La version française de ces histoires se trouve sur En direct de l'intestin grêle

Wouldn't it be great if these stories were true? Unfortunately (or fortunately) they're not; they are just the product of my overworked mind. All characters and events are fictitious and if you think you recognize yourself or somebody you know in these stories, it was not my purpose and it is purely unintentional. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy reading this blog. Feel free to link this blog wherever else you hang out on the Internet and to post comments below. I enjoy hearing from you.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ghost story

I was 32 years old and I was tired of the city. The noise, the smell, the heat and the humidity were getting on my nerves. I could no longer tolerate living amidst the concrete and glass skyscrapers.

Three grey and brown 20-story condo buildings against an overcast sky. There is a 4-story above-ground parking lot in the front.
Highrise buildings are sometimes the only way to multiply effectively real estate within city limits. Centuries from now, historians might wonder what kind of people lived in those man-made caves built inside artificial mountains.

I went for a ride in the country. I saw an old house for sale, I made an offer and six weeks later I said goodbye to the city.

It was a large house built in 1925. There was a glassed-in verandah on two sides of the house, the kitchen, dining room, and living room were large, and there were four bedrooms. Furthermore the price was very reasonable.

It was an estate sale and the notary responsible for liquidating the assets told me that the previous landlord, Alberic McGrath, was too old to properly take care of the property before he passed away.

The exterior of the house was acceptable but inside it was in bad shape. The varnish on the doors and wood trims was peeling, the bathroom appliances were stained by the well’s hard water and the kitchen had only two cupboards and a tiny counter. Instead of a sink it had a tub like those that are found in coin washes. A few essential things had to be fixed before I moved in.

There was also a huge pantry with deep shelving on three sides. In the country, people make preserves and they must be stored somewhere.

In the two weeks before I moved, while I was taking care of repairs and upgrades, I realized my new neighbours thought I was strange. Why would somebody from the city want to live in the country? What a weird idea!

A glassed-in verandah with off-white vynil wall clapboard
In the 1920s in North America people built verandahs around their houses for health reasons. With increased industrialization and urbanization, respiratory illnesses were on the rise. Home owners would move the beds of sick people living in the house on the verandah so they would breathe fresh air. Nowadays, properly upgraded, verandahs make quaint features for older houses.

I went to the village to buy some supplies for the repairs I was making. When I told the clerk at the hardware store that I had just bought Alberic McGrath’s house, he gave me a suspicious look and became awkwardly silent.
I felt that I would not win a popularity contest.

I also had to be very obstinate with the phone company to get them to install a private line instead of a party line. Despite all my efforts however they would not give me a second line for the fax and modem. “Nobody uses a computer in the country, sir,” the lady from the phone company told me curtly.

Anyway, I had other challenges to tackle because moving in to a new house requires taming a new environment. You need to find a place for everything. Sometimes it is easy: pots and pans in the kitchen, clothes in the closets, beds and dressers in the bedrooms, couch in the living room, most things have a natural place to go...

But there are all those things that we cannot find a place for. They must remain in boxes until we find the will and time to put them away or discard them. Since I had lots of room, I turned one of the bedrooms into storage for a dozen boxes and other odd objects.

One night, as I was reading in bed, I heard a faint chime or rather a tinkling, like two glasses coming together. I listened carefully without being able to deduce where that strange noise was coming from. There was just one clinking “ting!” then nothing.

In the following weeks, I heard the same sound several times. I checked the plumbing and the heating system but found nothing unusual.

I had started to go to a bar in a neighbouring village called Chick’s Bar Saloon. On Saturday nights there was a country band whose 78 year old guitar player named Harry Jones introduced me to Hank Williams’ music.
One night, Harry and I were talking during his break and I mentioned I had bought Alberic McGrath’s old house. Harry started laughing and said: “You bought the sorcerer’s house!”

He then told me that Alberic McGrath had a reputation as a warlock and everybody in the area feared him; they said he talked to crows and wild animals and that they would answer him. He apparently could make milk turn bad and crops rot in the fields. He was praying to the moon and stars at night. He gathered herbs and plants to make potions and ointments that he would keep in his large kitchen pantry where his body was found several days after he died.

“Is that true?” I asked.

– Who knows? What I do know is that he could hold his drinks! He liked his gin!

With this, Harry finished his whisky, excused himself and went back on stage.

On my way back home that night, I thought that this could explain why my neighbours were giving me the cold shoulder. For myself, I am not superstitious and I thought this legend was adding to the charm of my new house.

A few days later, when I heard the noise again, I said to myself: “There’s the ghost of Alberic McGrath having a drink somewhere in the house!”

I poured myself a glass of wine and drank to the former owner’s spirit.

The next time my girlfriend was over to spend the weekend with me, I told her jokingly what I had learned about the house and about the ghost that I heard every night.

“You shouldn’t joke about that,” she told me gravely. “I always felt strange coming here. Now I know why. Please take me home, I won’t be able to sleep in this house.”

I was not expecting this reaction from her. I tried to reason with her but she would not listen to me. Against my will, I drove her back to the city.

On my way back, I was swearing against Alberic McGrath who could make cow’s milk turn bad and sour lovers’ hearts.
The next day, being still upset by what happened the day before with my girlfriend, I decided to empty a few of the boxes stored in the spare bedroom.

While I was working, I heard the eerie tinkling right behind me. I quickly turned around and saw at the bottom of a box I had just opened a small digital clock programmed to ring once every hour. The sound had been propagating gloomily around the house through a nearby heating vent.

That was the ghost I had been hearing.

A silvery well-worned Casio digital watch on the cover of Leslie Berlin's biography of Robert Noyce
When Robert Noyce (1927-1990) patented the semiconductor in 1959 he probably did not think that one of the most popular application for his invention would be the manufacturing of digital watches and clocks by Japanese industrialists in the 1970. He most certainly would not have guessed that one of these clocks would one day be mistaken for a ghost.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


It was a quiet Saturday morning and I was reading while having coffee in the kitchen of my haunted house in the country. I heard a car pull in, so I put down Francis Bacon’s Essays and went to the door.

My friend Monica was outside struggling with a plastic box and two heavy paper grocery bags.

– Hi! I have a surprise for you!

I took the bags and the plastic box from her and carried them inside. When I turned around, there was Monica standing and holding an overweight and very frightened tabby cat.

– This is Penelope. She’s two years old, declawed and housebroken. Isn’t she a sweetheart?

The cat jumped out of her arms, awkwardly landing on the kitchen floor. She looked around, terrified at the strange unknown surroundings, and then dashed through the hallway and up the stairs.

– You know my friends Paul and Andrea? Well, they split up. Andrea is staying with a girlfriend who’s allergic to cats and Paul is leaving on a six-month posting with the military in Germany. So I thought: Geoff is living alone in that huge country house, he needs company! Isn’t that a great idea?

“Uh... Sure, sure,” I said, shocked at the thought of this unexpected and uninvited feline guest.

– You don’t look happy. Come on! It’s going to be fun and good for you! And anyway, it’s only for a few months until Paul comes back from Europe!

– Uh... Sure, sure... Uh, you want a cup of coffee?

– Oh, Geoff, I’d love to but I have to scoot! I’m meeting Jenn, Rosie and Sally who want to show me a cottage we’re supposed to rent for the summer on Lake Patterson! You should come and visit us sometime! We’ll have a barbecue!

Monica gave me a peck on the cheek and rushed out, leaving me with the litter box, a bag of kibbles and the cat’s dish on the kitchen table.

I put some cat food in the bowl and set it down on the floor, and then I went upstairs to look for Penelope.

She was nowhere to be found. I checked everywhere: under the beds, in the closets, in the bathroom. I called her. She had vanished completely.

Cats have the ability to hide at the most unexpected places where adults cannot find them however hard they try. Photo courtesy of Zebra Jay, many thanks!

OK, I thought, it’s understandable. The animal has had lots of changes to adapt to lately; it’s normal that she is traumatized. I’ll let her be, when she’s ready, she’ll come out of hiding.

For three days, I did not see the cat. I knew she was there because the food was disappearing from her bowl and I could see that the litter box was being used but it was as if I had an invisible cat.

Then one night, as I was watching a movie in the living room, I saw Penelope cautiously sneak into the kitchen and go to her bowl. She crouched and started eating. I could hear the crunch of the kibbles under her teeth.

As I was watching her, a mouse emerged from a crack in the floor and scurried to the cat’s dish. The cat stopped eating, looked puzzled as the mouse took a kibble from the bowl and ran back in the floor with its prize. Nonplussed, Penelope returned to eating.

I could not believe my eyes. What kind of a cat was that? I was providing food and shelter to that beast, the least she could have done was help me get rid of rodents!

I was furious. As I got up, the cat saw me and ran back upstairs.

I went after her, determined to discover the freeloader’s hiding place. Again, I looked everywhere until I found her on the top shelf of a linen closet, lying on a pile of towels.

The next day, I went to visit my girlfriend and told her about my new guest and the incident I witnessed.

She laughed and then said:

– After all that cat has been through, she needs stability; she needs a home. Bring her here for a while, I’ll take care of her and the kids will love her.

My girlfriend had two children from a previous relationship: a five-year old daughter and a two-year old son.

For two weeks it went surprisingly well. Penelope quickly ran out of hiding places in my girlfriend’s house because the kids were too good at finding her. Once they found her, they pulled her ears and tail while trying to play with her. Penelope realized quickly though that if she went to my girlfriend, she would protect her from the children. After a few days she even let herself to be petted.

I figured female kinship had won out.

Then after two weeks, Mark, a friend of my girlfriend’s needing a place to crash for a while, showed up with Joe, a very old and meek German Shepherd with a bad case of flatulence.

Penelope did not get along with the new canine visitor and would viciously attack the huge dog when no one was watching. Being declawed, she could not hurt the dog too much but old Joe was so frightened that he regularly lost total control over his bodily functions.

Finally, my girlfriend called me to say I had to take Penelope back. So much for female kinship.

So I went to pick up Penelope and recoiled to my country house.

On our return, I noticed that something had changed. First, she did not run to her linen closet but walked instead. Then that night, as I was lying in bed with the light off, she came into my room, climbed onto the bed and lay down beside me, resting her head on my hand.

I guess she had realized that the large silent country house and its quiet owner were an improvement over noisy children and stinky old dogs.

When Paul returned from Germany six months later, he did not want his cat back. I kept Penelope until her death, ten years later, but never managed to make her understand that she was supposed to catch mice.

Maybe Penelope's problem with mice was ambition: mice were too small. She needed large and dangerous-looking animals as opponents. Who would make a fuss about a mouse anyway?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beware of the dog

“Fiona! Fiona! Vulcan had a nice big poop!”

Nothing pleased me more than being awakened in the morning by my neighbours, Greg and Fiona, letting the whole neighbourhood know that their dog, Vulcan, a Bernese mountain dog of 100 lbs, could relieve himself.

Life had been good for Fiona and Greg. Both held good jobs: she was a legal secretary and he taught welding at a trade school.

The couple owned a quaint little house in the quiet neighbourhood where I lived. To compensate for the small size of the house, Greg, who was a handyman, built in the back a huge wooden deck surrounded by lattice.

Greg and Fiona were in their forties when their only daughter, Danielle, left to live with her boyfriend.

After her departure, Fiona and Greg were enjoying a warm Saturday evening on the deck when they realized that their home felt empty without their daughter.

“We could get a dog,” said Fiona.

In her mind, she imagined a shih-tzu, a French bulldog or a bichon frisé quietly resting in a wicker basket in the living room or sleeping at the foot of the bed. You can imagine her surprise when, a few days later, Greg showed up after work with a two-month-old Bernese mountain dog. The dog was shy, awkward and needed to be house-broken.

