By Patrick S. Wolfe
You’d never know from the way she talked to him that he was a renowned writer and world-traveler, but he was. Her ability to make him seem unexceptional, to reduce his romantic wanderings to wayward boyishness, was more than a little irritating. He chalked it up to another manifestation of the curious separateness his life had taken on in contrast to the banal humdrum of most people’s lives. He felt her verbal swats and jabs at his lifestyle were part of the price of fame, another example of the undue suffering the ill-informed masses caused the great to bear. His tolerance of her abuse was simply confirmation of his own rarefied stature. It comforted him to know that he only had to endure the pettiness of her presence once or twice a year. These periodic detours away from his work, which meant his travels and writing—or “my incessant search” as he was apt to say grandly—were necessitated by his only child, a boy named Byron, and by a promise he had made to his wife—a promise which, incidentally, represented the extent to which he had roots in any place or person. So now, as he had seven months earlier, he returned from his drifting dreamer’s home in ancient Asian waters, where he kept a houseboat and did most of his writing, to fulfill his obligations: to visit Janet, his mundane spinster sister-in-law, and to see how Byron was getting on.
He was thinking about his next book, a novel about a mythic lost civilization in South America that lived in perfect bliss and harmony, which he planned to begin when he returned to his home in the Indian Ocean the next week, as Janet berated him about Byron who, she claimed, was getting as peculiar and distant as he was. It was her standard discourse on his lamentable failure as a father and, indeed, as a caring human being. But he did not hear her. Initially her conversation was an attempt at pleasantry and as such was sufficiently innocuous to allow him to quite constructively use the time to flesh out in his mind the lines of his newest lost civilization. She soon realized his imperviousness, however, and changed her conciliatory tone to one of combat, which she felt was more to the point considering the wholly unusual relationship between him, Byron, and herself, which, in truth, was a lack of any real relationship at all.
As her reddening face contorted more tightly and her saliva began to either dart toward him in a lively fashion or drool over her lower lip, it was not the raging wet anger of her argument that caught his attention, but rather her repeated prefacing of her infinite supply of defamatory statements with “George!” which unfortunately was the first of his given names. “George! George! George!” he kept hearing her nasty, vile, cutting, squeaky sewer of a voice say. Oh, how he hated it!
In the face of this unbecoming onslaught he reminded himself that she was simply a stupid member of mediocrity’s mass and that she, like his dead wife, did not understand that the George he had been prior to his emergence from obscurity was no longer a true reflection of his real being. He was, as his writings proclaimed, G. Walter Scott Eden, and his books and articles, which held out a wondrous vision for mankind, were his essence. The glorious and liberating adventure of his success had begun during the second year of his marriage and had finally freed the proud and purposeful romantic animal in him, which had previously been restrained by a rather bashful shallowness.
George swore up and down that his literary success did not begin until he dropped George for G. In fact, the inclusion of the alphabet’s fifth consonant, which was initially seen as an effort to minimize the deleterious effects of George on the rest of his authorial persona (which he regarded as a sign of God’s blessing), turned out, he felt, to be a positive addition rather than a simple neutralizer. Somehow it seemed that the “G.” emphasized the profundity and poignancy of his written work. Truly, his name was the most singular aspect of his literary talent.
As he reveled in exalted thoughts about his magnificent name, which seemed to him now to have almost predetermined his fame, he was again oblivious to Janet’s continuing diatribe except for the stinging touch of hot spray he occasionally felt on his face. The prefacing exclamations of “George!” had momentarily subsided leaving him thoroughly detached from Janet and her idiot noises. And during this sequestered silence he recalled happily how he had managed to attach some meaning to George by naming his son Byron rather than Christopher as had been his wife’s desire. It was while he was remembering this splendid bit of inspiration, this closest of his attachments to his son, that Janet, finally realizing that he hadn’t heard a word she’d said, bellowed “George!” ferociously in a last ditch effort to get his attention.
