by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents|
Book I: Windmills Everywhere
Chapter 6: Outsider Soup
part 1 of 3
It must be time for dinner. I am clearly on my own tonight.
I walk the few blocks to Les Porcs-épics, picking up a copy of Paris Match from a kiosk. As I reach the café, a corner pavement table is just being vacated. I pounce, and secure it.
But I find I am not hungry. I order an expresso, nothing more. As I await its arrival, I ponder the headline of my magazine: David Le Sauveur. Unannounced, a blue gossamer curtain descends on my right, isolating me from every other part of the café. A little disconcerted, I look up and see a small motorcycle drawing to a halt in front of me. Its rider dismounts and strolls purposefully up to my table. It is unmistakably Albert. He sits down opposite me with little ceremony, reads the magazine headline upside down, exhales a blue mist of Gitanes smoke which makes me cough, and remarks, largely to himself, ‘Perhaps football is the way.’
The curtain rises and disappears. Every pair of café eyes is staring straight through us. They still see me, I feel, and Albert too, and they are seemingly fascinated by us; yet they pretend to ignore us completely and maintain their focus on the fashion parades of the pavement and the street.
‘How did you know I would be here?’
‘It was always possible, Donna. Now, you must come with me at once, if you wish to meet all the others and listen to my argument with J-P.’
‘But my coffee ...’
‘It will survive without you. Let it be. Now, come on!’
He stands and gently squeezes my shoulder. I am briefly aggravated by this, but then I decide that when the solution to her very existence could be close at hand, a girl simply has to follow her instincts.
I take his arm and we walk off together. I hear the patrons of Les Porcs-épics breathe a communal sigh of relief and return fully to their happy unreality.
Albert straddles his moto and urges me to jump on behind him. And then we are off, weaving in and out of the traffic and cruising faster and faster along the streets and boulevards in a heady inhalation of undiluted Paris!
I am Amélie!! I am free!!
We finally stop on St Germain, outside another restaurant: La Maison de l’Oeil de Basilic. Albert abandons the moto to the vultures and we walk straight through the public dining area towards a pair of mirrored doors at the rear.
‘This, Donna, is reserved for private parties.’
The exquisitely panelled dining room behind the doors is deep and much, much wider than I would have believed possible. But its low ceiling suggests it could allow each diner the sensation of involvement in the conversations of every part of it. And two beautiful, flickering candle chandeliers gently illuminate its full extent.
We are escorted, by a resolutely smiling blonde waitress with a Canadian accent, to the table in the corner on our right, and I am seated facing back into the room with my charming escort on my left. This clearly, and no doubt intentionally, presents me with the very best view in the house.
But the glorious room is still largely empty of guests. In the distant opposite corner, a band of itinerant musicians in vaudeville costumes is already riding a small carousel and performing March of the Dawn. In the corner to my left, beside a tiny bar on the far wall, two artists are setting up their easels. In the nearer corner to my right, two elderly men sit facing their wall and talking quietly together. Four others, equally venerable, are seated around the adjacent side table, but none of them is speaking.
Several more unoccupied tables, of various shapes and sizes and all laid for a formal dinner, take up much of the richly carpeted room, but in front of the kitchen doors and the rear exit, on the other long wall and opposite the entrance, there is a substantial empty space.
I realise I have a lot of questions.
‘Albert, why are we here?’
‘That is always a very good starting point, of course.’
‘No, I mean here, tonight, in this place!’
‘Ah. Because you wish us to be. At the Montparnasse cemetery on Monday, J-P specifically heard you say that you would love to meet him. Pah! Chacune à son goût! But no, I joke. We are still good friends, he and I, despite everything. And since we all occasionally get together here — it can be so dull to be always alone, don’t you think? — we felt it would be very nice for you if we did so tonight.’
‘All? You mean the two of you and Simone? And ... well, whomever you ...’
‘Hah! No, I mean all of us. All your heroes, Donna, all the étrangers and their kindred spirits. Of course, not everyone can make it, especially at such short notice. But we are expecting about a hundred of them to show up ...’
‘You sound ungrateful.’
‘Oh no, it’s just that ...’
‘Never complain, never explain. You’ve already said “No.” That’s my favourite word, in the right context, and it’s certainly good enough here. So, you have more questions?’
‘Yes. Where is J-P?’
‘OK. Who are the artists in the ... no, wait, I can see their faces now. Oh, that’s Van Gogh! But I’m not sure about the other one ...’
‘Yes! But why are they here?’
