No 3 - 1981
Another Friend For Mr. Duck
Francoise Carmichael-Laurent had had a short period of severance from Donald Blair. She might have expected it: he was in charge of small loans and she was a temporary teller. The Bank of Montreal had a branch in Bamfield, B.C., and they required an Assistant Manager.
She pushed her own account book into the computer. Her interest was due October 31st. The computer ate the book and hiccuped it back out $982.00 credit; $23.20 interest.
The bank was Montreal’s in name only; it belonged to the majority of depositors who were transcontinental, who wanted service, no matter if Donald Blair had taken seven months of intensive French and intensive Francoise. Put it down to future expertise. Let Bamfield have him. He could skinny dip in the freezing cold Pacific with some fat-faced fisherman’s daughter; she was headed for Oaxaca, Mexico.The warmth. Montreal was awaiting its full compliment of snow.
Francoise had pride; both parents professional people - as soon as she had earned enough from the Bank of Montreal’s coffers, she would do Law or a post-graduate degree in Business Administration. She had made the mistake of taking a degree in Belles Lettres, a mistake of the heart. Too many mistakes of the heart and you end up a permanent boarder at home. She could take care of herself. No moping for the impossible past. She intended to transfer her account to the Caisse Populaire. She’d been dallied with by an ex-Brit who had this one gift of talking straight between his teeth without twisting the lips to one side, French Canadian style. He had good teeth, not outsize yankee choppers that could grind a girl up like corn-flakes. Donald bestowed a kiss well; there was the faintest burr in his throat, a light lyricalness, as if he were about to sing like the Kenneth McKellar he admired. Francoise considered herself an intensely plain person; physically attractive, but intensely plain inside. She appreciated forthrightness. That might have been the legacy of a Scots ancestor on her mother’s side. Scots and French were Gallic, there was a natural linkage. She may even have been hunting down a match for it in Donald Blair, lately of Edinburgh. But she was disappointingly plain, without imagination that is?
She took the account book to make a withdrawal and transfer to her chequing account. She wrote in $200.00 cash on one line of the slip. Antoinette processed it for her and widened her eyes.
“So you’re deserting us too?”
“If a winter holiday in Mexico is desertion. I’m a deserter.”
Francoise hadn’t realised that a Donald Blair from Edinburgh might seem exotic to her, and after she had recognised the fact, she felt let down. She could do better. She became inflamed. That was it, inflamed. She wrote to a girlfriend in Oaxaca, telling her that she would take up her offer and visit. Would she meet her at the airport in Mexico City?
Oaxaca, the girlfriend explained, had a Spanish colonial air. It was two hundred kilometers and more from Mexico City; Francoise could easily take a bus. She would not be able to meet her, unless she had reason to visit Mexico City with Pato.
Pato? Francoise looked it up. It meant ‘duck’.
Going back to her wicket, she looked at the clientele in the aisle, measured off with blue sashes. That had been a nice little touch, as if those in line waited for a small economic confession. The small business people held bundles of cheques and elastic banded dollars. Seldom did they have a rust-coloured fifty or a hundred dollar bill. Green twenties, blue fives, green singles. For good luck Francoise would pay Pato for her stay with hundred dollar notes. Pato, the lover, was manager of the Condo Rondo and had arranged a special package for her. She was going to wear the hundred dollar bills between two Kotex light day pads. A billet doux, indeed. Irrational. She could be raped and robbed at one go.
Antoinette raised her eyebrows at the hundred dollar bills.
“Your nest egg, Francoise?”
Francoise took the Metro home and began packing. She was due in Mexico City at twelve noon the next day. She landed in a city seven thousand feet in the sky. It betrayed nothing of its altitude; it was flat with hills at its perimeters and more flatness beyond. There was a swirl of people in the reception area. No Isabeau, no Pato. A porter took the bags and Francoise read the sign over the door that quoted the set price for the taxi fare to the city centre.
“El Terminal del Sur,” she said, not sure if it was right; she wanted the station where buses left for all points south of Mexico City.
