Archive for March, 2010

The Theatre of Returns

AT a certain point it happened that something was perceived as coming into the airwaves, into people’s living-rooms, into the daily round, as of some significant and even urgent communication requiring immediate interpretation. This information or news, as it might be, was unfortunately not offered in an unambiguous language, or laid out for all to see like a smoke-message in the sky – yet it was undeniably there, and people claimed it could be felt in the blood, just under the skin, like an intuitive itch that threatened to never leave failing its decipherment.

     Naturally there were those, as there always are in such cases, who pretended to a full authority in the explanation of the message, and for some time there were few persuasive enough to challenge their version. There was the possibility that no-one else could hear the message as loudly as they could, which meant it could be suggesting a different content, or something being lost in the translation. That it was so self-evident to them – abundantly broadcast in their daily language, even in their nightly dreams – did not mean it was something of equal clarity to everyone else, who seemed to be generally occupied by other, more uncertain, wavelengths.

     There was not even unanimity that the message was entirely new. What, in any case, they all wondered, is a guarantee of the new? Most supposedly new things had been demonstrated on later consideration to have been only repetitions, re-occurrences, perhaps in some slightly varied guise, of other things that unequivocally had been before. The comprehension of dreams, the novelty of suicide, the demise of sex, for example – these were things that seemed to flow away and back within long cycles of historical time, unseen by most mortal observers. It would take an omniscient intelligence, a real mental panoramascope, to take in just how many repeated cycles, how many rehearsals of the same schema would stumble back on stage in their superficially surprising costumes, enact once again the same tin-pan vaudeville of misbegotten pratfall and innocent’s return, and the shuffling off the boards with a click of the heels, a reminder of the sweet goodtime certainty of it all swinging back in again (on a chandelier, perhaps) – before slipping off into the wings.

      A theatre of returns. What was the message spelling out, this time round, exactly? Certainly there were a plethora of often extravagant, but for that no less probable, interpretations. That this war, for example, would be the last. That hunger – that old stock warhorse of the repertoire – was truly down on its heels now, that it wouldn’t be making a re-entry in the next installment. But these (and others like them), were the obvious major-players; maybe some lesser-known talents could, finally, share some of the limelight.

     Disease, among these eternal throwbacks, had suddenly become wildly popular, as a subject of the new and unseen. Many were the theorists who in brightly tube-lit conference-rooms ascertained the truth in the body of the unwritten text: that the foe in their time was not the brute fact of violence or injustice so much as the invisible working of disease. Yet its working was ambiguous, for such disease was capable of turning around and carrying off undesired predators, as well. So what appeared a curse could as easily prove a blessing, and therein lay the redemption: angels and demons were twin-siblings, and would save us all from extinction if sufficiently entrusted to perform their own, however perverse, midnight rituals. After all – little else had worked (they mentioned science, reason, systematic ideologies, political and economic liberalism, etc.) Why not leave the mavericks to the field, and see where it might lead? Moreover, the field was new, the whole world was effectively untested territory now. The trick lay in not taking appearance at face-value, knowing that the angel and the demon inhabited mercurially changeable forms. It would only be enough to trust them, finally, and as many had already suggested, trust to the process they set in train.

     Was that a new thing, itself, they asked? In time past – a time whose history they, in theirs, somehow stood outside of – it had been enough to trust in God. That at least, had been vaguely if not definitively debunked – they still kept a portrait of him and his messengers hanging at the exit-doors after all, for optional use, and there’s no question he provided for some nostalgic edification, just like Charlie Chaplin, V.I.Lenin, or Confucius, for example, remarkably still could. Other entertainers had, naturally, come and gone, and monuments could be seen to them, too, here and there, as if to retroactively confess that some things that would never return still had value to the relentless march of the new. Dead things, in other words. The technology, too, allowed for an unprecedented degree of lifelike preservation: Vladimir Ilyich, for example, was still going strong. It was as if the passed-on, in petrification, could still be in modus imitatio, real, and so in a sense, new again, not merely for a second time, but forever.

     There were new everything: new forms of food-production, new modes of mass-transportation, new medical procedures, new developments in science, new religions; new kinds of media, new media-gods, new stories told in new movies, new books, new TV-shows, new combinations of all of these. New technologies mediating between a new perception of new ideas. New idea. That idea itself was not new, everyone long knew that, but the fact everyone knew that made it clearly new, and so, with a twinkle and a new kind of laughter, truly new. The possibilities, clearly, were endless. New ways of communicating, of falling in love and having sex, of procreating, of delivering new life, were advertised in new multi-media information consoles, it seemed in every new birthing season. New couplings, new extinctions, new forms of evolution that left biology and natural selection seriously in question. What was natural, in such new permutations of the possible? What was Nature, now?

