Fiction

Death in the Midden


Translated by Caitlin Stall-Paquet

DAS MÄDCHEN:

“It’s all over! Alas, it’s all over now!
Go, savage man of bone!
I am still young— go, devoted one!
And do not molest me.”

DER TOD:

“Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
I am a friend; I do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not savage,
You shall sleep gently in my arms.”[i]

MATTHIAS CLAUDIUS

 

VICTORIAVILLE, FRIDAY MAY 4th, CLOUDY,
scattered showers, high of 15 ̊C, low of 7 ̊C.

On the beige and grey carpet of the Salle Victoria, a venue that possesses the flexibility to adapt to your needs and to transform your get-together into an unforgettable event, the party’s most devout militants gather.  They are from all over the province and are there to nurture relationships, conduct business, enjoy a quick getaway in the Bois-Francs—accommodations and meals included—and publicly display their support for their leader, which is always useful when dependent upon a party. The whole lot of them forms a compact and agitated crowd, a swarming mass that makes life difficult for the waiters who have to navigate the room while balancing a tray of finger food or flutes full of cheap sparkling wine.

It’s not easy to navigate among the dames with highlights, reeking of vanilla and Lise Watier products, and the close-shaven clowns dangling at the end of their striped neckties.  It’s actually quite difficult to move through all these jerkoffs who recreate the ground floor décor of The Bay when they get together.

The atmosphere is insufferable, but the show makes it worthwhile. In a convention, eager party members sure know how to apply themselves and aren’t afraid to work really hard to put on a good show. They cluster together in small bunches, cramming and squeezing and waggling about and sharpening elbows around the few ministers who arrived early and from whom they hope to hear the latest news, some important information or at least good stories to take back to their riding. As for the ministers, they gesticulate wildly in spite of their drawn features, with skin taut as drumheads, stretched around sturdy smiles, carefully composed grimaces perfectly matching customary niceties. How well trained are these ministers! Without a single sputter they can take up the party’s tried and true slogans, a few proven jingles between two hors d’oeuvres and we’re still holding on strong, friends! Giving in is out of the question! We have to band together! We have to steer this ship, goddamn it! along with a ton of other caravans that pass on by as the dirty little dogs bark. Courtiers nod in agreement with the minister’s eloquence, as they sip their discount bubbly and laugh far too loudly at each witticism tossed out by a minister with palette-knife makeup: a Riopelle who might be what one would call a rising star certainly destined to be the next favourite. Full of audacity and spiritual like you wouldn’t believe, she states that too much heat in the spring doesn’t make for very good syrup and hahahahihi!

When the waiters successfully make their way through two handfuls of party members fussing over their ministers, they might be intercepted by a wheezy necktie asking them if there happen to be any traces of seafood in the canapé because, you know, my wife is very allergic, as he brings a hand to his throat to simulate a fatal reaction, as if that were something the husband of a highlighted dame could hope for. As he throws another hors d’oeuvre down his gullet, he nods solemnly at the reminder of an old victory, of a triumph against all odds in quite unfavourable circumstances, my friends, delivered by a deputy minister who is stiff and already foul-smelling despite significant attempts at casualness and many layers of Speed Stick Fresh RushTM.

In order to get back to the hall entrance to clean off trays full of empty flutes and hors d’oeuvre scraps abandoned here and there by all the classy guests, people who know how to show restraint in hard times, who know how to produce leftovers, the waiters have to manage to make their way across the barricade formed by the most devoted members standing there waiting for the Premier’s imminent arrival. The rumour is getting around, it’s being said that even the Minister of Public Safety implied it and so, naturally, people are getting excited.

Once the waiters manage to cut through the dense herd thanks to elbows to the ribs and feet to the ankles and excuse mes! and sorrys! and heads ups!, they have to deal with the party’s columnist. Stationed in the hallway near the Salle Victoria’s entrance to which he is denied access, this small, pale yet relentless man becomes an extra obstacle for the waiters who have to dodge and push him away each time they cross his path. Sometimes they even shove him so that he doesn’t steal the leftovers he lusts after. Given the chance, he would stealthily crouch in a shadowy corner to devour or slurp them down. When manhandled he squeals and turns towards the party members, more resilient and obsequious than ever. Amused by their journalist’s small humiliations, they burst into boisterous guffaws, briefly forgetting the bids that still need to be choreographed and the imminence of their Premier’s arrival.

