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Fiction: The Story of Canada

Young Tomorrow

Young Tomorrow

John A. MacDonald had a stare like twin fighter-jets flying right at you. His handshake was like catching an apple out of the air. He had brown-black hair and narrow shoulders. I remember I asked him where he bought his suits and he put his finger to his lips, considering: as if the man who made his suits might be the secret to his success, the thing that sold this narrow-shouldered old man to Cartier, Monck and the Dominion of Canada.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

In any case, the answer was M Rackham Tailors, of Toronto. I went on a Wednesday, early. It was June. Rackhams had not yet opened for business and I watched Matthew Rackham through the shop’s front window. On a wide table he arranged bolts of blue cloth. I wondered if these preparations felt important to Matthew Rackham: if in arranging bolts of blue cloth on a wide table he felt part of the fraternity of tailors, or only like a man with a job. When it was nine o’clock he opened the door and said, Good morning. I answered, Good morning, I am here to buy a wool suit.

Over the course of my life I have bought and left behind many wool suits. They are excellent items of clothing. They warm you in winter. They breathe through the summer. Fitted properly, they give the wearer the air of a reliable and serious person. This is true across many lands and even many times. Once, I wore a suit in post-Periclean Athens. It was a Saturday, although the Ancient Greeks did not call it Saturday. They took me for a foreigner – a reliable and serious foreigner. They paid for my dinner. They took me to see traditional Athenian weekend entertainment. We became impaired. Mulberries were involved.

I had come to 19th-century Canada to get drunk with bigwigs. I saw it both as a professional and a personal obligation. When I returned to the 22nd century and my neighbours asked, What did you do with the Fathers of Confederation? I wanted to be able to answer, I got smashed. But I am also an academic, an anthropologist, an historian of booze. This is no metaphor: I am a tenured professor at the University of New Brunswick at Mars. As part of my fifth sabbatical, I wished to evaluate fur traders’ appetite for liquor; to understand how many Bloody Caesars was a lot of Bloody Caesars for Canada’s first prime minister.

I courted the favour of Ottawa's upper crust according to my customary method: gifts. I brought Andong soju and Fin du Monde beer, sparkgems, sneakers and those dinosaurs that expand when you put them in water. Perquisites are frowned upon by the time-travel authority but the trick is to give them gifts too. John A. and George-Étienne asked where I was from, and I told them: Japan.

It still wasn’t easy. The men’s “openmindedness” contended with their pathetic, brazen xenophobia. Nevertheless, I persisted. Soon we were traversing the parliamentary drinking holes together – sipping stout, shelling peanuts, badmouthing the Hudson’s Bay Company. We caroused in the alleys. We ate late-night butter tarts. Bleary-eyed MPs grilled me about Kyoto and I taught them about chopsticks.

At M Rackham Tailors I tried on a pale blue suit. Looking into the mirror, I decided I looked a little like Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen at his early peak. Leonard Cohen the youthful poet and ladykiller. I liked this look. Matthew Rackham agreed. He said I recalled Rupert Berg, apparently a noted stage-actor. Didn’t you see him at the Rebus?, the tailor asked me. I said I hadn’t. I said I wasn’t from here.

Then Matthew Rackham asked me where I was from. It was strange; something in his tone put me off balance. The asking itself seemed suspicious – as if the tailor were already preparing for my lie. I hesitated for a moment, a shaggy split second, and I said I was from the Far East.

I see, Matthew Rackham said.

Yes, I replied. I came on a steamer.

He hefted one of the unused bolts of material and went to the corner. He opened a trunk. With his back to me, the cloth upraised, Matthew Rackham’s silhouette seemed somehow foreign. Like a rare shape caught in the morning’s sun.

Are you a time-traveler? he asked me.

I did not say anything for some time. Matthew Rackham put the bolt of cloth into the trunk and closed the lid. He turned and faced me. I felt as if I had stepped out onto flat ice. I said, What do you mean? But Matthew Rackham had a cautious certainty in his face. There was no hiding in that bright maple showroom. Go Gliders, he said, which is the name of Ganymede’s hockey team.

Matthew Rackham had arrived in Toronto fourteen years earlier. He was a botanist. He had come to the 19th century to creep among the tuckamores, to tear at ferns, to collect seeds along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. He had done this, filled his pockets with dandelion fluff and fiddleheads, and then as he had stood on Queen Street looking into the window of a tailor shop, a shop just like this one, he had thought to himself: What I want to do is this.

It turned out, Matthew Rackham murmured, that the rightest place for me was very, very far away from home.

I said, Did you tell your friends goodbye?

He shook his head. No, he said. We were in the back room now, at a low table, with short glasses of rye. I don’t think you can understand until it happens to you.

That night I rendezvoused with John A. outside the Gramercy. He clapped me on the shoulder. Nice suit, he said. I said, I have a good tailor. He pushed open the door to the tavern and I went to follow him inside; but then I wavered. I wavered, on the doorstep.

Why am I here? I asked myself. I asked it gently. Carousing with the natives, drinking for research. I felt like an anachronism. I felt like a drunk.

I went inside, where the man behind the bar was pouring a pint of lager. It was as if he were pouring gold, or brass. John A. was shaking hands and I moved through the throng and I leaned on the good solid wood. I wondered if I was stormstayed, stuck. I wondered if I wanted to go home. I wondered what I wanted. The Prime Minister came back over and said, Tonight we are drinking for Her Majesty’s Opposition. I smiled at the corner of my mouth.

What are you having?, John A. asked.

I said I was having a whisky sour.

He nodded. There was a fondness to the way he nodded. I did not want fondness from this man who did not know my real name. Or perhaps I did. Nothing I had read about MacDonald had prepared me for his faithfulness, his exactitude. When he drank too much he became soupy but only slowly, undetectably, like a snowdrift going soft. He ordered a whisky neat and a whisky sour. I felt my muscles tensing and untensing. The drinks came and then I was a man standing with a whisky sour, and beside me the Right Honourable John Alexander MacDonald, Doctor of Civil Law, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a racist and a colonizer, a Father of Confederation, the man nicknamed Old Chieftain or Old Tomorrow.

Call me Young Tomorrow, I said, thickly.

What?

Young Tomorrow. I lifted the tumbler to my lips. I decided suddenly that my friends back home had forgotten me. It’s my new nickname, I said.

Are you all right? he asked.

I am all right, I replied.

You do not seem quite right.

I am all right.

He looked at me. He looked at me with his stare like twin fighter-jets. That damn stare. I would never have such a stare. I was stranded and forgotten, three hundred years from home. I was stormstayed and a drunk. I narrowed my eyes. I tried to say a very many things with my eyes. John A. looked at me and he saw a man in a wool suit and I think he probably saw nothing at all.

The next morning, grey as a cinder, I went back to see Matthew Rackham. I could take a message, I said

A message to who? he said.

To whom, I said. I rubbed my face. I’m sorry, I said, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

It’s all right, he said. I watched as he brought gleaming scissors through linen. He said, I still don’t understand.

I spread my hands. To your loved ones. A message home.

Oh, that’s all right, he said.

No, I said, Imagine. Finally a message. Closure. For you, for them.

He made a gesture with his hand. It’s been so long.

What do you mean it’s been so long? Time is quantum folded! Time is pleated silk! All your friends, all your family, they’ve spent their whole lives wondering.

I did actually post something before I went.

You said you didn’t tell them.

I did post something.

That doesn’t count, posting doesn’t count. Maybe they didn’t see it. There’s so much volume, noise versus signal. Things just scroll past. Especially these days. Those days. The algorithms can’t keep up.

I know, Matthew Rackham said.

So send something. Let me bring something. To your parents at least. Your best friends. Do you have siblings?

