Characters: Mathurin LeBlanc, Moïse Charvet
Warnings: swearing, brief references to war
Word Count: 4, 274
Summary: Mat stops in to visit a very old friend during a medical conference in Montreal.
Disclaimer: Work is all from my own imagination. Any resemblance to other characters or situations is coincidental.
Notes: Original work, set in the Modern Day Vampire universe. I’ll get a tag or something soon for these, if I keep writing them. And I might, because it’s about what my brain can handle at the moment. If you’ve read “The Best Parts of Existing”, you should be able to follow this one.
I’ve used the conceit that Mat and Mo are speaking French and Mat is kindly relaying the conversation in English, aside from a few words for colour or which are hard to translate. The French words should hopefully be understood from context.
Joual is a dialect of French characteristic of Montreal. You can learn more here, if you’d like.
If I were to write a review of Villa Palissandre on Google it would read ‘nice place, too much glass’. For a retirement home, it’s luxurious, and I’m sure the residents appreciate the modern, boxy architecture, the airy ceilings and the sleek rosewood accents from which it takes its name. It resembles an office building or spa much more than an old folks home. But as I dodge my way around and through shafts of sunlight like some sort of game of ‘the floor is lava’, I can’t help but lament the designers need for the floor-to-ceiling windows and glass panels in the roofs that create so much scattered light on this bright, cloudless day.
Sunlight won’t kill me, but it does make me the closest to drunk I’ll get in this version of my life, and not a pleasant sort of drunk. A drunk of having knives stabbing through your eyes into your brain and the floor being just slightly off-kilter, so you aren’t sure when you’re placing your foot on it if it will be where you think it is.
If I wasn’t so fond of Mo, I’d be very grumpy by now.
I first met Moïse Charvet during the tail end of World War II, when I was a doctor with the Red Cross, and he was a gawky teenage medic. In the seventy-odd years that have followed, we’ve managed to keep in touch, and I try to visit him when I’m in Montreal if I can. He moved into Villa Palissandre about five years ago, after the death of his wife, Perle. He’s ninety-one and still fairly spry and very sharp but needs help with meals and cleaning. Palissandre offers tiered care, so should he become ill or in need of more in-depth looking after, he won’t have to move out. He can stay in the pleasant, airy room overlooking the cheerful off-island suburb of Surville. With all its windows.
As I make it to the safety of the second-floor corridor where Mo’s room is, which the designer decided didn’t need skylights, I take a moment to gather myself so I don’t look so much like a drunken vagrant. I’m a touch overdressed for the early April semi-spring outside. I take off my dark sunglasses and lower the hood on my coat, then ring the bell.
Inside, I can hear Mo’s mumbling to himself, followed by the creak of furniture as he stands and the off-beat thump of his cane as it helps propel him across the room to the door. There’s a fumbling of locks, more mumbling, and finally, the door opens, and Mo’s thin, sharp face appears. He looks me over for a half-second.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner today,” he rumbles, in his thick Joual French. “Try next door, hein?”
I hold up a paper bag I’m carrying. “I brought bagels, sir.”
“That’s racist!” Mo declares. “You can’t appeal to my inner-Jew like that. I won’t be plied.”
“I’m not appealing to your inner-Jew,” I say. “I’m appealing to your inner-Montréalais. These are from St-Eustace. I may not eat, but I know a good Montreal-style bagel. They’re cinnamon raisin. And there’s cream cheese.”
Mo’s sour face, which he’s been having trouble holding, breaks now, though he puts it back in place. “I’ll get the drapes.”
He stays me with a hand to my face. “I’ll get them!”
“Or you can get them.”
I wait as he totters over to the wall of the living room that is nothing but windows and pulls the drapes along the screeching rod. The apartment has a hotel suite feel to it with its peanut-butter-and-honey colour scheme and bland but chic furniture. The difference is that a hotel room doesn’t feel like a home--no one stays long enough to imprint their spirit on it. Mo has imprinted himself on his apartment, with photos of his family littered about and his disorganized shelves of books and the spread of magazines over the coffee table. The single-serve coffee machine in the kitchenette has a ring beneath where the cup sits to catch it, and there are crumbs around the toaster. The place is somehow cozy and airy at the same time; a small space made to feel big. I know he would have liked to stay in the little house he and Perle lived in for fifty-odd years, but this is a nice if a touch snotty alternative.