Shaken from his reveries, George looked upon Janet with royal condescension as he wiped a weighty gob of spit from below his left eye. He grimaced and swallowed with distaste as he was forced again to see the cramped ugliness of her kitchen, clean and functional though it was. What a horrible little place, he thought, as he waited for her to say something. But she was quiet now, the rage having gone out of her, and a look of infinite incredulity on her face. George decided he rather liked her that way. Then, quick as a darting snake, seeing his chance to disengage from this unfortunate situation—he had gotten very good at this over the years—he beat his retreat saying: “I think I’ll be off now. I’ll see Byron at the school and be out of your way.”
He stood up and stepped around the table toward Janet. Smiling magnanimously and patting her on the shoulder as she sat there still looking incredulous, he took a package and an envelope from his overcoat pocket and said: “Here’s your cheque and my latest writings. Perhaps you should get Byron to read them to you.” This jolted her out of her daze and rekindled her rage, but before she could speak, he, sensing the renewed upheaval, said hastily: “I’ll see myself to the door,” and, as he ran down the hall, “if you need anything, write,” which he just got out of his little serpent’s slit of a mouth in time and seemed to Janet a receding echo as he exited posthaste out the front door.
He nearly tripped down the front steps as a result of the viciously bellowed “George!” which emanated from Janet and followed him out the egress. Really, though, it was only a bellow of helplessness which Janet produced almost gleefully as though she knew it was her only solace when George was around. God, she thought, as the door slammed behind him leaving her there alone facing the package containing his latest batch of seductive fantasies. She wanted to throw them out, but she knew that she could not as they were the life-blood of Byron’s anemic existence.
As George drove to Byron’s high school in the great boat of a car he had rented at the airport he tried to think of his son and what he would say to him, but Janet’s final infernal bellow of his name kept recurring in his mind the same way that vague memories of the past sometimes troubled him and interfered with his quest for the idyllic future. For the life of him, he could not remember anything of his last visit with Byron, and that, for some unknown reason, bothered him because it had been for six days the previous autumn, the longest period of time he had spent with his son since his wife’s death, which had occurred on Byron’s second birthday, a week before their third anniversary, and a month after he had finished his splendid second book. But this forgetfulness is explained by the fact that they hadn’t really talked about anything; anything, that is, other than his writings, which they often read aloud together and about which Byron often asked questions. Indeed, other than eat and sleep and ignore Aunt Janet, they had done nothing but sit in Byron’s room or walk along the beach and discuss the collected works of G. Walter Scott Eden.
George began to recall these loving conversations as he approached the school and he thought that it would be wonderful if he had other followers as devoted as Byron. Of the small number of his numerous fans that he had met, it sorrowed him that none seemed to have anything like the keenness that Byron had. As he got out of his titanic car with stylish, unstudied ostentation, he told himself that it was only a matter of time before the fervor began. Things would be different when Byron came of age and began writing and promoting the cause, too. He stopped on the cement path leading to the school’s main entrance and choked down the emotion that had suddenly welled up. When he had composed himself, he went inside and down the wide hallway, nosier than usual with the traffic of noon hour, to the main office.
“Oh my, hello, Mr. Eden,” one of the secretaries who had met him before chortled with surprise and reverence.
He smiled benignly and added a little aristocratic bow as a gratuitous thrill for her as she left her desk and came toward the counter where he stood with such noble bearing. He took great satisfaction in knowing that he could act the role of G. Walter Scott Eden and do it with aplomb. Indeed, this role was his life. He was a writer and his name a symbol and just now the two had merged in a manner that his grand vision knew was God-like.
“I’d like to see my son, Byron,” he said momentarily as she stood star-struck before him.
“Oh,” she said seriously and added with grave earnestness, “I hope he’s in the school.”
She walked across the office to the table where the microphone for the school intercom was kept and she repeated twice in a rasping voice quite different from the one she had used a moment before: “Byron Eden, report to the office, please.” She turned and looked at George and he smiled approvingly at her. The thought quickly crossed his mind that these moments of service to G. Walter Scott Eden were probably the high point of her career. When, after a few minutes, Byron didn’t appear, she repeated her call over the intercom. She felt wretched as she waited again for Byron to arrive. Poor Mr. Eden, she thought.
