"In the Northland," 1915, Tom Thompson

Quarantaintment—Pandemic Diversions for the Homebound




By Colin Brezicki


It was another world, a landscape more real than anything she’d seen. A place where you could vanish altogether, if you ever found a way in. Such a dense compaction of forest, lake and granite that offered no rest for the eye and no space for even a deer or black bear.

The painting intrigued her. Like its creator’s mysterious death.

What if Tom Thomson had died of stroke, or an aneurism, and never knew what hit him? How else to account for a fit and experienced woodsman upending his canoe on a still lake and drowning just like that? After finding the empty boat a week later, locals hauled out the waterlogged corpse of the celebrated artist, dead at forty-two.

Eyes fixed on the painting she imagined his spirit gliding through the latticed birches and across the lake to reside in the distant wood. These same flaming colours had first drawn her to his work, and now she had the materials to re-create them.

In the Northlandwould serve her project nicely, but she must first find its centre. Somewhere in that impenetrable setting of in-your-face birches, amber rock, and cerulean blue lake she must find a point of departure for her floral assimilation. She liked it that the McMichael contest specified how entries should interpret, not merely replicate, a Group of Seven painting, using only organic materials. The first prize of a thousand dollars—a grand prize indeed—was beyond her reach she supposed, but six finalists were to have their floral creations displayed at the Gallery on Canada Day weekend. She might have an outside chance, for she was always one who imagined beyond what she saw.

Northland spoke to her, while other Group paintings failed to inspire, reminding her rather of frozen desserts—iridescent mounds of sorbet and sherbet or baked Alaska. Tom Thomson transported her back to childhood days in Algonquin, the rustic family cottage by the lake, her diving rock, the simple canoe tethered at the wooden pier. She spent those idyllic summers roaming the forest trails alone and reinventing herself as famous Canadian women from history lessons. Little Celia Renfrew reincarnated as Nellie McClung, Kateri Tekakwitha and Emily Carr, loudly declaiming their passion to the rocks and trees.

It was strange to hear young people now talk about a cyber world, and acquiring a second life inside a simulated universe. She had spent her entire childhood disappearing into other worlds, entirely imagined of course, but remembered now as more real than virtual.

She recalled her sadness each year when September flecked the woodlands with its crimsons and ambers, signaling the family’s return to the city. Then her distress when her parents announced they were selling the cottage—too involved with work now, they said, to be away for six weeks in the summer.

Too involved as well to know their daughter, they were shocked years later when she applied to theatre school. “Really, Celia? Dear girl, how will you ever manage on a stage?” It wasn’t only the job uncertainty that concerned them, she knew, but her shyness as well, itself another kind of insecurity.

Yet she lost all reserve whenever she imagined becoming someone else. And she made a decent career of doing just that until, at fifty-three, a stroke of her own brought it to an early close.

With her parents recently deceased, she sold the Toronto home, purchased a small bungalow in Niagara-on-the-Lake and withdrew with her cat.

Algonquin seemed far away now, and a long time ago.

If she should reach the final, she would have to keep her exotic blooms fresh right through to the Canada Day weekend. They had already survived the afternoon’s sweltering drive home from the exotic floral centre in Oakville.

She’d grown anxious when an accident backed up traffic on the Skyway for nearly an hour. Her precious flowers breathed the exhausts of a thousand idling vehicles while she stared out at the smokestacks spewing their toxins over Hamilton Bay. Across Lake Ontario she could see the watery dissolve of Toronto’s skyline, shimmering in a haze. Literally, a breath-taking aquarelle, a transparent watercolour of pollutants.

But she had made it home with her blooms intact, even the cymbidium orchids, and quickly removed them to the conservatory. The sun had dipped below the treetops by then, tempering the fierce heat. Derek had delivered the base for her project while she was away, a perfect piece of driftwood she found washed up on the shore. He had carefully hollowed it out and sanded it, having no idea what she wanted it for.

After calling to thank him and arrange for his payment, she panicked for a moment, thinking she had mixed up her days and invited Jacinta to lunch tomorrow. She needed Tuesday to complete her project so she could upload and submit her photos by the midnight deadline. She checked her calendar—lunch with Jacinta was on Wednesday.

She would surprise her friend with the finished collage. Jas would be the first to see it. No one at the Garden Club knew that she was entering the competition. They hardly knew her. She spoke little at club meetings, intimidated somewhat by the aloof savoir-faire of the leading ladies.

Etta Pomfret, whose name made Celia think of high tea, sat on the Conservation Authority board and was married to the Rotary president. Penelope Swinburne was treasurer of the family foundation that sponsored the town’s annual bid for Prettiest Community in Ontario. Ingrid Ottoman was Garden Club Chair—an amusing hookup of name and position that no one else appeared to notice. All three ladies had won regional awards for their floral art, the distinctions duly recorded on a polished brass plaque in the clubhouse lobby. They would likely be vying for gold in the McMichael competition.

If her Northland made it to the final, and she was invited to attend the gala, she would ask Jacinda to stop by and feed Alfie.

After covering the dining table she laid out her foam blocks, cutters and the driftwood base ready for morning. Then she poured a glass of wine and sat on the sofa with Alfie. Dinner, when it happened, would be a small cheese platter with salad; she never had much appetite in summer anyway.

Tonight she needed a distraction—Ladies in Lavender with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. She adored both actors and had once fantasized about performing with them. Maybe a Rattigan or an Ayckbourn play. But that was before her stroke, right in the middle of what turned out to be positively her last appearance—Arms and the Man, with the Caravan Playhouse in Toronto.

Catherine Petkoff was about to ask the Serbian officer to depart—You must leave the house at once—when she felt her right arm tingle and her face go numb. Then she blacked out, and the Serbian officer had to improvise a quick end to the scene. Following the impromptu curtain, it was Mrs. Petkoff who had to leave the “house” at once, rushed by ambulance to the neurology clinic at Sunnybrook Health Centre.

Following several days of blood work, scans and an MRI, Dr. Shukla told her she had suffered a transient ischaemic attack that, remarkably, left no permanent damage. “You might have been paralyzed on your right side, Ms. Renfrew, and rendered incapable of speech.”

“A stroke of luck then,” she said, smiling.

“That is a way of putting it,” he replied with a nod. “You must have a month of physio and then we can discuss your return to the stage.”

But the attack had affected her memory, and she could no longer trust herself with a script.

Her newly refurbished bungalow provided a comfortable retreat and, from her bedroom window, a view of the Niagara gorge through a corridor of aspens.

But after a year of tending her garden, reading her novels, watching films, and cycling the lanes in fine weather, she grew distracted. “Bored out of our tree, aren’t we, Alfie?” she said to him one evening.

She volunteered to usher at the Shaw Festival, something that would enable her to interact with people without being noticed. Jacinta Putnam, a kind and personable Trinidadian, interviewed her, and raised a brow when Celia told her she had acted professionally. Would Celia consider being a voice coach with the company? “Tell me where would you rather be, Ms. Renfrew, front of house or backstage?”

But she was content to greet audiences at the door, hand out programs and watch the plays. Seeing the actors perform didn’t bother her. They were all so accomplished, the productions flawless, and she felt no urge to return to the stage.

After they became friends, Jacinta encouraged her to get out more and meet people. “You’re an attractive woman, my dear—intelligent, funny, and always yourself. We must find you a decent man.” Her dark eyes twinkled with mischief.

“I’ve never been a mixer, Jas, and I’m too set in my ways now to be looking for a partner.” She laughed. “Anyway, you forget I have Alfie—he’s decent enough. He’s low-maintenance and house-trained, and he adores me.”

“He’s a cat.”

“Exactly. What more do I need? I don’t even have to walk him.”

But her friend was insistent. What about Pilates?

“I cycle in summer, and do my yoga at home in winter.”

Lawn bowling?

“Jacinta, really.”

The walkers?

“You mean the talkers? No thanks.”

Bridge club?

“I’m going it alone—no clubs. That’s final.”

But it wasn’t final. On an impulse that surprised herself, she signed up for a floristry course, then became the Niagara Garden Club’s least visible member.

Two things happened that Victoria Day weekend to give her pause. Observing the elegant couples in period dress stroll through the town against a diorama of pampered lawns, elaborate gardens and symmetrical vineyards, she asked herself, how had she allowed this to happen. How had she, the wild and solitary child of those distant Algonquin summers, come to live in a place of such suffocating decorum?

