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Vol. 1, No. 1, 2002

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John Lavery


by John Lavery

[John Lavery is the author of a book of short stories entitled Very Good Butter, published by ECW PRESS. John LaveryThe book was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Coming Attractions (Oberon) and the Journey Prize Anthology (McLelland and Stewart). Lavery has been, among other things, a cartographer, survey technician, draftsman, ship’s apprentice and Third Officer, as well as a founding member of the Orchestre de la société de guitare de Montréal].


Seventy-eight. A ripe, an overripe old age. No surprise that a seventy-eight year old should feel nauseated. Dizzy, old fellah? Sour taste in the mouth? Can't expect to have the same tongue for seventy-eight years and not have it go soft a little, at the back. July. The parasitic humidity of Montreal worming its way under your skin but doing you no real harm. Nothing to make you want to bring up. I was in my favourite store, 'McCluskey's Coin and Stamp,' on Lagauchetière, observing the wan dust in the panels of sunlight that slid between the bars covering the storefront window, when my eye was caught by a miniature man wearing glasses not unlike my own. Eyesight is a gift certainly, but one given with the proviso that it must be used. We must look, whether or not there is anything to see. Our eyes, consequently, spend much of their time flitting nervously about, hoping to detect a clue that might suggest something of some interest. Hence the attraction of the eyeglasses. Wrong trail though. The man wearing the glasses was of no consequence. His miniature portrait was on a blue, Russian, two kopek postage stamp,1990, in which year if you remember the Soviet Union was perestroikaing and glasnosting, rebuilding and publicizing it, in literal terms, falling apart and trying to hide, in accurate ones, Gorbachev's wounded forehead was everywhere, except Moscow, God was at the cottage. And what was I doing? Not a particularly well-executed portrait, not a particularly attractive stamp. And yet I did feel like I was going to be sick. Why was that? An overreaction surely. After all, the miniature man was perfectly defunct and therefore harmless, seeing as his bespectacles were gracing, or disgracing, a postage stamp. Philby. Kim Philby. Soviet secret agent. You will have heard of him, particularly if the back of your tongue is starting to go soft a little.


I picked him up on Lagauchetière, I remember. He got in and barked out an address at me, as if, on the whole, he would have preferred to go somewhere else. Elderly he was, his combed white hair shone like wet feathers. He manoeuvred his head so that he could see around the glasses which stood up straight on his nose and blocked the view of his liquid, distorted eyes. His hands were spotted, fluent, they slid telescopically out of the sleeves of his suit jacket that might well have been made from the skin of a shimmering, deep-water fish. "Why are you not in school, young man?" "I am. I'm an autodidact. I learn in my car. My taxi's my carrel." Mr. Litvac didn't know what a carrel was because he hadn't been to university either. He had made a great deal of money in the construction industry, his orange, trestle barricades still lined the choking, jack-hammered streets of Montreal every summer, although he himself had retired and was devoted to buying his way back into his own good graces through philanthropic activities. "I got wind of a group called J'écoute/I'm listening, a telephone service for people needing encouragement and an understanding ear. They had financial problems and were about to lose their premises. So I took them over, and set them up in my condominium." I found this admirable, was genuinely interested, I asked a number of questions, and then a quirky thing happened. "Stop," he said. "Pull over here." That wasn't the quirky thing. That happens every day. A quirk is the opposite of a surprise. The proposition of a surprise, like that of a dream, is unexpected, apparently illogical, and therefore menacing. Once the logic of its proposition is revealed, however, a surprise is reassuring. A pink, plastic toy that falls out of a box of breakfast cereal is a surprise. Mr. Litvac examined me with a strange, iatric intensity, as though debating whether to request a urine sample. "Would you be interested," he said with tactical deliberateness, "in a coffee?" The proposition of a quirk is extra-logical, often pleasant, seemingly harmless. But a quirk has no resolution, its implications persist, become disquieting, ominous. A bit of breakfast cereal that falls out of a box of pink, plastic toys is a quirk. "I have a family vehicle," said Mr. Litvac, ploughing the sugar particles into a pile with the edge of his hand. "Which is incongruous since I don't have a driver's license now, or a family. I would like to put my vehicle at the disposal of the handicapped, the housebound, so they can get out, go to the movies, get their errands done. For this I need a driver." I was doing well with the taxi. Reading Motoo Kimura. My friend's name was Irène. She was taking the pill to regulate her menstrual cycle, but we abstained during the ides anyway. I always used a condom. If we ever had a kid, we were going to call it Houdini. "Come and see me," said Mr. Litvac. "If you like." And I did. Surprisingly.

