Excerpt from the novel “My Antonio Diavolo”, Blesok, 2010.
There was something quite charming about the deserted depot thanks to the signpost with the name Pierrefittes inscribed on it. Railroad tracks choked up with grass in between the sleepers. The station building kept in a surprisingly good repair. One could be tempted into waiting on the empty platform that looked as if the train departed only a minute ago. What was the last time you’d been taken unawares by one of those rare and precious moments of absolute bliss the source of which you found difficult to explain? In comparison to the feeling of happiness for which there always must be a good reason, the blissful joy feeds on the fragments of banality. The merest trifle such as the word Pierrefittes could come as a windfall to a foreigner like me because it has in itself a triggering mechanism capable of releasing a one-shot emotion and sprinkling the bliss of the moment as if it was sprayed from a toy pistol. But then, if one would be able to single out all the “originators” of the last year’s joys and draw them up close together he would found himself in the museum of superfluous antiquities. What a mighty museum it would be! The collection of stubs and gnawed remnants of what once used to be a solid, close-grained reality.
It was a nice, sunny day, unusually mild for December.
‘Look! The pines.’ Annie calls for my attention.
I am watching for a while. I just see the pines. ‘And?,’ I ask. ‘What’s it all about?’
She points to the tips of the trees: ‘There. Up there. On the very top. You see now? … It looks like an animal.’
‘It’s not a beast,’ I say. ‘Not a bird, either.’
‘What is it then?’ Annie insists. ‘Don’t you tell me it’s a weathercock!’
I gave her no reply. It was clear that something pecked at the tips of every single tree and gnawed through wood in the same manner forming a row of strange silhouettes against the blue of the sky. A woodpecker’s work? That’s what seemed most logical to me but then I though that the cause might as well be in the pines themselves. The very thought of an insidious disease nibbling at the trees from the top downwards threatened to pull the foothold of serenity from under my feet and deprive me of the sacred joy of the early afternoon that I safely enjoyed only a moment ago. I checked up the time and said:
‘It’s very nearly three.’
Annie appeared not to hear me. Already a new object of interest consumed all her attention. There was something childish in that woman. I felt attracted to it at first. Later on I realised that she cultivated “the childish thing” in herself in full awareness as she would pluck her eyebrows or trim her nails into a cute stylisation. Once I remarked upon it in Jean-Marc’s presence. He shared my view. With years I became closer to my lover’s husband than to Annie herself. Isn’t it curious? Both Jean-Marc and I had fears that the mimics of the sweet little lassie, the flirtatiousness of her big talk and coquetry of her pouting one day might turn her face into a grotesque mask. Luckily enough, the moment we previewed, still seemed to be far ahead, very far ahead.
She took me by the hand and led me to the station building. The door was locked. There was a plank nailed diagonally to it. The windows that missed panes had lattice screen instead. The view between the bars opened to the interior of the house that looked like a hollow tooth whose nerve had been extracted a long time ago so that it turned gray on the outside but stopped hurting from within. The clock in a simple oval shape so typical of train stations showed ten minutes past three.
‘Your watch loses,’ remarked Annie.
It took us some time to realise the clock-glass was cracked. A long, thin fissure parted the dial in two. The hands, strangely coincidental with the real time of that afternoon, had remained stock-still for goodness knows how many years. My wrist-watch lagged behind the eternity no more than five minutes.
‘Good God!’ Annie cried out as if roused from sleep. ‘It’s Friday. What really gets me down is having to do the week’s marketing! Let me see: Jean-Marc is not supposed to come home before seven which gives me forty minutes to Euromarché – all plain sailing – then at least an hour and a half more. And then a fast drive. And then the supper …! What am I going to make for the bloody supper?’ Annie clamoured theatrically. ‘Well, well. … But I swear … If he continues bringing his business partners home to supper …!’
Keeping her company, particularly in the moments like this one, I noticed that she reacted in the same way as her mother Dolores. Aged fifteen Annie started opposing her mother’s petty-bourgeois values. She seemed to be exceptionally proud of her rebellion but there was one thing about it she would not admit. She never managed to liberate herself completely. I was stubbornly trying to make Annie realize that whatever she was trying to do she did in reaction to the ideas Dolores once hoped to instill into her mind.
