Paris Vagrant. Fiction from Michael Paul Hogan

I often wander through the streets of Paris completely destitute, wearing a corduroy jacket and a workingman’s cap, accompanied only by the sound of the nails in the soles of my boots as I clatter and spark beside the quais and under the bridges along the banks of the Seine – although sometimes, from the shadows of an archway, a voice will cry out,

          “Bonjour, Monsieur le Vagabond!”

          “Bonjour, Jean-Jacques le Chapardeur!”

          “Are you come to repay the cigarette I gave you?”

          “The cigarette from the cigarette case you stole in the Luxembourg Gardens?”

          “The cigarette you owe me, you thieving swine.”

          “The cigarette that burns like a candle in your sister’s eye socket? Adieu, mon ami.”

          “Va au diable!”

          “Farewell.”

          The nights are cold but the dawns are colder. Even the sparks I strike off the cobblestones are as cold as stars. Sometimes a man will approach me, a well-dressed man, a man in a knee-length overcoat and with turn-ups on his well-cut trousers and wearing English-style leather shoes, a man who will congratulate me on my poverty – 

          “You must be a poet, my son. To be so poor is to understand the passion of Rimbaud and Villon. Do you understand what I mean by the word passion?”

          “I think I do, sir. It means suffering.”

          “To suffer is a gift, my son, a gift you must use as the vagabond poets of the streets used it before you. Here – ”

and then put a hundred-Franc note in my dirt-engrained hand.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you!”

I look up from the almost unbelievable piece of paper, but he is gone, his footsteps deadened by the mist that haunts the early morning river, only the echo of his parting phrase

“Je vous en prie! Spend it not wisely, my son, but well!”

hanging in the damp and dismal air like the music of a bal musette

*

I wake up in darkness – not the darkness of night, but the beautiful sub-aquatic darkness of a room from which the sunlight has been filtered through window blinds and green velvet curtains that hang from ceiling to floor. The darkness of safety. Of tranquility. Of caves in the sides of mountains that hide behind waterfalls…

          Of bathyspheres lowered by winches and cables through the depths of the oceans to the bottom of the sea…

*

“Wake up! Wake up, why won’t you?”

          The knocking on the door is like physical pain, the anticipation of the next blow worse than the pain of the last – 

          “Open the door. We know you’re in there!”

          To open the door would be to die. To open the door would be to let Death enter, a form of suicide, as impossible, as appalling, as truly sickening as the contemplation of a pavement ten / twelve stories below, the crack of one’s head on icy concrete, the echo of the shattering of one’s skull, the sound of fists on a sanctuary door, the voices goading you to Jump! Jump! Jump!

          “Open up, damn you! You know you can’t stay in there forever!”

          I grind my face into the pillow and clutch the counterpane until my knuckles turn white. I say (but softly, so softly that only a sparrow on a chimney pot in Montmartre can hear),

          “Yes, I can! Yes, I can! Yes, I can…”

*

I stand up from the floating platform upon which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are lounging behind identical pairs of blue-tinted silver-framed sun spectacles and dive in a perfect arc into the turquoise-lacquered golden-rippled Cap d’Antibes.

*

The captain of the Marie Roget tightened the lid of the bathysphere one last time, saluted us through the thickened glass observation window, and gave orders for Professor Apollinax and myself to be lowered into the deep…

          How extraordinary to descend through strata beneath strata of seemingly infinite varieties of blue then green then previously unknown variations of purple, ending (or merely beginning?) with the profoundest, most psychologically oppressive expression of black! The fish that populate these deeps are of a nature so grotesque to be almost fantastical. They are translucent white and carry their own illumination with which to penetrate the infernal dark. Some have stalks on their heads that carry electric bulbs like wilting flowers; others are studded with lights and thus resemble illuminated bateaux mouches on the Paris Seine. After thirty or forty minutes of awed silence I turned to Professor Apollinax and said,

          “My dear Professor, I do believe we have entered a world of which God is as ignorant as we.”

