My affair with Ivy Hall, the physical affair, started on a shaky note. I had set out to meet her for the first time, after hundreds of emailed correspondence. It was half-past eleven in the morning, and I was sitting inside a moving train, looking outside the window, not sure where or when to stop. I had listened fervently to my friend’s explanations, part of which was: ‘stop at the third stop after Lion’s station, you won’t miss it’. But in my journeying I forgot to pay attention, lost in the memory of the naïve, starry-eyed freshman, who made a similar journey many years ago; taking a long route on the merry-go-round bus, just because the shorter route was too complicated. Looking out of the window, I saw him clearly as if it was yesterday. I remembered the wonder in his eyes as he took in the new environment, and his dreams of success. Thus transported into the past, I forgot my charge. I forgot to be on the lookout for the third stop after Lion’s station.
Where was the so-called Lion’s station? The woman next to me was scrolling through her phone, ears stuffed with music plugs. Two men sat opposite me; one of them buried his face in a metro paper, the other stared vacantly at the ceiling. One can appreciate the need to seek for directions in a strange place. Only a misplaced sense of pride kept me from doing so. Instead I peered out of the window, looking stubbornly at the passing road signs –Shaganappi, Bow valley, Dalhousie – foolishly re-enforcing my vows of self-sufficiency. Soon the clickity-clacky of the rail wheels pulled to a stop. People disembarked, people came in, yet the train refused to move. It sat there in stagnation, taunting me. I knew immediately that I was lost.
Footsteps of a stranger
As it was, my fears were true. We had reached Crowfoot – the terminus – the end of the road. Echoes of Carl Sandburg’s sobering poem, The Road and the End, came to mind:
…The dust of the travelled road
Shall touch my hands and face.
I stepped out, drenched in shame and confusion. Indeed a stranger’s journey is often a tragedy of missteps, yet he must refuse to take it tragically: all the going and dithering and bungling and wastage. He is never immune. Knowing makes foolishness out of his steps. Darkness and doubt are never far away.
But here there was light; the sky was ruddy and bright. Pallid old England, with its dark omnipresent clouds, hanging over everything, seemed, thankfully, far away. I was on the cusp of a new affair, the beginning of great things. I must not tarry. Ivy Hall was waiting for me. So I shrugged off the dust of the travelled road, got back in the train and set off again to find her.
And I did find her, standing behind the train station, half-shrouded by a barbed fence and creeping greenery. From the crossing one could see the outbuildings, sticking up out of the mid-morning fog. The station had that tepid, half-baked, untamed quality that at once struck a familiar note: the sturdy steps as you climbed the archway, the heavy, broken glass doors that bore an apologetic sign – ‘sorry, repairs coming soon’, and then the high crossing, high across the road, high over the cars passing below. What coincidence was this? Perhaps it was the laterite bricks and the peeling posters. It all seemed vaguely familiar, as though I was walking across a Lagos foot bridge–all the world below warm and care-free.
But I hesitated: why was I going to see Ivy Hall in the first place, when it was Monday, a public holiday? Apart from a few stragglers dragging their suitcases along the path, the place seemed hollow and quiet. I couldn’t answer the question. So I set off, tentatively, down the pavement track, to nowhere in particular.
Nevertheless the journey inwards brought some disquiet; it seemed that everything here came with an atmosphere of freshness. It was strange. Gone were the tightness and economy of the English space. Too much space in this new world, I felt swallowed by it. One always feels that way when coming into a new city, where the land has been broken under the ruthless advance of new, artificial structures. It fosters a strange feeling, like everything else you see: fresh, superficial and aloof.
With a start I realised I had left my walking stick leaning against the age-ironed walls of England; and it stopped my adventure right there on the tracks. No, this would not do. Not today. I may have shaved my geriatric beard, but I had brought the sentiments along with me. So I turned on my heels, back to the station, and headed home. I will try again on Tuesday, when there will be people about, I said lamely to myself.
Old things shall pass away
The next morning, disembarking from the train, I went out again to meet Ivy Hall. Yesterday I had glimpsed the huge cubical buildings. Today the arena was bristling with a horde of nervous-looking students. You could sense the day was made of a younger fever; the air was thick with confusion. A few people were handing out maps at strategic corners. I grabbed one of the maps, held unto it like a life-line, and hastened down the path that led to the EEEL.
