About the Author

Sandra Sabatini

Sandra Sabatini's first collection of short stories, The One With the News (Porcupine's Quill, 2000), was shortlisted for the McClelland Stewart Writers Trust Journey and or the Upper Canada Writers` Craft Award. Sabatini's second book, Making Babies: Infants in Canadian Fiction (2004), explored how Canadian novelists wrote about babies over the course of the 20th century and how infants become more predominant, developing their own literary identity. Her second collection of short stories, The Dolphins at Sainte-Marie (Penguin, 2006), explores small town living in Southern Ontario and the curiosities of youth and inexperience. Her novel, Dante's War, was published in March 2009 with Key Porter and follows the lives of two Italian lovers during the Second World War. She is currently writing a novel about winter. Sabatini lives, works, and teaches in Guelph and is on the graduate faculty of the University of Guelph MFA program in Creative Writing.

Books by this Author
Making Babies

Making Babies

Infants in Canadian Fiction
also available: eBook Hardcover
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The One With the News

Ambrose Dreams

Ambrose dreams that he's being lifted out of murky, moving water and left on a broad bank of clipped grass that pricks his wet skin. He feels the water and muck leaking from his shoes and clothes, the sediment, twigs, leaves, and tadpoles from the river dribbling back down the bank to its source. He is rescued and brought to a broad place. He feels the breeze and knows his name.

In Peggy's dreams Sean Connery is the bad guy who wants to kill Ambrose and marry her. She has to choose between her husband, Ambrose, whom she's been married to for forty-three years, and Sean Connery. The choice is complicated by the fact that if she chooses Ambrose she chooses death. Death with Ambrose or life with Sean. Because Ambrose buys her carnations, a dozen pink ones with baby's breath, seven ninety-nine cash and carry, she chooses to die with Ambrose rather than live in sin and betrayal with Sean.

When Ambrose lies down for forty winks he ruins Peggy's swaddled bed linen. He takes off his pants and lays them over the back of the chair. He pulls the mohair throw over his legs and puts his head on the pillow. He composes himself for sleep, folding his hands across his chest and taking a deep breath, as though he were about to dive. When Ambrose dreams he moans and winks and twitches like a Labrador retriever dreaming of plump rabbits. Watching him you can see he's on to something. His hair's a mess from tossing around and there are two vertical folds of skin between his tightly closed eyes. Suddenly these will disappear and Ambrose will laugh in his sleep.

Ambrose dreams of hands. His own are finely formed, hairless, pale, and meticulously clean. He was a watchmaker before he started losing his mind and he spent hours looking through an illuminated magnifying glass, adjusting the gears and jewels of watches, fixing the bezel on diamond rings, replacing weights and springs of antique clocks. His fingers always seemed large to him. He kept the nails clipped and filed when he repaired the Bulovas and Gruens and Seikos. The glass magnified any small bit of dirt, crumb of toast, flake of dandruff. His annoyance was manifested in pursed lips and severe humming if, in the middle of close work, he was suddenly distracted by fingernail muck. He would have to put everything down gently, rubies, solder, crystals, and pick away at minuscule filth until he was satisfied. At the hospital before his quadruple bypass surgery Ambrose was sedated and dreaming of the requirement of hands. The anaesthetist came to do his pre-op check and was shocked when the unconscious man beside him lifted his arms and announced, 'My hands are clean.'

On Sunday afternoons, after church and after the dishes are done from the roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, beans, broccoli with cream of mushroom soup and onion rings, beets, carrots, fresh rolls, and grape juice, since it is the Lord's day, a day of rest, Peggy will often lie down on the living-room couch. She reads Decision Magazine, and doesn't hear the ticking swing of the pendulum or the Westminster chimes that sound the quarter hours. Instead she sleeps. In Peggy's dreams, her rightful home, the land that she and Ambrose will inherit, is in the Northwest. Pristine and cold, it waits for them. Sean Connery wants that land in the Scottish Highlands, which Peggy has never seen. He wants it so badly that he's plotting Ambrose's death. Peggy knows she is in Scotland and it's the eighteenth century in her dream. She knows this and she knows their tartan. It's orange and green and brown and white, the plaid that Ambrose wears. A dangerous thing to do in the years after Bonnie Prince Charlie, when to wear the plaid or play the pipes could easily get you garrotted.