          “My earnest fear,” replied the Professor, “is that God is ignorant of our world and that we have intruded into the world of God…”

*

I smoke a cigarette in the semi-darkness of my room and pray the silence will continue. Just time, I hear myself asking, just time to drink one more glass of cognac, to smoke one more from a sky-blue packet of Gauloises caporal… The smoke hangs in the air, undulating, ululating, rippling the way jellyfish ripple in the South China Sea…

*

After three hours of continuous descent, during which Professor Apollinax filled an entire notebook with detailed sketches and commentaries, I began to experience an alternative reality in which I was the occupant of a balloon taking off from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris on a cold (it was cold in the bathysphere) December afternoon. The fish, with their extraordinary lamp-like illuminations, became a circle of photographers, all of whom wore top hats, their flash-bulbs exploding, the puffs of smoke hanging and then dissolving in the chilly air. I waved my handkerchief from the basket, acknowledging the cheers of a small but enthusiastic crowd. The anchors were cut free. I was almost immediately fifty feet above the ground.

          How beautiful the roofs of Paris are, seen from their own elevation, dusted with a gorgeous chiaroscuro of soot and snow! I turned up the collar of my overcoat and floated over the Quartier Latin of Montparnasse, the windows and skylights of the artists’ ateliers flickering silver and yellow in the rapidly darkening late afternoon, an occasional face framed in the anguish of composition as I (and my balloon) floated only a few feet from the grimy slates and silhouetted chimney tops. Hola! In one an artist with his back to me was painting a model who lay naked on a divan. The model was a strikingly beautiful young girl of maybe nineteen, but the portrait on the canvas was an extraordinary collage of seemingly random colours and shapes. As though to see a balloon floating just outside the window was the most natural thing in the world, the girl acknowledged my presence with the merest flicker of a smile, an almost imperceptible enlargement of one eye, both of which I returned with the smallest of bows. A few moments later my gondola bumped against the begrimed and frosty pane of a writer’s garret. The writer, his eyes reddened with lack of sleep and excess of absinthe, looked up from his manuscript and assumed such a look of astonishment that I immediately feared for what little might be left of his sanity and was pleased when the balloon drifted up and over the rooftop, its basket dislodging a slate as it gained the comparative freedom of the smoky Paris sky. Thus it was that while Professor Apollinax plunged further down into the depths of the ocean, his voyage illuminated by the lamps of undersea creatures previously unknown to science, I made a mirror-image ascent, my own extraordinary journey lit by the infinite and gorgeous familiarity of the stars…

*

I fear the clock. The clock is perfectly round and has two bells that are activated by the minute hand. The clock is black enamel and has a white face printed with twelve numbers that sometimes I cannot understand. The person in an adjacent bed, back then, once told me how to stop the minute hand from reaching the point where the nurses and the men with their own clock-white faces rush in. It is as easy, he said, as putting your hand through the mirror. Even your whole body, he said, can pass through a mirror, but to stop the moon from crossing the sky requires years of meditation – meditation which, he went on to confide, he had himself undertaken in the mountains of Shangri La. “There was one occasion,” he said, “are you listening, my friend?”

          “I’m listening.”

          “It was on the third night of the Lantern Festival in the ninth lunar month of the year I was reborn as Hu Yue Liang. I said farewell to my teacher, my laoshi, and walked out of the temple where I had studied The Way for nine hundred and ninety-nine days. The ice underneath my bare feet was like broken glass – like broken glass, my friend! Are you listening?”

          “I’m listening.”

          “And the moon, the full moon, was as big as – ”

          “As big as?”

          “ – as the eye of infinity, my friend, as a black hole filled with the tears of God! And yet as small as a doubloon nailed to the mast of a whaling ship. My feet bled ’til the snow turned crimson, but I felt no pain. No pain at all! It is strange, is it not?, that pills so small can make everything stop, even the rain…”

          But the clock, I’d said, what about the clock?

          “With a wand made from a feather from the roc that Sinbad slew on his seventh voyage. And, ah, my friend, what extraordinary travels we will have together in search of that!”

*

The base of the floating platform ripples in the clear blue water, the faces of Scott and Zelda shimmering into focus above the sunlit surface of the sea. I burst through the dancing golden glimmer and grasp a hand and shake the water out of my eyes and laugh, the water gallooping and galoshing around the sudden unwieldiness of the platform’s reinforced base, the hand holding mine and guiding me to the rope handles that effect a leverage up and out of the blue. I’m aware of a girl in a turquoise bathing costume reclining sideways on one elbow, smoking a cigarette in a black and silver holder, beholding me with casual amusement, and then hoisting myself up onto the platform in a slither of hands and knees. Scott pours me a glass of white wine from a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse in an ice bucket and Zelda throws me a an enormous blue and white towel embroidered with the name of L’Hotel du Cap. The girl in the turquoise bathing suit continues to study me for maybe thirty seconds then casually turns away.  

*

I must have slept. I opened my eyes and was momentarily disorientated. It was nothing but natural to transpose my confusion to my companion. I said,

“Are you alright, Professor Apollinax?”

His eyes twinkled behind his spectacles. Instead of twinkled I might have said radiated. When he spoke his voice positively burbled with excitement – excitement he was at very few pains to suppress. He said,

          “Alright? You ask me if I am alright? Ah, my dear young fellow, look out of the starboard port and see what I see…”

          I looked as directed and gradually, through the murk with which, albeit briefly, I had allowed my eyes to become unaccustomed, an extraordinary thing came into focus. I said,

          “I see a peculiar creature, professor. And a rather big one too, by all accounts.”

          Professor Apollinax chuckled and rubbed his hands together over his knees. He said,

          “Not merely a creature, nor merely a big one either. Oh, my dear boy, this is the greatest moment of my life – I have seen a living Plesiosaur!”

*

“My incidents, as you call them, are nobody’s business but my own. Occasionally, I admit, I confine myself in my room, but I forcefully insist that solitude is simultaneously man’s greatest freedom and greatest right. That paradox, Monsieur le Docteur, is something that, with your pedant’s lack of irony, you fail to understand – worse, you fail in every aspect of empathy that, I would most keenly have thought and you should most keenly be aware, is part of the essential, the quintessential makeup of the practitioner who seeks access to the intricacies of the human mind. My mind, my dear Sigmund Fraud, ist ein System von sehnsüchtigen Trugbildern zusammen mit einer Abweisung der Wirklichkeit, wie finden wir nirgends sonst aber in einem Zustand der glücklichen halluzinatorischen Verwirrung. I am insane only to the point at which I act entirely in concordance with the dictates on my own, my original and unique mind. And if every mind is simultaneously unique and discreet then we are either all of us or none of us insane. Ah, Herr Doktor, what do you think of that! Hola! Your silence betrays either a jealousy of superior intellectual capability or a merely inadequate presence of mind. Of mind! Of all the minds in this clinic, only the clocks are insane. And I have a plan to deal with them – indeed! And now if you will excuse me, Monsieur Froid, I will accompany my next incident with a glass of Jerez and an intimately slender Dutch cigar.

          “Would you care to join me?”   

*

The Incident of the Slate

“Sacre bleu! What on earth was that?”

          I often wander through the streets of Paris completely destitute, wearing a corduroy jacket and a workingman’s cap, accompanied only by the sound of the nails in the soles of my boots as I clatter and spark beside the quais and under the bridges along the banks of the Seine – although sometimes, from the shadows of an archway, a voice will cry out

          “Sacre bleu! Faites attention! Attention, monsieur!”

          and a slate will pass close enough to my ear to whisper Hello before shattering on the cobblestones of the pavement beside me. And across the street the shadow of the gondola of a balloon will darken the chairs and the tables of the Café de Paris, and glancing upwards I will see a face – no, in fact, two faces: the face of the otherwise obscure assistant of Professeur Honore de Saint-Sulspice d’Appolinax de l’Academie Francaise, the internationally famous pioneer of submarine exploration, and the pale, emaciated, anxious face of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, sickened with absinthe and laudanum and the stress of impersonating the bedridden Baudelaire. And then I will look down at the (now shattered) slate and pick up a shard of it and put the shard in my pocket as a souvenir – as a memory, in the literal meaning of the word – and I will touch the rim of my cap to Jean-Jacques le Charpardeur

          “Une cigarette, mon ami?”

          “Va te faire foutre, vous maudit voleur.”

          and chuck him a crumpled pack of Gitanes and say,

“Be kind to me, Jean-Jacques. I know how to stop the clocks and the moon. From a man whose feet trod on broken glass.”

“You do not impress me with your pitiful charity. Now fuck off and leave me in peace.”

“Au revoir. En paix.”

“Va tu.”

Touching the shard of slate through the corduroy of my jacket pocket, much as a man of superstition might touch a rosary or a rabbit’s foot or a medallion of St. Francis – or perhaps even a centime picked up from the puddle of a pissoir – I will turn up my collar, tilt my cap to the breeze, and listen to the echo of my own boot-nails as I exhibit my freedom along the white-painted wards of the sanitarium, among the extraordinary creatures of the sub-marine, in chance encounters beside the moonlit ripples of the Seine…

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