April 1st, 2005
As far as I can remember, there was no sunshine on the morning of April 1st, only the grey drizzle of a late-breaking day. A sheet of dirty ice clung to the pavement in front of my apartment on Saint-Antoine Street.
Caught up among the torrents of snow that the plows had been shoving aside since December, discarded papers lay in a mosaic on the sidewalk.
It’s the time of year when, as though recalling a forgotten promise after a long winter, the residents of Montreal start looking forward to blue skies, to buds on the trees and a warm wind on their faces. It’s also the time of year when Canadiens fans begin to dream about the Stanley Cup.
Though the district of Saint-Henri was manifestly underprivileged, its fortunes had been looking up lately. Contributing to this trend were the renaissance of the old Atwater Market, the revitalization of the Lachine Canal — where empty factories were being converted into high-end condos — and the creation of a bicycle path linked to the market by a pedestrian bridge.
Unlike the trendy Plateau Mont-Royal, Saint-Henri would never be a tourist destination. It wouldn’t become a mini Soho or Greenwich Village. But still, a growing number of young people were moving into the area.
That’s precisely how it was with me. I occupied a five-and-a-half with crumbling plaster walls, though I only used the three rooms that were fit for habitation.
My clock radio went off for the first time at 6:45 a.m. I automatically hit the snooze button, giving myself ten minutes’ grace. It was the same routine every morning until my official wake-up at 7:15 a.m. But for reasons I’d be hard put to explain, that’s not how things worked out this particular morning.
I woke with a start at 8:45 a.m., emerging from an awful nightmare in which a car was about to run me down. I lay in a daze for a few seconds, staring at the clock’s liquid crystal display. No doubt about it. The time really was 8:45 a.m. I was going to be seriously late.
Leaping from my bed, I hurried into the shower. I didn’t pause to enjoy the scalding caress of the water, a pleasure I usually prolonged until the tank was empty, which generally took less than three minutes.
I had turned thirty-three the previous week. My best friend, Ariane, had given me a green wool sweater, which I now threw on after grabbing my jeans off the floor.
To celebrate the occasion, we’d had dinner in Chinatown. We’d gotten decidedly tipsy and closed out the evening in a seedy karaoke bar on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, where, to my own surprise, I’d launched into a delirious rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s old hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
I walked past the mirror and pushed back a few unruly locks of red hair. My face was freckled. As for the rest of me, it was neither ugly nor beautiful. Ordinary, but not boring. Makeup was something I never wasted time on. I grabbed a beanie off the coat rack to keep my hair in place and threw on my old coat.
As I was opening the door, a caramel-coloured furball darted through my legs into the street.
I loved to hate that animal, which fled from me every time I set foot in the apartment. But I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of him.
I had come home one morning to find him on the doorstep. He had probably belonged to the previous tenant.
A survivor, like me.
By 9:12 a.m., I was running toward the bus stop on Atwater.
After slipping discreetly into my cubicle, I collapsed onto my not-even-slightly-ergonomic chair, which squeaked as I sat down.
I looked at my watch: 9:50 a.m.!
Maybe nobody noticed.
The first thing I did was check my emails. I opened a few messages and noted that there were no new developments in the file that I was supposed to be overseeing.
My tension level rose when I saw an email from the boss, sent a few minutes ago and marked “Important.” The company was small, and Flavio Dinar ran it like a dictator. He hated lateness, but I desperately needed this job. My cheeks flaming, I clicked the email.
Date: Friday, April 1, 2005, 9:20 am
Attachments: Fundraiser(text).doc, Fundraiser(photos).gif
To all employees:
I was delighted to see everyone participate so enthusiastically in this year’s “Software Fights Poverty” fundraiser.
I’m proud to inform you that thanks to your commitment, your hard work, and the generosity of our donors, we surpassed our fundraising objective for 2005, collecting the record sum of $16,000.
I want to thank you all for the excellence of your contributions, which reflect the high standards of Dinar Communications.
I’ve attached some articles and photographs that appeared in various newspapers some weeks ago.
Cordially yours, Flavio Dinar
I let out a sigh of relief. The email had nothing to do with my lateness. Since I’d participated actively in the fundraising event, which had been held in a reception room at the Saint-Sulpice Hotel, I opened the file and looked over the media coverage. Each employee had created a fun piece of software for the event.
My nonsense-phrase generator wasn’t particularly brilliant, but it had attracted the highest bid of the night, three thousand dollars. That didn’t really come as a surprise. The bidder, a bald, middle-aged man, had been watching me all evening long like a drug user eyeing his stash.
Following the event, Flavio Dinar had hosted an after-party in two connecting hotel suites that he’d booked for the evening. When it came to preserving close ties with major clients, the man knew what he was doing. There were even whispers that over half the company’s revenue came from the federal government through the back channels of the scandal-ridden sponsorship program.
As a result, the entertainment laid on by the boss included champagne, cocaine, and high-end escorts. None of which was likely to raise an eyebrow among those familiar with the public-relations business. In that line of work, moral rectitude doesn’t count for much.
I had put in my usual perfunctory appearance at the party, but left before it degenerated into a bacchanal. I had decided to leave the event as Dinar, blind drunk, was preparing to offer up a public display of his personal charms, stumbling onto the dance floor in a hypnotic trance.
On my way out, I had run into the bald man. A good-looking young blond was on his arm. Gazing eagerly down my décolleté, he had invited me to join him and his companion for a drink somewhere else. Politely but firmly, I had declined.
Opening the file that contained the photos, I noticed that most of the images were of Dinar employees and inebriated donors. In one of them, I saw the bald man and the blond in a smiling embrace. The blond’s gaze seemed unfocused.
On the caption accompanying the photo, I read: Jacques Mongeau. The name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I forgot about it.
I should have remembered him, but I didn’t. Even if I had, I don’t think it would have changed anything. More than seven years had passed since the last time I’d heard the man’s name. I’d spent those years trying to put a very painful chapter of my life behind me.
Despite all the precautions I’d taken, I saw my own face in the background of another photograph. Not only that, but my name was listed on the caption accompanying the picture. All of which was very upsetting. But at that moment, I had no inkling of the chaos the photo would unleash.
I was starting to feel distinctly anxious when Ariane stepped into my cubicle.
Her voice was loud and cheery.
“Keep it down,” I whispered. “No one noticed.”
She threw herself onto the visitor’s chair, which let out a groan.
“It’s not like you make a habit of it. You haven’t taken a day off in two years.”
“You know I can’t stand being late.” I reddened. I was still prone to blushing, even at my age. “A lot can go wrong in five minutes.”
I gathered up some loose papers and placed them in a neat stack on the corner of my cracked melamine desk. A lot really could go wrong in five minutes. I knew from experience.
Ariane jumped to her feet.
“Are you nuts? I just got here!”