“There we go,” he declares, once the light has been blocked by the heavy, flowered curtains. “Come in! Why are you standing out in the cold?”
I feign confusion. “I have no idea, Mo. It’s almost as though someone ordered me to stand here.”
Mo shrugs. “Since when did you start taking orders? You outrank me, Captain. Come in and sit. This isn’t your time of day, mon vieux. You could have come later.”
The reason I’ve come now is that by the time the sun would have set and I made the journey over from the heart of the city, I suspect Mo would be heading for bed. I can’t tell him that without causing offence, so I mumble something about the buses and the schedule of the medical conference I’m attending as I close the apartment door behind me and come over to meet him.
“Well, it’s nice to see you,” Mo tells me, flat out and matter-of-fact.
He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. There was a time he stood taller than me, but the stoop of old age has made him lose some inches, so now he hits me at eye level. Underneath the crinkles of his skin, the false teeth, and the thin white strands of hair on his head that used to be black and thick and curly, his blue eyes still are as full of life as the eighteen-year-old boy who arrived in 1944 in the midst of hell and put his shoulders back and asked how he could help.
“I don’t like your hair long. You look like a chochette,” he says, nose wrinkled. “What is this nonsense in the back?”
I touch the knot at the nape of my neck. “It’s the fashion. It all comes around. I wore it like this in the 18th century.”
“Pfui,” Mo says, blowing air from his mouth. “Cut it off, you look stupid. Me, I’m stuck with this mess--” He waves his hand over his patchy scalp. “--You get to keep your locks forever, and you do that with it. Choose a different era.”
“Stop critiquing my fashion,” I say. “I’ve come all this way to see you, and you’re being a bastard.”
“I know, I know. I’m cranky,” Mo says. “Let me warm up your blood for you, huh, and we’ll have coffee.”
“I’ll do it!”
Once again the hand goes to my face. Mo creaks his way over to the microwave in the kitchenette, snapping his fingers at me. I take the thermos of blood from my bag and hand it over. Mo found out about my immortality early in our acquaintance, when a shocky soldier mistook me for a German as I was trying to help get him out of the ambulance and decided to stab me in the leg with his knife. I didn’t notice, too busy trying to stem his wounds, and so was everyone else except Mo. He noticed. He also noticed when, upon the discovery that there was something making it difficult for me to walk, I pulled the knife out without a second thought and, instead of the spurting arterial blood that should have emerged, all that came out was the trickle that gravity forced out of me. Upon later questioning, I tried to spin a tale of adrenaline and aberrant arteries and luck, but Mo insisted on examining the wound. Where he found the neat cut in my femoral artery and my distinct lack of heartbeat.
There are many reactions to finding out that I’m a vampire. Mo’s was fascination. He started with a stream of questions that haven’t stopped in all the years I’ve known him. He went on to medical school after the war and each new lesson in anatomy demanded more questions to try to scientifically explain how I was a walking, talking, feeling human without a pulse, but no one has ever been able to find those answers, and we’ve all been searching for them. The best I can explain it is some supernatural force, which is hard to swallow. I’ve never been satisfied with it, and I’m sure that one day I’ll know. Just not yet.
Mo is still working on it, even at 91. “What flavour is this? A? O-?”
“You know I only drink animal blood,” I say. “It’s pig’s blood.”
“That’s not kosher,” he notes, with a wry little laugh to himself. He pours it into a mug without flinching and pops it into the microwave for a burst of 30 seconds. “Those first few years of knowing you, I sometimes wondered if you were playing some big joke on me, but then I would see you drinking, and I’d think ‘no man would do that for a laugh’. Then, of course, a hundred years went by and here you are, looking like this, and I’m looking like this. Can’t write that off as a joke.”
