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JUST PASSING THROUGH
The city was open to the nomad.
Colin Charteris climbed out of his Banshee into the northern square, to stand for a moment stretching. Sinews and bones flexed and dainty. The machine beside him creaked and snapped like a landed fish, metal cooling after its long haul across the turnpikes of Europe. Behind them the old cathedral, motionless though not recumbent.
Around them, the square fell away. Low people moved in a lower alley.
Charteris grabbed an old stiff jacket from the back seat and flung it round his shoulders, thinking how driver-bodies FTL towards disaster in a sparky modern way. He jacketed his eyes.
He was a hero at nineteen, had covered the twenty-two hundred kilometres from Catanzaro down on the Ionian Sea to Metz, department of Moselle, France, in thirty hours, sustaining on the way no more than a metre-long scar along the front offside wing. A duelling scratch, kiss of life and death.
The sun faded pale and low over St-Étienne into the flyspecks of even turn. He needed a bed, company, speech. Maybe even revelation. He felt nothing. All his animating images were of the past, yesterday's bread.
Outside Milano, one of the great freak-out areas of all time where the triple autostrada made of the Lombardy plain a geometrical diagram, his red car had flashed within inches of a multiple crash. They were all multiple crashes these days.
The image continued to multiply itself over and over in his mind, contusing sense, confusing past with future: a wheel still madly spinning, crushed barriers, gauged and gaudied metal, fanged things, snapped head-bone, sunlight worn like thick make-up over the impossibly abandoned catagasms of death. Stretching in the square, he saw it still happen, fantastic speeds suddenly swallowed by car and human frame with that sneering sloth of the super-quick, where anything too fast for retina-register could spend forever spreading through the labyrinths of consciousness.
They still died and cavorted, those cavortees, in the bonebox in Metz cathedral square, infection spreading, life stuttering. But by another now, they would, the bodies would, the bits would all be neatly packaged in hospital mortuary, a mass embroidering the plain-burning candles in an overnight crypt, the autostrada gleaming in perfect action again, the rescue squads lolling at their wheels in the Rastplatz reading paperbacks. Charteris' primitive clicker-shutter mechanisms were busy still rerunning the blossoming moment of impact.
Pretending, he forced his gaze over the cathedral. It was several centuries old but built of a coarse yellow stone that made it — prematurely flood-lit in the early evening — look like a Victorian copy of an earlier model. Europe was stuffed with these old edifices and more lay in the strata below, biding their time, soundless, windowless.
The ground fell steeply at the other end of the square. Steps led down to a narrow street all wall on one side and on the other all prim little drab narrow French worn façades of hutches closing all their shutters against the general statement of the cathedral.
Across one of the houses a sign read, 'Hôtel des Invalides'.
'"Krankenhaus'" Charteris said.
He dragged a grip out of the boot of the Banshee and made towards the shabby hotel, walking like a warrior across desert, a pilot over a runway after mission ninety-nine, a cowboy down silent Main Street. He played it up, grunting every other stride. He was nineteen.
The other cars in the square were a scratch bunch, all with French neutral numberplates. Removing his gaze from his own landscapes, Charteris saw that this part of the square functioned as a used car lot. Some of the cars had been in collisions. Prices in francs were painted on each windscreen. The cars stood apart in their corral, nobody watching them, no longer itinerant.
This city seemed closed to the nomad. The Hôtel des Invalides had a brass handle to its door. Charteris dragged it down and stepped into the hall beyond, in unmitigated shadow. A bell buzzed and burned insatiably until he closed the door behind him.
As he walked forward, eyes adjusting, the hall took on existence — and another existence patterned with patterned tiles where other people jurassickly thickened the air and a shadowed saint stood upstairs in dim — and dusty detail. A pot plant languished here beside an enormous piece of furniture, a rectangular and malignant growth of mahogany, or it could be an over-elaborate doorway into a separate part of the establishment. On the walls, enormous pictures of blue-clad soldiers being blown up among scattering sandbags.
A small dense coffin-shaped figure emerged at the end of the passage, black in the black evening light. He drew near and saw it was a woman with permed hair, not old, not young, smiling at him.
'Haben Sie ein Zimmer? Ein Personn, eine Nacht?'
'Ja, monsieur. Mit eine Dusche oder ohne?'
'Zimmer Nummer Zwanzig, monsieur. Ist gut.'
German. The lingua franca of Europe.
The madame gestured, called for a girl who came hurrying, lithe and dark-haired, carrying the grand key to Room Twenty. Madame gestured again, disappeared. The girl led Charteris up three flights of stairs, first flight marble, second and third flights wooden, the third being uncarpeted. Each landing was adorned as the hall had been, with large pictures of Frenchmen dying or killing Germans; the period was the first world war.
'So this is where it all began,' he said to the back of the girl, ascending.
She paused and looked down at him uninterested. 'Je ne comprends pas, M'sieur.'
That's not a French accent, any more than Madame's was Kraut, he told himself.
No windows had been opened on these landings for a long while. The air was tarnished with all the bottled lives that had suffered here, pale daughters, spluttering grandfathers with backache. Constriction, miserliness, conservation, inhibition, northern Europe, due for any any change, good Christians all rejoice. Red limbs leaped again as if for joy within the bucketting autostrada cars. Leaping death always to be preferred to desiccating life — if there were only those two alternatives.
His own quicksilver life proved there were decks full of alternatives.
But those only two — how he dreaded both, how his crimson-bound fantasy life shuttled between them, seeking the releases. You must choose, Charteris, the grim man said tight-lipped: one more deadly mission over the Mekong Delta, or else spend ten years in the hotel in Metz, full board!
He was breathing hard by the time they reached the threshold of Zimmer Twenty. By opening his mouth, he could gasp in air without the girl hearing. She would be older than he — maybe twenty-two. Pretty enough. Took the long hard climb well. Dark. Rather angular calves but good ankles. Stifling here, of course.
Motioning her to stay, he marched past her into the room. As he crossed to one of the two tall windows, he threw his grip onto the bed, noting the loose-cash jingle of springs. He worked at the window-bar until it gave and the two halves of the window swung into the room. He breathed deep. Other poisons. France!
A great drop on this side of the hotel. Small in the street below, two bambini pulling a white dog on a lead. Looking up at him, they became merely two faces with fat arms and hands. Thalidomites. The images of ruin and deformity everywhere. England must be better. Nothing could be worse than France.
Buildings on the other side of the alley. A woman moving in a room, discerned through curtains. Further, a waste site, two cats stalking each other through litter, dryly computing the kinetics of copulation. A drained canal bed full of waste and old cans. Wasn't that also a crushed automobile? A notice scrawled large on a ruined wall: NEUTRAL FRANCE THE ONLY FRANCE.
Certainly they had managed to preserve their neutrality to the bitter end; their experience in the two previous world wars had encouraged that sort of tenacity.
Beyond the ruined wall, a tree-lined street of unnecessary wideness, with the Prefecture at the end of it. One policeman visible. A street light waking among bare winter branches. France!
Turning back into the room, Charteris surveyed its furnishings. He approved that they should be all horrible. Madame was consistent. The washbasin was grotesque, the lighting arrangements of a frankish hideousness, and the bed expressly designed for early rising.
The girl told him, watching for his reaction. Two thousand six hundred and fifty francs including free lighting. He had to have the figure repeated. His French was poor and he was unused to the recent devaluation.
'I'll take the room. Are you from Metz, M'amselle?'
'No, I'm Italian.'
Pleasure rose in him, a sudden feeling of gratitude that not all good things had been eroded. In this rotten stuffy room, it was as if he breathed again the air of the mountains.
'I've been living in Italy since the war, right down south in Catanzaro,' he told her in Italian.
She smiled. 'I am from the south, from Calabria, from a little village in the mountains that you won't have heard of.'
'Tell me. I might have heard it. I was doing NUNSACS work down there. I got about.'
She told him the name of the village and he had not heard of it. They laughed.
'But I have not heard of NUNSACS,' she said. 'It is a Calabrian town? No?'
He laughed again, chiefly for the pleasure of doing it and seeing its effect on her. 'NUNSACS is a New United Nations organisation for settling and if possible rehabilitating war victims. We have several large encampments down along the Ionian Sea.'
The girl was not listening to what he said. 'You speak Italian well but you aren't Italian. Are you German?'
'I'm Serbian — a Jugoslav. Haven't been home to Serbia since I was a boy. Now I'm driving northwards to England.'
As he spoke, he heard Madame calling the girl impatiently. The girl moved towards the door, smiled at him — a sweet and shadowy smile that seemed to explain her existence — and was gone.
Charteris took his grip to the bamboo table under the window. He stood staring for a long while at the dry canal bed; the detritus in it made it look like an archaeological dig that had uncovered remains of an earlier industrial civilisation. He finally unzipped the bag but unpacked nothing.
Madame was working in the bar when he went down. Several of the little tables in the room were occupied by local people, jigsaw pieces. The room was large and dispiriting, the big dark wood bar on one side was dwarfed and somehow set apart from the functions it was supposed to serve, a tabernacle for pernod. In one corner of the chamber, a television set flickered, most of those present contriving to sit and drink so that they kept an eye on it, as if it were an enemy or at best an uncertain friend. The only exceptions to this rule were two men at a table set apart; they talked industriously to each other, resting their wrists on the table but using their hands to emphasise points in the conversation. Drab eyes, imperious gestures. One of these men, who grew a puff of beard under his lower lip, soon revealed himself as M'sieur.
Behind M'sieur's table, standing in one corner by a radiator, was a bigger table, a solemn table, spread with various articles of secretarial and other use. This was Madame's table, and to this she retired to work with some figures when she was not serving her customers behind the funereal bar. Tied to the radiator was a large and mangy young dog, who whined at intervals and flopped continually into new positions, as though the floor had been painted with anti-dog powder. Madame occasionally spoke mildly to it, but her interests clearly lay elsewhere.
All this Charteris took in as he sat at a table against the wall, sipping a pernod, waiting for the serving girl to appear. He saw these people as victims of an unworkable capitalistic system dying on its feet. They were extinct in their clothes. The girl came after some while from an errand in the back regions, and he motioned her over to his table.
'What's your name?'
'Mine's Charteris. That's what I call myself. It's an English name, a writer's name. I'd like to take you out for a meal.'
'I don't leave here till late — ten o'clock.'
'Then you don't sleep here?'
Some of the softness went out of her face as caution, even craftiness, overcame her; momentarily, he thought, she's just another lay, but there will be endless complications to it in this set-up, you can bet! She said, 'Can you buy some cigarettes or something? I know they're watching me. I'm not supposed to be intimate with customers.'
He shrugged. She walked across to the bar. Charteris watched the movement of her legs, the action of her buttocks, trying to estimate whether her knickers would be clean or not. He was fastidious. Italian girls generally washed more scrupulously than Serbian girls. Bright legs flashing behind torn windscreen. Angelina fetched down a packet of cigarettes from a shelf, put them on a tray, and carried them across to him. He took them and paid without a word. All the while, the M'sieur's eyes were on him, stains in the old poilu face.
Charteris forced himself to smoke one of the cigarettes. They were vile. Despite her neutrality in the Acid Head War, France had suffered from shortages like everyone else. Charteris had been pampered, with illegal access to NUNSACS cigars, which he enjoyed.
He looked at the television. Faces swam in the green light, talking too fast for him to follow. There was some excitement about a cycling champion, a protracted item about a military parade and inspection, shots of international film stars dining in Paris, something about a murder hunt somewhere, famine in Belgium, a teachers' strike, a beauty queen. Not a mention of the two continents full of nutcases who no longer knew where reality began or ended. The French carried their neutrality into every facet of life, with TV their eternal nightcap.
When Charteris had finished his pernod, he went over and paid Madame at her table and walked out into the square.
It was night, night in its early stages when the clouds still carried hints of daylight through the upper air. The floodlighting was gaining on the cathedral, chopping it into alternate vertical sections of void and glitter; it was a cage for some gigantic prehistoric bird. Beyond the cage, the traffic on the motorway could be heard, snarling untiringly.
He went and sat in his car and smoked a cigar to remove the taste of the caporal, although sitting in the Banshee when it was motionless made him uneasy. He thought about Angelina and whether he wanted her, decided on the whole he did not. He wanted English girls. He had never even known one but, since his earliest days, he had longed for all things English, as another man he knew yearned for anything Chinese. He had dropped his Serbian name to christen himself with the surname of his favourite English writer.
About the present state of England, he imagined he had no illusions. When the Acid Head War broke out, undeclared, Kuwait had struck at all the prosperous countries. Britain had been the first nation to suffer the PCA Bomb — the Psycho-Chemical Aerosols that propagated psychotomimetic states, twilight ruptured its dark cities. As a nunsacs official, he could guess the disorder he would find there.
Before England, there was this evening to be got through ... He had said such things so often to himself. Life was so short, and also so full of desolating boredom and the flip voluptuousness of speed-death. Acid Head victims all over the world had no problems of tedium; their madnesses precluded it; they were always well occupied with terror or joy, which ever their inner promptings led them to; that was why one envied the victims one tried to 'save'. The victims never grew tired of themselves.
The cigar tasted good, extending its mildness all round him like a mist. Now he put it out and climbed from the car. He knew of two alternative ways to pass the evening before it was time to sleep; he could eat or he could find sexual companionship. Sea, he thought, the mysticism of materialism. It was true. He sometimes needed desperately the sense of a female life impinging on his with its unexplored avenues and possibilities, so stale, so explored, were his own few reactions. Back to his mind again came the riotous movements of the autostrada victims, fornicating with death.
On his way towards a lighted restaurant on the far side of the square, he saw another method by which to structure the congealing time of a French evening. A down-at-heel cinema was showing a film called SEX ET BANG BANG. He glanced up at the ill-painted poster, showing a near-naked blonde with an ugly shadow like a moustache across her face, as he passed. Lies he could take, not disfigurements.
Excerpted from Barefoot in the Head by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1969 Brian Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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