canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Propositions Concerning Animal Magnetism

by Tim Conley

As the evening came on she liked to walk slowly by the new flats that were going up just around the corner. The builders had gone by then, so it was fairly quiet and still and the light was very pleasant.

Now and then she returned to marvelling how their own little flat managed to survive, without so much as a broken window. It occurred to her that her husband might have been a German spy.

Her husband, a stout man with lips that looked swollen, liked to sit in a dressing gown listening to the wireless, particularly to a program on jokes. He liked to commit many of them to memory and repeat them when he could at any kind of social gathering.

It was, she had thought even at the time, difficult to gauge his reaction to the news of the war’s end. He seemed either slightly relieved that a certain ordeal or inconvenience had run its course or slightly disappointed that a certain opportunity had been missed.

Gladys had spilled tea on both of them. Him a spy, she said, here, have a pull at the other one.

Just the memory of the time in school when she had named Botticelli as her favourite composer, and all of the other students had laughed and the teacher had too, chilled her, halted any kind of letter, even an anonymous one, to Scotland Yard. Even her father had laughed when he showed up to explain that their record at home of Respighi had an album cover featuring a painting by Botticelli.

They had no children because her womb was misshapen. In any case, she did not like children.

Rain, on the other hand, was something she could not get enough of, could not understand why other people complained about it, as though that would change anything. Right as rain, that’s what they say, the only proverb she thought sensible.

Years ago her husband had belonged to a club, a place he used to go Thursday nights, no ladies in attendance of course. They couldn’t have been a spy organization, though, because Mr. Trotter was a member, and Mr. Trotter had fought valiantly against the Hun in the first war and was furthermore an honest man.

One afternoon just before their second or third night in the tube, she had come in and found her husband just sitting there in his chair, staring into space, as if he were in a deep trance. When she got no reaction out of him after an hour, she rang the doctor.

This was not the same doctor who had told her about her womb, but he had sent her to the specialist who did deliver that news, so things were not altogether bright with him. Put the kettle on, love, he said, and I’ll be there in time for tea, or words to that effect.

Everything could be measured in kettles of tea, if you thought about it. Anyway, she had of course already put the kettle on before she found him just sitting there.

After calling the doctor she rang Gladys, who knew a lot of home remedies, but Gladys was not at home and instead she got stuck talking to Desmond, who knew a lot of nothing. Desmond shared his opinion that a man in such a trance can only be roused by hearing the name of his beloved whispered in his ear.

By the time the doctor arrived she was well into names of no one she’d ever met but which she’d often thought were nice-sounding. The doctor produced smelling salts and that was the end of that.

When she asked him about the episode, the term Desmond had liked to use, her husband was quite vague. It’s like I was there with you, he said, but then again it wasn’t.

She was very glad he did not smoke. He never smoked a day in his life, though when he dried the dishes he never put all of them away in the right places, and that might also be what you might call endearing.

The specialist never told her exactly what shape her womb was. She remembered his hands looked like one pink spider asleep atop another.

What about a Russian spy, though? She asked the friendlier of the two librarians if she happened to know, off the top of her head, about any kind of connection between Russians and trances, and the librarian had given her a very slow nod and wrote something on a slip of paper and pressed it into her hand.

For the next three days and nights she trembled with anticipation, repeatedly sneaking looks at the date, time, and address pencilled there, as though to check whether they had changed. One evening at dinner she laughed a little too sharply at one of her husband’s borrowed jokes.

The joke concerned a man who walks by an insane asylum and hears the inmates in the fenced yard excitedly hooting: thirteen, thirteen, thirteen! Curious, he presses his eye to the one hole in the fence to see what’s going on, gets a sharp poke in the eye, and as he staggers away hears the new chant: fourteen, fourteen, fourteen!

At the appointed hour her taxi pulled up to what looked to be an abandoned theatre, likely closed some time during the war, judging from the remains of posters. The front door opened with difficulty.

In the dim light she could see the librarian, dressed in a sleeveless, shimmering dress which did not suit her, silently gesturing to her to come through the foyer and follow her down the steep steps to the stage. There a man sat at a scratched-up wooden table, apparently massaging his long fingers.

What was it Mr. Trotter had told her the one time she had asked, she was embarrassed to recall, about the first war? He was getting very poorly those days, the war was only a year on and he wouldn’t last another year himself, and she had wanted to know if this war seemed different to him than the last.

Mr. Trotter reflexively touched his knee, where everyone knew he had been shot, and she thought he was going to say something about the experience. Instead, though, he sighed in that long way of his and told her she reminded him of a girl he used to know in France, back then.

When she was seated across from the man, she immediately understood that he was Russian, a Russian with terribly dark eyebrows and a washed-out suit that had once been flashy. She understood, too, as he began to speak thickly to her of the ocean, of waves slapping against the wharf one after another, that he was going to hypnotize her, that she was being hypnotized.

Then she thought how fortunate it was that she had put on the good earrings. Anything might happen to her now, she thought, anything at all.

The war had ended four years before. As her husband had said to her once, it seemed like much less.


Tim Conley is the author of Whatever Happens (Insomniac Press, 2006). He teaches English and Comparative Literature at Brock University.





TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

Facebook page

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.