The Bernese mountain dog is a member of the Swiss mountain dog family. Despite his clumsiness, he is loyal and affectionate. Some say that around the mid 20th century, the Bernese mountain dog was mixed with the Newfoundland terrier to make him friendlier. Many thanks to Zebra Jay for the photo.

However, she quickly grew fond of the cute black, brown and white puppy with his long curly hair. Greg took it upon himself to train the animal. Every day he would take him for a long walk and after a few weeks he had managed to teach him to relieve himself elsewhere than on the living room carpet.

They decided to call him Vulcan, the name of the Roman god of fire, volcanoes and metals and patron of blacksmiths, because of his dark black hair. Greg knew firsthand that working with metals will turn you dark as a devil.

Months passed by and Vulcan was becoming an impressive dog who could bark very convincingly (much to the neighbours dismay). He would bark when cats, raccoons and skunks visited the backyard. He would bark at strangers although fortunately he became friendly once he knew them.

During summers there were lots of strangers because Fiona and Greg loved to entertain on their large deck and serve large quantities of barbecued beef and pork ribs with lots of wine and beer.

One weekend in June, Greg invited one of his foreign students and a few other friends for dinner.

Manuel was from Guatemala and was a mechanical engineer whose degree and experience were not recognized in Canada. Since he did not have the money to go back to university and repeat the courses he had taken in Central America, he registered for Greg’s welding classes.

Manuel was thin and in his thirties. He had dark, intense eyes and the proud posture of his Catalan ancestors.

The guests arrived and Vulcan started to bark ferociously only to stop once he realized that neither his territory nor his masters were being threatened.

Fiona brought out beer while Greg grilled the mouth-watering pieces of meat. When the guests sat down to eat their salad – served with lots of ranch dressing – a busy, friendly chatter was going on, jokes were flying between hosts and guests. It was turning out to be an enjoyable evening.

After the meal, Greg picked up his guitar and started to play and sing to liven up the party. Everybody loved his rendering of John Denver’s Leaving on a jet plane. After a few songs, Greg put down his instrument to get another bottle of fine Chilean wine from the cellar.

When he came back, the mood of the party had completely changed.

Manuel had picked up the guitar and was playing a Spanish song, compelling and suggestive. The spellbound audience was listening religiously. Greg sat down, stunned by the mastery of his student. Fiona was sitting by his side, mesmerized.

After Manuel finished playing to loud applause, he excused himself and said he had to go and could not play anymore. He thanked the hosts, said goodbye to the other guests and left, going quietly into the night.

A few days later, Greg was coming back from a long walk with Vulcan. As soon as they were in the house, Vulcan started barking and bolted, knocking over the little mahogany table where Fiona kept her African violets. He ran upstairs and kept barking ferociously in front of the closed bedroom door.

Greg swore at the animal as he removed his shoes. The mahogany table laid in pieces on the living room carpet and the flower pots had shattered in the hallway near the stairs. The huge dog would not stop barking even though Fiona was trying to calm him down.

When Greg arrived at the top of the stairs, he had quite a surprise: in front of the bedroom, he saw Fiona standing helplessly wearing only a camisole, Manuel busy buttoning up his shirt and Vulcan growling menacingly.

Since then, the house was sold but from time to time I see Greg walking Vulcan, alone in the park.

In the ruins of the ancient city of Pompei were found mosaics such as this reproduction bearing the inscription Cave canem, meaning “Beware of the dog.” Pompei was buried under ashes and pumice from the Vesuvius, a nearby volcano, in August 79 AD, after 10 days of celebrations honouring Vulcan. According to the legend, Vulcan caught his wife, Venus, cheating on him with Mars. All the cuckolds of the Roman empire diligently venerated Vulcan whose temples were guarded by dogs. Mosaic and photograph © 2012 Martin Clowes (many thanks!)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Conductor

It was the last concert of the tour. Thirty North American cities in 40 days with a symphony orchestra performing works by Debussy and Satie, and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky as the pièce de résistance.

