Clermont-Ferrand, France - May 2009
(Swans - March 8, 2010) - Hey, you help me, please, will you? Cannot find the kiddie today. But it's down there, somewhere, I know. Hurry, I really have to take a leak now, 'been looking for too long...
I know he's talking to me and that pretending not to hear won't deter him. But I try. Monsieur Boyer comes out of the bathroom and taps me on the shoulder, wants me to give him satisfaction. How -- and who -- am I to tell him he can't get no?
- Bonjour, Monsieur Boyer. How's it going today?
- ¡No pasarán! Now, help me get that kiddie out, will you?!
Day after day, the same comic scene is replayed, heartbreaking. The old gentleman's kiddie is down there, indeed, but wrapped safely and tight in a diaper. When he unzips his trousers, his hand only gets a grab at the thickly padded underpants that swaddle him up to the waist. No way in, kiddie's locked. But he tries and tries again, standing in front of the toilet and calling me out for support. Monsieur Boyer is currently living the end of his life in the room next door but he likes to come to my grandmother's when it's nap time. He sits in the armchair next to the bed where she is laying and off they are, to the land of doze. I see the stirring and boiling under their puffed wrinkled eyelids and wonder if the wicked witch named Alzheimer is following them there too. Are they still dreaming, able to? What do dreams and nightmares subsist on, by the way, when the old trickster has already made a selfish feast of their memories, leaving only crumbs of maimed remembrances and a few motes of faded souvenirs you can sometimes see dancing on the cloudy surface of their eyes? Once I couldn't help and asked her. "Did you sleep well, Mamie, had nice dreams?" "Dreams?" she snapped back, "They are not something I can afford, you know. They make you lose contact with reality. To have a good decent life, girl, better keep your feet on the ground. I've told you that already. Can you listen a bit for once?" An awkward pause. A defiant look. And then: "Who are you?" Well, I thought back, I'm just a girl from reality next door, the one you've lost the keys to. There, I used to play your granddaughter. But I said nothing, took her hand of brittle parchment and let the bitter sweet taste of irony pervade my mouth, my thoughts, as I watched her slump back into an agitated slumber, moaning. Dreaming? Maybe her dreams, they are just like my readings of Zadran's Loon Book, desultory and incomplete, distorted and dizzying. Incomprehensibly beautiful. For most of it is written in Persian, a language absolutely foreign to me. I can spend hours, though, wandering and going through these strands of coarse paper covered with the delicate and fascinating convolutions of strange words, indecipherable graceful strokes, whorls from a world afar, each page looking like the surface of a frothing sea, liquid writing which, one wave after the other, leaves the coils of elusive phrases on the sand, a never ending story told in bubbling letters of foam and sophisticated illuminations of seaweeds that no one knows how to read.
(From the Loon Book)
Association Salam - associationsalam.org (helps foreign migrants in the city of Calais)
With one Anita's smile
You kill annuities of exile
Get amenities for miles
And bliss all the while
- I'm sorry, Monsieur Boyer, I cannot help you myself. Do you want me to call the nurse?
- ¡No pasarán! Come on, we don't need the nurse! Gimme a hand, that's it. Don't be afraid of kiddie, does not bite! You 'seen one already, huh?!!
And there he goes, rummaging through his zipper, kiddie stashed, unreachable. Usually he gets tired after a while of mad shoutings and crotch-writhings. ¡No pasarán! Madrid, Spain, 1936: the young Jules Boyer, 18, is a French volunteer of the International Brigades who has traveled to Spain to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Clermont-Ferrand, France, seventy years later: after the proud slogan, They shall not pass!, cruel life has come up with a new one for him, Thou shall not piss! The old Monsieur Boyer, now 88, is facing today another vicious kind of enemy going by the name of Alzheimer. Still fighting for his right...to take a leak. Defeated by that stupid baby barricade of cotton and plastic. He gives up and returns to the armchair by my grandmother's bed. Mamie rouses from sleep and stares at him, a little bewildered, lost. He gently pats her hand that clings to the metallic barriers of her prison bed. "No worry, ma chérie, I'm here, you can go back to sleep." She seems to relax, inmate with a mate, odd couple of intimate strangers. He keeps her hand in his. My heart's heavy at the sight of them, so lovely though. Close Encounter of the Sick Kind. I go out of the room to get a vase for the flowers. Remembering her special fondness for the Lily of the valley, I have brought her some from the old garden, today, clear day of May, hoping that the sweet and powerful scent of the little white bells will be able to ring a souvenir, somewhere in the thickening haze of her memories. There, on the nightstand. The fragrance pervades the room. Mamie seems impervious to it. I'm caught and sent backwards, time travel on a special whiff.