Ambrose has animal dreams. He dreamed there was a cow behind the piano. He made Peggy get out of bed and help him push the piano away from the wall. 'There,' he said. 'Now where will you hide?' Apparently this discouraged the cow, which never returned. He likes the cat dreams much better, though the cat is more difficult to find. Sometimes it hides in his workshop underneath the bench where the dark is thick with spider webs and the dried carcasses of old spider dinners. Once in his dream he knew the cat was in the tool shed behind the lawn mower. He sat up in bed, certain that it was out there and would spill gasoline and he and Peg would die horribly. Peggy found Ambrose standing in the backyard in his underwear.

'Ambrose!' she said, not being one to worry about the wisdom of waking a sleepwalker. 'Are you out your mind?'

'Beautiful evening, don't you think, Peg? What are you doing out of bed?'

'What am I ...?' Peggy turned and went back inside. 'Freeze to death if you like.'

God's purpose for cats was never clear to Ambrose, nor was Peggy's insistence that they have one. It wasn't as though they took the thing to the vet or even looked after it much. It stayed out all night and when they went away camping, Peggy would blithely put it outside and ask the neighbour to make sure there was always water in its dish. The presence of a cat brings out the worst in Ambrose, a man not normally given to cruelty. He pokes at them, pulls their tails, makes loud sudden hissing sounds to scare them from their curled sleep. He doesn't like cats. He dreams that there is a cat hiding in the house. He has to find it. If he does find it he gives it a good swift kick. Ambrose is bigger than the cat.

In Peggy's dreams Ambrose is prepared to take the risk of wearing the plaid. Looking to the Northwest, to heaven, you might say, Ambrose prepares to play the pipes, wearing his outlawed kilt and sporran and standing on strong legs, not on the thin, pale sticks that diabetes has left him with. Sean Connery watches avidly as Ambrose bends to one set of pipes of the two laid out on the grass beside the lake. Ambrose positions himself between the onlookers and the pipes, checking the fit of the drones. The other set belongs to Sean, who can barely stand still, whose concentration is exquisite. In a minute he'll be twisting his kilt. He's poisoned his own blow pipe and put it into Ambrose's pipes. In Peggy's dream, she knows this to be true. She knows what it all means, knows it's against the rules of the dream itself to yell a warning, or whisper one.

In real life, Ambrose not only can't play the pipes, but he and Peggy both hate the sound of them. Ambrose's parents were the children of Scots immigrants. He has the heritage, but not the inclination. He thinks kilts are ridiculous. He says about men who wear them, though not in their hearing, 'Ooh, fly away, ye wee fairy,' and he says it with a put-on Scottish burr. Peggy doesn't know why she has this dream. She doesn't like bagpipes and she doesn't care about Sean Connery one way or the other. Her feelings about Ambrose are much less neutral. She has always loved him, but since he got Alzheimer's, sometimes she hates him, too.

When Ambrose was in the war he had eczema. He had to stay in the base hospital, his hands swathed in bandages to keep him from flaying himself. On top of that he got influenza. He spent what seemed like days on a bedpan. He remembered the arc his pelvis had to make on the unyielding mattress to accommodate the pan underneath. Sometimes at night he dreams about the hospital. He dreams that his stomach is cramping, that he is sweating and nauseous and that he can feel the cold enamel framing his buttocks. He doesn't have to strain. Corruption pours out of him, influenza and life leaking away to be tidied up by the young nurse. When Ambrose wakes up these days and sees that he has missed the pan he tries to clean the mess himself with things that are handy, the curtains and clothing and doilies near his bed. He's confused in the dark of his room, uncertain about time and space. He notices that his hands have no bandages so he steals the chance to scratch his armpits and groin where the terrible itch flames. Only there is no itch. No bandages and no pan. Forty-five years since he needed them, but he can't figure that out either. Peggy wakes up choking. She doesn't know about his dream. She just knows if she murders Ambrose now no jury in the world will convict her.

In Peggy's dreams, Ambrose walks past her, past the crowd gathered near the castle. In her admiration of the smart swing of the pleats as Ambrose walks she forgets the danger. She knows the measure of his gait. She sees the calm in him and feels calm herself. In her dream the crowd becomes quiet. They are in the presence of the walking dead. Ambrose, in a tartan, about to play the pipes. People are holding their breath. Never mind that the reed is poisoned. Ambrose might as well take his skeindubh and stab himself through the heart. He's as good as dead.

