Prose Header

Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

Table of Contents
Book I: Windmills Everywhere

Chapter 6: Outsider Soup

part 2 of 3

This small distraction has taken all my attention. I am suddenly aware of the buzz of many different conversations.

‘Oh, J-P, the room has filled up very quickly!’

‘Indeed. Most of our guests have now arrived.’

‘And it seems even bigger than before ...’

‘But you can still see everything quite clearly, non?’

‘I can see too much!’

‘Yes, that is often the problem.’

‘Hmmm. But there’s still nobody else at this large table.’

‘That’s because everyone due to be sitting here is a writer or a philosopher. They’re probably all still drinking in the main bar with the American hacks.’

‘Wow! Please tell me who’s coming!’

‘Why not take a look for yourself?’

‘Oh, yes, of course!’

As I walk round our table sneaking a quick peek at each place name card, the main doors burst open. Enter Hemingway, pursued by a bull and not slowing down.

‘Hey, one of you idle thinkers deal with this, OK? I’m going back to get us a marlin for the next course!’

Nobody reacts. Exit Hemingway through the kitchen in-door, still pursued by a bull.

J-P sighs, walks over to the doors, closes them, and returns to our table.

The little waiter begins to enter backwards through the kitchen out-door, bearing two bowls of soup. An English voice pursues him.

‘I said the Duck’s off, you imbecile!’


A frying pan attached to the voice explains itself more clearly and lays the waiter out. Its wielder emerges last of all, and smiles threateningly to his massed clientele.

‘Je suis très douloureux. Vous simplement ne pouvez obtenir le personnel ces jours.’ He suddenly notices the German philosophers entering through the main doors, and casts a stony, sustained and utterly misguided look in their direction.

‘Massacreur de notre langue!’ hisses J-P, getting his own priorities right, and just loudly enough to annoy me. But I ignore him. I am understanding the proprietor’s nonsense perfectly. And he has now come back to life.

‘Alors, si vous avez ordonné canard, vous allez juste devoir choisir quelque chose différent. Merci et bonne nuit.’

He bows stiffly, then grabs the waiter’s feet and drags him back into the kitchen, the bowls of soup still clutched in his hands and completely unspilled. Only after the door has closed behind them is there the sound of breaking china, twice.

‘Perhaps the new patron would care to join us after the meal?’ proposes Albert.

‘A good idea, for once,’ says J-P. ‘There’s a spare place at the Misanthropes’ table.’

Canada Girl is back, her eyes rocking as well as rolling, her order pad at the ready. J-P faces up to the evening’s biggest problem with utter commitment.

‘Very well. Steak and frites for twelve! But hold the smile.’

Croque monsieur for starters?’

‘Yes, and make it snappy!’

Brand enters stage right and crosses to the exit door. He stands and stares into the chandelier above his head.

‘It was unpardonable, and it is still futile.’

He seems fascinated by the candles. Like a moth to the flame.

I blink, and he is gone.

Our own table guests have now arrived hot off the Press, and the cheese and ham sandwiches have been delivered warm off the toaster. Nobody else seems to have noticed my presence, so as we eat I amuse myself by listening in to their Olympian conversation ...

PASCAL: I get so very annoyed at how utterly foolish they all are! If only they would sit quietly in their wretched rooms and recognise their dependence on ...

SCHOPENHAUER: Oh, I don’t think they’re foolish, Blaise. I just think they’re deluded. But we certainly do need to sit down quietly and think about things properly. And that’s probably enough.

NEWMAN: None of this seems to worry either of you very much. The world of men fills me with unspeakable dread. But is there any sign of God, who created this? Because only He can resolve it.

KIERKEGAARD: I have to say I agree with your distress, John. And I believe boredom’s their biggest problem. And as for some of their thinkers! But I see no hope of their salvation, especially in the twisted Church they’ve built!

NIETZSCHE: Arthur, you know I once embraced your views, but I took things a lot further. Which way, once your nature is riddled with thought? Will to Truth? Will to Power? Will to Life? I went from faith to pessimism to optimism, and all points in between, and I think I squared the circle! It was hard work. But would anybody listen? And then, of course ...

Wm JAMES: Look, it all depends on which side of the misery line they find themselves. And whether they can move across it.

