I am getting ready to leave Montreal to go on my book tour. In my new novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, none of the characters ever leave the island of Montreal. They don’t see the point and think the rest of the world is an unlucky, foreign place. Indeed, I barely left the island while writing the book. So it seems almost surreal to be leaving it now for several weeks.
But first things first, I have to bring my Chihuahua, Hamlet, to my sister’s house. Hamlet hates riding the subway. Perhaps he feels that he is so easily mistaken for a rat that he should avoid proximity to all tunnels. He also disdains most of humanity, considering himself to be a much higher species, and here he is having to ride the subway like a working man. He much prefers to stay at home and reflect. Hamlet is an important existentialist thinker after all.
He sits quietly next to his suitcase which contains his special diet food, his toothbrush, and his stuffed zebra. Hamlet looks at me so sadly when I leave him at my sister’s house that I understand what it is to live life as a tragic character.
I stop by to see my father, who lives in the same small apartment building that I grew up in. He is watching television on the side of the bed. He doesn’t really believe that I have to go any place or to do anything and keeps asking me if I’ll go to the Chinese buffet with him tomorrow. He always acts as though I am pretending to be an adult. Like when I wore a little sheriff’s badge on my sweater when I was little, he didn’t honestly think that I expected him to treat me like I was actually a member of the law enforcement. The other children might play along with the idea that I was a sheriff, but he certainly wasn’t going to. And he can’t quite bring himself to accept that I might have to travel someplace for work.
Sitting in that tiny apartment, I suddenly feel like a little kid again and get nervous about the idea of having to speak about my novel. I had this exact same horror when I was eight years old and was waiting for my turn to do an oral presentation. Why had I chosen a cheetah as my favorite animal? What did I know about cheetahs? I had never even met one. There were people who were so much more infinitely capable of talking about cheetahs than I was. If they wanted to have someone in to talk about cheetahs, surely they could find a zoologist.
I guess feeling like a fraud is a part of human existence.
I decide to walk home. There were so many churches built in Quebec in the old days that there is one on just about every street. They are used for all sorts of different purposes now. They have turned a lot of them into condominiums, into libraries, into museums.
There’s something magical about living in a city where you spent your childhood. There is always a fairy tale quality to things. I pass the statue of the lion on the mountain. I always wanted it to come alive so badly that I am almost certain that it recognises me now and that one day it will wink at me.
I stop to pick up my clothes from the dry cleaners downtown. There is a lightbox fixture from the 1950s outside of it that claims that it dry cleans your clothes according to a New York System. This is incredibly interesting to me. I like to wear a suit for public engagements because I think it makes people take me more seriously. And I want to look like one of those confident and super-sharp New Yorkers. Not a nervous Montrealer who puts buttons in the wrong holes and wears a toque even in the summer.
There is an odd-looking man on every corner downtown. There is one who is wearing a brown fur coat, as though he time-travelled from 1761. One has set up a little bed for himself with a blanket and a pillow, as though he is a soldier waiting for a nurse on the battlefield. One has a happy-looking dog and they are sitting on a small Indian carpet together. When the young man gets enough change, the carpet will turn itself into a magical one and fly all around the city, high up in the sky.
There is one man who has a pile of cardboard signs. He writes them at night with a great passion, as though he is writing haikus. There’s a guy in a navy blue suit with bright red socks. It is as though he grew up from being a boy overnight and he hasn’t had a chance to buy himself some new clothes yet.
I’ve always liked living downtown. It is like God took a saltshaker filled with Dickens characters and sprinkled it all over the top of it to spice up life.
I eat in a tiny Korean restaurant. The tables are so close to one another that my elbows touch the elbows of the people sitting next to me. I am eating flavourful balls with chopsticks. There is a television screen over the counter with a Korean heartthrob in a black suit singing what is I presume a love song.
Back at home, I have to go up the narrow winding staircase to my upstairs neighbour’s apartment, to ask her if she’ll take in my mail and newspapers. Living on the ground floor makes me wonder how on earth people on the second and third floors are still alive and have managed to survive going up and down those rickety, icy stairs all these years.
She agrees to take in my newspaper. The whole city will go on having newsworthy events without me. Unless you put great store in the Butterfly Effect, in which case the act of my leaving will actually radically transform the city. Maybe my leaving will cause a cat to get stuck in a tree. Maybe it will cause a single mother to win the lottery.
Everybody knows that you don’t want to come home to a messy house. I wash all the dishes. I don’t think that I have two plates that match. I like to buy beautiful plates in speciality stores and thrift shops. They each have a different little garden of flowers on them. It feels like I’m gardening when I stick them back onto the shelves.
I sweep up all the notes from the floor, left from the music I have been listening to. They make a clanging noise when I dump them into the garbage bag and carry it out to Rue Saint-Urbain. I vacuum up all the floating cobwebs of ideas from stories that never manifested.
After I have packed my clean suits and underwear, I decide to throw in a few last-minute items. I run outside with my suitcase. There is a marching band coming down the street. I point for them to come on it and climb into my suitcase. In they go with their trumpets and their trombones. I get a police car to drive in and a handsome man on a ten-speed bicycle. I go into the backyard to round up all the cats. They are hiding under the porch. I help one to pull a pickle jar off its head and it climbs into my suitcase simply out of gratitude.
The book is about Montreal. I have managed – through all sorts of elaborate spells and incantations – to squeeze the entire city in a four-hundred-page book. In the way that a magician pulls a rabbit out of a top hat or makes a woman walk right out of a cupboard, when you open up my book, unexpected wonders will hopefully jump out at you.
I am leaving at nighttime. I am leaving like a thief in the night. There are tiny little stars out in the sky. The ambitious stars. They still keep it up, even though they know that there is very little work for stars in the city.
It is good to go off into the world. I will come back with wonderful loot bags from each city. And I will be able to think about home in a new way. Opening a door is similar in a lot of ways to opening the cover of a book.
Heather O’Neill is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist and has written for This American Life and the New York Times. Her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is published by Quercus in paperback and eBook. Read more.