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Wild Writing Prize Winner 2022: LE CHÂTEAU - Martin Horn

Updated: Sep 20, 2022


Woman in urban setting, between a male and a female character, her head almost underwater
Illustration by Conor Fenner-Toora - https://conorft.myportfolio.com/


I don’t remember the first time I heard about the ice shelf. I only skim the news in spare moments, rarely absorbing the meaning of events. I might have been at work, or at my other work, where one of my colleagues would have explained to me what it meant if the ice shelf collapsed, dragging half of Antarctica into the ocean with it. Large parts of New York (… Kolkata, Tokyo, Alexandria …) would flood. Even then the extent of the impending disaster wouldn’t have registered. When I finally understood I texted Catherine, the only person I know in Brooklyn who didn’t leave after ‘hurricane summer’ when the Ikea in Red Hook slid into New York harbour and a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway collapsed, killing no one in the already abandoned Lowe’s on 12th Street.

I asked Catherine what she planned to do. If it cracks, I told her, if the ice shelf, as big as Florida, falls into the sea (inundating Florida, tit-for-tat), the beaches along the southern edge of Long Island will disappear. Red Hook will flood, even more often than it does now. The surge barriers which are everywhere now in coastal Brooklyn will be like so many sandbags at the bottom of the ocean.


Catherine still hasn’t answered as I walk to work. She could have been up late the night before. She could be trying to find a way out of town, too busy to answer.

I work at a magazine. None of our contributors have written about the ice shelf. We publish daily, but nothing has come in at all and I wonder if I’m the only one who is worried. Just yesterday Jenny says, ‘Why hasn’t anyone written about the ice shelf?’ I remind her she’s a commissioning editor, she could ask someone to do it, but she just laughs, and keeps laughing for a long time and then walks away from my desk without a word, as if I hadn’t said anything at all.

I have lunch with Carl, a managing editor, and we walk along Mount Royal Street. The patios are full but the street is strangely quiet. Two office workers sit across from each other outside an Algerian restaurant, not speaking, staring at their plates as they eat.

‘It’s very quiet for lunchtime on a nice day,’ I say.

Carl makes a sound like he’s catching his breath. ‘I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I don’t see what difference it makes now. The publisher is selling the magazine.’

He waits a moment for my response but then continues, ‘I don’t know who the buyer is, but these things don’t usually end well.’


After work I visit Marguerite. The elevator in her building is broken again. It’s from the 1920s, when the huge, fortress-like Le Château Apartments were built, and had until recently been maintained with custom-made parts as the originals burned out. How Marguerite makes it up ten floors to her large, beautifully appointed apartment, I don’t know, and I wonder when she last went outside. When I arrive she is in her chair by the window. I sit across from her. ‘These are a bit dry,’ she says, taking a bite of a tea cake before even saying hello. She doesn’t love the tea either, I can tell, glancing as she does at the cup after taking a sip. The tea service used to come from Holt Renfrew, across the street, with scones and clotted cream delivered by a waiter on a silver tray. She makes her own tea now. The cake comes from the grocery store.

Marguerite tells me about her week as we sit by the window, from where I can see a narrow sliver of downtown, Holt’s empty Art Deco tower next to the newer wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts. Montreal feels like a village sometimes but this view reminds me of Manhattan and I’m grateful for it.

‘There just isn’t much for me to do anymore,’ she says. ‘The charities and foundations are all pretty much dead. I call my friends, those who are still alive, but there’s no structure to anything. We hardly know what to say to each other anymore.’ I listen to Marguerite talk like this for a while. She says the same things every week.

Marguerite is my only living connection to my father, but she is an imperfect avatar. She speaks of him often, though rarely with any depth or specificity, as if she had only ever seen him through fog and from a distance. I’ve learned not to press her for details. This only seems to intensify her desire to deflect, to distract, which she does by recounting the minutia of her daily life until I am so bored that I forget what it was I wanted to know.

She senses my waning attention and asks me what I’ve been up to since we last saw each other. I tell her about work – not my real job but the work I do for the magazine. Sometimes I’ll lie and tell her I’ve written another poem. She congratulates me. We don’t talk about the ice shelf.


Still no word from Catherine as I walk home.

We became friends when I was at NYU, but we didn’t meet at school. We found each other at a bar by the canal in Gowanus, a terrible place I went when I wanted to be out but alone. There was never anyone in there. Half the time the bartender wasn’t even there, sitting instead in the kitchen with his brother, the cook, who sometimes made French fries. Catherine was at the bar when I walked in one evening, interrogating the bartender, asking him how they stayed open with no customers. I sat down next to her and listened to their conversation. The bartender didn’t even try to answer, silently pouring each of us a glass of tequila before walking back to the kitchen and closing the door. Catherine and I started talking and hit it off right away.

She was unlike my classmates, most of whom lived in Manhattan, in Coral Tower or Brittany Hall or other residences near the Greenwich Village campus. I found this odd, especially for students in an arts program, who I thought should want to be close to where ‘real cultural production’ was happening. I didn’t understand them. I couldn’t tell, when I spoke to them at a party or in a seminar, what it was they wanted from their days, from their lives.

