Meeting Gudrun Peel


“Meeting Gudrun Peel” is an excerpt from The Education of Aubrey McKee, a novel to be published in 2024 by Biblioasis. The second in a multi-part series, the book details Aubrey’s arrival in Toronto as a young adult.


what is this country of young men

from kingston london edmonton?

all their dreams & friends

seem like old routines 

done over again

this one from montreal

so splendid & tall

an exquisite doll 

decked out for a fall 

another from newfoundland 

singer in a noise rock band

the very model of a man

in love with his brand 

there’s always another 

waiting to greet you 

happy to meet you 

all set to complete you 

gudrun peel

OTIS JONES was prophetic, kinetic, eclectic – one of the more fashionable madmen of the scene – and the only person in my acquaintance who’d published a book of poetry. He was from Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, a wake-and-bake pothead, a wavy-haired giant, a slapdash oddity, and the kind of dude who might be growing a beard or shaving his head or falling in love in a Yukon bookstore. I met him tree-planting in the sundry foughten fields of British Columbia and he told me to look him up if I was ever in Toronto. So there I was on Bloor Street West, at the outset of my adult life, watching Otis Jones in rubber boots approach along the sidewalk. He wore a plaid shirt, army pants, and drank from a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag. 

“There he is,” said Otis, waving in fellowship. “How’re you getting on?”

“Good, I think. You?”

“I’ve been through the Boer War, my son. The Boer War.”

“I wasn’t aware that was still going on.”

“Well, that’s like everything, isn’t it? You’re not really up to speed. But you come out with Shannon and me. I’m sure we can squeeze you in a few places.” 

“Someone tried that before.” 

“Because – ” Otis offered me the wine. “What’re they going to say when they write the book about you?” He watched me swig from the bottle. “That Aubrey McKee, he’d never get up the nerve. Couldn’t do it. Just sits there, the poor bugger. Never moves. Never says a word. Frightened out of his mind. That’s what they’re going to say.”

“Where you going these days, Otis?”

“Everywhere and back.”

“You want to make a night of it, do you?”

“Yes, boy. We’re getting on the go tonight. You in?”

I returned the wine. “Where exactly are you going?”

WALTER WEIR was a hippie from Newfoundland who founded a publishing house called Wyndham & Weir in 1969. Initially run out of Rochdale College, a student-run co-op near the university, the company bounced around a few times and was saved from bankruptcy by a millionaire who, it was rumoured, slept with Walter back in the free-swinging sixties. The business was now established as a source of alternative poetry and innovative fiction and drama. But Walter had Faber and Faber aspirations, wanting to move the press in a more belles-lettres direction, and toward that end he’d recently written his own autobiography – a collage of memoir, social history, essay, and correspondence – called Beyond the Space Between. The book launch was being held at Walter’s ex-wife’s house, an Edwardian mansion on Admiral Road. I say ex-wife but it wasn’t clear if she and Walter had reunited. Few relations in Walter’s life, I would learn, were clear or well-defined.

The broad impressions inside were fresh-cut flowers, damask tablecloths, and mahogany millwork. For someone like me, who had spent the last few years tree-planting and bumming around the world in a leaky tent, I felt like a muskrat in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Otis brought me a beer and promptly walked away, a speckle of bicycle spray apparent on the back of his army pants. The crowd in the living room was segregated into middle-aged folks who knew each other and twentysomethings who did not. There were also a few solitary women sipping spritzers and looking round expectantly. 

I ambled away from the living room and scaled the main stairs. I wandered into an upstairs study where, rather as if I were in the Art Gallery of Ontario, I leaned into the eyepiece of a telescope and pretended to be interested in the southern view of the city. 

At a bookshelf behind me were two lanky young men, one sitting, one standing. The seated man had open on his lap the first volume of The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. He kept clearing a flop of bangs from his eyes with tiny flicks of his head. The other man, in a camelhair sport coat, seemed animated by an obscure hostility, as if something in the evening had affected him badly. His hair was rusty brown, probably curly and ample in youth, now receding in early adulthood. There was something autistically connected about the two, as if they were twins joined by some tacit symbiosis. 

“You’re from Nova Scotia, aren’t you?” said the man with the dictionary. He spoke in a vague English accent. “I said to Dalty, ‘That man’s a McKee.’ I’ve seen you before. Harold, isn’t it? I recognize you from Race Weeks gone by. Are you a sailor? I am. Or was. I’ve forgotten all the odds and ends. Boring, really. Knots and such.” He indicated the bookshelf. “Did you know the chap who wrote Don Quixote was captured by pirates? Sold into slavery in old Algiers. But it’s because of this ordeal he was able to write a classic of world literature.” He flipped his bangs. “I suppose that’s my problem. Writers just aren’t captured by pirates anymore.”

“No,” said the other man. “They’re imprisoned in Beirut.” He came forward to shake hands. “I’m Dalton Hickey. And this is my somewhat absurd brother, Sebastian.” He turned to Sebastian. “It was tennis where we met McKee. Semi-finals at the Nova Scotia Open.”

Sebastian and Dalton Hickey – I remembered them now, peripheral kids from my childhood. They were townies from Chester Basin and their parents were eccentrics of some local celebrity, famous for high spirits, a trickling private income, and low-hanging begonias. I remembered a story about Dalton, a scandal connected with a tournament defeat, but what it was I couldn’t recall.

“Do you know what a freemartin is?” asked Sebastian, resuming his investigation of the dictionary. “‘An imperfectly developed female calf, usually sterile, born as the twin of a male.’ And do you know what a frenulum is?”

“Do shut up, Sebastian,” Dalton said in a severe tone. “You are an embarrassing person.”

“Am I?” said Sebastian. “It’s all rather embarrassing, isn’t it?” Just then, the dictionary slid from Sebastian’s knees and tumbled to the floor. 

“And Jesus, man – ” Dalton frowned at the fallen dictionary. “Stop bungling.”

“It’s true,” said Sebastian, stretching for the dictionary. “I’m quite a bungler when the mood’s upon me. I bungled for Royal Holloway as an undergraduate. Yes, I used to bungle screaming through the ruined cloisters of Royal Holloway.”

From a nearby table, Dalton picked up a new-looking hardcover. It was his copy of Beyond the Space Between, earlier inscribed by Walter Weir. Dalton examined the author photograph on the back. It featured Walter Weir serenely smiling as he cradled to his face a long-haired ginger cat. “Deeply ironic, I suppose,” said Dalton. “Yet you wonder if he really feels contempt for this sort of affectation.” He began leafing through the book, pausing sometimes to scrutinize a sentence or photograph, and all of this done with a faint smile, as if he were someone with more pressing matters on his mind.

I asked if he planned to read the book.

“I’m reviewing it for The Globe,” said Dalton. “Not sure if you’ve been following the reaction in the media. But what has gone under-remarked, it seems to me, is just how awful the book is. And I’m astounded that such a trumped-up nothing of a book can be considered significant.” Scanning the table of contents, he slowly shook his head. “A memoir about nothing, from a generation no one remembers, implicating figures no longer alive. Fascinating.” He quickly closed the book. “Can you believe these people? A bunch of drop-outs with mandolins and back acne? I mean, Christ, look at the title. Beyond the Space Between?” He sighed. “Within the Trifecta of Ineptitude was taken presumably.” He dropped the book on the table. “Everyone writes one too many books. Walter should’ve been stopped years ago.”

“Well,” said Sebastian, “with these sort of memoirs, Dalty – ”

“I’ve told you,” said Dalton with some menace. “Don’t call me that.”

“Right. Dalton. Everything happens for a reason – ”

“No. Rationalizations happen for a reason. And that reason is people are fuck-wits who need excuses to explain away their bad decisions. We’re not talking about People magazine or what someone wore on a red carpet, Sebastian. We’re talking about literature, a subject about which you know very little.”

“Literature. Right. I’m not sure I’m much interested in your game of who’s smarter than who, Dalton.”

“Of course you’re not. And it’s who’s smarter than whom by the way. But who’s counting?” Dalton smiled coolly and walked past me on his way to the rest of the party.

I stared at the floor, oddly vexed, for in the last few moments I’d been resisting an urge to shove him into the bookshelf.

“My brother,” said Sebastian, standing up. “He has this effect on people.” Sebastian made a quick, lizard-like manipulation of his jaw and lips, opening and closing his mouth in an effort to clear from its edges a foaming excess of saliva. “Don’t take it personally. I never do. A book’s publication does things to people, I suppose.” Sebastian took a glass of red wine from the bookshelf. “You a writer? You can’t throw a fork at this party without hitting a writer.” He sipped the red wine. “My own novel’s going rather well, actually.”

I asked what it was about. 

“Oh, I never talk about it. Superstitious, you know. Knock wood.” He rapped the side of his head. “Do you want to hear the first line? ‘No one remembers when they first met Juliet Pepperhouse.’” Sebastian tittered. “It’s called ‘The Education of Juliet Pepperhouse.’” He sipped again. “Or perhaps ‘The Ordeal of Juliet Pepperhouse?’ Not sure. But it will be my Zuleika Dobson. Now if you’ll pardon me a moment – ” He set his glass on a tabletop. “I must find the little boys’ room.”

SENSATIONS WERE APLENTY, meeting again two friends of my youth – two personalities, it bears mentioning, who will feature rather vividly in the next decades of my life – but my ruminations were disrupted by a reappearance of Otis Jones. Following him was a young woman in a loose-knit mohair sweater.

“McKee!” said Otis, passing me a beer. “Are you meeting some Hickeys?”

“Sort of.”

“That Sebastian Hickey, he’s right some stunned, isn’t he? But I know what his mother will say.” Otis cocked his head. “‘He was a nice boy from Nova Scotia but Toronto ruined him. Just ruined him.’”

“She might say that about a lot of people.”

Otis turned to his companion. “Shannon, girl,” he said. “This is McKee. He was to the silver spoon born.”

“Otis – ” said Shannon. 

“What’s that, my love?”

“We should have McKee here over for supper.”

“And get the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary at our door? No thank you. He may look harmless, Shannon. But what you don’t know is vast.”

“You’re too fussy to have people over, is that it?”

“I am, girl, yes. All fuss and no bother.”

Shannon airily fluttered her eyelashes. I’d noticed her earlier, when she was downstairs among the twentysomethings, and saw she was braless beneath her mohair sweater, the swell of her breasts visible from time to time as she ran her thumb beneath her necklace or traced a finger around the rim of her wine glass. 

“You coming to this fundraiser?” asked Otis, handing me a flyer for something called Cabaret Bam Bam. “We’re going in a minute. I’ve just got to say hello to someone. But you watch yourself, McKee, or you’ll be swept out to sea and no one’ll know you were here.”

“Someone tried that before, too.”

THIRTY MINUTES LATER and Otis was nowhere to be found. For a while he’d been everywhere, variously delivering plates of chocolate cake, playing piano in the living room, and reciting Al Purdy in the kitchen, but now that the house had filled with folks, I was beginning to suspect I would not see him again. So I sat alone in that upstairs study reading Dalton’s copy of Beyond the Space Between. My concentration wavered, however, and I kept reading the same paragraph over and over. I put the book down, grabbed my beer, and started down the stairs. I paused on the landing, worrying, as I sometimes do when feeling sadly isolated, if I’d made the wrong choices in my life, and wondering if I’d made the right decision to return to Toronto, when I heard two people talking on the second floor.

“But really – ” said a thrilling female voice. “How does it all happen?”

“Just tell me,” replied a male voice, “when’s your book going to be finished?”

“No idea.”

“But you are writing?” 

“When I’m not smoking. When I’m not doing crack. Opa!” The woman giggled as she clinked her glass against his. “Oop. Me spill something?” 

“Not to worry. Let me get some soda.” 

I saw a handsome, bearded, sea-salty fellow – judging from the evening’s author photo it was Walter Weir himself – hurry to the stair-top. As he passed me on the landing, rubbing at a red stain on his linen shirt, I twisted my head upward to peek into a room above me.

Framed in the doorway was a young woman of about twenty-three. Pushing a swoop of jet-black black hair behind her ear, she glanced at me and smiled – as if she just happened to be smiling and I just happened to be standing there – but, as she walked out of view, I had the private sensation that I alone was discovering her beauty. For there was something in her glance and aspect that made me feel her appeal had been all along unknown, maybe even to her. But, in the next moment, as I came upstairs, I realized this feeling of newness and discovery must be part of her allure, and I stepped into the room. 

The woman was bending over a table of champagne glasses, her blouse taut against her shoulder blades, and trying to write on a cocktail napkin. The table was flanked by two floor lamps which cast symmetrical, hour-glass patterns on the wall. She seemed exactly positioned between the two patterns. 

“I have a terrible memory,” she said, not looking up. “I must scribble everything down or I’ll forget. Now if I could just get this pen to work.” She jiggled the pen. “I’m actually surprised when it runs out. I just think I’m not going to be the person holding it. Oop! It’s working? And now I can’t remember the secret note I’m supposed to remember. Oh well – ” She straightened up. “That was a challenge I never overcame.”

She turned her attention to a nearby dessert table, its offerings in gentle disarray. Blue grapes loose in a glass bowl. Pears spilling on a marble cheese plate. A shambles of a chocolate cake. She grabbed the cake slicer and struggled to free it from a wedge of softened brie. “Hello,” she said. “I mean you, actually, not the cheese. The cheese and I aren’t really connecting, I’m finding. The cheese stands alone. Are you a friend of Walter’s?”

I said I knew almost no one and was a friend of Otis Jones.

“I see. So you’re a young man from back east?”

“Yep,” I said, placing on the dessert table the flyer for Cabaret Bam Bam. “I think we’re going to this thing.” 

“Oh?” she said, slightly uncertain. “So you’re an eccentric scenester who goes out all hours. With Otis Jones.”

“Sure,” I said, finishing my beer. “I’m like that.” 

Noticing the empty bottle, she asked, “You know what they say about people who pull the label off their beer?” 

“No, I don’t.” 

“Neither do I. But I’m going to remember very soon.” She dropped the slicer. “I have to give up on the cheese.” 

“No cheese?” 

“No cheese. It’s the cake I’m really after. As you can imagine.” She dried her fingertips on the tablecloth and held out her hand. “I don’t know you yet. You’re the one people are calling Harold.” 

“Someone was calling me Harold.” I shook her outstretched fingers. “How did you know?”

“I had an inkling. Of that. People are calling me Gudrun.” 

“You’re Gudrun – Gudrun Peel? The poet?”

“Yes. Calm down. You’re going to make it.” She considered the cake. Its icing, truffles, and chocolate shards were sloppily askew and it was going to be difficult getting a proper piece from its remains. “I don’t suppose you’d wrap up this cake and take it home for me. I’d be forever in your debt.” 

“In one of the linen napkins?” 

“I see what you mean,” she said. “It’s an insoluble dilemma. That way lies madness.” Her voice rose with mock-hysteria. “Madness, I tell you!” 

As I followed her out of the room, she giggled at her own silliness, and I felt, with a rush of elation, that I’d never met anyone like her. In her laughter was a mix of attitudes I found beguiling, unprecedented, addictive. With every remark she seemed to say, “Why listen to me? I don’t know anything and everything I say is irrelevant anyway.” Yet beneath this was a consciousness of seriousness and complexity that I sensed in certain syllables and the collective effect implied a sort of shared understanding that obviously didn’t exist between us but which seemed possible, likely, even sort of inevitable. 

“Have you seen the telescope?” I asked, a bit wildly, pointing into the study. 

“Oh?” said Gudrun. “This is Walter’s?” She walked into the room and looked into the eyepiece. “Ah! I see someone. I’m spying on someone!” She swung the telescope away. “This, to me, is just not right. I suppose it’s all right if you’re Johannes Kepler.” She backed away. “But I am not Johannes Kepler. Nor was meant to be.” She went still and made a melancholy sigh. 

“Why sigh?” 

“Because I’m doing nothing right now,” said Gudrun. “The rest of my life is up for grabs, basically. It’s why I have poverty mentality and want to steal cake. It’s basically demolishing what’s left of my self-esteem.” She sighed again and retreated into private quiet – the moment curiously unguarded – then cleared her throat to say, “And I have a job interview coming up that’s making me insane. It’s sort of important to me, this job interview, the time of which I should just confirm with Walter, if you don’t mind.” She looked into my eyes and put down her wine glass. “Fare thee well, Childe Harold. God be with you. And if you change your mind about the cake, let me know.” 

THERE ARE TIMES when it’s inevitable we see ourselves as supporting actors in someone else’s story. For my part, I often skim into circumstances but, before being consumed by drama and politicking, fall away and involve myself elsewhere. This book launch was such a circumstance and, while I was sort of indifferent to its many meanings, for the first time in a while I didn’t want life to go on somewhere else. I wanted to be there when it happened. And it was because of Gudrun Peel. She seemed to recreate the world every few moments. Meeting her seemed one of the capital moments of my life, but, roving around the party, this surge of boldness suddenly embarrassed me and when I found her again, talking in the kitchen with Walter Weir, I felt foolish to be the stranger with a soggy piece of cake wrapped in a cocktail napkin in his jacket pocket. 

SHE WAS LEANING back against a door-frame, her head softly banging against the hinges of the open door, and gazing up into the face of Walter Weir. In the air was the residual energy of a recently-told joke and, from the way Gudrun was giggling, it was as if she’d been reminded of some deeply personal embarrassment. “Oh, Walter,” she said. “My virgin ears!”

Walter began laughing riotously, in a likeable way, in a way that made fun of his own tendency to joke around, which made me like him, but I didn’t want to like him because I was jealous of him and when he left to get more drinks I went to Gudrun to say goodbye. 

“Harold,” said Gudrun, seeing me. “You’re still here?” 

“I thought maybe you’d left.” 

“Nope,” said Gudrun. “No leave. Wanted to go but – ” She flipped her hand carelessly. “People are all going to some other thing.” 

“So who’s that guy? Is that the author?” 

“That’s yucky old Walter. It’s his book party.”

“Pretty swell party.”

“I’m not sure it works, personally. But he may give me a job so I have to pretend.” 

I nodded but sensed the intimacy from before had dissipated. I thought to mention the slice of cake, to find a funny way to give it to her, but I couldn’t think of anything funny, so I said, “I think I’m going.” 

“I’m going too then.” 


“Uh-oh.” She covered her mouth. “That was a strange burp. Do you have any gum? I might have some, actually.” She touched at a pocket. “Nope. No gum. Yeah, I think I’ll go. I don’t think it matters. People think I’m somewhere else anyway. It’s all a scam!” She swayed into me, our shoulders bumping, then gave me a teasing look full of over-assumed familiarity, as if we’d always joked like this, and I smiled, charmed by the tipsy jostlings of Gudrun Peel. 

OUTSIDE, her face was flushed and warm from the party. “I’m glad we left,” she said, “I was getting too drunk. I think I used the word jurisdiction in three different conversations. And vodka – ” She pointed a finger skyward. “Huge mistake. Vodka makes me argue. Tequila makes me insane. And red wine makes me want to make out like a bandit.” She leaned into my shoulder and solemnly asked, “Did you take the cake?” 

I told her it was wrapped in a cocktail napkin in my pocket. 

“You take the cake!” She giggled. “You really take the cake. Thank you for absconding with it because I’m such a weirdo. I just didn’t want anyone to nab me. And I’m so tired – ” She made no effort to conceal a face-distorting yawn. “I go through each day wildly exhausted.” 

I mentioned how the party became fantastically crowded.

“Oh, Walter knows nine thousand people. He knows every boy, every girl, every secret thing.” She looked at the sidewalk. “I hope to God he doesn’t come to this Otis thing.”

“I’m sure he’s too busy spying on people with telescopes.” 

“Why do the people have telescopes?” She broke into laughter. “I just cracked myself up. But, yeah, he likes to watch people. Though since I got back from Poland, I always feel like I’m the one being watched.” 

“When’d you get back from Poland?”

“Month ago. It’s strange. I’m undergoing huge culture shock. I’m not used to being in a place where people understand everything I say. I feel like people here know everything about me.” 

“Um – I don’t.” 

“Maybe it was better in Poland when no one knew anything. Probably I should go back.”

“Good exchange. Forty zlotys to the dollar.” 

“Forty-two, actually.” She spun the lever on a parking meter. “You’re very perceptive in your way, Harold. You don’t miss much, do you?” 

“Some ideas I had bordered on profound.” 

“Yes, you’re either very profound or very cagey. I should probably call and ask you what to say in my job interview.” 

“How can you call me? You don’t know my number.”

“It’s an insoluble dilemma.” 

“So I’ll never see you again?” 

“Nope,” she said. “That was a challenge we never overcame.”

“But I like you, Gudrun Peel,” I said, touching her hand, moving close, and lightly kissing her lips. 

I’D BEEN WAITING some minutes, trying to decide how to kiss her, when to kiss her. In some ways, I think I’d been waiting some years to kiss her. After taking a step back, I expected her to say something, do something, slap me, but she only stood there, slowly blinking. 

“Harold,” she said. “Aren’t you engaged?”

“My name’s Aubrey and no, I’m not.” 

“That’s what Otis said.” 

“Pretty sure I’m not engaged.” 

She dropped her head to one side. “God, I have to stop lying.” 

“Otis didn’t say that?” 

“No, he did. I just remembered something I said to Dalton.” 

“What’d you say?” 

“Nothing. I was just being a weirdo. But he’ll probably remember it. Whatever. Maybe I’ll get a poem out of it. Who knows?” She tilted her head, as if to observe me from a new angle. “All right, Aubrey. Just so you know, I have pretty short relationships. I’ve got them down to one day. We decide not even to shake hands.” 

“That’s fine because I’m incapable of human love. But – hey – do you want to see a movie?” 

“A movie? My God, man. It sounds so much like a date! I guess we could sit in the dark and weep.” 

“We could certainly try. It’s only twenty dollars a movie.”

“No, it went up. Twenty-two, actually.” 

“You have a good head for numbers, Gudrun Peel.” 

“It’s a burden, really. A constant struggle.” As we crossed Spadina, she stopped to inspect a glove wetly flattened into the pavement. “Sure – ” She scuffed the glove with the tip of her shoe. “We can go on a date. Why not? What could happen? Why do we exist?” 

THE REST OF THE NIGHT I remember in flashes and fragments. Gudrun and I walking eleven blocks to Queen Street West. A Portuguese man chasing a homeless guy into an alley. People lining up to get into the cabaret. Beer was five dollars, wine was six. I bought wine for Gudrun and drank a beer. Otis appeared and bought bottles of red wine for each table. A cute woman was staring at me from the cashbox table. I tasted Gudrun’s red wine, noticing how it was staining everyone’s teeth. A show began. Young men in motorcycle helmets and underwear were in a can-can line on stage. Then dancers were hanging from silk fabrics. Soon it was late. People were drunk. 

It was sprinkling rain when we left. Gudrun was extremely hungry, pulling a late-night pizza slice away from her mouth, strings of cheese stretching from her lips . . .  Then it was three in the morning and I was alone on Bathurst Street, waiting for a streetcar and reading over and over Gudrun’s scrawled telephone number on a chocolate-smudged cocktail napkin.