The impression that the woods were moving came from the fast drive. The forest first retreated then it rushed flank-wise falling upon the motorway. Each time the car took round a curve at high speed, a branch with needle-shaped leaves rubbed off the steamy windows as with the back of the hand chapped by the cold. All the roads in the countryside are similar. The panorama is highly predictable. You may well say so. But then, if it is so utterly without surprise, how come that it still appeals to me? What is in that scenery that compels me to establish an emotional relation with it? I often pondered over the reasons of the similarity of the landscape to the human being. It resembles one of those melancholic figures you rubbed shoulders with and then completely forgot about it until the same face reappeared next day putting you under an obligation that you cannot explain. A timid eye binds you to do what it wants. It wraps you up, softens your spine, leaves sticky traces all around in order to make you wriggle and crawl like a slug. Eventually, it turns you into a compulsive tracker of what is most strange to you, what belongs to another person’s life and what you would never choose to follow out of you free will. I am telling you all this because now, when I look back upon what happened those days, I am much inclined to attribute to the character of the landscape that “special something” that made the course of events develop in one way and not in the other. I see the germ of what had happened in the mildness of the winter that gave the sour taste to the evening mist. There’s also another thing: the pleasant nature of the surroundings makes its inhabitants believe that it does good for them but in fact it does not. After a while it begins to direct people’s behaviour sweeping the keys on the invisible piano of their daily moods. Then the scales start to play at seesaw, going up and down from apathy to an outburst of rage, from gaiety to the mopes, snickeringly coming to grief, then back to laughter again. What happens one day is simply – crack! – the “fatigue of the material” as technologists would say. A ring from the chain disconnects, a pan from the one side of the balance topples down, the other jigs high up. All breaks asunder and scatters about. How petty such influences are and how inexorable at the same time!
Every now and then I would become aware of Annie still talking. I would catch a sentence or two extracted from the context. A word stressed in a peculiar manner would find its way to my ear. A syllable would get through disturbing the melody of her monologue. All she wanted was company. Annie did not mind my silence. The mere fact of my presence had been enough to her for quite some time already. It was not the first time that we found ourselves in the situation like this. One gradually comes to like routine, especially when it is the routine of the ritual sort, when it provides us with the security of the stable relationship, when it casts us for the stock roles and thus relieves us from the fear that once we might lose the capacity to keep the normal level of communication and break into a howl, clench a fist, strike and strangle.
The woods passed by in high speed. I was thinking how, thanks to Annie, I do not have to be married to feel like an old husband who enjoys going on a picnic with his wife – jaunting being one of the rare conjugal pleasures left to him. Annie and Jean-Marc dragged me into a love affair that needed just a little bit more time to stop resembling the eternal triangle. I was thinking: If the triangle completely flattens, and it is very probable that it will, our relationship would turn into a straight line with three fixed points on it. Suddenly an object popped up in the corner of my vision. Lightning-quick. It was neither small nor big; a lithe-muscled thing. She had noticed the thing as well but it was too late to put on the brakes. It bumped against the windshield making a dull sound. In a split of a second I had a strange feeling that the car reared on its hind legs like a horse. I was sure a roe was lying out there. It may even be a fawn, I thought. It used to happen. I have read about it. But why it had to happen to us of all people? I did not find it necessary to take a look at it – I simply new. I imagined a pure little fawn gasping for breath; the corners of its eyes brimming over with some limpid mucus for which hunters claim it resembled tears. My eyes were tightly shut. I felt a spasm in my eyelids. Annie went out.
‘For God’s sake, help me to take him in’, her voice began to expand like an onrush of water in an ice-jammed pipe. She still kept her panic under control. What I saw on the road was a boy, quite biggish, his legs wide apart. He was about ten, maybe twelve. I noticed that he was still breathing. I noticed that I was noticing – every single detail – the first downy hair on the boy’s upper lip, a narrow spurt of blood running from a dirty nostril. I searched for the tab of the zipper to open his brown jacket. My fingers felt numb. The boy’s clothes resisted any effort I made. I put my ear against his chest. He was definitely alive and smelling nastily.