No.

Well then your parents.

Matthew Rackham had stopped cutting the cloth. He laid the scissors beside him. He looked almost exasperated.

Or your friends, I said.

His frown was restless, undecided.

After a second he said: There is someone.

Spot illustration for Young Tomorrow

I had not been to the Lands in many years. The precise number of years was difficult and confusing to calculate. This is a characteristic of time travel – it twists your life into strange shapes, cat’s-cradles, where the threads don’t quite line up. Do you count all the days that you’re away? Or just the days you’re at home? What if you’re at home but it’s tomorrow, or next year? How long has it been since the second time you saw last summer? Which is not even to speak of timelines, alternates, what the scholars call cascades.

I do not know how long it had been but I had not been to the Lands since I was a student. Not many people lived in the Kokshut Illahee any more. It was a failed project in a way. Certain tragedies inspire new resolve, rebirth. A place becomes the testimony of its survival. Other times the survivors run as far, as fast, as they can. Evac helicopters spent a decade over the Lands’ subduction zone, casting shadows onto the Salish Sea. When the aftershocks subsided, reconstruction was still underway. When construction ended, a fear of radiation remained. Among those who came back, the question became, Is this still home? The Qi Corridor had opened by then. All the colonies had thrown open their doors. Why not go? Even the landscape of this place had changed. Even the land’s name.

Those who stayed were proud of what they reinvented. Rightly so. This was what brought us as schoolkids: the Kokshut Illahee were a model of contemporary policy, architecture, political science. Field rips and summer camps, then fellowships, research expeditions: a procession of high schoolers, undergraduates, doctoral candidates, each of us visiting the new, redwood legislature, dropping stones into the offshore memorial, slurping ramen in downtown Grouse. Visiting the southern part of the Lands, taking in the view from the mainland to the island, the young didn’t feel the same terrible sadness as the old.

Still, for all my happy memories of Desmond Street and the New Western Front gallery, I barely knew the region. Matthew Rackham had grown up in Semiahmoo territory, right on the coast. The disaster, and the government’s subsequent geo works, had transformed the area into a series of networked islets, interlocked bays with tall cliffs – “future-proofed,” the terraformers claimed. Rackham’s coordinates took me on a winding journey. The sea kept disappearing behind banks of conifers, masses of granite; I’d wheel around a curve and the water would reappear, restful and flashing, sapphire blue. I was 12 hours out of quarantine. My clothes still carried the garlicky smell of phosphor. Usually, coming back, I took a shuttle straight off-world. Being here, in the Lands, felt like a dreaming. Or like I was still in the past, still gone, on some 19th-century peregrination. Mills, cows, black flies. Except for the car, pilotless, cruising on its electromagnets.

What would John A. think of me now, I wondered. A lord in his chariot.

I had not told anyone I was back. Of course to people here I had scarcely been gone. Although some time-travelers go for parity – taking one hour here for every hour spent there – this practice is expensive, and it poses its fair share of risks. So although I spent nearly a year in the late 19th century, less than three months had passed in 2167. Late spring, early summer. There is a sense of loss common to time-travelers, a melancholy that arises from living hours, weeks, years that no one else can remember. Sitting in a car, under a sky filled with new clouds, you begin to ask if any of it really happened, or indeed if what is here now, before you, is any more real. After my last two trips I had begun having these feelings more frequently. I wondered whether Matthew Rackham had felt this way too. Or whether the feelings had stopped, when he went and didn’t come back. It occurred to me, with a strange shiver, that the tailor was centuries dead.

The car had crossed a narrow bridge and it began the final descent. A steep slope to shoreline – a slope of the sort that seems treacherous, too steep to navigate. I clutched a plastic knob, part of the apparatus of the door. Then we levelled off and slowed. I could see the rock. It was impossible to miss, really. It stood in the sand like a monumental snowball. A goose egg, a cue ball. A great white boulder, tall as a house, the veneer of surf around its base.