While in class I tried to listen to the professor’s jargon. Again, there was a mysterious sense of déjà vu about it. It was then that it hit me: I have been here before. Whatever happened to the eighteen year old freshman, sitting at the back of a crowded biology 101 class? He had grown up; and now starting again in a third and, possibly, final continent. The settings had changed; but the dust and confusion of the old debut, a dozen moons past, hovered in the air. I remembered the chaos of the opening day: the desperate pushing and shoving at the school registry, under the harsh glare of the sun; and the daily desert crossings from the natural science faculty to the engineering building; and the occasional gun-shot that reminded one that it was, after all, a war of survival.
In England there had been calm–a steady quietude that preyed on one’s nerves. Maybe it was the old cathedrals and the Victorian buildings, whose great weight of history demanded sobriety–folks queuing cautiously like soldiers, held in line by the bygone beauty of the hallowed halls. I had often wondered about the sense of order; and it seemed here, here in this new world, there was the same fatal attention to orderliness.
I sighed, adjusted my glasses, and tried to focus on jargon talk. We were finally in the season of banality.
It was one thing to snuggle against Ivy Hall; it was another thing to know her, to explore her wide-flung parts with zest, probing in motion, sweeter far than rest, her secret thickets with an amorous hand. This challenge was indeed the cause of much distress on my part, and, perhaps, amusement for the people watching me. Two hours into the doctorat I had to attend a teaching meeting in the PFB. The map proved to be inadequate; I couldn’t make any sense of the coloured codes and signs. Putting the old pride behind, I asked an art student for directions. His spectacular air sketches took me through a series of twists and turns, over the science theatre hallways, round the biological sciences corridors, and when I came out in the open, I found myself back to where I started from: In the centre of 1987, lost in September, where the Jacaranda trees meet, overshadowing the street road, shedding their purples leaves on the ground, the little boy trying to find his way home. I had acquired the virtue of time, yet, I must not lose my child’s heart.
So I made it a child’s game: to steady the courtier’s fumbling hands: to ask many questions – sometimes foolish questions. How can I find my way to the PFB? How far is it from here? Can you show me the way?
I did find my way. And I also found someone else: standing over the hallway, littered with camping bags, I saw him for the first time, talking with another conferenciante. The well-worn, stubby pipe was missing, but it was Einstein alright; what with that trademark moustache and the white tussled mane. How could I not recognize him?
I embraced him, muttering my thanks; I told him I lost my way.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘People get lost here all the time.’
He led the way through a door in the hall, into a board room, just in time for my first teaching meeting.
Et tu Bonaparte
Tu peux compter sur cette anecdote telle que je te la rapporte;
et tu vois que Bonaparte est le même en tout.
The valley road opened ahead of us in the sharp late afternoon Albertan sunshine. Stark, grey mountains rose on either side of road, sloping down from the clear sky to shield us, their lower bases clad by a luxuriant mass of poplar trees. There was the dusty breath of the Chinook winds and the distant hum of war drums.
There was also Bonaparte, cut in an equestrian portrait, riding his four-horse carriage, down the track that led to Chatillon. He was speechifying, trying to clarify his war plans to me: ‘… this evening I will ride through the woods on my bike, to clear my head; tomorrow I’ll climb the mountains on the Gondola to get a clear view of the enemy territory, and to take panoramic shots of the landscape. We need to see the big picture. I will write the two papers and dispatch them to our command posts before the end of the retreat…’ he declared.
There was no rancour in his avowals, only die-hard optimism: ‘My allies in Hong Kong and Montreal are sending reinforcements,’ he said. I had a notion of fallibility as I listened to him. I was not in any way prepared for this war.
Bonaparte had a five day holiday in which he planned to turn the tide of the war – the war of words. He was going to make a big muscular talk in front of the ‘retreating jury’. I thought it politic to drive up to the retreat talking about people and places. Bonaparte was a dashing travelling man. Perhaps he used war as an excuse to go to places. I imagined him in Hawaii, wearing a well-cut tropical shirt – just enough to hide his bay window – a small military moustache on his face; he looked more French than Canadian to me. So I asked him about the people we were going to meet. He handed me a half-torn list with some of their names: Mother Superior, Mrs Khatami, Lady Osasuna, Angel Merkel, Monsieur Fife de Bagpipes, Baroness Megmonti, Chairman Mao, Don King, Sir Einstein, John Paul XX, and Lady MacAÕchallies. It seemed like a formidable list. But the Corsican general was engagée. He flexed his arms as I read out their names. He had a reputation to protect, and Machismo was everything. He had to do it. Impatiently he yanked on the carriage strings; earnestly we scrambled down to the battle grounds.
