sipped his beer. He and the priest were listening to
"Strutting With Some Barbecue." The priest had been
reading an account by a Czech writer who had listened
to this music as a boy during the Second World War.
"They looked up the title in an English-Czech dictionary,
'walking pompously with a piece of roasted meat'what
could it mean?" They both laughed. "When I was a seminarian,
the priests learned of my affection for this music and
they punished me. They told me it was carnal music."
"Have you watched MTV?"
"I have, briefly, while looking
for the news, yes."
"What would they have said to that?"
"Their heads would have popped
right out of their cassocks."
"I suppose you could argue that
music worth listening to is always carnal." The priest
nodded at that. "People hunger for things. Rhythm and
blues is about hunger, perhaps, more than it is about
sin." He tapped his foot to the beat.
"Hungerfor liquor and women
and dope." Balthazar leaned back, eyes shut and also
tapping his foot, teasing the priest.
"Hard to imagine anyone enjoying
this music who doesn't understand those hungers."
"Keith, if that's your clumsy way
of asking if I've ever desired anyone, the answer is
yes. I've fallen in love, in fact. Which is not the
same as acting upon it, of course."
"Falling in love is certainly an
act, in itself."
"It isn't the definitive act. As
Balthazar grinned uncomfortably
at the sudden intimacy. "I'm sure anyone human has been
"You know that isn't true, either."
"Though one could assert the opposite:
anyone who has been in love is certainly human."
"Well, here's to us humans."
There was a pause in the conversation
as the priest examined what Balthazar had just said.
Then he resumed nodding to the bass line. The song finished
and then the priest put on Muddy Waters singing slow.
"Are you still in contact with the person you allude
"Yes," Balthazar said, and he could
see Bernard deciding who it was.
"But you did not act," Bernard
"Not in the way you mean, no."
"That is better."
"I'm not sure."
"If you had, would you have maintained
your other secrets?"
Balthazar was unable to speak,
so Bernard answered for him.
"Either she would have known, and
eventually revealed you, or she would have made it unnecessary."
Balthazar nodded. "Which would
have been much better, actually."
"To have been content."
"Why are you afraid, Keith?"
"Maybe He does. He keeps His own
secrets too, in my experience."
Bernard laughed. "Hardly."
It was storming and Baltha-zar
had been stuck in the priests' residence for four days,
waiting for a flight to Repulse Bay. Father Bernard
was near the end of his time thereas was Balthazar,
it turned out. At some level, they both knew this. Hence,
the revelatory nature of their conversation.
Balthazar stood on the shore of
the frozen bay and looked eastward. Under his feet was
an amalgam of gravel and frozen sea water that merged
imperceptibly into the whiter and flatter sea ice, which
stretched all the way to the floe edge. A thin purplish
haze hung on the eastern horizon, as the sea water sublimated
into the dry and frozen air hanging over it. He spotted
a figure walking into town. As he stood there the figure
grew slowly larger, weaving its way between ridges of
soft snow and heaped-up shelves of sea ice. It walked
unerringly toward Balthazar, and when the figure was
thirty feet from the shore he lifted his hood off his
head. It was Simon Alvah.
They had never been introduced,
but Alvah had been there long enough that they each
knew perfectly well who the other was.
"Out for a walk?"
"Nothing like what you've just
been up to."
"Well, that's purely a function
of circumstance, my boat being as far away as it is.
If I were doing it over again, I'd have anchored closer
to town. This trudge is getting old."
"Keeps one trim, I suppose."
"I'm trying to put on weight. Do
you have any idea how cold a steel boat is, out here?"
"My technique: Cheez Doodles and
Nodding. "Things still pretty nuts
Balthazar blinked. "Oh, you mean
the murder and everything."
"Especially the 'and everything'
"Does anyone around here
ever actually talk about anything out loud?"
"Not to me."
"How long have you been here?"
"Twenty years or so."
"Do you think they talk out loud
even to themselves?"
"So you actually got any of them
Cheez Doodles and beer you mentioned?"
Justine had an appointment to see
him, but when Balthazar looked eagerly into the waiting
room for Victoria, he was disappointed to see only her
daughter sitting there. He waved to her.
"Hi, Justine. Is your mom late?"
"She's not coming."
"Is that okay?"
"Sure, if it's okay with you."
He closed the door behind her and
sat down at his desk. She took the chair beside it.
"So how are you?"
"I'm okay. You?"
"I'm fine. Your mom okay?"
"She's worried about Marie."
"Of course. You must be too."
"Is that what you wanted to talk
"Because, I can't really, you know."
"I know. She's told me everything
"So what can I do for you?"
"I want to start on the pill."
"Your mom know about this?"
He dropped his eyes to her chart.
"Okay. You're going to need to have a Pap test and everything.
I'll set it up with one of the nurses."
"Is there anything you need to
ask about the various contraceptive options?"
"Okay." Normally the nurses handled
this sort of work. And normally when he had this kind
of conversation, the girl would be pawing at the door
by now. Justine sat in her chair, looking straight at
him, her eyes locked on his Adam's apple, it appeared.
"What's on your mind, Justine?"
She looked at him. "So, not talking
about Marie or anything, how would someone know if they
were going crazy?"
"You're having a hard time with
all this, huh? Your dad's death and everything."
He leaned forward, his elbows on
his knees. "See, that's the thing, we're all just about
going crazy half the time. Anyone who's been through
what you have lately is, anyway. Do you ever think about
She shook her head.
"That's all anyone can expect of
you. And if you start thinking about that, it wouldn't
be so surprising either. Just don't do anything about
it. And come see me."
"It's okay with me if you tell
my mother I was here."
"I can't see why the matter would
"I'm just saying. I'm not hiding
Excerpted from Consumption
by Kevin Patterson. Copyright 2006 Kevin Patterson.
Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement
with the Publisher. All rights reserved.