You will have felt the murmured thrill of that arcane talk, filled with rain, with footsteps and foreign accents, with words like "cover" and "mole" and "operative." Espionage. How it invigorates the imagination. Well, no doubt my imagination is on the sludgy side, and no doubt this is due to its being housed inside the overripe brain of one who, having lived through much of it, views the twentieth as the abhorrent century. Still, if I close my eyes, I can see Mr. Philby dressed in his favourite tweed, favourite because although of the finest domestic wool (British I mean), it is too tight across the shoulders and the sleeves bag at the elbows. The dazed knot of his tie is half-hidden under the limp collar of his shirt, he is lying on his back, wearing the glasses that are not unlike my own, needlessly, seeing as his eyes, also like mine, are perfectly closed. His chest is sporting a red cushion sporting an array of medals, the Order of Lenin notably. And around him, a solemn brace of the Blood Red Army's finest stands to attention, bearing his rosewood casket lightly on their heavy shoulders, their military caps like khaki haloes. Not represented on the red cushion of course is the OBE he was awarded in 1946, nor the medal presented him by Generalissimo Franco after he was wounded in Spain. Oh yes, Philby was there, I was not. A correspondent for The Times he was, pro-nationalist, anti-communist. The only time he was on the winning side. Although he wasn't. He was just deepening his cover.

I turned the mezuzah counter-clockwise, as Mr. Litvac had told me to do. The door lock cracked open with an imperiousness that eliminated all thought of not entering. There was a waiting room full of magazines and green chairs. I crossed it quickly, afraid it might think it was waiting for me, found myself in a sort of sound booth with egg cartons on the ceiling and four partitioned areas for telephones. One of the operators pushed herself out when she saw me. "Hi," she said enthusiastically, hooking her hair behind her ears. "It's not as easy as you might think. We know so much about ourselves now. But the foundation of hope is precisely ignorance, isn't it, in the strictest sense of the word. The challenge of the sentinel, and we here consider ourselves sentinels, is to relieve, to add relief to, the unending bad, blandlands of self-familiarity." "Ah, actually, I'm here to see Mr. Litvac. Not for the phones." "Oh." She was the-Beliveau-twins, although I didn't know that yet. "Through there," she said, disappointed I didn't know myself well enough to be useful.

I make no claim to know what I'm talking about. Never read Philby's biography, never will. I know just what I've picked up: he was born when? around 1910, his father was a diplomat, a sort of Philby of Arabia, he converted to Islam, was an advisor to the Saudi King.

"Come in! Come in!" The broadloom in Mr. Litvac's condominium tracked my every footstep, although the oil paintings barely glanced in my direction, and then moved on. A shaft of sunlight was seated at the piano, while Mr. Litvac himself was seated at a table whose glass surface was illuminated from underneath, making his white shirt appear to have been made from flower petal. "I'm working on my stamp collection," he said. "Stamp collection? Didn't a meteorite strike the Earth sometime during the Mesozoic and destroy all the stamp collections?" "Philately, young man, has never been more popular or worthwhile. Gone are the Lilly's and Burrus's with their gazillions. Today anyone can own a rarity. And may I say that stamps outperform mutual funds, by far. Ever heard of Kim Philby?" "Sure, Swedish actress. She worked with Bergman." Mr. Litvac took up a stamp with tweezers, and tended it towards me. I stooped, like an adult bird being fed by its fledgling, towards the stamp. "What," I said, "is Mr. Dress-up doing on a 1990 Russian stamp?" I knew it was Russian because the letters were in Cyrillic, except for the CCCP. "Who?" Mr. Litvac inspected the stamp and nodded, I felt sure, in agreement. "That, young man, is Kim Philby." "No, no," I said, quirked. "Mr. Dress-up's real name wasn't Kim Philby." Mr. Litvac laughed out loud then. Although I was sure I was right. "I have an errand for you," he said. I told him I couldn't start until the first of the month because I'd paid up my taxi fees. He wrote me a cheque. "Take it, take it. And don't look at me like that. You haven't much time, young man, whereas I have nothing but."

