The Education of Aubrey McKee

Alex Pugsley

May 20, 2024 
The following is from Alex Pugsley's The Education of Aubrey McKee. Pugsley is the author of the novel Aubrey McKee and the short story collection Shimmer. Following the publication of Aubrey McKee, he was named one of CBC’s Writers to Watch. He has been nominated for Canadian Comedy Awards, Gemini Awards, Hot Doc Awards, National Magazine Awards, and is a winner of the Writers’ Trust Journey Prize. His feature film Dirty Singles is available on Apple TV and Prime Video.

That winter we were poor. Gudrun made eleven hundred dollars a month, but rent and groceries and student loan payments took away a thousand. My own funds were dwindling. At the beginning of December, I borrowed sixty dollars from eleven different people to cover my rent. Broccoli-and-instant-noodles was a standby meal. Christmas travel wasn’t possible. We planned to spend the holiday at my place—my roommates were elsewhere for ten days—and we decorated a little spruce tree in a terracotta pot with paper snowflakes. A snowstorm filled the city on the solstice and I remember Gudrun asking if Sebastian was in town.

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I said I hadn’t seen him in a while.

“Call him right now.”

I dialed his number and he promptly picked up.

“Sebastian,” I said, “what news?”

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“Oh,” said Sebastian, “just leafing through ‘The Sylvia Plath Cook Book.’ Almost finished. I’ve got the oven at three-fifty.”

Gudrun picked up the other extension. “Hickey? Get over here. You’re coming for dinner.”

“Look here,” said Sebastian, “I’ve wanted to have you chaps for dinner. I mean, I’d invite you to my hovel, but it’s such a disaster I can’t prepare a meal for myself without vomiting.”

“Invite us another time,” I said. “Tonight, come here.”

“Well, I do have some peach schnapps I’d like to get rid of—”

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“We don’t care what you have,” said Gudrun. “Just come.”

“May I bring my new companion?”

“Your new companion?” Gudrun said excitedly. “Of course. Let us know if there’s any dietary thingamajigs.”

“Will do. Cheerio.”

Gudrun hung up the phone and looked at me in wonder. “A new companion? Who do you think it is? Is Sebastian seeing someone?”

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Flurries were spinning wildly when Sebastian arrived at the front door, making him appear like a figure in a toy snow globe. He wore a peaked hat with lowered earflaps, a burgundy overcoat with matching half cape, and a leather satchel on his back. “I know, I know,” he said with weary finality. “I look like Mycroft Holmes.” His new companion, wrapped in an angora blanket in his arms, was a fluffy creature, a male puppy, and I asked his name.

“Whipple,” said Sebastian as he trudged up the stairs. “A schnauzer-poodle cross. And he’s a perfectly horrid little beast, aren’t you, Whipple?” At these mentions of his name, Whipple poked his nose out of the blanket and sniffed at Sebastian’s coat.

“Oh, he’s weak,” said Sebastian. “He’s always been weak.”

“Hello, Lovey,” said Gudrun from the open doorway. “Can I get you a drink?”

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“Thought you’d never ask. I did bring that bottle of schnapps, but I’ll have whatever’s going round.”

Inside, I hung up Sebastian’s snowy coat in the bathroom. When I came into the living room, he was sitting in an armchair and talking about Christmas shoppers.

“These ladies from Yorkville, they stumble into the shop, full of martinis and vitriol, no idea what they’re buying. Put it all on hubby’s Visa.” After placing his satchel on the floor, Sebastian flicked a Christmas ribbon in Whipple’s direction. “We’re having a special this week on knick-knacks, incidentally, if you’re interested in purchasing a trinket.” The puppy, ignoring the ribbon, shyly advanced towards Sebastian’s socked feet. “Oh, Whipple, you’re hopeless. Hopeless.” He lifted his empty wineglass. “This was rather good. May I?”

“I’ll get it,” said Gudrun, grabbing the wineglass and twirling to the kitchen.

I asked Sebastian what he was immersed in these days.

“I’ve been reading this new biography of Jackson Pollock. Not sure where I found it, but I can’t put it down. These two homosexuals wrote it and they love to psychoanalyze everything. I think Pollock was a pretty mixed-up sort, but for these two everyone’s completely bent.”

“But Hickey,” said Gudrun from the kitchen, “what about you? Are you painting? Are you writing? Because I’d love to see whatever you’re working on.”

“Ah, my book,” Sebastian said ruefully. “My one-volume novel. I’ve applied for a grant, but they seem to be giving them out to other chaps at the moment. No, I think I have to chuck it. Rather hard to write a book. We can try, I suppose. For us there is only the trying. Is that the phrase? ‘Four Quartets,’ I think. Poor Tom. Poor Tom’s God’s vicar.”

Returning with glasses of wine, Gudrun almost lost her balance with sudden laughter. “Did you make that up?” she asked. “Poor Tom’s God’s vicar?”