‘To record the event — in their different ways, of course. And Vincent because he needs an occasional break from his misery, and Paul because he adores standing at a distance and observing interesting behaviour. And the two of them always reconcile their own old differences at these little gatherings, and peace then reigns between them for a short while. Which is also very good.’
‘I see. OK, those two men in the other corner? They still have their backs to the room ...’
‘Fray Luis de León and his old pal Salinas. They come here to discuss music, art and quiet contentment. That spot’s reserved for them. They always sit as far as possible from all the noise. And they have a secret passage in and out. Very wise.’
‘Right. And the four gentlemen next to them? They’re all dressed very differently, and they’re deep in thought and certainly very quiet ...’
‘That’s exactly why we seated them over there! The farthest from us is Aristotle. He’s still wishing he wasn’t here. On Earth, I mean. He’s certain there’s something better he couldn’t be doing. Next to him is Chuang Tzu. He’s always dreaming, but he’ll sort of wake up soon enough, when he feels the urge. Then he’ll nudge Aristotle out of his reverie, and they’ll have a nice little chat and finally agree to disagree — again.’
‘Oh yes. Now, St John of the Cross is sitting at the same table. He’ll confuse them all later by telling them he’s alive without being alive and dying because he’s not dying. Got that? And Eckhart’s there too. As soon as any of them mentions God, he’ll point out that without Man, He wouldn’t know He existed. Don’t ask me! And isn’t it funny how those who have the longest journeys always arrive ahead of the others? Something to drink?’
‘Oh ... yes, please. Just water.’
Albert calls a full order to the still-hovering waitress.
J-P and Hamlet enter together through the main doors. They stop and shake hands, and in the quiet of the room I clearly hear J-P saying ‘Oui, c’est toujours très difficile.’ Then Hamlet moves forward between the tables into the area which, I now appreciate, forms a makeshift open stage in front of the carousel and beside the rear doors.
Hamlet pauses, draws a dagger and thinks hard for several seconds. Then he throws the dagger to the floor, declares ‘Yes!’ and exits stage left.
‘Bravo!’ cries J-P, applauding loudly in the still thinly-populated room as he approaches our table.
‘Oh, isn’t Hamlet staying for dinner, Albert?’
‘No, Donna. He was the first of our walk-on / walk-off guests, if you get my drift. He won’t be coming back. It was simply a question of whether he would jump this time, or be pushed again.’
J-P draws back the chair to my right, sits down, and says, rather than asks, ‘Et vous êtes Mademoiselle Donna?’
I nod, a little disappointed.
He nods in return, then pulls out a pack of Gauloises and lights one up.
I have to say something. It’s now or never.
‘Excuse me. Would you kindly not smoke at the dinner table? This is 2009.’
‘Hein? Mais qui êtes-vous pour demander cela?’
‘I do not speak French, sir.’
‘Mais on est à Paris, mademoiselle!’
‘I do not speak French.’
J-P stares hard at me.
‘Merde!’ He extinguishes his cigarette.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘There is no Freedom in this. And they never formulated “Sororité”!’
‘Perhaps it was implied. All or nothing, you know. I’m sure Simone would agree.’
J-P stares hard at me once again, then bursts out laughing and claps me on the back.
‘So, welcome to our little reunion, Donna!’
‘I’m very grateful that you’ve arranged it for me. But where is Simone?’
‘Doing the ironing.’
‘It has to be done. Me, I vacuum the carpets. Et voilà l’Egalité en plein jour, hein?’
I frown rather angrily. He shrugs rather gallically.
‘And anyway, she has a headache tonight.’
‘Oh, I am sorry. Perhaps we really shouldn’t be here ...’
‘Well, it’s surely better than nothing, non?’
A petite French waitress approaches our table and deposits a small tray of drinks. Albert appears to recognise her. He rises, winks, waits two seconds for any negative reaction, then sweeps her up into his arms. She smiles an indignant protest as he makes for the rear door, kicks it open, and disappears.
Three figures emerge from the kitchen and stagger in concord towards the bar. I recognise them at once. Verlaine and Rimbaud will, no doubt, soon achieve the ordered derangement of their senses once again, but Corbière looks unlikely to be drinking. Three others follow. Coleridge & Shelley Incorporated are easy to spot, but the sixth, lagging behind, remains a mystery to me.
J-P risks another word of jest in French.
‘Absinthe friends, no?’
‘Hah! Indeed. So sad. But who is that pale young man on his own?’
‘It is Dowson.’
‘If something had to go wrong, it would find Dowson to go wrong on.’
