Knock, Market Day, Ireland 1966.
Streaming down the hills from Wicklow with banners and boots and donkeys braying and the smell of burning turf and Guinness for the drinking of,
red faced log like men with waistcoats from their fathers and sharp wet noses like the noses of their black and white and black dogs that drive them like sheep through the emerald fields and over the stone walls and down the twisting snake of a lane that swoops and dives and dips and swerves drunk on its own gay thoughtless joining of the villages of Knock, and Banfe, and Killymiwilly.
The women were singing the day away with songs of the lost kingdoms and Druids with golden staffs, and oh the comely princess with hair the colour of the sun, lips kissed with berries and eyes as dark as the starless night. what is love Mrs. Lynch why it’s ten times hotter than fire Mrs. Finch and I’d have married him then were not a cripple with a withered leg and a sister on the stage
OReilly takes out his watch the half hunter from his pocket and beams the joy of knowing when to start and when to stop. ‘There’ll be horses to catch before night.’ he shouts to the men and the boys, ‘take ropes and sugar and bells, a guinea for the stallion if you please.’
OReilly leaning on Cassidy’s long bar wiping sea fret from his facial hair a better pint there never was me boys an all down and dripping black, the smacking of many lips slapping by god yer roight sur an yes oil have another for t’would be churlish to refuse
and still behind the bar thin Quinn dreams pulling the white tusks the sweepstake and the winning of
speeches to be made and a new brown suit stuffed with crisp notes and a bottle of Jameson in the pocket
while by the fire young Mary McCoy stirs the bleeding sparking embers remembering the fire of dirty Dermot McCray and kisses burning lips
oh I never should for ’tis a sin but not of you don’t put in the tongue, the priest will know and then
seven hail Maries an worth a dozen more if should I let him but I’ll not have me best green cardy ruined even so,
by the bar Ben Brown looks down at her with wolf eyes imagining a dozen Mary’s dancing sturdily the summers green with cymbals and a blind accordion
the dresses bouncing over dimpled knees flashing, flinging, and furious then off running into the long corn field calling the boys you’ll never catch me and if you do I’ll never tell.
Eleven of the clock as me names OReilly and he puts the watch asleep,
the mornings washed away an all washed and waned and spent in idle games then out into the bright tight dazzling sun the road knee deep in promises of other places and spent wishes.
A mile or three to Knock will pass the afternoon away for tis a shame to hurry
OReilly mutters good day to you father to the black crow priest flapping storm warnings from the swinging gate St. Peter and Saint Paul and all along the path between the dead and dusty ancestors
and him Father Murphy staring blind into his dreams hears bells ringing, choirs singing, babies crying, time ticking,
never too late OReilly, forty guilty years since last confession,
please father I did put a mirror under Kelly’s skirt what did you see there boy there were birds and mothballs, bicycles and busses, badgers and the brown bull of Cooley sure god will strike you blind give me here your hand my boy for Jesus will forgive.
And out beyond the town the rolling road OReilly roams whistling the miles away to Knock.
What is your heart today Mr. OReilly sing the women of the market a fine fat pig with a smile on his face or a pair of piebald hens, a sheep’s head freshly skinned eyeballs intact a ox tail shaved, talced and lotioned,
I’ll have a brace of dreams me girls go easy on the spice.
The river running swift and dark and under the town’s grey walls skimmed green moss while silent seated men with rods and nets crouch staring at the upside down world of the other bank and peer into the waters for a glimpse of half forgotten hope, what was it now that slipped away like a thief in the night.
Then over Tanker’s Bridge and into Cork Lane and the knocking of the green door opened
Clara Clara would you ever be looking at yerself for me eyes are starved of yer light and I hear only yer voice in my dreams And into Clara’s parlor eyes dancing hands aflutter small white teeth parted oh Clara sure I’d kill for a smile
And the arms around him and the coolness of her cheek and the smell of summer on her breath spinning spinning until they fall giddy with the wanting and the needing and the remembering
Taking her face in his hands and diving into the dark pools of her eyes cool and warm and cool again her hands busy peeling, shelling, stripping until nothing’s left but the white smooth surface of a place unexplored
Now she says now and all is lost except the being and the doing as the earth rolls away and leaves them lost in a darkness full of flickering lightning, and the moaning like the wind in the chimney on a winter’s night, and the breath like thunder in their ears, Now, and the hands like claws gripping now, now, and then the crying like the hurt, Clara oh Clara, Mr. OReilly now, now, now
And down the days tumbling through the bright white place into warm seas to rest pillowed on the ocean the sounds slip back birds sing, voices, the sound of the river in stillness and the beating of the hearts among the clouds.
