“Don’t cut the broccoli like that.” “Haven’t you started the salad yet?” “You didn’t buy enough tomatoes.” “Can’t you do anything right?” “Get out of my way.” “What have you been doing all day?” “Stop asking me questions.” “Where’s your common sense?” Caroline Richmond-Lévesque terrorized her mother inside the kitchen of this stone and timber house on a private lake in the Eastern Townships. The house, garden, and lake had once embellished the Home Section of the Montreal Gazette. “It’s like she becomes a devil,” said her mother, tapping her fingers like telegraph keys on the Québécois escritoire c. 1830. “I should never have married her. I should have stayed with my first wife. I can’t leave her because she will destroy the children,” lamented her husband Pierre Lévesque, face drawn in equine defeat. But the truth was, Pierre’s first wife and three children had already plundered far too much of his considerable fortune. He feared that his second wife and two children would further Visigoth the treasure he had Swiss-banked over 30 years in the shoe business. Pierre’s second wife was a short blond smash-mouth who always bulldozed her way to the last word in every conversation. And if she couldn’t crush and flatten her way, she simply flew out of the room like an axe without a target.
Today’s acts of terror exploded inside a vivarium of country-classical, haute bourgeois taste. A rusticated pine and stainless steel kitchen, bright with brass chandeliers. An ancient iron stove, all spring handles and levered postal compartments. A rough-hewn, early 19th century Québécois pine table, bordered by senescent chairs strung with flax rope like those painted by Van Gogh. Three large, leaded, Romeo and Juliet windows. A massive copper and brass Italian espresso machine, crowned by an imperious chrome eagle. Counters checkerboarded in black and white Venetian marble tiles. A folksy ceramic rooster, modeled after Picasso’s Cockerel, guarding the apex of a pyramid étagère, head thrust forth in dumb aggression.
“Don’t talk to your mother like she’s an idiot,” said Pierre.
Caroline’s face and neck quivered like salmon caught in a net. She kerranged her metal bowl, metal spatula, metal soup ladle and wire brush into the sink. The children stumbled underfoot like dazed puppies. Caroline twisted one of Matthew’s ears and he howled in pain. Older brother David gaped on, torpid with shell shock. Pierre had already decamped to his study. Caroline’s younger sister Barbara gently urged Caroline to calm down. Caroline glowered at her sister with contempt, mixed with fury, laced with hatred. An hour later, the family sat to eat roasted rosemary chicken in silence. Pierre drank a bottle of wine alone in his study.
The next day, two friends from Montreal and the retired British couple from across the way visited for drinks and dinner. Caroline transformed into a flutteringly deferential and obsequious creature. Her ample rump trembled with pleasure. The retired couple were former businesspeople who now owned three Montreal apartment buildings. The younger couple were a French Canadian judge and his Toronto-born, Anglo-Jewish wife, a journalist. “Quebec will recover,” said Pierre as he poured Quebec ice wine into crystal glasses etched with fleurs-de-lys. But of course Quebec would never recover. Pierre would be out of business within five years, another victim of Quebec’s suicidal politics. The pale and diminutive francophone judge defended the rights of Anglos in Quebec. He spoke of the flag of Montreal, with its French Fleur-de-lys, English Rose, Scottish Thistle, and Irish Shamrock. His wife spoke of the exodus from Quebec of more than 200,000 anglophones that began after the FLQ’s bombings and killings in the 1960s. She cited the October crisis of 1970, when the the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and kidnapped and murdered Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte. She referenced the election of the separatist Parti Québécois in 1976 and the punitive sign and language laws, political and economic instability, identity politics, official unilingualism, high taxes, protracted stagnation, and nationalist corruption and favoritism that followed. All of these events together, she said, weakened or destroyed countless Montreal and Quebec lives, businesses and institutions, and crippled the Quebec economy. She called the consequences of these events “catastrophic,” “Quebec’s dirty little secret,” and “the bad smell in the room.” No one, least of all Quebec’s political class, wished to discuss the consequences of these events, ever, either out of denial, defiant nationalism, or out of a deep embarrassment for the avoidable damage irreparably done. She compared the scandal of the destruction of Montreal’s Anglo and Jewish culture—this irrevocable smashing of intellectual and human capital—to the destruction of Vienna’s Jews, mutatis mutandis, which had also permanently flattened that city’s artistic and intellectual life, culture, economy, history, and future.
