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THE PASSING OF ARTHUR KING

CHAPTER I - THE FALLEN KING



As much as love lost sears the soul, there is no less pain in the gaining of one's comeuppance for mere hubris.

Not yet laid safely in his coffin, the late Senator Arthur King could rest well assured that my swollen ego was smeared into the thick leather of his well-polished black oxfords.

You see, the events of the previous evening had brought me to the conviction that I would pick the morning's Citizen or maybe even the Sun to see a photo of myself jabbing a well-callused finger at the president of the University and the rest of the faculty who had gathered for the meeting.

No, scratch that: the University president, with his usual flair for the melodramatic and self-indulgent, billed this an emergency meeting, the response to a catastrophe equaled only by flood or famine. It was the culmination of a week-long fit of hysteria brought on by the publication of the annual universities survey by The Fortnightly, Canada's major newsweekly.

This article was the result of an examination of forty-seven universities in Canada. According to this survey built on a number of flimsy criteria, Darcy McGee University - where I have learned and taught for over thirty years - was the forty-sixth best in all of Canada.

Within hours of the magazine's publication, this sad result was the buzz of campus. Students joked about it in the hindmost rows of classrooms. The DMU Student Union president sent out an outraged press release. The president of the University found refuge in a large bottle of Crown Royal. Students from Ottawa's other two universities could be heard snickering on the buses.

Of course, it could have all ended there, but administration and the students are both gluttons for humiliation, thereby putting into motion the process by which they would garner more.

The DMUSU president, a handsome young woman with determined eyes and a knack for tripping on rugs, somehow managed to get on the TV news every night of the week so far, demanding "action be taken" - but when asked just what such "action" to "be taken" entailed, she shrugged that the student union was trying to figure that one out.

The Board of Governors promised a review of the University's admission policies - but how they were going to pay for the previous such inquiry was a matter to be discussed at a future date.

A local poet who had been granted an honorary degree demanded that "good professors" be hired - but when asked to explain what he meant by "good professors" he too shrugged, having never attended the university, or any other for that matter.

By midweek, a meeting was called for the students - anyone with a student card could show up and ask inane questions, which they did on both counts. Of course, the media showed up too - they were the guests of honour.

The presidents of both the University and the student union offered to resign but the student body present successfully pleaded that they not (which I believe was the point of that part of the exercise). Then, any semblance of courage having been cast aside, they pinpointed the quintessential devil in the matter - the administration bureaucracy, that sinister byzantine entity! The media missed this point, having poached their baskets of semi-witty quotes and made off fifteen minutes into what would be a three-hour session.

On Thursday night, four days after the crisis was first brewed up, the faculty were gathered by the University president in the Haines Theatre on campus for what he termed a "bearpit."

Lest they miss anything of apparent value, an even bigger mess of camera- and notebook-wielding geeks showed up, intending this time to stay the whole haul. But this wasn't to be too long a haul; after my outburst the meeting dribbled to a whimpering end.

I didn't read the catalytic article, by the way. Well, not more than I had to.

The Fortnightly, founded late in the last century as a decent sort of cultural digest - which was indeed published every fortnight - had since degenerated into a shoddy imitation of Time, or even Newsweek or Maclean's, none of which I depend on for news anyways.

I quickly skimmed over a copy of it in the Becker's just around the corner from my Holmwood Ave. apartment. My years of reporting for the Telegram snarled deep in my belly at the article's sloppy research and violently poor writing. I was glad I didn't shell out the three bucks for the bloody thing.

This insult heaped upon injury prevented me from holding back at the bearpit. After the president gave his speech thanking us all for coming together in this time of trial, two professors I didn't know approached the microphones to speak.

The first insisted in his weenie voice that admission requirements be made more stringent. A smattering of applause. The second, dabbing at a running nose with his thumb, agreed and added that all teaching staff should hold PhDs and that scholarships should be chopped.

Someone later told me that at this point I was audibly growling. The moronic magazine, the University tripping over itself to justify it, and now these ignoramuses - allegedly my colleagues - standing up and chinlessly bobbing their heads in agreement,

I was sweating out of sheer rage. I stood up my six-foot-three frame at my seat and bellowed "RUBBISH!"

My voice swept like an angry dragon over everyone in the hall. I stamped my foot, jabbing a finger at the president. "This whole thing is rubbish! Utter rubbish!"

The bursting forth of camera flashes. TV crews struggling with their tripods and sound booms. Feverish workings of notepads and tape recorders.

Few caught the reaction of the president, who looked as though he had been struck in the crotch with an oar.

Feeling like some Norse war god resurrected, I cast my gaze over the room. "My God," I waved my arms over them, "it's as if we've lost all understanding of what we're supposed to be doing here! Our job - our purpose, our duty, our commitment - is to teach these people! To cultivate their sensibilities, their reason, their imaginations!"

"We're not talking," I counted on my fingers, "merely about numbers or statistics or grades - these are people with minds and souls who need our guidance, our insight… our wisdom." I took a breath.

Our university should be proud of its tradition of liberal admission policies. Some of our more brilliant scholars came to us after six or seven years in high school. And we have one of the best Celtic Studies programs on the continent. Our business grads can compete with the best Harvard can offer up. And please don't forget our award-winning student newspaper. Few of these students were A-students in high school, but have come here to excel. I know many of them personally.

"But are we going to sacrifice all this because of a clot of shit in a rag that has trouble even spelling the word journalism?" I leaned forward and again thrust my finger at the president. "I think not!"

There was a tentative silence which seemed to anticipate more, then a barrage of applause. Wishing the Senate had afforded me such an opportunity, I took an impish bow and sat down.

Soon afterwards, the president adjourned the meeting with a bereaved sigh.

As I tried to make my way to my car, I was waylaid by the horde of reporters, who had taken up position in the theatre lobby. I also had to contend with my fellow faculty members who insisted on stopping me to shake my hand or offer some words of praise, among them the two who had spoken before me. I tried to have a quick word with everyone, but wanted to get out of there as soon as possible; claustrophobia was setting in and by the time I got out into the chill night, I was gasping.

It wasn't until I got home that it occurred to me what potential news value my outburst had. I decided to shun the radio or TV news and the newspaper until I was accosted on campus by someone who had read or heard about me. I could then react with something closer to genuine surprise.

The front page of the paper would be glorious. A big colour photo of me facing the president as Beowulf faced the Wyrm; the photographer would have been shorter than me, having to shoot upwards, thereby making me seem to tower in the gloom over my colleagues. The headline would read RUBBISH! or I THINK NOT! and the story would proceed to relate my valiant defence of Truth, Beauty, and Righteousness in the faces of the University's potentates.

Thus assured of my heroic stature, I drove to the University the next morning in my tired Dodge Dart to find my lifelong friend, Father Bill Gowan, waiting near my parking spot in the early December mist.

He was waving the morning's Citizen and tapping on my window before I even brought the car to a complete halt. He looked ecstatic; I grinned to myself.

In the best easygoing I could, I disentangled myself from my seatbelt and got out of my car. "Good morning, Bill."

He thrust the paper at me. "Did you see this, Art? Did you?"

I took the paper. "Well," I smiled, "I did hear that…"

The front page photo wasn't of me.

It was Arthur King, his graying red hair fluttering in some breeze, his eyes unsheathed for some reporter.

The headline read 'WE'VE LOST A GREAT MAN'.

The subhead: 'King Arthur' of Senate Dead at 54 of Apparent Suicide.

I leaned against my car, trying to keep from belching up my breakfast.

That goddamned nickname - it was as if they knew my love for Arthurian legend. Maybe he had phoned them just before doing himself in, just to needle me.

"He shot himself!" Bill was laughing. "They were picking up his teeth from Wellington Street!"

Without looking up from the paper, I started across the parking lot towards my office in King Hall. Bill trotted behind.

The piece in the paper told of how prominent Tory Senator Arthur King was found by a security guard early last night in his office in the Victoria Building across the street from Parliament Hill, dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Leaving out his victims, the story went on to outline his life and accomplishments, with generous words of praise from allies and foes alike, not least among them the newly-elected Prime Minister. And, in veiled terms, the piece wondered what connection if any was there between King taking his life and the devastation his - no, our - party suffered just over a week before, the worst electoral loss dealt to any governing party in the nation's history. There was also a picture, as small as poor taste would allow, of Faye King being led from their Acacia Drive home by their eldest son George. I tried to stir up some sympathy for her, an effort rendered almost futile by the sight of that damned makeup she always wore too much of running down her face.

In the bottom left-hand corner of the page was a two-paragraph piece about the meeting at Haines Theatre. It came complete with a head-shot cropped from a three-year-old picture of me accepting my Governor General's Award for my book-length study of the poetry of Wilfrid Campbell. Senator Vander Graal Speaks Out at DMU Meeting was the headline.

Bill rabbit-punched my arm. "We're finally rid of the bastard! Ha-ha!"

I couldn't scorn him. Still too clear was the memory of Arthur King chasing him down Kingston Street, pelting him with potatoes, then rocks when those gave out.

"But I must say, Art," he caught his breath, "it's damn good to have him gone. Now we can all get on with our lives."

I opened the door of my building and went in, holding the door for Bill almost as an afterthought. He kept following, but began to fall back, sensing I wasn't yet in the mood to celebrate the passing of Arthur King.

"Hey, drinks tonight?" He had stopped, standing in the middle of the hallway. "On me."

I stopped and turned. The smile hurt my lips. "I think so, Bill."

"No trouble," his voice hitched a chuckle. "You've got quite the day ahead of you. See you at Patty's tonight."

I nodded. He turned and went whence we had come.

I reached my office and closed the door behind me, leaving the lights off. Before setting myself down in my big leather chair I went over and pulled the curtains shut.

I put my hands over my face and wept loudly for about ten minutes before I could recover myself.

When done, I looked up at the ceiling. "Thank God. Thank God the son of a bitch is gone. And thank God he did it himself."

I turned to my bookcase against a far wall. On top of it were a few things that I loved. A number of photographs: one of Gwen, my wife who died three years before; another of my parents, taken in Holland just after they were married; a third, of Mrs. Langland, the woman who had given birth to me. Propped against this last picture was a Polaroid snapshot of me on Haight in San Francisco in 1968; I still compare the two pictures, marveling at the likeness.

There was also a Christmas card from the Kings; it had a picture of the whole family on it. Arthur grinned at the camera with that leer that passed for a smile; Faye sat between her three sons and their father, all four of whom were standing. I don't know why I had kept the thing, except maybe because it was the only picture of them I had.

I got up and went over to the bookcase. After regarding the card for a few moments, I picked it up and tore it in half. Leaving the pieces on the floor. I nudged a curtain aside, looking out at the grey morning.

Long ago, I joked to Arthur that my favourite spectator sport was politics. But I really did hold a deep respect for our politicians, lumps and all, who struggled and strove to make their communities a better place. I even contemplated elected office myself, held back only by a suspicion that I wasn't up to the job. But it wasn't the Kennedy assassination or Watergate or Trudeau or Meech Lake that soured me on politics; it was Arthur King systematically obliterating any idealism I was capable of with his own poisonous ambition. You bastard, you destroyed my faith.

I thought about how I tried my hand at journalism, then to traveling, writing, and ultimately teaching. But Arthur scoffed at all these, saying they led nowhere. I remember the one thing he said that I agreed with, although it was said only to wound me: "Academia is the final refuge of the untalented." You bastard, you destroyed my ambition.

I thought of Faye. We'd been in love once. Maybe, after all this time and all that had happened, we still were. But in the meantime she had found Arthur's lust for power admirable and his lust for her body flattering. You bastard, you destroyed the woman I loved.

I thought of how he persuaded the Prime Minister to appoint me to the Senate three years earlier to help pass the Goods and Services Tax and ostensibly to satisfy the nation's intelligensia at the same time. Imagine my joy at being the Senate's token brain. On top of that, I had to cut back my reading duties at Darcy McGee University. You bastard, you destroyed my principles.

But now, it seemed as if my own life was over, as if all there was left to my life was to live it. Everything I ever did was to evade Arthur King. Now I had to begin my own life.

I fished a handkerchief out of my jacket pocket and blew my nose loudly.

Bill was right.

Good riddance, you bastard.

May God damn you to hell.



The phone began ringing soon after nine.

My first caller was a reporter from the Citizen. Trying to sound as apologetic and as comfortable with the circumstances as I could, I told him I wouldn't be available to comment on my association with Mr. King until later on in the day. Call back then.

A few minutes later brought a call from the Sun. I told her the same thing I told the Citizen's scribe. Sorry. Try back later.

Over the next half hour, I turned away reporters from radio stations CFRA, CBO, CHEZ-FM, and CKBY, as well as TV stations CJOH and CBOT, and the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, and the Toronto Star. I also get another call from the Sun.

Then came a call from someone who identified himself as a reporter with the Fortnightly.

I slammed down the handset and decided it would be the best time to take a walk. I didn't turn on my answering machine after pulling on my coat.

On my way past the department's secretary, I told her to post a class-cancellation notice for my 11:30 Gawain-poet class. As I walked out of King Hall I heard a phone ringing somewhere behind me.



(© E. Steven Zytveld)