     Naturally, there were many who weren’t satisfied merely by the witnessing and classification of the new in and for itself, as an objective phenomenon. They wanted to know why – knowing, of course, that there was nothing especially new in that. In all of the multiple novel perspectives of reality available to them, they also demanded – as a formula, a mantra, a bedtime-story – an explanation. Which, of course, is where the message came in.

     There were many, of course, who heard it and were content, as they said, to trust in the process. But that seemed like a circular proposition to others, who considered that to trust or not trust in the process was meaningless since all there was was the process which necessarily would determine the direction of things in any case, and trusting in it not make any difference to anyone. For others this simply wasn’t enough. For them – they have been mentioned – the purpose of the message was tantalisingly clear: that in the efflorescence of the new was a tangible proof of evolution’s grand course, and that it must be aided and abetted at every twist and turn, however unclear, amoral or deceptive its motives might appear.

     War, in such a case, and as so often before then, could be easily confirmed as evolutionary necessity, and to offer still further confirmation it seemed for why a new one was breaking out every year in a different part of the world. (It was an issue of some perplexity, however, in seeking to gauge the true existence of these far-flung conflicts: they came to public attention in bits and bytes of digital data, perceived and misperceived by human bodies, notoriously prone to misinterpretation).

     War could be, at least, a moral landmark bloodying the horizon, could be relied on to make a direct statement about the state of trust in the world. It has been seen that trust was the catch-all word of many of those who claimed the message for themselves: trust your husband, trust your wife, your bank, your insurance-fund, your analyst, your neighbour, your local street-crazy, your government, your nation, your guru, your friendly night-time navigator through the dark and troubled skies, trust yourself, trust even in God if it’s absolutely necessary, but above all trust in the process.

     And yet war, that evolutionary staple, and an indubitable demonstration of the new (even where death was a demonstration of the eternal), pointed confident and authoritarian fingers at its own existence, its unmediated acting-out of the loss of trust between antipathetic parties – apart of course from that convention of trust which sees consensual war as a noble and morally sound form of human engagement. War, as everyone knew, has its history, its glory, and its honour, and may not be gainsaid. It was creator and destroyer both, a Lord Shiva of the spinning of the cyclic worlds.

     As always, these things came full circle, with both dramatic and quotidian punctuations of the new littering its repeated round. Time, some venerable once suggested, is not a circle on a plane but a spiral that passes by its double (triple, quadruple…), looking down through the generations to all the terrible errors and more terrible solutions that have been found to keep the record spinning. The only problem was that on the twisting, ascending path some were blindfolded and others weren’t, some could hear the message loud and clear, and others couldn’t – could not even hear the quiet but insistent voice of their own futures. And it was those deaf ones, the message seemed to spell out, who by force of ignorance were able to deny the evidence of the message itself, and the trust the message endowed. It wouldn’t be enough to hear, they thought, those who, even in their sleep, couldn’t close their ears to the fierce ringing of necessity. It would have to take a surrender, as well. And even that, they feared – even a surrender to trust – might not be enough.

Paris 2006


(published in the GROUP ONLINE MAGAZINE, March 13, 2011: http://groupmag.blogspot.com/2011/03/group-7.html)

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     THE girls wake up much earlier than he does. From the shadows of the moving bed he can see windows, their rooms, the identical filmy asphalt paths, between the stores and hotels and the sea-coast promenades. The people – rapacious, harried; the women are babied, hobbled in silly shoes. Who designed it all this way? Has it been designed at all? Normally he speaks to few of them, few of them come to him. Except the mad ones. They always, sooner or later, make an appearance. The reasoning is that he is either crazed himself, throws out the right (wrong) frequency of sympathetic resonance for the approach, or enough of a beacon of compassion to promise an ever-present reception. Either way it is a liability; its only benefit that he has necessarily become a master of the quick, unseen exit.

     Human beings slip away from eachother in infinite chess-moves of greater or lesser complexity. What was the last escape? It is a long-enough ride, between the two large cities – one dripping with fin-de-siecle orchestral merinque, the other with ferrous industry – but not so far to keep the three of them from constant, recycled conversation, turning over through the night. Nothing seems impossible. They talk like old lovers who take for granted a level of nudity proffered, like a wager, to the other. The two women are attractive: in the very late hours, from the top tiers of the sleeping compartment, they lean to eachother over the space between them to confide whispers – intended to be kept from him, or only esoteric feminine strategies for play?