Kimmy got an upper class education in England, went to Cambridge, was a member of a Marxist club called the Apostles. Now recruiting spies is a thankless job because should you recruit one who really does fine work, you are in the unfortunate position of being able to reveal your protégé's identity. It is generally thought, therefore, the KGB in these matters being always willing to go the extra mile, that whoever recruited Philby at Cambridge was rewarded with a golden parachute. That did not open. Philby did so well at working for the Soviet Union that before he was forty he was in Washington, chief liaison between the CIA and its British counterpart, MI-6. Unfortunately, for Philby, in 1951, or thereabouts, two Englishmen defected to the Soviet Union, Donald McLean and Guy Burgess by name, both spies, both former Apostles at Cambridge. Burgess, moreover, had been working in Washington and living with Philby-dilby. Nothing untoward mind you, Philby was wived and well-mistressed. The occasional goose in the loo, perhaps. A spy's salute. Philby was subjected to a lengthy interrogation and eventually cleared of all suspicion by the British Prime Minister. His MI-6 days were over though. He was in Beirut after that, journalist. He and his Dad encouraged the Russians to cultivate the Middle East countries, build their confidence, skim their oil revenues, an initiative that worked so well the said countries formed the OPEC cartel leaving the Soviets out in the cold. In from which Kim never came. He was removed to Moscow where he lived the rest of his life on his government vodka pension.

So I began delivering bouquets of flowers, magazines, recycled computers to the ageing boomie vanguard and the older still. It wasn't as easy as you might think. These offerings were frequently received with mistrust, not to say terror: "C'est qui, qui m'envoie ça?" The Siamese cat regarded me with placid contempt. "Je suis désolé," I said, "il veut pas que je vous dise son nom." Curled up she was, in the dais provided by the arms of her pet owner. "Mais je n'accepte pas de fleurs de parfaits inconnus! Dis-lui, à ton boss, d'envoyer du cash." Which supported Mr. Litvac's central premise that it was important for elderly women when they received flowers, and more important when they didn't.

I was still a youngster when my parents crossed northern Europe to Cherbourg and secured passage to Canada. Of that time I have, perhaps, a single memory: a tin of pickled beef hidden under my vest. Hidden, not so I could eat the beef, which I did not like, but so I could open the tin by breaking off its key, slipping its eye over the tin's metal tab and twisting, while the metal band on the key's tip accumulated into a rickety wheel. I have been told that I was extremely lucky to have had such beef, that it must certainly have been foreign and the only meat available. My life, it is true, has been dogged with luck. Still, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I was already in Canada. Could I really have opened such a tin at two years of age? Let us say then, to be safe, that I have no memories of Russia.

Mr. Litvac was a prodigy, already, at seven, an incredible pianist. Every morning he practised for three hours, after which his father, who was the owner of the imported food shop below their apartment, came upstairs with a tray of poppy-seed cakes and made frothy, Viennese coffee for himself, his wife and his grown-up son.

And no memories of the Russian language either, although I babbled it as a rebionok, and my parents spoke a proud dialect of Russian which they called English.

At twelve, Mr. Litvac was told that with just a little more work, he would earn a scholarship to Vincent d'Indy, which is a music school even I have heard of. He practised harder, the poppy-seed cakes were larger, the coffee more robust.

I have never been a member of the communist party, or an exponent of Marxism-Leninism.

At fourteen, he was working all day long, he would certainly have got the scholarship except that his friend Cyra Weinberg, who was a year younger and whose name you may know if you are familiar with Canadian pianists, asked him if he would help her prepare her Murray Hall debut, so he learned all her music too, better than his own. After the concert, she was invited to study in Europe. She could never have done it without Mr. Litvac, she said. Or his father's coffee.

