Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Karen McLennan

Chapter 3

Slowly one week was followed by another week but little changed in my life and routines. Vancouver's rainy season gradually transformed into spring and the increasing frequency of dryer weekends and days with more daylight hours made me restless. Too many days passed, especially when it had rained all weekend, when alone and on my own meant far too much time available and too few meaningful activities to occupy the time with. In spite of the drudgery of working for a living, I was beginning to welcome Monday mornings and dread Friday evenings simply because working was better than doing nothing else. An older colleague at work who was approaching his retirement had cautioned me about how short life is, how quickly time passes and how little time remains in which to get things done. I could not grasp the meaning of his thinking nor comprehend the value of his advice.

One particular evening on the bus while heading home after another uneventful day at work I was unusually weary and not looking forward to arriving at my silent living quarters and then having to cook and eat another meal alone. Resting my head against the window I was not really paying much attention to anything. Glancing at a lady with her back to me who was standing in the aisle, I perked up thinking I had finally crossed trails with someone I knew, and thought, "That looks like Karen McLennan." and then decided, "No, it couldn't be. Karen’s in Kingston.”

Although the young lady appeared to have the same profile and the same long dark hair as Karen’s I was uncertain. She was wearing a long dark green duffle coat and I remembered that I had once seen Karen wearing the same type of coat but something about the lady's coat did not look quite right. Perhaps the shade of green was not quite the same. I was debating whether or not to get up and tap the mystery lady on the shoulder to see if she was really Karen but I was afraid to make a fool of myself just in case I may have been wrong. 

Unexpectedly the lady turned. She was Chinese and definitely not Karen McLennan. I was disappointed, thinking the moment would have been wonderful if she had been Karen but at the same time I was relieved about having stayed put. Again, I looked over at the Chinese lady and this time noticed she was strikingly attractive. "Was it because she had reminded me of Karen?" I wondered. I had never really paid close attention to Chinese people before other than mentally noting they were Chinese.

The bus bumped along, or so it felt with my head against the window, and my thoughts drifted back to Karen McLennan. Only a year ago both Karen and I were studying music at John Abbott College. We attended many of the same classes and were competing against each other for the top mark. We kept trading places for first and second place. Karen and I eventually met each other at the location where assignment and examination results were posted.

On that day we both happened to be checking the postings at the same time. She recognized me from the music classes and asked, "Do you have any idea who student 7019235 is?"

"Why?" I asked but I was not really expecting her to give me an answer.

"7019235 beat me by one mark." she answered with a certain tone of frustration in her voice.

"Don't you think 97 is a good mark?" I asked.

"How did you know my mark?" she questioned in a surprised manner.

"You just told me." I stated.

"I did?" she asked.

"I read some Sherlock Holmes stories a few weeks ago." I replied cleverly.

“Oh really?” she answered, sounding very unimpressed.

“Only one student in the class had a 97, right?” I continued.

“Right.” she concurred.

“Well then, if 7019235 beat your mark by only one point then you had to be the one with the 97.” I surmised

“Yes, but how did you know I’m the one with 97?” she asked, her voice betraying a hint of curiosity.

“Easy. I’m 7019235.”

"Right." she said quietly and then added jokingly, "Come on Sherlock; let's see if you can pick up the trail to our next class. I'll walk with you."

"Well I know one mystery that Sherlock Holmes never solved." I stated, hoping to entice Karen into asking me which one.

"Oh yeah? Which one?" she asked.

"Do you know that musical piece by Arthur Sullivan? I asked.

“No.” Karen answered.

“Well as far as I know the lost chord is still missing." I replied. 

Karen and I became good friends but no less competitive. She knew and understood music history better than I did and had a far better ear for interpretation by listening. I had an edge in written music theory and analyzing music scores. My instrument of choice was the piano and hers the French horn. 

Karen had sent me a card and short letter at Christmas. I wrote back to her shortly afterward but never received any further word from her. Karen went on to continue her studies at Queen's University in Kingston. She once told me that going to Queens was what she had wanted and planned to do and now she was doing it. I was happy for her and perhaps slightly envious too. Karen always seemed to know exactly what she wanted to do and she was just as determined to go out and do it. Contrarily, I didn't have a clue as to what I wanted to do nor could I define even for myself a single personal goal or objective to strive for. 

Probably our friendship could have developed further had circumstances been different, had I been different; but circumstances were not different and I was not different. Silently I sighed and wondered about what might have been. Curious, I once more glanced over toward the Chinese lady but she was gone.

"Why am I seeing familiar people in complete strangers?" I questioned silently then added, "What am I doing in this city?"

Again my thoughts drifted back to Karen McLennan. Almost a year had passed since the last time I had seen her. I conceded to myself that if Karen had told me she was planning return to CEGEP for another semester then I too may have returned to CEGEP and not moved to Vancouver. 