O’Reilly stepping high across and back across the Liffey by the Tankers his hand on Clara for the kindness that’s in it and off to Brady’s by the quays
A full meat house stuffed and smelling cigarettes and sweat and smoke and stout and burning turf, and heads a turning as the door swings shut no ladies here shouts Aemon from behind the bar
Sweet times and looking each the eyes knowing unsaid words and remembering will you stop with me tonight Ah Clara I have horses to catch and men to find and tales to tell
when will you come to me again
I’ll come when the gorse blooms on Slieve Leag, and when the salmon leap for joy, I’ll come in silence if you listen hard me boots on cobbles in the night by the haunting of the sickle moon I’ll come
keep warmth for me between the sheets
Standing outside Brady’s last goodbyes and him away across the darkened town with lights in windows and the crying of the bairnes driven to their beds on bread and dripping, hot milk and Horlicks, Dads sitting by the fire reading the Echo while the women elbow deep in soap whisper to the listening night
And out into the country and the road to Balfe O’Reilly strides under a pair of moons lighting the pale road to the distant hills and dreaming as he goes where is Brian O’Sullivan who could play the fiddle and Johnny Byrne who ran away to Blackrock and other foreign parts where are the chieftains of childhood and the terror gangs of the back lanes and the girls who ran screaming home to mothers with red elbows and bleeding hands.
The night surrounds him whispering the voices of old behind the shriveled oak under silent rocks breathless in the grasses
The road a silver belt around the earth that he could walk forever careless of time and the passing of mute friends
Will I see you again sweet Clara, will the spells of your eyes and your lips draw me back,
oh aye, I’ll come in the spring when the weather is kind and the sky is sprinkled with larks when the you hear the music of Dagda’s harp and the wind is stilled and the ashes cold in the hearth, I’ll come my love when the gorse blooms gold on Slieve Leag.
Then Balfes dark roofs in the valley below the smell of the turf burning while the town sleeps drowned in dreams OReilly’s boots on cobbled roads the horses are in the stables and the cats stalk shadows in the streets.
My new Kindle book…some stories written over the past few months…been too busy to post here, but more coming soon!
It was all about possessions I reflected afterwards, and being an impoverished Englishman in Paris it was a subject often on my mind. We surround ourselves with things and feel possessive towards them. They are ‘ours’, as opposed to objects that are ‘others’ or perhaps ‘nobodies’. We own them, control them, display them, and sometimes even give them names. They become part of our lives, almost like members of our families, and if they are coveted or used by another we feel jealous, angry, and possessive. But I never imagined that this feeling could be reciprocated, that the object and subject could be interchanged, that, to put it bluntly, possessions could be possessive. That is until the chair entered my life.
‘Two hundred, it’s all I can afford,’ I said. The stallholder looked at me with an expression of barely concealed contempt, a half smoked Gauloise hanging magically from his fleshy bottom lip.
‘Ca va pas mon vieux, c’est trois cent le prix, et ca c’est une bonne affaire.’
He was right about the price I knew, I’d looked around enough to know what the going price was for a single foam mattress. But it rankled me to pay the price on the label, this was the Marche aux Puces after all.
‘Ok, two fifty. That’s really my limit,’ I said taking out five fifty franc notes and holding them out towards him. He turned away without a glance and pretended to busy himself at the back of the shop.
Reluctantly I added another fifty franc note, feeling he had definitely got the better of me, probably taking me for a rich American student or tourist.
It was as I stepped into the rear of the shop that I noticed it in the far corner, barely visible behind coils of plastic tubing, piles of rubber matting and off cuts of foam rubber; a large black inflatable plastic armchair. It was semi deflated and covered in dust and bits of foam, a rather pathetic looking object. But then I had no furniture at all, and any sort of a chair would be better than the hard wooden floor of my room.
‘Ok, here’s three hundred, but throw in that old thing over there.’ I thrust the cash towards him and waved vaguely in the direction of the chair. He looked from the cash in my hand to the chair in the corner, and I thought for a moment he was going to refuse, but then he reached out and grabbed the notes as if afraid I would change my mind.