Despite his warnings to the contrary, I start to make him his coffee. “It hasn’t been that long.”
“Almost!” He pokes me with his cane. “Stop that. I’ll do it, you’re the guest. Sit down, LeBlanc.”
I let him potter around, putting myself down at the little table nearby. “How have you been?”
“Old. Everything hurts and nothing works right. They give me a box of pills to take three times a day. Blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, diuretic--pah! Lot of money to keep me alive. It’s not like if they keep throwing pills at me that I’ll get any younger. Let me spend my twilight in peace.”
“You can always refuse,” I point out. “If you find them that unpleasant. They can’t make you take them.”
“I want to live long enough to see you get a wrinkle,” he retorts. As much as he might bluster and moan, I know he’s not ready to go yet. Not fighting death, just giving it a good glare and telling it to watch itself. “Ask me a better question.”
“How’s your family?” I try, instead.
This brings a smile to the grumpy face. “Not too shabby. Léa got married again in December. Bit old for it, the both of them, and the second time for each, but they wanted it, so let them spend the money on the ceremony, right? She seems happy. David’s Emilie had a baby in July. Third Great-Grandchild. It’s a girl--Rosalie.” He makes a pinching gesture. “This big and roars like a lion. Elise hasn’t been well; she’s waiting on some test results. You know what doctors are like, always the last to notice something’s wrong with themselves. She’s short of breath, but you know she’s always had bad lungs. Remember how many times she had pneumonia as a girl?”
I try to sort out the tree in my mind as Mo mentions them. As much as we’ve been friends over the years, my contact with members of his family has been minimal. I’m a hard thing to explain, and I never place any burden to keep my ‘secret’ on anyone who knows, but I don’t think Mo has ever disclosed it to his children. Perle might have known.
They had four children together: Léa, David, Elise, and Noah, who was a Down’s boy who died in his thirties of heart failure but was always loved and adored by everyone. David and Elise both are doctors, and Léa was a midwife until she married her first husband. I’ve never met Léa or Elise, only seen pictures. David, I met once at a medical conference. He recognized my name as that of a friend of his father’s and wondered if I knew myself. I explained that that Mathurin LeBlanc was my uncle, whom I was named after, and was regaled with stories of myself that David had heard from Mo. I was also to give his regards to myself, which I did. Mo got a huge kick out of it; he phoned me laughing hysterically a few days later when David told him of meeting me.
There are several grandchildren between the children and then some great-grandchildren. I know of them only through Mo’s letters and our conversations. I was at his wedding to Perle, and I attended Perle and Noah’s funerals, but as far as the family is concerned, I think I’m just that war buddy Papa speaks of sometimes. David obviously didn’t know otherwise at the time.
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” I say, of Elise’s ailment. “Is she a smoker?”
“When she was young, yes, but she stopped when she was pregnant with Alain. Not that that gives her a free pass, but if it were a tumour, I think she’d be sicker than she is. I think she’s just run down. Too many demands on her time. She’s just like Perle---wanting to be all things to all people. She needs to take some time for herself.”
The microwave beeps to inform us my blood is ready. I pop up and grab it before Mo can rise and, before he can yell at me, I’ve got his coffee from the maker, too. He drinks it black, so I place it down in front of him with no small amount of triumph.
“Fuck you,” he says, in English. It’s a light and playful insult, that word having little actual meaning in Quebecois swearing, amidst its chalices, Christs, and tabernacles. Which Mo has always been free with as well, it has to be said. “Don’t show off, LeBlanc.”
I refuse to apologize, retaking my seat and sipping at the gently warmed liquid in my cup. In truth, it makes little difference whether it’s hot or cold, it all tastes the same in the end, but once the British arrived in Canada and decided to stay, there started to be a great rise in being offered tea or coffee when visiting with someone and giving a vampire-friendly alternative seems to bring relief to hosts.
“Now, how about you?” Mo asks. “I know about your health, there’s no point in asking if you’ve been well. How about the rest of your life? Is work good? Do you have a blonde?”
