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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"The Limbo of Infants," by Sandra Riley (Jun 21, 2000)
"They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop."

"Cicada," by Judy Wilson (May 24, 2000)
"These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. 'The trick,' he said, 'is to not blink when the lights go green.'"

"Lyris," by Tom Drury (April 20, 2000)
"She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer."

"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

"Logic Game," by Doug Dorst (January 20, 2000)
"Lydia and her husband, Oscar, are giving a dinner party. They have invited eight of their oldest and best friends. The guests must be seated at the dinner table according to the following rules...."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

July 19, 2000

BIENVENUE À DILBRITH COLLEGE, MARIE-CLAIRE TREMBLAY!!, by Simon Fanning

Here at Dilbrith College, owing to budget cuts, general apathy, and sundry other circumstances, there is no welcoming committee per se, so for this one occasion I have "taken up the reins." It is in no way presumptuous, as I was in fact asked to receive Miss Tremblay (in what you might call an "informal" capacity), to "maybe show her around," as the two young globetrotters put it. They kindly supplied me with a photograph, which I have had reproduced into various sizes. Her aura becomes increasingly exhilarating as the photos expand, until, in the giant 11 x 14, a delicate rosy perfume almost tickles the olfactory nerves. But her features are even blurrier than in the less-than-perfect original, so I have been alternating amongst the sizes. Small for detail, large for ambience, 5 x 7 for the wavy intricacies of her elbow-length locks. When the true original arrives (I have estimated her at five foot seven and nine stone), I cannot imagine I won't have the sensation of having met her before.

All of the arranging is really very time-consuming, but it could not have come at a more opportune juncture. My research is "on hold" for the moment, as the document room of the Dilbrith library is under construction. Normally it would have aggravated me, this interruption, but these responsibilities surrounding Miss Tremblay's visit are pressing. I'd have had little time for Abélardian Conceptualism even if "the dungeon" (as I have heard the girls employed in the document room call it; just what the "ogre" is I have yet to establish) had remained open. Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?

There is first of all the matter of food. I inferred from a passing remark made by Miss Tremblay's friendly schoolmate, who preceded her in her travels, that Marie-Claire is a vegetarian, a "feminist vegetarian" to be precise -- though I and the helpful attendant at the health-food shop are uncertain of what this is meant to indicate as regards her diet. What the schoolmate said exactly was, "as a French Canadian feminist vegetarian, she'll have a great time here," and I understood this to mean that she would find enrichment, as all wise travelers do, in the alteration of environment. Still, her acclimatation must be gradual, so I have gone twice now to Together Grain, a successful enterprise located in the student quarter, and "stocked up on" "Seitan" and "Tofu" pies -- rather unique varieties of pudding for which I will have to develop the palate -- and "lentil soup," which I shall refrain from ingesting for fear of offsetting my daily rhythms.

I cannot honestly say that I am interested in the feminism business, but it is exactly the sort of challenge that gets me going, and I have taken it on of late, as part of the preparation, to really sit down and commit some of these things to memory: Mary Wollstonecraft, Gloria Steinberg, Jeanne d'Arc. I shan't even attempt to challenge Miss Tremblay's idées naïves until she is comfortably settled and thoroughly accustomed to her new routines. One must, I have learned, maintain a certain amount of tolerance for these post-adolescent dreamers.

And she is a dreamer indeed! Upon close scrutiny, the snapshot reveals a palpable wonderment in her posture, a desire, as she pinches the stem of her wine glass and gracefully balances it atop her knee, bending toward her cigarette (a crude habit she will simply have to abandon) rather than lifting it to her lips -- a desire to "get moving." Oh, how she will move! The terrain her eager mind will trod whilst she enjoys the cushiony repose of the chaise longue in my flat!

Despite the obvious fortitude that penetrates the fuzzy image -- the boulder-hard cheek bones and fixed chestnut gaze -- I imagine she will be somewhat fatigué when she arrives. I expect she will have reserved lodgings elsewhere, and if she is more comfortable with her own arrangements, then so be it -- I will escort her to the place -- but I have prepared a folding bed in the salon and have every intention of surrendering the Waterqueen master-bed to her deserving limbs. What better than its conforming expanses for a "jet-shocked," suitcase-burdened stranger? And I have hired a "Video Cassette Recorder" and several films for tomorrow's relaxation, ones the attendant selected at my request for "movies that will make a French Canadian girl feel at home": The French Lieutenant's Woman, based on a modern Englishman's novel but featuring a well known American movie actress; The Lover, an historical tale about a French girl only slightly younger than Miss Tremblay (the flourishing bud of her salad days! a ripe twenty-two!); and The French Connection, the "Best Picture Winning Classic."

I fully intend, for the first few days of her visit, to allow her some newcomer's liberties. For instance, she may select which of the films she wishes to view, or, if she prefers my conversation, then I shall happily hold forth on any topic of her choosing. I will not impose my historical tour of Hepford Downs and the college grounds upon her, but rather permit her to select an appropriate time. I am ready to perform at her whim! Normally, I have taken my tea and my stroll before seven and I am at the library well before it opens, but if Marie-Claire prefers to waken after sunrise and dawdle about (française or not, she is North American, remember), then she may do so for the initial days of our cohabitation. I recognize that I will have to be somewhat flexible for a time, until she has "got the hang of it," as they say. I am prepared for anything!

