Samuel Shimon | from:Arabic

Two Royalists in Quatorze Juillet (a chapter from “An Iraqi in Paris”)

Translated by : Christina Phillips, Piers Amodia

The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.

‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.

I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.

I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.

The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.

‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.

‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.

‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.

She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.

‘It’s a long story, madame.’

The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’

We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’

‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.

‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’

‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.

She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’

I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.

‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.

When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.

‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.

‘Only in bars,’ I replied.

She laughed loudly.

I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’

‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’

‘You know her?’

‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’

The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.

 ‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.

Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’

She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’

After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’

‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’

‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.

We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’

In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.

‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.

Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.

‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’

‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.

‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’

‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.

‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.

‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’

‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’

‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’

‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’

‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’

‘I’d like to be a film director.’

‘Yes, I remember that.’

We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.

‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ I said.

Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.

So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.

Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.

I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.

‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.

‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’

‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’

‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’

I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.

‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’

She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.

I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.

Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.

She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.

We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.

‘What do you think?’ she asked.

‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.

‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’

‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.

‘As you wish,’ she scowled.

This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’

She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.

‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’

She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’

‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’

‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.

We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’

I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.

I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.

A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.

The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.

At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.

She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’

‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.

‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’

Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.

‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.

‘You hit me!’ she shouted.

‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.

She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.

‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.

In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’

I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.

‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’

But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.

After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.

Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’

She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’

She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’

I listened, nodding.

‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’

‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’

‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.

I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.

‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’

I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.

But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.

One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.

‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.

‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’

We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.

When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.

‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.

No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’

‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.

‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’

I nodded in agreement.

‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.

I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.

‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.

I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.

‘Won’t you say something?’

I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.

‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.

I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.

‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’

I looked into her eyes and said nothing.

She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’

‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’

She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’

‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.

‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’

She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.

I nodded agreement.

She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.

We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.

‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’

‘Au revoir, Micheline.’

I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.

That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.

 

 

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