Merde! Putain fait chiez…
(Henri Roche on finding a hole in his new socks)
Marie Pawlak was born and christened in Paris in 1973. For a while her mother had tried, with little effort and even less success, to hide her disappointment at not having produced a son, an effort which had soon sputtered into nothing after a car accident had ruptured her womb, thus forevermore precluding the possibility of the desired male heir, not that there was ever that much to inherit in the first place. Marie’s parents owned a small café-patisserie that was just about kept in business by a tiny but loyal circle of very non-cosmopolitan, Paris-for-the-Parisians, neighbourhood locals for whom even a simple change of baker would mean the end of civilisation.
If her mother had been disappointed by the fact that Marie was not a boy, she was downright venomous that her husband, Marie’s father, was not half the man the she thought he should have been. Marie would often hear her mother coming down hard on him for his lack of ambition, his lack of resolve, his lack of just about everything that her mother considered important. Marie thought it was probably the lack of response that made her mother angrier than anything else. Her mother called him weak. Her father, a Polish immigrant, would always remain still and silent during these tirades, waiting until her mother’s storms had blown over before wordlessly resuming whatever it was he had been doing before, waiting until he was sure she had finished berating his existence and would leave him in peace for a while. Both Marie and her father were failures to Angeline Pawlak, who despised them for it. In some cases this may have forged a stronger relationship between father and daughter but not so for Marie; her father was as taciturn with her as he was with her mother. He might favour Marie with a smile every now and then, but it was so full of sadness that she couldn’t bear to look at it.
They may have been in love once, Marie didn’t know; neither of them ever made mention of blissful halcyon days of youthful passion. There were no photos, except for one black and white wedding portrait hidden behind an old vase, and no nostalgic how-we-met stories; Marie had been born between stale mates. Her parents were both thoroughly miserable, her father quietly, her mother rather more demonstratively, but they were good Catholics too, and so bore their misery with the resigned masochism of the theologically repressed. Thus Marie was instilled with a sense of fatalism she had never been quite able to shake off.
Marie was nine when her father finally proved he was not the emotional cold fish everyone had taken for granted he was. He had gone into her bedroom one night and bent over her to kiss her cheek and sit silently beside her for a while. It could have been half an hour, maybe less, maybe more, before he eventually rose from the small chair in Marie’s room, the chair he himself had painted purple – her favourite colour at the time – and left to go and shoot Angeline through the mouth with his old military pistol. He had then turned the gun on himself. It was the young mother from the apartment above who rang the police, before going down to wrap Marie in her arms, hugging and squeezing her, stroking her hair, weeping, whispering poor baby, poor baby, again and again. Yet Marie had felt nothing, no sorrow, no joy; how else was she supposed to feel after a lifetime of familial indifference? This had annoyed the young mother, who slapped her twice to get some sort of normal reaction out of the girl and would have carried on slapping her if the police hadn’t then stepped through the door.
So Marie moved to England, to Birmingham, to stay with her only living relative, her mother’s brother, Henri Roche. Uncle Henri was nothing like Angeline Pawlak; he scorned the church, only told Marie off when he thought it was truly necessary and the rest of the time did whatever he could to encourage the sullen child to come out of herself. He helped Marie with her English and taught her that fate, destiny, was whatever she made it. Gradually, Marie came to accept herself, warts and all, and was happy.
When she was eighteen, she left Birmingham to go and live in Preston while she studied for a degree at the university there. The institute had been a polytechnic until it changed its status at the same time all the other polytechnics across Britain were re-branding themselves as universities. Marie supposed it was a matter of perceived prestige. It hadn’t really mattered; the newly-minted university had still felt like a modern, functional establishment of higher education rather than the ancient seat of academic learning its new title might have seemed to imply. That hadn’t mattered, either. Marie was never really an Oxford type, not what anyone would call studious; she had discovered from an early age that while she could obtain excellent grades when she put in a lot of hard work, she could also get fairly good marks without making much effort at all – so she contented herself with being fairly good and concentrated on spending her time as she wished instead of applying it to the fatuous fact-churning that passed for instruction then and thereafter. Her degree was in English philology because she couldn’t think of anything better to do; she thought perhaps she would become a teacher. Marie wouldn’t think it was entirely unjust to have accused her of laziness.