Later that weekend, she read about the floral competition in the local paper.

The movie at an end, she switched off the TV and went into the kitchen to clear up. Then she took out her foam blocks and sliced them to fit inside the driftwood base. Leaving them in the laundry tub to soak overnight, she fed Alfie and went to bed.

Early next morning, after coffee and toast, she set to work.

She drilled seven holes into the driftwood at different angles to accommodate her knurled white sticks, so Tom Thomson’s birches would not grow uniformly straight. With the sticks in place, she threaded a slender black twig between them—his fallen sapling, its diagonal path defining her centre exactly where it intersected the line of birches.

In and around the trees she laid out her orange-encrusted rock in bright begonia, gerbera daisy, marigold and ranunculus. Three pheasant quills embedded in the flora provided a hint of tree shadow and fault lines in the granite.

She composed her lake from a medley of delphiniums, sea holly and cymbidium orchids, the blues quite mesmerizing in their richness and depth.

Beyond the lake she teased out her distant woods in a loose spray of orange coral bell and coleus, then wove in accents of crushed Chinese lantern.

A textured backdrop of forget-me-nots, imperial blue plumbago and lobelia blooms became her sky.

Pruning and clipping, twisting and weaving the plants into place she lost track of time. It was nearly four when she looked at the clock. She stepped back from the table and studied her display, moving from side to side to view it from every angle.

She saw that it was good, and now had taken on a life of its own—the burnished rock and slanting birches, the lake and distant forest, all rooted in the life-sustaining driftwood base. Algonquin breathed before her, its tight assemblage of wood and stone and water infused with the spirit of Tom Thomson himself, immortal artificer of the Canadian north.

It was time to celebrate. She poured a glass of wine and sat out on the back deck, keeping an eye on Alfie, with two yellow finches at her feeder. A gentle breeze stirred as the sun moved behind the tall cedar hedge in her neighbour’s garden. She sipped her wine, thinking she would photograph her creation at its prime and send off the images before dinner.

But when she came inside again and got out her camera she felt that something had changed. A sadness seemed to have settled on her work—the lobelia now not so blue, the coral bell crumpling slightly, like its autumn had already begun.

For all its perfect beauty only an hour ago, she sensed in her work intimations of its mortality. She put away her camera.

What had made her do it? A need to impress upon an indifferent world, and the self-absorbed ladies of the Niagara Garden Club, that Celia Renfrew still mattered? To persuade herself that she did?

It seemed now utterly, embarrassingly meaningless.

After a restless night, she rang Jacinta. “I’m so sorry, Jas, but I can’t do lunch today. I’m going to be out of town for a while.”

“Oh Celia, is everything all right? What’s going on?”

“I’m seeing someone. I’m sorry I haven’t told you until now.”

“You’ve met someone? For real?”

“Maybe for real. I won’t know till I get there. But would you look in on Alfie for a few days?”

“Of course. You never need to ask.”

“He loves it when you take care of him.” She laughed. “He refuses to purr for an entire day when I come home again. And of course you must let him out the back. He won’t run off when he knows you’re around.”

“I’m so excited for you, love. You must tell me everything when you get back.”

“Thanks so much, Jas. You have my key. Oh, and happy Canada Day when it comes.”

On entering the house that evening her friend was immediately struck by the display on the dining table. The flowers and greenery so intricately woven. Clearly it was meant to signify something.

When she saw the framed colour print mounted on an easel behind the door, she understood. But why had Celia not spoken of it?

Alfie moved in and around her ankles, rubbing against them and purring, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the display. It would have to be watered, and fed, to keep it alive and fresh. She would call Celia for instructions.

But when she entered the kitchen and saw the cellphone on the counter she frowned. So now she had no way to contact her friend. Perplexed, she fed Alfie and refreshed his water dish. Then she returned to the dining room to study the display more closely.

How real, how inconceivably real it was. Moving closer, she imagined it almost breathing. It occurred to her now that if she looked long enough, closely enough, she might again see what a moment ago had distracted her. A shadow, was it?

Something moving through the trees. Water caressing the shore. A girl’s laughter, rising in the still air. ♦