Last year near the conclusion of the spring semester the Montreal Symphony Orchestra was to perform a series of special concerts at the Montreal Forum. Emil Gilels was to appear as a guest soloist to perform Beethoven's E flat major piano concerto. The "Emperor" concerto was my favourite and Emil Gilels was, as far as I was concerned, the definitive interpreter of the work. Besides, he was the soloist on the recording in my collection. I had really wanted to ask Karen out on a date but did not know how to approach her on the subject. Determined to overcome my fears I purchased two tickets and vowed that I was going to ask Karen to go with me to the Beethoven concert. During the preceding weeks there were quite a few opportunities to ask her but the words just would not come out. I could talk at length about the weather or music homework assignments, or ask her about the other subjects she was studying, but I was unable to find the courage to ask her to go with me to the Beethoven concert. 

Time finally ran out and I ended up going to the concert alone. I despised myself for being a coward but I think what hurt the most was unexpectedly spotting Karen in the crowds at the Montreal Forum. She was seated about a dozen rows below from where I was seated. She was with her sister and her mother but Karen never knew I was there. Is the anguish of longing but doing nothing more endurable than the pain of reaching out and asking and then being rebuffed by a refusal? Again I wondered about what might have been had I not been afraid to ask, and then again, perhaps nothing.

At the intersection of West Fourth Avenue and Arbutus Street I exited the bus. I waited a moment to listen to the fading whistling sound the poles made as they travelled along the overhead electric wires while the bus disappeared along West Fourth. I recalled hearing the expression "singing wires" and wondered if it referred to electric trolley buses on the move.

Upon arriving at home I checked to see if any mail was waiting for me. Nothing. I walked up to the end of the block to the corner store to buy a newspaper. After returning I still did not feel like cooking anything. I placed a few slices of cheese and salami on a couple of slices of rye bread and placed them under the oven broiler to melt the cheese. While waiting for my dinner to heat I sat on the couch and began reading through the newspaper. An article about CP Rail's latest failed attempt to discontinue passenger train services in eastern Canada caught my attention. In a matter of minutes I could smell something burning and it wasn't pipe tobacco. The food in the oven had been forgotten and supper was converted to coking coal or so it appeared.

Giving up on any further attempts at cooking I headed downtown and visited a few of my favourite stores on West Hastings and Granville Streets. My first stop was a music store that had an ample selection of pocket music scores. After spending nearly an hour looking through numerous possible choices to add to my growing music library, I finally selected Schubert's Symphony Number 8, better known as the "Unfinished" symphony. Having spent numerous hours listening to recordings of Schubert's symphony I remained undecided about whether or not the work really was left unfinished or if Schubert had intentionally written only two large movements. Also chosen was the score to Beethoven's Piano Concerto Number 4. Beethoven's first three piano concerti were definitely influenced by Mozart and sounded like Mozart, however, the fourth piano concerto written several years later was uniquely Beethoven without the Mozart influence. 

Also available were copies the scores for most of the late Beethoven string quartets and I finally selected a German publisher's version of the A minor quartet. I recalled having read what I thought were interesting details about the finale of the A minor string quartet during my music studies research. Beethoven had toyed with the possibility of using the music in the quartet's last movement for thematic material in a planned tenth symphony. He had even made some musical sketches but Beethoven died shortly after completing his last string quartets and any plans he had for a tenth symphony died also. Anyway, I had big plans and designs for writing out an orchestrated version for the last movement of the A minor quartet but after a few feeble attempts soon realized how little I knew about orchestral arranging. And what did I really know about how Beethoven would have done it? Well If Schubert could have an unfinished symphony then my claim to fame would be my unstarted symphony.

At my second to last stop I picked up a copy of the latest edition of a railway magazine and then wandered over to a restaurant with an Italian sounding name. Having decided upon pizza and beer for dinner I wanted to spend an hour or so reading the latest news about my other favourite interest. Much to my surprise the waitress was Chinese, but unlike the Chinese lady I saw on the bus earlier, she did not in any way at all remind me about Karen McLennan. The waitress spoke very little English and kept repeating back to me what I ordered to make certain she had it right. I had to ask her to repeat what she repeated because I had difficulty understanding what she was saying in her limited and very accented English. After she disappeared into the kitchen, I wondered, "Why isn't she working in a Chinese restaurant?"

Deciding to walk home instead of travel on the bus I proceeded westward along Robson Street toward Burrard. Vancouver was a “friendly city” because the streets were safe to walk at night. Not surprising considering the streets were virtually deserted. The downtown buildings looked so silent so desolate but in some manner they did not look all that different from the way I felt. On my way I met Curtis Beale, a colleague from work, and we paused to talk. After a few moments of discussion he asked me to join him for a drink. He was heading over to his favourite bar. I was undecided but after some prompting from Curtis I agreed to go along. Only silence awaited me at home anyway. 

Jack of Spades was the name of the bar. "What are they shovelling in this dig?" I asked, but if Curtis heard my question he ignored it.

Curtis was well known in the bar and all the employees greeted him by name. Intentionally rhetorical I asked him if he was the king of the club but I don't think he caught my drift. He did not have to tell anyone what he wanted. Over the noise and thumping disco music Curtis shouted, "My friend will have the same." assuming I would have the same.