“Si. Terminal del Sur.”
The driver raced along the circular road. Shooting through a red light and rocketing her forward in the seat as the taxi braked and bounced out of momentary indecision. The city slipped past on a moving belt like movie scenery which shifted while the players stayed still or marked time. She hadn’t accepted the scenery yet, didn’t believe it, wasn’t keeping up with it, wasn’t entering into it. The colours, the flat topped buildings and highrises in the background, the shadowless whizzing of the taxi in the noon sun made her feel dizzy. It was on probation: the dryness in the air, the overwhelming dampness of her body.
“From the States?” the driver asked.
“Montreal is in Canada.”
“I knew it. My cousin is there. He went to learn French so he can go to Paris. You know Paris.”
She said she didn’t. He sighed with disappointment and lapsed into silence. They swept into the Terminal. There were people flooding out of the Metro and they brushed around her. A boy planted himself in front of her and picked up her cases and travelling bag, defying her to take them from him.
“One peso,” he nodded at the cases.
One peso. A small payment to repossess her own property. Inside, there were two sets of long plastic counters. One for the first class, one for second. It struck her slowly that everyone was in shirt sleeves and blouses. Gone the jackets of the airport, of the dressed-up travelers. The bus station was spotless and new. Cleaners with wide brushes, trailing lengths of damp cloth swept over the tiles. She was fascinated by the damp glittering circles left by the train of this brightly coloured and coarsely textured cloth. She could see herself in the damp whirls: white blur in brown vinyl.
“Primera clase?” the boy nudged her.
“Si,” she answered.
There were posts with the various destinations tiered on white cards, behind them clerks distributed tickets and change.
“Oaxaca,” she said, and the boy left her under a tier of towns:
Cuautla, Azucar de Matamaros, Oaxaca. Names growing stranger and stranger. The road to Oaxaca expanded and contracted over and around low hills, after it descended from the high alpine promontories that surrounded Mexico City. Her ears popped. The road uncoiled out over the desert, passed knolls with bamboo huts and enclosures like misplaced African compounds, the kind of thing she had seen in documentary films. Farther south and still farther, into native territory. The English term popped out embarrassingly. Native in Quebec meant French, ‘native French speaker’. Elsewhere, in a tropical, foreign context, it meant ‘savage’. She was visiting Isabeau among the natives. She would not necessarily feel at home with them. It was possible she would grow awkward, strange in their presence. She shuddered, afraid of that feeling of strangeness, physically afraid, like she was of a snail she had plucked one morning from a bottle of white milk on her doorstep. The milk and the snail curdled into slimy strangeness. She threw them both into the garden.
At every sharp turn one little boy in the bus vomited prolifically; his mother collected it in a plastic bag and tossed it out the open window into the red dust. It spattered, the contents offending the clean dryness of the earth. There were odd stretches of flat fields like immense golden griddles, birds boiling off them into a continual quivering of heat. So much life where you expected nothing to happen, amid the stubble, among the stands of scraggly corn, bent, burdened with its cobs, like green mourners in the vast and twisting diocese of sky and desert.
Just when it seemed they were being ingested by the dry spaces, the bus curled round a hill and swept down into a mirage, as improbable as the sudden fort in the North African fastness, an orderly, Spanish city, implanted like an heirloom from the time of the Empire.
In the taxi the driver had tuned to a local station; the music was classical. It was like a sudden joke - a jibe at her nervy speculations on her savage whereabouts - but the driver was nothing less than polite, intent on the music. In the approach to the main square Indian women were weaving black and red serapes and belts, weaving them from the cords of hand looms, severe and disciplined colours, black and red. Balconies, balconies and wrought iron railings; columnades of grey stone. A Spanish city populated by couth and elegant natives.
On the other side of town, on the rough road to the Coast, they reached the Hotel. It was neat, with glazy, dark red brick, two tall iron gates, another at the side for pedestrians. A patio with a pool, verandah fronting the rooms, forming a complete rectangle, so that guests could squint across from their wicker chairs at their neighbours changing, having a drink, taking a plunge. Order within disorder. Just outside these precincts, there were sooty ateliers and corrugated shacks.