Peggy's dreams have sound and colour. And history. Location, topography, plot. She can't love Sean Connery, or marry him. She's loved Ambrose since she was a girl. Ambrose stretches his arms over his head and limbers his fingers before he takes up the bag and the pipes. She watches him put the blow pipe in his mouth, tuck the bag under his left arm, and swing the drones onto his shoulder dampening the pipe with his tongue. Laughing with the man beside him, blow pipe held between his teeth, Ambrose takes a deep breath and fills the bag with air. He is peaceful. A level green gaze. His hair is grey in Peggy's dream even though in real life Ambrose's head is still covered in fine, jet-black hair. In Peggy's dream Ambrose is taller. He plays the pipes. For miles in that still evening the sound carries. You would think, dreams Peggy, that the sound moves all the way to London and the throne itself. If the poison doesn't kill him, the English will. Peggy waits and listens to the keening beauty of Ambrose's song. It's as though he is playing a spell. Even the nasty glint in Sean Connery's eye has begun to glisten.

Ambrose often wants to know what is happening. In his dreams he asks the people he knows and the strangers. When he's awake he puts the question in his eyes and looks at Peggy. There was the question. There. He doesn't know what thinking is. Ambrose doesn't know his brain is in serious trouble, that the complex business of circuitry, electric impulses transferring information easily, swiftly is, in Ambrose's brain, becoming a tangled mess. The synapses shift and freeze, shatter like Venetian crystal. Dreaming is better. In dreams Ambrose moves across the Speed River on skates. He glides with his sister who, in the cold air, is sniffing wetly. 'You can't keep that up,' he says and he skates away, barely hearing her tell him not to be so disgusting. He laughs. Ambrose likes jokes about bodily functions. He used to like to spice up the after-church fellowship time by asking newcomers if they'd read the inspirational bestseller, Golden Streams, by I.P. Standing. Now he has other questions he would like to ask.

In Peggy's dreams Ambrose doesn't die. Every piper knows his own pipes. The tape of her dream rewinds; she revises disaster from the horizon. She watches Ambrose examine the pipe, see that it has been stuck in askew, hastily it seems. She sees, even as he does, that these are not the marks left by his teeth. Somehow the pipe with those familiar indentations got in the wrong instrument. She watches him shake his head, and switch. She can see him wondering how that could have happened, and then sees the thought itself sink like a penny in a pond. Gone and useless. Ambrose has wind and pipes and hope for Scotland and for the Northwest. He plays.

History doesn't change, isn't changed by Peggy's dream. She might be fey. When she dreams, even when the dream is part of history, there are smells and sounds and texture, continuity and hope and fear and love. Sean Connery is enraged by Ambrose's failure to die. He has a back-up plan. Peggy observes him bend to the rock beside him and lift a small cask, green and jewelled, blown of precious glass, ancient and sinister. He lifts it over his head and smashes it on the scree beside the lake. As Ambrose plays, a bellowing cloud of noxious green gas moves toward the crowd, most particularly toward Ambrose. Peggy is the only one who seems to be aware that it is death moving toward them all. The wind shifts with the changing skirl of the pipes. It blows down from the northwest highlands and dissipates the greasy cloud. Again, no harm is done. Ambrose plays. The evening breeze blows and poor, cranky Sean dies of apoplexy. The English don't come. The people enjoy the music, move closer to one another, breathe in accord. Peggy goes home to bed with Ambrose.

Ambrose's dreams are a lot like his life, now. He remembers driving his car. He remembers addition and subtraction. He remembers that things have names. He tells Peggy to put the light out. When she tells him the light is already out he lifts his hand to slap her. He doesn't remember loving Peggy. He doesn't remember wooing her. Ambrose dreams rather straightforwardly that Peggy is his jailor. That she has keys, large clanking black ones, that could unlock the shackles that wrap around his head and neck, but she refuses. In his dreams, Ambrose hates Peggy. In his dreams he knows who she is; she is his enemy. She has robbed him of his car keys, of his money, of his claim checks for film processing. She puts poison in his food. She scratches him with her nails. She screams at him. When Peggy cries in Ambrose's dreams he knows why and he's glad. When Peggy cries in Ambrose's life, he doesn't know why. He doesn't know why she is a persistent force in his life. She keeps turning up, putting clothing on him, putting her lips to his face in a way that is utterly repugnant. She has, whoever she is, no sense of dignity or restraint.

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