"Okay. I'll settle for dealer's choice or jokers wild" I remarked as an aside thinking it would go unnoticed as well.

"What are you talking about?" Curtis asked. He had heard my comment.

"Cards." I replied.

"Cards? He queried in a manner sounding as if he had not understood a word I said.

"Isn't this place the Jack of Spades?"

"Bridge. That's it! You've walked over that bridge once too often." Curtis countered.

We talked at length about everything from work to politics while we had a few drinks. I had a few and he had quite a few. Curtis was in his mid-thirties, unmarried and did not have anyone special in his life. His father had worked for the railway and had been transferred to Vancouver from Manitoba quite a number of years ago. The family had dutifully followed. Curtis now lived on his own in downtown Vancouver just a few blocks from the office. During the course of our bull session I had mentioned that I was from Montreal. Curtis told me that his last girlfriend was French and, while he did not directly say so, his reminisces about her left me with no doubt that he never got over her after their relationship had ended some ten or more years earlier.

The bar scene was definitely not my style and I really did not want to stay and drink late into the night. Had I wanted to I certainly could not have afforded to. After saying good night to Curtis I resumed my sojourn homeward via the Burrard Bridge. Pausing on the center span for a few moments to watch a large yacht proceeding inward from English Bay to False Creek I could hear music and a woman's laughter coming from inside the luxury vessel as it passed beneath the bridge.

"It must be nice to be able to afford such luxuries." I thought slightly enviously, but wealth I could live without and I had a lifetime of experience to prove it. 

All I truly wanted was to find the right person to share the rest of my life with. 

Instead of returning directly to my closet-sized suite as first planned, I detoured over to Kitsilano Beach for a late evening walk. I stood on the bluffs overlooking the edge of the water and leaned against the white wooden fence resting my hands on the top rail. Reflecting upon my trip home on the bus after work I thought about Karen McLennan and wondered again about what the outcome might have been if I had asked her to go to that Beethoven concert last year. 

As I stared at the shoreline I wondered if I should write to Karen once more but decided not to. Nobody under thirty bothers to write letters any more. Letter writing is too much work and takes too long. It is easier to use a telephone but I was uncomfortable using a telephone. I did not have her telephone number anyway. Karen was most likely too busy with exams I rationalized. She knew my address but she probably had other interests and no interest in me.

"Good-bye Karen." I said aloud. "We never really did say good-bye, did we? Well, if you ever go back to Quebec after Queen's then I guess a French horn should be okay there. Anyway, keep on blowing that horn of yours."

While walking home from the beach my thoughts shifted to the approaching holiday weekend. Working at Canadian Pacific had its advantages. At work I learned that I was entitled to certain pass privileges on CP Rail's few surviving passenger trains and, as an added feature, entitled also to significant discounts at the CP Hotels. A perfect incentive for a very inexpensive trip somewhere, especially considering that I had a passion for train travel. Easter was approaching and the holiday weekend would be an ideal time for a getaway from the drudgery and perhaps an opportunity to place the burdens of life into a better perspective. I thought about Calgary, but escaping from one city to go to another was not what I wanted. I chose to visit Banff.

After turning on the radio I sat down at my desk, leaned back in the chair and stared at the backs of the music books that were lined up against the wall at the back of the desk. Remembering Karen, I did not feel much like reading about music and all the books were music books. A few moments later, I reached over and pulled one of the pipes out of the tin on top of the books. I fiddled with the pipe and then stuffed it with tobacco. After I was satisfied the pipe was spouting sufficient clouds of pollution I picked up the CP Rail timetable and studiously read through the passenger train schedules. 

Over the last few years CP Rail's system timetable had become pitifully thin as train services were terminated and station names eliminated from the index. Reading train schedules was relaxing and the schedule for "The Atlantic Limited" evoked snippets of pleasant memories about journeys made on that train several years earlier. I concluded with a browse through the schedule for "The Canadian" and then placed the timetable beside the pipe tin on top of the books. While most people regarded reading railway timetables as a waste of time I looked on timetable reading as a lesson in Canadian geography. I could recite with accuracy where dozens of little unknown towns and places in Canada were located, however, because they were virtually unknown no one ever needed to know where any of them were.

I turned off the radio and pulled out the music score to Beethoven's fourth piano concerto. I picked up a pen, put on the earphones, turned up the volume a little higher than usual and played a recording of the same Beethoven opus. I followed along with the musical score and with my pen conducted the Imaginary Symphony Orchestra through a flawless performance of the concerto’s first movement. 

My performances were always flawless when conducted this way because these performances were similar to watching a movie for the third or fourth time and knowing how the ending would turn out. I sometimes wondered how famous conductors could continuously wave their arms through entire performances of lengthy works. Arm waving was rather tiring. Perhaps this cardio-vascular exercise was the reason orchestra conductors tended to live a long time. Anyway, the first movement was exercise enough and I was content just to listen to the second and third movements of the concerto as an audience of one while waiting for sleep to bring the end to another day.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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