The room immediately inside the entrance served as an office. A Mexican woman, beautiful, of indefinable age was standing in the door jogging a baby up and down under a shawl. Exasperation, or was it the heat and the standing made her brusque when the taxi driver asked for the manager. She drove him out with a word or two. Francoise’s bags were dumped outside the door, against the wall. The woman stepped aside to let her in. The woman seemed much more assured, but much less civilized than the taxi driver.
“Where is Senor Pato and Senorita Isabeau,” Francoise asked in dragging Spanish.
“Pinche Francesa, pinche, pinche.”
The woman undid the shawl and rewrapped it around the baby. She skiffed over the tiles in her sandals. Francoise was left alone, the woman’s lips had been pouting, the child’s too. It wailed as she went. Probably hungry. Francoise had the feeling that if that woman had had the chance, she would have put the ‘pinche Francesa’ in a pot. She knew what ‘Francesa’ meant. French. The ‘pinche’ wasn’t used for general abuse the way angles snarled ‘frogs’, but with a precise sense of grievance, with particular and possibly warranted hatred. The child had been wrapped up in all that heat as if Francoise had definite designs on purloining it. Pinche. What did it mean exactly?
So, in a way, they were natives after all. Francoise sat in a leather club chair, opposite a clean wooden table with an old adding machine, a guest book and one of the gadgets for impressing the name and address into credit card receipts. She get up and ran the hand lever across and back. A little man in a straw hat came in.
“Buenas tardes. You a French lady called Francoizzz.” He buzzed the last letter, as if a fly had stuck to his lip, tickly and dirty.
“Francoizzz?” he repeated stubbornly.
“Mauro. Gardener here. Show you room. Senor Pate in Puerto Angel with French lady. Back tonight.
He smiled, happy with his speech.
What will I do until tonight,” she asked, without intending to, and knowing perfectly well she could sleep.
“Eat la comida. Go in water.”
The room had a blue and yellow God’s-eye over the bed. A vase of paper flowers by the dresser and mirror - a sliding closet. A bed of dark, heavily carved wood, covered with a magnificent bedspread, with a violent eagle head turned aside, staring at something that could have been in the bathroom. The bathroom was like a grotto, covered from top to bottom in blue tiles. There was no enclosure for the shower, just a curtain, the floor was sloped on four sides into a flat area with a drain in the middle. She threw her clothes into the bedroom, pulled down her pants; the kotex and hundred dollar bills flopped to the floor. She picked them up, weighting them down with the soap on the wash basin.
After she had dried, she came out and fell back on the bed. The eagle’s head curled round the small of her back. The coverlet was rough and woolen. It prickled slightly. A wicker cage held a light bulb like a small blond bird, up there on the ceiling. Blue tassels hung from the bedside lamp. There were window shutters and white curtains embroidered with blue and the finest, faintest trace of red. She put her fingers between her legs, her bootom borne on the breast of the disconcerted eagle, its eyes still averted, still challenging something in the shower.
The gardener’s knocking awoke her. She pulled out her bikini from the travelling bag along with a bathrobe. She went into the bathroom and pushed the hundred dollar bills into the pocket of her bathrobe.
“La comida,” the little man called.
In the dining room she could see the Mexican woman she had met earlier, caught glimpses of her through the flapping door where the little man passed through, bringing soup, stuffed pepper, pork tenderloin.
“Are you the waiter as well as the gardener?” she asked.
“Give the cook my compliments. Who is she?”
“Senora Pato,” he snickered.
Mrs Duck. Francoise flinched.
“I tell her you like it.”
Within a moment both of them were in the dining room. They passed around the small tables with the blue bordered tablecloths, the chairs with the rafia seats and half backs woven into blue stars, jagged blue suns.
Mrs Duck sat down. She was still as voluptuous and still in a bad mood.