‘You’ll have to deflate it yourself, I’ve not got the time,’ he said gruffly, though there were no other customers in the shop. I went over to the chair while he rolled up my new mattress and picked it up. It was as light as a feather, but the plastic material felt reasonably tough. It was made up of four separately inflatable sections, one for the seat, one for the back and two arm rests. I pulled the stoppers and squeezed enough air out of it to make it small enough to be carried with my mattress on the Metro.
The shopkeeper nodded to me as I struggled out of his stand, ‘Glad to see the back of it.’ he said indicating the amorphous black mass tucked under one of my arms, ‘Been hanging around taking up space for months. Never liked it myself, nobody else did either, ugly old thing.’ and he gave a short bark of a laugh. ‘Anyway, don’t bring it back if you don’t get on with it, there’s no refund and I’d not take it anyway. Bonne chance!’
My new flat, or studio as Isabelle insisted on calling it was a top floor room with a small but well equipped kitchen and rather smart bathroom. She had paid for it, saying she didn’t want to visit me in my cheap hotel anymore as she was getting ‘looks’ from the concierge and other guests, and as Papa provided her with more money than she knew what to do with I was quite happy to fall into her plans. ‘It’s small, but the area is good, and on the top floor you won’t be bothered by neighbors making a lot of noise.’
I dropped the mattress on the floor and took the chair into the bathroom, put it in the shower cubicle, and gave it a good wash. Then leaving it to dry I left in search of bed linen.
Isabelle had given me a thousand francs to cover the costs, and I reckoned that if I shopped carefully there would be enough left over for a good meal at the Aristide Bruant, as well as a bottle or two of the Beaujolais Nouveau that had just arrived. Sure enough a couple of hours later, with a full stomach and lugging a large packet of linen in one hand and a bag containing two bottles in the other I climbed the three floors to my new abode.
Peering around the bathroom door I saw the black and now shiny thing lying in the shower cubical. I could still make out drops of water on it and went over to give it a shake. It seemed heavier than before when I lifted it, and there seemed to be slightly more air in it, but I guessed that was due to the softening of the plastic by the hot water. Certainly the form of the chair was more pronounced than when I had carried it back from Les Puces. I lifted it up high and watched the drops drain from it. It seemed like holding up a half drowned animal, pathetic, and rather sad.
Isabelle arrived as promised at seven thirty to take me to dinner and afterwards to some posh club in St. Germain she frequented. I was rooting through my bag looking for a decent shirt to wear when she started up on her plans.
‘Cherie, you have to sort this place out now, get some furniture, nothing big, just some modern things in good taste. We’ll go shopping tomorrow, you must have a proper bed, you can’t sleep on the floor on that thing, and if you buy a single you can count me out of staying the night, I’m not a gypsy.’
I was not too sure how long I could put up with her planning my life, we had barely known each other for four weeks, and been lovers for less than three. The problem was that not only was she a very beautiful and sexy young woman, but that she was both rich (through Daddy), and very generous to me. I did like not having to worry about where the rent was coming from and being able to afford a decent bottle of wine instead of supermarket ten franc vinegar, and well, she was dam sexy.
‘Ok!Ok!’ I agreed, ‘whatever you like, but let’s leave it a week or so to let me get used to the place. I don’t need much, everything I need I can pick up locally. I’d like to get the feel of the place before I start furnishing, you know, get to feel the ambience a bit.’
Isabelle regarded me with suspicion.
‘Well, if that’s what you want. We can go later, but not too late now, I can’t sleep in a single bed with you.’
‘I wasn’t thinking about sleeping really, it will be quite cozy you know.’
She came over to me and ruffled my hair in a way I never liked.
‘Sorry Cherie, I sometimes forget you are an artist, not like other men. I will have to try hard to remember that.’
I pulled her against me and kissed her hard on the mouth.
‘Well, I’ll consider forgiving you then, but first I must insist that you test the comfort of my new bed, I think you will see that it can have certain advantages to have to be very close to me. And it does have just the necessary firmness I think.’ And I began to unbutton her blouse.
Some time later we awoke in the darkened room lit only by the lights from the street outside. She snuggled against me, her head on my chest.
‘Now I can see you have a point about this bed, maybe we can keep it after all, as well as a normal bed.’ She murmured. ‘But now I must get up and take shower, we should go and eat before it is too crowded.’
Isabelle stood up and I admired the pale form of her young body as she crossed the room to the bathroom. She flicked on the light and entered. There was a sudden loud scream.