The car stopped. As I waited for its magnetic field to subside, I checked the map display. It showed the rock, the coastline. It showed the cabin, which lay inland, hidden behind a wall of trees. One hundred metres up a footpath, winding between the stones.

I got out of the car. I looked around, drew a salty inhalation. I thought I was alone but then a voice behind me, low and steady, as if its owner had been hiding in a bush or behind a thrust of sea spray.

Can I help you?

She had been sitting on a log. Standing now her stance was rigid, guarded, her left boot resting on a stone. The animal beside her, a malt-coloured sheepdog, seemed more sympathetic. It watched me wetly, barked.

Hello, I said gently, to the dog.

The woman shifted her weight. She was in her early middle-age, with drawn shoulders and straight black hair, uncrowded eyes. Most of the rest of her was hidden beneath a long, hunter-green rain parka.

Was this she? I imagined her standing by the water with Matthew Rackham, each of them with stones for skipping, ready to throw.

I’m looking for Cindy Dolan, I said.

At the sound of the name, the woman’s gaze faltered. Her stance had not changed but something else had done.

I could see it wasn’t her.

Do you know her? I asked.

After a few moments she murmured, My sister.

Her hand tightened on her rifle-strap.

What’s this about? she said.

Can you help me find her?

She’s dead, the woman said. And when she saw my face fall a feeling seemed to pass across her features.

The dog yipped.

Come with me, the woman said.

She set off toward the footpath. I followed. The path was lined on either side with damp shrubs, tiny glistening flowers. Cindy died three years ago, she said. Cancer.

She looked at me.

I’m sorry, she said.

It’s all right.

You didn’t know.

No.

I thought of explaining that I was here on behalf of Matthew Rackham but Cindy’s sister had looked away, up the hill, to the cabin. The dog walked ahead of us, nose in the mud. The seashore already seemed to be melting away. The car, the beach, the big white rock: we cast it all behind us as we entered the trees.

When we reached the door of the cabin, she knelt and wiped the sheepdog’s paws.

What’s he called? I asked.

Her name’s Buffy, the woman said.

When she was done with the dog she knocked her own boots against the doorjamb, jarring the mud loose. I followed her example. When Matthew Rackham had described the cabin to me I had imagined something ramshackle, flimsy. This was a sturdy timber home, in the woods. She opened the door and Buffy led us into the living room. We’ve got company, called Cindy’s sister. I still didn’t know her name.

A man was standing at the kitchen counter with a colander of basil in front of him. He held a little knife. Howard told us six o’clock, he said.

This is-- said the woman. I’m sorry, I don’t actually know--

John, I said.

This is John, she said. She looked at the man in the kitchen. He came to see Cindy.

His expression changed, just as the woman’s had when she told me Cindy had died. For a moment he looked very sad. He put down the knife. Buffy had padded her way over beside him, was weaving between his legs. I’m Walter, said the man. You came from the city?

Yes. But I live off-world.

Mars.

Good guess.

You have the look. ‘The pallor,’ I call it, from the anti-UV on the dome. He grinned, but then seemed to realize that I might not be in on the joke. Sorry – no offence.

No, none taken. ‘The pallor.’ I like it.

I lived there for a while. Helped dig the chasm at Newer Delhi.

The chasm’s still there, I said.

He laughed. Glad to hear it! Cindy’s sister had sat down on the couch. All of the furniture in the cabin looked like it could have come from the distant past – real wood, woven cushions, armrests worn thin by resting arms. A grandfather clock was ticking. Tall windows faced out into the trees; the fading sky was only faintly visible, the suggestion of water’s movement on the beach.

Walter glanced at her, then at me. Will you stay for dinner? he asked. Our friend Howard’s on his way too.

Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose.

You’re not imposing. Besides, you came all this way. Any friend of Cindy’s...

