When Barclays was still a writer of some marginal prestige, he visited the Montreal literary festival every year. As this festival was held in the Canadian winter, in March, Barclays tried to mitigate the cold by mating or dating a young reader of his novels. That was how he met Ingrid, a bad girl, tattooed, marijuana lover, with whom he spent hours in bed, avoiding the cultural events of the festival as much as possible. That was also how he met Brenda: they could have been lovers, but they chose to be friends, because Brenda had fallen in love with a Russian actor who was passing through Montreal with her theater company.
Brenda was extraordinarily intelligent and attractive. She had read the Barclays novels in Spanish. She spoke Spanish as Andalusian because she had lived in Seville. Her mother tongues were French and English. Born in Montreal, she belonged to the Labatt family, founders of the legendary Canadian Labatt beer. Her grandfather, John Labatt, was kidnapped, but he saved his life. Her mother, Mary Labatt, inherited the Canadian brewing empire. Brenda grew up in a rich, privileged family, enjoying all the comforts: a mansion in Montreal, an estate in Vermont, an apartment in New York and another in Paris. From a very young age, she revealed that her passion was art, the arts: music, books, dance, painting. She was educated in Europe, lived for several years in Seville, had Andalusian boyfriends. She was friends with Mick Jagger, with Leonard Cohen, with Bob Dylan. Because of her beauty and her intelligence, she conquered whoever she wanted.
Brenda had read the Barclays novels published by the Anagrama publishing house. They were sold in a beautiful bookstore in Westmount, the English-speaking neighborhood of Montreal, where she lived. They could have been lovers, but Brenda was falling for the Russian actor and Barclays had hooked up with Ingrid, the tattooed, marijuana-loving bad girl, and so they preferred to be friends. It was a great decision. So many years later, they are still friends.
Now Barclays, his wife Silvia and their daughter Zoe have returned to Montreal, fleeing the sweltering heat of Miami. Zoe is on vacation from school. Silvia loves Canada, Quebec, Montreal; she loves Canada, British Columbia, Vancouver, Whistler: she is always willing to travel to that quiet, orderly, friendly, welcoming country, whether in winter, to ski, or in summer, to enjoy the cool, mild climate.
Once they arrive in Montreal and settle into the Ritz hotel, Barclays slithers off to one of his sneaky pleasures, unspeakable in that city: even though he has no urge to have a bowel movement, he drops his pants and sits on the the toilet. Why does he do it? Because you want to give yourself an unspeakable aquatic pleasure. Indeed, he presses a button and a jet of hot water moistens, massages and softens that area, the hermitage or anal grotto and its barren surroundings, while the writer closes his eyes and enjoys. Then he presses other buttons that shoot jets in other powers, other directions, other temperatures: an aquatic-anal festival that Barclays has only found in that Montreal hotel and in no other of the many hotels it has visited. Barclays closes his eyes and thinks that a dwarf is down there, floating in the toilet, watering the writer’s ignoble, poisoned garden with a warm water hose, a dwarf firefighter shooting his professional hose on that fire in the writer’s charred backyard :
-Fire your hose, midget of the ortho -Barclays speaks to that imaginary firefighter, while the Montreal toilet plunges him into morbid pleasures that evoke the past.
It will not be easy to see Brenda and her family. They are not in Montreal. They are on the family farm that Brenda’s father bought, now deceased: a sixty-acre field in the town of Derby, northern Vermont. But Barclays and his family are convinced that they should go to Brenda’s ranch. So they rent a van and drive two hundred kilometers to the border crossing. At the Derby border post, an officer in a uniform and hat welcomes them to the United States and asks if they are bringing food or alcohol.
“We only bring apples and bananas for our friend Brenda’s horses,” says Barclays.
He shouldn’t have said such a thing. The officer confiscates the fruits.
Once on American soil, they stop at a gas station. All the air in the town of Derby, Vermont, smells of horse manure. Wherever they go, it always smells like a horse has pooped on their shoes.
Brenda, the Russian actor Vitali and their daughter Maria enthusiastically greet the visitors, the Barclays. They walk around the farm. It is a cool, sunny afternoon. That hacienda is paradise: it has a lagoon with ducks and fish where one can bathe; a tennis court; a sauna and a steam chamber in the middle of the forest; and beautiful animals everywhere: the horses are in the stable, each in his spacious stable, and eat from the hands of the visitors; the black and white roosters riot and bristle their fleshy red crests; the coyotes watch crouched in the forest, without hostile intent; the deer walk through the vast fields of the hacienda, knowing that they are protected, that no one will hunt them there, as in other nearby farms, from which they flee to save their lives; and there is even a black bear with her three cubs, who do not attack Brenda, because they know her and apparently trust her, although they do not allow her to get too close to her either. Suddenly, torrential rain falls. The Barclays and the Labatts run to the house. They don’t drink Canadian Labatt beer, the source of Brenda’s family fortune. They drink red wine. But Brenda doesn’t drink wine. She explains it like this:
-When I got cancer, I promised God that, if he cured me, I wouldn’t drink any more wine. And I was cured. That’s why I don’t drink wine. Now I only drink vodka!
