Skip to main content

Fiction: The Story of Canada

Marconi

Marconi

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

He was not at the table. Then he was at the table without ever crossing the room. My head jerked up. The windows all around him black. The white collar was the first thing to form in the dark, floating just under his chin. The white cuffs, poking out of the dark wool jacket, also floating. That is all there is of him at first.

He coughs. Two slime-clotted hacks.

Then the rest of him becomes visible, as though the cough has made him seep through the fabric of the dark. Made him coalesce at the end of the table. A cold draft circles my ankles.

The boy they had polishing the silver yesterday saying the devil. Taking the sheets off the line with Sarah Callahan, them stiff as boards because of the frost, me and her having to bend them up to get them in the basket, and she saying the letter S was for Satan. There were others saying he could contact the dead with his secret box. They talked about how he held himself. They said confidence. They said money.

I was told I should be waiting. He’s liable to get up in the dark, wanting something to eat, Mrs. Hearn had said. I was in the corner on a straight-backed chair.

Be ready, I was told, in case he wants something. But I must have dozed off.

He coughs and I jump and smooth my apron with both hands. He lights a match and holds it to the candle on his table. The light sliding up the bevelled edges of the bow window.

Good morning, I say. I take a step closer to him and my reflection in the glass splits and multiplies where the window curves; I am an infinite army receding into the deep black space of the garden and the gardens beyond and out over the ocean into the dark forever. I ask him what he wants.

His hand shoots up and he grabs my wrist. His grip tight enough to hurt. He’s twisting the skin so it burns. He draws me close to him. My elbow smacks down on the table next to his own. In the candlelight I can make out the checked pattern of his jacket, the leather buttons. His eyes are just sockets. But when he leans in to me, I can feel his breath on my chin. He’s that close. His breath smells of Christmas oranges.

I will say this: the rug in that room. They say a silk carpet from India. If you scuff it the pattern goes invisible. Runs the other way. I had scuffed across the carpet in my boots and just before he grabbed me: an electric shock. He felt it too. A tingling spark, no bigger than a mote in your eye, a tiny jolt with no location, except the skin – there, gone – it had leapt between us.

That wind will rip the features off your face, Mrs. Hearn says. Several men have hammers and they’re kneeling on the silk, up here on top of the hill and the frame is wonky. They stand up the kite on one of its corners. The fabric ripples and snaps so it sounds like gunshots. Five men and they’re having a hard time hanging onto it.

They speak to each other the way men who are making something with wood will do. They hardly speak at all.

He put it in the papers: Something Big is what he called it. The men look chastened and sly, as if they’ve been had.

Mr. Peach is the oldest and he coaxes them by saying, Easy now. Easy. Sometimes they say each other’s names. Gerry? Got it Gerry? Or they say: Clarence.

A very hard blast of wind. The men with the kite dig their heels but they are dragged across the ice. Leaning back, skidding.

They’ll be carried over the cliff, Mrs. Hearn says. She tuts at the folly. One of the government men standing in the crowd loses his hat and he runs after it, hunched low against the wind, arms outstretched toward the ground, fingers scrabbling after it. His coat snaps out behind. A flash of the red lining.

My Frank has a coat like it, passed down from a house where his mother is a char, but the red lining is worn so thin there’s a hole where the fabric has rotted, only a sagging ladder of threads holding it together. The hat rolls like a wheel on its brim.

In the dining room, his grip on my arm loosens but I don’t pull away. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

The gall of you, I say. He turns my hand over so the palm faces up and he traces the blue vein with his finger.

I’ve heard it’s not even your own idea, I say. He blushes. He has skin like a baby. I have never seen a man so handsome. Everything plays out on his face. My Frank is probably the same age but his nails are black all the time.

I am the one making it happen, he says. He looks around the empty dining room.

Is there anyone else here? he asks. Do you see anyone else? He might have been asking me to take off my clothes. Frank and I haven’t ever taken off all our clothes. It was just the once with me and Frank. Behind the foundry there’s a field of long grass. Just the once but I was caught.

The men have lost their hold on the kite and it rises up very high and dives. It comes crashing back down hard and fast. It looks like the corner is heading straight for Mrs. Hearn’s skull. She squeals and ducks out of the way. But before it crashes, it twists and lurches up. It wrenches itself higher; it dips and shivers. The noise of it. Lifts, falls and then straight up and out. Through the Narrows.

A shout. The crowd is shouting.

He has been standing in at the edge of the crowd watching the kite, but he turns and enters the abandoned fever hospital where he has set up the machine. The kite is so high up; it’s just a white dot among the gulls.

That’ll do the job, the men say.

What do you want? They said about his mother, the Irish whiskey heiress, traipsing from bank to bank, raising the money. They said her dresses and her red hair.

A hundred thousand more of me in the window.

Tell me what you want, I say. I ask him about the waves and he makes little circles with his finger on my wrist. Hardly touching me at all. It runs straight through me.

They can circle the Earth, he says. No man has ever touched me like this, without haste or intent. Desultory and possessive.

I need to get above the curvature of the Earth, he says. He doesn’t say anything about the waves. I don’t ask.

What he wants, he says, is breakfast. I go down the narrow, spiral staircase to the kitchen.

Mrs. Hearn with the cleaver – bang – on the rabbit’s legs and the two front paws tumble away. Mrs. Hearn buries her lye-chafed fingers into the soft fur of the rabbit’s neck, wedging the animal’s stiff shoulder out of the way and – bang – the cleaver comes down again. The head is off. Then she digs down between the fur and the flesh, wiggling her fingers. She rips the fur all the way down the hind legs, revealing the scrawny purple body webbed all over with skeins of yellow fat.

Skin the rabbit, she says in a sing-song voice, the way I have heard her sing it when she is lifting the knitted sweaters over her grandchildren’s heads, on those occasions when they have visited her in the kitchen.

Skin the rabbit, skin the rabbit, she sings. She tosses the carcass in the sink of cold water with the others.

There’s his coddled egg, she says, her chin lifts toward the sideboard.

He never asked for bacon, I say.

I put tea biscuits, she says.

He takes cream, I say.

He don’t mind everybody should hop, Mrs. Hearn says. She sways the cleaver over the chopped onions, potatoes, carrots, turnip and the pastry rolled out on the counter, all the purple rabbits floating in the sink, legs stretched out as if they were springing through tunnels in the underbrush. It is the feast for the celebration tonight, if his machine works. The mineral tang of blood hits me.

Mrs. Hearn knows I’ve been out with Frank. I’d looked in the door of the foundry and he was a silhouette, lit all around in bright orange fire. He struck the mallet on the table and a fountain of sparks and flankers shot up behind him. He came out to the sidewalk leaving the storm of embers and clanging metal. He had a horseshoe in his hand, asking me to walk into the field with him.

My mother’s got 14 youngsters and we were burnt out in the fire. We stayed in the tents down by the lake for six months; my father gone into the logging camps and me at Government House with the aprons and the dinners. All the crystal. Everybody depending on I bring the dinners laid out nice on the lovely china plates. The horseshoe was still warm from where he had hammered it.

Take it, he’d said. Good luck.

None of your foolishness, I told him.

Mrs. Hearn has taken another rabbit from the pile and – bang – the cleaver. She has dentures that don’t fit and she almost always keeps her lips pinched tight in what looks like an effort to hold back whatever she has to say. I put a napkin over his tea biscuits, straight out of the oven, to keep them hot.

You’re in a fine state, she says. She brings the cleaver down on the back paws. Then she wipes the back of her hand across her brow.

Young girl like you, she says. You won’t be able to hold your position. I know Frank’s mother and I will speak to her on your behalf. But you will have to be the one.

It wasn’t my idea, I say.

To call him to account, she says.

I put the tray down on the table and set out the plate, the toast, the silver teapot, the sugar bowl, the pot of jam and the little jug of cream. I tip the little jug of cream into his tea and ask him how much without speaking and he nods; it spills out yellow in the candlelight. I lift the cover off the egg. The sulphurous smell. The smells are too strong. Whatever he has in his soap. Not like soap here.

Sit down, he says. I sit because he is a husk now, just the desire for the machine to work. He’s a shell and the whole thing is playing out on his face. Where did he come from?

He insists on walking up the hill, digging his forehead into the snow squall, his head butting against the wind, his shoulders. Sometimes he disappears as the snow engulfs him. But by the time the kite is launched and he has entered the abandoned fever hospital, the snow is over and the sky is sodden and grey.

I lift the rusted latch and the hinges creak. The wind nearly takes the storm door out of my hand and it slams behind me. Everything is dusty inside. There are a handful of men there from the government. The two men he brought with him, standing beside him. You can see your breath though they started up the little stove. The floor creaks under my feet.

He is seated, holding part of the machine to his ear. There’s an empty chair on the other side of the table and I push a shoulder between the men and sit down in front of him.

The receiver is pressed very hard to his ear, his face pinched in fierce concentration. Listening. But his eyes on my eyes. His expression does not change, but he sees me. I will tell Frank tomorrow. I will make him do what I want.

I put the rabbit paw on the table beside his hand. He picks it up. Not looking at it but holding it tight in his raised fist. He goes rigid all over. Then his face softens, ecstatic, his mouth opens; his lips form a slack O. He is awed and soft. His eyes on mine but he can’t see me now. He has already left the island. He is miles beyond us; he has flown out of the room, across the ocean, over the horizon, which is only an illusion. He is circling the Earth. He hands the receiver to the man beside him.

Author’s Note: It’s the idea of connection that exhilarates me about Marconi. The metaphor of an electric spark flying from one person to another. A physical spark like the bytes of information that hop from synapse to synapse in the brain. We are numb to the miracle of instant communication now. We have forgotten the phone that was moored to the wall and the spiralling cord. We have forgotten dial-up and Hal, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a novel by the Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen called Eva Trout, whose very wealthy heroine buys one of the first personal computers and the machinery fills the giant living room of her great house. A crumbling mansion with faded furniture dwarfed by a big, blinking, whirring machine. Imagine those Newfoundlanders helping to raise a kite on the top of Signal Hill: What witchcraft. Did he fake the connection? Marconi was a fast talker, some thought a snake-oil salesman. But the snake was a lasso that could circle the globe. I wanted to capture a few moments of that leap; let him have a connection with a local woman, however brief.

Lisa Moore’s books include the short-story collection Open and the novels Alligator and Caught, all three of which were finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her most recent book, the young-adult novel Flannery, was published in 2016.

CREDITS: Illustrations by RYAN GARCIA; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by BEN BARRETT-FORREST