Monday, 21 January 2013

A CHRISTMAS SURPRISE

Uncle Gnarley is no Scrooge.  He has a conscience often fettered by doubt. As much as he likes to be hopeful, he despairs that his fellow man will ever see beyond his own front yard. He is gruff and direct though he is never mean spirited. He neither fears Christmases’ past nor those yet to come.   Indeed, his cantankerous manner belies an insouciant spirit. 

The old man had gone to bed early on Christmas Eve. Usually, I have to kick him upstairs when he stays over; conveniently, Christmas serves to justify repeat testing of our favourite single malts. On this occasion, a Balvenie, a Dalwhinnie and an Oban 14 year old, were expected to add flavor to the evening and gravitas to the matters under debate.  Only the latter, a big bodied malt with a nose of smoke, citrus and other flavors received ample tasting, when Gnarley announced he would retire and let Santa do his work.  Perhaps, the last few days of computer tutorials, compounded with the rather arduous hike to Petty Harbour, on Tib’s Eve, had worn him down in both mind and spirit.  I did not attempt to discourage him; he restated his Christmas felicitations and went upstairs.  Within minutes I could hear him snore.
As is usual, when Uncle Gnarley stays over, I bounded out of bed early to make sure preparations for an early breakfast were started, as I did, again, this Christmas morning. I especially wanted to get the coffee brewed, expresso strength, just the way he likes it.  Passing by his bedroom door, I was startled to hear guttural noises and a strange rustling of the bed; it did not resemble any of the sounds with which I associated Uncle Gnarley.  Remembering his early retirement from our festivity, and thinking him in distress, I opened the door in a hurry.  In an instant, I felt some of the same terror which seemed to have overcome our favourite guest.  
Writhing from one side of the bed to the other, he expelled a variety of mumbled expressions, though few phrases were comprehensible.  He seemed to be pleading with someone.  Beads of perspiration ran down his forehead and weathered nose, his arms and legs flailed as he tried to extricate himself from whatever force had possessed him.    “One more chance”, was the expression that seemed to have the most clarity.  I took hold of his arm and shook; the babbling continued and I shouted, “Uncle Gnarley wake up, Uncle Gnarley, wake up”.  In an instance his bony frame relaxed and the convulsing stopped.  Gnarley opened his eyes. 

“Oh, thank you, Nav”, he uttered, “thank you, thank you”, he continued as if in gratitude for some enormous favour I had performed. I imagined he had just been pulled him back from a dangerous precipice.  Clearly, I had awoken him from a troubling nightmare.    

The great man lay still, placed his head on the pillow and closed his eyes for a brief second.  He opened them just as quickly, as if in mortal fear that whatever had gripped him, would return. Suddenly, he bolted from the bed.  I threw his house coat over his shoulders and he escaped to the security of the kitchen.
Uncle Gnarley, said not a word.  He sat in his usual place, cradling his head with his two hands, both elbows propped up by his knees; this was not the picture of a normally calm and self-possessed professor.  I placed the cup of expresso in front of him.  He gulped a mouthful and then another. Slowly, he became more placid and I could see that his nightmare had ended.

What was that all about I enquired, trying to sound concerned without appearing melodramatic? “I believe, Nav”, said Uncle Gnarley, “I was visited by the Old Hag.  My dear old Mother often spoke of her own Mother, and others she knew, who had been visited in such a manner; it seems it was my turn.  At first, I felt an enormous weight on my chest”, he continued.It was impossible to breathe; I was being smothered and, yet, completely conscious of my situation.  A withered old woman stared down at me, her bony hand extended an index finger that wagged at me fiercely.  I can still see her now, lips quivering, as a hollow voice insisted, ‘no trust, Gnarley, no trust’.  Suddenly, Nav, the scene changed; I was being swept down a raging river.  In the distance, a great falls was approaching and I was able to glimpse an unfinished concrete monolith.  I think it was the proposed Muskrat Falls generating station.  I was looking for someone, anyone who might throw me a life line, but as I bobbed up and down I saw not a soul; the structure seemed completely alone and abandoned.  The strange part was that I felt no fear of being consumed by the fast moving water; what gripped me was an intense feeling of being let down, as if I was being made to feel an enormous loss”.    
“My, oh my”, a clearly shocked Uncle Gnarley kept saying, trying to come to terms with the happening. He mopped a sparse head of hair that seemed thinner and greyer than ever.  Who was she suggesting that you not trust, I asked?  “I’m not sure, quite frankly; but, the Old Hag was clearly determined to leave me a message and extract a promise to do something, what exactly, I am not sure.  Of course, Nav, much of her babbling made little sense to me, though I remember that, as she lifted herself from my old frame, her parting words were “… trust must be borne out, Gnarley”.  It was the second time she actually called me by name; it was clearly,  me, that the apparition had sought .  Nav, what do you think it all means”?   