The next day was Christmas day. Everyone posed for a family photograph in front of a tall pine festooned with gold and silver stars, shiny red and green ribbons, and Victorian street scenes etched on glittery multicoloured globes. Caroline impatiently thrust a Nikon into Barbara’s hands. “Where’s the wide lens?” Barbara gently asked her sister. With frantic exasperation Caroline jerked a hand towards the other side of the room. “Where?” Barbara calmly asked. Caroline became furious, and stamped her feet in infantile vexation. “Right there!” After searching through shelves, behind piles of magazines, inside drawers and under heaps of self-help books and Céline Dion and Yanni CDs, at last Barbara discovered the lense. “Useless,” Caroline muttered in a bovine moue of profound narcissistic stupidity.
Back in Montreal, in the New Year, David and Matthew plodded home from their private schools at four. They shook the snow from their toques and coats and boots as they ascended the stone steps of their city house, located in Montreal’s famous “Golden Square Mile.” They rotated the key in the wide oak door until they heard the lock’s long tongue retract into its silent mouth. They flicked on the massive lobby chandelier. They heard their mother’s taps and clicks echo as she descended the four-story, winding staircase. They loved and feared their mother. Her rapid mood swings, sudden cruelties, and confusing shifts from nurture to psychological violence controlled their daily orbits. Their growing voices stammered, a domestic dialect in troubled accents, in a disturbed syntax. “Mommy, can I have?” Insults. “But mommy!” Pinch. Tears. “MOMMY!” Hysterical tears. At these exultant moments Mommy would retreat to the library, with its leather-bound, gold-trimmed, unread books, and its insipid oil portrait of her and the boys that hung over the fireplace. Or she would escape to the bronze-ornamented, Louis XV reproduction, French elm marquetry desk in her walk-in clothes closet. There, she would sit at her desk for hours, observing herself in six gilded rococo mirrors, writing thank you notes or accepting or declining invitations to dinner parties, annual balls, and charity events with her Mont Blanc Meisterstück Solitaire pen.
Pierre forked his meat at the dinner table until the prongs buzzed. He observed his pear-shaped wife. Barely intelligent enough for a companion beyond sex. Incapable of sustained reason, negotiation, or compromise. What went on with all those housekeepers? Why did the Cohens cancel? Where did that money really go? His felt his hands and face burn. “Bosch,” he said. The boys looked up and at each other. Preoccupied with serving up the gigot d’agneau à l’anglaise from the blue and gold Sèvres china, Caroline said, “What’s that, chéri?” Marta the housekeeper appeared at the dining room door: “Madame, j’ai fini les chemises de Monsieur. Est-ce que je peux partir?” Marta’s dark chocolate eyes and soft Peruvian-Québécoise drawl had charmed this family and its mistress. In eight months she had mastered a repertoire of coping and yielding skills to hold on to her job. Five previous housekeepers had perished in mere weeks as either no-shows or nervous crying wrecks. “Oui, Marta,” her mistress replied, “à demain!” Marta smiled and left for her metro ride home to her own two children and her fiancé, to whom she was to be married in the spring.
Outside, snowflakes as large as butterflies swarmed into moonlit pastry hills and wedding cake mountains. Marta smiled as she walked past three laughing children who windmilled snow angels in banks of silvery butterfly wings. She saw the white-winged angels in the windows of her village church in Peru—in their ruby and citrine and garnet vestments, blowing gold trumpets and striking silver drums—and her mouth opened in pleasure and awe. She clicked on her radio, and through earphones heard the radio host quote someone named Vulltair: “Vous savez que ces deux nations sont en guerre pour quelques arpents de neige vers le Canada, et qu’elles dépensent pour cette belle guerre beaucoup plus que tout le Canada ne vaut.” [“You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth.”]
On Saturday the boys arrived home at three. With their Aunt Barbara they had shopped HMV and Chapters for the new Wu Tang Clan CD and a book on dinosaurs. David peeled off his coat and floated upstairs to his third floor room to phone friends and compare notes on the latest beats by RZA and Ghostface Killah. Matthew dropped out of his snowsuit and trundled upstairs to his room next to David’s. He entered his room and lay down on his bed. As he settled in with four down pillows to read about the Gigantosaurus, he heard muffled voices, one of them pleading. He got up and opened the door to his room. He peered down the hallway. Nothing. He lay down on his bed again. But before he could reopen his book, he heard the muffled voices again. He listened for a full minute. The pleading voice got louder. He got up and opened his closet door. Inside he saw his mother whipping his father with a large black belt. It was the shiny leather belt with the gold buckle he had often seen his father wear. His mother whipped his father in a slow, measured, rhythm: it was like music. His father had tears in his eyes. He pleaded with his mother to stop.