‘A bum,’ I concluded in a loud voice. The cool manner in which I pronounced the remark about the boy took me by surprise. As if it was important in that moment whether he was a wastrel or not! The boy’s garments gave off the pungent smell of horse-pee. The skin on his cheeks was still rosy and gentle like the skin on a girl’s face. His chin and forehead was covered with pimples. I turned him on one side. The boy was coming to his senses. He pulled his face into an ugly, soundless grimace of pain and looked me in the eye.
I turned to Annie: ‘Listen to me, I don’t think it’s wise to move the boy. Who knows what bones he might have broken!’
She insisted on taking him off the road. ‘In wintertime the night is gathering very quickly,’ she said. ‘Another car could come and finish him off.’
I looked at the sky. She was right. The darkness was already setting in. It was only then that I realised how strangely empty the road was. One would think there had never been a sign of traffic on it. The gloaming of December afternoon renewed the sensation of winter that I had almost lost in the vacuum of the train station Pierrefittes. What am I going to do now? – I was not wise enough to decide. Leaning against the car, Annie rubbed her thighs with the palms of her hands with unflagging energy as if she was mesmerised. The hypnotic, dry sound Annie’s hands produced on the surface of her trousers brought back the memories of the hospital where my mother had been treated once. I was sitting on the edge of my mum’s sickbed watching her eat a fruit yoghurt. I wanted to make sure that she would finish it up. The door opened. An old woman was wheeled in.
‘Good granny. What she likes most is watching through the window. Am I right, granny?’ said the nurse, pushed the wheelchair to the window and went out.
We were sitting in the semi-darkness of the sickroom without exchanging a word. The old woman was swaying up and down rubbing her thighs briskly with both hands.
‘Alzheimer disease,’ mother commented between two mouthfuls of yoghurt. ‘You must be grateful to God I am not like the old one.’
I had an exceptionally clear image of the hospital ward. It appeared on the cortical layer of my overexcited brain as a clip would appear on the screen. Annie was in state of agitation, the hypnotic rhythm of her movements being the result of her trying to keep herself in check. I was watching her buxom body, a pair of beautifully muscled legs, wondering how it happened that my consciousness made a link between the three: this young woman who was my part-time lover, my mother and somebody else’s old granny. Three different generations suddenly came into one. They welded into a single melancholic figure of old age. It was undergoing metamorphosis before my eyes. The transformation proceeded in a smooth, cinematic manner, without sharp cuts.
Annie and I agreed that I should stay with the boy while she would search for help. We put a triangular traffic signal on the road. Annie rummaged in the boot and produced a torch with which I intended to draw the attention of a stray car. I counted on its coming along sooner or later. Annie drew off.
I took off the scarf, plied it twice and put it under the boy’s head. He swooned again. Only the smell seemed persistent. I noticed shreds entangled in his dirty blond hair: a fragment of something woody like a small splinter, a straw, a pine needle. He was obviously finding his shelter for the night in a cattle-shed, then sneaking out before the dawn and hiding in the woods. Annie was supposed to come back any moment. It was getting colder and colder and I was becoming more and more impatient. I was afraid that the boy might freeze through lying on the bare tarmac, so I took off my coat and threw it over him. How come that not a living soul passes here, I wandered. The city was quite near, and yet there was not a sign of civilisation. Stamping my feet and doing knee-bends to warm up, I contemplated the reasons of Annie’s delay. It was taking forever. With my ears pricked up I hoped for the faint sound of an approaching car. I was on the prowl – practically for hours – but I got nowhere. The night was falling and I was still waiting. I was waiting until primordial pitch darkness closed in on me. When I lit up the face of the injured boy with torchlight, he began to frown trying to open his eyes. The boy lifted up his head a little bit and I bent over him:
‘Don’t move! The doctor is coming any minute now.’