I have been a romantic. I have not forgotten the forgotten war, the Spanish Civil, the international brigades, the Mac-Paps, concert pianists fingering explosives, fish-handed Catalans dressing cracked heads. Bethune was there. I was not. I was sixteen. I knew nothing, of course, but I knew I was a fan. Not of anarchism, because, I think, if you can see an anarchist it is only because you are afraid of him. Of communism. How it reached into me, with its vast ambition, its unshakeable fraternity, its chanting celebration of the underdog.

By the age of sixteen, Mr. Litvac was practising round the clock. One day, his parents entered the music room and gave Mr. Litvac a long and affectionate embrace. His father then offered him a tray of florentines and a glass of brandy. Mr. Litvac understood then that he didn't have to play the piano anymore.

A fan I was.

And his stamp collection, which he had started as a refuge from the necessity of being more gifted than he was, became an escape from his lack of mediocrity.

So sure, if you like, an old man's overreaction. But the sight of the miniature man on the stamp did make me want to bring up and I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why. Close your eyes again. See him? In the drab kitchen of his wife's Moscow apartment where he has been lodged now for fifteen years, leaning against the metal table, the clatter and buzz of the refrigerator as relentless in his ears as the Russian language he can still only half speak. Watch him drop to his knees, crawl over to the cupboard under the sink, pull out the garbage, dump it, flatten the paper bag with his red and swollen fist and write, with the child-like deliberateness of the completely drunk, "I hereby state that should my Russian wife murder me, she was fully justified in doing so." No, it is not that. That, for Philby, was fairly brave.

As a complication of his philatelism, Mr. Litvac suffered from deltiology. He had thousands of postcards, mostly old. We pored over them together, tried to make out the handwriting. People depended so much on handwriting in those days, which is why they wrote illegibly. "You're not asking for a response," said Mr. Litvac, "when you send a postcard. You're just saying, 'Hello, I am here, in this place.' What else is there to say?" "Right. Postcards are like human birdsong."

Don't think that Philby bothers me because he was a spy. Spying is - numberless authors and movie makers notwithstanding, or perhaps not notwithstanding - spying is a childish occupation. But I like children. A spy is an orphan with a deep love of gossip.

One day I drove Mr. Litvac to the dentist's office. After a long time he came out, tight-lipped and very grey. The next day I found him in front of the mirror, examining the remnants of his dentition. "Scale model of Stonehenge?" I said, to make him laugh. Mr. Litvac turned to me, holding back his lips with his fingers to reveal a gleaming, ceramic wall of perfectly calibrated, bevelled teeth. "I hdth ntst…" He released his lips. "I had the dentist put new jackets on all my teeth." "Jackets? On all of them?" He returned to his mirror. "Never another," he said, tapping his front incisor, "cavity. Lifetime guarantee." "Mr. Litvac…" "Oh, I know what you're thinking, young man. And you're right of course. He should have put pants on the lower ones."

Treachery? Be serious. Treachery is to an intelligence operative of any sort what technique is to a pianist.

"What do you think of this baby?" said Mr. Litvac. "Ah, it's a red, US 24-cent stamp," I said, "with a blue airplane flying upside-down." "The plane should be right side up. It's a printing mistake." "Oh. And the stamp's still a stamp? It's not like, worthless?" "Not worthless, no. It's called an inverted Jenny, issued in 1918, there are a hundred in existence Want to help me put it up for auction on eBay?" "Sure!" Mr. Litvac had his own roof-top microwave antenna. You only had to breathe on his mouse and you were screaming through the net. "I don't want anyone to know it's me, though. Stamp collectors like anonymity." "You're a self-philanthropic group." "Make me up. Somebody who's not a collector and not too bright. Yourself, if you like." So this is what, with Mr. Litvac's guidance, I posted: OK this is a stamp we acquired it in a will hinged in great condition to explain we are not a dealer we operate a janitereal service we have limated knowledge as to the orgine of the stamp but understand this stamp is medium rare and worthy of a collecter that would welcome this rarity into his/her collection only a short sale please no reserve happy bidding. Thousands of hits, emails unlimited. Such as: Ah, janittereal has two t's. Or: Frawd is an indytable offence!! Or: I cannot possibly bid seriously without seeing the reverse of the stamp. Are you willing to have it escrowed? Can it be delivered to an escrow attorney with clear title? Mr. Litvac took the controls: Number written on back 86 looks like maybe 98. Sorry forgot to ask what does escrowed mean? "Mmn," I said, "you're pretty good at this." "Bff," he said. "Everybody's a chameleon."