There was a fireplace opposite the kitchen. Bare, swept clean, with an empty iron hearth. A painting above it: a snowy downtown street, busy blurred-together cars and pedestrians, shop-signs, 20th century or early 21st, from when it still got cold.

I looked back toward Cindy’s sister, on the couch. My eyes alighted on a photograph. A figure squinting at the camera, black hair flying all around her. She had a full chin and a wide mouth, the same curved brows as my host. In his showroom, Matthew Rackham told me he met Cindy Dolan on a hilltop. He was a botanist. She was a former ornithologist; she had moved into the woods. She was growing her own herbs. They were together for a year and a half. No more than that, then a split by mutual agreement. They had not loved each other deeply, he said, but they had loved each other. The fact of this love was the reason they did not stay in touch once they broke up. Those feelings made talking complicated. They made it seem as if they were on separate hilltops, yelling through the wind.

Did you know Cindy very long? Cindy’s sister’s voice was gentle, tentative.

No, I said.

I could have told her then that I did not actually know Cindy Dolan – that I had come here only on behalf of Matthew Rackham, who had known her for a year and a half, who had asked me to give his ex-lover a message. Since I had not told her this upon arrival in White Rock I could have told her then. It would have been all right, the misunderstanding would have been understandable. Instead I said:

Time is a strange thing.

She nodded. I suspect she was thinking about the way short periods of time can sometimes feel very long, and long periods very short.

I sat down on the couch. Walter was dusting a cutting-board with flour. Buffy had finished licking something under the dining table and she leapt up between Cindy’s sister and me, curling into a soft, lithe knot.

Cindy was a very special person, I said. I do not know why I said this.

When Howard arrived they opened a bottle of red wine. He was handsome and very friendly, with dark green eyes and a trim beard. He had brought a large basket of blueberries, small ones, and we ate them by the handful, washing them down with the wine. Howard was full of stories: stories about beekeeping, stories about beachcombing, a story about a moose he met in the woods. The stories spilled out of him, gripping and hilarious, and we passed bits of them between us, chiming in with our own thoughts and memories. At first I didn’t say much about my own life but after a little while I discovered that it was not very hard to make small things up; that everyone was so generous and eager that they took what I said and ran away with it, undoubting, showing sympathy or cracking wise. This was true even of Cindy’s sister, whose taciturn demeanour concealed a ferocious sense of humour, a laugh that occasionally made her snort.

Neither she nor Walter mentioned to Howard why I had come to the Kokshut Illahee, and he didn’t inquire. To him it must have been perfectly natural. This place was his home. There were moose, bees, exquisite flotsam washed ashore. Salmon spawned in summer. By now Walter was slinging pizzas in and out of the oven, casting the steaming pies directly onto the table in front of us. We ate with our hands, catching bits of scorched basil, sweet bell peppers, grape tomatoes sun-dried on their roof. Buffy roamed at our feet, discreetly euphoric. Cindy’s sister had an actual, working CD player and a collection of old CDs, many of which still played. She laid the cases in front of us, brittle pieces of the past, beautiful pictures. A CD by a group called Tragically Hip. CDs by Oscar Peterson and A Tribe Called Quest. These antiques did not make me feel nostalgic. They did not make me wish I had travelled back to 2001, or to four years ago, before Cindy Dolan died. There was something so pleasant about sitting there right then, at that moment, with evening lifting through the branches, oldies playing that Cindy’s sister had put on.

I remembered what Matthew Rackham had said: If you do find Cindy, what I want to tell her is that I didn’t leave because of her. Our break-up didn’t push me; she didn’t make me go. I wasn’t so brokenhearted as that. I wasn’t trying to get away. I went away for work and then I found I wanted to stay. I worry that it might have troubled her – imagining that I left the world because of her. Not seriously troubled, permanently troubled, but that it could have become one of those enduring doubts or regrets. I never thought to tell her. Perhaps it’s self-absorbed to believe it might have mattered. But I think about it sometimes. Whether I inadvertently did something unkind to Cindy. That’s all.