He opened his mouth wide as if he was going to let out a yowl of pain, but he emitted a soft, unintelligible mumble instead. If the situation was not so grave the boy’s agonized slurring of sounds, his struggling tongue, could have made me laugh. It was similar to the half-articulated animal language spoken by the yawners’ coterie – the group of persons associated by the common habit of talking in the course of yawning. He was ugly in such a way that his plainness prevented the tragedy of the situation to get fully revealed. I did not care about him with my heart, but rather with my brains. I forced myself into pitying him in vain. I wished he had been a fawn instead of what he was – a young human being lying on the motorway and stinking to high heaven. I would have shouldered the fawn and taken it to a veterinary surgeon. Perhaps he would have survived. And if he wouldn’t, then I could simply pay a fine and that would be the end of my trouble. But I wasn’t all that lucky. I had little choice. I was positive about one thing: it was not wise to stay on the road the whole night.
I decided to carry the injured boy to the city but I did not know how to tackle that problem. I dragged him to the edge of the road, set his body into the sitting position and leant it against a tree. Then I went down to my knees, braced my palms against the ground and said:
‘Get on my beck. I’ll carry you. What else can I do?’
He did not move an inch. He was obviously too week to embrace me, so I took him into my arms like a woman and carried along the road for quite some time. The boy’s body was rather heavy no matter how fragile, badly battered and bruised all over it appeared. He let his head droop back. His arms and legs dangled as if he had been dead already. Only the rattle in his throat indicated that he was alive and suffering. It seemed an eternity before a reassuring sound reached my ears. However, it was not the expected drone of distant traffic. I heard the tramp of hooves. A horse waggon! – I concluded slightly surprised. The coachman reined in and alighted mumbling curses in his beard as if I, who had had my share of carrying, represented a mere obstruction on the road, a log that got in his way.
‘It nearly crocked me up. … He’s more unwieldy than heavy,’ I said to the coachman gasping for breath and then I went on explaining: ‘It’s an emergency. The boy has serious fractures. He may have internal bleeding as well. … I’ll tell you … it was an accident. My friend had been driving and suddenly – crash! – the boy just happened to fly under the car. At first I thought it was a deer. He appeared out of nowhere, just darted out of the woods. What we have to do now is take him to the hospital. Otherwise he might die.’
The man was not in the mood for talking. He simply took the burden into his arms, drew back the canvas and pitched the boy’s unconscious body into the waggon. He gave me a sign with his hand to mount and whipped the horses on.
‘Excuse me, are we going in the right direction? I thought the city was the other way,’ I addressed the coachman once again.
He did not deign to look at me. I noticed the man was wearing a coat tailored in an out of the ordinary fashion. A peasant? – I pondered over his way of dressing. Then again, I felt doubtful whether any peasant dress could look like the one he was wearing. It seemed a bit too refined. I would have been less surprised if I had seen the same man in the same garb drinking his coffee in a bar in the centre of the city. Well, in that case I would think he was an actor or an operatic quire singer who came for a small drink in the interval between two acts of a dress rehearsal. It was difficult to make the guy out under existing circumstances. I thought he might be a villager dressed in a folk costume after all. And yet, there are no villagers in the strict sense of the word nowadays. Farmers are dressed like townspeople. Unless the man was arrayed for a special occasion.
The horses were at a gallop. The swaying of the hanging lamp filled me with anxiety. I felt uneasy at the thought that the unconscious body of the unfortunate little wretch might be rolling over in the back of the waggon. There was something unreal about that boy right from the beginning when he tore out of the woods like a hunted game and got hit by our car. He was pitched into the waggon like a rag-ball and still I felt unable to take compassion on him. Well, maybe, because he was so unreal. I was strongly agitated by the mindless dashing of the team of horses and I thought: Look! It’s like I’m having a nightmare about a funeral. Indeed, it was a very strong sensation but completely devoid of real, juicy emotion. I was unable to bring awareness to the pulsating vulnerability of the boy as a human being. Likewise, I lacked the capacity to conceive the image of his dead body although I had a feeling that the boy had passed away already. My mind misgave me but I was not haunted by the thought of a heavy, fleshy carcass but rather of a sack full of dry and desecrated bones.
We stopped next to a purely illuminated manor house. It was timber-framed and it had a signboard Hospice at the entrance. The coachman unhitched the waggon and went somewhere, obviously to take care of the horses. There was no doubt: he was a part of the home team. I found myself alone in front of the house. The door was locked. I knocked a couple of times in a resolute manner. There was no answer, no shuffling movement from the inside. I cried out in a loud voice:
‘Is there anybody at home?’
Nobody replied. It seemed highly improbable that all the people in the hospice would be fast asleep. Irritated by the dead silence that hovers over the roofs of abandoned homes, I vented my fury on the door. Intuition told me that there was not a living soul in this place, but there was reason to believe that there had been somebody sane in the house apart from the slow-witted coachman. I shouted:
‘Housemaster! Open up! There’s an injured person here.’
Not long after it I heard somebody treading heavily down the stairs and yelling: ‘I’m comiiiiiing! I’m comiiiiiing! I’m on my way!’
After a rather longish manipulation with several locks and a night latch, the door opened wide. I was taken so much aback by what I saw that for a moment I was lost for words. I don’t know why but I thought that I would see an old hump-back with an oil-lamp in his hands. I was astounded when instead of what I expected I saw a tall man of a sturdy built standing in the lobby illuminated by strong electric light. Exterior features of the mansion jarred with the appearance of its dweller. It took me unawares.
‘Now, listen to me! You think it’s nice to thump on the door with sinkers? You think I need an ear trumpet or something? … Have patience, man! Everything comes to those who wait … and don’t you tell me I was supposed to get down with nothing on!’, the owner of the Hospice first gave me a piece of his mind, then he measured me from head to foot and gave me a big smile. ‘Drop in!’
I looked at him more carefully. I had a problem to restrain my laughter: the chap was the spitting image of Cecil Taylor with his very handsome face and his high forehead. He wore his hair in a myriad of Rastafarian braids. He was dressed in a white Le duc tracksuit that was quite stylish at the time and he had a parti-coloured cardigan slung over his shoulders. On his bare feet he had put black slippers silver-embroidered in the Moroccan manner. He shook my hand:
‘Chamrad, lieutenant Chamrad’ Then he wrinkled his brow. ‘What’s wrong? Perhaps you don’t like my name? … Or it’s the colour of my skin? … Look here, compared to you, I’m a bona fide Frenchman, a pure and veritable one. You want to check up my gy-nae-co-logical tree, do you?’
I said: ‘On the contrary, sir, the first moment I saw your face it reminded me of the face of a piano-player whose music I hold in high esteem. Do you like jazz? Have you ever heard of Cecil Taylor?’
His eyes lit up: ‘You don’t say so! A piano-player? … Boy, I like it!’
I improved the occasion: ‘Excuse me; there is an injured person outdoors. We should bring him in immediately and call the ambulance.’
Chamrad arched his brows and motioned his head towards something behind me: ‘You mean this one?’
I looked back. I saw the coachman carrying the injured boy in his arms.
‘A person? You call it a person? … This is a skunk: detestable, stinking skunk. I know him too well. … He will never darken my door again. … He’s an absolute louse. I gave him shelter once and he gave me lice in return. … Earnest!’ yelled Chamrad. ‘Don’t you put him on the carpet! To the stable! Take the scum to the stable!’
Dear me! I got into scrapes again, it was running through my head. Why I always have to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for someone? It’s not that I’m searching for trouble. It comes by itself. I protested:
‘For God’s sake, folks! Stop it! Are you nuts? Somebody has to call the doctor!’
The situation allowed of no delay. I pushed Chamrad aside in a resolute manner and rushed forward in search of the telephone which I expected to find in the corridor. I heard a shrill sound behind my back, a peep that developed into a short outburst of laughter. I could not find the phone. I dashed into the darkness of a room on the left and bumped my head on a thick wooden girder with such strength that for a moment I thought I would faint away. I was examining the wall by touch. There was no switch. Chamrad seemed to be amused at my tryings:
‘Well, I’ll be! … Do you see that, Earnest?… Isn’t he great?’
I had a fainting span. Actually I blacked out for a couple of horrifying seconds in which I imagined that I had been chased by a huge sow running amok. But that was Chamrad. He was roaring or rather grunting with laughter. He would take air into his lungs and send it out in a row of loud, convulsive tehees. When I eventually managed to switch on the light, a huge room appeared before me. There was no doubt – it was the dining-hall of what used to be a hospice. Now it was readapted into a private living-room. There had not been a hungry chance traveller in that room for more than a century. It was furnished in accordance to specific needs and the taste of its dweller. The room had two visual clues: one was a Luise seize twin bed subtle in its golden lines and its blue slipcover while the other was, believe it or not, a red shower-cabin. The cabin fit well into the large space of the living room in spite of the fact that it looked like a telephone booth, or perhaps, it was due to the fact that it resembled one. I had a most curious impression that somebody had pulled the old stairway off with a single wrench and replaced it with a brand new spiral staircase. The ultra-modern stairs without guardrail winded round a central pillar up to a room on the upper floor whose interior was partly visible through the balustrade round the small indoor balcony made in rustic style. The ceiling was criss-crossed with a system of mobile bar frames of track lighting.
‘Attention, please!’ piped up Chamrad upon which the light was turned off.
In the next moment the play of spotlights began. There was a bar of yellow across the darkness, bluish and red beams of light intersecting it at several points. Chamrad ran into the room and began to whirl around. He was spinning with his head thrown back and his arms outspread. The huge compound eye, a fixture in disco-clubs, sent down on Chamrad and me a myriad of roses made of light. They came down in a shower. Chamrad kicked his slippers off with grace, one after another. He was dancing barefoot. He span like a dervish. Continually. He kept turning speeding up the rhythm. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I hurled myself upon Chamrad, gripped him with both arms above the waist, lifted him off and threw him to the ground. It was a surprise attack and it worked on Chamrad, except that a bit later I discovered that the guy was trained in wrestling. He pulled himself together and began to fight back. I was under the impression that I was winning an advantage over him until suddenly I realised that he was giving way to me. I saw Chamrad’s face under blue floodlight with sweat beaded on his high forehead. I was taken aback by the mildness of his expression. He appeared to enjoy physical toil. We clinched, our muscles ice-bound into a single wrestling figure strained to the breaking point. He said:
‘Call me Cecil, if you want.’
I relaxed the grip. The coachman was standing above. He must had been there all the time calmly observing how the fight developed. I found myself looking down the barrel of a hunting gun. He bent down and leant the barrel against my forehead. Chamrad took his clothes off sitting, then he stood up strip naked.
‘Earnest, old brick, I know what’s on you mind,’ remarked Chamrad on his way to the red shower-cabin. ‘Restrain yourself. Have a heart!’
The coachman removed the gun and turned away as if he was about to leave the room. I hardly managed to sit up supporting myself on one elbow, when Earnest turned back and slogged me on the jaw with his boot. The dull noise of water coming down in a shower began to grow louder and louder until it became one with the ringing sound in my head.
When I came round I found myself lying on the huge Louis seize twin bed without a stitch on, just covered with a sheet. The irony of circumstances provided me with a chance to feel the smoothness of bedclothes made of satin for the first time.
It serves you right! I said to myself. It serves you right!
The smell of French white sausage tickled my nose. It recalled to my mind that special feeling all of us had experienced at least once in our lives. Don’t you remember how divine were the hours of recovery, when you began to recuperate your health after a prolonged illness, while still lolling in your sickbed? Don’t you remember the reassuring jingle of cutlery, a series of light clinking sounds indicating that there is a pledge of daily routine behind the door of your room. In such moments even the most trivial things take on a new, festive shine, do they? This is exactly how I felt when I scented the most heavenly among the common and the most common among the savoury dishes. It looks a bit funny now, but the pair of sausages Chamrad brought to me that night made such a strong impact on me that they separated from their context in the chain of events and acquired an existence of their own. The sharp pain in my dislocated jaw made it difficult for me to chew the food but not even that could spoil the simple pleasure of the moment. The halo above the glorious pair of sausages still lingers on.
‘No hard feelings?’ asked Chamrad and placed himself beside me. ‘Come on! Let bygones be bygones!’
The life of an expatriate taught me to confirm to the manners of those amongst whom I live. When you go to Rome, do as Rome does. To that old piece of wisdom I added a new clever trick: When you are surrounded by insane people try to be more crazy than they are. A crack-brained scheme you might call it, but I had no alternative but to accept the rules of Chamrad’s game.
Translated by the author