Betrayal. Ah. Let us, if you are not completely tired of this, I'm certainly not, let us look at the question of betrayal. We do not like to be easily betrayed. Because it hurts, yes, but also because it eats through the protective coating we bake onto our curiosity. 'Perhaps I too,' we think softly, 'because it's just got to be, got to be a rush, perhaps, if it can be so easily done, I too…' In order to betray, you must belong. And to whom or to what did Kimmy belong? To communism? Ha! You are not a carpenter just because you can afford one and you like the smell of sawdust on his coveralls. To the Soviet Union? The stamp, the stamp. Listen to it wheedle in your ears: "Colonel of the Red Army Philby, Kim, was ours. We watched him, watered him, we know. We gave him wife, we give him stamp. Ours." Such sniping insistence. Clearly, Kimmy did not belong to the Soviet Union. Forget England. Did he belong to one or other of the women he slept with, four of whom he was variously married to at the same time as he was sleeping with various of the others? To the one who didn't murder him perhaps? Perhaps. To the bottle? Yes, but he was faithful to that. Unless, through the bottle, he betrayed his own lucidity. Did he belong to betrayal itself? Ah, but in that case, there's not much disgust to be mustered.

My favourite postcard was a relatively recent one, 1950's, a spectacular photo of a monastery chiselled right out of the Himalayas. It had been sent from Kathmandu to a destination in Iowa. On the back was written: It's the same here. Love Turps.

So maybe we should just drop it. Put it down to an old fart's inability to oxygenate his brain adequately due to the close air of 'McCluskey's Coin and Stamp,' and leave it at that. Shun the Philby-the-scum camp and the Philby-the-spy-for-all-time camp and steer a middle course to no conclusion. Why not? A conclusion is only what you come to when you stop thinking. Besides, Philby's occult machinations did not deflect the course of events the sixtieth part of the sixtieth part of a degree. As double agents go, Ronald Macdonald outperforms Philby.

The-Beliveau-twins was never seen together because her one didn't work at the same time as her other. No one could tell her apart or dared use her names. Many sentinels lasted a week, some only a shift. But the-Beliveau-twins was always present, bimorphous, the soul of J'écoute/I'm listening, a corpulent duo with a radiant voice, like a flightless angels squatting in a bent palm tree. She filled me with misgiving, I was terrified her adiposity might stifle her heart at any moment. I had confused dreams in which I screamed and threatened to drown myself in her foaming, rapid flesh while she talked me out of it with a patience that was slow and indifferent. "Motoo Kimura argues," I said to her one day, because I say this sort of thing when I'm under human influence, "that the development of life on this planet has been so statistically miraculous that there can be no possibility of its having developed elsewhere. That life is a quirk." "Which we've always suspected and which is why," said the-Beliveau-twins, whose telephone light was flashing, "we've always turned space into heaven, and filled it with strangers." "Yes," I said quickly, as she fitted her earphones over her head, "we want so much for life to be a surprise." She nodded so vigorously I could tell she hadn't heard.

A personal note. May I? When I was twenty, a childhood friend who had moved to Europe sent me a present of a set of old French postcards, 1890's. Cyra her name was. The cards were sepia-and-cream photographs of a town called Baume-les-Dames. The messages were on the front, as they always were then, inconsequential, and yet I read them over and over, I could see the fingers holding the pens, I could hear the scratching of the nibs, as though the words were being written inside my own head, claiming me, calling me. I decided I would go to Baume-les-Dames. I would drink Pernod until I had no more money. None. And then I would shoot myself. As I say, I was twenty. Years later, I happened to run into Cyra, it doesn't matter where or how. What matters is that something, the intervening years I suppose, kept me from identifying myself. She continued on her way, and I found myself following. I felt, at first, uncomfortably predatory, but I was still hoping to run up suddenly and say her name. And then, I was simply following her, watching the cadence of her walk, the cadenza of her hair. It struck me, not that she was entirely beautiful, I'd known that for a long time, but that I had never really seen her beauty in its entirety because I had never seen it entirely oblivious to me. Is this clear? Anyway, such, I imagine, is the privilege of the spy.