‘What is it?’ I yelled, half rising, ‘what’s the matter?’ Isabelle exited the bathroom backwards, staring inside.
‘What is that thing?’ she said in a slow quiet voice, the voice I recognized as announcing trouble for someone, probably me. She could only mean the chair I thought.
‘It’s a chair, I picked it up at the Puces, it inflates. I rather like it, though I’ve not tried it yet.’
She turned to look at me, her face screwed up into a petulant grimace.
‘Well I don’t. It’s horrible. And it made me scared, sitting there in the corner like some horrid beast. You must get rid of it.’
‘Oh! Come on. It’s not bad, its only a chair, doesn’t look like anything.’ and I got up and went over to look into the bathroom alongside her. The chair was still there, still in the shower cubical, but not like before. Now it was definitely a chair, at least half inflated it sat like a huge black toad in the corner of the room, facing the two people watching from the door.
I walked over to it and prodded it experimentally. ‘That’s odd. It wasn’t blown up before, that’s very strange.’ I was baffled, could the hot water have done something I wondered, or maybe it was in someway self -inflating, with special valves.
Isabelle stood next to me frowning at both the chair and me.
‘Well you’ll have to get it out of here if I’m going to take a shower. Why did you buy such an ugly thing.’
‘I got it for next to nothing and I needed something to sit on, and anyway, these inflatable things were quite fashionable a few years ago. It’s got character, it’s different.’ I felt I had to come to the defense of my new flat mate. ‘I’ll put it in the room now and blow it up properly, you can see how comfortable it will be.’
While Isabelle took her shower I sat on the floor by the bed and inflated the four chambers as hard as I could by blowing into the various valves and then pushing the stoppers back in. When the thing was fully inflated it looked a lot more acceptable, even handsome in a way, almost seeming to smile with the join between the chambers making a mouth and the two armrests a pair of eyes. I couldn’t help grinning back at it.
‘Isa! Come and try the chair, it’s all ready for you.’
Isabelle appeared from the bathroom wrapped in one of my new white towels and looking sexy again. She came and stood next to me and looked at the chair.
‘I’m not sitting on that thing, it’s dangerous, it might explode under me.’
‘Nonsense! Look, I’ll try it first.’ And I lowered myself into the chair. It was surprisingly comfortable, soft but firm, with a slight tendency to rock from side to side and backwards and forwards. A good chair for reading, or dozing, just as long as it didn’t deflate under one.
‘Want to try?’ I struggled to stand up. It seemed difficult, I couldn’t use the arm rests as supports as they gave way and the whole thing tipped sideways. I couldn’t get my feet underneath me to stand straight up because of the height of the cushioned seat at the front. For a minute I rocked backwards and forwards, from side to side struggling to stand up. Isabelle started to laugh.
‘Wow! Wonderful chair you bought, great to sit in but impossible to get out of!’
‘Shut up!’ I was slightly annoyed, ‘Just give me a hand will you.’
She reached down and took my outstretched hand and helped me stand up.
‘Just takes a bit of getting used to, like stepping off a boat. A knack to it.’
‘Yes, well Cherie I am not going to sit on that stupid thing, not only is it ugly, it’s dangerous. An old person who sat in it might never get out if they were alone. It should be banned.’ She was just being unreasonable, or so I thought at the time.
Isabelle returned to her own home after the dinner and the club that night, so I went back to my flat alone. The room was as I left it, the mattress against one wall, and the chair lurking in the opposite corner. It had deflated slightly during my absence I noticed, looking rather sad I thought, the mouth down turned the eyes dull. I was too tired to think of inflating it, and after a quick shower lay down on my new mattress, pulled my new sheet over me and fell instantly asleep.
I awoke from an unremembered dream sometime later. Through half closed eyes I checked the room, wondering what had wakened me. Everything seemed normal, my open bag on the floor, two cardboard boxes of books by the front door, the doors to the kitchen and shower closed, the chair…and then I realized the chair was missing, the corner where it had been was empty.
Then felt it. I felt the touch of the cool black plastic against my arm. The chair was next to me, touching me, pressing against me. Instinctively I recoiled, and pushed it away. Light as a feather it slid to the other side of the room, where it remained, a still dark shape, just the faint gleam of light here and there on the shinny plastic, much like the gleam of an eye. It seemed as if it was looking at me, watching.
I stood up and went over to the door and switched on the light. The chair was fully inflated, hard, shinny, seemingly bigger than before. I went over to touch it, the plastic felt warm, hard, and I thought I could feel a faint throb. Must be my own pulse I thought. I was no longer surprised at the changes in the thing’s state of inflation, putting it down to an unexplained idiosyncrasy, but how had it moved I wondered?
It was so very light that in fact little force was necessary to put it in motion. I considered draughts, but could feel none, I thought about vibration in the building, the Metro line from Place des Abbesses ran almost directly under the building, but the last metro was before one AM.
After a while I felt too tired to continue trying to find explanations, turned the light out and went back to bed. I lay for a while watching it, waiting for any signs of movement, but the total stillness finally lulled me back to a sleep that lasted well into the late morning.
I was to spend the following day alone, Isabelle had decided. I had to get down and do some work. I was a writer, or trying to be, working on a book that had occupied me for the best part of the previous year, although to be honest I had not put pen to paper for several weeks, my excuse being the stress of finding a new home and the many happy but exhausting hours spent satisfying a young woman’s emotional and physical needs.
Isabelle was in most ways good for me I decided, now I didn’t have the continual battle to find the rent money, the restaurant costs, and most importantly the liquid necessities such as Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, needed to assist an aspiring writers inspiration. And on top she was a very good-looking young lady with a quite insatiable sex drive.
The down side was that she wasn’t very interesting apart from the sex. Her ambitions were shallow or none existent. Her obsessions were just social status and fashion, and I knew exactly how I fitted into her world.
I was her pet, her tame, impoverished writer that gave her an impression of being a person interested and involved with the ‘arts’. She carried me around like a piece of jewellery designed to make her more interesting than she was. And I was fairly sure that I was not the only man she shared a bed with. Several times in a club or while dining, some young and obviously very rich male would greet her intimately, and be introduced to me as a film director, a singer, a record producer, a night club owner, and even an Ambassador to a north African state.
But I was OK with all that for the moment, I had my meals at top restaurants, my flat paid for until the next year, and plenty to drink. The only question was of I would get bored with her before she got bored with me.
I managed to do a bit of work that day, seated in my new chair that maintained a perfectly inflated state all through the day, and I forgot all about it’s strange behavior of the night before. At about five o clock I had finished the last of the Beaujolais and decided a break was in order to replenish supplies. I went into the bathroom to take a quick shower and freshen up wondering if I should call Isabelle to come and take me for dinner. I had enough cash for a Croque Monsieur and a beer, but I was hungry for something a bit more interesting. I was becoming spoilt I decided.
When I came out of the bathroom it had moved. From the corner by the window where I had sat most of the day it was now fifteen feet away. Now it stood, or sat, in front of the door, the doorway out of the flat. It sat there, slightly deflated now, its expression slightly sad. I went over to it and moved it back to the place by the window.
The week or so that followed was uneventful. I managed to work a fair bit on my book during the day and spent most of the evenings with Isabelle. Papa was away in China on business so she didn’t come back to my place at night, instead we went to her home on the Avenue Foch, a palatial apartment of at least a dozen rooms. I didn’t like staying all night, so usually I either walked along the boulevards back to my flat or sometimes if our nightly amusements had been extra strenuous got her to call me a taxi on her Dad’s account. Then one day she turned up at my place without warning, with unwelcome news.
‘I’m tired of living at home.’ she announced as soon as she was though the door, ‘Papa treats me like a child, he can’t accept I’m eighteen years old now, an adult, and I can do what I want. Yesterday we had a big row, he wanted me to go with him to Australia for two months in November while he makes a new company there, can you imagine? Australia…me! What can I do there, the surfing, play the… what you call it, cricket? Drink the beer? No, I say, and I tell him I am leaving home, that way he can see I am an independent woman.’ her face was an inelegant red with petulant fury.
‘Hey, calm down baby, come and sit down and relax, it will be Ok I’m sure.’ I tried to offer her the chair but she sat down in the middle of the floor, and then stood up again.
‘But where will you go darling, if you do leave home?’
She looked at me as if I was slightly stupid.
‘Why I come here of course. It’s perfect. Not for long time you understand, just so he gets the idea of my being independent.’
I looked around as if seeing the flat for the first time.
‘Of course that would be lovely, but it’s a bit primitive here for you isn’t it? Not very comfortable for two.’
She came over to me and put her arms around me.
‘Oh! Darling, don’t worry, I will buy whatever we need to make it good for us both. Now I saw some great modern furniture in the Faubourg St. Honore on the way here, we will go tomorrow and buy what we need. Oh! And I saw this really great chair for you, big, comfortable, all in leather and very masculine. I couldn’t resist it, they should deliver it tomorrow morning, I hope they will manage to get it up the stairs.’ and she laughed. I tried to smile.
‘Oh! And darling, I insist you get rid of that monster there, ‘ she said pointing to the chair that seemed to be deflating under my eyes as she spoke, ‘it’s just too ugly, you can give it to poor people if you like.’
The next day Isabelle arrived at the same time as two sweating, cursing delivery men struggled upstairs to my flat with an enormous box shaped object that presumably contained her all leather masculine arm-chair. She followed them up, giving a stream of unwanted and foolish advice in a high-pitched frantic voice.
‘Be careful!’ ‘Don’t lift it like that!’ ‘If you damage it you will have to pay.’ ‘Why didn’t they send stronger men?’
Finally the thing was placed in my room by the window, the rather deflated plastic chair having been unceremoniously pushed out of the way into a corner.
I was feeling depressed. This was not what I wanted. I valued my independence above all else and now my space was being taken over and my time would be occupied in amusing a spoilt but sexy child. How long would she stay I wondered, and suddenly I felt nostalgic for my little room in the cheap hotel on the Rue Lepic.
‘Listen Baby, maybe we should hold a bit on the furniture, after all if you aren’t going to be here very long it’s a waste. On my own I just don’t need the stuff.’
Two laser blue eyes with tiny black irises turned on me.
‘You don’t want me to come here? You don’t want me, do you?’ her voice had risen an octave at least.
‘It’s not that Cherie, it’s just, well, I need my space, when I’m working I need peace and quiet, no distractions.’
She looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and anger.
‘I don’t know you any more. I thought you wanted to be together with me. I don’t think you love me at all.’ Her eyes filled with tears amazingly fast I thought, and she stared accusingly at me.
I went to her and took her in my arms; she resisted at first but then clung to me sobbing like a child that’s been denied a favorite treat.
‘All right darling, it’s all right, don’t cry. I’d love you to be here with me all the time, you must know that, I just worry about my work.’
She leant back and looked at me.
‘Oh I’m so sorry darling. I didn’t realize, I didn’t think about that. But you are right; you must be free to work. I will have to get used to being without you some time.’
She was not going to be put off easily I could see. I needed time to think.
‘I’m sure we can work something out Cherie, stop crying, you’d have red nose for hours.’ I knew that would stop her. She sniffed and wiped her face on my shirtfront.
‘Sorry darling, you must be fed up with me.’ She sniffed.
‘That’s alright, now listen, I’m going to pop down to the market and get us some croissants and stuff, you stay here and sort your face out, we’ll have a nice breakfast and talk about shopping.’
Isabelle smiled, ‘But I want to come with you, don’t leave me here alone, I’m feeling bad now.’
I needed a break urgently; time to think a way out, an escape route. I took hold of her arms.
‘No, you just stay here, you can’t go out looking like that.’
I didn’t exactly push her, more restrain her, but somehow the chair was behind her legs, and she flopped back down in it with a little cry of surprise, the chair emitting a short angry hiss.
‘Salaud!’ she screamed at me, thinking I had done it on purpose, ‘ Why did you do that?’ and she struggled to get out of the chair. ‘Well don’t just stand there, help me!’ and she thrust out a hand towards me. For a moment I hesitated, I really did, and then I turned, grabbed my jacket and made for the door.
‘Salaud va! Don’t leave me here, help me up, I hate you, come here!’ The last two words were emitted in a horse scream of frustrated rage; Mademoiselle was not accustomed to being ignored.
I turned as I reached the door to look at her. The rear part of the chair seat seemed to have deflated, but the front part under her knees was still hard, tipping her backwards. The back of the chair was leaning forward, closing up like a giant clam, while the two armrests were curling inwards.
‘I won’t be long darling.’ I said quietly, ‘just relax and make yourself comfortable.’ and closed the door behind me on the squeaking of plastic and the muffled cries of distress.