Gardening was Mamie's passion. She had a love for flowers and I spent many delicious hours in the garden as a kid, clinging to her side, digging, planting, cutting, watering, weeding and asking, asking, asking...
- Hey, Mamie, if I dig this hole deep enough, can I reach China on the other side of the Earth?
(I had studied my lighted globe and determined that was where an eastward, --to the west, the north and the south, there were close seas and a big ocean and one cannot dig water, can one?--, where an eastward, therefore, latitudinal and thorough excavating would lead me to: that big enigmatic chunk of a country afar labeled "China." From our garden I was going to dig a tunnel toward the Puy-de-Dôme volcano up the street that would connect with its old cold chimney and from there surely I'd be able to find my way through the magmatic subterranean Gruyère I imagined underneath... My favorite book, back then, was Jules Verne's "Voyage to the Center of the Earth," you see. I was ready to fight back Mamie's reserves on my plan. But to my surprise, they were not quite the ones I expected: "too hard a work for a little girl," "those readings of yours, they're messing up your head! One cannot have a good life with such fool dreams in mind!"...)
- Yes, of course! But you shouldn't.
- Why not?
- Because the people of China, they would use your tunnel to come up and visit back here and they'd stamp on my flowerbeds!
The mere thought of her wrath, were her beloved flowers to be trampled, prevented me to try to dig my way down to the other hemisphere. And China forever remained a realm just a shovel or two of scented black earth away.
(From the Loon Book)
I feel sick
Ali was a blessed man. Name a thing, anything... No, don't even bother: Ali had all of what you can think about naming: fields of gold, big mountains and little sweets, beauties to behold, fountains of silver, wild horses and diamonds, castles of marble and beaches of sand, obeying sons, businesses and devoted servants, honey and respect, a piece of moon, even, power... But to have it all meant Ali had to work hard and be tough and cutting; he had no time to lose. As the years passed Ali had gathered more and more riches. With a considerable exception, though: time. Time was not his most successful asset, far from it. It was scarce and became even scarcer and while Ali was running after it, he grew old and sick. One night, the doctor came to his bedside. Ali of course wanted the truth and truth was given to him, as everything had ever been, save for time, and, precisely, this was down to a matter of time: the doctor told him this was going to be his last night. Ali began to pray. But suddenly he thought he could ask for one more thing, oh, nothing important, a trifle, something so ridiculous that he thought he could not be denied. The answer came from above: no! What?! That seemed so unfair to Ali. He had asked for so little, just to be granted to see the sun rise one more time, just one more time... It's impossible, repeated the dreadful voice. But why? Because you killed your Merchant of Dawn! What?! That's a lie, I didn't kill anyone, moaned the grieving Ali. Oh yes, you did! For years your Merchant of Dawn came on the brink of every single of your nights to prepare your day the best he could and left presents for you everywhere. What gifts? I never found any! Just because you did not take the time to look at them! Each day a new and delicate hue he painted the sky above your head, sewing a fine lace of clouds to your horizon and scattering sweet perfumes on the air you breathed. Each season he made new and delicate trees and flowers blossom for your eyes to be delighted and charmed. You never noticed anything and the fine artist of your day grew more and more desperate. Yesterday morning he decided to become himself part of his daily ignored chef d'oeuvre and donned his most perfect and enthralling outfit. Remember the butterfly that came to you yesterday, the precious patterns on its wings, a Caravaggio drawn on each one, its eyes of crystal and flight of unbearable lightness? When the beautiful thing tried to approach you, you just crushed it carelessly. Your Merchant of Dawn is dead, Ali. There is no one left to prepare the rise of your next day. You invested your time in your riches. But what are they really worth, in the end, when they can be swept away by a butterfly's fluttering wings? Adieu, Ali!