“That is one of mine. Made it up as a schoolboy. Poor Tom’s God’s vicar. Who hasn’t seen the moment of his greatness flicker?”

“I love that,” said Gudrun. “That’s kind of genius.” Passing him a glass of wine, she asked, “What kind of schoolboy were you, Sebastian?”

“Oh? A quiet, bookish sort. Often on my own. Rivendell. Oz. Lilliput. I’ve been to all of them.” He looked to Gudrun with an air of interest. “And Miss Peel, what kind of child were you?”

“Me? Sheesh. I was a weird little kid. I didn’t have a lot of party dresses, let’s put it that way. Hey—” She waved her hand. “I have an idea.” She pulled a red Altoids tin from her back pocket. “You guys want to do something bad?”

“Do you mean to tell me,” said Sebastian, standing up, “you have curiously strong mints in there?”

Gudrun pried open the tin to reveal six joints.

“Oh my,” said Sebastian. “Are those marijuana cigarettes?”


The evening became somewhat non-linear at that point, a hazy, dazey sort of evening where the soft focus of a scene might abruptly sharpen with the green lip of a wine bottle, a flick of bangs, a squirming puppy. We smoked three joints from Gudrun’s stash, dined on takeout barbecue chicken and roast potatoes, and had for dessert Sebastian’s lemon cake. There was something loose and warm in the apartment, something besides Whipple, though perhaps something inspired by Whipple, because what we felt for each other was affection. We giggled. We gossiped. We drank. And I realized we were most rich being poor. Most of the time I didn’t think to marvel at the good fortune of our lives—to have dinner with friends, to go to movies, to listen to music—and as the scented candles burned lower, and as we finished even the peach schnapps, we seemed a spontaneous family of four.

Somewhere near midnight, I was feeding Whipple a last crumble of lemon cake when, confused by my fingertips, the puppy jumped sideways, as if being attacked.

“He’s a fickle little fiend, isn’t he?” Sebastian said. “Yes, Whipple, I’m talking about you. J’accuse! You berserk little creature. You don’t get any more because you’re a naughty little baggage. But Whipple, my sweet, we should go. But before we do—” Taking hold of his satchel, Sebastian approached Gudrun, who was on the couch dreamily listening to Erik Satie. “I have a small gift for you, Gudrun Peel. Plucked from the liver of Prometheus, brought to earth in the beak of a griffin, and plopped here tonight like the fabled apple of the apocalypse. Voila.”

He fetched out a small oil painting. It was a framed seascape with splatters of yellow and scarlet, a sky of Moroccan blue.

“Who’s the artist?” I asked. “Is it from the antique store?”

“Perhaps I should sell these at the shop,” said Sebastian. “They’d never know the difference. I’ll tell them Marsden Hartley did it.”

“No, Clifford,” said Gudrun, taking the painting. “Sebastian painted it.” Gudrun gazed at the seascape with steady admiration. “Oh, it’s beautiful. I love it.”

“Well,” said Sebastian, “I should return to my burrow. Come along, Whipple. We’ll tootle off before we’re snowbound.” He pointed at the red Altoids tin. “I mostly stick to wine. But those are rather good. Do you mind if I take one with me?”


Outside, flurries blew in bursting squalls, newly fallen snow sparkled under lamplight, and sloping drifts hushed the empty streets.

I wished Sebastian happy holidays and a safe journey home. “Dalton’s well?”

“Dalton?” said Sebastian, buttoning up his burgundy overcoat. “I think”—he leaned forward to whisper—“he has a lover in Ottawa.”

“A lover in Ottawa?” I smiled. “Good heavens, no.”

“What about you?” asked Gudrun, appearing beside me. “Do you believe in love?”

“Of course,” said Sebastian, attaching a leash to Whipple’s collar. “Love’s always there. Lurking around the corner for the next chap.”

“I mean you.”

“Oh, yes. I’m here too.”

“Because,” said Gudrun, “I think you’re lovely and wonderful.”

“And you’re ravishing, Lady Peel. Everyone falls in love with you at some point.” Taking a deep breath, Sebastian spoke to the sky: “Oh for a muse of Gudrun Peel that would ascend the brightest heaven of the holiday! A city for a stage, writers to act, and the world to view our common scene. Then should this starlit essence assume the part of Venus and, at her heels, leashed in like schnoodles, should half the world chase after.”

“Hickey-Wickey,” said Gudrun, her eyes moist with sudden feeling, “that’s about the nicest poem anyone ever wrote me.” She ran in socked feet in the snow and took Sebastian’s face in her hands. “Thank you for coming.” She kissed both his cheeks. “And Merry Christmas.”

Sebastian made a waving salute and spun away, raising his hand in the air with a flourish.

We watched as he and Whipple walked in tumbling snow towards the Spadina subway station. After a moment of reflection, Gudrun turned to me and kissed me on the mouth. “Aubrey,” she said. “Do you want to move in together?”


From The Education of Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley. Used with permission of the publisher, Biblioasis. Copyright © 2024 by Alex Pugsley.

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