Vitali loves living on the farm. He builds beautiful pine and cherry tables with his own hands. He tells that he is recording a series in Toronto:
-They always call me to play the role of the bad Russian. Since we Russians are all bad now, they call me all the time.
English is spoken: Brenda can speak Spanish, but Vitali does not understand Spanish. There is a mountain of delicious cheeses. There are two big, noble, rescue dogs eating cheese from Barclays. There is a big, black and fat cat, Papito, who soon befriends Silvia. There are rabbits upstairs, in Maria’s room. Zoe is in paradise. She wants to sleep there with her friend María de ella. But after dinner, which Vitali has patiently prepared, an exquisite grilled tenderloin, the Barclays announce that they must leave. They’ve booked a suite at a little hotel near the estate, just ten minutes away in the van, the three-star Derby Line Inn, approved by Brenda.
After ten at night, the Barclays ring the bell of that little hotel. Nobody opens. Resolved, Silvia opens a door, opens a second door and they enter the three-star hotel. In the distance a woman’s voice is heard. They don’t know where she comes from. She is an elderly lady, old, very old, very pale, transparent, translucent, sitting far away, in a corner of the dining room. It is unknown if she is alive or she is a ghost.
-What do you want? asks that ghostly creature.
“We are the Barclays family,” says the writer. We have a reservation.
The old lady looks at them suspiciously, hunched over, her head sunk between her shoulders.
“Look for Paula,” she says, and remains absorbed, in another world, in the afterlife.
“Let’s go,” says Silvia, in a low voice.
But Barclays begins to tour the halls of the three-story house:
– Paula? Paula? Paula?
Nobody answers. Barclays’ voice returns like a ghostly echo.
“This is a horror movie,” says Silvia, who rarely gets scared.
– Paula? Barclays keeps shouting, imprudently, peeking into the kitchen.
Suddenly a shadow appears behind a creaking door. Silvia and Zoe flinch. It looks like a ghost. She is another older woman, old, very old, pale, transparent, translucent.
“I’m Paula,” she says dryly. What do they want?
It can be the daughter of the ghostly old woman, or her spectral sister. They don’t seem alive, or not at all. They are suffering, levitating, made of smoke or mist, and they don’t smile, their eyes seem watery, glassy balls, marbles.
“We are the Barclays,” says the writer. We have a reservation.
“I thought they wouldn’t come anymore,” says Paula.
Then he walks or floats to a table where there are very large keys, from another time.
-We came to apologize, because we can’t stay to sleep tonight -Silvia takes the initiative.
Disheveled, in a nightgown and slippers, Paula looks at her with centuries-old fatigue and asks:
“Because we have to go back to Montreal,” says Silvia, scared.
Immediately, Barclays pulls out his wallet and hands him several US dollar bills.
“A thousand apologies,” he says. Anyway, we are going to pay for the room, even if we don’t occupy it.
“You are harming my business,” protests Paula, while receiving the money.
“Let’s go,” Silvia says.
“See you soon, Paula,” says Barclays, but the translucent, ghostly old woman doesn’t respond.
The Barclays rush out, get into the truck and flee, terrified.
“I felt like I was in a horror movie,” says Silvia. Those old women looked like characters from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At any moment they would pull out an electric saw or an ax and cut off our heads!
Zoe laughs out loud: she won’t forget that day in Derby, Vermont.
After crossing the border, back in Canada, Silvia calls Brenda and tells her about the terrifying episode at the hotel. Brenda tells him:
-That house, before being a hotel, belonged to the town doctor. I was the girlfriend of her son. I went to that house very often. He was fifteen years old, the kid barely seventeen. And one day the doctor killed his family and committed suicide. Everyone in this town knows that the spirits of that family still live there.
-You should have warned us! Silvia tells him, laughing.
They then drive two hundred kilometers to the Ritz in Montreal. Once in her suite, Barclays remembers a wise saying by Wilde: the best way to fight a temptation is to give yourself over to it. That’s why she sits on the toilet and presses the button that triggers the jet of hot water.
“I missed you, midget of the ortho,” he says.