Aha! I clearly have this man very well trained now.
‘And you know, Donna, there were many others of their kind who could not join them here tonight ...’
‘Yes, I’m sure there were. So, J-P, perhaps you and I might have a little discussion on ...’
‘Not now, please, young lady. In Paris, the priorities are always clear. There will be time for much debating after dinner.’
‘But so few guests have yet arrived!’
‘Ah, you must watch and wait, my dear.’
Faust enters stage right, progresses pensively into the spotlight and pauses there with eyes tightly closed and ears pricked up. He grimaces at length, but finally smiles. ‘Yes!’ he too declares, and re-exits stage right.
A short mustachioed waiter has appeared at our table, rolling his eyes knowingly at Albert’s absence. He hands us a small menu. I go for duck soup followed by roast duck. J-P chooses duck pâté, with duck à l’orange for the main course. Then he spots another movement at the main doors.
‘Aha! Boehme has arrived before the others. Good man. He’ll be at the head of the Visionaries’ table. But you know, Donna, try as we might to understand them, we never get the same people sitting at the same tables each time. It seems always to depend on how they’re feeling on the night. And if so many of them don’t know what they really stand for, how on earth can we be expected to?’
I shrink from admitting to J-P that this is precisely how I felt throughout my university degree course. And at the same time I take great strength from his honest admission.
Albert rejoins us.
‘Have you placed your order?’ I ask, seeking conversational safety in utterly bourgeois thoughts.
‘Yes, en passant. I love a good duck. And I understand from Boehme that the other Principals have arrived ...’
As the band on the carousel strikes up Wonderland, the elders now enter en masse and reluctantly, it seems, they separate to take up their places as heads of the individual tables. J-P helps me with the perennial problem of identity.
‘That’s Segismundo. He’s going to the Dreamers’ table, of course. And the gentleman just behind him is ...’
‘I know who that is! It’s Molière! It’s Molière!’
‘Please be calm, Donna. Yes, it is indeed Molière, but tonight he is with us as Monsieur Alceste.’
‘Of course! Oh, what an honour!’
‘Bien sûr. And naturally he will be in charge of the Misanthropes.’
‘I do hope I’ll get to meet him, J-P!’
‘We shall see. And next ... oh dear, it’s that Christian fellow again. Albert has put him at the head of the Searchers’ principal table. I really don’t like it, but of course it’s the protocol of seniority. Just behind him are the Brothers Karamazov — they’re looking after the second table. And there’s good old Hesse. He’s got the third group to contend with tonight.’
‘Three whole tables for the Searchers?’
‘Oh yes. Unlike the other tormented souls who will probably be in and out of here very fast this evening, a lot of the guys plan to sit down, enjoy a good dinner, and start over. Again, it’s better than nothing.’
I wrestle with the implications of what J-P has said, and almost put myself into a deadly embrace. He snaps his fingers just in time.
‘Are you still with me, Donna? Good. So, Werther’s now gone to head the Unheroic Failures’ table, the Brothers Moor have moved straight to Evil, Horror & Pessimism, Mr Eliot himself has taken up his undisputed place at the top of the Futility table, and D-503 is leading the Angry Young Activists.’
Manfred enters stage right, sword in hand, cursing and fighting with the invisible foes that surround him. He reaches the exit door, takes a deep breath, and continues to fight as he passes through. His cursing ceases.
A slim but statuesque woman approaches our table and indicates to J-P, by the mere insertion of a slender cigarette holder between her full but tightly clamped lips, that she requires the favour of a light. I am seized with a sudden desire to resolve our incomplete foursome and talk gaily with her for a while — but not in the insufferable presence of tobacco smoke. Holding out my arm to arrest J-P in the execution of his fraternal duty, I indicate the nearest empty chair and smile sweetly to the new arrival.
‘Would you care to join us?’
‘No,’ she replies, without engaging my eyes. ‘I vant to be alone.’
‘Excuse me? What does “I vant” mean?’
‘It means I vish. Actually, I vish to be left alone.’
‘Why do you pronounce it in that way?’
‘Because that way works very well for me, dear, when I do not want to be with other very wearisome people.’
‘You see! You can pronounce it with a “w” whenever you wish!!’
‘Of course I can. But not ven I actually vant to be left alone. And zis “hotel” is not as grand as ze invitation suggested. So, monsieur, if you vould be so kind ...?’
J-P shrugs and supplies the tongue of lightning which this cold and half-primed grate is clearly lacking. Grusinskaya nods a ghost of a thank-you, retreats, and is soon lost from view.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd