Chapter 1: Delicious Monster
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
The sweet smell of incense began to clear even before the last Dominus vobiscum. What remained was a halo suspended in a luminescent haze around the glittering monstrance.
“Et cum spiritu tuo,” echoed a murmur of the still sleepy voices.
Then the final dismissal: “Ite, Missa est.” The mass was over.
“Deo gratias,” Marvin affirmed automatically.
The old priest, the tall boy carrying the censer and two serving boys in short surplices left the altar. As the fragrant mists slowly dissolved, Marvin’s eyes focused on a little red light guarding the sanctum sanctorum. Ite, missa est... Once again it was time to go. The lad who had been carrying the censer came back to put out the candles—six perfectly steady flames in the perfectly still air of the chapel. Then—only the tiny red light remained.
The young lady held an open file with documents. Two letters and a memo.
“Yes, I’m coming, sister,” Marvin murmured. He wanted to dally a little longer, drifting on the last vestiges of incense soon to be supplanted by the musty smell of the eternally damp stone.
Marvin Clark blinked repeatedly. Then, before turning toward his secretary, his eyes focused on the red dot of the smoke detector protruding from the suspended ceiling. The musty smell, the incense, the candles were gone, hidden behind thirty years, which separated Marvin from the orphanage of the good Soeurs Grises. Gray Sisters in a gray convent, passing time by sauntering the long gray corridors of their monotonous lives.
Marvin took the documents, glanced over them, signed the top copy of each and returned the folder to his secretary.
“Is that all, Miss Gascon?” He was now fully in the present.
“Yes, thank you, Sir,” she said as she left Marvin Clark’s office with a proficient deference. It was her very first job. She wanted to make a good impression.
It was the third time this month that Marvin’s thoughts had taken him back to the orphanage of Sainte Geneviève. He wondered why. He was sure he had put behind any morbid recollections of his youth long ago. Morbid? Perhaps just empty. There was so little to remember.
Except for the loneliness.
Marvin remembered very little, but he had the letters. The sad letters his father had written to his mother when looking for work. All over England. His mother had saved them. The letters were Marvin’s only tangible link with the past. What he hadn’t read, he imagined.
Marvin’s parents had emigrated to Canada from a small town in the north of England. They had had little choice. The local munitions factory—the only local employer—had become obsolete, another casualty of the ravaged Empire. England found it difficult to adjust to the post-war economy. “Move a mile, move a thousand miles...” his father had written. Marvin imagined a mixture of anger and sadness on his father’s resigned face. “A thousand miles?” Marvin knew his mother would rather be poor in England than rich across the ocean. “No good would come of it,” she knew. His mother had known. Women know such things. She was getting on in years. It was time to start a family, or they would be spending their old age alone. England did not seem to offer any future to her intended offspring—but a thousand miles...? The war had left them with little to pack.
Marvin was born on the first anniversary of his parents’ arrival in Canada. Two weeks short of the sixth anniversary, his parents were killed in a traffic accident. Murdered, really. A youth with more beer than he could handle ran them down, ignoring the red light. Marvin celebrated his fifth birthday at the orphanage of Sainte Geneviève run by the Soeurs Grises. They gave him all the love they had to offer. Love without affection. Cool, competent, perfunctory love. Sterile. The nuns—Soeurs, as they preferred to be called—had never been taught how to communicate warmth.
Marvin’s recollection of his early days in the orphanage was very vague. Tattered. No more than snapshots. At the time, he did not speak a word of French. What little sentiment the Sisters attempted to exude from beneath their pale-gray habits must have gotten lost somewhere in the translation. Ultimately it was thanks to the belles soeurs that Marvin grew up perfectly bilingual. It proved useful, expedient, living in Quebec.
It was then, in those early days, that Marvin learned to escape the perpetual gray reality of monastic life into his private imaginary worlds of light and colour. Later, years later, he found he could invoke old memories by lighting a solitary candle. Upstairs, in his attic, while staring into the flickering light, he would drift into the reclusive world of his childhood. He would feel himself kneeling, his aching knees pressing against the worn step of the hard oak pew in the austere gray chapel. He would sense, then see, the distant inaccessible shimmer of the perpetual light at the altar. Sometimes a single lingering whiff of incense would tickle his nose. Then, even as years earlier, his nostrils would flare out hungry for the shimmering warmth of the candlelight, for the forgotten fragrance, there, up front, beyond his reach. With practice, from beneath half-closed eyelids, little Marvin could see himself at the altar’s very steps, red-carpeted, soft against the hard marble... He would feel himself embraced by the reassuring flames of the six majestic candles. There, up front, and only there, he felt comforted, secure.
Marvin remembered feeling left out. Excluded from the faint heartbeat of the convent. He had never been allowed to serve at the altar, to assist in the Bloodless Sacrifice of the mass. Not that he had understood its meaning. How could he have? The mass had been celebrated in Latin. Only later in French. By the time he had learned the latter, he had been considered too old to serve. Marvin had learned early to rely on his own inner worlds for warmth, for light and colour. For escape.
Two years after he was interned at the convent, at the age of seven, he started having music lessons on the organ. All boys had been “tested” for signs of talent or ability. Marvin had been among the five deemed worthy of Soeur Angelica’s efforts. It had meant spending more time in the chapel—the birthplace of his inner dream-world. He practiced playing the organ with a passion.
So many years ago...
On one occasion, soon after he had rented the attic apartment at Mrs. Prentis’s Pension, Marvin felt the need of solace. As usual he looked for a candle to focus his attention on its flame. For some reason he felt distracted. He switched on the radio. Young falsetto voices drifted unobtrusively, then filled and saturated his ears. The Vienna Boys’ Choir. The music sounded so familiar. Then Marvin remembered. The voices echoed the small boys’ choir at the orphanage. The music transported him instantly to the distant brightness of the altar. From that moment on, Marvin learned to escape unwanted reality with the aid of music. In time, over successive years, the flickering candles had been replaced by the sun straining through the stained-glass windows of the east-facing chancel, by the morning rays flirting with the trembling leaves of a single aspen, by a sea of marsh-marigolds smiling in an undulating meadow... by the shimmering light caught in the ripple of a forgotten lake. Marvin’s imaginary kingdom grew in richness and complexity.
He was in his teens before he realized that not all people traveled to their inner realms; that not all had found their own warm, serene domains within the prolific beauty of the rolling fields, lakes and forests; that not all could see the stars reflected in the balmy ocean of their yearning souls. Marvin felt sorry for those people. Sorry for their loneliness, for the emptiness of their lives.
At fifteen Marvin was sent to the Conservatoire de Musique in Montreal. The nuns had predicted a bright future for their protégé. He studied the piano, history of music and composition. He liked all music; he loved the piano. Successive years brought him two third and one second prize at the annual competitions. Marvin had learned fast. Until the accident. He lost the tips of his third and index fingers in a stupid mishap. He had tried to help Sister Angelica slam shut a door of an old decrepit jalopy. The hinges were rusted. Marvin had tried too hard.
His musical career was over before it began. Marvin accepted the judgment of fate with equanimity. He had learned early to expect very little of life.
The next few years he remained with the Sisters. He was their mechanic, gardener, verger, their timid contact with the outside world. At twenty-four he felt the need to venture outside the gray walls. The nuns gave him a tearful farewell party. They all seemed like his sisters, perhaps vicarious, unrequited mothers. The Mère Supérieure also offered him excellent references. A week after Marvin left the gray walls, he began his career as a junior clerk at the Hôtel de Ville. The Town Hall was the pride of St-Onge, a fairly large municipality bordering on Montreal.
“To see him is to know him...” once quipped knowingly the slouching stereotypes at the Department of Parks and Recreation. Later, when Marvin Clark inherited from his retiring predecessor his very own cubicle with a window, the same colleagues snickered behind his back: “Once you meet Mr. Clark, you’ll know what to expect!” Their conspiratorial smile carried a warning not to expect a great deal.
Marvin Clark’s promotion had been yet another classic case of a misjudgment perpetrated by his superiors. Marvin had impressed them as the only clerk in the department who never seemed to grow tired of shifting the voluminous sheets of paper from the IN to the OUT basket adorning his desk. The methodical indifference with which he performed his work was misconstrued as an air of quiet confidence and devotion to duty.
“You can always rely on good old Clark...” was the consensus directly responsible for Marvin’s promotion over his peers.
Marvin Clark was a man of just over average height. A light stoop, however, brought him right back to the departmental mean. His dark, deep-set, invariably distant eyes never quite met his interlocutor’s. His gaze seemed to travel just over the shoulder, or else waver at the tip of the nose of the man he was addressing. If eyes can be said to be the windows of the soul, then Marvin’s eyes opened inward, and inward they looked. This, in turn, was misinterpreted as a sign of shyness. At 47, Marvin had been a public servant for a little over twenty-three years. In another seven years he would qualify for a full pension.
Marvin was as scrupulous about his appearance as he was fastidious about his work. The last thing he did before leaving his attic apartment, in the morning, and the first on his arrival at work, was to visit the washroom to check his appearance. He considered his demeanor a form of armour. Behind it he felt free to be himself. From childhood Marvin had been, perforce, an inveterate loner. The perfunctory mask of studied indifference brought him the desired results. No one ever invited Marvin for a drink after work, nor had anyone invaded his private life by undue familiarity. His studied air of quiet detachment, wrapped in a middle-of-the-way gray, immaculately pressed suit, created an invisible screen between himself and the surrounding world. Of the dozens of people he met weekly in the course of discharging his duties, not one could, within five minutes of leaving Marvin’s office, offer a description of his appearance. Marvin cultivated his obsequious anonymity without a conscious effort.
For the last seventeen years, Marvin Clark had been renting a room at Mrs. Prentis’s Pension. The solid Victorian house, almost a mansion, fostered an air of the good old days. The elaborate twists and curves of the red brick façade, together with the decorative sandstone trim, had withstood the ravages of time and industrial pollution with quiet dignity.
Mrs. Prentis rented five rooms—four on the second floor plus Marvin’s attic. The sheer size and volume of the rooms offered by the high ceilings, the extra-large bay windows and the splendid ornate woodwork almost qualified them to be called apartments. All rooms had kitchenettes discreetly concealed behind full height curtains as well as individual bathrooms with florid Victorian showers. One additional bathroom with an enormous bathtub, designated for common use, seemed more reminiscent of Roman Baths than of its Victorian heritage.
All five lodgers were men. At precisely seven o’clock, each evening, they all met for dinner, which Mrs. Prentis provided with a reasonably tasty, if repetitive, menu. On special occasions, such as Christmas, or one of the “boys’” birthdays, Mrs. Prentis would say a few words and present her “boys” with a glass of South African sherry.
The most prominent among the five lodgers was a retired artillery officer, Colonel James Mackenzie Whittlaw. His perfectly erect stature crowned with a generous, snow-white mane, which he permitted, contrary to army regulations, to flow down to his shoulders, gave him an appearance, if not quite the air, of an early-American Civil War general. His heavily lined forehead sloping backwards from profuse bushy eyebrows seemed well balanced by a strong, jutting chin. This aggressive effect was accentuated by an unwavering steady gaze, defying anyone to question the veracity of the many stories, which the Colonel seemed bent on imparting to any willing or unwilling audience. By such rhetoric the Colonel assured the preservation of facts which, in his mind, were worthy of becoming part of history. And stories there were many. Anecdotal reminiscences, invariably recounted in the present tense, suggested that the Colonel must have left the army just after the Boer war. Since the retired artilleryman occupied the room directly below that of Marvin Clark’s powerful stereo, the Colonel’s exploits were of pertinent consequence, as they—the exploits, not the stereo—had left him practically stone-deaf.
The other three gentlemen at the dinner table shared rather a lesser rank of eccentricity. Not one of them displayed any immediately distinguishing features. Mr. Jones, Mr. Graves and Mr. Johnson blended well indeed into the post-Victorian surroundings. They seemed to be as much a part of the faded pastel wallpaper as of the musty, dark-with-age woodwork. All three men were widowers, manifestly sixty-something. By some fickle quirk of fate, all three had converged on Mrs. Prentis’s mansion to quietly spend the remaining days of their lives. While the three neither contributed to nor detracted from the evening gatherings, they seemed necessary to fill the empty places at the generous dinner table, more than large enough for Mrs. Prentis and her five guests.
Marvin liked the quiet atmosphere of the house. Other than the cursory exchanges about the state of the weather, he was left to his own thoughts, while the Colonel expounded his never-ending monologues about the conduct of officers and gentlemen on the field of glory.
Upstairs in his attic apartment, Marvin was given free rein to do as he wished. The whole of the attic floor had been converted into a very large L-shaped room. Marvin was the only lodger who enjoyed a separate, enclosed kitchenette, leaving the wall space of the main living area for other uses. Over the years, these walls became progressively lined with floor-to-ceiling shelving, tightly packed with books. Later, right-angled projections with additional shelving gave the room an appearance of a selective, but well-appointed, small-town library. The only wall free of books was the Southwest side, where the mansard roof had been converted into a shallow but wide bay window. Though it gave way onto a pleasant urban townscape, Marvin seldom took advantage of the view. In the safety of his private haven, he preferred to turn his vision inward.
Directly in front of the bay window, two sturdy wooden crates were placed symmetrically on each side and in front of a deeply padded executive armchair. The crates served a dual purpose. Each housed three powerful stereophonic speakers; each also served as support for the only living entities sharing Marvin’s private life. Built into the upper portions of the crates were two enormous clay pots, from which sprang countless twisted and convoluted lianas ceaselessly carrying life-giving nectar to the ever-demanding, voluptuously extravagant foliage. The two plants belonged to a family of philodendrons. This particular species was named monstera deliciosa.
Marvin was fascinated by the complexity of the interweaving branches which never seemed tired of reaching out still farther and giving birth to a yet greater number of heavily serrated leaves. When the liana simultaneously reached the nine-foot ceiling, Marvin began to refer to them as his Monsters. Later, so as not to offend their floral sensibilities, he added the equivalent of the Latin pronoun: Delicious. From that day on, the Delicious Monsters and Marvin entered into a secret tacit relationship. The Monsters—and only the Monsters—knew of Marvin’s dreams, aspirations, of his gentle ups and his lonely downs, and most of all, of his inner, private journeys. The green delicious friends were ever available, serenely reliable, superbly quiet yet always vigilant to his needs. In this blissful state of symbiosis, the three of them shared Marvin’s only remaining passion: a very selective disk, record and tape collection.
Marvin’s tastes ranged from early baroque Concerti Grossi, through Bach and Mozart to the somber if esoteric mysteries of Beethoven. Some composers he seemed to dismiss solely because their work brought back painful memories of his final days at the Conservatoire de Musique. He shied away from others because they did not nourish his need for inner peace. Still others, such as Tchaikovsky, he found overly aggressive and volatile. Schubert, excessively melodramatic. In later years, Marvin grew to like Mendelssohn; and finally, though only recently, he fell deeply in love with the music of Sibelius.
Marvin listened to his beloved disks in an oversized swivel armchair. From its position in the centre of the room, between the two speakers, he savored the quiet proximity of his monsterae deliciosae, his Delicious Monsters, while his eyes drifted toward some dallying cloud framed by the bay window. On his left were all the paraphernalia comprising his old-fashioned stereo system, which he’d assembled himself from the very best components available on the market. On his right was a two-shelved table where his current favourite books found a temporary abode. A lamp suspended from a long, sweeping, stainless-steel arch completed his command centre.
A relatively Spartan bed hid well within an alcove at the far end of the attic. The bathroom was next to the tiny kitchen, opposite the sleeping area. It was all Marvin needed. His need for opulence did not belong to the physical world.
