A Canadian in Paris
A personal essay by Sally A. Moore
A Canadian in Paris
A personal essay by Sally A. Moore
Paul Quarrington had been on the back of a turtle, but he had never been to Paris. An extraordinary novelist, screenwriter, producer and musician, Quarrington was a rare combination of artistic talents, an icon of Canadian spirit. He had a touching ability to reach people, to see the humour in life, to grapple with the profane and come up laughing.
I first met Quarrington at Humber School for Writers in 2005. He was a mentor to my 17 year-old niece, an aspiring writer enrolled in his class. What struck me immediately was how shy he could be, not the first thing you hear about him. Irascible, talented, funny, witty, Paul was a lively writer and known as a loyal friend, but his quietness was something special that he projected when he met new people. At least it struck me so.
Quarrington is perhaps best known for his writing on “Due South,” a Canadian television series I loved, and as a musician in the Porkbelly Futures band. Before arriving at Humber for writing classes, I read his novels, The Boy on the Back of the Turtle, a moving chronicle of his trip with his daughter Carson to the Galapagos; and my favourite, Whale Music, the disturbing, funny story of fictional music icon Des Howell. Upon arriving on campus, I purchased his Las Vegas-themed novel, The Spirit Cabinet, at the Humber book store. After attending my own classes I walked over to the main building, hoping to catch Quarrington and ask him to sign my copy of his book. But I kept missing him.
After a while, my eagerness to have my book signed got to be a joke with my niece, Jessica, and our new friend James, an exuberant young man in their class. One afternoon, Alistair McLeod, who was teaching the class I was enrolled in, let us out early to work on our writing for next day’s session. I rushed to the hallway outside Quarrington’s class and peered through the glass insert in the door. James noticed me and put up his hand.
“Mr. Quarrington, Mr. Quarrington! That’s my friend, Sally. She wants you!”
As the class laughed, Quarrington smiled, put down his chalk and walked out into the hallway.
“I hear you are stalking me,” he said.
“Yes, sir, that is correct.” I handed him The Spirit Cabinet, smiled, and tried not to look too dangerous.
He stood back and gave me an ironic smile with downcast eyes, a look just self-deprecating enough to let me know how absurd following him around seemed to him to be. We chatted for a few seconds as he wrote in my book. I couldn’t help but like Paul Quarrington. There was nothing lofty about him; it wasn’t humility exactly, but an affable quality that signalled a love of people, of the quirkiness of life.
I thanked him, promised to actually read the book, and he grinned and returned to class. I opened The Spirit Cabinet and noted the drawing of a wizard on the title page, and the inscription, ‘Never reveal the secrets in this book.’
In 2009, I heard that Quarrington was giving a performance at the International Festival of Authors. It was October, and, along with 1,000 others, I bought a ticket and stood in line. Many of his friends were there, authors Alistair McLeod, Wayson Choy, Nino Ricci and Antanas Sileika, actor Paul Gross. The Rheostatics rock band performed together with Dave Clark for the first time in fifteen years, and the Quarrington Trio sang original songs. Paul himself sang “Blame It On My Youth,” a song about his life and regrets.
The mood was nostalgia, love, joy, regret and sadness. His friends, family, colleagues, celebrities roasted him, made jokes about his life, past girlfriends, past mistakes, blunders and successes. I caught hold of the laughter, the affection, the infuriation, as people spoke about being in his life. Paul talked candidly about his bout with lung cancer, how he did not expect to survive. He laughed, he choked, he sang, he cried a bit. We did all those things with him. It was a celebration, a joyous recounting of the successes and foibles of an accomplished man.
Afterwards I was surprised to find Paul hovering by the stage, alone in the crowd. I walked up to him and put out my hand.
“I don’t know if you remember me . . .”
He grinned, pointed his finger and said, “You are my stalker!”
He hadn’t lost one ounce of his charm, of his apologetic address, as if he were embarrassed to be the centre of such attention. I admitted that I was, and I couldn’t help but smile at him, a genuine, loving sense of who he was inside me at that moment. He had a way of putting people at ease.
“I appreciate what you did for my niece at Humber,” I said. “She was a bit intimidated to find herself amongst all that literary talent. You encouraged her and made her one of the group. Now, she’s finishing an undergrad in English Lit at Queen’s. You mattered a lot to her.”
He said, “I remember Jessica. She’s a talented young lady.”
I told him that I was impressed with the performance. I hoped that he would have fun at the party that was to follow, his ‘living wake.’ He shrugged and said that he would, that he was feeling good, all things considered. I asked if I could give him a hug, and he said, “Please!” So I embraced him, and then I left.
In January of 2010, Quarrington died. I heard the news, an impersonal voice on the radio. It left me profoundly sad. I felt that the world, Canada certainly, had lost something grand. Later I saw an interview with Paul where he was asked if there was anything he regretted.
He said, “I was fortunate enough . . . fishing for tarpon and bonefish in the Bahamas and off Cuba, I’d done that so I didn’t have to panic or...going to the Galapagos...” Then he raised his eyebrows and gave his ingenious smile, “I never went to Paris... you know, there’s something.”
In May 2010 I took a trip to Europe. In my carry-on was the copy of The Spirit Cabinet that Paul had signed for me. When we arrived in France, I took the book out of my bag and tucked it into the inside pocket of my jacket. It was a cold, blustery day, intermittent rain drizzling over Paris in sad remembrance. I thought about the transience of life, how someone who touched you could be here and then gone, how easily that could happen to any one of us. I hadn’t known him well. I only met him twice. But I hated that a man of such friendship and talent was gone.
People were laughing, the pickpockets were out in full force, souvenirs were changing hands, guards were patrolling the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. And the sites around us, Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, the Palais Royale dazzled in a city famous for its arts and culture. As I walked out onto the open lookout of the Eiffel Tower, I noted the grey haze in the sky, now receding into the distance. The rain stopped. The clouds were parting for Paul Quarrington.
I took the book out of my jacket and held it over the vista of the city, a small gesture in a grand place. And it was like he was there. The tourists didn’t turn to look; they kept talking and snapping pictures and no-one took much notice of the work of one of Canada’s foremost writers. But I believe Paul would have seen the humour in bringing his Spirit to the Eiffel Tower. And I think a humble tribute to his last regret was a gesture he would have appreciated.
As I walked away from the lookout of the Eiffel Tower, his book in my hand, I felt some measure of satisfaction. Paul Quarrington has been to Paris.