HULME: I’m with Blaise on this. Humanism fails because it pretends men are free. It just doesn’t wash. But a new religion is needed ...

GURDJIEFF: Well, a new system is needed. But men are incapable of attempting such things until they truly awake and dispel their delusions. And to do that they must indeed recognise that they are not free. Only then can they discipline themselves to seek their own harmony.

HEIDEGGER: I really think they need to have a very strong grasp of the intricacies of existence and time before they can begin to consider anything else.

Albert: No, they just have to stand up for what they believe, and make their decisions based on truth, not lies. Trouble is, society can’t cope with people like that. So it’s all just absurd.

J-P: It’s not just absurd. It’s pointless. Emptiness whichever way they turn, if they bother to think about it. And when they do come to recognise that, they are terrified and finally freed. That’s when they must decide to do something useful. Anything. And without the need for any sort of god.

PASCAL: But Søren, I’m not sure it’s quite that simple ...

While they have been arguing, a beautiful salesgirl has wandered up to our table wearing little more than a tray of cigarettes, has lingered silently beside each guest for a moment or two, and has finally wandered off again. I appear to be the only one who has even noticed her. Such is the great philosophers’ Will to Think and Talk.

I decide to leave the rest of them to it. I still want to join in a proper debate with my two immediate dinner partners. I don’t care if my newly-delivered steak goes cold.

‘Albert, you did promise me I could listen in to your argument with J-P ...’

‘Yes, I did, and you can.’

‘Oh, how exciting! So, is it about whether or not to compromise with your life? Or the best way to achieve personal freedom? Or whether you are an Existentialist or not? Or your different views on Communism and Totalitarianism? Or ...?’

‘Oh, no, it’s nothing so abstruse, Donna. We just still can’t agree on which are the finest cigarettes. It has to be Gitanes, right, J-P?’

‘Nonsense. Gauloises, of course.’

‘No, Gitanes.’

‘No, Gauloises.’

‘You see? But it doesn’t stop there. You go first this time, J-P.’

‘It has to be Gitanes, Albert.’

‘Nonsense. Gauloises, of course.’

‘No, Gitanes.’

‘No, Gauloises. Et voilà! It’s quite impossible to resolve, Donna. Every other problem pales to triviality.’

‘But that’s absurd too.’

‘Aha! You understand it perfectly! And you’ll also understand why we ordered our meals before all the others. Now that we’ve finished eating, let’s take a gentle tour around the room and listen to some of the other discussions ...’

We stand and make our excuses, but before we can move on, Beddoes crashes through the main doors and rushes onto the stage.

‘Don’t you see? It’s impossible to be certain of anything! There’s no point in believing! In anything! Don’t you see?’

He flings himself through the stage left exit door.

Albert and I exchange a half-sympathetic glance, and he escorts me to Werther’s table, over between the bar and the carousel. We hover and listen, taking a chance on the uncertainty principle.

WERTHER: Nobody really loved me. Even Goethe tried to disown me later. Oh, it’s just not fair ...

RASKOLNIKOV: I tried to stay out of it all, at first. When that didn’t work, I decided to do something definitive. But that didn’t do much good either. Nothing helped me out. Back where I started!

MYSHKIN: Being good and innocent and simple should have made it easy, right? Wrong. If only I’d been able to face up to the chaos ...

ARCHER: I could never seem to get the balance right. Colour me deep defeated.

STRETHER: After you with that colour, Isabel. I got nowhere slowly. And I think Henry was trying to say the same thing about both of us, and all the others. I see he’s not sitting at this table, though ...

BARNES: Talk about unrealised! But at least I got a bit of the wine and song. And I should have gone to help Ernest with that bull just now. Maybe I’d better join Eliot’s table next time.

KNECHT: I did an awful lot of thinking about things, instead. Didn’t do me much good in the end. And when the chips were down, so was I — ten feet under.

T.E. LAWRENCE: Thinking? What else could I ever do? Nothing! But I had no self to try and realise anyway.

‘What a bunch of losers,’ says Albert as we walk away. ‘I’d even take Roquentin over that lot. But don’t tell J-P I said that. And you know, I don’t think I’m going to risk that motorcycle again. That’s what killed poor old Lawrence. I think I’ll stick to cars in future. Much safer.’