It was here, in this private, jealously guarded haven that Marvin spent all his free moments. Reading and rereading his favourite books while listening to music were only part of his pleasure. More particularly, the deep leather armchair served as the command module of a private spaceship, in which he not only journeyed on terrestrial exploits but defied the enormousness of space. Fired by an unbridled imagination, fuelled by hunger for adventure, Marvin ventured toward distant planets, remote galaxies, unknown universes. In his singular spaceship, Marvin traversed time, drawing a tentative isthmus between forgotten history and the mysterious future.
And the universes were endless. A single sentence from one of his books could provide the necessary impetus to launch him headlong toward a distant galaxy. Sometimes, the following day, on his return from the office, he would continue his exuberant conquests, as though no interruption had taken place.
In time, Marvin’s inner world inevitably assumed the place of objective reality. His everyday activities, his work at the Parks Department, had been relegated to the level of automatic functions, no more demanding of his inner resources than eating, breathing, or maintaining his cardiovascular system in good order. Marvin did not leave the physical world; he merely placed it in the proper perspective. The mundane became the automatic. The subconscious, the subjective, the realm of his total awareness, were liberated to function without restrictions imposed by the limitations of time and space. Marvin felt free. Had for years. Until now.
The problem became apparent about six months after Marvin first noticed that the monsterae deliciosae had also embarked on a space conquest of their own. Starting their individual journeys atop the two loudspeakers, the Monsters ventured upwards, spanned across the ceiling, and joined forces by reaching with their aerial roots into each other’s pots. This marriage of convenience, or perhaps some form of esoteric vegetal love, seemed to have mobilized both plants into a frenzy of growth. The liana already supported by an intricate latticework of bamboo sticks also spanned along the ceiling, hanging from equally spaced hooks which Marvin had anchored to the two wooden rafters traversing his room. The plants reached out sideways and downward, as if searching for new grounds to conquer, new territories to cover with their insatiable craving for space, light and air.
When the expanding Monsters reached the bookshelves, Marvin had to make a decision. He was well aware that he would never reread many of the books he had acquired over the years. His taste in literature had ripened, become more selective. He valued the book-lined walls more for the atmosphere they created than for their usefulness in housing the objects of his avid reading habits. Yet, he loved his books. By looking at the walls, he could trace his own growth, his initial attempts at allowing his consciousness to free itself from his command module. He knew that he would never need to rely on those books to provide the necessary stimulus for his travels, as in the past; yet his heart needed its own roots, even as did his Delicious Monsters. He did not have the heart to reduce the amount of fertilizer which he administered weekly to each pot. Neither could he withhold the water ration in an attempt to stunt the voluptuous growth. Yet, something had to give.
The next day, during his lunch break, Marvin visited the local hardware store. After due deliberation, he purchased a pair of plant clippers. He could not get rid of a feeling of considerable guilt as he wrapped the implement in a brown paper bag and hid it in his raincoat pocket. He returned to the office, having skipped lunch altogether. He was just not hungry. For the first time in many years, Marvin had vague problems with his routine work. It was as if, also for the first time in years, he had become aware of what he was doing. He became aware of the physical reality of his existence.
On his return from the office, Marvin hung his coat in the wardrobe, making sure that it remained out of sight of the Monsters. On his way to the bathroom, he avoided looking at his voracious friends. As he punctiliously combed his hair, he felt at a loss as to why he was acting this way.
At seven o’clock Marvin went down to dinner. The other four gentlemen were already seated. Mrs. Prentis had just wheeled in the side table with the tureen. He was almost late—the first time since he had his wallet stolen and had been delayed at the police station. That had been years ago. Marvin sat down, bowing to Mrs. Prentis, nodding to the other men. He found the Colonel’s droning voice boring, almost irritating! For the first time in years he was aware of the rather bland taste of the vegetables. He wondered if Mrs. Prentis always overcooked her beans and carrots. He wondered why it should matter.
Marvin lingered at the dinner table longer than usual. Normally, he would excuse himself a polite five minutes after the end of the meal. He felt uneasy, discomposed. He searched for reassurance, he knew not for what. Incongruously, Marvin noted that the cut-glass chandelier over the table could not have been cleaned since it was hung, probably toward the end of the last century. He wondered why he had never noticed it before. He wondered why he bothered to even think about the stupid chandelier. He rose from the table with the others, thanked Mrs. Prentis and, with heavy steps, climbed the four flights to his attic.
