THE STREET THAT GOT MISLAID

The Borneo Post - Good English - - Front Page - by Patrick Wadding­ton

MARC Girondin had worked in the fil­ing sec­tion of the city hall’s en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment for so long that the city was laid out in his mind like a map, full of names and places, in­ter­sect­ing streets and streets that led nowhere, blind al­leys and wind­ing lanes.

In all Mon­treal no one pos­sessed such knowl­edge; a dozen po­lice­men and taxi driv­ers to­gether could not ri­val him. That is not to say that he ac­tu­ally knew the streets whose names he could re­cite like a se­ries of in­can­ta­tions, for he did little walk­ing. He knew sim­ply of their ex­is­tence, where they were, and in what re­la­tion they stood to oth­ers.

But it was enough to make him a spe­cial­ist. He was undis­puted ex­pert of the fil­ing cab­i­nets where all the par­tic­u­lars of all the streets from Ab­bott to Zo­tique were in­dexed, back, for­ward and across. Those aris­to­crats, the engi­neers, the in­spec­tors of wa­ter mains and the like, all came to him when they wanted some little par­tic­u­lar, some de­tail, in a hurry They might de­spise him as a lowly clerk, but they needed him all the same.

Marc much pre­ferred his of­fice, de­spite the pro­found lack of ex­cite­ment of his work, to his room on Oven Street (run­ning north and south from Sher­brooke East to St. Cather­ine), where his neigh­bour were noisy and some­times vi­o­lent, and his land­lady con­sis­tently so. He tried to ex­plain the mean­ing of his ex­is­tence once to a fel­low ten­ant, Louis, but with­out much suc­cess. Louis, when he got the drift, was apt to sneer.

“So Craig latches on to Bleury and Bleury gets to be Park, so who cares? Why the ex­cite­ment?”

“I will show you,” said Marc. “Tell me, first, where you live.”

“Are you crazy? Here on Oven Street. Where else?” “How do you know?”

“How do I know? I’m here, ain’t I? I pay my rent, don’t I? I get my mail here, don’t I?”

Marc shook his head pa­tiently.

“None of that is ev­i­dence,” he said. “You live here on Oven Street be­cause it says so in my fil­ing cabi­net at city hall. The post of­fice sends you mail be­cause my card in­dex tells it to. If my cards didn’t say so, you wouldn’t ex­ist and Oven Street wouldn’t ei­ther. That, my friend, is the tri­umph of bu­reau­cracy.”

Louis walked away in dis­gust. “Try telling that to the land­lady,” he mut­tered.

So Marc con­tin­ued on his undis­tin­guished ca­reer, his for­ti­eth birth­day came and went with­out re­mark, day af­ter day passed un­event­fully. A street was re­named, an­other con­structed, a third widened; it all went care­fully into the files, back, for­ward and across.

And then some­thing hap­pened that filled him with amaze­ment, shocked him be­yond mea­sure, and made the world of the fil­ing cab­i­nets trem­ble to their steel bases. One Au­gust af­ter­noon, open­ing a drawer to its fullest ex­tent, he felt some­thing catch. Ex­plor­ing farther, he dis­cov­ered a card stuck at the back be­tween the top and bot­tom. He drew it out and found it to be an old in­dex card, dirty and torn, but still per­fectly de­ci­pher­able. It was la­beled RUE DE LA BOUTEILLE VERTE, or GREEN BOT­TLE STREET.

Marc stared at it in won­der. He had never heard of the place or of any­thing re­sem­bling so odd a name. Un­doubt­edly it had been reti­tled in some other fashion be­fit­ting the mod­ern ten­dency. He checked the listed de­tails and ruf­fled con­fi­dently through the mas­ter file of street names. It was not there. He made an­other search, care­ful and pro­tracted, through the cab­i­nets. There was noth­ing. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

Once more he ex­am­ined the card. There was no mis­take. The date of the last reg­u­lar street in­spec­tion was ex­actly fif­teen years, five months and four­teen days ago.