     But he is happy to see the full, limpid gleam of their thighs, angled discreetly above him in the rattling darkness, the promise of the crotch defined by the flimsy thin underpants they wear to sleep in. He watches the hips of the longer, duskier one, on the bunk above and opposite his, turn and re-position under the loosely-thrown sheet, the globe of them enacting an also discreet, well-behaved choreography that he immediately thinks is natural to most women. The ways their bodies seem to know, innately skilful, how to move, how to retreat, re-configure, send a catalogue of signals that mean only one thing, but can be read as many.

     He wants to say it too, out loud, to the darkened compartment (they have finally turned off their reading-lights): you know it’s amazing the way you two come together to share some mystery and then re-settle your bodies again. Hips like fruit in a wooden bowl, breast that knows how to sleep underneath you. He could say it, as well, the familiarity is already there – they might be amused, secretly charmed, disdaining, given new information to incorporate into their state-of-play: a small space of weakness they could, at some later stage, take advantage of. Or is he really calling their bluff, do men ever mean what they say? This one, they know, has something authentically poetic in the speech, the immature tone of voice – they take him at face value. They might seduce him, if he makes the right moves – keeps back, reserves any offensive, pretends a mediocrity he might or might not have.

      In the first light of morning what happens is that they undress in front of him, and change into new clothes: covertly, as if he is still asleep, or assuming ingenuously that he isn’t really there, and not nursing the painful erection he keeps straightened inside his own clothes. The unsuspected whiteness of the skin, pale, milky-blue dough of breast, whisked away under bra and a casual flung t-shirt. The pubic hairs of the one above him, when she leans over yet again to ask the other something in their own language, as if he would be unable to perceive, in an extension of his ignorance of the words they speak – or for the fact of sheer obviousness – the globe of her duskiness right in front of his eyes, the loud arrows pointing to the crease of skin at the high end of her thighs, where the hair already begins. She is so close he can just smell her from where he lies, the humid domain of the hair, where a lazy smile shifts perpendicular, moves under the near-transparency of strained cotton. In the light seeping through the train-windows, he can see the smile, all the same: it is intended purely for him. He wants to reach up himself, to put his lips there; its extreme proximity in fact an obstacle, so close it is an unthinkable abyss to breach, to bring within his potential frame of reality, so that he lies there, breathes deeply the musty air of the compartment, and says: “I thought it would never end.”

     They look at him, as girls in adolescent American movies do, and reply in tandem, “What would never end?”

     “Last night. What happened, I’ve never said so much. So easily…”

     They can’t really believe his defencelessness, and it must be a ploy, a false innocence with which they would be spun in a deceptive web and then tackled together. Even though what he has said is true for them as well, also surprised by how much has been so easily divulged, though he hardly knows them, hardly shares even the same language let alone mingled lives. Maybe it is because he is a foreigner, obviously sensitive, can respond with depth and verve to anything they say, is a detached but willing player, more ambiguous than they are, more disinterested but more aroused…the underpants thing, that is cool, the way it gives away enough but wins the opening play before it really has a chance to go anywhere. The pale girl flicks at the bra-strap under her t-shirt as they speak to him: “Maybe it’s because we trust you,” she says, and her friend echoes it. “When I’m comfortable with someone I’ll tell them almost anything.”

     Then looking at him, with casual, deflated, domestic smiles, as if they are all long-known siblings, one of the women seems to decide without prior consultation that a bra is more trouble than it’s worth, unclips it beneath the t-shirt and draws it out under her long, slender arms. They keep talking, desultory – the issues turning around trust, respect, honesty and openness, the Great Female Virtues – but he hears them only incoherently when two friendly, avuncular breasts start bounding along to the shunting rhythm of the train.

     “It’s as if we’ve all been friends, many times, before. D’you think that’s possible? Married, in our past lives or something. I hope you don’t mind,” they mock-ask him, wide-raffish smiles now. “Sometimes it’s too much, when a virtual stranger suddenly invades your life and throws it all at you, on a platter or something.”

     “You’re not going to use it against us,” the dusky one says, still grinning, tousled and gamin-eyed from sleep. “No – I don’t mean that.”

     “Well, I could,” he says, “but what would I get out of it? I’d prefer to ask straight out for any leverage I could claim.”

     They are close to stunned, it is left there for the moment, there is still a lot of train-ride to get through. Their open-mouthed gazes shift in simultaneous blank tandem, alert desert marmots tuned to the pinprick landscape outside the windows, still unperturbed to be sitting on the lowest tier with their bare legs up on the upholstery so that when the middle-aged morning-attendant comes with coffee and a croissant for each passenger he will be able to discern the dark hairs, if he looks, as the younger man has in the early hours during the across-the-breach confidentials. They soon cover themselves, nonetheless, throwing a sheet over their legs like good, indulgent girls of the middle-class. The pale girl pinches herself just below a pointed nipple as the man exits the compartment, close to giggling, a wink at his departure. Sitting across from them he concentrates on the eyes, now – it is a new day, there are new terms of placement, suddenly since the night whatever stakes there were have steeply increased. There is even a serious danger of something, of a happening happening.