I must confess to some minute signs of uncharacteristic self-consciousness. I have made a point, for example, of wearing the slimmest of summer trousers so that my reflective bicycle trouser clips will not be required. Years ago, reciting from Troilus and Criseyde to a sparsely attended lecture, I was pleased to observe that, for once, the students were audibly appreciative of the comic material -- a result, I assumed, of my thoughtful rendering. Alas, the snickering persisted long after my récitation had concluded. Eventually, one of the girls informed me that my orange trouser-bands were rather distracting, and could I kindly remove them so they could "focus on scholarly matters?" I humbly complied and then delivered the amusing passage once more for their unhindered enjoyment. All of this is to say that I am aware of how the youthful mind can fall prey to silliness, and why tempt it in its vice if narrower trousers can be worn and easily stuffed into one's socks?

I have seen young gentlemen strolling through the campus grounds with their sweethearts, skillfully wheeling their bicycles with one hand whilst holding hands or embracing with the other. I confess that I have rehearsed such manoeuvres with little success. Do they hold it by the seat? By the handlebars? I have some difficulty envisioning them exactly, but I've certainly seen it done. Of course I don't expect to be extending an arm in any geste de tendresse -- not on the way home from the train station! -- but I do anticipate that she'll require some assistance with her luggage and undoubtedly wish to make a souvenir of the painted welcoming poster board I've made up.

It is on the short walk to my flat that I intend to tell her the amusing story of how I came to be expecting her, for she will quickly discover that this is not the regular courtesy offered by Dilbrith College -- that, in fact, few visiting scholars are afforded such treatment. I will tell her how that sporty couple (Laura and Craig: I scribbled their names onto the inner sleeve of the Riverside Chaucer some hapless student had left behind in my office), while passing through Hepford Downs on their exuberant jaunt through England, remembered that it was the very place -- Dilbrith College -- where their companion Marie-Claire would be coming next month for a year's exchange to further her studies and perfect her already stalwart command of English. "Wouldn't it be funny," the beautiful Laura reflected, "if someone was, like, waiting for her, like knew she was coming and stuff?"

"It would be splendid indeed," I concurred, counting myself lucky that, as fate would have it, I was the first person the ruddy travellers encountered upon entering the R. J. Browley Memorial Building for Medieval Studies. (I was pinning a favourite witticism onto the notice board adjacent to my office.) I took down as much information about Marie-Claire as they gave (also in the dubiously edited Chaucer tome) and made whatever inquiries I could think of at the time, though I sincerely wish I had been given more opportunity. There are so many details I have had to construct from this rich yet impenetrable photograph. But I am no stranger to improvisation! I have purchased a pint of milk in case she takes it with her tea. If her expression reveals even the slightest discomfort with the troubadour songs I have selected to play upon her arrival, I am prepared to switch to the more familiar (though equally intimate) madrigals. There are a thousand little things to consider! I was unaware even of the date and time of her arrival; masquerading as her uncle, I was obliged to most forcefully cajole the BritRail operator into supplying me with the details of her itinerary. How I wish Laura and Craig had allowed me only a moment more to think, or at the very least left a telephone number where I could ring them with additional questions!

Unhappily, the two were "in a big rush" and were not even able to accept my offer of a historical promenade around the college grounds. Before leaving, Laura collected from their tiny hired car her bulging rucksack, and, sending her arm in there nearly shoulder deep, she extracted a "Let Us Go" traveller's guide and several envelopes containing snapshots of their journey theretofore. Shuffling through the envelopes labeled "Ireland," "South England," and "Yorkshire," she arrived finally at the object of her search -- "Going Away Bash and London" -- and, shuffling again, she quickly produced the photo that has been the object of my attention these several weeks. The original is in my breast pocket so that I may refer to it in the unlikely case of any complications at the station. The framed reproductions await her on the night table beside the Waterqueen. She will sleep soundly indeed! Can there be any more soothing combination? Her own familiar image, provided through the gracious preparations of a truly welcoming host!

It is a short ride to the station, but the poster board is rather cumbersome. With no little effort, I have affixed it to my back through the inventive employment of my braces. To those before me, it must look as though I have wings. Yes! An angel in flight, gone to greet another angel! How I await her astonished delight at my painted welcome! Will her voice be as I imagined? Will my trained ear be capable of discerning -- despite Craig's determined claim that I "won't even be able to tell" -- that remote accent canadien-français? Will she have altered her appearance in any way? A bronzy summer sheen to her cheeks? Exhilarating new additions to her wardrobe, purchased for her year abroad? Oh, that she has not coifed the perfect hair!

Can this be it? Yes, I definitely hear it. Her train has arrived! It won't be five minutes now. Il faut que je trouve un endroit pour stationner mon vélo fidèle. The poster board! I must detach its protective covering. Will she desire a cold drink upon debarking? Have I the time to locate a bottle of Ribena? Alas, I am ill prepared! It is entering the station! From which carriage will she descend? Why did I not inquire? The conductor be damned if he berates me for standing on this bench. I must arouse her attention in any way possible. I'll wait until the train stops completely before I elevate the sign. I shall wave it commandingly, my arms fully extended. It will be impossible to miss.

BIENVENUE À DILBRITH COLLEGE, MARIE-CLAIRE TREMBLAY!!

She will be speechless. Who could ever blame her if she cries?


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More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Simon Fanning teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal. This is his first published story.

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