“I’m afraid Byron doesn’t seem to be in the school,” she said apologetically, again changing the tone of her voice. “He’s probably eating his lunch outside on the grounds. I’ll accompany you if you’d like to have a look.”
“That would be good of you,” Mr. Eden replied with charming aloofness.
As he and the secretary went out one side door, Byron (or B.C. Eden as he liked to imagine himself being known out of deference to his dear dead mother’s wish and to imitate the initialed character of his father’s famous name) dreamily slipped into the school through another door quite unaware of the wondrous proximity of his father. But even had Byron known of G. Walter Scott Eden’s imposing presence, it is unlikely it would have diverted his course. Indeed, he felt he was engaged in a pursuit, a quest that was the very essence of the truth G. Walter Scott Eden espoused. Indeed and indeed, as the Great Eden, that is the senior Eden, wrote of and prophesized the fulfillment of mankind, so now he, Eden the younger, felt himself on the verge of the first great fulfillment of his life and it filled him with an almost overpowering sensation of the ultimate success of his father’s cause.
With blissful, oblivious stealth, he skipped quickly down the corridor and into the first empty classroom. He closed the doors so that he was shut off from the rest of the school. Then he went purposefully over to the row of desks closest to the windows. Gazing intently outward, he sat down sideways on one of the desk seats. He was almost in a trance. He was looking out across the grass of the schoolyard to where Virginia sat talking with her current boyfriend, but Byron did not see the boyfriend, he only saw Virginia sitting in the middle of the lush green field resplendent as the sun centering the perfectly blue spring sky.
“Ah, yes, yes,” he thought as he watched her from his isolated vantage point. He knew that she was for him and that it was only a matter of time before she realized it, too. He had no doubt about it whatsoever, which is why it was so wonderful. They would be a symbol for mankind and their happiness would augur that which was to come for all the world. The great garden of goodness was to come again. Umm, what utter maddening joy he felt as he looked out upon the perfect presence of the forgotten female of long ago. His mind drifted on and on…
Then, suddenly out of nowhere, his father and the secretary seemed to appear in the pristine scene before him. They turned and looked around and as they did Byron pondered the significance of this apparition. His mind in flight as it was, he did not recognize the secretary and he thought that she was his departed mother who he hardly remembered but sorely missed. What could better complement his vision of Virginia than the reunion of his parents? His thoughts drifted further and further into imagination and delight. Prompted by the scene before him, he slipped into a timeless altered state.
He startled back to consciousness with the ringing of the one o’clock buzzer. He looked out the window to find that Virginia had gone. The field seemed barren although numerous students were crossing it to enter the school. Then, remembering his father, he leapt up and ran out of the still empty room to the office where he found the secretary.
“Byron!” she exclaimed as he burst into the office. “Where have you been?”
Disoriented, he stared at her for a long moment. Had he not just seen her? But the question was lost as the compelling urgency he had felt reasserted itself and he quickly refocused on his father.
“Have you seen him?” he demanded suddenly.
“Who?” she asked stupidly, seemingly hypnotized by his strange stare.
“My father,” he pleaded almost hysterically.
“Oh… oh, yes,” she said quietly, hesitantly, finally breaking out of the nether world of his fiery eyes. “He had to go, Byron. He said he had to get home to start a new book he’s excited about. He said you’d understand.”
Byron felt hollow standing there in front of the counter where, unbeknownst to him, his father had stood less than an hour before. The manic, overpowering desire had drained out of him like blood sucked by a seductive, quick-striking leech.
“Byron, are you alright?” the secretary asked.
He managed a small unconvincing nod as he left the office. He did not understand why he felt so let down. For a few moments, down in the emotional depths of his being, the nonpareil of his father seemed to trigger more than simple disciple-like adulation for G. Walter Scott Eden. The venom that laced his tangled troubled thoughts shocked him; they were so strange and unfamiliar. Then the school buzzer sounded again beginning the homeroom attendance period and he realized that he was late. Running back down the corridor to his homeroom, the poisoned emptiness he had briefly experienced left him as he remembered Virginia would be in his first class that afternoon.