Preston was a small place, you could walk everywhere, surrounded by pleasant countryside and a short drive away from the coastal town of Lytham St. Anne’s. Marie and her friends would go there often, to relax, talk, smoke grass – all the things they did on campus in fact, but with the added bonus of fresh air and the calming sound of the waves for company. The beach was okay on a sunny day, when they could lie back in the dunes in their bikinis, but most of the time it was grey and windy, more like a mudflat when the tide was really far out. There were plenty of people who thought the area was a drab, boring hole, but Marie loved it – she had never lived so close to a beach before and even on wet, miserable days would take the bus to sit on the promenade beneath her umbrella, lulled into meditative calm by the wide expanse of horizon and the echoing, magnified drumbeat of raindrops that exploded against the thin, taut material above her head. It always amused Marie that Lytham appeared to be populated entirely by retired couples and pedigree dogs. Matilda, her roommate (and the girl who had introduced her to smoking weed), often liked to point out the white church there, always ready to inform anyone listening that this was where “classic entertainer” Les Dawson had got married, blatantly proud of her arcane and ultimately useless knowledge.
Marie stayed in Preston for four years. She studied for three of those, the remaining year spent working in a photograph developers and living with her then-boyfriend while he finished the final leg of his course in Business studies. There was a time when Marie saw her boyfriend’s choice of study as horrible and empty but even she had to admit that it was eminently more practical than her own degree in a cut-and-thrust, mercantile world. She used to stay up at night and type his essays for him, correcting his mistakes and taking advantage of the opportunity to practice typing faster. Marie never minded doing it. In fact, she usually offered. John would go to bed around midnight but Marie, who for a long time could never even think about sleeping before 2a.m., would remain in the living room, tapping away, with an old classic black and white movie on soundlessly in the background to give her something to look at, enjoying the absorbing quiet of the late night Preston streets outside her window. She learned a lot from writing up John’s essays; mainly she learned what a joke it all seemed to be. Her favourite ones were those dealing with the hoary topic of business ethics. She would laugh for days after those, greatly tickled by the fatuous attempts to inject a little philosophical, moral acceptability into an area so clearly devoid of scruples it made even Thatcher look misunderstood. She learned a great deal at the photo shop as well. It was amazing the kinds of pictures people left behind; if Marie had been the kind of person to take advantage like that, she could have made a fortune in the amateur porn industry.
John had been Marie’s first proper, long-term relationship so, naturally, it ended and they both went their separate ways. Marie went back to Birmingham and rented a small flat in Sparkhill, filling her time with evening classes – effortlessly, of course – and various temping jobs to keep the money coming in. A normal life. You could not tell by looking that Marie’s past had been marked by murder and suicide; she did not wear her tragedy on her sleeve and only ever discussed the past, occasionally, with Henri.
Marie had soon found herself stuck in a rut, with nothing to hold her interest for more than a brief instant. It was Henri who suggested she take advantage of her youth to travel around Europe for a few months. He bought her a one-way ticket to Barcelona and told her to go and find some work there, enough at least to earn a ticket back. She had argued that she couldn’t speak Spanish but Henri had waved away all negatives. Besides, he had told her, she wasn’t going to need Spanish to teach English, was she? There was no point to her degree if she was never going to apply the wondrous knowledge she had picked up over three years of academic toil (Henri was happily unaware of his niece’s attitude to study). Marie had asked him what the point of any degree was but he had just given her the old don’t-be-clever look. So Marie gave up her small flat and moved back in with Henri for a few months while she worked and saved to set herself up more comfortably when she finally reached Barcelona. What the hell, she had concluded, a few months, maybe a year outside England could help her to decide what she wanted to do with her life. That had been eight years ago. She never went back, of course. Barcelona became her home.
It was Thursday afternoon, another hot day, and Marie was enjoying the remains of a week off work. Even in September the sun could still beat down ferociously. She had put her bag on the metallic table to stop the retina-frying glare of the sun’s reflection from lasering her dark eyes. She was sitting on the terrace of the Bar del Pi in the old Plaça del Pi. The terrace was on a raised section of the small square, the outer wall of an old gothic church taking up one side, different bars, restaurants and shops lining the rest. Local artists had set up stands before the church wall and sat idly in their foldaway chairs, smoking cigarettes and occasionally trying to sell a painting to disinterested passers-by. A Romanian woman with a baby strapped to her chest approached Marie’s table with a pitiable expression on her face, asking for help in a whiny voice that seemed specifically designed to grate on the nerves. Marie forewent politeness and simply shook her head, trying to look cold and brittle, trying to conceal the impotent guilt she always felt when she wasn’t inclined to hand anything out. The woman moved on to another table circled by tourists, her hand held out, the baby openly suckling on her breast. ‘Bloody spongers,’ said a fat, ruddy-faced Englishman with thinning hair. ‘Spoils your day, dunnit?’ agreed the first man’s equally rotund, sunburnt friend. Marie mentally chided the tourists for their lack of understanding before reminding herself of her own complicity; she had hardly reacted to the begging woman with sisterly understanding, much less charity. But, she told herself, searching for the tiniest iota of justification, that’s how life was in the city now, all cities. Maybe, she thought, if these people weren’t so aggressive then… Then what? She stopped herself; going on like this wasn’t making her feel any better.
