An Elephant

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Chapter 4: Giovanni

Chapter 4: Giovanni

‘The Indian elephant is said sometimes to weep.’

- Charles Darwin


“I like to know exactly what’s happening, all the time” explained Giovanni. He was approaching Place St George from the west, down the shop-lined, pedestrian-only Rue Marcel Pagnol. He was accompanied by Riccardo, who had been allocated as his partner back at the station. Riccardo was receiving a briefing on the locale, prior to finding a quiet vantage point to watch proceedings unfold. Out of his police uniform for the day, Giovanni was the local police sergeant, on duty and acting as a plain clothes ‘spotter’, something previously unfamiliar to him.

Giovanni had a loud voice and was a little full of himself, but he was always very jovial and had a certain twinkle in his eye. Most people liked him immediately. He had a round, sun-reddened face and nicotine-yellowed teeth, but he smiled almost constantly, and this confidence and outgoing disposition gave him a certain charm, even for the man of forty eight that he was. This is what made Giovanni a good local community policeman – he was approachable and open-minded, and this allowed him to get an ear to the local street gossip. He also knew when to turn a blind eye to petty matters.

His companion Riccardo was also a policeman, but had been sent over on detail from Sicily, specially posted for the World Cup. Riccardo’s departmental assignment was also that of a spotter, so he was also dressed in civilian clothes, Italian style. Dressed more like he was from Milan than from a fishing village just outside Messina, he wore stylish beige tailored shorts, a short sleeved ivory linen shirt, with a small black Prada rucksack, worn backwards, so that it hung over his chest.

Riccardo took a soft pack of Marlborough Reds out of his shorts and tapped a disposable lighter out of the packet, followed by a cigarette. He offered it to Giovanni and then took one of his own. He was there only to survey the crowds and check for signs of football violence, and possibly film them if he was able. His orders were not to get involved - which suited him down to the ground – he was only to report any potential action, organised or otherwise, from hooligans or ‘ultras’ as he would normally call them, back in Italy.

As they walked, Giovanni nodded cheerfully at his friend Laurent, who was serving some pizza from his pavement stall. Laurent waived back enthusiastically.

It’s far too hot to be standing next to all that cooked food he thought.

They would soon be at their target area: Place St George. It was not long after noon, but the temperature was still rising and Giovanni was glad of the shade offered by the buildings to his right. Amongst the few familiar faces, there was a steady stream of football tourists there for the England - Tunisia game. They were busily trying on sunglasses, drinking excitedly, taking photos and spontaneously bursting into song every now and again. They were interspersed with the odd tourist who seemed to be there, purely because it was Marseille’ Vieux Port.

Nothing particularly threatening here... he thought and a surprising amount of attractive females, too.

The two had been talking about their beloved native Sicily, and about how it was often underrated and overlooked as a source of ancient knowledge and culture. They had discussed how Archimedes was born there, and that his eureka moment was in Syracuse, not in Greece, as is often assumed. They had also discussed the Carthaginian colonies and the Byzantines.

Giovanni smelled merguez on the breeze.

“ …And God I miss the food” said Giovanni, suddenly thinking of swordfish. “I think I miss my mother’s Braccioli di pesce spada the most. Oh, and Vitello alla Marsala. If only I’d known you were coming I would have asked you to bring a good Marsala with you.”

“Gio!” shouted a familiar voice, it was Fabrice, who played in the same petanque club. Fabrice walked out of his boulangerie and shook Giovanni’s hand warmly. “What a game you played last night! I’ve never liked that idiot that you beat in the final. You had better watch out next Saturday though, I’ll be wearing my lucky pants.” He was already walking away. “Got to go, loads to do… see you soon. Look after yourself!”

“I can’t remember the last time I saw Fabrice win a game” laughed Giovanni. “The amount of Pastis he’s had to buy me over the years, you wouldn’t believe.” He smiled with satisfaction, but Riccardo’s mind seemed elsewhere.