Byron made it to his homeroom without any difficulty as his homeroom teacher was late as well. While the class was waiting for the teacher to arrive and take attendance, the secretary appeared in the doorway at the front of the class. She had a note for Byron, a note from his father that she had forgotten to give him. Byron read it while the teacher, who had arrived as the secretary was departing, checked the roll. It was a typical note from his father, perhaps a little shorter than one of his infrequent letters.
My dearest Byron,
Hoped to see you this noon hour, but couldn’t find you. Am sorry. Got in last night and saw Aunt Janet this A.M. We didn’t get on, as usual. I know she’s a good woman, but oh so limited! I trust you don’t find her too trying.
Had planned to stay a couple of days, but troubles with A.J. and a splendid new idea that occurred to me on the plane here caused me to see the wisdom of a hasty retreat to my beloved houseboat. I know you can appreciate my need for unentangled freedom. When you become of age, my son, I shall buy you a houseboat so that you, too, might ply the seven seas in search of the world’s wonders. Together we will anchor the great rainbow that will rise from tomorrow’s horizon!
Your father, G. Walter Scott Eden
P.S. I very much envy you living here on the western edge of the New World. How fabulously romantic! Strangely, however, I rather fear these northwestern waters of yours. I don’t know why exactly, except that they seem so final with the great ominous Pacific lying endlessly before you. I prefer the placid waters of the old eastern world. But I know I’m missing something here. Perhaps you can explain it to me?
Byron sat pensively at his desk not knowing what to make of his father’s postscript. How unusual it was for G. Walter Scott Eden to ask a question, to hint at some interior doubt! But the thought quickly passed as he remembered what his father said about the West in his writings. Compared to G. Walter Scott Eden’s books and articles, this note Byron held in his hand was absolutely inconsequential. The West was the New World and New World was the Promised Land. The West provided mankind with a pathway on which he could return to purity and peace of mind. The West, Byron had repeatedly read, was a place where dreams come true.
Indeed, it was, for here on the Pacific coast, the continent’s lookout to the hope beyond, he had found Virginia. Only the night before he had walked down by the beach in the area of her home, as had become his habit, in expectation of her fated flight into his arms. He would be there again tonight. The thought warmed and inspired him. He recalled the most beautiful words he had ever read, a sentence from a story his father had written: “The West,” his captive mind recited, “is like a beautiful young maiden, virgin and new and full of promise.” He remembered how delighted he had been when he, precocious and deeply needy, had discovered that story, especially that sentence, at the age of eight. That sentence had been an integral part of his mental make-up ever since. It had filled a hole, taken the place of something that previously had been missing in his life. He was hearing the sentence echo happily in his mind, sensing the delight it still gave him—only he was sure his delight was far more mature now—when the school buzzer sounded again.
During the short break between homeroom period and the first afternoon class, Byron went to his locker to get his textbooks for world history and chemistry as well as his notebooks. He was a poor student who, according to his report cards, had trouble staying on task. Despite the dullness he attributed to his history teacher and to their textbook, he was better able to tolerate that subject as he believed he and his father were playing a yet unrecognized special part in it. As the only class he shared with Virginia, it was also the only class to which he always looked forward. Virginia and history went together. They foreshadowed the coming cosmic convergence. He was anticipating this, just as he was anticipating seeing her momentarily, as he rummaged for his textbooks.
The guy who had the locker next to his, a goofy garrulous jock, was also getting his books during the break.
“Hey, did you hear the news?” he asked Byron in an excited conspiratorial whisper.
“What?” Byron asked vaguely, lost in the fantastic fantasy of his thoughts, still idly searching for his notebooks.
“Virginia Newman got knocked up.”
“What!” Byron said again in a barely audible voice, not believing what he’d heard. He was absolutely stunned.
“Yeah,” the bright-eyed jock assured him, taking a devilish delight in his information.