I ordered a ‘ballon de Sauvignon’ in the Aristide Bruant and sat on the terrace feeling strangely relaxed and contented. There was a touch of freshness in the air, the first touch of autumn, but the sun still shone and the passing girls seemed even prettier than usual. The wine was delicious, crisp and aromatic, and when I finished the glass I ordered another. Life was good after all.
It was late in the afternoon when I returned to the flat. I stood by the door before I opened it and listened, but there was no sound from within. I unlocked and went in.
The chair stood in its favorite place by the window. Isabelle had gone, but her shoes were lying in the middle of the floor, and her handbag was on the top of a pile of books.
I moved back into my old hotel in the Rue Lepic that same day, dumping her bag and shoes in a bin on the way. I had to make several trips, the last being to carry the deflated chair up to my room on the top floor. It just fitted nicely in one corner after I had removed the existing wooden chair out into the corridor.
It was a good autumn, I managed to do a fair amount of work on the book and took up the old routine of bumming a meal here and there from friends when funds ran out. I didn’t miss the expensive restaurants and posh clubs one bit, and I didn’t miss Isabelle much either. A cute little waitress from the Bar du Theatre took to visiting me after work, so that was fine too.
About three weeks after I’d moved Isabelle’s Papa turned up at my hotel. He arrived at my room rather out of breath after the four story climb, a short, well dressed man of about fifty, with a serious demeanor and red eyes. I made him sit on the bed and gave him a glass of water; he turned down the Prixunique ten-franc red I offered him. He told me Isabelle had disappeared and wondered if I had seen her. They had had a terrible row, he informed me, “un dispute terrible”, and things had been said, by both of them, angry words. He knew of our ‘friendship’, and hoped I could throw some light on her whereabouts, and he looked at me with eyes that betrayed hope against hope that I could tell him something.
I told him that she had come to me and told me about it, but that I encouraged her to go back home and make it up. We had had a row too and she left, I’ d not seen or heard of her since. He nodded fatalistically, as if it confirmed his fears.
‘Ah! She is not an easy girl, as you must know. Difficult, headstrong, and maybe I spoilt her after her mother died. But I loved her you know, like any Father.’ and her stared at me with tear filled eyes.
He stood up to take his leave, looking around for the first time at my room. He nodded toward the chair in the corner, ‘I remember those things, when I was young they were very popular, but not too comfortable I think.’
‘Oh you get used to them I guess, they sort of grow on you.’ I replied.
He looked at me dubiously before taking my hand.
‘Au revoir Monsieur.’ and he looked around the room again. And then he murmured discreetly. ‘Do you have need of anything?’
‘Nothing Monsieur, Au revoir.’
And he turned and left. I did feel a bit sorry for him after that, especially his tactful offer of help.
The chair is still there in the corner as I write. I don’t sit in it now, not only because it’s a bit unsafe I feel, but it’s got a bit lumpy, uncomfortable, as if there’s something solid inside. When I check out of the hotel I’ll leave it here, I thought we were friends, but now I’m not too sure, it feels a bit like Isabelle, too possessive.
Beep Beep Beep Beep
I was sort of stuck in Paris back in sixty-nine or maybe seventy after all my gear was stolen from the cheap hotel I lived in, and for the first time in France I had to find a job. Luckily I landed one that suited both my modest qualifications and my life style at that time, working nights in a photo lab, and that was how I came across ‘le reseau’. It all started with the speaking clock, or as they called it in France ‘ L’ horloge Parlant’. Now that’s all gone now and kids today have no idea what it was, but in Paris back in sixty-nine or seventy if you didn’t have the right time on you, you could just dial that six three six number and there would be this really cute sounding French chick telling you that after the fourth beep it would be eleven forty six and fifty seconds, or to be more precise onze heures quarante six et cinquante seconds. Then there would be a short pause, a very important pause as you’ll see, then the beep beep beep beep. After that there would be another important pause before she started up on the onze heures quarante sept
Now if you’re wondering why anyone would want to listen to a lady, cute or not, telling the time in a rather repetitive and formal way there are in fact a number of possibilities apart from the desire to know the time. That person might be lonely and desperately need to hear a voice, any voice, to while away the dog hours after midnight. Or, and this is not so far fetched as you might imagine they might become obsessed with the voice, this woman who was only a voice, and start up in their imagination a sort of relationship, an abstract relationship all be it, without commitments, and without risk of rejection. Believe me it does happen. But the real reason a certain group of people working though the night in Paris in sixty-nine and seventy spent so much time listening to the six three six service was quite different, and quite mundane.