     “I’m glad you finally said something – you were ignoring us, or trying to, for the first few hours. Why was that? I felt disapproval, as if you were judging the situation,” she says.

     “I was – I think you’re immoral women. I didn’t like you from the first moment I saw you.”

     They are both laughing. “And now?”

     “After your revelations, your small daring acts of confession, your unwitting displays, your gameness, I’m reconsidering. You keep offering these little gifts – for women you’re pretty generous.

     “Really!? What little gifts?”

      He can’t help noticing at least one pair of free-moving nipples attacking their constraint, biting into air as if to move closer to him. It is the pale one, brighter but more obviously willing, powerless against the parasympathetic response. “Oh, just little things neither of you would probably notice.”

     He leaves them in the carriage to go to the bathroom to adjust his own clothes. He can see them, in his absence, pulling up jeans and exchanging soft-voiced assessment on the situation in dead-earnest. Is he too much, or just enough? they wonder. They are all travelling in the same direction, it turns out – his destination is further on, but he’s willing to stop awhile, and he’s not bound to any watertight schedule, if he even really has one. There is already a future staring them, all three, full in the face. They are of the age for the worst, the messiest of circumstances, this is when it happens. He is their age, there is a gauntlet already thrown out, it would seem impossible not to take it up with a fierce, liberated, female vengeance.

     The exchange for the next train is chaotic, dust flying in their faces and the flippered catalogue of destinations rushing them to a greasy machine that sighs restlessly on smoothed heels. A small swarthy man ushers them onto a smoking car and the train pulls away and they sink back into tired red upholstery, a feather of hunger in the insides and the tickling of the antennae of desire, because no-one says anything, can only breathe, audibly, deeply, to extract the nervy fray out of the visceral pull towards explosiveness. The women are aware of the new dimension in their bodies, how heat comes to fine surface and urges contact with the open air – he can see their legs strain against tight denim, breasts impatient under clothes. Still no-one says anything, the brown-skinned girl puts her leg up on the opposite seat against his, observes how it gently brushes his knee with the sway of the train. It turns a slow corner, her leg is unexpectedly warm against his, her breasts shift perceptibly against the gradient of the journey, girl’s adam’s apple bobbing above the sleepy smooth skin of collar-bones unhealthy ivory against the louche red of the seats.

     She looks away, out the window. Back again to him, the two independent legs, touching, outside again, and back to his face which to her lazy exhaustion, just under the skin like a mental itch she can’t reach, looks childish and wrongly preoccupied. He is someone who she is certain lives largely in abstraction or perpetual turns of strategy, the minute placings of the self in a vast intersubjective web that has remained only nominally physical in his mind. So she raises her other longish leg, encased smoothly in the tight jeans, to the space left between his knees, raises also her knee so that her bare foot won’t disturb his lap but only linger in the vicinity of boney, thin, male knees. One leg stretches to his left, the other rests between his own, the pale girl says suddenly, very gently but with certitude, “Why don’t you touch her foot?”

     The foot is large and dirty, there is a thin silver ring on one of the smaller toes. She says it again, “Touch it.”

     The girl who owns the foot says nothing, the face is veiled with fatigue and the passivity of disappearing into the red upholstery. He notices now how patchy with grime the material is, dirt dotted into the animalish pores of the leather, many generations of overnight passenger leaving trace of tedium or sickness. She smiles, barely. And moves the big toe, a little, a little faster. “Go on,” the other one says.

     A kind of trick question. Complying is submission but also reward. Refraining is autonomy but also bad sportsmanship. He chooses the latter, returns the smile, only half-genuine, not wide, not compressed, a small, modest gesture of a male cat. They maybe don’t like him now, despite the perseverence. “What’s wrong? You have cold feet?” the first, pale-face. Again her breasts seem to grow, challenge him with along with the words, swell against her arm so that he knows if she were to throw the t-shirt off onto the floor and they tumbled and swung swelling beneath their eyes he would immediately have to get up and do something ill-considered or at the least escape to the corridor to calm his breath or re-adjust his underwear or take a cigarette from someone and stand there pretending to stare at the patchy early-morning landscape pretending to smoke it as he felt the heat of jism escaping down his inner-leg. And none of those things happen, he is surprisingly at ease in his own small patch of leathery humidity, and smiles again, like a young boy.

     “No – it’s my feet that are cold,” the darker girl says, “look,” she touches her own foot, rubs it in her hands. “I’m frozen hard,” she laughs.


     “What? Stiff?”

     “You’re frozen stiff. Like a corpse. Bad circulation, breathe more deeply. Down in the diaphragm.”

     And as if to justify those words or demonstrate their tangibility, he beckons her stretch the same leg out again, towards him, yes, closer, which she does extending it only so far that it doesn’t invade his crotch and so that he can hold the foot between both his hands by leaning forward a little, not uncomfortably.

     “Oh, you don’t have to. It’s alright,” the same girl says, there is a curious fearful sincerity now in the voice that wasn’t there before. “No, let him – go on – or you can do mine as well, please??”

     He is wholly receptive but formidable, an apprentice, hard-eyed warrior. He holds her foot on light, warm hands, nimbly turns it, cracks the filthy toes, finds the most juicy pressure-points so that she mock-complains Ow! and only momentarily removes the foot, her canvas of crotch opening before his eyes, the jeans a strange oceanic blue-white texture that suggests greater distances to his eye than can conceivably be there, a vast stretch of anatomy suggested somewhere on the other side of it, she is not a girl and still more than a woman – an oceanic indeterminate mammal presence defined by the telescoping legs projected back and forth before him, the expanse of space between them, the dirt in the toes and the plenitudes shifting beneath collar-bones. Eyes with curtains of ambiguity hanging lazily over them.

     She is from the provinces, he is sure, who in adolescence took very long baths when she shaved her legs and read bad literature, had posters of now-forgotten mid-of-the-road boy bands on her walls which she lay under in the early hours as they grew blurry to the sweep of her fingers inside her. He can see her whole history in her beautiful body, the privilege and a high-protein diet that kept the lineaments of her face healthy but still carved with a sharp cruelty that goes back to the smartest and bravest of her tribe, if not the most intelligent. There is still the same hard, graven insouciance in her chiselled mouth, that takes on the animal prey of her ancestry and the organs of young uncertain men with an equal, expert confidence. She smiles again as if to blandly confirm this: it is true I want you, the lips tell him as he drives his thumbs into the soles of the dirty, warmly clammy feet, I want you for breakfast, if you can be the sacrifice.

      “I still don’t understand,” the white diabolic one says, a new perverse smile on her face. “You didn’t do as I said, you disobeyed me, was that some kind of provocation?”

     “Not at all,” he says simply. “It’s just that I’m not used to touching people without some kind of larger context if you know what I mean. I can’t just reach out and touch someone in a vacuum. I need a purpose, a reason,” a little unclear himself why the words pretend to a needless male justification, he knows already they aren’t even true, they are only a good excuse for a potential retreat, a definitive return into his own sweaty, red-upholstered space, for good, before they get off at the next main station and leave him forever.

     He looks hard at them. “I’m on my way to a monastery. And I need to get used to the rules.”

     The diabolus actually raises her eyes, where the other slinks deeper into her seat the more gratifying the work on her foot becomes.

     “Is that true?” she continues. “Why are you doing that?”

     “I’ve been offered a job there, some temporary work. And the life holds some attraction. I don’t like men much, but I appreciate solitude and the idea of full retreat from the world.”

     “What’s wrong with the world?”

     “Everything. And nothing, is wrong with it. But expecting some kind of redemption in it is only pain. It never delivers what you want. Just for a moment, then it’s gone, and there’s a new hill to climb.”

     “You’re over climbing.”

     He smiles and works on the brown foot. “There comes a time when climbing doesn’t hold any attraction anymore.”

     “But who wants redemption?” she presses on him, even as she moves deeper into the compartment seat. “Isn’t that just more climbing? You should know that.”

     He stops on the foot and for a moment stares at it, holds the slender warmth of it in his hand and doesn’t say anything. It’s owner suddenly speaks to him from the depths of comfort, the words seem to come directly out of the red upholstery as if her whole mouth has encompassed it, they are merely human bacteria in a larger biological complex which will sooner or later deposit them outside in some alien environment incompatible with the system of warm mutuality that operates in this one.

     “My leg hurts. Can I stretch it out a little – like this I have to hold it up and I just want you to look after it.”

     He will comply, but he won’t smile about it, and he takes hold of the foot in both hands, it could be his own organ, and brings it onto his lap, covered with his functional coat, almost military, ecologically khaki, understated but solid, like the honest but suave work on the foot that satisfies her as the skin warms under his hands and her face softens inside its fine web of draped hair. He is sure he can hear her cooing, the foot alone tells him, the channels of blood under the skin, warming his own body, the cold under his coat, in his lap. Both of them know that it will only be a matter of moments before he will be forced to change tactics, face embarrassment or capitulate to the necessity the foot presses on him. It is not for nothing the provincial schoolgirl – he knows she is older, but how much? – moves the long, dirty foot, back and then closer to him, barely perceptible, a vertical proposition, in the same way the genital smile had shifted ninety-degrees and greeted him with its beautiful welcome to the world, the real world of light in the fields in the morning, a rocking train and two women of honey changing clothes wordlessly before him as if they knew he wasn’t yet awake but not so unconscious that he would miss the filaments of light echoing in the fine blue veins under the rarely-exposed skin.

     The breathtaking diabolus slips her index finger under her bra-strap and slowly brings it down under her t-shirt to stop under the collar-bone, stretching the material, intending a completion of the movement which she instead repeats a number of times so that all three are now engaged in a peculiar subtle rhythm of interaction as he kneads and seeks out tender parts of the foot, as the foot slips back and forth over the covered male crotch and the bra-strap is negotiated to its furthest point before fingers could very easily slip into warmth and bring out an upholstered, proffered nipple, pink against the grimey red seat, warm to the cool morning air.

     At the same moment they both know he is forced into a corner and compelled to surrender some of the carefully-nurtured enigma of distance. She feels the hardening under her foot, mildly stretches it out again as if in some resolution so that he is able to say: it is finished.

      “I might go find a drink of water,” he says very quietly and leaves the compartment before turning around himself like an animal in wonder.

     “Have you lost something?”

     “No, no – I just need something  -“


     “ – to drink out of.”

     He walks to one end of the corridor and back and returns to find them in exactly the same positions in which he has left them. “Can you do the other foot? I feel amazing.”

     “Yes. But not now. When we get where we’re going.”

     “Where are we going?”

     It is a place by the sea, there are wide elegant boulevardes and densely-peopled salubrious seafood-restaurants ranged across the foreshore sparkling in a moderate late-summer sun. They drag themselves out of the station in a filigree euphoria of missed sleep, hunger and viciously intense expectation that bursts up from under lightly humorous banter traded as much between the women as with him, so that a democratic delectation forms a substrate to any likely subversion, it is a classical game of proportion that they play, and to intellectualise it they need strong black coffee which a local elderly Frenchwoman waves them to – go there, it is the most delightful place to have coffee, and lovely young people like you three should offer yourselves something special once in a while. Life is not meant to be all hard.

     It is not cheap but the tables are very close together and all six legs bump and mingle for the time it takes to drink three espressos each so that he suddenly leaves the table and hobbles away into the back area of the building in search of the bathroom. Enervation and too-much talk drives them down to the beach, caffeine stings the triplicate nerve-ends of need connecting them, and the large, round stones they fall on not far from the edge of the water feel like an ultimate bed of love, they would not be able to leave there if they wanted to. Inevitability keeps them tied down there, despite the helium of euphoria that could as easily lift up the expanding bubble of the balloon they bounce around in.

     One of the first things they see though in front of them is someone thrashing in the waves, limply calling out for help. The two girls have stripped down to panties and t-shirts, and recline on their elbows staring at the shapeless figure, some kind of human jellyfish, bobbing between the light waves. The women look to eachother to gauge a mutual response, they will not stand up again in their underpants to rescue something not of their making, and he is there anyway, the young guy, lithe in his clothes, and restless, he can prove a certain masculinity, they would like to see him throwing himself into the pallid waves to bring out to them – a trophy? a mermaid, that they could compare themselves to? a submarine treasure they could enjoy between them?

     He is wet, too, already in the brackish water, sand and seaweed up against his legs, grimaces of discomfort useless against the cold, somehow overstretching himself here, knowing already his concern is not finally for the body in the water, but the bodies on the shore, his estimation in their eyes, the two sirens lying back now on the stones, not even directly watching him, two sets of knees and nipples pointing delicately into the air. He can glance back and see them slightly move the knees side to side out of laziness, see the creases in the crotch, where silk skin meets the body-warmth of hair, a kind of refuge, he could slip in there, and stay warm – but the suffering body is reaching out for him now: a vast overgrown woman, huge swathes of fat weighing her down in the water, her mouth can’t vocalise but the double-chins flap and swish in the paltry waves, so that he knows he must find and hold her, his arms up under that untenable weight, the epic breasts, the flab of the stomach and hips and legs a massive gelatine against his own spare-rib of a body, so that it could get lost in there, float around awhile, finally die with the behemoth thrashing against its own inevitable entropy, the inexplicably human body his own could be fatefully, unthinkably tied to.