“I bring Grenadinas. Senor Pato tell me to bring Grenadinas. All the foreign ladies like them.”
The little man went to the stout wooden bar at the bottom of the room.
“We talk, Senora Francesa.” The woman lifted the elastic on the arm of her blouse, easing her finger round the inside. “I talk slow so you can understand. If not, Mauro translates,” she said in Spanish, narrowing her eyes, focusing on Francoise’s bathrobe disapprovingly. The terry towelling had numerous pulls and loops of loose thread, especially at the neck and waist where she wrapped an arm, plucking distractedly with her fingers.
“Why did you come?”
“I’ve come on holiday. I’m on holiday,” Francoise insisted.
“So the other woman says.”
The little man cornered Francoise with the Grenadine. It was sweet and syrupy. She didn’t dare say she liked dry white wine only, after her meals. No liquers, nothing else.
“Why you take your holidays with my Pato?”
“I don’t know Pato. The only person I have met here is this man. Mauro, is it?”
Smiles wriggled in and out the corners of the little man’s mouth. He bounced in his seat at the mention of his name. Suddenly the Mexican woman was asking her if she intended to pay for her keep, or did she expect her, the Mexican woman, to carry the cost of her prostitution. Francoise blushed at the thought of the banknotes she had carried all the way here next to her crotch. The woman mistook her blush for a confession of sorts. She was ah-haing when Francoise told her to wait. She tugged the banknotes out of her pocket. They smelt. Of course, they did. She spread them out, guitily
“Two hundred dollars Canadian. I have credit cards. I work in a bank.”
“My Pato wants to go to Paris,” the woman said. “All the Mexican men want to go to Paris. Even Mauro wants to go to Paris.”
“I come from Montreal.”
“You speak French. You think French. All the French girls from Montreal want to sleep with Mexican men. But you don’t want to make wives. You don’t do the cooking, You’re too modern wanting to work in offices, wanting to have free holidays, suiting yourselves.”
By the time this was worked out and the meaning translated into Francoise’ s understanding, the woman was fuming. She had folded her arms and pushed her breats up. They were full of milk and Francoise winced.
“What age you think I am?”
“I don’t know.”
“Twenty-three,” the little man said.
She was younger than Francoise.
“Twenty-four,” the woman corrected him. “I am a mother and a manager and I am fed up.”
When her responsibilities were fully translated to her, Francoise felt like an interviewee or examinee being tested by this sharp-eyed cook, cum concierge, cum manager, cum beauty.
“But I came here on holiday. I had no knowledge of the situation.”
“Now you know. You abuse me.”
“Mauro,” she said suddenly. “Go and see if the baby is comfortable.” Then she stood up and pulled Francoise by the hair out onto the verandah, pointing with her free hand at the plants, the pool, the wicker chairs and tables.
“All these things I choose. I have good taste.”
Inside the room she held Francoise even more tightly by the hair, so that her knuckles ground into Francoise’ s scalp, at the same time she unbuttoned her blue work dress which was spattered with fat. The breasts dolloped out, the nipples round and black, as slick as licorice stick, the skin brown as the core when you bit through into it.
“I am stuck with these because I have a baby to feed.”
Her fingers kept going, spitting buttons out of the holes.
“I am twenty-four and I have everything Pato could want. You are nothing but a little girl.”
Tears were squeezing out of Francoise’ s eyes. She reached out, not sure, if like some half blind person she wanted to touch something solid and get her bearings, or because she was attracted like a child to those complete shapes, so ripe, so beautiful, so made for the hand. She envied this Mexican woman’s lips, her breasts, her Indian blood, but most of all her power of being oppressed. When her fingers touched the woman, she let go of Francoise’s hair and hid her face in her hands.
The little man was thumping at the door.
“Senor Pato is here.”
“I’m coming now,” the woman said, buttoning up her front. “I’m coming now.”
“Mr. Duck. Monsieur Canard,” Francoise cried to herself. She had no desire whatsoever to meet him, or to compose herself for their sake.
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