about them, although I didn't change the way I slept. Boyfriends complained that I looked like a Victorian corpse. I knew Ian was the One when he lay on his side, tucked his head into the space made by my shoulder and my neck, and laid his hairy forearm over my belly.
The vampire lost its power over me. In high school the new intellectual scare was a product of my adolescent narcissism. I began to wonder how I could know anything outside of myself was actually real. There was no way to prove that everything I saw and experienced wasn't being performed for my benefit alone or that the things and people I "knew" blinked out of existence the moment I turned my back. The extension of this was that my entire life was a dream, that I was perhaps a character in a book or a symbol in someone else's dream – extremely frightening! I almost fainted in the cinema at the end of the first Men in Black movie, when it turned out that the cat was wearing an entire galaxy around its neck.
The materiel needed to disprove this particular hypothesis – my Blinkout World – I never found. The world would appear to me exactly as it always had, except that when I left a room, or turned a corner, there'd be a void where I'd been. It replenished itself as quickly as I could run and look for it, and it was seamless. That was what my brain had been invented to do: run a program in which I constructed reality by witnessing it.
I was able to disprove this hypothesis by replacing it with a final one. If I believed, in my less overwrought moments, that I was not special or different from anyone else, then the universe being a show for me alone would make me special. So I lowered the odds from 0.005 per cent to 0.0001 per cent. But that only means I still believe in Blinkout. On days like this, I can't ignore that about myself. I am willing to believe.
Ingrid crosses Dundas at Spadina. On the south side, she waits for the light. I miss it and have to spy from a distance. She continues east, pulling her empty buggy behind her, disappearing into the crowd. I've lost her again.
Excerpted from Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. Copyright © 2017 Caribou River Ltd. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
A Q&A with Michael Redhill
What's Bellevue Square about?
Bellevue Square is about a woman who learns she has a doppelganger that's been hanging out in Kensington Market. This woman, Jean Mason, has always been pretty sure she's unique and irreplaceable, like we all do, but the discovery forces her to take stock of what she thinks she knows. The book is about the surprising (and disturbing) plasticity of the self and what happens when the sense you've made of things stops making sense.
This excerpt explores loss in all its forms – from losing a parent to losing your sense of reality. How does the theme play into the rest of the novel?
Consciousness is beautiful and intricate and devious, but probably not in that order. We like to believe our personhood is self-made, but surely it's dependent on the reinforcing and curating of other selves. In this excerpt, Jean recalls losing her mother in Dominion when she was a child. It's the first time she contemplates a loss so enormous that her mind can't process it – imagining the world without her mother in it paralyzes her. The idea of "I" and "you" is probably unique to our species, but if these quantities are mechanical constructs or even illusions, then how reliable is my self or yours, and how real is our connection to others?
This is your first novel since Consolation in 2006, although you've published a YA novel and four novels under a pseudonym. How did the Inger Ash Wolfe books influence your new novel, if at all?
The Inger novels allowed me to expand my voice and storytelling beyond conventional literary forms. Bellevue Square is a literary novel, but it has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller. It's the first book in a triptych of novels called Modern Ghosts, all of which play with genre, including the ghost story, science fiction and historical narrative. Writing the Inger books started me off experimenting with new registers and I'm trying to weave them together now in unexpected ways. I want the reader to feel they're in unnervingly familiar territory, and then I want to catch them unawares.