Marvin was vaguely aware of a pang of guilt as he walked past the entrance wardrobe. He shrugged. From the nearest bookshelf he picked a book at random. Without looking up, he sank into his armchair and flipped the pages. He did not feel like reading. He swiveled the chair to the left and switched off the light. Almost as an afterthought, he turned on the stereo. Beethoven’s Fifth flooded the room. He turned down the volume and sank deeply into his armchair.
Music, which normally lifted him almost instantly into a different reality, this time anchored him firmly to the ground. He became aware of a pressing, esoteric weight, as Beethoven drew him into his ponderous mysteries. The chords penetrated his whole body—set up sympathetic rhythms within his bone structure. For no discernible reason he felt tired. Very, very tired. His last conscious thoughts were of a strong desire to switch off the Beethoven tape and put on Sibelius. Somehow the thought made him feel guilty.
Marvin’s dream was as turbulent as his mood. He did not travel to distant worlds, nor did he enjoy the freedom which dreaming normally affords. As soon as he closed his eyes, he felt drawn, inexorably, into a thick, impenetrable jungle, a twisted maze of interwoven tendrils. Liana, pulsating coils of pungent flesh, converged on him, threatening to entangle and squeeze him into a lifeless cocoon, to suck the life force from his helpless body. He felt unable to move, unable to escape the advancing labyrinth of living, convoluted, writhing twines of green doom. With agonizing slowness, the crawling mass began to climb his legs: each fiber, each searching tendril asserting a distinct life of its own. As the first prodding finger reached his neck, he tried to scream. Too late! No sound escaped his parched throat.
He woke up just after midnight. His aching body was drenched in sweat. He felt stiff, as if he hadn’t moved for countless hours. His throat hurt as though he’d been shouting at the top of his voice. When he touched his neck, it felt swollen and painful. He tried hard to dismiss the vivid dream from his memory.
Helpless, exhausted, he sat very still.
Some considerable time later, Marvin forced himself to get up. As he stumbled toward the bathroom, he was vaguely conscious of the still humming stereo. Then, as though pressed by some external command, in near total darkness, he practically tore off his clothing. His numb fingers searched for the taps. Then... then the blissful drops descended from the dark sky. The trees parted their crowns and... a warm, life-giving shower caressed his naked body. A shower from heaven. For a long time he stood, almost still, rapt in the luscious massage.
Marvin felt restored. Physically.
Still with some trepidation, he stretched out on the bed. Later, much later, just before going to sleep, a vague whimsical smile touched the corners of his mouth. It stayed there as he affirmed his resolution.
He awoke at the usual time. A breakfast of one soft-boiled egg, toast, complemented by strong black coffee tasted particularly good this morning. Better than any he could remember! Before leaving for the office, Marvin opened the window just enough to let the fresh air trickle in. At this time of the year he always kept it closed at night in case the draft would injure his Delicious Monster.
Delicious Monster. His only friend. Faithful.
He checked the thermostat, put on his coat and made his way down the stairs.
The air was brisk, an omen of an early autumn. It felt especially inviting this morning. The slight mist was bound to clear and let the sunshine flood his apartment. He crossed the street to the nearest lamppost, which had a trash can attached to its metal base. The container was quite empty. Marvin reached into his coat pocket and took out a brown paper package. As he placed it carefully at the bottom of the can, the whimsical smile playing on his lips became perceptibly more pronounced. Then, almost immediately, his thoughts turned elsewhere.
“Sibelius,” he thought. “Tonight I shall visit Finland.”
His eyes reached across the street to his attic window. In the slightest breeze of the open sash, moving up and down with a gently waving motion, was a five-pronged, freshly unfurled serrated leaf of his Delicious Monster.
Even as Marvin turned toward his office, he inhaled the fresh mist rising over the sleepy lakes of Finland. A little afar, he sensed a dark forest protecting the lake from the northern winds. Then he heard the music. Sibelius.
Without a conscious thought, Marvin quickened his pace so as to arrive in his office precisely at eight o’clock.