Byron could not believe it. You only read about such things; they didn’t really happen—not like this, anyway. No, it wasn’t possible.
“She’s leaving school,” the jock continued. “She’s going to get married.”
Byron felt numb. He seemed to freeze in his crouched position at the base of his open locker. His history text was in a heap before him, open to a picture of Oswald Spengler, but he did not notice it. Then the buzzer for the commencement of the first afternoon class sounded. For some reason he was beginning to hate that infernal noise.
“You’d better hustle,” the jock said as he left.
Byron grabbed a notebook without checking which class it was for and slammed his locker door shut. He caught up to the jock.
“Who’s she marrying?” he asked with searing intensity.
The jock gave him a condescending look. “Adam Gardner,” he declared in a manner that indicated any dummy would have known that. Gardner was Virginia’s current boyfriend. Byron did not know anything about him except that he was older, a comparative newcomer to the school, and quite a wiz with the girls.
Virginia was not in history and Byron felt the emptiness about her desk inside himself. It was awful not having her there to look at. The fruition of his dream, which had seemed so close, so attainable, such a short time ago, had vanished like the vague nightmares that sometimes tormented him. He hated history without Virginia as he hated those nightmares. It was horrible, like the browning apple core some rotter had left beneath her desk. He felt like an old hulk beached upon some forbidden shore and he kept seeing the beginnings of a great ocean before him. Then the postscript of G. Walter Scott Eden’s note was ringing like an alarm in his head. Momentarily, he realized the school buzzer was sounding once more. History was over. Byron left his books on his desk and, amidst his classmates, left the room. Although the buzzer had stopped, the bell-like alarm, the tolling, continued to echo loudly back and forth across the cavernous emptiness he felt. It continued as he left the school and walked, trance-like, to the beach. He walked on through the park and on down to the shore, to the edge of the Pacific, where there before him, all too real, stood Virginia.
“Hi, Byron. What are you doing here?” she asked gaily as he approached her, not seeing the confusion and abandonment in his eyes.
“Are you really getting married?” he managed to ask in a constrained, almost choking voice.
“Yes,” she said with a big maternal smile.
He imagined Adam the second inside her, then Adam the third and the fourth and the fifth. It was a mad, impure procession. He suddenly realized she was not unique. Then the trance returned, and he was walking again; he walked by her as though he had not stopped, as though she was not there. He walked right on into the cold water and when he could not walk any longer he began to swim. His clothes got heavier and heavier, but he struggled on westward out to sea. At first Virginia laughed, then she began to scream, but Byron did not hear her.
Later that afternoon Byron’s Aunt Janet was informed of his death. She was not very surprised. Nor was she much saddened. Instead she felt released from that deep rage in her which only George had been able to bring to the surface. She smiled inwardly when she realized she would never stutter or spit revenge at him again. The curse had been broken; reality had finally triumphed over the reveries of that wretched romanticism. Now at last her sister could rest in peace; the final bond with her husband had drowned in that vast, deadly ocean.
George, finally, had his full freedom. That ridiculous romantic was no longer responsible for anyone. He had been liberated from the tragic promise Cecelia had gotten him to make. Poor Cecelia, Janet thought. Why she had ever married him, she did not know, but Cecelia soon found out that he could not be held. Then, when she was dying—Janet felt it was more from a broken heart than anything else—she had tried to reform him, tried to get him to care about people a little, by having him promise not to forget Byron, but in the end that only resulted in her son’s death, too. So, along with George’s books and articles, which had been the only possessions Byron had prized, Janet sent word of the drowning to:
Aboard the houseboat “Utopia”
By the time George got the letter, Byron would be buried safely by his mother’s side. Janet had decided, after some thought, that there was no need for George’s presence at the funeral. After all, he lived in a lost world and there was no reason to disturb him now that Cecelia and her beloved boy had been reunited.
Text copyright © 2020 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
- This story is a modified version of the original, which was published in Martlet Magazine, an insert in The Martlet, the newspaper of the Alma Mater Society of the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Volume 17, Number 15, December 1, 1977, 11-12. ↑