Catherine, on the other hand, I understood immediately. She had taken classes at the Art Students League but had never been to school properly. I imagine the cost of an MFA was an issue, but she also seemed to intuitively know how to thread the needle, so to speak, how to meet people and make a path for herself. Her parents had been elementary school teachers. I wondered if this had something to do with why she seemed so well-adjusted, so untroubled by general opinion or the precariousness of her situation as a working artist in New York City.

When I finished my degree I came back to Montreal, broke and not really thinking about what I would do next. Not so Catherine, who had a plan. Not so my classmates, who stayed in New York or moved to Los Angeles and somehow found work. Living in Montreal, I felt as though I had fallen off the edge of the world while they wrote a growing number of magazine features, TV shows, movies and even a few poorly selling but well-regarded literary novels. I regret leaving, even as New York slowly empties.


Marguerite finally talks about the ice shelf when I visit the following Monday, but in a way that makes it hard for me to know if she’s upset about the end of the world or upset that people are upset. ‘It’s so stupid,’ she says, ‘this whole thing.’ I’d spent the weekend alone, walking along the busy canal on Saturday and not really leaving the house at all on Sunday, half-heartedly trying to write. Lonely, I’d been eager to see Marguerite, forgetting how disconnected our recent conversations had felt.

She changes the subject and starts talking about my father again, with the same infuriating lack of detail. She talks about him out of some apparent compulsion, certainly not because she thinks it’ll do me any good to hear about how, in her opinion, his life was wasted. I’ve asked her several times if they were lovers. ‘What does it matter?’ she always says, and then asks me again how work is going, or some other question I’m not sure she cares to hear the answer to. I sometimes wonder if they never were a couple, if it was some other less obvious intimacy they shared, some entanglement which embarrasses her in a way a simple affair never could. When she speaks of him, her grey eyes sometimes seem to me less like windows into her soul than they are opaque and biological, as though her body separates her from the world instead of connecting her to it.

She paid my tuition at NYU, but this is not why I still visit. She leaves the question of her relationship to my father unresolved. I know I shouldn’t need to know, but I do. I wonder if she has no other friends left.


My job, the one that pays the rent, is as a sales associate in a clothing store on Mansfield Street. In the staff room our shift leader tells us that our clothes budget will be reduced starting next month. ‘We’ll have to start spending more of our own money on work clothes then,’ says Eleanor, one of the other associates, always confident, saving before she starts medical school, the first to make a stand every time management squeezes us because she really doesn’t need the money.

‘Sales are way up, especially in the last month,’ she says. ‘Why should we have to pay?’

She’s right. Customers come in every day, spending thousands where a month ago they would have spent only hundreds. We coach each one through the process, trying to make them feel that we aspire to be one day as they are, that this is as much for us as it is for them.


Marguerite and Catherine are the twin poles of my world, one representing an unreachable past, the other a future I hoped for but never manifested. I’m starting to think that the pursuit of either – reclaiming my past or trying to actualize a present and future that don’t exist – is a losing proposition. Still, the mind rebels. There is always hope.


I miss it by an hour. I’m at the office, in the quiet room. I’m so focused on a piece about local furniture designers due at noon that I don’t check the news for a whole two hours. When I leave the room the office is nearly empty. An intern sitting at a desk near the door is sweating, staring at his computer. I walk past him and look at his screen, but it’s just open on the Wikipedia page for the Paris Commune. He doesn’t appear to be reading it, just staring at the screen. Most people have left, and the few that remain are sitting around, fidgeting, glassy-eyed, staring out the window. One of the copy editors sitting at the back of the room gets up and leaves, moving furtively as though to avoid being seen.


It takes a moment for the words on my screen to coalesce. ‘Ice Sheet Collapses. Flooding in Major Coastal Cities Worldwide. South Florida to Be Evacuated.’ I read through the article, looking for the language of crisis and hoping not to find the language of the end of history. I text Catherine again.

Why didn’t they evacuate Florida before the ice shelf collapsed, if everyone knew it was going to happen?


There’s an overlook on the mountain, a belvedere from which you can see all of downtown. Beyond the office towers, condos and older apartment buildings – in one of which Marguerite sits now, ensconced, safe, far above the earth – is the flat Saint Lawrence Valley: farms, isolated hills, wind turbines stretching to the American border. I imagine the valley flooding, the whole thing, and feel no better for being on higher ground. The life I had imagined for myself is finally, truly impossible.

There are a few others on the belvedere with me. Usually at this time of day there are dozens of people here, tourists, office workers on break, retirees, people who work from home. Today it’s me and six other people. Each of us is alone, staring southward over the plain, looking for some visible sign of the apocalypse and finding only the light of the sun through the clouds moving over the land and a grey line in the haze where the land meets the sky.



 

Martin Horn is a writer from Montreal, Canada. He has recently finished writing a novel about artistic envy, friendship, and surveillance. He tweets occasionally at @martin_horn.


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