Rideau Street Parable – a John Dunn Story

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John-Dunn-2The idea for a night on the town came from Marie with my Monday morning porridge. Mid-August, and a night on the town. “There’s a play on at the Little Theatre this week, one of Noel Coward’s. I remember you spoke one time of seeing him on the stage in London during the war years. Do you think we could go to the theatre on Friday evening?”

“Certainly.”

“It’s also the week of our anniversary, and I think I deserve a break from the dishes and diapers. It would be pleasant to go out with no thought of having to clean up later. An evening just to be amused and entertained. The two of us.”

“It’s on. Friday evening.”

“All right. I’ll phone the theatre for curtain time and tickets. And, well, just to add a bit of lustre to the prospect, let’s arrange for dinner some place in the city and the theatre after.”

“Certainly. There are many places for dinner in that part of the city,” I remarked. “All within walking distance of the theatre. I could ask one of the girls at the office to make enquiries.”

“A lot of my friends who are quilters talk about a place called “Nate’s” where, they say, even the Prime Minister sometimes drops in for lunch. Would that be in the theatre district of the city?”

Nates“Indeed it is. However, masculinity swirls about at Nate’s. The menu features smoked meat on rye with mustard and dill pickle, or Hungarian goulash. It’s got colour, what General Petain called ‘elan’. But it’s a people place. A star-gazer’s delight. And, being trilingual, everyone’s welcome with Rideau Street French, Upper Ottawa Valley Irish, and Yiddish for top dressing.”

“I think I’d enjoy that. Just to sit and enjoy the scene and watch other people do all the work for a change. I’m all for a people place called “Nate’s” and Noel Coward at the theatre after. Roll on, Friday night.”

As soon as the door at Nate’s closed behind us, Sam came over to enquire if he could be of assistance. A place by the wall? Certainly. No hurry. Take time. Enjoy.

An extremely hot Friday night, it turned out, was an off night at Nate’s. Few stars shone on lower Rideau Street. Smoked meat on rye lacked élan, until sadly, the stars went out, one after another. So did we.

And started to walk up Rideau Street to use up an hour and a half amongst Friday night idlers before curtain time at the Little Theatre. French spoken here. Book shop’s open. Fur salon too. Fur coats on sale. Hot August night, to be sure, style trumps necessity.

Without warning of any kind, tribulation befell. “Oh, let’s go in,” I heard, followed by, “I’ve never done this before in all my life, but there’s no harm in just trying on a fur coat. Besides, the salon will be air-conditioned.”

My habit of years kicked in: It said ‘Whithersoever thou goest there also go I’.

Together we abandoned the idlers on Rideau Street, I following madame, though decidedly uneasy as to what the outcome might be, like Longstreet on that third day of July in Pennsylvania, reluctant to have to order George Pickett to launch a charge across open ground to oust the Union force from Culp’s Hill near Gettysburg.

Tremors of foreboding shook George Pickett. The aftershock of Pickett’s charge now shook me.

Three fur coats on dummies comprised the window display as we reached the salon’s entry.
A thudding started in my rib cage, rocking me the way Macbeth trembled on seeing his “fateful vision”, Banquo’s ghost.

Madame d’Elegance welcomed the shorter of two strangers with a pleasant “Good evening. May I help you?” and a slight curtsy to the queen.

“We’re on our way to the theatre,” royalty explained. “But the curtain goes up only at 8.30.  So, I thought…”

“Ah, oui,” Madame d’Elegance smiled knowingly, “And Madame has time to look at some beautiful furs.”

“The coats on display in the window,” royalty enquired carefully, “Are they on sale?” “Yess, madame. All our beautiful fur coats are on sale. Would you try one on?” Weak-kneed suddenly, I sought refuge on the only chair in the salon.

“Thees, now,” Madame d’Elegance held up a fur coat. “Ze musk-rat, is very popular. So we try it on for size, and find, ah oui,, ze muskrat pairhaps is too long. Madame is wearing walking shoes ce soir. Yess?”  A momentary pause. Madame d’Elegance sized up One of the Seven Wonders of the Western World with the same detailed scrutiny that George Pickett used on an open mile and a quarter of Pennsylvania countryside. “Madame is five feet and two inches, three pairhaps. No, two. Ze muskrat, very popular, is just too big. We set it down.”

“And now, madame, ze beaver, hmmm, is a fine coat.”

“Beaver doesn’t excite me. It’s for Mounted Police.”  Royalty dismissed ‘le castor’.

“Ah so. Ze beaver is for ze Gendarmerie. An’ so, madame, will you let me see you in ze wild mink. Pearhaps white mink? No. Not ze white. So, ze wild mink, au naturel!”

Was this artillery that George Pickett now heard? And his boys charging into artillery firing canister, double-charged, even as their numbers dwindles, before the few tumbled into Culp’s Hill?

A queen’s head in the salon’s mirrors turned, peered over one shoulder, another, back and forth, up and down, sideways, sensing mink’s weight on shoulders, while the demon prompter kept saying “Ah, oui, madame, ze fit is perfection. Ze wild mink needs madame.”

Resistance began to collapse in the salon. The enemy was through the skirmish line. Defence fled.

Madame d’Elegance turned questioningly in the quiet of collapse towards the salon’s only chair. “An’ m’sieu, you air ze ‘usband of madame, yess?”

“Next of kin,” replied I, morosely, fingering old dog tags in my pocket as good luck ran out.

With wrinkled brow and puzzled eyes Madame d’Elegance struggled to catch my idiom, and essayed to repeat it to make sure she had it right. “Next O’Quinn” said she, face bright with sudden comprehension as she added “Ah, oui, ze Irish, yess?”

“Ze Irish, oui, madame, c’est moi.”

John Dunn, August 04.