Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 28

Crushed Velvet
Elaine McCluskey

When I lived in Montreal, I worked at a magazine with a graphic designer named Madeleine. She looked like my idea of a ballerina. She was petite and graceful and walked with an unusually upright gait. With short black hair and soulful eyes, she could have been a modern-day Audrey Hepburn.

Some people come with an innate style, a look that they have never had to think about; unlike me, they just come that way. I was tall and dirty blonde, I never knew what to do with my hair or my clothes or my emotions. I was all over the place in big clumsy feet. When Peter and I were children in Halifax, our mother bought all of our shoes at one store, and the owner invariably made the same joke: “Maybe we should give her the boxes,” and my mother invariably laughed.

Madeleine could wear beautiful things I could never think of wearing: vintage polka dot dresses with belts. Fake fur coats from the seventies. She could look glamorous and natural. Madeleine knew about things I did not know about, like velvet: ciselé velvet, crushed velvet, transparent velvet, and velvet that is hammered or embossed. I was in awe of the things she knew. Madeleine kept fresh white flowers on her desk, and she lived in a red brick building as charming as she was. It was easy to spot her bedroom window—outside she had added two blue flowerpots and a small birdhouse. Next to that was a clear shelf that she kept stocked with bird feed, turning it into a year-round chickadee social.

Madeleine married a towering wild man, a rowdy character five years her junior, handsome in a Jason Momoa type of way. She was sublimely perfect in white silk. He looked as though he had been plucked from a logging camp or Game of Thrones. He rode a black fixed-gear bicycle as though there was no such thing as fear, and everyone noted how different and how happy they were.

Two years later Didier got cancer and he died.

And Madeleine retreated and never came back. She retreated into a life of teapots and window blinds; she retreated into a place where life’s cruelty could no longer find her. I saw her in a bookstore years later, grey and thick, looking nothing like she had looked in her vintage dresses, and she told me: “There are worse things than a quiet life.” 

You don’t know the people who are operating at fifty per cent, do you? The ones who know better than to trust God or fairness or the chance of tomorrow turning out just fine. They are just there, like Madeleine, putting one unsteady foot in front of the other, showing up, when they can, at birthdays and weddings, remaining—if you are observant enough to notice—numb when the laughter starts. Standing on the outside of life, gently tapping on the window of happiness, too scorched and broken to enter. 

I have an unspoken agreement with broken people. I will not judge them on what foolish, intemperate, and, at times, irrational choices they might make, and they will not judge me. 

I recently found a support group online for people who had suffered real loss, and here are the things you should never say to someone like Madeleine, in case you find yourself in that situation:

My uncle Henry had the same disease, but he was a fighter.

You are so brave.

You should be practising self-care.

It is a good thing that your mortgage will be paid off.

To this list, I will add: Do not, if you are a dental hygienist, mercilessly berate a patient who has not been in for a cleaning in two years. Do not, while they are trapped in a chair and the earth is in danger of imploding, scold them until they break. “Oh my. This is very bad. Two years!! This could lead to cancer.” On and on for forty minutes, a patient, who after the first scolding says in that dead fifty per cent voice: “People get sick, people die.” Please take this as your cue.

There are shocks that your body never recovers from. And after that you may jump if approached from behind, you may involuntarily shout. You are the defective smoke alarm that goes off when someone showers. Or you may be impotent, your battery removed. Jack was one, I was the other. Grief counsellors employ a ranking system to assess your pain, awarding points based on the age of the deceased, their family position, physical proximity and/or degree of independence, and none of that helps. There is no logic to loss.

On the support group’s page, members offered advice while sharing their struggles. On the concept of new relationships, which Madeleine never pursued, one man stated: “Over time I came to believe that you can love two people, as long as you are not hurting anyone.”

“The days before my son’s birthday are always bad,” said another.

There are people like Madeleine who never seek joy again, and then there are people who want to reclaim it, and they rush out and find a new love and they have that baby they always wanted, and you can’t judge anyone, you just can’t. 

****

When Peter and I were children, the Dandos lived down the street and they were not like us.

The family appeared stuck in time, stuck in unfortunate circumstances they could never quite leave behind. There was an aura of implicit shame. The Dandos seemed to be descended from a long line of mole people, people who had been steeped in smoke and coal dust, people who lived on a diet of canned peas and margarine someone had been too lazy to colour, so that it sat there on the plate like a white lump of lard.

I always think of that margarine when I think of the Dandos. Why would someone not add that packet of colouring, the one that came with it? Why was that so hard? 

Our family was not like that. We could be bright and shiny and fresh as butter; we could look like we were, all of us, trying. We could look like we had no genetic memory of hard times or poverty or tuberculosis. We could seem like the embodiment of optimism and upward mobility. We could seem special.

After I started all of this, this memoir, this attempt to figure out who we really were and what went wrong, I asked myself: What are you looking for? Does it exist? If I were to unspool the truth, would it consist of uneven threads of deception and heartbreak? Because what is truth when weighed against mercy? Or survival.

Sometimes you can explain who people are by describing who they are not. We, for better or for worse, were not the Dandos. I was not Madeleine. At one point in my life, I was that girl who got by on her looks. For a while, in my twenties, I lived on a cul de sac of excitement where I stole men who weren’t even mine and kept them or left them. There are people who cannot give that up, the thing they found easy. But I could, and I did, and then I got old, and it did not matter anymore.

One night, one of the Dandos came into the Lucky Lady Casino where I work. Everyone was uneasily chatty. The day before a hurricane had ripped through town, uprooting gigantic oaks and in the air was relief. Relief that it was over. I knew him, the Dando, at first glance. His looks had not changed; his hair was grey, that is all. The family had only one nose among them; it was as though that is all they could afford on the father’s post office salary. A large droopy nose that gave them all a sad look.

“Great to see you,” I said.

Danny had, after high school, it turns out, gone to work at a brewery where he had been employed for thirty years until he retired with a pension and a lifetime supply of beer. He wintered in Florida in a trailer. He and his wife had developed an aptitude for bridge which they played three nights a week. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

The Dandos, I must note, never hurt a single soul. 

They joined the navy cadets, they attended vocational school, they had paper routes, and they never hurt anyone. I think that is important to establish. The Dandos, despite their downtrodden demeanour and poor infrastructure, never hurt anyone, which I never understood the full importance of until I was older. 

When you have lived a life like mine, you believe that we are all flawed, haunted, and, to a degree, doomed. You allow for tics and peccadilloes; you allow for human blunders. But you draw the line at deliberate cruelty. And murder, of course.

“Is your dad still in the house?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” I replied, having spoken to my celebrated father that very day. 

“Well, tell him Danny Dando says hello. Danny with the hand grenade.”

“Okay.”

“We had some fun with that.”


Excerpts from The Gift Child, a novel in progress.
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