Mr. Litvac's favourite postcard had been sent by a Corporal Mainwaring to his mother in England. It was postmarked Namur, which is in Belgium, August, 1918. It had been written hurriedly, because soldiers in 1918 didn't have much time: God keep you from your loving son Ralph.

So what shall we do with the miniature man? Well as it happens, I possess a stamp of a certain value. Six figures in point of fact. But only just. I have unearthed a buyer, call him Mr. Escrow, whom I have enticed to Montreal by convincing him that present greed and philatelic ingenuousness are leading me to sell the stamp for a ridiculous, albeit cash, amount. $39,412 to be precise. Plus my Land Rover. A ridiculous amount indeed for the 1990, 2-kopek Philby commemorative. I am hoping the sight of the man on the stamp will induce in my buyer a profound feeling of nausea. Better yet. You are perhaps aware that the owner of the world's most expensive stamp, the one-cent magenta, is a convicted murderer. Perhaps the good luck which has dogged my life will hold, and our man Escrow will be of a similar nature.

The last evening I spent with Mr. Litvac started with a party. Mr. Litvac had found a buyer for his inverted Jenny. He was to meet the buyer that evening to complete the sale, and then he was going to go live in Europe. He played the piano for us. Gérard was there, a transient sentinel, always anxious about his partner learning of his working at J'écoute/I'm listening. "It's a open relationship. I have lovers, all I want. But I'm coming here, it's like, so unfaithful." The Beliveau twins were both there, except the younger one who was working the phones. Irène put in an appearance, but escaped early. 'Maybe our relationship is more open than I thought,' I thought. Mr. Litvac announced that he had established a trust fund for J'écoute/I'm listening which would be moving to new quarters, and we all ate Viennese pastries and drank frothy coffee. After which I drove Mr. Litvac for the last time. "Where to?" "The Chaim Batista theatre on Dundonald. That's where I'm meeting this guy. He's buying my car as part of the deal. Going to drive me to the airport in it." "Remember the man," he said, "on the Russian stamp?" "Looked like Mr. Dress-up. With your glasses on. Sure. Phil Kimby you said his name was." "I bought that stamp the day I met you, so I'd like you to have it." Mr. Litvac stuffed an envelope into my pocket as I drove. "Might be worth something someday." "Thanks. So where you off to in Europe?" "France. I'm going to a place I've wanted to visit for sixty years. Beaume-les-Dames. Ever heard of it?" "Sure," I said, "it's on the Boamlay River." To make him laugh. "I like you, young man," he said. "I like, if I may put it this way, your triviality." We shook hands, I got out, started walking, and that was that.

Close your eyes. Look, over there. Use your binoculars. See the raccoons? Climbing over those huge, white chunks of rubble that used to be Lenin's head. See them disappear down the hollows that were his pupils. They'll curl up there, where it's cool, and go to sleep. Sweep over to the left. Oop, too far. There. See her? On the balcony outside the drab kitchen of her Moscow apartment. What's she holding? The binoculars aren't strong enough likely. It's a letter from the Committee for State Security, of emphatic praise for her late husband, and it contains the stamp. A stamp, unlike the immense, psyche-withering, temporary monuments the Soviets loved to erect to their ephemeral heroes, a stamp is small. A stamp invites magnification and close study. It will be collected, though not by me. It will, like so much that is trivial, endure. So the letter contains the stamp. And the stamp was issued to honour not one of the thirty million Russian citizens sacrificed to the communist adventure during the course of the abhorrent century, but rather to commemorate the inebriated, wrinkled Brit, whom, although she had clearance to do so, she did not murder. You should just be able to make out her tears. She, it is said, loved him profoundly. I wouldn't know.

The quirky thing wasn't that the envelope didn't contain the Russian stamp, but the inverted Jenny. That wasn't even a surprise. I pictured to myself the elegant man whose white hair shone like wet feathers. I had known him for half a summer. And it struck me that I could easily conceive of the universe rolling through time without me in it. But not. Without Mr. Litvac. That was the quirky thing.

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