Reunion with Mother Superior
The Banff centre dining room is like a three star hotel lounge, several tables with flowers, bright lights and people sitting about chatting; cheap bright grandeur which swindled the unseasoned eye. And most importantly there was the sweet smell of food. One cannot fight a battle with an empty stomach. Bonaparte, on returning from his reconnoitre trip, was having a heated conversation, in French, with John Paul the Tenth. Perhaps they were going over the issue of combat strategy, sharpening and positioning their darts.
Soon the waiters began to spread the white table-cloths and set the plates and spoons on the table-cloths. Dinner would begin at half-past six. One by one the ‘retreating jury’ arrived and took their places around the long dining table. I kept my peace, aware that judgement would begin once I start talking.
Mother Superior was the last to arrive. She made a shuffling entrance into the dining lounge, decked in in a black safari coat and a black clerical hat. She carved a formidable presence by any account. And it provoked an old fear – funny how one never outgrows the fears of childhood. The bullies remain bullies, the bullied remained bullied. Surely it was Mother Superior – the secondary school principal, swinging a familiar truncheon and cracking a furious whip.
‘Whodunit?’ she said automatically, sniffing the air suspiciously, more like a veteran mother chiding her subalterns. Someone had fouled the air with cologne, and Mother superior was going to find out.
Surely it was Mother Superior. Like the good mother she didn’t start eating until we, her children, were all tucked in. I had an inkling of what to expect when she spoke to me. Of course, she must have expectations. We were in a war after all. I must explain my mission. I must show my war logs. The good old Mother Superior had a generous heart; she gave freely, but she also expects results. And just like in the old days, I sat patiently, and waited for her inquisition.
When she did speak, it was a pious rendition in the old language: nanos gigantium humeris insidentes – ‘you must learn to stand on the shoulders of giants; it’s a mental struggle you must overcome.’ Listening to her, I actually felt my mind struggling against hers – it was painless.
The Three Sisters
Dinner was over, and the ‘retreating jury’ were drinking tea and making lively talk. Einstein offered to go for a supervisory walk with me. Together we went out to find Nature in her resting places. Dusk was fast approaching. We walked up and down the garden path, not knowing where we were headed. Is this going to be the nature of my research? I wondered. But we were making steady progress. Later, we stopped at a high embankment and appraised the Three Sisters, standing majestically in the fading light.
When one is surrounded by mountains, it’s hard not to be intimidated. And the hills on this side of the world are of a peculiar kind. They stand so tall; you can’t help but feel weak, small and insignificant. Perhaps life is usually defined by moments like this: standing by the mountains and gauging how far you could climb. All my life I had been taught to confab, to use my natural ability, to trace direct paths from cause to effect, to look at things in small and understandable pieces, to solve problems by controlling them. Where was I going to start here? Surely, I had come a long way since my undergraduate years, from being glared at and chased out of offices for not knocking; even though my knuckles were sore from knocking…
Einstein broke into my thoughts, ‘You say you are geologist, eh?
He patted my back and said, ‘They will like you here in Canada.’
A tale of two maps
At night I dreamed I was sitting around a long rosewood table with the retreating jury. There was a big map on the wall with a question mark in the middle. It turned and changed several times. Sometimes it was like art, sometimes it was like science.
This question on the map was indeed a complicated one. Mother Superior stared long and hard at it, scratched her head, but still could not figure it out. One by one the good jury people tried to answer the question. Three nights passed yet no one was any closer to the answer.
Meanwhile, ten years down the clock, in another part of the world, Cornelius is sweating and preparing to present his seminar in the hot, airless hall. Clutching his notes, and standing with his hands behind his back, his face is a picture of grief, as if he was being led to the stakes.
Cornelius is, of course, a stutterer. He eats his words. More rabidly so when he is under pressure. I could think of no greater agitation than this geology hall, packed full of horses and hyenas, waiting to neigh and laugh at the hapless boy.
And then it starts to happen. Cornelius is shaking his head, gaggling and trying to force his mouth to speak. But the words simply would not come out. I listen intently, suffering silently with him. He points at the map of oil sands formation, at the Canadian city of Calgary. Still the words would not come out. At last he grabs a chalk and starts to scratch furiously on the blackboard. The board is making squealing noises; it is almost painful to hear.