Despite the lapping of the many tongues, the clickety-clacks of teeth and easy listening softening the mood with the look of love is in your eyes, a peculiar rumble has been heard for some time now, a sort of strange and slow and regular barking. The vanilla stench of success secreted by the guests mingles with the lemony emanations of the air-freshener they ordered the janitor to pump into the ventilation system to create an olfactory diversion. They want the supporters to remain calm, serene and with a whetted appetite, but that acrid smell, the chemical aroma coming from outside starts to infiltrate the hall and the party’s worry grows, becomes palpable.

On the way back from the kitchen, where I went to empty my tray and make sure that the special request of a fat and wheezy necktie-wearing guest was promptly tended to by preparing a tray of scallop mousse hors d’oeuvres, there’s time to make a quick detour to the emergency exit that leads to the roof of the hotel’s south wing.

 

Outside, on the lawn, under the drizzle and blast from the rotors of a low-flying helicopter, there is a row of cops. Equipped with helmets, gas masks and standard polycarbonate shields, they grip their long batons and wait for the order to be given. Some tremble, others can barely contain their impatience. Behind them, officers liquidate their supply of tear-gas canisters and firecrackers, as they whistle away a Schubert lied.

A bit further, a mass of protesters, a stormy little sea of dirty dogs, raging brats from everywhere, but mostly from the city. They came to sing and howl, to brandish signs, raise a fist to the sky and feed newscasts. The shaggy crowd gathers or beats a retreat, comes and goes at the will of the projectiles being hurled by feverish lieutenants from behind their row.

Between the police front and the mad sea of protesters there is a young girl with green eyes. Her nose in her scarf, she stands upright, motionless in the thick cloud of gas floating all around her. She stands unmoved below a red sign and the deafening sound grenades that explode just above her head.

Then the order is given. The helicopter descends closer to the crowd, threatening it with its slow wooof-wooof, wooof-wooofs, as the cops break into action. They set the pace of their charge by hitting their shields with their nightsticks to create an atmosphere, to give a good show.

With a long banner tangled at her feet, a banner upon which is written a message that no one will read, the young girl doesn’t flinch as she watches the police advance. She sees the peace officers in their ridiculous battledress trotting towards her and her eyes barely blink amidst the blaring rotors, slamming batons, banging grenades and screams of the black and red brats to which we will not give in because the caravan has no time to waste on dirty dogs. Barely dented by a frown, the girl’s relentless stare peacefully deconstructs the carnival characters and figures playing dress-up as they charge towards her. Her beautiful green eyes examine the vicious faces behind the masks and the spite of all these well-bred cops storming in her direction. Her eyes reveal to her the staggering absurdity and tremendous fragility of the world.

Her nose in her scarf, the young girl does not budge, she is transforming. It is actually no longer truly her waiting for the crested wave about to emerge from the tear gas cloud. A wave that will carry her far from this provincial hotel, from this mock décor that hides the backstage and wings of a ruined world from all the dirty brats’ view. In their long agony, in their oddly slow fall, the panicked puppets performing this farce will now have to worry about one more dirty dog: a young woman transformed by the final spasms of their doomed aristocracy.

 

In the Salle Victoria, where they always know how to take care of your meetings and guests, the Premier has finally arrived and the party members are relieved. They applaud and listen to his lovely speech, nodding their heads off, absolutely thrilled.  The columnist that has accidentally, nonchalantly or maliciously been allowed to sneak into the hall has found refuge beneath the skirt of a long table where, crouching in the shadows, he devours fallen crusts and drinks the remnants of a dirty champagne flute along with the words of his leader. Offering a tray full of scallop mousse hors d’oeuvres to the wheezy necktie’s wife, I tell myself that those ministers know what they’re talking about, that it’s true that we sometimes have to band together and that it makes sense that I also do my fair share.

 


[i] Translation copyright © by Emily Ezust,
from The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive

Death in the Midden” was published with the kind authorization of les éditions Héliotrope.

Caitlin Stall-Paquet Nicolas Chalifour is a Montreal-based author who was nominated for the Prix du libraire du Québec in 2010 and won the Prix du livre de la Montérégie 2010. His most recent novel, Variétés Delphi won the 1er prix roman of the Prix du livre de la Montérégie 2013.

Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montreal-based translator and writer. She has translated for the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada (LTAC). She has been published in Matrix magazine, writes for the Montreal blog Midnight Poutine, and was nominated for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards.