Letter from Paris …

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And there are some who scorn this poésie de départs
And say ‘Escape by staying where you are;
A man is what he thinks he is and can
Find happiness within.’ How nice to be born a man.
Louis MacNeice, Letter to Anne & Graham Shepard

Blue Moon
I saw you standing alone
Without a something of something
Without a love of your own …
Blue Moon
American Standard

… as it falls in ruins around me, or rather I within it: I am leaving in four days — first for England, and then New York. I am wondering what mark if any I will have left upon this city; I wonder which things that I have touched now stand changed. I wonder in particular about this apartment, which is the room my mind wakes up in, and must then distort if I am staying somewhere else. A film of it rests upon my lungs, and inside my skin. I wonder which shadows flung out by arguments and by the naked bulb are retained somehow in outline behind its blank and tacit walls. Images hung upon ceiling beams, sheetsketched impressions of my body in the bed …. The sweat of gentle and terrified and empty nights permeating the mattress and stored there, inscripted in its threads like code. And do these things lift off and whisper in the sleeping ear of others the memories of those who slept there before? Will the next occupant take on my dreams, my fears, my sins?

My friend Jesse recently took on a small room above the apartment he shares with his wife — he wanted a study, rather I imagine in the tradition of the garden shed or garage workshop, as used by men to hide from their domestic selves. They live in the 18th among the hills of Barbès, which really is the best part of Paris for crack and African prostitues and spiritual healing — a neat strike on behalf of the urban planners. This study, which must originally have been a maid’s room, squats under the eaves of the building: you follow a twisted and lightless corridor down as the walls close in and the ceiling plummets, and reach a door to a room which were it to have rational dimensions would be some 2x4m. It is a fine attic for Jesse as Il Penseroso, with midnight lamp and books of arcane symbols. It was equally well-fitted for the crow’s nest from which his seedy predecessor viewed a decidedly seedy world, alternately through the disenfranchised equanimity of his addiction, and from the appalled isolation of a prostitute’s arms. From his window on the seventh floor each moaning Paris night was like a beaker, shaken up to him and offered; glinting, crystallised, expecting even — lurid with sin. What Jesse found when first he went in was a clutter of unassociated bits of wood, underlying indiscrimminate putrefaction, and a wrecked bed hanging from its legs in a posture both of shame and aggresive defiance. The walls the walls were running. The stench ethyl, inorganic, overpowering. Will I take on the dreams of he who slept here? Jesse asked. Or those paid to sleep with him? Being a self-defined cafeteria guy he went to work on the clean-and-clear with pleasant optimism, and with equal cheer accepted his wife’s suggestion that he should have the place exorcised. To find his man took no more than a trip to the local métro stop (felicity of the 18th) where he picked up a card for a nearby Marabout of Fame. A telephone call established that a few throws of the beads upon the right kind of mat and a well placed imprecation would do the job. Need the Marabout come to the room? No, it could all be handled well enough from the comfort of his own apartment. Should Jesse go over there? Yes, and as it happened he was free right now; they could clean it all up — ontologically at least — in the next half-hour. 30 euros —? 30 euros seemed more than reasonable.

Jesse went over to a cuboid tenement round the back of Chateau Rouge. His Marabout lived on the fourth floor at the back of a corridor guarded by a huge German alsatian, which seemed utterly dead save for a menacing redspike erection. Jesse steps gingerly over the dog to reach the door. The Marabout seems conscietious and eager to work — he is all ready in caftan and tarboosh, though from other oddments around the flat it seems he part-time plumbs on the side. He knows this kind of situation well, and seems confident of his success. He shakes then casts the beads. But oh. Oh dear oh dear. Hm. Jesse looks to the seven or eight beads scattered lightly upon the mat. Well they seem very bright. Nothing broken — one missing? he profers. He cannot help feeling the edge of his teeth with his tongue. The Marabout shakes his head gravely. The situation is a good deal worse than he had expected — what they can achieve here is little more than a diagnosis. In reality he can see no way round it but to take eight white goats and slaughter them in the study-room as soon as — eight! but Jesus you could fit in no more than three at a squeeze — now market-day was coming soon and fortunately he happened to know a guy — and I’ve only just done cleaning the floor — a particular farmer, now white goats I admit are a little more expensive — I’m really not sure how you’d even get them up to the seventh floo— 2000 euros all in. Now Jesse as I mentioned earler is a stout and self-confessed cafeteria guy, but a vision of the former yellow filth whipped up by the dancing ghosts of eight white goats really was too much, and while 2000 euros did seem, well almost modest for such a service, he really had to … and to discuss with his wife first — yes of course 30 for the consultation, gosh was that the — well he really had to, and backing up —Christ! that damn dog again. There really is something very menacing about a beast with noselegstail slinked to the ground and the sex still up like that. The day was hot but even so ….

I have since visited Jesse in his unexorcised study, which is now cleaned and cleared and refilled with the clutter of unassociated bits of wood, underlying indiscrimminate junk, and wrecked books hanging from their covers in postures both of shame and of aggressive defiance. His wife bustles beneath and feeds their baby, who is named after a small bright fruit.

On Saturday I am going to the wedding of a cousin of mine. She is to be married in a compound somewhere among the hills of Swindon, notable not even for their lack of the spectacular. The place is one just for marriages with a concrete church and pastor, and a worm-shaped put-you-up off the side for reception-like dinnerdrinks affairs. They offer a very compact little deal, with the great advantage that you can have a perfectly serviceable church wedding without the demands of belonging to a localised parish community. It is a great favourite I understand of divorcees who have alienated, or at least rendered skeptical, their home-town vicar with one failed marriage, but want to have a crack at the second before God all the same. This though is not the case with Sophie and Alex: they are young and fresh and full of uncut sensible love, but have moved about a bit and not developed a relationship with any one particular priest. And so to the hills of Swindow with them. They are both area managers for Tesco, and share every chance of rising peg for peg with each other to become regional managers for Tesco, as their marriage matures. Children no doubt — though not too soon. Sophie’s father, who is an uncle of mine through unnumbered refractions of blood and marrital bonds has a brain tumour — indeed has had a brain tumour for the last nine or ten years. I discovered this when I saw him for the first time in nine or ten years last April. He was sitting down and I offered him my hand, which to our acute and mutual embarassement he was unable to get up and shake. The rest of the visit was a genuine atrocity of social maintenance — I all the time wondering what had happened that he had changed so much, and he freshly conscious of quite how much that was. It is the kind of brain tumour which only gets worse. There is a steady deterioration for an unpredictable number of years (Jeff at first continued working, then went part-time, then no-time) which is cut off by a sudden and drastic drop into what can be called the near-to state. Jeff had his sudden drastic drop last week. He had an operation to remove a piece of the brain but subsequent infections have complicated things, and he is now on oxygen and tracheotomies and a whole room of shiny and beeping machines. The idea seems to be to keep things beeping through past Saturday, when his daughter is to be married to her Tesco colleague in the concrete church with pastor inbetween pairs of divorcees. I am troubled by this and ask my mother what she thinks about it (she worked as a hopsital doctor for most of her death-beriddled days and so is familiar with these kinds of things). I wonder if it would not be best to get the death of her father out of the way first rather than have it hang over the whole ceremony and subsequents. But that would mean a bride-in-mourning, which could be seen to be inappropriate. I still think it better to make the husband a new chapter rather than have the honeymoon subsumed into worrying about when her father will finally wink out into the night. Why are they keeping him alive? Sophie could have put the wedding back a few months — after all they have been living together for four years, but no, she is determined to have the party. It had been planned so far in advance and they have booked the concrete and everything —. Who could have known that the sudden and drastic drop would fall right now? And what to do with him? Does he want to be extanct for his daughter’s wedding; is he holding on for that? It is very common for people to die in the week after their birthday, or the Queen’s Jubilee, or the final part of a television series. They hold on for something —, and then leave off. I had barely considered Jeff. I had barely considered what might be still there and wanting in that squeezed and cicatrised brain of his. I imagine it as a beaten steak hanging inside his skull. And now that he is suddenly alive too I wonder what marks of his will be left in the hospital room, or echoing through the soft and shiny machines which will pronounce him dead, or sumped into the walls of the house in which he held his deterioration, and where since his departure the water tank has started leaking, and destroyed the pink colour scheme he always hated so much. What room does his mind wake up in, and do others wake up there too? And how many bridewhite goats are needed for the wedding, and how much rain?

And so I wonder about these things as I am leaving Paris, and my friend Jesse and his wife and child, first for England to go to my cousin’s wedding on Saturday, and then New York where I will see my ex-fiancé. She is the other argument-flung shadow upon the wall, and the other sheetsketched inscription upon the bed. And I ask before I close the door, which among preexisting things that I have touched now stand changed. I ask, and then close the door. And leave for the next occupant whatever can’t be heard of my dreams, my fears, my sins.

 

Adrian Hornsby
Paris July 2, 2003