“Not too much to report for the moment” said Riccardo, optimistically, in French. The two were mixing French and Italian, as Giovanni had been born in Sicily, and had lived in Palermo until the age of six; this was why they had been partnered up back at the station, but it had quickly become apparent, even to Giovanni, that his schoolboy Italian was nowhere near as fluent as he had claimed. Riccardo’s French was not much better, but they were muddling through a conversation well enough.

Giovanni had found Riccardo to be passionate about a lot during their short acquaintance, but at times he also seemed to have a certain emotional distance, which he found very un-Sicilian.

“Have you seen a lot of football violence in Italy then? What sort of things go on?” asked Giovanni, thinking about the possible danger ahead, and what he should expect.

“It’s difficult to say,” came the answer “the problem with these people is that they’re so unpredictable,” began Riccardo. “Category 3 criminals are the ones organising the meetings and are the root of the problem. Category 1 are the people who will probably run away and will not intervene, or join in with anything, even if they see it. The thing is, the vast majority are Category 2. They’re not normally violent people, but feel unavoidably drawn to it when it occurs under these conditions, like a moth to a flame. I suppose it’s partly out of curiosity, partly with the excitement of the moment: the mass hysteria and adrenalin grab them and they find themselves doing stuff they would never really see themselves doing, under any other circumstances. Have you ever seen any footage filmed from a helicopter?”

“No.” Riccardo had been telling stories of his specialist training for much of the morning, and Giovanni had no such experience, so found it fascinating.

“When the crowd and the mood hit a critical mass, you get this writhing whirlwind of people, you can only really see it from above.”

So Sicilian thought Giovanni, as Riccardo gestured energetically with his hands. Just like Papa.

“From above, you can see that people out on the edge of the ‘hurricane’ are just standing around, but when the hooligan swarm touches them, they simply get sucked up into the moment of mayhem. As the violence of the group takes them, they take on the characteristics of the mass themselves, breaking and smashing everything, attacking the opposing fans, police, anything in their path.”

Giovanni was conjuring a mental image of this happening on his patch, and he didn’t like it one bit. Riccardo continued:

“As the eye of the storm moves away from them, they calm themselves, and the further from the source, the weaker the exertion of the will to destroy. Afterwards, when they’ve been left behind by the chaos, they’re back to just standing around again, nursing any wounds and regrouping with their friends to discuss their individual moments.”

Jesus thought Giovanni. “What can we do to prevent this mass hysteria starting off in the first place?” he asked.

“Very little, short of police charges and water cannons and that kind of thing. The key is to stop it before it starts. That’s why I’m here, to report it the second I see anything brewing, and call for CRS assistance. The riot guys will nip it in the bud.”

“There is no excuse for violence, whether your mates are rioting or not.”

“Of course not. When I started out in this section back in Palermo, we were given a lot of case studies, and the big surprise to me was that most of them are Category 2, and fairly normal people under normal circumstances. The serious, influential types are actually pretty rare, but just like normal people that can be sent off to war and be conditioned to act accordingly, so normal members of the public can be conditioned into uncharacteristic behaviour, in the short term. They only need to be away from home and immersed in a partisan atmosphere. Drugs and alcohol don’t help.

“It is the dangerous category 3’s that are the prime targets for us. Get them out of the equation, and we should hopefully have less Category 2’s falling into it, just because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve had to look at hundreds of photos of English supporters, I’ve even got a file with seventy or so in my bag.”

Riccardo patted the rucksack that hung over his chest.

What suited Giovanni most about his job, was that he had his routine down to a tee. His role had changed little in years, La Mondaine dealt with the vice, drugs and serious crime, so he simply had to make the local shop and bar owners feel as safe as possible, and minimise petty crime. Granted this was Marseille and not Monte Carlo, but as long as criminal activity did not become too visible, then all was well: paperwork was manageable and his Captain didn’t give him much trouble. More to the point, the quartier was his. This little part of the world was supposed to be quiet, and he didn’t like it that so many unpredictable strangers were here, or that his normal routine didn’t apply. He had lost his sense of routine and control.

