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My wife, Cynthia, and I got married on July 14, 2000. Since then, we have spent summers at our house in Port Medway, N.S., and generally celebrate our wedding anniversary by visiting another village in Nova Scotia for a couple of days, staying at a bed and breakfast, puttering around.
Last year we went to Bear River in the hills near Digby, close to the Bay of Fundy.
It’s an odd place. The river, which cuts through the village, is tidal, mud flats some of the time, otherwise flowing fast. Buildings sit on stilts along its banks. The village has the reputation of being an artist community. Many of the inhabitants have come from England, lured, I suppose, by cheap land, as in colonial days. There are a lot of erstwhile hippies, the men, now elderly, wearing their thinning hair in ponytails.
It’s not clear why anyone would stay in this place, in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no way to make a decent living and not much to do, though it’s beautiful enough. The big event of the year is the cherry festival organized by the volunteer fire department, held on a Saturday toward the end of July. There are marching bands and people try to walk across the river on a greased pole.
The B&B where we stayed was run by an English couple in their mid-30s. There was no evidence of children. Sally was beautiful and nervous. She talked a lot, mostly about how she missed England. Her husband, Clive, surly and unshaven, avoided us, spending his time trimming bushes on the property’s perimeter. Our room was okay, nothing special. Sometimes we could hear muffled quarrelling on the other side of the wall that separated us from Sally and Clive’s living quarters.
We didn’t take to Bear River, why exactly I couldn’t say. But an interesting thing happened there.
As we packed up to leave, I found a piece of paper on the floor. It was a page torn from a notepad. I supposed it had fallen from Sally’s pocket when she was cleaning the room, or perhaps it had been dropped by a previous guest and Sally hadn’t noticed it.
There was printing on the page in blue ballpoint ink, five numbered sentences:
1. Cherry Carnival is next weekend!
2. You pushed it too far by opening the fridge doors.
3. The truth is you grabbed me first and any phisicall contact I did back was to calm you down.
4. It was ZAKS idea to leave!!
5. Your words were horrible.
I kept the page. It sits in a pile of papers on my desk, and every now and again I look at it and try to imagine the story behind the five sentences. A marital dispute between Sally and Clive? Who was Zak?
Perhaps the notes were made not by Sally but by an angry wife who had left her husband, taking their son Zak with her, seeking refuge in the B&B. It was Zak’s idea to leave, so the paper said; that seemed to be important (two exclamation marks). Maybe Zak said, “Mum, I hate Dad, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Was the woman trying to get her thoughts in order, jotting them down in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep, or was it a note intended to be read by her estranged partner? Why did I assume the words were written by a woman? A man could write such things. Or a child who hadn’t learned yet how to spell “physical.”
What was the significance of the Cherry Festival? Maybe it was something the family had looked forward to every year, an event they would never again go to together, something forever ruined.
The sentence that interested me the most was, “You pushed it too far by opening the fridge doors.” Had the husband turned away in the middle of a fight with his wife and gone to the refrigerator, more interested in making himself a sandwich than in addressing his wife’s grievances?
I showed the page to my friend H.N., a novelist. Ah yes, he said, it’s what Chekhov called “the mysterious fragment.”
At the time, I happened to be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias.
“So few things are recorded,” writes Marias, “fleeting thoughts and actions … acts of cruelty and insults, words spoken and heard and later denied or misunderstood or distorted … how little remains of each individual, how little trace remains of anything. ”
So few things are recorded on the mysterious fragment that I found. How little trace remains.
Philip Slayton lives in Toronto.