It might have been Al who heard about it from someone else working nights, I can’t remember, but I do remember him appearing in the lab one night about 1 am and asking to use our phone because his was occupied. Al worked up stairs as a black and white printer and would often take his break with us about 2 am when we’d go and eat and have a couple of beers round the corner in Janet’s ‘all nighter’. Al’s big problem, his obsession in fact, was his total inability to find a girl friend. Now he wasn’t an Alan Delon, or even a Sacha Distel, but I’ve seen worse. His problem was his total lack of self-confidence and that was the big hairy bluebottle in the ointment.
It was a quiet night I remember because we; myself, Jean Claude, Maurice, and Patrice were sitting around smoking, drinking coffee, and yakking while we waited for the negs to dry so we could start printing. Al sat down and dialed his number. After a while we realized he wasn’t speaking, just listening. I asked him what the deal was, but he hushed me, then after a minute, said, ‘ Don’t talk, I can’t hear, I’m on the reseau.’
‘The what?’ I asked, not familiar with the term in French. He looked at me blankly for a moment then held out the phone. I took it and listened. It was the speaking clock. I looked around at the others.
‘He’s listening to the speaking clock.’ We turned and stared at him.
‘No, not the clock, the reseau, listen, listen hard.’
I listened hard, at first I could hear nothing except the beeps and the chick’s voice telling the time, then suddenly, in the silent pauses I heard voices, several different voices, faint but understandable.
‘What is it. What’s going on?’ Al grabbed the phone back off me.
‘Wait, I’ll tell you later.’ and he put the phone to his ear and after a second shouted very loudly, ‘Al here! Al here for Giselle!’
‘He’s gone mad.’ said Maurice.
Now Al had not lost his mind as it turned out, he was communicating. Some one somewhere had discovered that when you were listening to the cute chick with the time, you could also hear anyone else who was listening at the same time, always supposing they were saying something of course. So in the silent pauses you could have a brief word or two with anyone who happened to be listening. For Al, lonely, miserable, obsessed, and shy there was an obvious use for this phenomena, to locate, talk to, and hopefully meet a lady with similar aspirations. Now you have to remember this was long before anyone had dreamt of chat rooms, and all the other computer based services we take for granted now, Al had in fact invented them in a way. And to our amazement, a few nights later he appeared in Janet’s both excited and terrified with the news that he had not only found a girl on the reseau, but that he had arranged a meeting for the following Saturday night.
The demoiselle in question had stipulated that she would have a friend with her, and hoped Al would be able to bring along a friend to make up the party. Would I, he asked with sad brown Labrador eyes, consider being his second in the affair? I could hardly refuse, the prospect of watching Al trying his hand with a strange girl was one not to be missed.
Saturday night saw us parked in my car outside a block of flats in the thirteenth arrondissement. Al was finishing his fifth or sixth cigarette, trying to pluck up courage for the meeting. He was sweating rather badly and smelt quite strongly of a mixture of Gauloise and Paco Rabane.
‘Wait in the car, I’ll go up alone.’ He told me stubbing out his last cigarette with the air of someone about to face a firing squad.
‘Good luck!’ I wished him as he left, squaring his shoulders and straightening his tie before marching across the road to the door of the flats. I saw him ringing the bell, then stoop to announce himself in the entry phone, before disappearing inside. I settled down with a cigarette to wait.
It seemed the cigarette was only a quarter smoked when the car door was flung open and Al collapsed in the seat. He didn’t look at me, just stared ahead, his eyes wide, his face frozen in an expression of shock, almost horror.
‘Well?’ I asked, ‘Where’s the girls? What’s happening?’ For a good minute he said nothing, just staring ahead, and then slowly he turned towards me.
‘C’est un desastre! Un desastre!’ he eventually croaked. He turned away for a second, and then looked back at me.
‘ She’s a dwarf. A very little dwarf.’
I had to laugh. But when I was done laughing I felt bad for the girls. I left Al in the car and went to apologize, trying to think up some excuse for him but couldn’t. Decided honesty was the best policy. She was lovely, the little one, with the sweetest smile you ever saw, and what made it worse so very understanding. I took them both to dinner, her and her very beautiful and tall friend, Al had disappeared when we went down to the car but we had a great evening. I took the little one back home afterwards and spent the rest of the weekend with her friend. Al didn’t talk to me for a month afterwards, not sure why.