     The rubber frilly cap lodged crookedly over the woman’s head comes off in his hands and he spends some time working against the waves to try to return it to her sodden head. He can see she is grateful, but nearly in tears, a water-logged sad walrus of a woman who surrenders to his arms like a silent-movie heroine, so that he has to work twice as hard against her passivity to drag her back in to shore. She doesn’t kick or paddle, she lies hopelessly in his arms, her face turned pathetically to the leaden sky. He feels like he is leading a whale to dock – where its vast white whorling blubber will be sliced up and sold for soap. When they reach the stoney shore he is not gasping out of physical exhaustion alone – the surprise, the heavy humanity, the ugliness, exhibition, pride of the rescue are in the end a demoralisation, and even when the blonde girl turns to tell him, dripping and forlorn as he is, that he is a hero, that it was the best thing to do, even though it wouldn’t have made much difference, it doesn’t improve anything for him.

     “What do you mean wouldn’t make any difference?” he asks. The other one responds, “You could see she was in no danger, the waves would’ve brought her in in any case”.

     “But it was still an admirable thing to do,” the blonde one confirms.

     They lie on the cool stones; he pants in the cold, the sticky wet against his skin, his genitals curling in their cocoon. Something only changes when he notices them, by his side, lightly moving their fingers over their breasts so that all four nipples stand up straighter, announce themselves fully to the indifferent grey sky overhead, so that he feels the crustacean in his pants tremble and stretch, as if in imitation of the women’s bodies.

     The walrus-woman is not far by – she could be watching them with a curious, bedraggled, bovine fascination. Because the girls continue to touch themselves, slipping fingers down from the breast over the belly to the minor depression of the bellybutton, which they encircle and slip into before reaching the border of cotton underpants and the first hair there, explorers greeting the edge of rough territory. But the fingers quickly slip, too, into the protection of the wilds, where birds and waterfalls will greet them.

     He doesn’t watch how long the fingers linger there, how deeply they enter in, he only feels a warm silken hand soon take his and lead him again to the edge of the water, feels the hand against the arm that holds his, two sets of fine shoulders bumping into his as the desultory waves bring them together, then apart, together again, his eyes half-closed perceiving the increased dark in the sky, it is sunset, already, so soon, they had not even had a sun to warm by, but it is strangely warm in the water, a deep vast bowl to hold them in, the salt placental, so that they don’t seem to float but are suspended in a near-viscous depth that could never drown them, only hold them wholly suspended there, so that the old, enormous woman with the frilly cap had been wrong to panic, the ocean never kills, only human fear, human ignorance, does.

     He knows their t-shirts are off, under the water, can see the pale shapes of breasts set loose in the marine green, all four dancing like exotic squid before the touch of his tentacular hand. They keep just out of reach, so that if he leans out to them, the crash of the waves or mysterious mermaid dance of the silent girls’ bodies eludes him, and aren’t there anymore. They would not notice the erection pushed out of his pants, a slender human sign standing out unseen, ignored in the salty waste, no-one would read its urgent message, it stands out for itself alone, a seahorse in its own domain. The women swim around him, encircle him, sometimes take water in their mouths and shoot hard wet streams in his face that only makes the seahorse stand up straighter to attention. They come close, swirl untouchably far away. He sees dripping hair and breasts come to the surface of the water, rest there against the ceramic pink light in the late sky, four separate nipples moving side to side, sometimes over, sometimes under the surface, as they reach out to the silvery touch of the early, night stars.

     The night seems both short and inexplicably long. They move between bars, drink shots of pastis and tequila, dodge soccer fans, grow exhausted and stand breathless on different street corners of the town, finally decide to find a friend’s apartment where they can truly stop and surrender. His pants are still wet, the lips of the pale girl against his ear, her voice, deep, somehow muddy, telling him, “Come with us, it will be alright, she’s a good friend of ours”.

     But the friend is suddenly there, on a corner they come to, already drinking, laughing with men, touching their hairy arms: she is smiling and sour-faced, she kisses him on both cheeks. For nearly an hour all four wander the steaming, neon-lit foreshore, crowded with drunk travellers, British sportsmen, the newly-arrived stock of sex-workers come from Bulgaria or Rumania. They all look about fifteen, and press small childish hands to his wet groin as he moves past them. The walrus-woman, the cold stones, alcohol, neon lights, the Bulgarian children, are all demoralising. Only the two sets of nipples as defined as Hokusai against the failing light have had any sense in them. There is still some untouchable grace in them.

     The friend asks that he request politely to be let into her domicile. It is two o’clock in the morning, she perhaps has some grounds for her demands, he must kneel to one knee to ask for her hospitality before they climb three floors to her tiny, nondescript apartment. She is prunish and sour but drunk as he is he can kneel to the goddess and grant her every desire; on this night he will do anything, for anyone, it is – he finally understands this – a night for redemption. He is a talking clown: your wish is my command. (The words are perhaps in a different order, they come out of the mouth like sand; she doesn’t understand his language too well in any case, and he must continually wager with mistranslation, so that anything he says is negligible.)

     “Please, come into my warm house,” she says.

     The house is neither a stable for his seahorse, nor a cosy shelter for weary travellers; in the dingy grey of the kitchen they can at least drink some more, there is bootleg Lithuanian vodka with a crisp air of alpine forest in its breath, one of them has put on a complementary music of huskies and sleds and bells ringing outside log saunas. The time comes for a question he must answer – the blonde girl puts it to him.

     “Do you want to stay here, with us?”

     He smiles probably a little drunkenly and says, “Yes, sure, if you want me to.”

     “No,” she insists, “do you want to?”

     Again he says, “If there is room for me. I could stay in the kitchen a few hours before catching the first early train – I have to be somewhere, in any case.”

     “Oh, there’s room, of course there is, we can squeeze up, in any case.”

     But the two girls quickly collapse on the single bed and he and the sour-faced friend are left staring at the thin blanket on the floor, and he knows it would be better not to be there with her. He watches the sad, slope-shouldered woman adjusting the blanket on the floor, there is reluctance hanging off her lank hair, he says to her in an almost silent voice that he could leave if she wants.

     “Yes, that would be easier.”

     It is a few hours to sunrise, there are few hotels, if any, open, they are not worth the expense. “Well, I could just quietly sit in the kitchen for a couple of hours before going out at dawn. I have a book I can read.” But she is still uncertain. “Then you would have to leave the door unbolted after you go, while we sleep – I wouldn’t like that.”

     “I’ll only be here a short time, before morning comes.”

     The woman looks at him, for the first time directly in his eyes; he is unsure but thinks there is a burning resentment, dull embers of revolt lying cold in their sockets. When she goes into the bathroom, he writes his name and contact details on a newspaper lying in the middle of the kitchen-table, leaves it torn off and separate there, slips out the door, down the four flights of stairs before she has come out to put her hair into a knot and join the other girls, snoring like mermaids out of their element, in cold, wet, marine dreams.

     On the boulevardes the Bulgarians are out in force. Half a dozen crowd into a bus-shelter huddling in the cold wind off the sea. He would like the company of warmth with them, only, to still drink and laugh at the foibles of ordinary people, on the other side of life. He understands the sex-workers far better, he believes, than all the others, the bourgeois sea-siders. But as he approaches them they wave him away, throw arms and daggery eyes his way; he has just enough cash still in his pocket to take one of them down to the beach if he wanted, but they don’t want even his money. “No understand – go! Go!!” they shout, their fiery brown angry eyes thrusting him further down into the solitude of empty boulevardes.

     The sea seems to be raging now, in the night wind. He sees little else on this flaneur’s parade: people passed-out in the gutters, dead or dying fish, with the ice cast-out from their ice-boxes. The glinting green of broken wine-bottles gleam against the silvery sheen of the scales. The whole night slides into a green, submarine netherworld where salt, sand, the shame of unwanted sex are the only currency.

     Further towards the sea, under the arch of an old pavilion stretching into the shadows, he sees two figures hunched over an old box on the ground. They are dishevelled, but as old French gentlemen are, and they both look up at him as he passes closer to them. One of the old men holds a chess-piece in his hand – his queen – as he stops and speaks; held like a stone of eternity over the exquisite symmetry of the game beneath his hand.

     “Do you play?” he asks. The face is youthful, intelligent, despite the broken teeth, the breath of cheap port-wine, the archaic waistcoat. And the game, he can see, is a compelling one: the pieces are marked out by an eloquent balance of power, everything held within the frame of the board is necessary, and beautiful. He can see that clearly. “Yes,” he answers. “I play”.

     The man pauses a moment, looks intently at him before asking again, “Do you want to play?”

     Both chess-players stare at him some time before he looks again at the suspended beauty of the game, the queen held in perpetual stasis above it.

     “No”, he answers.

     He doesn’t repeat the word. Once is enough. He already knows he will never hear from the two, sleeping, girls. He wanders away from the men in his still-wet pants, towards the further end of the beach where the waves are strongest, the beautiful, necessary game behind him, he is grateful to see them, high and heavy, pounding down onto the sand, there are few lights there, and the sea-spray in his eyes keeps them blurred, but he staggers down there anyway. He goes down there.

Paris, 2004

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