Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Two Excerpts: David Churchill’s Novel, The Empire of Death

In July 2008, I’d been working on an idea for a novel set in Jazz-era New York City. The research was intense and the project was daunting. Since it was to be my first novel, I gradually came to see that I wasn’t ready for something that complex. I hadn’t yet set the idea completely aside when I settled onto my couch one very rainy Sunday to watch a little TV. I turned on the History Channel and watched a show called Cities of the Underworld. This American documentary series, hosted in 2008 by Eric Geller, examined the underground realms of cities around the world. On this afternoon, it was about the 280 kilometres of abandon limestone quarries beneath the city of Paris. By the late 1700s, these tunnels were collapsing, toppling city buildings into the underground. At the same time, the city’s cemeteries were full to bursting. During the rainy season, cadavers would get washed out of the cemeteries and end up in people’s basements. 

The government decided to do two things: one, send men into the underground to build support pillars to prevent further collapse; and two, move the six million skeletal remains from the city’s cemetery into the underground. Henceforth, this world would be called the catacombs. Only one 1800-metre portion of the catacombs contains the skeletal remains. It is now one of Paris’ oddest tourist attractions. The bones are all piled up neatly. Most of the bones are held in place by a wall made up of tibias, femurs and skulls. Every few years, the walls start to collapse. The exhibit is closed for several months as workers go in and rebuild these bone walls to prevent further collapse. As I watched this, I had a ‘what if’ moment. My 'what if' moment became the starting point for my novel, The Empire of Death. My protagonist, Martin Maxwell, is one of those people who, every three or four years, is brought in to rebuild those walls in the catacombs.. 

The first excerpt is from part way into Chapter One. Martin Maxwell is out on the town with his friend, Calandra Smith. He is about to return to Toronto after working in the catacombs for the previous five months. Unfortunately, due to the intensity of the work, this was his only chance to get together with the Paris-based Calandra. In a mostly deserted restaurant, La Marlotte, Martin and Calandra observe a couple coming in and, over the course of an hour, breaking up. The woman abruptly departs, leaving the man alone at his table:

“I thought we were ready to go,” I said. Calandra took a sip of her Cognac and looked me in the eye.

“Why don’t we invite him over to our table?” she asked. Uh oh. Her scheme was hatching.

“Are you nuts?”

“Why do you say that? Look at the poor fellow.” Before I could stop her, she put out her cigarette, got out of her chair and walked over to him.

“Pardon moi, monsieur?” The man looked at Calandra. A slight change in his body language occurred: he no longer slumped but sat upright. Calandra does that to men.

“Oui, madame,” he said.

“My friend and I just saw what happened,” she said in English, so I could understand (she was good at keeping ‘my strange secret’ – as she called my thing about French – a secret). “Nobody should be alone at a moment like this. Would you … would you like to join us?”

He looked over at me, gave a smile and a nod, and said, “No thank you, madame, but that is very kind—”

“We insist,” she said. No, we didn’t.

“I do not wish to impose—” he said.

"It’s no imposition.” Yes, it was, but I kept a thin smile on my face. The man glanced over at me again. I think he saw that I didn’t want this much either.

“I think it is not such a good idea…” Calandra can be persistent when she wants to do something. Nobody can deny her.

“No, please, join us. My name’s Calandra.” She picked up his café au lait and started to walk backwards with it towards our table, smiling expectantly at him – I assumed so, since I couldn’t see her face, but I knew my Calandra’s every facial expression. She probably had her eyebrows raised in that appealing manner of hers, her face filled with an ear-to-ear grin.

"Very well, as long as monsieur does not mind.”

“No, of course not,” I said with fake good humour … well, it was my one and only night with Calandra in Paris. “Please. Join us.” I rose to greet our new friend. Calandra turned, smiled at me and put his café au lait on our table. I pulled out Calandra’s chair, as any gentleman should.

“Martin Maxwell.”

“Jean-Jacques Pindefleurs.” We shook hands as he sat down. “And I have already met, ah, Calandra. That is a very pretty name.”

“Her parents…”

"Martin, please don’t. He doesn’t care.”

“Yes, but of course I do. Please go on, Martin.”