Today Monsieur Boyer has a visitor. It's the first time since Mamie has checked into the retirement home. Sudden knock at her door. I open and appears this little lady made of a huge smile and a pair of talkative baby hands that seem to have grown from the wide beautiful grin, the rest of her remaining unseen, that's how tiny she looks behind that wonderful radiating expression of hers. Anita introduces herself, saying she is looking for Monsieur Boyer. She calls him "Uncle." He calls her nothing, not even seeming to take her presence in. He is after kiddie again. She seems a bit distraught and sits next to me on Mamie's bed. She talks, I listen, and it seems to sooth her. She says she is living too far away to visit Monsieur Boyer often. From way up north, she has come, a place close to the city of Dunkerque, called Loon Plage. She is a retired schoolteacher and has recently volunteered to help the refugees stranded on her distant shore, waiting for their chance to cross the Channel and finally be able to reach the long awaited British Eldorado. Men, women, and children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, each one with a story of war and exile, persecution, fear, solitude, abandon, hunger, despair. Each one with a dream of a little something better. A job. Freedom. A roof. Security. A life, finally. But in France they are just an undesirable bunch. Clandestine. Unwanted. Small stooped silhouettes on the shore, like stakes in the sand, looking over at Dover and its cliffs in the distance, so far away so close, keys to their Brit paradise. But until they find a way to unlock that strange door of open sea and wild salty air, they have to wait here, in Loon Plage, at the cold winds', police's, smugglers' mercy. They have set up a camp in the portion of barren beach facing the Dunkerque ferry terminal now known as "the jungle." Why, do they look like wild beasts, savages? Several times already, their makeshift shelters in the dunes have been bulldozed by the authorities, without warning: no time to gather belongings or prepare before the brutal metallic jaws tear down and crush the little they own. This is where, under a torn tarpaulin, in the cold and the fear, one among the many distresses, Anita has met Zadran's sweet and sad eyes of rosewood, an Afghan poet and former teacher of French literature in Kabul. His knowledge of French was a lot of help to the volunteers and social workers. He was a kind, discreet, humorous man; they spent a lot of time together. But one day, the police came knock knock knocking on Anita's door and told her she had outlawed herself in providing support to illegal residents. She was facing a penal punishment according to Article L 622-1 of the French Code of Entrance and Stay of Foreigners and Asylum Rights:
"Every person who would have, either directly or indirectly, facilitated or attempted to facilitate the forbidden arrival, circulation or stay of a foreigner in France will be punished by 5 years of prison and a fine of 30,000 ."
She grins sadly and starts to list the facilitations she has been found guilty of: facilitation number one, a smile surely; number two, a warm greeting; number three, a coffee, warm also and heavily sugared, offered on a cold day; then number 4, again a warm number, a big blanket to cover shivering shoulders and so went on the count up of her facilitations... Where Anita saw solidarity, authorities detected offence. That simple, normal, heartfelt giving of a humane touch is what has made an outcast of her! She says all this has left her wondering what punishment she would have faced had she let Zadran and the others starve and freeze to death in her garden. But apparently no article of law has yet been written concerning the facilitation of indifference... Anyway, troubles with the police and justice, that's not the worse part, we'll manage. What's eating my heart out is that I was not much of a help, in the end... Silence, a sigh, heavy, and then she goes on:
- There, see, it belonged to him. Often you could see him scribbling in it...
She hands me a small notebook, its cover torn and smeared.
- I found it on the beach... buried in the sand, close to the place his body was discovered.
- Oh, I'm sorry. I thought he was...well...I mean I didn't understand he was...
- Dead. Yes, he's dead. Few days ago. They found him on the beach, early morning of May 2. The day before we had spent together, selling Lily of the valley in the streets as it is the tradition on the 1st of May. I hoped it would help him make some money. But sometime during the day he disappeared, went back to the camp apparently. And next thing he was found lying on the sand with the little bouquets of Lily at his side. Exhaustion, they said. A member of the rescue team told me he believed Zadran had eaten some of the flowers because in his vomit, there were...Oh...I'm sorry...I don't know why I'm telling you all this horrible...
Before I can answer anything, we hear that huge hullabaloo coming from outside Mamie's room.
- Got it! Kiddie's here and working! I told you, see?!!
Deep in our conversation, we had not noticed Monsieur Boyer leaving the room. And now he stands half naked in the middle of the little lobby. He has somehow managed to strip himself up to the waist, gotten rid of the diaper and here he is, brandishing his wrinkled sword, cavalier of a new "Apocalypiss," his penis like a demoniac hose in his hands, sprinkling anyone trying to come close to him while yelling joyously:
- ¡No pasarán!
And for a while, indeed, they do not pass! The flicker of bliss across the old man's face, I'll never forget. But it does not last. When kiddie is down to a painful trickle, the nurses grab him and Anita rushes after them. Monsieur Boyer does not resist, suddenly mute and immobile, as if back stricken by his powerful and ephemeral demonstration de force. The door of his room slams behind them, drowning a last and faint ¡No pasarán!
In the end, of course, they pass. Sadly I go back to Mamie's room, try to make her eat a little. After a while I realize that the little lady made of a smile has forgotten Zadran's Loon Book on my grandmother's bed. I go to Monsieur Boyer's but she is gone, nowhere to be found. I put the fragile testament of sand and paper in my pocket, carefully. At this moment I see the vase of Lily I have just placed on Mamie's nightstand. I grab the flowers, full of rage, and throw them out the window. Couldn't help: there it is again, in the air, Mamie's voice, coming from the garden and decades yonder.
- Go wash your hands now, please!
- The Lily is poisonous, can make you badly sick, and kill you even! How many times shall I tell you? Now go wash your hands and quickly!
Valérie, my cousin, was with us that day. She waited for our grandmother to go inside the house, and then asked me:
- Hey, Kiki, do you think it's true, the poison thing?
- She says so. I don't know.
- Maybe we could try and see.
- See what?
- If it makes us sick.
- If it makes YOU sick! I don't feel like eating Lily anyway, that's disgusting!
(I should have called my grandmother, I know. But I must confess I was curious to see if Valérie would just drop dead. Oh, just a little bit dead, of course, not completely dead. I liked her very much, mind you! I watched her as she put the little white bells in her "pain au chocolat" and chewed it all with a defiant superior look. She seemed okay afterwards. And then she started to complain about horrible cramps in her stomach. She began to vomit, seemed to be feeling really bad. The doctor came and went. I did not believe she was sick. I thought she was faking it all, probably the reason why I did not say a word about what had occurred in the garden. Neither did she, by the way. For fear of Mamie's predictably fierce retaliation. Valérie survived but after that, it was never the same between us. She reproached me my not telling the adults about the Lily munching. The fact that I did not was the proof for her that I had wished her death. I invariably answered that she could have confessed it also.
- How could I have told Mamie I tried to commit a Lily suicide?
A Lily suicide! I had not thought about it that way. And suddenly, because of the jolly poetic sound of the name, the stupid deed took on a romantic aura in my mind.
(From the Loon Book, last entry)
The seagulls overhead
There's a man, dead,
On their beach
A good piece of bread
Later the same afternoon: after the smile named Anita, the death of the lone Afghan poet on Loon beach and Monsieur Boyer's turbulent piss-full one man show, I am back to the garden and sitting on the old bench, in front of the bed of Lily. I will call Anita later in Loon Plage and see what we are to do concerning Zadran's forgotten notebook. I am fascinated by the Persian writing. Here and there among the pages there are some clues to be found, strewn throughout my impossible reading, a few passages in French, little souvenirs, dried flowers, tickets, the little photo of a baby girl, insufficient, though. And here I am, once again, thirty years later, still wondering if I should tell the adults about the Lily chewing, tell Anita that maybe Zadran has committed suicide. A Lily suicide. Would the poetic ending relieve her a little from the guilt she feels about his death? Or maybe you really have to be ten years old to believe there are romantic ways of dying. Then Anita is too old.
Tears start forming in my eyes. ¡No pasarán! As I am fighting them back, an unexpected ray of sun suddenly strikes the bed of Lily. And there he is, hidden behind a leaf, the little guy from China, betrayed by his shadow. Or is the late sun playing a trick on me? I run inside for my camera. Click-clack! Now, you see it also, don't you? The Celestial Child, his plaited hair not the slightest bit tousled from the long trip from China through my old tunnel! Terrific! Mamie, Mamie, you were right, the Chinese, they are coming to visit us! My thoughts fly toward these other migrants stranded in Loon Plage, Zadran's friends, standing frozen and desperate at the forbidden entry of another tunnel, the big undersea Chunnel: hopefully the apparition of the little Chinese boy in my garden is good omen to them. I want to believe that soon they will reach Britain and find their place in that other theater of lights and shadows, the bigger, scarier one: life. I take a deep breath, the air is heavy with the Lily's perfume. I want to shout.
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About the Author
Christine Spadaccini, born in 1965, is a French author whose work includes two books, Aïe Love You (MiC-MaC, 2007) and Existe en Ciel (MiC-MaC, 2008), and the translation of Andrew Holleran's Grief -- Le passant chagrin (MiC-MaC, 2008). An adult novel, Le voyage en Argentique, and a book for children, Les idées zarbi du cafard Felu, will soon be published by Éditions Laura Mare. Spadaccini lives in Clermont Ferrand, France. (back)