“This France ’98 stuff may well ruin my summer” he said aloud.

For the last week I’ve seen a massive increase in idiot foreigners, and it increases by the day. Not enough that half of them seem almost keen to get their wallets stolen, now it looks like I may be in danger of having a full scale riot on my hands. The extra overtime is one thing, but I don’t earn enough to get dragged into a shitstorm of thugs trying to kill each other, even if they wouldn’t do it on their own doorstep.

He struggled to get the image of a battle from Braveheart out of his mind.

I’m pretty sure there were no Tunisians in Braveheart he reminded himself.

Giovanni slowed and looked to his left as they passed a patisserie. He waived at the girl behind the counter who returned the gesture, wearing cellophane gloves.

“French girls” said Riccardo. “As sweet as I expected.”

“She may be sweet to look at, but she’s far from innocent,” came Giovanni’s answer, with a knowing smile, “and I bet these two are the same”, as he nodded toward two blond girls, approaching with their two men.

Miniskirts and bikini tops. He felt like rubbing his hands together with glee. I wish there were girls that looked like that at Pierre-Louis’ place. His mouth dried momentarily with a familiar warm surge of testosterone.

And to think I nearly ended up on airport duty,” said Giovanni. “Can you imagine? Hanging around a sweaty airport, checking the passports of English drunks, when I could be feasting my eyes on those.”

Giovanni did his best to put his situation in a positive light, despite being secretly intimidated by the potential for disorder later in the day. They both heard a cheer of “En-ger-land” from a few streets away and looked at each other.

“Well,” continued Giovanni “if there’s any sign of a swarm of violence forming, I’ll be calling it in before me or anyone else gets stung, that’s for sure.”

“I’ll let you know if I see anything, the first chance I get, but I imagine the beach is where it will happen, if it happens at all” said Riccardo. “The big screen is where most of the Tunisians and the English will be congregating.” He checked his watch.

“Nearly there” said Giovanni. “What’s in the rucksack? It looks heavy.” He pointed at Riccardo’s chest.

“Binoculars, I need a camcorder, extra lenses and accessories, notebook… and lots more cigarettes.” Riccardo pointed ahead of them. “Is this Place St George now?

“Just coming up yes, it really is a little gem.” Giovanni had been cheerfully extolling the virtues of his patch, since they had first met. “My little bit of the city… and according to Alexander Dumas, ‘Marseille is the meeting place of the entire world.’”

“Never more so than today” said Riccardo. Even away from the screens down at the beach, there was already quite a presence of international visitors, and the big screens wouldn’t broadcast for a couple of hours yet.

“I plan to spend the next hour or so around this area” said Giovanni. “Where will you be going?”

“I’ll check out Place St George, then try and find a good vantage point, preferably with the sun behind me. Then I’ll try further down toward the big screen, in an hour or so.

“Makes sense.”

“Anything else I should be looking out for?” asked Riccardo, as they arrived at Place St George’s western entrance. Giovanni indicated ahead of them, to the far end of the tiny square:

“There’s a couple of the local lowlifes - that Arab kid’s called Salim and his blond accomplice over there is David. Not normally violent troublemakers by any means, but they’re always up to something - thieving cameras or handbags. They might be trying to sell hashish to tourists… but I suppose that’s low priority today.”

As they walked into the small square, Riccardo all but ignored the three men under an arch in front of them to the left, outside Hotel de la Paix, and appeared to be scanning the square and calculating distances. Giovanni was impressed by this professionalism.

Looking for the big picture.

Riccardo set off to his right “I’m going on a vermin-hunt. I hope not to find any.”

“They look like ones to watch” Giovanni peered to his left, just at the first corner, where he looked at the three young men. They were unknown to him, dressed in unfamiliar sportswear, and too pale and too drunk to be French. He checked his watch.

“Just past noon and they are in that state already. Jesus Christ, those English.” He tried and failed to smile.

They’d be the first to get drawn into trouble, especially the little one, it’s always the little ones you’ve got to watch out for.

“I’ll call you on the Radio in twenty minutes” said Riccardo, heading off to the right around the western edge of the square.

I’ll turn mine off for a bit Giovanni thought to himself, the constant bleeping was spoiling the plain clothes strategy. What shall I do now? He looked at the people around him and, for the first time ever, he felt like a foreigner on his own patch. He felt stiff, vulnerable from the break in routine, and he would have preferred the authority his uniform conveyed.

He walked past the drunk Englishmen outside Hotel de la Paix, while purposely looking the other way - he saw no sense in engaging them. He walked around the journalist and her cameraman in the centre of the square, then walked towards the two petty criminals – Salim and David were the only two faces on the Square he recognised. They were standing and talking to a woman sat on the floor with her back to the école primaire, in the centre of the southern edge of the square.

The familiar faces saw him coming and shuffled a little further on, but Giovanni couldn’t help but check out the small woman sat on the floor with her back to the school, which was undergoing modernisation. He had seen her the evening before. He approached and looked down the fenced-off alleyway next to her, then looked her directly in the eyes. She was olive-skinned and wore a white T-shirt with the Brazilian flag on it.

“I watched the Brazil - Scotland game” he said, in French. “You were quite lucky.”

There was eye contact, but she didn’t answer. She would hardly fit the profile of anyone involved with violence on any level. Giovanni adjusted his sunglasses and cleared his throat as she looked up at him.

He checked the corner of the square to his left, where a couple sat, speaking English. The girl, wearing a pink vest, was incredibly beautiful, but had an academic air, and could not match the woman sat at his feet for sheer vitality.

She’s Brazilian and everyone knows what Brazilians are like.

“I’ve been to Brazil - to Rio for the carnival” he began, pointing at her T-shirt. I had a fantastic time. Sexy city, huh?”

The woman responded with a blank expression, followed by a “No French,” which she said in English. He thought quietly to himself for a second or two.

The women are spectacular, but it’s a disgusting place. The value of human life is zero. Police death squads kidnapping street kids, murdering them and dropping them in the river because they bothered the wrong tourists. Accidental crossfire in coke wars… They’re all in fear of their lives - any one of them might be dead within a week. That’s why they’re so busy fucking each other and partying all the time, they think it’s the last chance they’ll get.

“What’s your name?”

“Maria.”

“Where are you staying?”

The woman pointed behind her with a thumb. There was a cheap hotel just behind the school building, down the narrow, cordoned-off alleyway.

She must mean the Saint Louis.

“Anyway, be careful. Female tourists such as you can be a bit vulnerable, especially with all these strange faces in town. He winked. He was unsure whether she understood French better than she was letting on.

I should sound less like a policeman.

He wanted Maria to talk, so that he could look at her without being self-conscious, but she was very distant. He looked above her, through the window of the school that she was leaning on, to see a poster showing the alphabet on the far wall, which triggered a buried school memory. He looked back down at her, and despite her small stature, there was something about this woman that he found so strong and alive. She reminded him of…

Natalie? Was it? Yes, Natalie.

He struggled to control an erection when he thought of Natalie, who was one of the twenty or more girls who stayed at the maison specialisée; the boarding school was just outside of town, and was run by his childhood acquaintance, Pierre-Louis.

In 1991, Pierre-Louis had been arrested for the assault of a prostitute, but when the investigation against him was conveniently dropped, he and Giovanni began a certain arrangement. Pierre-Louis had been spared jail, and from time to time, Giovanni had helped himself at the school.

Prior to France ’98, the only adults that Giovanni had raped were prostitutes and illegal immigrants, and always on an opportunistic basis. Granted the girls at the school were all mentally impaired in some way, but he was able to take his time with them.

He looked at the silent woman’s breasts beneath the Brazilian flag, and fought to keep visions of Natalie out of his mind as his erection stirred again. He needed a distraction, so he turned around, snatching a glimpse of her legs as he turned, trying desperately to remember the image clearly.

Salim and David were still loitering a few metres away.

“Hey. You two behaving yourselves, I hope.” He walked towards them.


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