Submitted by Michael Dunn. Written by his father, John Patrick Dunn.
Seven-fifteen a.m. Pitch dark outside. Routine governing my orderly approach to morning, I spooned up the last of the porridge, set the bowl aside, and drew the boiled egg to the foreground.
One sharp blow from my knife decapitated the egg and the toaster flicked two slices upward. The telephone’s ring stopped breakfast routine. Probably just someone wanting a ride in to the city, I thought.
Speeding to the front of the house my hand snatched up the set before more jangling might awaken the entire household.
“Hell–o,” I said, masquerading a dash of vocal bravado to show the cheery side of a wintry pre-dawn Friday.
“Hello!” an echo returned, and a voice struggling with distant uncertainty asked “Dunn’s?”
“Yes, speaking. ”
“Say, ’bout that article in the paper…”
“Article?” I repeated obliquely.
“Yes. That story, the one you wrote, in the Almonte Gazette,”
“Oh yes. In this week’s issue?” I said, stretching the enquiry to gain time.
“That’s right, that’s the one.”
My mind locked on. The article carried a historical bent. Nothing controversial. Still, I wondered. It had appeared in print the day before, regular publishing date for the Gazette.
At one stage I had wanted a sharp simile to express the depth of darkness, striving for what the French call “le mot juste”. Up popped one of Mrs. Rooney’s sayings, buttressed with her own awe-inspiring imagery: “Oh, it was a black night,” she had said to me, “Black as the inside of a cow!” In her own words that phrase carried intensity along with Missus R’s own pugnacious Irish affirmation. I used it.
“Yes, the article in the Gazette,” the caller continued. “Good story. Very good article. Except that there’s one thing that’s not right.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows lifted in surprise. “What thing?” I asked.
“‘Tweren’t that way at all at all. You know?” the voice said, inviting my agreement in the unknown.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “What wasn’t that way at all at all?”
“Well, ’twasn’t that way. Thought I should call and tell you, knowing how you’d like to have things set down straight. That suit you all right?”
“Most welcome, accuracy is.” said I.
“You know who’s callin’, I s’pose?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“Best leave it that way. Never know who might be listenin’ in out here.”
“So, something’s haywire in that story in the Gazette?” I asked, swinging the tiller to starboard to recapture the wind’s drift.
“Yes, haywire. See ’twasn’t the Missus used to say that, what you wrote there, ‘Black as the inside of a cow’. ‘Twas Himself.”
“Mrs. Rooney’s saying? Is there something haywire? Something that I missed?”
“Yes. Haywire. Something you might not have known. ‘Twas Himself used to say it, but his words were, well, I better not say here; except, the way he said it, well, there was a difference.”
“Himself said it, not Mrs. Rooney?”
“Yes. Himself. He never in his life said ‘black as the inside of a cow’; I could tell you the real aying, his own words, but well, ’twasn’t that way in the article, at all, at all. No, not that way.”
The need for accuracy struggled in me with hungerin’ for my boiled egg and toast. I struggled for words to reveal the missing link, ‘le mot juste’. Imagery putteth such demands on creative talent in the pre-dawn hours. “Gee whiz” I said, “What in the world would Himself have said?”
“Ah, yes, an’ I could tell you, but a body never knows who might be listenin’ in. You’d understand that, I’m sure?”
“At this hour, 7:25 on a Friday morning? Who’d be listenin’ in?” said I, with a sniff of scorn. “Besides, if someone should be listening in, there’s little harm in getting at the truth, is there?”
“Oh, don’t tell me that. All those Royal Canadian Mounteds in Ottawa, sittin’ up all night, just waitin’ for someone like me to say something awful on this line and bang! They’d be out here within the hour to snatch me up and escort me on horseback to Kingston Pen. Mark my words. Anyways, ’twas Himself used to say black as…, but I can’t tell you over the phone: they’d arrest me. Sure as anythin’. Can’t be too careful ’bout what you say on the telephone these days.”
“Still,” I pleaded, concocting a bribe, “There’s the need to put things straight.”
“Well, yes. Indeed, to put the matter in the straight way. And you’re right there: accuracy…. Do you think I could take a chance?”
“I do. Besides, those Royal Canadian Mounteds are friendly enemies, in spite of their geein’ and hawin’ with those dark chestnut horses an’ parades and the like.”
“Well, well,,,” my caller began again, showing signs of wilt on the edge, saying. “As I was tellin’ you, ’twasn’t the Missus: ’twas Himself.”
“Himself said what?” I urged.
“Black as a cow’s arse! That’s it. That’s what Himself said! There! It’s out! It’s right out there on this line now for anyone to hear it. I can’t deny it! It’s out and I guess those Mounteds’ll be out of their chairs right now. This’s likely the last you’ll hear about me for years to come, for they’ll likely put me breakin’ rocks at Kingston. But I had to let you know the truth of it; ’twas Himself said it.”
Enjoyment split the air waves from Cameron Street all the nine miles to the upper country. I sensed a second image — nine miles of telephone lines writhing, doubled-over, convulsed in riotous merriment. Nothing poetic nor fanciful. Stark truth only in the simile.
“You’ve spent time in the country yourself,” my informant threw at me to halt the hilarity. “I’m sure you know about the hide under a cow’s tail. It’s black. Always. Holstein, Hereford, Guernsey, Angus, any colour at all up front in a cow, but in that one place of its hide, one colour, black. That’s the way it is with cows. You’re aware of that, I’m sure. But now, I can’t deny what I said over the telephone, and I know there’s nothing now for me but pack my bag and wait for the Royals: I expect they’ll be callin’ to pick me up about an hour from now.”
“I’d not worry till after the morning’s milkin’,” I said with a burst of gratification for a Friday morning send-off.
“Do you know yet who’s callin’?” came the query from afar.
“No, but my ears detect the Rosetta dialect from round about the Floatin’ Bridge.”
“Well, you devil. Guess I’d best let you get off to the city. I’ll just pack my bag, and be waitin’ on the doorstep for the Royals. Thought you’d want to know, writin’ articles like you do, ’twasn’t the Missus, ’twas Himself.”
16 Dec. 1996