LE MATIN, PANAME“Clé de l’homme, clé du monde, le désir est clé de la liberté . . . .” – André Breton “The whole world is a dream, and death the interpreter.” – Yiddish proverb
By Fred Johnston
It was prudent to keep you head down until you had some idea of how everyone else was behaving. Morning was not the surest time of the day.
Monsieur Charlo hauled the flattened cardboard box up to his ears and, with his legs from the knees down sticking out on the freezing and filthy cement, he tried to go back to sleep.
There was the familiar discreet sizzle of someone urinating off in the too-close distance. Monsieur Charlo rested his head against the foot of a cold iron pillar as tall and round and well-turned as the stone Gothic pillar of a cathedral.
Madame Brûlot, who had been, it was said, a great street-dancer in her day, of the kind you didn’t get anymore, who boasted she’d known Chevalier, was talking to herself, pulling an assortment of clothing from her supermarket trolley – she’d pinched it from a Leclerc – then putting it all back in. Monsieur Charlo opened one eye, closed it. His eyes were dry and sharded with dust. In the wind, they wept. Madame Brûlot began to sing. Her voice was smoky and ruined. You could still see the shadows of the legs she’d danced on.
Behind his pillar, where he’d hoped they’d remain, two young men were punching one another, pulling hair, fighting like girls, incapable of hurting one another. Then one started to cry, loudly, a keening sound which irritated Monsieur Charclo so much that he straightened up and shouted at them.
One of them stalked off and the other howled on. Madame Brûlot continued to sing; then she pulled her wotmy grey hair into a bun and smiled at nothing coquettishly. She thought she was Piaf. She was small enough. Monsieur Charlo shrugged and turned over. We all think we’re someone. At once the ground shook, the pillars trembled, and there came from the bowels of the earth a gathering rumble as if the world had come to an end.
Monsieur Charlo sat up. Flakes of rust-coloured paint drifted down like confetti. The smell of diesel and hot oil moved around him like monstrous cologne. He felt his heart skip, roll, skip, steady itself. He shoved the cardboard aside and stood up. His trousers fell down around his knees. His long white drawers were grey and embarrassed him. He peered around quickly. No one looked at him. He hitched up his trousers, buttoned the flies – he had never, in all his looking and poking, found a pair of trousers with a zipper – and ran the length of orange plastic cord around the waist and pulled. He tucked in his stained pullover; he wore neither vest nor shirt beneath it. In a rush of pride he drew the back of his hand across his chin; it was necessary to steal a packet of disposable razers in an Arab shop, then get into the railway station toilets where there was green industrial soap in dispensers and hot water.
The rumbling overhead stopped and the red confetti ceased to fall. Always this train, at this hour, was bound for Chartres; he had been there, once, selling plastic flowers until the police moved him. Under the steady, cyclopean frown of the front of the cathedral, Monsieur Charlo had been lucky not to have been locked up. He had spent a whole afternoon sitting in a corner of the cathedral under the hush and echo of ages bloated with stone, watching tourists walk idiotically around the labyrinth; working their way, taking photographs at every step, towards God or . Monsieur Charlo thought they were mad. Moreover, thinking about God made him mad.
Now he stood up, steadied himself; he was no longer young and small things required surprising effort. His eyelids hurt to blink too much. He pulled a tweed jacket about him, a sleeve-torn thing he’d robbed at the Marché aux Puces by Saint-Denis. He folded with great care his cardboard until it was a single square, and tucked it underneath one arm. You couldn’t leave things like that just anywhere. There was no honour in the world.
He left the wailing young man and Madame Brûlot burning the air with her nonsensical singing. They said she’d had legs like a young foal. What harm did it do? His greatest fear for now was that the wailing youth would follow him to rob him or, worse, cut him with a needle or something, he had heard dreadful stories.
Chairs were still heaped, outside the Café Moulin. He was known. There was always a chance. He knocked on the glass door and peered inside and was surprised to see there was no one in. A little tickle of fear teased Monsieur Charlo’s belly. He did not like sudden changes in the world. Sometimes things changed abruptly, the world went off kilter. You were never prepared. It seldom righted itself.
He began to shiver. Soon coffee would be useless. The thought was enough. He bent double, hid himself behind a stack of chairs, and retched, though nothing came out. He retched again, painfully. He gasped for air, straightened up, and turned a corner towards the Arab shop.
The Arab shop sold everything from henna to strange herbs, cigarettes under the counter and beer, loaves of bread, odd meats, bottles of whiskey and gin, bottles of inexpensive wine, hair-nets and tins of paint, babies’ nappies and nails, strange calendars and local newspapers. It was run by two Turkish brothers, not by Arabs, but such shops were always called Arab shops; the brothers squatted in leather jackets behind a small counter smothering themselves in bars of chocolate.
But today there was only one brother and the shop felt cold and sad and empty. Monsieur Charlo stepped inside and the brother behind the counter grabbed him by the collar of his jacket.
Monsieur Charlo, frightened, put on an indignant face. Then the brother handed him something that crackled. Monsieur Charlo looked at it. A packet of disposable razors. He wanted to weep and just stared at the blue package. Seconds passed, but it seemed very much longer. Then Monsieur Charlo pulled himself up and, with his free hand and wearing a struggling smile, took the razors. Blue handles. So new looking and clean.
“You are very kind, M’sieur.”
The brother did not smile. He was chewing chocolate. The tinny sounds of a radio crept out from under the counter. A woman’s voice rose and fell like a police siren. “Save you stealing them,” the brother said. Monsieur Charlo did not like to hear that. But he was curious.
“For the season,” said the brother. And he laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh, nor a joyous one. “Have a shave!”
Other people came in to the shop. Monsieur Charlo took their presence as a sign that he should leave. He didn’t know what the brother was talking about. All seasons, surely, were one season, going on forever without change or alteration. One lived. That was all.
As Monsieur Charlo entered the train station and made his way to the toilets, he became aware of a dully-flashing universe of fat silver stars waving around under the great iron beams of the roof. Already the place was busy; already destinations and times of arrival clack-clacked above his head in the slots of the electronic time-tables and young Africans in green jackets gossiped and swept here and there and the queues at the ticket-hatches were lengthening. People were moving, going from here to some anonymous there. Under the silvery stars.
Monsieur Charlo huddled his way into the toilets and found a sink in a corner. He washed his face with the pungent green soap that oozed pit reluctantly and then he opened the packet of razors, choose one carefully like a connoisseur of disposable razors, and shaved. His thin brown-red hair he wetted and pushed back with his fingers. He rinsed off the razor and put it with the others in the plastic packet and the lot went into his jacket pocket, the one that did not have a hole in the bottom. He picked up his cardboard and walked out.
There was singing. It fell from the glittery stars, or at least from the iron rafters. Children singing something happy and innocent. Innocence, thought Monsieur Charlo: it is like this, then like that. The singing made him sad. He hurried back out of the station as one would hurry from bad news.
He needed a drink and the anonymity and comfort of crowds, though he had long ago become convinced that he was gradually becoming invisible. Over a clutch of rooftops he glimpsed, through the dull cold of the morning, a light blinking on the tip of the Tour Eiffel and it made him see himself, as one sees a headline on a newspaper in the window of a shop one is scurrying past, as a small child under the sluttish legs of the tower, his father or someone holding his hand, saying Look up! But Monsieur Charlo knew it was possible to obtain, God knew how, other people’s dreams and memories and he didn’t trust any of these recollections, they may not even be his.
His day spread out as dull and vast as the city. He crossed streets, heard vehicles and men shout at him, kept going until he was swallowed up in a sea of human beings who simply washed over him. The further he penetrated the crowded places, the more singing he heard, the more silvery stars hung from the dull grey sky.
Each day, Monsieur Charlo knew, was apportioned sensibly between waking, getting a drink, being fed from the food vans if you could make it to the places they stopped at, then getting back under the railway bridges. He did not like the crowd who slept against the pillars of the Opéra. He did not trust them, they were young and foreign and most of them wanted drugs, not wine. If he was at any point in his day fearful of not getting back to the station, he could endure the tediousness of dispute, publicly, for space on a grille over a hot Métro air vent, but that often involved violence or les flics. Monsieur Charlo was thinking over these things, working through a map in his head, when he passed a shop with a sturdy Christmas tree in its window.
Monsieur Charlo was amused. In his small acre of Paris there had never been Christmas trees or any sorts of trees in shop windows. So American. He felt a bout of philosophy coming on. He stood and stared and talked to himself in objecting tones until he understood, finally, that this was the season the Turkish brother had meant.
He went straight into a small grocery shop and stole a bottle of cheap wine. No one called after him. The bottle had a screw top. His pride did not allow any displays of vulgarity, so he hid around a corner in an alley that smelled of fish and rat-piss and slugged back some heavy gulps of the wine – Algerian, as it turned out – and with a gasp, he stooped and thought.
In his childhood – or perhaps it was someone else’s childhood – there was a giving of presents – once he, or someone very like him, had been given a wooden spinning-top – food, a lighting of lights, people gathering, eight days it lasted. That was a very general description so it was not difficult to remember. And even the policemen in the schoolyard, looking like giant toys, and Monsieur Charlo – or somebody – watching them between the legs of adults as they smiled and joked with children like himself, some fat grey soldiers standing back, smoking cigarettes, helping them into trucks that gasped and coughed, even into ‘buses, it was like an unexpected holiday, a break from the stuffy cheder; how was it possible to know what was real, so far back, and what was made up? Of course, it might all have happened very recently, there was always that possibility. He may even have been a soldier once himself, who could say?
Monsieur Charlo had felt the world change, a physical sensation, as he huddled, fearful, in that fleshy child’s forest of human legs. The fretting of the other children – and his own burbling – had not been so different from the keening of the young man under the railway bridge; and all their buttercup -bright cloth stars had come unstuck, some hanging loosely from their coats, others whirling through the cold air to the snow. Where were the grown-ups? His parents? The world was suddenly terrible. The trucks left. The yard was silent and enormous. He emerged and stood there with two or three other boys, alone as planets. He felt abandoned, they shouldn’t have hid in a cupboard, it was cowardly, which was the same as being brave. His legs in short trousers had been cold and blue.
He was colder now. He drank. No doubt the soldiers and the trucks and the children belonged in someone else’s head. Or perhaps they’d return.
These days, they returned frequently. He felt quite calm as the two policemen grabbed him and hauled him out of the alley, his bottle spilling its red contents all over his free hand so he looked injured and bleeding, and the other hand clutching his cardboard. They threw him in a van – the other children had gone in big trucks and ‘buses but all he got was a small van – and drove quickly past windows full of plastic snowmen and coloured lights and through chilly streets thundering with artificial stars.