As the aw­ful truth burst upon him, Marc dropped the card in hor­ror, then pounced on it again fear­fully, glanc­ing over his shoul­der as he did so.

It was a lost, a for­got­ten street. For fif­teen years and more it had ex­isted in the heart of Mon­treal, not half a mile from city hall, and no one had known. It had sim­ply dropped out of sight, a stone in wa­ter.

In his heart, Marc had some­times dreamed of such a pos­si­bil­ity. There were so many ob­scure places, twist­ing lanes and streets jum­bled to­gether as in­tri­cately as an Egyp­tian labyrinth. But of course it could not hap­pen, not with the om­ni­scient file at hand. Only it had. And it was dy­na­mite. It would blow the of­fice sky-high.

Vaguely, in his con­ster­na­tion, Marc re­mem­bered how, some time af­ter he first started to work, his sec­tion had been moved to an­other floor. The old-fash­ioned files were dis­carded and all the cards made out afresh. It must have been at that time that Green Bot­tle Street was stuck be­tween the up­per and lower draw­ers.

He put the card in his pocket and went home to re­flect. That night he slept badly and mon­strous fig­ures flit­ted through his dreams. Among them ap­peared a gi­gan­tic like­ness of his chief go­ing mad and forc­ing him into a red-hot fil­ing cabi­net.

The next day he made up his mind. Plead­ing ill­ness, he took the af­ter­noon off and with beat­ing heart went look­ing for the street.

Although he knew the lo­ca­tion per­fectly, he passed it twice and had to re­trace his steps. Baf­fled, he closed his eyes, con­sulted his mind’s in­fal­li­ble map and walked di­rectly to the en­try.

It was so nar­row that he could touch the ad­join­ing walls with his out­stretched hands. A few feet from the side­walk was a tall and solid wooden struc­ture, much weather-beaten, with a sim­ple latched door in the cen­ter. This he opened and stepped inside. Green Bot­tle Street lay be­fore him.

It was per­fectly real, and re­as­sur­ing as well. On ei­ther side of a cob­bled pave­ment were three small houses, six in all, each with a diminu­tive gar­den in front, spaced off by low iron pal­ings of a kind that has dis­ap­peared ex­cept in the old­est quar­ters. The houses looked ex­tremely neat and well kept and the cob­bles ap­peared to have been re­cently wa­tered and swept. Win­dow­less brick walls of an­cient ware­houses en­cir­cled the six homes and joined at the farther end of the street.

At his first glance, Marc re­alised how it had got­ten its

un­usual name. It was ex­actly like a bot­tle in shape. With the sun shin­ing on the stones and gar­den plots, and the blue sky over­head, the street gave him a mo­men­tary sense of well-be­ing and peace. It was com­pletely charm­ing, a scene from a print of fifty years ago.

A woman who Marc guessed was some sixty years of age was wa­ter­ing roses in the gar­den of the first house to his right. She gazed at him mo­tion­less, and the wa­ter flowed from her can un­heeded to the ground. He took off his hat and an­nounced, “I’m from the city en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment, madam.”

The woman re­cov­ered her­self and set her wa­ter­ing can down.

“So you have found out at last,” she said.

At these words, Marc’s re­born be­lief that af­ter all he had made a harm­less and ridicu­lous er­ror fled pre­cip­i­tately. There was no mis­take.

“Tell me, please,” he said tone­lessly.

It was a cu­ri­ous story. For sev­eral years, she said, the ten­ants of Green Bot­tle Street had lived in amity with each other and the land­lord, who also resided in one of the little houses. The owner be­came so at­tached to them that in a ges­ture of good­will he deeded them his prop­erty, to­gether with a small sum of money, when he died.

“We paid our taxes,” the woman said, “and made out a mul­ti­tude of forms and an­swered the ques­tions of var­i­ous of­fi­cials at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals about our prop­erty. Then, af­ter a while, we were sent no no­tices, so we paid no more taxes. No one both­ered us at all. It was a long time be­fore we un­der­stood that in some way they’d for­got­ten about us.”

