Salamanders and Cocktails
While it was well known that Father had been a devoted conservationist all his life—Fish and Game Club, tree planting, fly fisherman—he did not have a clue about the salamandre pourpre—wouldn’t know one if he saw one.
Harold phoned his son Charlie in Quebec City. “We got this invite from the Macintyres. It’s wrote on a card with a drawing of their farm on the front. They want us to join them in their garden for cocktails at 5pm on July 1st—also says fireworks. Crimus Charlie, we been ploughin’ their snow and mowin’ their lawns for years but, we never got one of these. Don’t know what we’d wear, or drink, or even talk about.
Charlie knew about it all. Mr. Macintyre had phoned him with the plan. His family had been generous supporters of the Derby Ridge Land Trust since the get go and Mr. Macintyre was an active director of it. Several years ago, Charlie, and Harold Jr had persuaded their parents to deed to the trust some 80 acres of low-lying wetland down along the Border. ‘No problem boys, only good for fiddle heads and frogs anyways,’ said Harold.
Now the Trust wanted to thank him for that gift. But the catch was it wasn’t so much for the land, as it was for the abundant population of Spring Salamanders that provincial biologists had recently discovered there. It was not likely Harold would go to a party for Spring Salamanders. Charlie told his Dad to call Uncle Lloyd (who was in on the scheme).
Lloyd told him, ‘Oh, I know Harold, they just want to be friendly is all. Country folk don’t do cocktails because we don’t have to. We visit most days across the fence, at the Post Office or the feed store—not to mention auctions. We keep in touch every day—health, kids, money, beef or corn markets—just general living is all. And we go home midday for dinner.
“They don’t do that in the city—hardly know their neighbours. Husbands and wives go to different jobs in different places—hospitals, tall buildings or whatever. They have different conversations everywhere, but never about everything.
“You see in “town” they keep their main residence, their doctors, their lawyers, their business, their politics, their barbers and, their failures, and a lot of other secrets. They got two lives, where we got one. They know everything about us, like family issues or money problems, but we only know the half about them.
“Then they come out here weekends and holidays go to their golf or tennis clubs, or maybe ski. They need the cocktails on Saturday night so as to catch up with each other. We don’t get away from our stresses—cows don’t stop giving milk or shitting cause it’s July 1st.
“Don’t get me wrong—those city ones can be very generous with our hospital, libraries, even scholarships and bring lots of good will, wisdom and financial support. But they don’t hang out with us so much.”
Harold and Ellie thought about it and called back the next day to ask if Charlie and Luce could come home and go to the cocktail party with them.
So, on Sunday morning July 1st, Father (they always call each other “Mother” and “Father”) was acting as if he was getting married. Mother, completely relaxed, was not the problem—but Father? Somehow his white shirt collar had shrunk a size or more. He’d not worn his hard shoes since cousin Albert’s funeral, and he was checking his chin for pimples—never mind that his shaving had missed a few tufts. Father felt it would be more dignified to drive next door in a freshly washed car. “You can’t just walk to cocktails,” he said.
The Macs’ long driveway was lined right up to the three-car garage with about 20 cars. Just as Father said, “Shit we should have walked,” Mr. Mac came out wearing his pink golf pants and a kind of striped blazer. Mother muttered, “He looks like a carny.” Mr. Mac shouted “Welcome to our guest of honour. You just park right there Harold.” He opened Mother’s door with a flourish and she got out demurely, basking in his welcoming smile and warm charm. Paranoid old Father was not so sure, but he relaxed when he spotted Lloyd and Clarence from the feed store coming toward him.
As soon as Harold had been provided a maple blackberry mojito he was whisked over to the striped awning to be greeted by Leonard Piche, Derby’s MNA, who introduced him to M. Gaston Pouliot from the Ministry of the Lands and Forests.” Nobody I know, M. Pouliot, understands more our natural world than my friend M. England—he has been here for many generations.”
“Ah M. England I am proud to meet the saviour of the Spring Salamanders. Here in Quebec we call them the salamandres pourpres. With your gift we now have the very best barometer on the state of our environment. Those are beautiful little lizards can inform us, better than any instrument invented by man, as to the physical health of our world. These Salamanders are both prey for larger species—snakes and birds— and predators of mosquitos, ticks and other insects. A change in the number of prey or predator can soon be observed. They have a very fine and delicate skin which cannot get too dry or too moist. Like all of God’s creature, they have a critical role in the balance of life. You might say they are like a canary in a coal mine.
« So, we wish to present to you this certificate signed by the Minister in honour of your devotion to the Spring Salamanders or salamandre pourpre.”
Father was flummoxed. While it was well known that he had been a devoted conservationist all his life—Fish and Game Club, tree planting, fly fisherman—he did not have a clue about the Spring Salamanders or salamandre pourpre—wouldn’t know one if he saw one.
He got so confused when Abigail Carter took him aside to discuss the Bromus Pubencens — “Oh you know Harold, the Hairy Woodland Grass in your back pasture,” that he unwittingly accepted a fourth mojito from his host.
Mr. Mac (now “Andy”) asked that he stay for their family BBQ—Mother and the boys had already left. Andy drove him home but was afraid to come in because Alexandra needed him at home for the dishes. As Father stumbled laughingly into the house, Mother said, “Welcome home Sal. Perhaps one or two maple mogeetoes too many?”
A short story by Peter Turner
Check out Peter Turner’s website for his latest book Linebound and his collection of short stories Bullpout, Old Dogs and Stone Walls. You can also buy them at Brome Lake Books in Knowlton. Here are more of his stories published in Le Tour.