Hemingway re-enters from the kitchen, stands stern-faced on the empty stage for a few moments, then quietly says ‘No. And like an animal.’ He exits stage left in a puff of smoke. Albert sadly shakes his head.

On the ceaselessly turning carousel, the Mummers sing See Alice and we approach the Dreamers’ table.

SEGISMUNDO: I really didn’t deserve it, you know. And how can you possibly exercise free will when you’re imprisoned? But it’s all a dream, anyway ...

K.: I’m still not sure if it was all a dream. But it certainly felt unreal. Maybe I should have woken up and fixed the problem earlier.

SAMSA: Too right, Josef! All that effort and compromise, and what did I get for it? A shell of a body and everyone’s disgust. I tell you, I won’t let it happen next time around!

THOMSON: Speaking as a real person, I have to agree it’s all an illusion. And I must have a word with that nice Mr Eliot later ...

Albert remarks ‘Heads in the clouds.’

‘None of them was a fool on the hill, though.’

‘Probably true. But you know, Donna, some of the things our guests have been saying to each other, on these first three tables, were not quite what I’d have expected. I’m even a bit surprised at what I’ve been saying myself ...’

‘Oh! That’s rather strange. I didn’t think any of the remarks were particularly out of character.’

‘Well, maybe you haven’t studied the texts closely enough. And you probably haven’t read some of them at all — or just critiques and summaries.’

‘Well, that’s certainly true. There’s never time to read as much as we’d like to, is there?’

‘Of course not. But also it really depends on who’s putting the words into our mouths, doesn’t it?’

‘I’m not sure I understand that, Albert.’

‘Well, there it is. Let’s see if it gets any clearer as the night wears on.’

Kirilov marches in, cool and clear and resolutely targeting the exit door. He pauses as Stavrogin enters, dressed up as a winged insect and carrying a stick tipped with a silver star. In response to the widespread mockery, he too stops and declares ‘Well, I had to find something even more ridiculous, didn’t I? Anyone want to make an issue of it, I’ll see you outside, OK? Hah, I thought not! But what’s the point, anyway? And I can’t hold off the guilt any longer. Make haste, Kirilov, make haste — we have our missions!’

Kirilov nods. ‘Everything is good.’ He continues his march and departs without another word. Stavrogin staggers off, close behind him. The door slams with a loud bang, bounces open again, then shuts with a weedy bump.

‘OK, Donna,’ says Albert, clearly impatient with these performances and not pausing to reflect. ‘Let’s move over to Alceste’s table. And they’re not all fictional characters here either ...’

ALCESTE: Do I really have to be here, chef?



MOLIERE: Because I say so. It might do you some good.

ALCESTE: If you insist. But I want you all to know I’m very unhappy about it. Hell is other people and their poetry. I want to remain distinguished.

ONEGIN: I understand you perfectly well, my friend. But I cannot relate to many others in this world. Intolerable social conventions will be our downfall, mark my words ...

SCROOGE: Quite so! Bah! Humbug! On the other hand ... Look, I’m very sorry if I’ve offended anybody. I beg forgiveness. One quick word and we can all be happy again, right?

PROUST: Hmmm. It starts off all glittery, doesn’t it? But it soon goes sour. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I’m with you, Alceste. My desert is your desert, any time you like. Now, to put it rather more fully ...

GREENE: No thanks, Marcel. We got the message already. You are rather long-winded, aren’t you? And don’t talk to me about pathetic domesticity ...

‘And there are still a couple of empty chairs at this table,’ remarks Albert, rolling his own eyes now. ‘The new manager can definitely take one, later. But I wonder who else was invited? He obviously hasn’t made it. Or maybe he’s just waiting in the wings.’

Ilytch wanders in from somewhere and gazes all around him.

‘I’m so afraid!!’

He looks long and hard at the exit door.

‘So, how should I have lived?’

He looks again, and suddenly perks up.

‘Oh, forgive me!’

He exits stage left at once.

‘Is that the way, Donna?’ asks Albert. Without waiting for a reply, he moves across to the Angry table.

Proceed to part 3 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

Table of Contents

Home Page