is no Scrooge. He has a conscience often
fettered by doubt. As much as he likes to be hopeful, he despairs that his
fellow man will ever see beyond his own front yard. He is gruff and direct
though he is never mean spirited. He neither fears Christmases’ past nor those
yet to come. Indeed, his cantankerous manner
belies an insouciant spirit.
had gone to bed early on Christmas Eve. Usually, I have to kick him upstairs when
he stays over; conveniently, Christmas serves to justify repeat testing of our
favourite single malts. On this occasion, a Balvenie, a Dalwhinnie and an Oban 14
year old, were expected to add flavor to the evening and gravitas to the
matters under debate. Only the latter, a
big bodied malt with a nose of smoke, citrus and other flavors received ample tasting,
when Gnarley announced he would retire and let Santa do his work. Perhaps, the last few days of computer
tutorials, compounded with the rather arduous hike to Petty Harbour, on Tib’s
Eve, had worn him down in both mind and spirit.
I did not attempt to discourage him; he restated his Christmas
felicitations and went upstairs. Within
minutes I could hear him snore.
As is usual,
when Uncle Gnarley stays over, I bounded out of bed early to make sure
preparations for an early breakfast were started, as I did, again, this
Christmas morning. I especially wanted to get the coffee brewed, expresso
strength, just the way he likes it.
Passing by his bedroom door, I was startled to hear guttural noises and
a strange rustling of the bed; it did not resemble any of the sounds with which
I associated Uncle Gnarley. Remembering
his early retirement from our festivity, and thinking him in distress, I opened
the door in a hurry. In an instant, I
felt some of the same terror which seemed to have overcome our favourite guest.
from one side of the bed to the other, he expelled a variety of mumbled expressions,
though few phrases were comprehensible.
He seemed to be pleading with someone.
Beads of perspiration ran down his forehead and weathered nose, his arms
and legs flailed as he tried to extricate himself from whatever force had
possessed him. “One more chance”, was
the expression that seemed to have the most clarity. I took hold of his arm and shook; the
babbling continued and I shouted, “Uncle Gnarley wake up, Uncle Gnarley, wake
up”. In an instance his bony frame
relaxed and the convulsing stopped. Gnarley
opened his eyes.
you, Nav”, he uttered, “thank you, thank you”, he continued as if in gratitude
for some enormous favour I had performed. I imagined he had just been pulled
him back from a dangerous precipice. Clearly,
I had awoken him from a troubling nightmare.
man lay still, placed his head on the pillow and closed his eyes for a brief
second. He opened them just as quickly, as
if in mortal fear that whatever had gripped him, would return. Suddenly, he
bolted from the bed. I threw his house
coat over his shoulders and he escaped to the security of the kitchen.
Gnarley, said not a word. He sat in his
usual place, cradling his head with his two hands, both elbows propped up by
his knees; this was not the picture of a normally calm and self-possessed
professor. I placed the cup of expresso
in front of him. He gulped a mouthful
and then another. Slowly, he became more placid and I could see that his
nightmare had ended.
that all about I enquired, trying to sound concerned without appearing melodramatic?
“I believe, Nav”, said Uncle Gnarley, “I was visited by the Old Hag. My dear old Mother often spoke of her own
Mother, and others she knew, who had been visited in such a manner; it seems it
was my turn. At first, I felt an
enormous weight on my chest”, he continued. “It was impossible to breathe; I was being smothered
and, yet, completely conscious of my situation.
A withered old woman stared down at me, her bony hand extended an index
finger that wagged at me fiercely. I can
still see her now, lips quivering, as a hollow voice insisted, ‘no trust,
Gnarley, no trust’. Suddenly, Nav, the
scene changed; I was being swept down a raging river. In the distance, a great falls was
approaching and I was able to glimpse an unfinished concrete monolith. I think it was the proposed Muskrat Falls
generating station. I was looking for
someone, anyone who might throw me a life line, but as I bobbed up and down I
saw not a soul; the structure seemed completely alone and abandoned. The strange part was that I felt no fear of
being consumed by the fast moving water; what gripped me was an intense feeling
of being let down, as if I was being made to feel an enormous loss”.
“My, oh my”,
a clearly shocked Uncle Gnarley kept saying, trying to come to terms with the
happening. He mopped a sparse head of hair that seemed thinner and greyer than
ever. Who was she suggesting that you
not trust, I asked? “I’m not sure, quite
frankly; but, the Old Hag was clearly determined to leave me a message and extract
a promise to do something, what exactly, I am not sure. Of course, Nav, much of her babbling made
little sense to me, though I remember that, as she lifted herself from my old
frame, her parting words were “… trust must be borne out, Gnarley”. It was the second time she actually called me
by name; it was clearly, me, that the apparition
had sought . Nav, what do you think it all
unprepared to respond. The image that he
had described was too distressing to contemplate, too painful. We had been debating the Muskrat Falls project
for many months, and we had both agreed that lack of trust permeated the whole
idea. Bad judgement, poor analysis and
empire building gave weight to the thesis. Opened ended contracts, Nalcor’s exemption
from the Public Tendering Act and politicians who refused to answer questions
made the process patently seedy. Bureaucrats, with no real world experience, raced
to risk. It was not their risk, of
course; yet, they were content to use the public’s money, anyway.
one find trust, I wondered? Afterall,
isn’t it something that is built and earned and not simply revealed? I knew,
with certainty, this was not a time to burden Uncle Gnarley further. Finally, I replied, almost dismissively, it
was a dream for godsake, nothing more.
exasperated; my response had been tepid.
He was fighting for control, for common sense, for the immutable logic
that was the foundation of his profession, of his judgement, of who he is. That
he was shaken by the unusually vivid experience was incontestable. Again, I insisted there was no explanation to
we finish breakfast and then have a look under the Christmas tree. Who knows
Santa may have thought us worthy, I suggested, attempting to inject some levity
into what so far, that Christmas morning, wore only the hallmarks of a Dickensian
Gnarley ate quickly, soon recovering his characteristic energy. In short order,
I could see he was ready to test the proposition that he might have been more
nice than naughty. What purpose has a
Christmas tree, I teased him, if it does not contain at least one surprise!
Gnarley first opened a new bow tie, then a new fishing rod and together with
spouse took turns as we revelled in the moment. Soon, it was Uncle Gnarley’s
turn, again. This time, he offered that
he had not actually been nice all year but, if I insisted, he was prepared to
be proven wrong and laughed heartily as he reached for another gift.
of the early morning were wearing off. Gnarley
was enjoying himself like a kid opening his first IPad. Spying a rather thick envelope, he picked it up,
noting that I was the gifter, and wondered aloud what it might contain, since it
did not have the shape of a single malt.
“Am I to be disappointed, this Christmas, Nav”? Gnarley enquired. “I can’t imagine you have failed to discover some
he said, enquiringly, his beard giving additional accent to a creased forehead;
“a mite thick, too”, he added. Tearing off the flap, he dug into it quickly. “A plane ticket, Nav”! stating the obvious,
though with more surprise than I might have expected. “Where on earth are you sending me? Surely,
you don’t think I need a vacation, do you”?
he enquired. Inspecting the ticket, he was quick to note that the
destination had the call letters YUL and the surprise disappeared in an instant.
is it”? Gnarley paused for a moment and
smiled. “What’s going on in that fine
City that I would be interested in”, the question almost whispered. A response quickly became unnecessary, as he
took on a bemused expression that quizzically suggested I may be a conspirator
to this morning’s happenings, though I could never conspire even with a Ghost,
to inflict on Uncle Gnarley the distress that he had suffered just an hour
earlier. Nor, I thought, did I have any
interest in resolving a debate between science and Newfoundland folklore on the
existence of the ‘Old Hag’. A ‘harrumph’,
from Uncle Gnarley, caused me to forget these thoughts.
Charbonneau Commission is investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction
industry”, he said solemnly, though his words held a twinge of sadness. I could understand what was going through his
mind: intelligent, able men paraded
before a betrayed public, reputations destroyed forever; all because of wanton
greed. Like a cancer, it had to be exorcised.
Isn’t that the purpose of scrutiny, I thought, and of independent review?
Isn’t that how we prevent trust from being betrayed? Who would refuse to
jealously guard a PUB, an Auditor General, a Freedom of Information Act, all
initiatives for which it took untold generations of the governed to place a value,
and more still before the governors also bought in? Such were the matters that held my train of
thought when again, I heard Uncle Gnarley clear his throat, as if to demand my
activities of Mr. Justice Charbonneau have to do with Muskrat Falls, Nav”?
Gnarley enquired? None, I hope, said I,
but I have this idea that you may want to see how public enquiries function;
some knowledge in this area may become necessary in a couple of years. Besides, I added, you need a diversion from Muskrat
Falls. The look I was given contained a
though, I could see that Uncle Gnarley was warming to the idea. Then, he grew contemplative, perhaps even withdrawn,
such was the extent to which he seemed self-possessed. I decided not to interrupt, to leave him
alone with his thoughts.
was wondering if his journey would offer any inspiration as to how he might
dispel his own fears and sate the demands of an insistent Old Hag. Perhaps, he
was wondering, too, whether she had ever visited Mme. Justice Charbonneau.