It’s perfect here, I said to them. It really is.

You’re welcome any time, said Walter.

And Cindy’s sister was stroking the dog. And Howard was refilling my glass. And the minute hand on their grandfather clock was advancing just fast enough that I could see it change.

It was night now, starless.

The music changed, and our conversations, and our positions around the cabin.

I did not ever want to leave.

I was standing with Walter at the counter. I said, Cindy used to talk about how good your pizzas tasted but I confess I didn’t believe her.

Cindy said that? said Walter.

Cindy’s name was like a password that had allowed me into this room. Every time I used it it felt easier, as if I were leaning deeper and deeper into a hole in the ground.

That’s right, I said.

Walter had his hands in an upraised bundle of dough, working it across his knuckles. Huh. He cocked his head. I never met her.

Oops, I said. She must have been talking about someone else.

Walter glanced at Cindy’s sister. She glanced back at him. Then he shrugged. The way he was holding his mouth made it look like it had a fold in the middle. He held up the pizza dough. Want to try? he asked me. He had kneaded it flat and now he draped it over my hands. It was damp, cool, like a heavy piece of satin. Go ahead, he said.

I felt uncertain. I had never thrown a pizza before. It was hard for me to tell whether everyone was watching me or whether mostly no one was. I didn’t know all the ways these people showed attention or withheld it. A song was moving in the spaces between us, off the black reflect of the windows. I let out a breath. I gave the pizza a light, upward jolt – nothing happened – then a much stouter toss – and up it went, a flailing disc, launched into air and descending. It tore as I caught it but still everybody applauded. Walter patted me on the back.

You’re a natural John, he said.

He lifted the dough off my hands.

Is that what you do when you’re at home? Howard asked. Make pizzas? The joke seemed to make him so happy.

I’m a tailor, I said, or found that I was saying.

A tailor!

I have my own shop, I said. I had wobble-stepped away from the counter, away from Walter and the pizzas.

On Mars? said Howard.

I drained my glass, looked into the dregs. Sort of..., I said.

Sort of? Cindy’s sister was squinting at me. Her expression reminded me of the photograph of Cindy Dolan. It was a gaze like someone’s skipping-stone cast back to throw.

It took me a long time to answer. They waited. They waited to welcome whatever I would say.

Eventually I said, I'm not actually a tailor.

I said, I was just saying that.

Each of them was staring at me – Walter, Howard, Cindy’s sister, the guileless dog.

I’m a professor, I said. I had flour on my hands, the residue of pizza dough. My name is Dustin. I was smiling as strongly as I could.

I don’t understand, said Howard.

Your name’s not John? said Cindy’s sister.

No, I said happily. I felt so happy now. I looked at her; I looked at each of them, these generous spirits. I tried to be attentive to the way I was looking. Not to look with a look that imagined a fighter-jet or even a stone as it is being thrown. Gentler than that. Finer. And I never knew your sister, I said. I’m sorry, I said, with a stare like a moonbeam, a salmon, an approaching companion.

Cindy’s sister’s lips were parted. I could see the ridges of her front teeth. She was about to say something and I turned toward her – to make sure she could see that I was listening. I wanted her to apprehend my good faith. Yes? I said. Yes? The grandfather clock had begun to toll a golden hour. She was just about to speak. I wanted to stay here, right here, where the future stood unspoiled.

Author’s Note: This story’s first line appeared unbidden, in a “free writing” session. Exercises like that are opportunities to let yourself invent things, mostly dumb things. You try to get yourself into trouble – then to figure the way out. Maybe there's a metaphor there for our country, imagining its origins or its future. This is what we have; what shall we do next?

Sean Michaels is the author of the Giller Prize-winning novel Us Conductors. He lives in Montréal.

CREDITS: Illustration by STUDIO TIPI; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by CHRIS WHITE