The Introduction

John is absorbed in, enveloped by, the music. The orchestral sounds fill the house. They surround him, comfort him, cloak him, just as the heat and humidity of the mid-summer afternoon. The singers’ voices transcend the orchestra and their emotion sweeps John upward, along with the opera’s story.

Outside, a black car pulls up and stops. Inside it, the adults argue. The woman refuses to leave the car. The man takes the seven-year old girl to the house. She is excited to meet, for the first time, an old friend of her father’s but confused by the argument she has witnessed and her mother’s unwillingness to join them.

The father and child hear loud music as they walk up the steps to the wide and deep wooden porch. The porch has not been painted in a long time. Most of the paint is worn off. The same is true of the frame house. There is no bell or knocker. The father opens the screen door and knocks on the inner door. The music is coming from inside. He bangs more loudly on the door. A man comes to the door and opens it a crack. The father greets the man, who is tentative, agitated.

Reluctantly, John opens the door to allow the visitors to enter into his large living room. He lifts the needle off the record so that he and the father can hear each other speak. The father introduces John and the child.

The child can see that John is not interested in her and knows he likely is not interested in any seven or eight year old child.

The child can see that John is not interested in her and knows he likely is not interested in any seven or eight year old child.

John lives alone in his old family home on the main street of the little village. John took over the house when his father died, leaving him enough of an estate to live without having to do paying work. John had been able to go from graduate studies at the university, where he and the girl’s father were both students, back to this village to live in the manner he chose. John’s family had a large library and John had acquired many more books during his years at university. John spends his time reading and listening to his comprehensive collection of opera records.

John is wearing loose-fitting trousers. The worn fabric bulges at the knees and droops around his legs. His braces are twisted over a thirty-year old white shirt, that had been stylish the twenties, now yellowed and worn. John is a man who, on his own, has pursued the arts. In some eyes he is a failure. In others, the village weirdo. No doubt he is a man whispered about behind his back.

The girl observes that John is uncomfortable, twisting in his chair, sitting forward in it as he talks with her father without ever glancing at her. She finds John to be an odd man. She feels something forbidden about him. He is not interested in meeting her or her mother. He is one of the few old friends her father has searched out after being away from his home region for several years.

The father’s projection of his daughter’s future life as a country physician is somehow connected to this man. He has said she, too, could have a big record collection and a large library and listen to music and read all day.

In John’s house, the furniture is dusty. The hardwood floor is dusty. Books and papers are piled on tables and chairs. The gramophone has the only surface which is free of dust and papers. John’s favourite chair is leather-covered, the seat’s leather cracked along the fold at the front. Below the chair frame, the seat’s springs are visible, sagging in the middle. The front ends of the wooden arms are darkened from his hands gripping them when he sits or stands.

On most of the bookshelves, the row of properly shelved books is pushed back and is supplemented by stacks of books piled here and there in front of the volumes which are lined up against the back of the bookcase. Single pages or sheaves of paper droop from some of the books–dusty papers, discoloured by exposure to light and dust.

Cobwebs hang in the corners between the walls and the high ceiling.

The windows have no drapes or blinds. Instead, they are grey with the accumulated grime of twenty years without washing. Cobwebs hang in the corners between the walls and the high ceiling. The walls, originally covered with light-coloured wallpaper, are now grey with age, cooking grease, and dust from the road.

Despite the greyness of the room and the dust and disarray, the girl finds something attractive here. John has so many books and piles of records. Though he is strange and slightly frightening, John lives in his own realm, as he wishes. His eyes make no connection with hers. Is he remembering the exciting days, the days of promise, the bright future of the late twenties in the city? The city is physically close and yet very far, in every other way, from this house in this tiny farming community.

The father thinks, what a life John is leading! He’s holed up here with Tennyson, the Brownings, Mrs. Hemans, Shakespeare, Blake, Bacon, Shelley, Wordsworth, Boswell and all those minds who might keep an Edwardian Canadian child company when he came of age. How much more satisfactory than the usual round of weddings, funerals, pastoral visits, hospital visits, women’s groups meetings, young people’s meetings, Christmas concerts, bazaars, church suppers, bake sales, rummage sales, Communion, Easter, Christmas, Whitsunday, Mother’s Day, Navy Day, Boy Scout parades that he would have lived had John become a clergyman as he did.

Without a wife and with a preference for the company of great writers and the opera, what kind of life would John’s have been in the church? All the widows would have taken pity on him and invited him for tea and dinner. When he was still eligible, the matchmakers would have tried to fix him up with the single ladies: school teachers, nurses, librarians, secretaries, music teachers—the assorted single-by-choice women of the community.

Churches did not like single ministers. Who would preside at the opening of the teas and who would sit at the head table and pour the tea? Who would come to the women’s meetings, sing in the choir, play the organ, lead the girl’s groups, teach Sunday school? In a small community, a single minister meant the congregation was missing out on half of the familiar and expected team of husband and wife.

When they walked into John’s living room, there had been a sort of dance about whether and where to sit. The father had perched on the edge of a wooden kitchen chair with his daughter standing, leaning against his knee. He was disappointed by the cool reception offered by his old friend—a friend he valued enough to seek out and risk an unannounced visit. The father decided to leave sooner than he had expected. He had shown off his daughter to John. She had a chance to see how she might live some day if she made enough money to work part-time or retire and be surrounded by music and books. Over the years, as each opportunity arose, he would draw her attention to well-known writers and poets who also had professions which they combined with their writing lives, living surrounded by books and music.

When the visitors leave, John settles back to his opera as best he can. The mood and the spell of the music are broken. Why did that man appear after all these years? What did he want? John does not care about meeting his kid. He lost interest in the man years ago when they drifted apart during the war.

~~~

Later that summer, the girl, her playmate, and his parents come to John’s village to visit the playmate’s family and to go fishing in the river where it enters the village. That day, the girl is both hopeful and also fearful of meeting her father’s friend again. She thinks it best not to mention him to her playmate’s family even though it would be exciting, like sharing a secret.

~~~

Twenty years later, the father dies. The girl does not know whether her father ever visited John again. She wonders why the visit keeps returning to and lingers in her mind. She has no more answers about who John is or was. A friend met at university, on the train to and from the city? A hockey or lacrosse opponent in the local town league? A fellow candidate for the ministry? Was he a writer? A poet? A singer? A musician? He was not a clergyman when she met him. He lived alone in a small village close to her father’s hometown. She believes he was held out to her as an example of something. What exactly? Thinking of him reminds her of a man in a town where she and her father lived later. That man walked in sandals even in the snows of winter,. He was considered strange and frightening by her classmates at high school. To the girl’s surprise, she discovered her father chatted with that man when they were both in the store picking up their morning newspapers. The father was following his own advice, to be friendly with everyone including the odd ones whom most people avoided or even shunned. She never learned why her mother did not join the visit to John. Her mother would have been more comfortable, surely, in the house than sitting in the black car on that hot summer day.

~~~

The girl is writing this story forty years after her father’s death. She is sitting, electronic writing device on her lap, on her favourite leather chair, in a dusty living room, piled with books and papers. Music from her large collection is playing on the stereo. The bookcases are double-stacked with books on many subjects. Piles of books and papers lean against bookcases, beds, chairs and table legs in all the rooms except the bathroom. Now retired from her profession, she is dreaming of her days, in the sixties, at that same university, in that same city.