The conductor would have leaned towards works by Berlioz, Boulez, Varèse, Schœnberg, or any of the younger 20th century composers but the public preferred middle-of-the-road music, and the promoters knew that by playing it safe they would sell out all venues, so that was that.

For all that mattered, the conductor did not mind. At 53 he did not feel like rocking the boat anymore. During his career he had risen to many challenges and he knew he had nothing else to prove.

The conductor did mind however that, as years went by, his tuxedo was getting harder to fit into. He blamed it on the many receptions his duties called him to attend, too many bottles of fine wine, and soft, fat but tasty cheeses.

So for this tour he decided to stick to vegetables – carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, as well as all leafy vegetables – and to stay away from the ranch dressing fountain. Instead of wine, he drank carbonated water.

Vegetables are necessary to a healthy diet. The Canadian Food Guide recommends that a 53 year old male eat 6-8 portions of fruit and vegetable per day. However, balance is the key. Too much greens and not enough fiber might open the gates of Hell. Image: winnond /

This change of diet made him lose a couple of inches around the waist and he felt lighter throughout the gruesome travelling schedule.

However, there were unwelcome side effects.

As food travels through the eight or so metres of digestive tract, its nutrients are transformed into energy and the rest is turned into waste and gas. To cushion the passage of stool the anal canal is equipped with a network of vascular structures, called hemorrhoids, that facilitates a smooth transition.

A diet composed mostly of fruit and vegetable – compounded with mineral water – means that the soft excrement produced gets processed quickly yet unpredictably. Such rapid, frequent and brutal excretion of waste and gas imposes a great deal of stress on the hemorrhoids that tend to react by bleeding, hurting and itching.

For the last ten days, the conductor had been bearing the cross of his attempt at healthy eating.

There were uncomfortable moments, near-incidents, but overall the conductor managed well the crescendo building in his bowels, keeping everything andante and avoiding going allegro.

A conductor’s job is to keep a tight leash on the orchestra members, making sure that each musician plays his or her part in time and on tempo with the right amount of energy and emotion.

A talented conductor holds back musicians’ eagerness, controls their egos, fustigate their laziness, and releases them at the right moment to produce the most dramatic effect.

As the conductor walked to his lectern to begin the concert he was unaware that the harshest challenge of his career lay before him.

The first piece was La mer by Claude Debussy and it went remarkably well. It was followed by Première Gymnopédie and Gnossiennes no. 1, 2 and 3 by Erik Satie – all-time favorites of the public – which were wildly received by the audience.

At Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring things started to turn sour.

During the bassoon solo overture of the first part, the conductor violently and uncontrollably broke wind.

This totally took the conductor by surprise but noticing that the flawless acoustics of the concert hall had fortunately failed to convey the disturbance, he kept directing this difficult composition. The show went on.

But as the first part progressed he found himself struggling to repress the natural urges of his unruly digestive system.

The piccolos stirred his intestinal juices while the cellos and double-bass urged him in staccato to seek relief at once.

However years of classical training helped the conductor maintain the strict discipline necessary to quell the revolution threatening peace in the kingdom of his viscera.

The end of the first part brought respite and the conductor hoped that the quiet beginning of the second part might give him the strength to retain his composure.

He was not counting on the timpani joining the insurrection in polyrythmic fashion, vigorously demanding his surrender against the forces of nature.

With great difficulty he held his ground, mouth gaping, drenched in sweat, tightening his buttocks. To his dismay it felt like the great Nijinsky and the whole Ballets Russes were performing lewd pagan acts inside his large intestine.

With all the energy of despair, clenching his baton, he bravely fought the irrepressible forces while commanding the orchestra members to stick to tempo even through the brisk finale when the buildup inside called for immediate release.

Then he turned to face the audience which was already standing up in an uproar of acclamation.

He was exhausted and refrained from bowing to salute thus avoiding a disgraceful accident – a gesture the press would later interpret as snobbishness.

But at this point he did not care what the critics thought: he had fought the battle of a lifetime and came out as a conqueror.

If only he could make it in time to the restroom backstage...