“Her parents.” Calandra started to blush as I told the story. I could see it begin around her earlobes; that’s where her blush always started. “Well, they wanted her to have a memorable first name. But not too strange. Not like Zowie Bowie, or something. Anyway, nobody shortens it to Cally.” She gave me a playfully dark look as the blush started to move up her cheeks. “Not if they want to walk straight again.”

“How is that any different than the way you react when people call you Marty?” she said, grinning. The blush continued down her neck. She covered up well, but I knew she was kinda pissed at me.

“Touché. Sorry, Jean-Jacques—”

“I told you nobody wants to hear that silly story—” The blush had started to recede.

“Oh, you are mistaken, madame,” said Jean-Jacques. “I have always been intrigued by origins.”

“Well, anyway. We couldn’t let you stay there by yourself after your … er … girlfriend left,” said Calandra.

“Girlfriend? Yes, that is appropriate. Or was.” His English was very good, even his accent was serviceable. My guess was he’d spent time in England, not North America.

“You are both too kind. We have been coming to this point for some time. I tried everything to get her to stay together, but,” he shrugged and looked at Calandra, “when a woman makes up her mind there is little that will change it.”

“How long have you been together?” Calandra asked.

“Three years.”

“She’s American, no?” Calandra asked. He smiled.

“How did you know?”

“The way she said, ‘I’m sari’. So American. Canadians say ‘sorry,’” I said.

“So do the British,” he said.

“You’ve spent time there?” I asked.

“Oui, working in London. That is where we met. She was working for an architectural firm that I was doing business with.” The waiter walked by.

“Three pastis,” I said. “Thanks.”

“Oui, monsieur.” Our waiter brought our pastis with three small jugs of chilled water. We continued talking as we each filled our low-ball glasses containing the pastis with the water. The pastis turned from clear to cloudy.

“You’re an architect?”

“Engineer. So many questions … And you are Canadian, by your dislike of Americans?” I bristled at the suggestion.

“I don’t dislike Americans; I just hate the way they talk: ‘missal, feudal, carmel.’ Do you mean mis-sile, fu-tile and car-a-mel?”

“And the British hate the way we North Americans talk,” Calandra said and we all laughed.

“What brings you two to Paris?” He didn’t want to talk about his break-up, which was understandable, I guess.

“I live here as a translator,” said Calandra. “Written and verbal. I do some things for the EU , UN, some international corporations … basically a freelancer. English, French, Spanish, Italian and some Portuguese.”

“And you, Martin…?”

“Martin has the most beautifully creepy job,” said Calandra.

“It’s not my only job, I’m a high school history teacher in Toronto, but when I’m here, I move bones.”

“You are a chiropractor, too?” Jean-Jacques asked. Calandra and I laughed.

“No. You know the underground … the catacombs?”

“Oui,” he said. “Those hundreds of kilometres of abandoned limestone quarry tunnels under the streets of Paris. I have visited them once or twice.”

“The 1800-metre tourist section where all the bones are piled … the six million. Every three to five years, I get a call to come and rearrange a portion of them. Otherwise, they would collapse.”

“How did a Canadian get that job?”

“Especially one who doesn’t speak French worth a damn,” Calandra lied. Her sly glance over at me as she said that almost gave it away, but I thought Jean-Jacques didn’t notice.

“I don’t need to talk to the bones,” I said. “I’m actually one of ten who do it. It’s a big job. Sometimes all ten of us are needed.”

“Martin, you’re being coy,” said Calandra. “You’re not telling Jean-Jacques why.”

“A fluke, really. Ten years ago, Calandra and I were visiting Paris for the first time—”

“So, you are a couple?”

“Not really. Not even then.”

“It’s complicated,” Calandra said.

“About three months after we arrived, I hooked up with a bunch of cataphiles.”

“Oui, I’ve heard of them.”

“So, during the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1991, the other cataphiles and I broke into the illegal parts almost every night.”

“I never went,” said Calandra. “It’s a boy thing. Too dark, dank, dirty. I don’t like the idea that I may be lost forever in a, well, tomb below the streets of Paris. Too claustrophobic.”

“It’s not that bad. There was a gang of us who made new entrances – they call them catholes – and got into parts of the catacombs nobody had seen for years. Granted, the spaces were tight, but that was the challenge. Pushing the limits of—”

“Boys, doing boyly things,” Calandra interrupted.

“Boyly?” Jean-Jacques asked.