It’s odd how age changes things. Especially when mine stays stagnant, appearance wise. When Mo was young, he looked up to me as a sort of mentor. As he aged, we became equals. Then, when he entered his middle years, he started to treat me a bit more as one would a young friend, as though he were the mentor and I was the student. Now, I’m a son and he’s my father, trying to make sure I’m taking care of myself and living a good life. It happens with everyone I have the good fortune to see through their lives. In fact, there’s only one person who never changed toward me and that might have been because I was married to her.
“Non, pas d’une blonde,” I say. “Just me and my dog.”
“Hmmph,” Mo grunts, in disapproval. “You’re alone too much. It’s not good. When’s the last time you went out on the town, huh?”
“I don’t know...five or ten years ago,” I say. “I’m not alone. You don’t have to date someone to not be alone. Are you alone here? Do you date?”
“At my age, what am I going to do with a woman, huh? By the time we’ve hobbled to back to one of our places, we’ll have forgotten why we even came and probably be too tired to try anything. You’re still virile.”
“‘Virile’?” I echo, with a laugh. “Ben oui, that’s me. Fuck off, Mo, you sound like a yente.”
“I have to live vicariously through someone, mon vieux. Once more before I die, I want you to come here and tell me about some nice lady you’re seeing and not about your damned dog.”
I smirk. “Dogs are much less judgmental than people, Mo. It’s complicated to date. I’m not being morose about it, it’s just the truth.”
Mo concedes that with a sip of his coffee instead of a comeback. “Yes, I suppose so. Do you know who I was thinking about the other day? That nurse you were fond of in Italy. My brain is a sieve these days, do you think I could remember her name? I’ve been trying and trying…” His bushy eyebrows come together in consternation.
Sometimes when people say ‘do you remember…?’ to me it’s like a big file folder in my brain falls off a shelf and all the people I’ve met that fit into that category tumble out. Names scatter and pile up on each other, and I have to hunt through to pluck them out. Every nurse I’ve met ever toss their names to me, but I manage to find the one Mo wants.
“Sandrine,” I say. “Yes, she was a good nurse.”
“Aye, and had the world on her balcony too,” Mo says, holding his hands by his chest to estimate her assets. Accurately, it has to be said. “I think about things now, like that. I try to keep my brain from turning to mush. I sit and think about my teachers’ names and my old patients. How come your brain is fine and you don’t even have blood flow, and here’s me alive and kicking and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast?”
“If I knew that, I’d know a lot more about everything.”
“Yes, well, maybe that’s good then. You’re a smart enough prick already.”
Mo and I chat comfortably about everything and nothing as we sit and sip, covering politics, my work and my life in the ‘asscrack of nowhere’ (Mo’s words), and how long I think I’ll stay there before I move again. Twenty years is about as long as I can last in a small town before suspicions arise. I like Sterling, though, despite Mo’s belief that I must be bored with the mundane cases that come my way.
“No case is mundane,” I say. “Even in the asscrack of nowhere, there’s room to surprise me. Besides, I like the people and my home there. I’m not ready for a big city again yet.”
“You keep crawling farther North. You’ll be in an igloo soon enough, doing autopsies on moose,” Mo says.
“An igloo is very comfy,” I say. “Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.”
Once our drinks are done, the backgammon board is broken out, and we continue our 70-year war, of which, like happens in all wars, we each have entirely different memories.
“No, no, I won the last game,” Mo insists. “Don’t puff yourself up, I do win sometimes.”
“Of course you win sometimes, but I won last time. Don’t think because you’re old and feeble I’m going to let you lie to me.”
“You fuck off!”
And we both laugh and start the game. As much as backgammon relies on the luck of the dice, there is strategy involved and, when you’ve known each other for as long as we have, there’s an element of predicting each other’s moves. It’s a good game to keep the mind sharp. Mo hasn’t lost anything in that department, he still manages to win an almost equal amount of our games, even if he has to perch his glasses on his nose and lean down to almost kiss the board to make sure he’s moving where he wants to.
When we come to an amicable draw, I wonder aloud if I should be going. I’ve tried to plan my trip so I have the excuse of the bus schedules if Mo is tiring out, and this is my first opportunity. I have two more buses I can catch after this one if he’s up to more socializing.
“Yes, yes, fine, but before you go…” he says, flapping his hand at me to stay as he pushes his chair back. He walks over to the coffee table and opens a drawer, pulling out a tablet. “My granddaughter got this for me for Christmas. She showed me how to use it, but when I try on my own, I can’t make sense of it. I don’t want to keep asking for help. You always teach well, so you show me. I always understand things better when you tell me them.”
I’m touched by the compliment, especially coming from Mo, who doesn’t offer them freely. “I’ll do my best. What are you trying to do?”
“I just want to look at posts on Facebook and send e-mail,” Mo says. “I used to do e-mail on my computer at home, but I don’t know how it works on here.”
That seems simple enough. The first problem is that he’s not on the Wi-Fi, used to a wired modem that would be on all the time. Whoever set this up for him didn’t put on automatic login. He has a piece of paper with Palissandre’s password on it, and I set it up so it will always connect if he’s near it. E-mail seems easier to start with than Facebook.
“Ayoye, look at all those messages,” he mutters, as they download from the server. “Everyone will think I’ve died for not answering.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much, most of it will be spam,” I say. I walk him through the icons and where to press to do what he wants. Most of his issues seem to come from the lack of mouse--touching the screen is counterintuitive to him and the keyboard is confusing. “These are emoticons, you can use them to spice up your messages.”
He peers over his glasses at the pictures. “What happened to smiley faces?”
“They grew up and had obnoxious babies,” I say.
He has a list of email addresses, so I add them into his contacts to make it easier for him to find the right recipient, and he soon has the process down, using his index fingers to peck out a message to his granddaughter and send it, tongue peeking out of his mouth in concentration. “Yes, it always makes sense when you teach me, LeBlanc.”
For a moment there, I’m the mentor and he’s the admiring student again. It makes me smile.
We try Facebook next, but it’s harder to master. The more I explain it to him, the less interested he seems to be.
“Elise said I could keep track of what everyone was doing,” he says. “This is all just silly pictures and things I don’t care about.”
I give it another go, but he’s having none of it. ‘If they want me involved, they can email me. I’m not dealing with that nonsense.’
He’ll have no arguments from me. If I hadn’t already sold my soul to Facebook in some sort of unbreakable contract, I wouldn’t be dealing that nonsense, either. Now it’s like the mafia--I simply can’t get out.
I help set-up Siri for him so, if he gets confused, she can hopefully help him.
“You just have to say ‘dis, Siri’, and she’ll come on,” I explain. “And you can ask her to open your e-mail for you or a question like what the weather is or how old...Queen Elizabeth is, and she’ll find that out for you.”
Mo gives this a tentative try, politely asking her to tell him about the curling scores. He’s delighted when she brings up search results for him. “Technology is wonderful,” he declares.
“It has its moments,” I agree.
I download some apps I think he might enjoy, and I can tell he’s ready to spend the rest of the day playing away with his new toy. It’s a good time for me to go.
“The lectures start early tomorrow,” I say. “I better get going.”
Mo raises his bushy eyebrows at me. “LeBlanc, it’s barely six at night and you don’t sleep. You might as well have said you left a roast in the oven. Go if you want to go, I’ve known you too long for you to be polite about it. Foutez le camp!”
I hold my hands up in surrender. “Next time I’ll just get up and walk out, shall I?”
“Better than all the fussy nonsense we have to do at the door.”
I try to keep the fussy nonsense to a minimum, but I am aware that at the age Mo is, any time I see him might be the last time, so I give him a hug instead of a handshake, and he hugs me in return instead of fobbing me off, giving me a hard slap on my back.
“Thanks for coming,” he says. “It’s always good to see you.”
“My pleasure,” I reply. “Look after yourself.”
“No choice around here, don’t worry. I don’t need to tell you to do the same, but I hope you have a good life until I see you again, mon vieux.”
“I’ll do my best.”