John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.
‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’
When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.
I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.
John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.
Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’
By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’
This is only the beginning.
Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.
A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.
The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.
This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.
He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.
The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.
And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.
This is nowhere near the end of the story.
Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.
‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.
He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.
One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.
Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’
While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.
This still isn’t near the end of the story.
While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.
In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.
Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’
He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.
‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.
After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’
For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.
How could this possibly be the end of the story?
Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.
Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.
This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.
John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.
His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.
But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.
In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’
Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.
Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’
It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.
I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.
I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.
‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’
Berne, Switzerland 1765
A season of ice descends upon the winter chalet, cracking mortar and spreading bright veins across the window glass. Water freezes in the kitchen’s basins. The cat is found stiff and white in the orchard. Herr Curtius, the physician, tries to keep his warmth. He employs Madame’s mother as housekeeper and fire stoker, and Madame herself, though nothing more than the servant’s daughter, is permitted to sit by the hearth. The doctor smokes a dark French tobacco in his silk chair and talks to her. Having no children of his own, he is surprised that such simple companionship can be a cure for the maladies of winter. He gives her a tour of his cold operating chamber, shows her his scientific wax models—polished heart, near-black liver, and a brain that can be separated into halves. She listens as he tells her of his practice, and when her interests seem to wane, he turns to stories that his own mother once told by firelight—stories of the saints. Madame asks to hear again about Bishop Fisher, a saint beheaded by mad King Henry of England for crimes against the crown. The bishop’s head was hung from a long spike on London Bridge, but rather than rot and fall away as flesh should do, the head remained intact, growing more beautiful by the day.
“As if made of your very own medical wax,” Madame interrupts, and Herr Curtius nods at her observation.
He has explained that wax, like the soul, does not perish.
On the spike, the bishop’s cheeks turn rosy, and his eyes dampen with a youthful dew. The citizens of London say he looks finer than he ever did in life, and the head becomes a spectacle that draws crowds who clog the narrow artery of London Bridge, bringing offerings of wheat and fresh butchered lamb, hoping to curry favor with God. The weight of the throngs threaten to send the whole bridge, precarious on the best of days, crashing into the icy river, and finally, authorities are forced to take matters in hand, pulling the head down and hurling it into the Thames where it is finally washed away.
“And what befell it then?” Madame asks.
Herr Curtius clears his throat, checking to ensure that her mother, the maid, is not listening. This could be considered a tale of horror, after all, if it were not about the life of a saint. “The head was most likely eaten by whatever fish dare swim in the filthy English river,” he tells her.
She pretends amusement, but later, in bed beside her mother, Madame dreams an altogether different fate. The head of the saint is carried along by the cold black current, water passing across the bishop’s open mouth, flowing fast enough to cause a rippling song. What song the head sings, she does not know. An old one, to be sure, the sort that only water and the dead can remember.
The singing head is carried out of London and deposited on the sandy banks of a small farm where it is found by a girl not unlike Madame herself—a child who loves beauty in all its forms. She takes the saint’s head home in her carrying basket and installs it behind a rough hewn drapery in her father’s hayloft. The drape can be raised and lowered depending on the quality of the guest. Not everyone knows how to appreciate a miracle, after all. Once again, the flesh of the bishop’s head does not decompose, and when news of this spectacle spreads to the nearby villages, the head begins to draw a wonderful crowd. The girl charges for her miracle, and she cannot collect money fast enough. A line forms at the door of the barn, and she thinks perhaps her mother can stop cleaning. Her father can put down his tools and be happy in life again.
Madame cannot help but compare her life to this girl’s. Her own poor father won’t be resurrected even by the glory of the saints. He died two months before she was born in a battle of the Seven Years War against English troops. At night instead of praying to God, Madame prays to her father, picturing his body fixed in the still ether of the Empyrean, starlight pouring through the holes in his chest. She has no likenesses of him and must rely on the mundane descriptions her mother has given. “He was tall, Marie. Taller than most. With a man’s strong jaw and a dark mole upon his cheek.” Madame would like to ask her mother to describe her father’s soul—was it hot or was it wet? Was there daylight in him or was he a man of the evening?
She asks Herr Curtius if he would consider making a medical model of her father out of wax. She and her mother could provide details and the doctor would do the sculpting. Herr Curtius, amused, tells her he will consider the idea, and though Madame’s father never materializes, it is in this way that the museum is born.
There is stillness on the Champs Élysées. A woman in an ostrich feather hat pauses mid-step, one black boot visible beneath her skirts. A man stoops to retrieve his handkerchief and his shadow becomes a placid pool that will go undisturbed for centuries. This is the first scene in the wax museum—a frozen tableau de Paris. Patrons linger at the velvet rope, trying to catch the scent of live flowers in the air. Herr Curtius no longer practices medicine, having instead taken Madame and her mother to France to open his wax museum on the fashionable Place de le Concorde. Parisians flock to see his figures frozen in moments of beauty and valor. Most beloved is the figure of the Comptesse du Barry—mistress of Louis XV. She is displayed among baskets of roses, a frozen voluptuary in bows and pale silk. The low neckline of her dress reveals the pinkness of her skin. “Impossible to believe that such supple-looking breasts are made of wax,” says a friend of Herr Curtius on a visit to the museum, nearly poking the figure’s chest with the tip of his cane.
“Oh, but it is wax,” the doctor assures him. “The secret to making fine figures is knowing that the wax must appear more beautiful than the flesh it imitates. There are no bodies such as this in life.”
Madame takes lessons from Herr Curtius and proves a quick study. She molds accurate components of unreal bodies: the slender arm of a sleeping princess, a Roman soldier’s foot, the emaciated torso of Christ. For her first full model, she will not attempt a lowly figure like the Comptesse du Barry, though she is humbled, of course, by Herr Curtius’s knack for verisimilitude. “A figure of wax should be worthy,” she tells the doctor. “Perhaps we are not making great art, but we must at least make great men.” She chooses Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher. Unlike the Comptesse, Rousseau is no longer living, and Madame finds pleasure in his resurrection. She attempts to put the Enlightenment in the shape of Rousseau’s face and paints his glass eyes a most delicate and knowing shade of gray. Herr Curtius proudly places Rousseau on a pedestal near the front of the museum, tucking a yellowed copy of Confessions in the model’s pocket to make sure there is no question of identity. It is, after all, Madame’s first attempt.
At Christmastime, the doctor presents her with a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, saying he’s noticed her squinting while sculpting her models. When she sets the frames on the bridge of her nose, it’s as if a painted scrim has unfurled from invisible rafters in the museum’s ceiling. Figures that she’s made with her own hands—Rabelais and Sir Philip the Good—are new to her, standing cleanly before the plum-colored drapes. Sunlight falls in sharp lines across the eyes of Denis Diderot as if he wears a bright mask. Gray moths flutter in the lace ruff around the neck of Anne of Cleves. When Madame turns to thank Herr Curtius for his marvelous gift, she finds that he is gone, and she hurries down the corridor where patrons queue during business hours to find the doctor smoking in the antechamber, oaken door opened onto the boulevard and a pile of snow forming on the carpet at his feet.
“I am embarrassed that I have nothing for you, doctor,” she says.
He does not respond, lost in some thought. Finally, when she touches his sleeve, he turns. “There is nothing that I need, Marie, other than your presence.”
She cannot meet his glance. Gently, he lays his hand against her cheek.
When nothing is left of the holiday season but gray ice and a few forgotten ornaments, Herr Curtius tells Madame over a supper of cold lamb that the cost of the museum’s operation has proved greater than his estimation. “We may need to move our establishment,” he says, “find an area of cheaper rent. I’m sure you’ve noticed the crowds here are dwindling.”
“Do you think it’s due to my poor modeling?” she asks. “My eyeglasses have improved the accuracy of my work greatly.”
He takes a careful bite of lamb. “It is possible that Paris has simply had enough of wax. I could always practice medicine again. You will live comfortably, Marie, I promise you.”
“I don’t want to live comfortably, Herr Curtius,” she replies. “I want to live as mistress of a wax museum with you as its master.”
Madame redoubles her efforts of creation, and during this trial, she nearly forgets her mother who, out of boredom, dusts the wax figures each evening, running delicate feathers over the wig of Benjamin Franklin, the boots of Voltaire, and the makeshift helmet of Don Quixote. When her mother, thick and eager, urges her once again to begin searching for a husband, Madame replies that she has Herr Curtius, who is neither father nor husband but something more, and on top of that, she has her wax. “Wax will not make you children, Marie,” her mother says, tears growing in her eyes. Madame points toward the gallery where the figures loom. Her fingers ache and there is wax beneath her nails as well as burn scars on her palms. “If not children, Mother,” she says sharply, “what are these?”
One evening, there is a desperate knocking at Madame’s bedroom door, and she opens it to find Herr Curtius in his nightdress, cheeks white, hair dense with sweat. He looks older than Madame ever imagined him to be, and he tells her of a terrible nightmare, all the more awful because it seemed real. He dreamed there was a secret door behind a curtain in the wax museum, a door made of rough cheap wood, like a poor man’s coffin, and it opened onto a cave filled with figures the likes of which no modern man has ever seen. He clutches her arm. “Marie,” he whispers, “I must be going mad to have dreamed such things—piercing instruments of medieval torture, a black pharaoh with a stone scarab on his tongue, Judas leering with his silver coins, and Brutus—hands gloved in Caesar’s blood—howling from his pedestal. Why would God send such a dream, Marie? You must tell me. I’ll trust your answer.”
She blushes at his confidence and considers the dream of the hidden chamber. Perhaps it is some allegory. Or a foretelling of the future by way of symbols from the past. But then she realizes it may be a simple directive. “A chamber like the one you describe would draw a fine crowd, I think,” she says.
Herr Curtius sits heavily on the edge of her bed, staring at his hands. “People will pay to see horrors from a dream?”
“That will be the art of it, Doctor Curtius,” Madame replies. “Our visitors will enter your dream—a dark sister to our beautiful museum—and when they leave that chamber, they will feel as though they are waking, and gladly so. You must write down all that you remember. We will begin work immediately.”
“You told me our figures must be noble,” he says.
She kisses him lightly on the cheek. “It was God who sent the dream, not me.”
Later she discovers a detail about the chamber that the doctor could not bring himself to tell. It is scribbled in the margins of his papers. At the back of the Chamber of Horrors, he found himself lying flat on a wooden board, the kind they used when beginning to carve a model. His skin glowed with a waxy sheen—like a dead man in funeral makeup. And it was not at all clear whether the body was made of wax or of flesh. This frightened him more than all of history’s horrors combined.
The Chamber of Horrors is not completed before Herr Curtius, beautiful and kind, succumbs to a disease of the liver. Madame is overwhelmed by the loss and spends much of her time with the vile bodies in the darkened room. She installs a magic lantern machine and using candlelight and a series of lenses, she is able to create the illusion of movement. Hell-flames spark and lick the boots of patrons. Shadows detach from figures and slip across the walls, shrinking and expanding like lungs. The ghost of Herr Curtius himself—a trick of filtered light—is seen passing through the chamber, surveying his attraction.
She is still in mourning when she marries the young engineer, François Tussaud. It is a marriage of necessity. The doctor left her his wax museum, and she needs a husband to help with the work. A woman cannot sculpt alone nor steer an enterprise so lucrative. There is also the revolution building among the urban poor—a slow-heating oven of resentment stoked by the ridiculous lawyer, Robespierre, with his misshapen head, whom Madame refuses to make in wax, though he has written her a personal note of request. She has heard rumors of his plans for uprising—a so-called Reign of Terror—and she needs protection. But she wishes that her wedding dress could have been painted black to wipe the satisfaction from her mother’s face.
Tussaud is, at first, the walled city she hoped him to be. The unbroken line of his mustache, his starched collars and pressed pants—he seems a strong breed of architecture. But not a year into their marriage, he reveals himself to be unscrupulous with money, spending so extravagantly that Madame worries he may cause finances for the museum to fail.
When she lies next to him at night, she stills her heart and stops her thoughts, attempting to exist as the simulacrum of Marie Tussaud, more eloquent and obedient a wife than the real woman could ever be. But even in this petrifaction, she is aware of the pendulum inside her, swinging first back to childhood where she sits at the feet of the doctor wondering what the future will bring, and then into the future where she stands in a beautiful room that is empty of her sculptures. The room itself—molding, sconces, marble floor—is a sculpture, all made of wax, and when she opens the door there is another city, greater than Paris, all of it glittering with the workmanship of her own hand. Beyond the city, there are waxen meadows and a painted sky. It appears as though she has made a country for herself, if not a universe. She is not meant for Tussaud. She will not let him ruin her.
She admits she is pleased when the new placard is raised, “Madame Tussaud’s House of Wax.” She stands in the crowd with François at her side. He leans close enough to touch her ear with the fringe of his mustache and whispers, “What part of the museum would the famous Madame Tussaud like to survey on her inaugural visit?”
“The Chamber of Horrors, I think,” she says softly.
“Really, my dear? All that grim fantasy and blood?”
“There is no fantasy about it, François. It is an embryo, a showing of what is to come.”
Madame is everywhere renowned. The king himself loves her figures of wax, and he brings her to Versailles where she is to make models of the royal court. He wants to display these figures in the grand ballroom so courtiers can dance among their replicas. “They can even ask themselves to dance if they so choose,” he says. Madame realizes the king has made a joke, but she cannot smile. The little man reminds her of Tussaud. He is foolish with money and finds himself all too important. He sees no real gravity in wax. When she molds his figure, she presses her thumb into his chest, making a hole above the place where his heart would be.
Madame meets Marie Antoinette in the garden’s palisades among the lime trees. The two have not yet been introduced and because the young queen is costumed in strange rural clothes with her fair hair curled naturally at the side of her neck, Madame does not recognize her. The queen, Madame expects, would be a bright wedding cake of a woman, complete with towering coiffure built of pads and powder. But on this particular day, Marie Antoinette has been at Petit Trianon, the mock farmhouse on the palace grounds where she goes with her friends to tend sheep, and in peasant’s garb, she is like any other girl of seventeen, beautiful in the sunlight. She asks if she might try on Madame’s wire-framed eyeglasses, and Madame hands them over, saying, “They were a gift from someone I loved.”
The girl places the eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose and stands staring up into the lime trees. Madame watches, thinking how she would never make such a creature in wax. There is nothing about the girl that would draw an audience, and yet it is pleasant to see her living and walking in the garden. Some people are simply not meant to be memorialized—such effigy would detract from their beauty and life.
“Do you see the fruit more clearly now, my dear?” Madame asks.
“Oh, no. These glasses make me blind,” says the girl. Then she turns her attention on Madame, eyes looming from behind the lenses. “Are you the wax woman from Paris?”
“I am Madame Tussaud. That is correct.”
The girl nods. “I should like to take a lesson or two. Do you give lessons?”
“Not as a rule,” Madame replies.
The girl seems saddened. “I would have liked to learn to make dolls for my children. They’re babies, you know, and all their dolls seem terribly formal.”
“Well, wax is not a toy either,” Madame replies.
The girl removes the eyeglasses, hands them delicately to Madame, and wanders off into the lime trees without another word. It is only later that Madame realizes her error, though Marie Antoinette pretends not to remember their conversation in the palisades, as if, for a few moments, she was in fact a peasant girl with no relationship to the crown.
François Tussaud is away when the Reign of Terror erupts, spreading fire and revolution through the city. Madame is dragged from her museum by a band of common men in shepherds’ pants and muddied blouses. The boulevard is filled with smoke, and a man screams for mercy in the distance. When Madame begs them to explain what crime she has committed, their leader says she is under suspicion for Royalist sympathies. “You have been to Versailles, done work for the king.” She thinks of the hole she put above King Louis’ heart, and she wants to explain, but how can a thing like that be put into words?
Madame is imprisoned. Her head is shaved, and they carry her hair away in a wicker basket. They take her eyeglasses despite her pleading, and she stifles tears the entire night, thinking of Herr Curtius, glad that he is not alive to suffer such cruelties. It is in prison that she meets Josephine de Beauharnais, who will one day become the wife of Emperor Napoleon. Madame’s hands ache when she sees Lady Josephine. She wishes to preserve her in wax—to make this idol permanent before she disappears. Finally, after weeks of waiting, Madame is set free under the condition that she will use her skills to make death masks of the royal family. She does not protest. She does as she is ordered. When she is taken to the room where Marie Antoinette’s head is waiting, she finds she cannot approach the table. Beneath a rough cloth there is a shape the size of a serving pitcher. A crescent of brown blood has seeped through the material. And when a jar of wax is placed in her hands—beeswax, her medium of choice— Madame can hear the sound of the bees that made it. The wax itself is frightened. It does not want to approach the head of the queen.
The guard—or the fool in rags who calls himself a guard—moves toward the table.
“Wait a moment,” Madame says, though she does not know what duration would be required to prepare herself for what she is about to see. She thinks there is a hint of smile on the guard’s face as he removes the cloth, and she is confronted with the object—which cannot rightly be called a head because it no longer sits upon shoulders of the queen. Marie Antoinette’s face is not well preserved. She was not a saint like Bishop Fisher on London Bridge. There is only fear and surprise in the girl’s clouded eyes. It appears as if something has eaten away a portion of her lower lip.
When Madame is allowed to return to her museum, which was only partially destroyed by fire, she will make a secret figure in wax that will never be displayed, a copy of herself as she looked in prison, head shaved and without eyeglasses. She deepens the eyeholes until they are caverns, elongates the jaw into a wolflike muzzle. And when she is finished with the monster—while the wax is still warm—she pounds her fist against the thing, weeping and wishing more than anything else that she had taught the queen to make the foolish dolls for her children.
When Madame Arrives in London, both she and her figures are broken. The models have not travelled well, despite the packing straw. Severed hands, pieces of leg and, unbearably, a head or two are lifted carefully from their crates by her new staff and placed in the laboratory for reattachment. But she does not know if she can put all of history back together again. The line of sense is broken.
“Tussauds House of Wax” will open in the Baker Street Bazaar between Punch’s Theater and the House of Mystery—as if Herr Curtius’s grand museum is some carnival joke. Madame has removed the apostrophe from her surname on the placard. She no longer wants to claim the wax museum, and she does not speak of her past nor of the husband and aged mother she left in France. She will never go back to that country again, never see Paris. Not after what they have done. The head of Marie Antoinette, of Louis XVI, and finally even of Robespierre himself haunts her hands. She cannot forget. Her husband will write letters, imploring her to return, but he will never come looking. Perhaps he is afraid he could no longer distinguish Madame Tussaud from her figures. He will be halfway home before he realizes he has pulled the wrong woman from the wax museum. What he took for his wife will be melting in the sun.
She does not often visit the garish museum. Instead, she takes walks in the city. Imagine a woman dressed in gathered French silk, standing on the planks of London Bridge. Her graying hair is pinned carefully beneath her fashionable hat; a new pair of eyeglasses rests upon her nose. She studies the tall wooden houses that recede in every direction beneath a pall of black soot in the sky. She has made few acquaintances in this city. Unlike Paris, London is a business arrangement. Looking down into the rushing current of the Thames, she rests one hand on the bridge railing while the other hangs limply at her side. Water, she thinks, is nothing like wax. It is impermanent. It does not glorify. She wishes she could have carved her famous figures out of water, so they immediately fell from their pedestals, splashing into puddles on the floor. Such a display might have provided a more accurate depiction. For if there are saints, Madame knows they are few, and none of them are remembered for long.
I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens, wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick, packs of cards that LOOKED all right, and all that sort of thing, but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning, Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not thought the place was there, to tell the truth—a modest-sized frontage in Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run about just out of patent incubators, but there it was sure enough. I had fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip’s pointing finger made a noise upon the glass.
“If I was rich,” said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, “I’d buy myself that. And that”—which was The Crying Baby, Very Human—“and that,” which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, “Buy One and Astonish Your Friends.”
“Anything,” said Gip, “will disappear under one of those cones. I have read about it in a book.
“And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny—, only they’ve put it this way up so’s we can’t see how it’s done.”
Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother’s breeding, and he did not propose to enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.
“That,” he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.
“If you had that?” I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a sudden radiance.
“I could show it to Jessie,” he said, thoughtful as ever of others.
“It’s less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles,” I said, and laid my hand on the door-handle.
Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came into the shop.
It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He left the burthen of the conversation to me.
It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in papier-mache on the glass case that covered the low counter—a grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs, and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while we were laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.
At any rate, there he was behind the counter—a curious, sallow, dark man, with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.
“What can we have the pleasure?” he said, spreading his long, magic fingers on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.
“I want,” I said, “to buy my little boy a few simple tricks.”
“Legerdemain?” he asked. “Mechanical? Domestic?”
“Anything amusing?” said I.
“Um!” said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball. “Something in this way?” he said, and held it out.
The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments endless times before—it’s part of the common stock of conjurers—but I had not expected it here.
“That’s good,” I said, with a laugh.
“Isn’t it?” said the shopman.
Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely a blank palm.
“It’s in your pocket,” said the shopman, and there it was!
“How much will that be?” I asked.
“We make no charge for glass balls,” said the shopman politely. “We get them,”—he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke—“free.” He produced another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled.
“You may have those too,” said the shopman, “and, if you DON’T mind, one from my mouth. SO!”
Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for the next event.
“We get all our smaller tricks in that way,” the shopman remarked.
I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. “Instead of going to the wholesale shop,” I said. “Of course, it’s cheaper.”
“In a way,” the shopman said. “Though we pay in the end. But not so heavily—as people suppose…. Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat… And you know, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it, there ISN’T a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don’t know if you noticed our inscription—the Genuine Magic shop.” He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. “Genuine,” he said, with his finger on the word, and added, “There is absolutely no deception, sir.”
He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.
He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. “You, you know, are the Right Sort of Boy.”
I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.
“It’s only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway.”
And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. “Nyar! I WARN ‘a go in there, dadda, I WARN ‘a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!” and then the accents of a down-trodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations. “It’s locked, Edward,” he said.
“But it isn’t,” said I.
“It is, sir,” said the shopman, “always—for that sort of child,” and as he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face, pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. “It’s no good, sir,” said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness, doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.
“How do you manage that?” I said, breathing a little more freely.
“Magic!” said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold! sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the shadows of the shop.
“You were saying,” he said, addressing himself to Gip, “before you came in, that you would like one of our ‘Buy One and Astonish your Friends’ boxes?”
Gip, after a gallant effort, said “Yes.”
“It’s in your pocket.”
And leaning over the counter—he really had an extraordinarily long body—this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer’s manner. “Paper,” he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the springs; “string,” and behold his mouth was a string-box, from which he drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off—and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist’s dummies, stuck one of his fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed the parcel. “Then there was the Disappearing Egg,” he remarked, and produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he clasped them to his chest.
He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you know, were REAL Magics. Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat—something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon—no doubt a confederate—dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into a cardboard box behind the papier-mache tiger.
“Tut, tut!” said the shopman, dexterously relieving me of my headdress; “careless bird, and—as I live—nesting!”
He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand two or three eggs, a large marble, a watch, about half-a-dozen of the inevitable glass balls, and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats INSIDE as well as out, politely, of course, but with a certain personal application. “All sorts of things accumulate, sir…. Not YOU, of course, in particular…. Nearly every customer…. Astonishing what they carry about with them….” The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. “We none of us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, sir. Are we all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres—”
His voice stopped—exactly like when you hit a neighbour’s gramophone with a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence, and the rustle of the paper stopped, and everything was still….
“Have you done with my hat?” I said, after an interval.
There was no answer.
I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet….
“I think we’ll go now,” I said. “Will you tell me how much all this comes to?….
“I say,” I said, on a rather louder note, “I want the bill; and my hat, please.”
It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile….
“Let’s look behind the counter, Gip,” I said. “He’s making fun of us.”
I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common conjurer’s lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer’s rabbit can do. I resumed my hat, and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.
“Dadda!” said Gip, in a guilty whisper.
“What is it, Gip?” said I.
“I DO like this shop, dadda.”
“So should I,” I said to myself, “if the counter wouldn’t suddenly extend itself to shut one off from the door.” But I didn’t call Gip’s attention to that. “Pussy!” he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came lolloping past us; “Pussy, do Gip a magic!” and his eyes followed it as it squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something between amusement and defiance. “You’d like to see our show-room, sir,” he said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at the counter and met the shopman’s eye again. I was beginning to think the magic just a little too genuine. “We haven’t VERY much time,” I said. But somehow we were inside the show-room before I could finish that.
“All goods of the same quality,” said the shopman, rubbing his flexible hands together, “and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn’t genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!”
I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail—the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand—and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of twisted indiarubber, but for the moment—! And his gesture was exactly that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking-horse. I was glad he hadn’t seen the thing. “I say,” I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and the red demon with my eyes, “you haven’t many things like THAT about, have you?”
“None of ours! Probably brought it with you,” said the shopman—also in an undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. “Astonishing what people WILL carry about with them unawares!” And then to Gip, “Do you see anything you fancy here?”
There were many things that Gip fancied there.
He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and respect. “Is that a Magic Sword?” he said.
“A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen. Half-a-crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful—shield of safety, sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility.”
“Oh, daddy!” gasped Gip.
I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me. He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like jealousy that Gip had hold of this person’s finger as usually he has hold of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an interestingly faked lot of stuff, really GOOD faked stuff, still—
I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.
It was a long, rambling place, that show-room, a gallery broken up by stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had come.
The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork, just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said—. I myself haven’t a very quick ear and it was a tongue-twisting sound, but Gip—he has his mother’s ear—got it in no time. “Bravo!” said the shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it to Gip. “Now,” said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all alive again.
“You’ll take that box?” asked the shopman.
“We’ll take that box,” said I, “unless you charge its full value. In which case it would need a Trust Magnate—”
“Dear heart! NO!” and the shopman swept the little men back again, shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper, tied up and—WITH GIP’S FULL NAME AND ADDRESS ON THE PAPER!
The shopman laughed at my amazement.
“This is the genuine magic,” he said. “The real thing.”
“It’s a little too genuine for my taste,” I said again.
After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the sagest manner.
I did not attend as well as I might. “Hey, presto!” said the Magic Shopman, and then would come the clear, small “Hey, presto!” of the boy. But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn’t looking at them straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design with masks—masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.
Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence—I saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through an arch—and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red, flexible whip. Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.
My instant thought was that Gip mustn’t see him. I turned about, and there was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.
“Hide and seek, dadda!” cried Gip. “You’re He!”
And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the big drum over him. I saw what was up directly. “Take that off,” I cried, “this instant! You’ll frighten the boy. Take it off!”
The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared?…
You know, perhaps, that sinister something that comes like a hand out of the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither angry nor afraid. So it was with me.
I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.
“Stop this folly!” I said. “Where is my boy?”
“You see,” he said, still displaying the drum’s interior, “there is no deception—-”
I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape. “Stop!” I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him—into utter darkness.
“Lor’ bless my ‘eart! I didn’t see you coming, sir!”
I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had missed me.
And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!
He secured immediate possession of my finger.
For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of the magic shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop, nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell pictures and the window with the chicks!…
I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.
“‘Ansoms,” said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.
I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also. Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the street.
Gip said nothing.
For a space neither of us spoke.
“Dada!” said Gip, at last, “that WAS a proper shop!”
I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged—so far, good; he was neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the afternoon’s entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.
Confound it! what could be in them?
“Um!” I said. “Little boys can’t go to shops like that every day.”
He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I was his father and not his mother, and so couldn’t suddenly there, coram publico, in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the thing wasn’t so very bad.
But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort, and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in excellent health and appetite and temper.
I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in the nursery for quite an unconscionable time….
That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and the soldiers seem as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And Gip—?
The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with Gip.
But I went so far as this one day. I said, “How would you like your soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?”
“Mine do,” said Gip. “I just have to say a word I know before I open the lid.”
“Then they march about alone?”
“Oh, QUITE, dadda. I shouldn’t like them if they didn’t do that.”
I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like a magical manner.
It’s so difficult to tell.
There’s also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times, looking for that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is satisfied, and that, since Gip’s name and address are known to them, I may very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their bill in their own time.
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
At a certain point in my life, my services entailed crossing the little bridge across the Seine (for the Pont Neuf was not yet built at that time) at a certain hour several times a week, and I was usually recognized and greeted by tradesmen or other simple folk, but most conspicuously and most regularly by a very pretty grocer’s wife whose shop bore a sign with two angels, and who, every time I passed over those five or six months, bowed low and watched me walking on as far as she could. Her behaviour caught my eye; I returned her gaze and thanked her kindly. Riding from Fontainebleau to Paris late that winter, I came to the little bridge again and she stepped outside her shop’s door and hailed me as I rode by: ‘Sir, your servant!’ I returned her greeting and looking back from time to time I saw she had leaned far forward to watch me for as long as possible. I had a manservant and a postillion behind me, whom I intended to send back to Fontainebleau with letters to certain ladies that evening. At my command, the manservant dismounted and went to the young woman to tell her my name and that I had noticed her habit of seeing and greeting me; should she wish to make my acquaintance, I would pay her a visit wherever she chose.
She responded to the manservant: He could not have brought her a more welcome message, and she would come anywhere I suggested.
As we rode on I asked the manservant whether he knew of any place where I might come together with the woman. He answered that he would take her to a certain procuress; being a very concerned and conscientious man, however, this servant, Wilhelm from Courtral, added: As the plague was showing its face here and there, and had killed not only common and dirty folk, but also a doctor and a canon, he would advise me to take along mattresses, blankets, and linen from my own house. I accepted his suggestion and he promised to prepare a good bed for me. Before dismounting, I told him to take along a decent basin, a small bottle of sweet-smelling essence, and some pastries and apples; he was also to make sure the room was well heated, for it was so cold that my feet had frozen in their stirrups and the sky was full of snowflakes.
That evening I went along and found a very beautiful woman of about twenty years sitting on the bed and enduring a zealous lecture from the procuress, whose head and bent back were swaddled in a black cloak. The door was ajar and large fresh logs blazed loudly in the fireplace; they did not hear me coming and I stood outside the doorway for a moment. The young woman gazed calmly at the flames, large-eyed. With a single motion of her head, she had shifted miles away from the repulsive hag. As she did so, strands of her dark, heavy hair had spilled out from beneath her small night cap and now fell, curling into natural ringlets, across her chemise between shoulder and chest. She was also wearing a short petticoat made of green woollen fabric and had clogs on her feet. At that moment, I must have made some noise that gave me away, for she cast her head around and turned to me a face lent an almost wild expression by the extreme tension of her features, were it not for the radiant devotion flowing from her wide eyes and flickering from her unspeaking mouth like an invisible flame. I liked her extraordinarily well; quicker than a thought, the hag was out of the room and I was with my paramour. As I attempted to extract a few liberties in the first intoxication of this surprising possession, she eluded me with an indescribably lively vigour both in her eyes and in her enigmatic voice. The next instant, however, I felt myself in her embrace, and she was clinging even closer with her forthright and inexhaustible eyes than with her lips and arms; then it was once again as though she wanted to speak, but her lips could form no words as they fluttered with kisses, her trembling throat allowed no clearer sound than a fractured sob.
I had spent a large part of that day riding on frosty country roads, followed by a most annoying and intense appearance in the king’s antechamber, upon which I had first drunk and then fenced hard with my zweihänder to tame my bad mood, and so I was overcome, amidst this delightful and mysterious adventure, embraced by soft arms, and bestrewn with perfumed hair, by such sudden fatigue and nigh stupefaction that I no longer remembered even how I had come to be in that room, indeed for a moment confused the person whose heart beat so close to mine with quite a different woman from earlier days, whereupon I instantly fell fast asleep.
When I awoke it was still the dead of night but I felt straight away that my paramour was no longer by my side. I raised my head and saw by the weak light of the collapsing embers that she was standing at the window. She had cracked open one shutter and was spying through the gap. Then she turned around, noticed that I was awake, and called out (I see her now, running the palm of her left hand up her cheek and throwing her hair back over her shoulder): ‘It’s not day yet, not for a long time!’ Now I saw full well how tall and beautiful she was, and I could scarcely await the moment she would return to me with a few long, calm steps of her beautiful feet, the reddish glimmer rising to her ankles. First, though, she went to the fireplace, bent down to the ground, took the last heavy log not yet on the fire in her radiant bare arms, and threw it on the embers. Then she turned, her face glinting with flames and glee, grabbed an apple from the table in passing and was at my side, her limbs still touched by the fresh whiff of the fire and then instantly dissolved and shaken from within by stronger flames, her right hand gripping me, her left at once offering up to my mouth the cool, bitten fruit and her cheeks, lips, and eyes. The last log on the fire burned stronger than all the others. Casting sparks, it sucked up the flame and made it blaze powerfully once again, the fire’s light washing over us like a wave breaking on the wall and lifting our entangled shadows abruptly before they sank anew. Over and over the strong wood crackled, nourishing new flames from within which leapt up and chased off the heavy darkness with gushes and trusses of bright red. All at once, though, the flame subsided and a cold draught pushed at the window shutter quietly as a hand, baring the sallow unwanted dawn.
We sat up and knew that day had come. What was out there, though, was nothing like a day. It bore no resemblance to the world’s awakening. What was out there did not look like a street. There was no single thing to be made out: it was a colourless, characterless tangle of ageless writhing larvae. From somewhere, far away as though from the depths of memory, a church clock struck, and clammy air that belonged to no hour came streaming in, so cold that we pressed our bodies together with a shudder. She leaned back and fastened her eyes on my face with all her might; her throat trembling, something rose within her and spilled to the edge of her lips. No word became of it, no sigh, and no kiss, but some unborn thing resembling all three. The day grew lighter from moment to moment, and the manifold expressions on her trembling face grew ever more meaningful. All at once, shuffling steps and voices came so close outside the window that she ducked and turned her face to the wall. It was two men passing. For an instant the light of a small lantern one of them was carrying shone in; the other was pushing a cart with a wheel that grated and groaned. Once they had passed I got up, closed the shutter, and lit a candle. Half an apple was still there; we ate it together and then I asked whether I might not see her again, for I was not leaving until Sunday. This had been a Thursday night.
She answered that she no doubt yearned more fervently than I, but meeting again was impossible unless I stayed all of Sunday, because she could only see me again on the Sunday night.
At first, various hindrances came to my mind and I listed a number of difficulties, to which she responded not with words but with a prompting look that was exceedingly painful as her face grew almost uncannily hard and dark. At that I promised of course to stay through Sunday, and added that I would report once again to that place on Sunday evening. Hearing this, she looked at me firmly and said, with a rough and broken tone in her voice: ‘I know all too well that I have come to a house of shame for your sake, but I did so of my own free will because I wanted to be with you, because I would have agreed to any condition. Now, though, I would feel like the lowest harlot if I were to come here a second time. I did it for your sake, because for me you are the man you are, because you’re Bassompierre, because you’re the one person in the world who makes this house honourable through your presence!’ She said ‘house’, but for a moment it was as though she were uttering a more contemptible word; as she spoke the word she cast such a glance at those four walls, that bed, the blanket slipped onto the floor, a look so powerful that the burst of light shooting from her eyes made all those ugly, common things seem to flinch and edge away from her, as though the pitiful room really had grown larger for an instant.
Then she added in an indescribably gentle and solemn tone: ‘May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to another apart from my husband and you, and if I ever yearn for another in all the world!’ Leaning forward with her half-open lips alive with her breath, she seemed to expect some kind of answer, some declaration of belief on my part, only she did not read what she wanted in my face, for her tense, searching eyes darkened, her lashes opened and closed, and all at once she was at the window with her back to me, her brow pressed with all her force to the shutter, her whole body so shaken by soundless but horridly intense weeping that the words died on my lips and I did not dare touch her. At last I cradled one of her hands, which were dangling as if lifeless, and, using the most urgent words that the moment inspired, was finally able to pacify her to such a point that she turned her tearstained face back to me, until suddenly a smile breaking out of her eyes and around her lips drained away all traces of her crying in an instant and flooded her whole face with light. As she began to speak once more, she started a most delightful game, playing endlessly with the following phrase: ‘You want to see me again? Then I’ll have you come to my aunt’s house!’ She spoke the first half ten times over, now with sweet intimacy, now with a childish pretence of mistrust. And then she at first whispered the second part into my ear as if it were the greatest secret, then said it with a shrug and pursed lips like the most normal arrangement in the world, casting it over her shoulder and at last repeated it, clutching me, laughing into my face, and embracing me. She described the house to me in detail, the way one gives a child directions the first time it is to cross the street to the bakery alone. Then she sat upright, grew earnest – the full force of her blazing eyes fastening upon me with such strength that it was as if they could draw even a dead creature to them – and continued: ‘I will await you from ten until midnight and later too and on and on, and the front door will always be open. First you’ll find a narrow passageway; don’t linger there, for that is where my aunt’s door is. Then you’ll come across a staircase that leads you to the first floor, and there I shall be!’ And closing her eyes as though dizzy, she threw back her head, spread out her arms, and embraced me, before slipping straight out of my arms and into her clothes, unfamiliar and earnest, and out of the room; for now full daylight had come.
I went about my appointments, sent a few of my people ahead with my things, and by the evening of the next day I felt such great impatience that soon after the evening bells I took my servant Wilhelm, whom I had instructed not to bring a light, and crossed the little bridge so as to at least see my paramour in her shop or the adjacent home and to give her a sign of my presence if need be, though I had no hope of anything more than exchanging a few words with her.
So as not to attract attention, I stayed on the bridge and sent my servant ahead to reconnoitre. He stayed away for some time and had on his return the downcast and brooding look with which I was familiar whenever he was unable to carry out my orders. ‘The shop is locked up,’ he said, ‘and no one seems to be inside. There is no one to be seen or heard in the rooms facing the road. The only way into the yard is over a high wall with a big dog growling behind it. One of the front rooms is lit up, though, and you can see in through a gap in the shutters, but unfortunately it’s empty.’
Discontented, I was about to turn back, when I did take one more slow stroll past the house, and my assiduous servant once again put his eye to the gap, through which a dim light shone, and whispered to me that, though there was no sign of the woman, her husband was now in the room. Curious to see the grocer, whom I could not remember ever spying in his shop, and whom I imagined in turn as a shapeless fat man and a thin, fragile dotard, I went to the window and was most astounded to see an unusually tall and well-built man walking around the well-appointed panelled room, a man a good head taller than me who, when he turned around, showed a very handsome and deeply earnest face, with a brown beard containing few silver threads and with a strangely lofty brow, so high that his temples enclosed a larger space than I had ever seen on a person before. Though he was all alone in the room his gaze wandered, his lips moving, and as he interrupted his pacing here and there he seemed to be holding an imaginary conversation: At one point he moved his arm as though to dismiss a contradiction with semi-indulgent superiority. Every one of his gestures was of great nonchalance and almost contemptuous pride, and as he paced alone I could not help but remember the image of a very noble prisoner I had guarded during his imprisonment in a chamber at Château de Blois while I was in the service of the king. This similarity seemed to grow even greater when the man raised his right hand and looked down at his curled fingers attentively, indeed, most sternly.
For it was with almost the same gesture that I had seen that noble prisoner looking at a ring he wore on the index finger of his right hand and would never part with. The man in the room then went to the table, moved the water basin towards the candle, and brought his hands into the circle of light, his fingers outstretched; he seemed to be inspecting his fingernails. Then he blew out the light and left the room, leaving me standing outside not without a dull, angry jealousy, as my yearning for his wife grew perpetually, nourished like a raging fire by everything I came across, and so was tortuously heightened by this unexpected sight, as it was by every snowflake now blown by a cold wind, each catching on my eyebrows and cheeks and melting.
I spent the next day in the most useless manner, had no concentration for any of my business, bought a horse I did not even like, attended the Duke of Nemours after dinner, and spent some time there with games and the most ridiculous, repulsive conversations. There was no other subject than the plague now spreading more and more around the city, and all the noblemen could speak of nothing but such stories of the hasty burial of corpses, of the straw that was to be burned in the rooms of the dead to consume the toxic fumes, and so on. The most ridiculous, however, appeared to be the Canon of Chandieu, who, although just as rotund and healthy as ever, could not refrain from peering constantly at his fingernails for signs of the suspicious blue taint with which the disease tends to announce itself.
All this nonsense disgusted me; I left early and retired to bed, but I could not find sleep, dressed again impatiently with the intention to go and see my paramour come what may, even if I had to force my way in with my men. I went to the window to wake my men, but the icy night air brought me to my senses, and I realized that was a sure-fire way to ruin everything. Still in my clothes, I collapsed onto my bed and at last fell asleep.
I spent that Sunday in a similar fashion until the evening, reaching the designated street far too early but forcing myself to walk up and down a side road until the clock struck ten. Then I immediately found the house and the door she had described, the door was open too, and behind it the passage and the staircase. At the top of stairs, however, the second door was locked, though a thin strip of light shone beneath it. She was inside, then, perhaps listening at the door, as I was outside it. I scratched at the door with my nails and then heard footsteps inside: they sounded like the hesitant, uncertain steps of bare feet. I stood unbreathing for a moment and then began to knock; yet I heard a man’s voice asking who was there. I pressed myself into the shadow of the doorpost and made not a sound; the door remained closed and I descended the stairs one by one in the greatest silence, crept along the passage into the open air, and paced a few streets, glowing with impatience, my temples pulsing and my teeth clenched. Finally I was drawn back to the house, though I did not yet want to enter; I felt, I knew, she would get rid of the man, she must manage it and I’d be able to join her shortly. The road was narrow; on the other side were no houses but the wall of a monastery garden. I pressed myself to it and sought to guess the window from across the street. In one, an open window on the top floor, a light flared and settled again, like the glow of a flame. Now I thought I saw it all before me: she had put a large log on the fire like last time, like last time she was standing in the middle of the room, her limbs glinting from the flame, or sitting on the bed, listening and waiting. From the door, I would see her and the shadow of her neck, her shoulders, rising and falling transparent on the wall. I was instantly in the passage, on the stairs; the door was no longer locked now; ajar, it let the swaying light through obliquely. As I reached out a hand to open it I thought I heard several people’s footsteps and voices. I refused to believe it, though; I took it for my blood pulsing in my temples, at my throat, and for the blazing of the fire inside. The fire had blazed loudly last time too. I had already gripped the door handle when I was forced to admit there were people in there, several people. But it was no matter to me now, for I felt that she was inside too, and as soon as I opened the door I would see her, grasp her, be it from the hands of other men, pull her to me with one arm, even if I had to use my sword, my dagger to carve out space for her and me from a jumble of screaming bodies! The only thing that seemed utterly unbearable was waiting any longer.
I pushed the door open and saw: a few people burning bed straw in the middle of the empty room, entirely lit up by the flames, scraped walls, their plaster covering the floor, and against one wall a table on which lay two naked bodies, one very tall with its head covered, the other smaller, stretched out along the wall, and alongside it the black shadow of subtle shapes, rising and falling again.
I stumbled back down the stairs and came upon two gravediggers outside the house. One held his small lantern to my face and asked what I was looking for, while the other pushed his groaning, grating cart to the front door. I pulled out my dagger to keep them away, and made my way home. I immediately drank three or four large glasses of heavy wine, and after taking my rest I set off for Lorraine the next day.
Upon my return, all my efforts to find out anything about the woman were in vain. I even went to the shop with its two angels; but the people now running it did not know who had had it before them.
Based on M. de Bassompierre, Journal de ma vie, Cologne, 1663 and Goethe, Conversations of German Refugees.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
In Rue Las Cases it was as quiet as during the height of summer, and every open window was screened by a yellow blind. The fine weather had returned: it was the first Sunday of spring, a warm and restless day that took people out of their houses and out of the city. The sky glowed with a gentle radiance. The birds in Place Sainte-Clotilde chirped lazily, while the raucous screeching of cars leaving for the country echoed in the peaceful streets. The only cloud in the sky was a delicately curled white shell that floated upward for a moment, then melted into the ether. People raised their heads with surprise and anticipation; they sniffed the air and smiled.
Agnes half-closed the shutters: the sun was hot and the roses would open too quickly and die. Nanette ran in and stood hopping from one foot to the other.
“May I go out, Mama? It’s such nice weather.”
Mass was almost over. The children were already coming down the street in their bright sleeveless dresses, holding their prayer books in their white-gloved hands and clustering around a little girl who had just taken her first communion. Her round cheeks were pink and shining under her veil. A procession of bare legs, all pink and gold, as downy as the skin of a peach, sparkled in the sunshine. The bells were still ringing, slowly and sadly as if to say, “Off you go, good people, we are sorry not to be able to keep you any longer. We have sheltered you for as long as we could, but now we have to give you back to the world and to your everyday lives. Time to go. Mass is over.”
The bells fell silent. The smell of hot bread filled the street, wafting up from the open bakery; you could see the freshly washed floor gleaming and the narrow mirrors on the walls glinting faintly in the shadows. Then everyone had gone home.
Agnes said, “Nanette, go and see if Papa is ready, and tell Nadine that lunch is on the table.”
Guillaume came in, radiating the scent of lavender water and good cigars, which always made Agnes feel slightly nauseated. He seemed even more high-spirited, healthy, and plump than usual.
As soon as they had sat down, he announced, “I’ll be going out after lunch. When you’ve been suffocating in Paris all week, it’s the least… Are you really not tempted?”
“I don’t want to leave the little one.”
Nanette was sitting opposite him, and Guillaume smiled at her and tweaked her hair. The previous night she had had a temperature, but it had been so slight that her fresh complexion showed no sign of pallor.
“She’s not really ill. She has a good appetite.”
“Oh, I’m not worried, thank God,” said Agnes. “I’ll let her go out until four o’clock. Where are you going?”
Guillaume’s face visibly clouded over. “I… oh, I don’t know yet… You always want to organize things in advance… Somewhere around Fontainebleau or Chartres, I’ll see, wherever I end up. So? Will you come with me?”
“I’d love to see the look on his face if I agreed,” thought Agnes. The set smile on her lips annoyed her husband. But she answered, as she always did, “I’ve got things to do at home.”
She thought, “Who is it this time?”
Guillaume’s mistresses: her jealousy, her anxiety, the sleepless nights, were now in the long-distant past. He was tall and overweight, going bald, his whole body solidly balanced, his head firmly planted on a thick, strong neck. He was forty-five, the age at which men are at their most powerful, dominant, and self-confident, the blood coursing thickly through their veins. When he laughed he thrust his jaw forward to reveal a row of nearly perfect white teeth.
“Which one of them told him, ‘You look like a wolf or a wild animal when you smile’?” wondered Agnes. “He must have been incredibly flattered. He never used to laugh like that.”
She remembered how he used to weep in her arms every time a love affair ended, gulping as if he were trying to inhale his tears. Poor Guillaume…
“Well, I…” said Nadine.
She started each sentence like that. It was impossible to detect a single word or a single idea in anything she thought or said that did not relate to herself, her clothes, her friends, the ladders in her stockings, her pocket money, her own pleasure. She was… triumphant. Her skin had the pale, velvety brightness of jasmine and of camellias, and you could see the blood beating just beneath the surface: it rose girlishly in her cheeks, swelling her lips so that it looked as though a pink, heady wine was about to gush from them. Her green eyes sparkled.
“She’s twenty,” thought Agnes, trying, as so often, to keep her eyes closed and not to be wounded by her daughter’s almost overwhelming beauty, the peals of laughter, the egoism, the fervor, the diamondlike hardness. “She’s twenty years old; it’s not her fault… Life will tame her, soften her, make her grow up.”
“Mama, can I take your red scarf? I won’t lose it. And, Mama, may I come back late?”
“And where are you going?”
“Mama, you know perfectly well! To Chantal Aumont’s house in Saint-Cloud. Arlette is coming to fetch me. Can I come home late? After eight o’clock, anyway? You won’t be angry? Then I won’t have to go through Saint-Cloud at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening.”
“She’s quite right,” said Guillaume.
Lunch was nearly over. Mariette was serving the meal quickly. Sunday… As soon as the washing-up was done, she, too, would be going out.
They ate orange-flavored crêpes; Agnes had helped Mariette make the batter. “Delicious,” said Guillaume appreciatively.
The clattering of dishes could be heard through the open windows: it was only a faint sound from the dark ground-floor flat where two spinsters lived in the gloom, but it was louder and livelier in the house across the way, where there was a table laid for twelve with the place settings gleaming on the neat folds of the damask tablecloth and a basket of white roses for a first communion decorating the center.
“I’m going to get ready, Mama. I don’t want any coffee.”
Guillaume swallowed his quickly and silently. Mariette began to clear the table.
“What a hurry they’re in,” thought Agnes, as her thin, skillful hands deftly folded Nanette’s napkin. “Only I…”
She was the only one for whom this wonderful Sunday held no attraction.
“I never imagined she’d become so stay-at-home and dull,” thought Guillaume as he looked at her. He took a deep inward breath and, proudly conscious of the sense of vigor that surged through his body, felt his chest expand with the fine weather. “I’m in rather good shape, holding up surprisingly well,” he thought, as his mind turned to all the reasons (the political crisis, money worries, the taxes he owed, Germaine—who cramped his style, devil take her) why he could justifiably feel as miserable and depressed as anyone else. But on the contrary! “I’ve always been the same. A ray of sunshine, the prospect of a Sunday away from Paris, a nice bottle of wine, freedom, a pretty woman at my side—and I’m twenty again! I’m alive,” he congratulated himself, looking at his wife with veiled hostility; her cold beauty and the tense, mocking line of her lips irritated him. He said aloud, “Of course, I’ll telephone you if I spend the night in Chartres. In any case, I’ll be back tomorrow morning, and I’ll drop in at home before I go to the office.”
Agnes thought, with a strange, weary detachment, “One day, after a lavish lunch, just as he’s kissing the woman he’s with, the car he’s driving will crash into a tree. I’ll get a phone call from Senlis or Auxerre. Will you suffer?” she demanded curiously of the mute, invisible image of herself waiting in the shadows. But the image, silent and indifferent, did not reply, and the powerful silhouette of Guillaume came between it and her.
“See you soon, darling.” “See you soon, dear.” Then Guillaume was gone.
“Shall I lay tea in the parlor, madame?” asked Mariette.
“No, I’ll do it. You can go as soon as you’ve tidied the kitchen.”
“Thank you, madame,” said the girl, blushing fiercely as if she were near a blazing fire.
“Thank you, madame,” she repeated, with a dreamy expression that made Agnes shrug her shoulders mockingly.
Agnes stroked Nanette’s smooth, black hair, as the little girl first hid in the folds of her dress and then poked her head out giggling.
“We’ll be perfectly happy, just the two of us, sweetheart.”
Meanwhile, in her room, Nadine was quickly changing her clothes, powdering her neck, her bare arms, and the curve of her breast where, unseen in the car, Rémi had placed his dry, passionate lips, caressing her with quick, burning kisses. Half past two… Arlette still had not arrived. “With Arlette here, Mama won’t suspect anything.” The rendezvous was at three.
“To think that Mama doesn’t notice anything. And she was young once…” she thought, trying in vain to imagine her mother’s youth, her engagement and her early married life.
“She must always have been like this. Everything calm, orderly, wearing those white lawn collars. ‘Guillaume, don’t spoil my roses.’ Whereas I…”
She shivered, gently biting her lips as she looked at herself in the mirror. Nothing gave her more pleasure than her body, her eyes, her face, and the shape of her young, white neck as straight as a column. “It’s wonderful to be twenty,” she thought fervently. “Do all young women feel as I do, do they relish their happiness, their energy, the fire in their blood? Do they feel these things as fiercely and deeply as I do? For a woman, being twenty in 1934 is … is incredible,” she told herself.
She summoned up disjointed memories of nights on a campsite, coming back at dawn in Rémi’s car (and there were her parents thinking she was on an innocent trip with her friends on the Île Saint-Louis, watching the sun rise over the Seine), skiing, swimming, the pure air and cold water on her body, Rémi digging his nails into her neck, gently pulling back her short hair. “And my parents are blind to it all! I suppose in their day… I can imagine my mother at my age, at her first ball, her eyes modestly lowered. Rémi… I’m in love,” she told her reflection, smiling into the mirror. “But I must be careful of him—he’s so good-looking and so sure of himself. He’s been spoiled by women, by flattery. He must like making people suffer. But then, we’ll see who’ll be the strongest,” she muttered, as she nervously clenched her fists, feeling her love pounding in her heart, making her long to take part in this game of cruelty and passion.
She laughed out loud. And her laugh rang out so clearly and arrogantly in the silence that she stopped to listen, as if enchanted by the beauty of a rare and perfect musical instrument.
“There are times when I think I’m in love with myself more than anything else,” she thought, as she put on her green necklace, every bead of which glimmered and reflected the sun. Her smooth, firm skin had the brilliant glow of young animals, flowers, or a blossom in May, a glossiness that was fleeting but completely perfect. “I shall never be as beautiful again.”
She sprayed perfume on her face and shoulders, deliberately wasting it; today anything sparkling and extravagant suited her! “I’d love a bright red dress and gypsy jewelry.” She thought of her mother’s tender, weary voice: “Moderation in all things, Nadine!”
“The old!” she thought contemptuously.
In the street Arlette’s car had stopped outside the house. Nadine grabbed her bag and, cramming her beret on her head as she ran, shouted “Good-bye, Mama,” and disappeared.
“I want you to have a little rest on the settee, Nanette. You slept so badly last night. I’ll sit next to you and do some work,” said Agnes. “Then you can go out with mademoiselle.”
Nanette rolled her pink smock in her fingers for a while, rubbed her face against the cushions as she turned over and over, yawned, and went to sleep. She was five and, like Agnes, had the pale, fresh complexion of someone fair-haired, yet had black hair and dark eyes.
Agnes sat down quietly next to her. The house was sleeping silently. Outside, the smell of coffee hung in the air. The room was flooded with a soft, warm, yellow light. Agnes heard Mariette carefully close the kitchen door and walk through the flat; she listened to her footsteps fading away down the back stairs. She sighed: a strange, melancholy happiness and a delicious feeling of peace overcame her. Silence fell over the empty rooms, and she knew that nobody would disturb her until evening; not a single footstep, nor any unknown voice would find its way into the house, her refuge. The street was empty and quiet. There was only an invisible woman playing the piano, hidden behind her closed shutters. Then all was quiet. At that very moment Mariette, clutching her Sunday imitation pigskin bag in her large, bare hands, was hurrying to the station where her lover was waiting for her, and Guillaume, in the woods at Compiègne, was saying to the fat, blonde woman sitting next to him, “It’s easy to blame me, I’m not really a bad husband, but my wife…” Nadine was in Arlette’s little green car, driving past the gates of the Luxembourg gardens. The chestnut trees were in flower. Children ran around in little sleeveless knitted tops. Arlette was thinking bitterly that nobody was waiting for her; nobody loved her. Her friends put up with her because of her precious green car and, behind their horn-rimmed glasses, her round eyes made mothers trust her. Lucky Nadine!
A sharp wind was blowing; the water from the fountains sprayed out sideways, covering passersby with spray. The saplings in Place Sainte-Clotilde swayed gently.
“It’s so peaceful,” thought Agnes.
She smiled; neither her husband nor her elder daughter had ever seen this rare, slow, confident smile on her lips.
She got up and quietly went to change the water for the roses; carefully she cut their stems; they were gradually coming into flower, although their petals seemed to be opening reluctantly, fearfully, as if with some kind of divine modesty.
“How lovely it is here,” she thought.
Her house was a refuge, a warm enclosed shell sealed against the noise outside. When, in the wintry dusk, she walked along the Rue Las Cases, an island of shadows, and saw the stone sculpture of the smiling woman above the door, that sweet, familiar face decorated with narrow, carved ribbons, she felt oddly relaxed and peaceful, floating in waves of happiness and calm. Her house… how she loved the delicious silence, the slight, furtive creaking of the furniture, the delicate inlaid tables shining palely in the gloom. She sat down; although she normally held herself so erect, now she curled up in an armchair.
“Guillaume says I like objects more than human beings… That may be true.”
Objects enfolded her in a gentle, wordless spell. The copper and tortoiseshell clock ticked slowly and peacefully in the silence.
The familiar musical clinking of a silver cup gleaming in the shadows responded to her every movement, her every sigh, as if it were her friend.
“Where do we find happiness? We pursue it, search for it, kill ourselves trying to find it, and all the time it’s just here,” she said to herself. “It comes just when we’ve stopped expecting anything, stopped hoping, stopped being afraid. Of course, there is the children’s health …” and she bent automatically to kiss Nanette’s forehead. “Fresh as a flower, thank God. It would be such a relief not to hope for anything anymore. How I’ve changed,” she thought, remembering the past, her insane love for Guillaume, that little hidden square in Passy where she used to wait for him on spring evenings. She thought of his family, her hateful mother-in-law, the noise his sisters made in their miserable, gloomy parlor. “Ah, I can never have enough silence!” She smiled, whispering as if the Agnes of an earlier time were sitting next to her, listening incredulously, her dark plaits framing her pale young face. “Yes, aren’t you surprised? I’ve changed, haven’t I?”
She shook her head. In her memory every day in the past was rainy and sad, every effort was in vain, and every word that was uttered was either cruel or full of lies.
“Ah, how can one regret being in love? But, luckily, Nadine is not like me. Today’s young girls are so cold, so unemotional. Nadine is a child, but even later on she’ll never love or suffer as I did. So much the better, thank God, so much the better. And by the look of things Nanette will be like her sister.”
She smiled: it was strange to think that these smooth, chubby, pink cheeks and unformed features would turn into a woman’s face. She put out a hand to stroke the fine black hair. “These are the only moments when my soul is at peace,” she thought, remembering a childhood friend who used to say, “My soul is at peace,” as she half-closed her eyes and lit a cigarette. But Agnes did not smoke. And it was not that she liked to dream, more that she preferred to sit and occupy herself with some humdrum but specific task: she would sew or knit, stifle her thoughts, and force herself to stay calm and silent as she tidied books away or, one at a time, carefully washed and dried the Bohemian glassware, the tall, thin antique glasses with gold rims that they used for champagne. “Yes, at twenty happiness seemed different to me, rather terrible and overwhelming, yet one’s desires become easier to achieve once they have largely run their course,” she thought, as she picked up her sewing basket, with its piece of needlework, some silk thread, her thimble, and her little gold scissors. “What more does a woman need who is not in love with love?”
“Let me out here, Arlette, will you?” Nadine asked. It was three o’clock. “I’ll walk for a bit,” she said to herself. “I don’t want to get there first.”
Arlette did as she asked. Nadine jumped out of the car. “Thank you, chérie.”
Arlette drove off. Nadine walked up the Rue de l’Odéon, forcing herself to slow down and suppress the excitement spreading through her body. “I like being out in the street,” she thought, happily looking around at everything. “I’m stifled at home. They can’t understand that I’m young, I’m twenty years old, I can’t stop myself singing, dancing, laughing, shouting. It’s because I’m full of joy.” The breeze, fanning her legs through the thin material of her dress, was delicious. She felt light, ethereal, floating: and just then it seemed to her that nothing could tether her to the ground. “There are times when I could easily fly away,” she thought, buoyed up with hope. The world was so beautiful, so kind! The glare of the midday sun had softened and was turning into a pale, gentle glow; on every street corner women were holding out bunches of daffodils, offering them for sale to passersby. Families were happily sitting outside the cafés, drinking fruit juice as they clustered around a little girl fresh from communion, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining. Soldiers strolled slowly along, blocking the pavement, walking beside women dressed in black with large, red, bare hands. “Beautiful,” said a boy walking past, blowing a kiss to Nadine as he eyed her. She laughed.
Sometimes love itself, even the image of Rémi, disappeared. There remained simply a feeling of exultation and a feverish, piercing happiness, both of which were almost agonizingly unbearable.
“Love? Does Rémi love me?” she asked herself suddenly, as she reached the little bistro where he was due to meet her. “What do I feel? We’re mostly just friends, but what good is that? Friendship and trust are all right for old people. Even tenderness is not for us. Love, well, that’s something else.” She remembered the sharp pain that tender words and kisses sometimes seemed to conceal. She went inside.
The café was empty. The sun was shining. A clock on the wall ticked. The small inside room where she sat down smelled of wine and the dank air from the cellar.
He was not there. She felt her heart tighten slowly in her chest. “I know it’s quarter past three, but surely he would have waited for me?”
She ordered a drink.
Each time the door opened, each time a man’s shadow appeared, her heart beat faster and she was filled with happiness; each time it was a stranger who came in, gave her a distracted look, and went to sit down in the shadows. She clasped and unclasped her hands nervously under the table.
“But where can he be? Why doesn’t he come?” Then she lowered her head and continued to wait.
Inexorably, the clock struck every quarter of an hour. Staring at its hands, she waited without moving a muscle, as if complete silence, complete stillness, would somehow slow the passing of time. Three thirty. Three forty-five. That was nothing, one side or the other of the half hour made little difference, even when it was three forty, but if you said, “twenty to four, quarter to four,” then you were lost, everything was ruined, gone forever. He wasn’t coming, he was laughing at her! Who was he with at that very moment? To whom was he saying, “That Nadine Padouan? I’ve really got her!” She felt sharp, bitter little tears prick her eyes. No, no, not that! Four o’clock. Her lips were trembling. She opened her bag and blew on her powder puff, the powder enveloping her in a stifling, perfumed cloud; as she looked in the little mirror she noticed that her face was quivering and distorted as if underwater. “No, I’m not going to cry,” she thought, savagely clenching her teeth together. With shaking hands she took out her lipstick and outlined her lips, then powdered the satin-smooth, bluish hollow under her eyes where, one day, the first wrinkle would appear. “Why has he done this? Did he just want a kiss one evening, is that all?” For a moment she felt despairing and worthless. All the painful memories that are part of even a happy and secure childhood flooded into her mind: the undeserved slap her father had given her when she was twelve; the unfair teacher; those little English girls who, so long ago, had laughed at her and said, “We won’t play with you. We don’t play with kids.”
“It hurts. I never knew it could hurt so much.”
She gave up watching the clock but stayed where she was, quite still. Where could she go? She felt safe here and comfortable. How many other women had waited, swallowing their tears as she did, unthinkingly stroking the old imitation leather banquette, warm and soft as an animal’s coat? Then, all at once, she felt proud and strong again. What did any of it matter? “I’m in agony, I’m unhappy.” Oh, what fine new words these were: love, unhappiness, desire. She rolled them silently on her lips.
“I want him to love me. I’m young and beautiful. He will love me, and if he doesn’t, others will,” she muttered as she nervously clenched her hands, her nails as shining and sharp as claws.
Five o’clock… The dim little room suddenly shone like a furnace. The sun had moved around. It lit up the golden liqueur in her glass and the telephone booth opposite her.
“A phone call?” she thought feverishly. “Maybe he’s ill?”
“Oh, come on,” she said, with a furious shrug. She had spoken out loud; she shivered. “What’s the matter with me?” She imagined him lying bleeding, dead in the road; he drove like a madman…
“Supposing I telephoned? No!” she murmured, acknowledging for the first time how weak and downcast she felt.
At the same time, deep down, a mysterious voice seemed to be whispering: “Look. Listen. Remember. You’ll never forget today. You’ll grow old. But at the instant of your death you’ll see that door opening, banging in the sunshine. You’ll hear the clock chiming the quarters and the noise in the street.”
She stood up and went into the telephone booth, which smelled of dust and chalk; the walls were covered with scribbles. She looked for a long time at a drawing of a woman in the corner. At last she dialed Jasmin 10-32.
“Hello,” said a woman’s voice, a voice she did not recognize.
“Is this Monsieur Rémi Alquier’s apartment?” she asked, and she was struck by the sound of her words: her voice shook.
“Yes, who is it?”
Nadine said nothing; she could clearly hear a soft, lazy laugh and a voice calling out, “Rémi, there’s a young girl asking for you… What? Monsieur Alquier isn’t in, mademoiselle.”
Slowly, Nadine hung up and went outside. It was six o’clock, and the brightness of the May sunshine had faded; a sad, pale dusk had taken over. The smell of plants and freshly watered flowers rose from the Luxembourg gardens. Nadine walked aimlessly down one street, then down another. She whistled quietly as she walked. The first lights were coming on in the houses, and although the streets were not yet dark, the first gas lamps were being lit: their flickering light shone through her tears.
In Rue Las Cases Agnes had put Nanette to bed; half-asleep, she was still talking quietly to herself, shyly confiding in her toys and the shadows in the room. As soon as she heard Agnes, however, she cautiously stopped.
“Already,” Agnes thought.
She went into the parlor. She walked across it without turning on the lights and leaned by the window. It was getting dark. She sighed. The spring day concealed a latent bitterness that seemed to emerge as evening came, just as sweet-smelling peaches can leave a sour taste in the mouth. Where was Guillaume? “He probably won’t come back tonight. So much the better,” she said to herself, as she thought of her cool, empty bed. She touched the cold window. How many times had she waited like this for Guillaume? Evening after evening, listening to the clock ticking in the silence and the creaking of the lift as it slowly went up, up, past her door, and then back down. Evening after evening, at first in despair, then with resignation, then with a heavy and deadly indifference. And now? Sadly, she shrugged her shoulders.
The street was empty, and a bluish mist seemed to float over everything, as if a fine shower of ash had begun to fall gently from the overcast sky. The golden star of a streetlamp lit up the shadows, and the towers of Sainte-Clotilde looked as if they were retreating and melting into the distance. A little car full of flowers, returning from the country, went past; there was just enough light to see bunches of daffodils tied onto the headlights. Concierges sat outside on their wicker chairs, hands folded loosely in their laps, not talking. Shutters were being closed at every window, and only the faint pink light of a lamp could be glimpsed through the slats.
“In the old days,” remembered Agnes, “when I was Nadine’s age, I was already spending long hours waiting in vain for Guillaume.” She shut her eyes, trying to see him as he had been then, or at least how he had seemed to her then. Had he been so handsome? So charming? My God, he had certainly been thinner than he was now, his face leaner and more expressive, with a beautiful mouth. His kisses… she let out a sad, bitter little laugh.
“How I loved him… the idiot I was… stupid idiot… He didn’t say anything loving to me. He just used to kiss me, kiss me until my heart melted with sweetness and pain. For eighteen months he never once said, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I want to marry you’… I always had to be there, at his feet. ‘At my disposal,’ he would say. And, fool that I was, I found pleasure in it. I was at that age when even defeat is intoxicating. And I would think, ‘He will love me. I will be his wife. If I give him enough devotion and love, he will love me.'”
All of a sudden she had an extraordinarily precise vision of a spring evening long ago. But not a fine, mild one like this evening; it was one of those rainy, cold Parisian springs when heavy, icy showers started at dawn, streaming through the leafy trees. The chestnut trees now in blossom, the long day and the warm air seemed like a cruel joke. She was sitting on a bench in an empty square, waiting for him; the soaking box hedges gave off a bitter smell; the raindrops falling on the pond slowly, sadly marked the minutes drifting inexorably by. Cold tears ran down her cheeks. He wasn’t coming. A woman had sat down next to her and looked at her without speaking, hunching her back against the rain and tightly pinching her lips together, as if thinking, “Here’s another one.”
She bowed her head a little, resting it on her arms as she used to do in the old days. A deep sadness overcame her.
“What is the matter with me? I am happy really; I feel very calm and peaceful. What’s the good of remembering things? It will only make me resentful and so pointlessly angry, my God!”
And a picture came into her mind of her riding in a taxi along the dark, wet avenues of the Bois de Boulogne; it was as if she could once again taste and smell the pure, cold air coming in through the open window, as Guillaume gently and cruelly felt her naked breast, as if he were squeezing the juice from a fruit. All those quarrels, reconciliations, bitter tears, lies, bad behavior, and then that rush of sweet happiness when he touched her hand, laughing, as he said, “Are you angry? I like making you suffer a bit.”
“That’s all gone, it will never happen again,” she said aloud despairingly. And all at once, she was aware of tears pouring down her face. “I want to suffer again.”
“To suffer, to despair, to long for someone! I have no one in the world left to wait for! I’m old. I hate this house,” she thought feverishly, “and this peace and calm! But what about the children? Oh yes, the illusion of motherhood is the strongest and yet the most futile. Of course I love them; they’re all I have in the world. But that’s not enough. I want to rediscover those lost years, the suffering of the past. But at my age love would be unpleasant. I’d like to be twenty! Lucky Nadine! She’s in Saint-Cloud, probably playing golf! She doesn’t have to worry about love! Lucky Nadine!”
She started. She had not heard the door open, nor Nadine’s footsteps on the carpet. Wiping her eyes, she said abruptly, “Don’t put the light on.”
Without replying, Nadine came to sit next to her. It was dark now. Neither of them looked at each other. After a while Agnes asked: “Did you have a nice time, sweetheart?”
“Yes, thank you, Mama,” said Nadine. “What time is it?”
“Almost seven, I think.”
“You’ve come back earlier than you thought,” Agnes said absentmindedly.
Nadine did not answer, wordlessly tinkling the thin gold bracelets on her bare arms.
“How quiet she is,” Agnes thought, slightly surprised. She said aloud, “What is it, sweetheart? Are you tired?”
“You must go to bed early. Now go and wash, we’re going to eat in five minutes. Don’t make a noise in the hall. Nanette is asleep.”
As she spoke the telephone started ringing. Nadine suddenly looked up. Mariette appeared. “It’s for Miss Nadine.”
Nadine left the room, her heart pounding, conscious of her mother’s eyes on her. She silently closed the door of the little office where the telephone was kept.
“Nadine? It’s me, Rémi… Oh, we are angry, are we? Look, forgive me… don’t be horrid … well, I’m saying sorry! There, there,” he said, as if coaxing a restive animal. “Be kind to me, my sweet… What could I do? She was an old flame, I was being charitable. Ah, Nadine, you can’t think the sweet nothings you give me are enough? Do you? Well, do you?” he repeated, and she heard the sweet, voluptuous sound of his laugh through his tightly closed lips. “You must forgive me. It’s true I don’t dislike kissing you when you’re cross, when your green eyes are blazing. I can see them now. They’re smoldering, aren’t they? How about tomorrow? Do you want to meet tomorrow at the same time? What? I swear I won’t stand you up… What? You’re not free? What a joke! Tomorrow? Same place, same time. I’ve said, I swear… Tomorrow?” he said again.
Nadine said, “Tomorrow.”
He laughed. “There’s a good girl,” he said in English. “Good little girlie. Bye-bye.”
Nadine ran into the parlor. Her mother had not moved.
“What are you doing, Mama?” she cried, and her voice, her burst of laughter, made Agnes feel bitter and troubled, almost envious. “It’s dark in here!”
She put all the lights on. Her eyes, still wet with tears, were sparkling; a dark flush had spread over her cheeks. Humming to herself, she went up to the mirror and tidied her hair, smiling at her face, which was now alight with happiness, and at her quivering, parted lips.
“Well, you’re happy all of a sudden,” Agnes said. She tried to laugh, but only a sad, grating little sound escaped her. She thought, “I’ve been blind! The girl’s in love! Ah, she has too much freedom, I’m too weak, that’s what worries me.” But she recognized the bitterness, the suffering in her heart. She greeted it like an old friend. “My God, I’m jealous!”
“Who was that on the telephone? You know perfectly well that your father doesn’t like telephone calls from people we don’t know, or these mysterious meetings.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Mama,” Nadine said, as she looked at her mother with bright, innocent eyes that made it impossible to read the secret thoughts within them: Mother, the eternal enemy, pathetic in her old age, understanding nothing, seeing nothing, withdrawing into her shell, her only aim to stop youth from being alive! “I really don’t understand. It was only that the tennis match which should have happened on Saturday has been postponed until tomorrow. That’s all.”
“That’s all, is it!” Agnes said, and she was struck by how dry and harsh her own voice sounded.
She looked at Nadine. “I’m mad. It must have been my remembering the past. She’s still only a child.” For a moment she had a vision of a young girl with long black hair sitting in a desolate square in the mist and rain; she looked at her sadly and then banished her forever from her mind.
Gently she touched Nadine’s arm. “Come along,” she said.
Nadine stifled a sardonic laugh. “Will I be as… gullible, when I’m her age? And as placid? Lucky Mother,” she thought with gentle scorn. “It must be wonderful to be so naive and to have such an untroubled heart.”
*This story was published in: Dimanche and Other Stories, Vintage Books, 2010.
*Translation copyright © 2010 by Persephone Books.
This time she’s building a city. The first city after eleven islands in a row, now gathered together in the soft red folder which, when her father goes out for a coffee in the evenings and she finds herself alone, she takes out of the drawer beside her bed, before pulling out one of the maps and descending somewhere into it. Here she comes to a chocolate shop, full of fragrance and cocoa powder. Here she comes to a lounge living room with a giant television, and she quickly darts to the front door before they catch her and think she’s a burglar. Sometimes she finds herself in the middle of a street, among the cars and motorbikes.
On the map, you’ll find anything you could possibly think of. For children, a school encircled with a garden of apple trees. For youngsters, a small university churning out teachers, doctors, engineers, and architects. For the sick, a hospital. For those who want to work, factories, surrounded by fields, with space for them to expand further as more work arrives. For sports lovers, a football field, with small courts around it for volleyball, basketball, and tennis. Then a church and some shops. A bakery. A carpenter’s workshop. Grocery stores. Roads and bridges. Ports with boats coming in to dock. Customs offices, post offices. A police station. Farms and animals. An airport, a bus station. And above all, lots of houses. Small ones for those who live alone. Apartments for those who don’t want to or cannot spend too much. And big houses for the well-off, with large families where the mom and dad were graced with a fruitful and rewarding life.
Whenever she’d finish a city or an island, she would lift it in the air, and the heavier the paper turned with the blue ink of the felt pen, the more satisfied she would become with its stable structure. And sometimes, if the size of the city so required, she would turn the paper over and build another city right underneath it. An underground city, full of drainage canals, water pipes, electricity and telephone cables, and one or two lines for the metro. Then she would place the paper in front of the bulb of the pink lampshade, and the strong light would reveal the city underneath. You could even catch a glimpse of the mice racing along the tunnels. Or the cars passing through huddled streets and chimneys spurting out gray smoke. She’d then give the city a name, place it in the soft red folder, and start thinking about another one. One map after another, she would continue to perfect her cities and islands, enriching the life of the residents. If in her first attempts she used to place, say, a disco opposite a church (because it was the only space left for it), now she would join the disco to the football field, and make that area a recreation center away from the houses. That way, if the football was kicked out of the ground, it wouldn’t break a neighbor’s window but hit only the wall of the disco, which hardly has any windows to break. Or else, where before she’d placed a cemetery next to the homes, now she would take the cemeteries somewhere they can’t be seen. That way, if a young girl who had lost her mother happened to look out the window during a sleepless night, she wouldn’t see her mother’s name engraved upon the stone.
The creation of a city or island usually began with an outer circle. The periphery, generally rounded, which she would then begin to fill. Tonight, however, she begins with a small bar, where many people gather every evening, their breath fast steaming the windows. Lots of people, especially students, who each evening order one of the special drinks prepared for them by Livia, a dark-skinned girl from Porto Alegre, who had somehow ended up there from Brazil. What’s special about the drinks is that they are as unpredictable as a bulb going out in the middle of the night. All you order is the number of drinks you want: one drink, say, if you happen to be alone. Or four, if you’re in the company of three others. But what’s in the drink is entirely up to Livia. That’s the fun of it. She prepares the mixture herself, whatever occurs to her at that moment. The only thing you can specify is whether or not you want her to light it. If you’re scared of fire, well, then you tell her not to light it at all. Otherwise, you could end up with a glass looking like an apostle’s head at Pentecost, and before drinking up you’d have to wait for the flame to die down and go out. Unless of course you’re the adventurous type and you down it all while it’s still burning, or even ask Livia to light it in your mouth. But if you’re that courageous, and you lower your head a second before the flame goes out, then you might end up burning the roof of your mouth—or as Livia calls it, il cielo dela boca. And everyone gulps down these drinks that don’t cost much because they’re small and the place is not for the wealthy. Everyone except a bald man sporting a few days’ beard, leaning on the corner of the wooden counter, watching Livia in wonder at how she keeps coming out with new colors, new flavors, always a new spectacle. But how does she manage to remember them all? How is it that she doesn’t confuse them? How is it that she never spills a drop, and never lets a bottle slip from her hands? How do the colors always end up matching? And how does she make every single drink taste so wonderful?
And as she completes another little masterpiece, the bald man at the counter sets off an applause which soon spreads to the toilet in the inner corner, and when the applause reaches its loudest, he hides his shyness away in the pockets of his jeans—which once were blue—and shouts out with a throaty voice: “Brava, Livia!” By now, Livia’s used to him. She knows she won’t go over to him and ask if he’d like a drink too. He orders his from the young man who collects, washes, and drops the glasses. Black coffee.
In front of Livia’s bar, she’s now building a small fountain to adorn the little opening in the street. In the middle of the fountain, she places a statue of a girl with large eyes, wearing a fur coat with small pockets in which she hides the palms of her hands. The water of the fountain spurts out of the five buttons of her coat, down into a giant saucer. And whenever the door of Livia’s bar opens, the girl with large eyes hears the racket inside and welcomes the heat that slips out.
And from the saucer, she can see them slurping their little drinks. Sometimes they down a drink and immediately follow it with a spoonful of another drink. As if they were taking a syrup or medicine. Often she’ll see someone grimacing, until it all passes and their lips leave their stretch of disgust and meet again in a smile. Then a good laugh and everyone starts clapping. And the bald man shouts out, “Brava, Livia!”
She truly adores the bald man. But when he realizes it’s late, throws the checkered beret on his head and the scarf around his neck and leaves, in his eyes she notices the sadness of an entire week. She continues to watch him as he walks down to the end of the street. He then crosses a tiny square with a large tower in the middle—from which you can see the roofs of the entire city—and enters a narrow street, then walks till he reaches a large block of buildings, full of small apartments. He makes his way up and opens the door. As he takes off his coat and scarf and rests them on the chair by the telephone in the corridor, he opens the door of his daughter’s room to see if she’s asleep.
And as usual, he finds her sleeping with the light on. He slowly takes the piece of paper from her hand, with half a city built and the other half planned, he kisses her on the forehead, and puts out the light under the pink lampshade.
“Business savvy just doesn’t run in the blood,” my mum often says – in which there lies a veiled criticism of me, and a hint of regret. But no such regret existed until after I turned ten years old, because up until then I was known to be quite the businessman.
My family ran a shoe shop, but to have some kid addressing the customers – with lines like “you look great in this pair”; “it’s real leather”; “I’ll make it a bit cheaper, just for you”; “gosh, I really can’t go any lower than that” – would hardly have come across as very authentic, or persuasive. But one year, my mum came up with an idea. You can go to the footbridge, she said, and sell laces and insoles. People are bound to buy them if they see a kid like you. The innocent face of a child is one of life’s ways of tricking us into having the courage to carry on living – this was something I only came to understand much later.
The market had eight buildings in all, named ‘Loyalty’, ‘Filiality’, ‘Benevolence’, ‘Love’, ‘Trust’, ‘Justice’, ‘Harmony’, and ‘Peace’. We lived between Love and Trust. There was a footbridge from Love to Trust, and another to Benevolence. I preferred the footbridge between Love and Trust, because it was longer. The far end was in Ximending, and on the bridge itself there were peddlers selling everything: selling ice cream, selling children’s clothing, selling baked seed cakes, selling Wacoal brand underwear, selling goldfish, turtles – I even saw someone selling water monks (a kind of blue crab). The police sometimes came to harass the peddlers, but there were just too many routes down from the footbridge – the peddlers often bundled up their stuff and nipped off to the toilet before returning. Never mind the fact that the police usually came slowly along, as though they thought the peddlers were all suffering from gout and incapable of running away.
Early that morning my aunt took me up onto the footbridge, gave me a rice ball, and left. I tied the laces in pairs on the footbridge railings, and as soon as the wind picked up they fluttered to and fro. I sat on the little stool my aunt had brought with her, and started lining up the insoles in pair of lefts and rights. I put the ‘noisy skins’ at the very front, because they were the most expensive – one pair cost thirty bucks. My mum said the insoles we called noisy skins were made from pigskin – they had a pungent kind of aroma. If you layered several of them together, they produced this shuai-shuai-shuai noise when you walked around – hence the name. Wow – the skin of a dead pig could still make noise!
Ha, I sure did love selling insoles on the footbridge.
Opposite mine was the stall of a man with greasy hair, a jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and paratrooper boots that were neither zipped nor laced up. Paratrooper boots are those tall boots with lots of lace holes – doing up all the laces on boots so tall was the fiddliest thing in the world. Eventually someone had invented a zip that could replace the laces. I heard this was a dream come true for all the soldiers in Taiwan – from then on, every squaddie could get out of bed in the morning much more quickly. Back then we had at least ten squaddies coming in every day to buy zips for paratrooper boots. Maybe, I thought, I could get my mum to give me some paratrooper boot zips to sell tomorrow – sales would surely be good.
This man had drawn an arc on the ground in chalk, spread out a black cloth, and put out all the things he was selling according to their type. At first I didn’t know what kind of thing he was selling: there were playing cards, linked rings, strange notebooks… My aunt said he was a magic trick salesman. Wow – a guy selling magic tricks! My stall was opposite a guy selling magic tricks!
“Actually no – I am a magician.” This was how he introduced himself. I once asked where his goods were sold wholesale, and he said, “all of this magic is real.” He looked at me with those eyes of his – so skewed they could look in different directions, like a lizard – and I shivered.
The magician didn’t wear a tailcoat like the magicians on TV, and he didn’t have a top hat either. Every day he just wore that woolen jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and filthy paratrooper boots. Next time, I thought, I’d recommend him some liquid boot polish – one wipe of that and they’d be gleaming. His face was perhaps a little squareish, perhaps a little longish. Neither tall nor short, he looked like the kind of person who’d forgotten what laughter was. Once the magician entered a crowd, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else – that was the kind of inconspicuous magician he was. Nothing, that is, apart from that pair of eyes, and that pair of zipless paratrooper boots.
The magician put on a show about once an hour. I was so lucky, sitting opposite him selling insoles. The magic he did most often involved dice, playing cards, linked rings – tricks of that sort. Thinking of it now, they all seem so ordinary – so ordinary there were no real grounds for calling him a magician. But back then they were nothing short of miraculous, as far as I was concerned. It felt just the same as it did later when I saw Vivian Leigh for the first time. This was why I hankered after those magic tricks, in just the same way as I’d always wanted to raise a sparrow.
There was one trick he did with six dice. Surrounded by a large audience, he loaded the dice one by one into the little box with a casual manner. Once he had shut this little box, one shake – and the magician revealed the smile he only ever seemed to reveal when performing – and when he opened the box they had turned to six, six, six, six, six, and six.
It seemed like the number was at the discretion of the magician. He could ask for the birthday of a member of the crowd who was enjoying the spectacle, for instance – then, as though it were nothing, while continuing to speak – produce the digits of the date on which they were born. Sometimes one shake would be all it took, while at other times he’d only stop after shaking it so many times it made me dizzy, but whenever he opened the box the numbers were spot on every time.
When he was doing magic his eyes would sometimes gleam; he was still the magician in the woolen jacket with the collar turned up, in those grey trousers and filthy paratrooper boots – but in that instant his whole person was glowing, as though after taking in a breath of air he was then able to bring all the forces of light and gravity to bear on that little chalk circle in which he stood. As well as performing he was also selling tricks. The time came when I could no long resist the temptation to use money from the insole sales to buy one of the tricks. The first one I got was ‘the dice of mystery’.
After buying a trick from the magician he’d take you to one side and give you a blank piece of white paper along with the trick. “Take it home,” he said, “soak it in water and then dry it out – then you’ll be able to see the secret of the magic.” I spent half the night carefully soaking the paper, and then – having used my mum’s hairdryer to blow it dry – spent the rest of the night carefully studying. There were pictures on the paper as well as words – by the looks of it the magician had written and drawn them all by hand. So, that’s the way it is, I thought to myself as I read the words. That’s the way it is. At that moment I thought I understood all the most profound secrets of the magician – just like I thought I knew what love was when I was eleven-years-old and had a secret crush on a classmate.
I practiced furtively, in private. The first time I performed the dice trick in front of my big brother I was so nervous I repeatedly dropped the dice, with the result that before I’d even finished loading them into the box he had seen through the trick.
“You turn the dice face you want towards yourself, right?” he said with a look of disdain.
“Right.” I was devastated: he was right. Nothing could be more painful than to be rumbled before the magic had even happened – it was like having your whole life foretold before you’d even grown up. I felt a bitter hatred towards both fortune-tellers and those who revealed the secrets of other people’s magic. The key to the trick lay not in the dice themselves but in the box, which had a particular shape to it. You put the number you wanted against the side closest to you, and then it fell to the strength of your wrist to make them turn ninety degrees, so that side was now facing upwards. That’s all there was to it.
“You stole money – I’m telling mum,” my brother said. I had indeed ‘appropriated’ money from selling insoles, and once my brother had made this discovery, I had no option but to give the magic dice to him.
Damn, but that was one overpriced secret – no way was it worth sixty bucks! I’d gone to the trouble of tricking my mum for a whole week before I was able skim sixty bucks from the insole earnings.
But the funny thing was that even though I’d discovered there was no magic to it, whenever I saw the magician clap his hands and yell, I let go of all those thoughts of being deceived. Unable to control myself, I was lured in by the magician’s trickery again and again. Again and again I bought those tricks which – back then – seemed impossibly precious. Like the empty matchbox that could become a full matchbox; the picture book whose black outlines suddenly filled with colour; the ball-point pen that drew in as many colours as a rainbow; the mysteriously pliable copper coin… Every trick was the same: in the instant it was being performed by the magician, my desire to learn it for myself was irrepressible – but once I’d spent the money, bought it and taken it home, after soaking that paper in water and waiting for the words to emerge, the magic stopped being a mystery and became a con. It was only much later that I discovered the same reasoning applies to more or less everything.
With my lack of practice on top of that, those magic tricks were pretty much a disaster for me – I was always being laughed at by relatives or neighbours.
“You’ve been had, idiot child.” When my mum found out I’d stolen money to buy magic tricks, she gave me a slap around the head.
What was really hard to endure was the fact that Burble, from the tailor’s; the utility repairman from Justice block’s kid, Blowhard; and Ah Kai from the wonton noodle shop – all of them had bought the same tricks. I wasn’t the least bit angry about being cheated of money – I was confident I just needed a bit more practice – but the feeling that everyone seemed to have their hands on that secret paper was truly unbearable. Several times I was tempted to give the magician a piece of my mind, but I only ever dared vent my anger in my mother’s presence – irritating her to the point where she could stand it no longer, and turned around to give me another slap.
“You spent your stolen money on worthless trinkets, and still you have the cheek to complain?”
Interest in the magician eventually began to dwindle. This was inevitable – passers-by might browse his stall, but all the children in the area had already bought all the tricks. The children who had bought them tried at first to prevent their neighbours and classmates doing likewise by telling them it was all fake, but everyone bought them eventually. There are some things you have to try for yourself before you can know the feeling of being cheated, right?
The magician had also noticed this state of affairs, and he knew he had to create something new for these children to talk about. When I was at work one day, I saw him take a book out of a square valise, and when he opened it up, there was something tucked inside – something black, something that had been cut out of paper, something no larger than a grown-up’s little finger – and this something was a little person.
He put this little black man on the ground, and within the big circle surrounding his stall he used yellow chalk to draw another circle about the size of a fan, before closing his eyes and muttering an incantation. The little black man suddenly shook from side to side, and – as though he’d just woken up – rose to his feet. At first the passers-by were just hurrying past, but for some reason – as though they heard the little black man’s silent summons – they were unable to stop themselves turning back for a look, and once they discovered the little black man on the ground, their footsteps unconsciously slowed to a halt.
I truly did love selling insoles on the footbridge. The little black man leapt and danced in a bumbling sort of way, dashing this way and that in time with the magician’s singing, chanting voice. Although somewhat clumsy, his movements were very endearing – it was like he was reluctant to exert himself too much for fear of tearing himself apart. Paper was not made for sudden movements, after all. I began to fret on behalf of the little black man – if he were to take part in gym class he would surely find himself in mortal peril.
I gradually worked out that the scope of the little black man’s activity was limited to the confines of that yellow circle – he could only be within that circle. Were anyone to try and touch the little black man, the magician would stop their hand with a loud and threatening cry, saying, “those who touch him will suffer misfortune, but those who watch him dance will have good luck.” And the little black man didn’t look like he wanted to be touched – if anyone came near he would scuttle back to the magician’s heel.
Once everyone had been drawn in by the little black man, the magician would begin his routine. The tricks were the same old thing: the mysterious dice; the matchbox that produced matches; the picture book that coloured itself in with a riffle of its pages; the pencil that produced rainbow colours with each stroke; the copper coin you could squeeze between a thumb and forefinger… For some reason the things that hadn’t been selling well before were now being snapped up, and the crowd began to appreciate the magician’s tricks once more. And then, one by one, he’d take each customer to one side, and one by one give them the blank piece of paper. I had seen all these white pieces of paper – could recite them from memory – but for some stupid reason I still somehow ended up buying another set of magic dice.
At this point the little black man always knew he belonged within the chalk circle. What with his having no eyes, I guessed the little black man couldn’t actually see it. That little black man who couldn’t see, slowly pacing around that little yellow circle, looked as though he had something on his mind.
The magician’s little black man began to grow famous on the footbridge. Now it was not just the children from the market, but all the children from our primary school who came to the footbridge; the worker crowd on their way to Chongqing South Street; the peddlers from Ximending – even the military police from over the road, and the girls from the hairdressers – they all made the trip to the footbridge to see the magician’s little black man. The little black man was still a little shy – he danced that little black man dance of his in a slightly clumsy way, and then bent his paper back to bow, waving his paper arms in greeting to the crowd. I was completely entranced by him – every day I looked forward to seeing the little black man’s dance so much I sometimes forgot to sell any insoles or laces. The laces tied to the railings, fluttering about in the wind – when I picture it, even now, I’m struck by the beauty of the sight.
Once I had bought all of the magician’s tricks we gradually got to know one another. When he bought fried dumplings he’d sometimes give me a few, and sometimes when my mum brought back buttered pastries from gran’s hometown in Dajia, I’d share them with him. When he was eating, the magician’s eyes would occasionally look in different directions, as though he was afraid of missing out on anything that might be going on in the world.
Sometimes when he needed to go to the toilet he’d call me over to keep an eye on his stall. “As long as I don’t find anything missing, that’ll do fine. Don’t try to sell anything – whatever you do, don’t try to sell anything. Oh, and you mustn’t touch the little black man.”
I was more than happy to oblige, and it was a simple job. Sitting in the magician’s chair, it was like I was the magician. Sitting there, at last I had a chance to get close to the little black man. And then I clapped my hands like the magician, and sung a strange, muttering song, and chanted an incomprehensible incantation. The little black man shakily rose to his feet, like he had heard something summoning him, and began to dance around the chalk circle.
He did no such thing, of course. The little black man continued sitting quietly on top of the magic matchbox.
The size of the matchbox was just right to be the little black man’s chair, as though it was specially meant to serve that purpose. When the magician wasn’t making him dance, the little black man would sometimes sit on the matchbox with just the same posture as a fully-grown person, one leg crossed over the other with one foot in the air. Sometimes his back would bend slightly with the wind, making him look like he was deep in contemplation. What kind of things did the little black man think about? Were there certain anxieties that only a little black man could have? Was there, somewhere out there, a school where only little black people could go to study? What lessons would they teach at such a school? Would the little black people also have to memorize their nine times table? Did the school for little black people have music class (and if not, how was it that the little black man could dance?) Being made from such flimsy paper, how could the little black man possibly play dodgeball? I secretly worried on the little black man’s behalf, just the same way as my mum worried about me.
Regardless of whether I was minding the magician’s stall or sitting with my insoles opposite him, I was always watching the little black man, completely lost in thoughts like these.
There was one time when the magician went to the toilet, for a number two, it seemed like, because he had been gone for a long time. I was sitting in the chair, bored out my mind, and the little black man was sitting on his matchbox, looking like he was bored out of his mind too. Because I was so tired that day, and because the weather was a bit chilly and there weren’t many passers-by on the footbridge, I ended up dozing off. I guess I could only have been asleep for a very short time before I was woken up by rainwater. I looked up; rain was most definitely falling from an overcast sky. I wasn’t bothered about my insoles – I had to get the magician’s big umbrella open, and stick it into the umbrella stand next to the stall – but the umbrella was so big I couldn’t pull it open no matter what I did – my hands were too short. Just like that, it was bucketing down, and soon a stream of water had taken shape on the footbridge, flowing towards the drainage holes. It just so happened that on that day the little black man had not been sitting on his matchbox, but had been on the ground, leaning against the side of the bridge. He was quickly soaked through. By the time I realised, the little black man was plastered to the ground, hopelessly splayed like a piece of discarded trash. Indifferent to the soaking I was getting, I urgently cast the umbrella aside and tried to pick him up. But because the paper had got stuck to the cement of the footbridge, when I tugged on the little black man’s hand, it ripped right off. I started crying, tears plopping everywhere, wailing, “the little black man’s hand’s broken, the little black man’s dead, his hand’s broken!”
Auntie Ah Fen, who sold children’s clothes at the next stall along (although I called her auntie, she was probably only just a kid in junior middle school), having first hurried to sort out the umbrella over her own stall, raced over to help me pull open mine, before helplessly watching the little black man on the ground, at a complete loss. I kept crying and crying, crying so hard I nearly got a cramp. Only then did I see the magician return. With his two eyes facing in different directions, he began to gather up his goods.
“It’s raining, and you haven’t gone to sort out your own things,” he said. “If the insoles are all soaked you’ll catch hell from your mother.” I didn’t know whether or not he was angry; I stuttered, unable to get a sentence out intact. The little black man was dead, and his death had something to do with me. A hole had been poked through my heart, just like it was made out of paper.
When my mum ushered me out to go set up the stall the next day, I felt terrible. I didn’t want to go and be in the magician’s presence – but at the same time, I did, so I could find out for sure how the little black man was doing. Maybe it was just his hand that was broken, and he wasn’t dead. Couldn’t a little black man with a broken hand still dance? Still go to the little black people school?
When I arrived there that day, though the magician saw that I had come, he didn’t call out a greeting – “kiddo, have you eaten your fill today?” – like he used to. He just sat there in his chair, silent. I felt like I was a hopeless good-for-nothing. The cars beneath the footbridge were passing to and fro; the dust above the footbridge was drifting down onto my body; and there wasn’t a single passer-by who wasn’t happier than me.
At midday the magician bought a box of fried dumplings (not inviting me to eat any this time), and when he’d finished eating he wiped his mouth and opened his square valise. He took out the book and opened it, and there was a sheet of black paper and a pair of scissors tucked inside. The magician pulled them out, and set to work. In a jiffy, a little black man had been cut out. I slyly peered at the magician’s activity, and it made my heart beat as fast as a freshly wound clock.
The magician placed this new little black man on the ground, drew a fresh yellow chalk circle, and hummed his tune and called aloud at the same time. The new little black man was dancing, just the same as the little black man used to dance before – but with a little more dash, it seemed: he could twirl, now, too! Delighted, I yelled, “not dead – he’s not dead!” But once the words had come out of my mouth I felt they weren’t quite true. Could it be that this little black man was not the same one who had been plastered to the ground by yesterday’s rain – whose hand I had broken off? Could it be that he was just a new little black man, being used to replace the broken-handed little black man from before?
The magician looked at me through his right eye, a repressed smile playing around his mouth. With his left eye looking in another direction, he beckoned me over.
“Can you see any difference between this little black man and the one from yesterday?”
I shook my head. “He looks exactly the same,” I said, hesitantly. “Isn’t he? The little black man didn’t die, did he?”
With his eyes still facing in different directions, the magician said, “I don’t know either. Kiddo, you should know – there are some things in this world that no one can ever know. What we see before our eyes is not all that there is.”
“Why?” I asked.
The magician thought for a while, before replying in a hoarse voice. “Because sometimes the things you remember your whole life are not those things your eyes have seen.”
Honestly, I didn’t understand what the magician meant at all. But this was the first time he’d spoken to me like this – like he was talking to me as a grown-up, like there was something about me of which he approved.
When I got home and told my brother about the little black man, and about what the magician had said to me, he was angry. I didn’t understand why. He said he was going to tell mum, and she wouldn’t let me go sell insoles on the footbridge anymore, because the magician was going to trick me into running away with him.
That night I dreamt of the little black man. He took me to a forest (not that I even knew what a forest was back then – the furthest away I’d ever been was New Park) and we sang songs together, and played hide-and-seek. Deep within the forest I saw a bright patch, and the little black man said I couldn’t go there. I asked why, and he said it was too dark. But it was quite clearly brighter over there, I said, and he said there were some places that you might think are bright, but are actually dark.
I was not tricked into running away with the magician, and my brother didn’t tell my mum about what had happened with the little black man. One by one, the days continued to pass by. As I got to know the magician better and better, I pleaded with him in private time after time to tell me the secret of the little black man. It was only when I mentioned this to him that he turned serious.
“Kiddo, I’m telling you – all my magic is fake. Only the little black man is real. And because it’s real, there’s nothing I can tell you. Because it’s real, it’s not like the other magic – there’s no secret to tell.”
I didn’t believe it. I was sure the magician wasn’t telling me the truth – he was hiding something. I could tell by looking in his eyes – just like my mum said she could tell when I was lying by looking in my eyes.
“Don’t trick me,” I said. “Don’t think you can trick me just because I’m a kid.”
As the beginning of the new school year grew closer each day, my mum announced that once school started I wouldn’t be selling from the stall any more. This was depressing news. Again and again, I fought with her for some chance to carry on during the term, even if it was only on holidays. But whatever I said, she wouldn’t budge – I suspected my big brother had told her my secret.
I talked this over with the magician. “If you don’t teach me it’ll be too late – I’m starting school soon,” I said woefully. “If you don’t teach me you’ll regret it – if you die all of a sudden there’ll be no one who knows the magic of the little black man.” I don’t know when I turned into such a smooth-talker – maybe that business savvy my mum mentioned could run in the blood after all.
The magician just laughed, one eye looking at some far-off place, the other seeming to look straight into my soul.
One evening when I was packing up the stall at eight, the magician, having put away the little black man and his magic tricks, beckoned me towards him. I followed him without the slightest hesitation, my heart pounding. He kept going straight ahead, right across the footbridge and along to the furthest corner of the market, where there was a door. This door, I knew, led out onto the roof – a place where the grown-ups said we weren’t allowed to go. With one twist of his hand, the magician opened the lock, and gestured for me to head on up.
It was the first time I had been on the roof of the market, and I was entranced by the view.
The buildings of Taipei were of a completely different height back then. From the footbridge we could see the holiday fireworks over Tamsui river, and when the weather was good we could even see the hills of Yangmingshan. The Taipei of those times still resembled a basin: even if you stood in the bottom of the basin, in some place without much elevation, you could still see to the basin’s edge, and everything within it. In that moment I stood there on the roof with the magician, the glimmering lanterns of Ximending on one side, the Presidential Office Building lit up on the other. The magician pointed off to the side, to a corner beneath a neon sign.
“This is where I live,” he said. “But the day will come when I will leave this place.” The corner in which the magician lived was covered by a rain shield for the neon sign’s generator. Along with a jumble of plastic bags and a disheveled sleeping bag, it looked like there were also a surprising number of books heaped around the place.
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere is fine.”
“I want to be a magician too.”
“Being a magician wouldn’t suit you. Because magicians have many secrets, and people with many secrets do not have happy lives.”
“Forget about it. It’s not something you can understand. And magicians can’t stay in the same place for too long. Kiddo, you’ve always wanted to learn the magic of the little black man, right?”
“Right!” I nodded my head as hard as I could. Could it really be that the magician was prepared to teach me? My heart thudded so hard it felt like it was trying to escape.
“It can’t be learned. Because the little black man is real – and since it’s real, it can’t be learned.”
This old line again. “Then give him to me, okay? If it’s magic, you can teach me, and if it’s real, you can just give the little black man to me – how about that?”
“When I was young I thought that if you caught a butterfly and mounted it as a specimen, you possessed a butterfly. It was only much later that I realised a butterfly specimen is not a butterfly. Only when I understood this clearly was I able to do real magic, like the little black man – because I could take something out of my imagination, out of my head, and turn it into something everyone can see. All I did was influence the world you can all see – just the same as when someone makes a movie.”
I angled my head to one side. Next to us, the enormous neon sign for Hey Song Sarsaparilla was producing a humming noise. I didn’t understand what the magician was saying; his eyes gleamed blue in the blue neon light, green in the green neon light. I thought about what he had said; what he called ‘real’ magic left me feeling deeply confused.
“So is there any way I could do it? Do something like making the little black man dance?”
“Kiddo, there’s no way I can tell you if there’s any way. But we’re two of a kind, you and me. I’m going to give you something, and you can use it however you see fit.”
Having finished speaking, the magician extended his right hand, as if about to reveal something. He held his palm before my eyes for maybe as long as half a minute. I couldn’t help but look at all the calluses, all the complicated, criss-crossing ridges of his palm. The magician slowly bent his index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and inserted them into his left eye. My own eyeballs ached at the sight. The magician’s eye socket seemed to be very soft – his fingers quickly extended inside – and with a light twist, the magician plucked out his left eye, and placed it on the palm of his right hand. The eyeball he’d dug out didn’t bleed, didn’t tear – it was like a perfect, newborn, opalescent star.