Marc nod­ded. Of course, if Green Bot­tle Street had dropped from the ken of city hall, no in­spec­tors would go there, no cen­sus tak­ers, no tax col­lec­tors. All would pass mer­rily by, directed else­where by the in­fal­li­ble fil­ing cabi­net.

“Then Michael Flana­gan, who lives at num­ber four,” she went on, “a most in­ter­est­ing man, you must meet him--Mr. Flana­gan called us to­gether and said that if mir­a­cles hap­pened, we should aid and abet them. It was he who had the door built and put up at the en­trance to keep out passersby or of­fi­cials who might come along. We used to keep it locked, but it’s been so long since any­one came that we don’t bother now.

“Oh, there were many little things we had to do, like get­ting our mail at the post of­fice and never hav­ing any­thing de­liv­ered at the door. Now al­most the only vis­its we make to the out­side world are to buy our food and clothes.”

“And there has never been any change here all that time?” Marc asked.

“Yes, two of our friends died, and their rooms were empty for a while. Then Jean Des­selin--he’s in num­ber six and some­times goes into the city--re­turned with a Mr. Plon­sky, a refugee. Mr. Plon­sky was very tired and worn out with his trav­el­ings and gladly moved in with us. Miss Hunter, in num­ber three, brought home a very nice per­son--a dis­tant rel­a­tive, I be­lieve. They quite un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion.”

“And you, madam?” Marc in­quired.

“My name is Sara Trus­dale, and I have lived here for more than twenty years. I hope to end my days here as well.”

She smiled pleas­antly at him, ap­par­ently for­get­ting for the mo­ment that he car­ried in his pocket a grenade that could blow their little world to pieces.

All of them, it seemed, had had their trou­bles, their losses and fail­ures, be­fore they found them­selves in this place of refuge, this Green Bot­tle Street. To Marc, con­scious of his own un­sat­is­fac­tory ex­is­tence, it sounded en­tranc­ing. He fin­gered the card in his pocket un­cer­tainly. “Mr. Plon­sky and Mr. Flana­gan took a great lik­ing to each other,” Miss Trus­dale con­tin­ued. “Both of them have been trav­el­ers and they like to talk about the things they have seen. Miss Hunter plays the pi­ano and gives us con­certs. Then there’s Mr. Haz­ard and Mr. Des­selin, who are very fond of chess and who brew wine in the cel­lar. For my­self, I have my flow­ers and my books. It has been very en­joy­able for all of us.”

Marc and Miss Trus­dale sat on her front step for a long time in si­lence. The sky’s blue dark­ened, the sun dis­ap­peared be­hind the ware­house wall on the left.

“You re­mind me of my nephew,” Miss Trus­dale said sud­denly. “He was a dear boy. I was heart­bro­ken when he died in the in­fluenza epi­demic af­ter the war. I’m the last of my fam­ily, you know.”

Marc could not re­call when he had been spo­ken to with such sim­ple, if in­di­rect, good­will. His heart warmed to this old lady. Ob­scurely he felt on the verge of a great moral dis­cov­ery. He took the card out of his pocket.

“I found this yesterday in the fil­ing cabi­net,” he said. “No one else knows about it yet. If it should come out, there would be a great scan­dal, and no end of trou­ble for all of you as well. News­pa­per re­porters, tax col­lec­tors . . .”

He thought again of his land­lady, his bel­liger­ent neigh­bors, his room that de­fied im­prove­ment. “I won­der,” he said slowly, “I am a good ten­ant, and I won­der . . .”

“Oh yes,” she leaned for­ward ea­gerly, “you could have the top floor of my house. I have more space than I know what to do with. I’m sure it would suit you. You must come and see it right away.”

The mind of Marc Girondin, fil­ing clerk, was made up. With a ges­ture of re­nun­ci­a­tion he tore the card across and dropped the pieces in the wa­ter­ing can. As far as he was con­cerned, Green Bot­tle Street would re­main mislaid for­ever.

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