“A play on the word manly. Calandra, you’re stepping on my story.”

“Sorry, darling. Do continue.” She poured more pastis and water, lit another cigarette and did the lip thing. She leaned forward, resting her chin on her palm, her cigarette in the same hand. The smoke drifted towards the ceiling. Completely fetching.

“Anyway, we excavated and mapped unknown sections, partied, explored. We respected what we discovered. Never desecrated anything—”

“What was your name?” Jean-Jacques asked. Interesting. He obviously knew cataphiles never used their real name when they explored.

“Generation Lost. GL, for short.” Calandra let out a snort of ridicule. I narrowed my eyes at her as she smiled back at me. “What was yours?”

“I never had one,” he said. “As I said, I only went down once or twice.”

This short sequence, from Chapter Eighteen, depicts Martin trying to plough through a ton of work on his portion of the wall. Not only is he behind, but he’s also having troubles with women: Calandra, and a woman he’s recently met and is mildly attracted to, Claude.

By about 4 pm I had finally dried out, but I felt grotty. At day’s end, Claude walked through my section with a barely audible ‘au revoir.’ At least she said good-bye. I had to catch up on my work. It was going to be a long night.

Bones. Layered and entwined. Locked together. Male against female. Young against old. Diseased against murdered. Cement where needed. Hammering and tapping with the rock hammer. Hammering and tapping with the rubber mallet. Skulls inserted to achieve sacred/decorative design. Skulls with no teeth. Skulls with full sets. Skulls with no lower jaw. A skull with an axe cut in the top. Brrrrr. My signature, Snaggle Tooth. Sweat. Sweat. More sweat. The wall creeped up. Two feet. Three. Four. Five. Sliding out the thin metal sheet. Wall holds. Water down throat. Toss aside hat. Water over my head and down back. Watch. 10:30. Five hours. No break. Take off gloves. Rub hands through grimy hair. Blink away dry eyes. No luck. Still dry. Can’t sit down; won’t get up. Stretch my back. Legs. Arms. Crack neck. Gloves back on. Leave hat off. Move down ten feet. Remove first few layers of bones. Slide in sheet. Snap. Crackle. Pop. Wincing as I desecrate. Remove layer after layer after layer of bone. Simple rebuild job here. No design element. Wiggle away aches in fingers. Stretch out tendonitis. Rebuild section. Bones. Bones. Cement. Bones. Bones. More bones. Finished. Slide out sheet. Watch. 12:10. Spent. Drain rest of water. Turn to leave. Find Gaston sitting on a chair watching me work. Jump.

“Désolé, je ne voulais pas vous effrayer. You. Work. Hard, Monsieur.”

“Yes. Too hard. Stupid Canadian!” I tapped my temple. We both laughed. I clapped him on the shoulder as I headed out. It was like slapping a rock face. “Were you here long?” He picked up his chair and paused, trying to figure out what I’d said. It clicked in.

“Ah. Oui. Demi-heure.” Thirty minutes. Weird. For such a big guy, I didn’t even sense him in the room. Either that guy had one tight aura or, as usual, I was so locked into ‘the zone’ that I was oblivious to the world around me. We reached the spiral staircase.

He set his chair down and I headed up the staircase.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur Maxwell.”

“Good night, Gaston.” It was a chilly spring night, but at least it had stopped raining. My clothes, hell, my skin felt uncomfortable on me. I just wanted a drink and a very hot shower. I knew I had run out of the hard stuff, so I stopped at my ‘local’ and convinced the owner to sell me a bottle of brandy. He took pity on my weary look and filthy face and refused my, er, filthy Euros.

“You have spent much money here, Monsieur Maxwell. You are a good customer. It is on me.”

“Jacques, you are a very kind man. Thank you very much.” I offered him my equally filthy hand which he took and shook. After we disengaged, he had the good grace not to wipe it on his apron, at least not while I watched. When I got home, I took a glass and the fifth of brandy into the shower with me and stayed there a very long time.

I will be having a book launch on Tuesday, October 19, 2010 from 6:00 to 9:00 at The Stirling Room, in the Distillery District. The readers will include local actors Hume Baugh, J. Sean Elliot and Tricia Lahde.. For more information, please go to my just-launched website, http://www.wordplaysalon.com/

-- David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death.

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