I was unprepared to respond.  The image that he had described was too distressing to contemplate, too painful.  We had been debating the Muskrat Falls project for many months, and we had both agreed that lack of trust permeated the whole idea.  Bad judgement, poor analysis and empire building gave weight to the thesis.  Opened ended contracts, Nalcor’s exemption from the Public Tendering Act and politicians who refused to answer questions made the process patently seedy. Bureaucrats, with no real world experience, raced to risk.  It was not their risk, of course; yet, they were content to use the public’s money, anyway. 
Where does one find trust, I wondered?  Afterall, isn’t it something that is built and earned and not simply revealed? I knew, with certainty, this was not a time to burden Uncle Gnarley further.  Finally, I replied, almost dismissively, it was a dream for godsake, nothing more. 

Gnarley was exasperated; my response had been tepid.  He was fighting for control, for common sense, for the immutable logic that was the foundation of his profession, of his judgement, of who he is. That he was shaken by the unusually vivid experience was incontestable.  Again, I insisted there was no explanation to be had.    
I suggested we finish breakfast and then have a look under the Christmas tree. Who knows Santa may have thought us worthy, I suggested, attempting to inject some levity into what so far, that Christmas morning, wore only the hallmarks of a Dickensian nightmare. 

Uncle Gnarley ate quickly, soon recovering his characteristic energy. In short order, I could see he was ready to test the proposition that he might have been more nice than naughty.  What purpose has a Christmas tree, I teased him, if it does not contain at least one surprise!
Uncle Gnarley first opened a new bow tie, then a new fishing rod and together with spouse took turns as we revelled in the moment. Soon, it was Uncle Gnarley’s turn, again.  This time, he offered that he had not actually been nice all year but, if I insisted, he was prepared to be proven wrong and laughed heartily as he reached for another gift. 

The events of the early morning were wearing off.  Gnarley was enjoying himself like a kid opening his first IPad.  Spying a rather thick envelope, he picked it up, noting that I was the gifter, and wondered aloud what it might contain, since it did not have the shape of a single malt.  “Am I to be disappointed, this Christmas, Nav”? Gnarley enquired.  “I can’t imagine you have failed to discover some new elixir”!
“An envelope”, he said, enquiringly, his beard giving additional accent to a creased forehead; “a mite thick, too”, he added. Tearing off the flap, he dug into it quickly.  “A plane ticket, Nav”! stating the obvious, though with more surprise than I might have expected.  “Where on earth are you sending me? Surely, you don’t think I need a vacation, do you”?  he enquired. Inspecting the ticket, he was quick to note that the destination had the call letters YUL and the surprise disappeared in an instant. 

“Ah, Nav, Montreal, is it”?  Gnarley paused for a moment and smiled.  “What’s going on in that fine City that I would be interested in”, the question almost whispered.  A response quickly became unnecessary, as he took on a bemused expression that quizzically suggested I may be a conspirator to this morning’s happenings, though I could never conspire even with a Ghost, to inflict on Uncle Gnarley the distress that he had suffered just an hour earlier.  Nor, I thought, did I have any interest in resolving a debate between science and Newfoundland folklore on the existence of the ‘Old Hag’.  A ‘harrumph’, from Uncle Gnarley, caused me to forget these thoughts.
“The Charbonneau Commission is investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction industry”, he said solemnly, though his words held a twinge of sadness.  I could understand what was going through his mind:  intelligent, able men paraded before a betrayed public, reputations destroyed forever; all because of wanton greed. Like a cancer, it had to be exorcised.  Isn’t that the purpose of scrutiny, I thought, and of independent review? Isn’t that how we prevent trust from being betrayed? Who would refuse to jealously guard a PUB, an Auditor General, a Freedom of Information Act, all initiatives for which it took untold generations of the governed to place a value, and more still before the governors also bought in?  Such were the matters that held my train of thought when again, I heard Uncle Gnarley clear his throat, as if to demand my focus.

“What do the activities of Mr. Justice Charbonneau have to do with Muskrat Falls, Nav”? Gnarley enquired?  None, I hope, said I, but I have this idea that you may want to see how public enquiries function; some knowledge in this area may become necessary in a couple of years.  Besides, I added, you need a diversion from Muskrat Falls.  The look I was given contained a doubtful aspect.   
Quickly, though, I could see that Uncle Gnarley was warming to the idea.  Then, he grew contemplative, perhaps even withdrawn, such was the extent to which he seemed self-possessed.  I decided not to interrupt, to leave him alone with his thoughts.

Likely, he was wondering if his journey would offer any inspiration as to how he might dispel his own fears and sate the demands of an insistent Old Hag. Perhaps, he was wondering, too, whether she had ever visited Mme. Justice Charbonneau.

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