He’d driven his new toy, a vintage Mustang, north to Bloor. He might have then turned west, toward home. But he’d turned east instead, crossed the Don Valley and entered what he’d always thought of as the city’s European microcosm, Danforth Avenue. He drove past the teeming patios, the Greek restaurants, Greek street signs, Greek statuary, Mediterranean enthusiasm. He drove slowly, absorbing all the images of pleasure. Too much pleasure. Too many thoughtless people. He could feel a headache starting.
He drove until he entered another world. No more patios and pleasure-seeking throngs, no more shish kebab and booze. The signs were now in Urdu, the shops proclaiming halal meat. He drove until he saw the mosque, the unmistakable minaret, the silver crescent, the emerald domes.
He parked the Mustang, locked it, stepped back, admired his car, felt his spirits lift but only for a moment. The car was a reminder of why he endured days like that day, a day of bad news, double-talk and spin. The car was a reward, like the boat he kept in Nova Scotia. Car and boat, vehicles for fantasy, for flight. But now he needed distance from his car, distance from his day. He needed to escape even his escapes.
He started walking. And then he spotted the little bar with the peculiar name in this unlikely neighbourhood. He went in, ordered a beer. He sat trying to imagine what awaited him in the days to come. The patio was just outside and beyond it he could see the domes that made him feel at home.
He’d spent maybe 20 minutes on the first beer, then he’d gone to the bar and fetched a second. Perhaps because he appeared to be out of place in his expensive suit and tie, a stranger came and gestured toward the empty seat across from him.
Pierre nodded toward the chair. The stranger sat.
“Have I seen you here before?”
The agitation of the day was undiminished and he didn’t answer right away. But there was something about the stranger’s accent. Agitation was replaced by curiosity. “I doubt it.”
The intruder said, “I’m Ari,” and held out a beefy hand. Pierre stared at it.
Perhaps it was the face. Or maybe it was something deeper, a voiceprint in the memory. Or maybe it was just the similarity to another name that loomed large in memories Pierre had buried.
Ari started to rise. “Sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt.” Pierre quickly grasped the hand. “It’s okay … sit … Harry?”
“Ari. Short for Ariel.”
“Pierre Cormier. I’ve never been here before. A bit different.”
“Cormier? Yes. I find the atmosphere relaxing. Casual.”
“Ari. Interesting name. Ari what?”
“Roloff. An old Quebec name.”
“But you aren’t French.”
“True.” Ari shrugged, looked away briefly. “Nor are you,” he said. There was a trace of aggression in the look, the tone of voice.
Pierre could feel the agitation creeping back as he studied the face before him. It was broad and smooth, fleshy, friendly, open, the eyes interested but weary. What a bizarre coincidence. He felt a flutter in his stomach. Ariel. The same name. There was even a bodily resemblance. The man in front of him was short and overweight, borderline obese. The hair, the colour of ash, was thinning at the front but effectively combed over.
“You come here often?” he asked.
Ari smiled, shrugged. “Maybe more often than I should.”
“So how long have you been in this country?”
Ari laughed. “Where do you think I’m from?” The subtle thickness of his consonants.
“I know exactly where you’re from.”
The smile was cautious now. Ari nodded.
“You could say we were neighbours once,” Pierre said.
“Ah. Neighbours north? South? East?”
“North,” said Pierre.
“Yes. Pierre? Yimkin kenna as-hab. Perhaps we were even friends.”
“Perhaps. You speak like an Arab.”
“Maybe not so much. I’ve been here five years,” Ari said. “You?”
“Quite a bit longer.”
“You’re from Beirut,” Ari said.
“No. A bit south of there.”
Ari hesitated. “Damour?”
“You know Damour?”
Ari nodded. “I’ve been there.”
“I had family in Damour. But I was born in Saida.”
“Ah. Sidon. But you had family in Damour?”
“I’m going to order a drink. Would you like another beer? Or something better.”
“I’ll have what you’re having.”
Ari returned with two glasses. Scotch.
“And you? I’m going to guess Haifa.”
“Just a feeling. You’ve lived with Arabs.”
“Yes. But not Haifa. A kibbutz near Hebron. You never heard of it.”
“Probably not. I suppose you hear this a lot, but you bear a remarkable resemblance to someone famous.”
Ari laughed. “I don’t hear it any more so much. Someone no longer visible. Someone slowly being forgotten, yes?”
“Forgotten here, maybe. But not so much in other places.”
“When did you say you came?” asked Ari.
“I didn’t say.”
“And you’ve been back?”
“I have nobody left there.”
“You said you have family in Damour?”
Pierre shook his head. “Past tense. You know the history.”
“The important parts.” Ari reached across the table, clasped Pierre’s hand again, held it gently for a moment. “Such a tragedy, Damour. And all that followed.”
Pierre stood abruptly, light-headed. “I think I have to leave now.” He took a quick mouthful of the Scotch. It was strong. “Thanks for the drink,” he said, setting the empty glass back down.
Ari nodded and looked away.
And that was how it started.
From The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre. To be published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada, on August 19. Copyright © Linden MacIntyre, 2017. Reprinted by arrangement of the Publisher. All rights reserved.
A Q&A with Linden MacIntyre
What inspired the new novel?
There is a continuity in crisis. The political crisis in the U.S. has roots in recent history. The larger crisis in the Muslim world has deeper origins in a history of colonialism, humiliation and poverty. A terrorism plot in Toronto or New York is not unrelated to historical events and a contemporary culture of retribution.
This excerpt introduces us to Pierre and Ari. Can you tell us a little more about the two men and their role in the novel?
Pierre’s secret history is darkened by events in the Lebanese civil war, in which he fought as a Phalangist militiaman under the leadership of one of the most ruthless commanders in that long conflict. Ari served in Lebanon contemporaneously in the intelligence branch of the Israeli Defense Forces. They meet years later in Toronto. Pierre thinks he remembers Ari from one of the bloodiest weeks of the war. Ari is determined to convince him that he’s wrong.
This novel is partly set in Lebanon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first time you’ve set a novel outside Canada. What’s your relationship to that country?
I worked there from time to time as a journalist, including September, 1982, when I reported on the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Lebanon revealed to me, unforgettably, the timelessness and universality of the consequences of violence, and the permanence of rage – whether based on violence in the Middle East, or Central America, or a small community in rural Canada.