Marie groaned and let her head roll back on her neck, closing her eyes and feeling the sun’s warmth caress her face. A shadow fell across her eye-line, a stain of darker blackness against the sunlit blood-red black behind her eyelids. A waiter had materialised, holding a coffee and a bottle of water. ‘Señora,’ drawled the waiter, placing the two items down on the table beside her bag while surreptitiously peering down her top. ‘Gracias,’ she said, smiling as she handed the waiter a few coins. With a quick glance at her long legs, the waiter turned and went back into the air-conditioned shade of the small, two-floored tapas bar.
Marie was waiting for Andrew Collins, a colleague from work. He had been asking her to have a drink with him for some time and she had finally relented and agreed to meet him that afternoon. She guessed he was really interested in more than a drink but that was all he was going to get. Andrew was nice enough but he just wasn’t her type; she didn’t do gawky. Still, he was funny and she could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the sun with him; if nothing else, she would be maintaining her seasonal tan.
She didn’t have long to wait; Marie spied him coming along the thoroughfare that led off from the square towards Portal de l’Angel, one of the centre’s busiest shopping streets. He resembled a lit candle with his bright ginger hair like a flame in the sun, topping the long white taper of his body. He was wearing a loose white t-shirt that accentuated the lack of a proportional torso to fill it and a pair of blue running shorts from which poked out the two uneven sticks he called his legs. He was craning his neck, scanning around over heads as he stepped into the square; he had that backward look on his face people have when they are trying to pick a friend out of a crowd, all furrowed brow and slack, open mouth. The brow soon crinkled up into the ginger shock when he eventually caught sight of Marie, the down-turned arch of his lips curling upwards to form a big, horsy grin. Marie lifted a hand and lazily waggled a few fingers in acknowledgement of her companion’s non-too-subtle bobbing and waving.
Andrew dropped theatrically into the chair opposite, causing it to scrape nastily against the concrete paving slabs and Marie to wince. He grinned at her with the breathless contentment of a loyal dog. ‘Have you won the lottery or something?’ she asked him.
‘Hmm? Ah… no. No,’ he said. He leant back in his seat. With a sort of clinical interest, Marie observed the way his ribcage rose and fell beneath his t-shirt’s flimsy cotton. Andrew clasped his hands behind the back of his head. ‘It’s just a really nice day,’ he said, smiling up at the sky.
Indeed it was, thought Marie, the kind of day that had made her want to stay in this part of the world since she had arrived. She smiled too and looked over to Andrew, who was now slipping on a pair of sunglasses. She noticed that they were new, silver and smoked glass, fashionable and pricey-looking. ‘Nice shades,’ she said. Shame about the mug, she added silently, before chiding herself again, this time for being so shallow. ‘I bet they cost a bit.’
Andrew shrugged, as though money were no object. ‘A bit,’ he conceded, affecting cool complacency.
‘Que te pongo?’
Andrew jumped; he hadn’t noticed the waiter’s arrival but he managed to recover himself respectably enough. ‘Um…,’ he gazed up at the sky again. ‘Gin y tonic, I think.’ Andrew turned to Marie. ‘What about you? Are you going to have anything stronger than that?’ he enquired, pointing at her coffee and mineral water.
‘Why not?’ she said. ‘I’ll have a glass of white wine.’
‘Un gin-tonic y una copa de vino blanco. Muy bien,’ said the waiter, lingering once more over Marie before heading to the bar.
‘I think he likes you,’ said Andrew, moving his wipsy, translucent eyebrows up and down.
‘He likes my tits anyway,’ said Marie, winking. Andrew blushed, which Marie thought was quite sweet, and wriggled in his seat. ‘So,’ she asked him, ‘work alright this morning?’
‘Well, you know, same as always.’
Marie did know. For all that she loved Barcelona, she had never really been able to do anything there but teach. Only occasionally did she resent this, although never very much. Of late, she had begun to move her bum a bit and had started a course in translation and interpretation, with the hope of leaving teaching behind at some point and getting into a more varied field. She never complained aloud; teaching English had served her very well until now; it was not a taxing activity and it did pay enough for her to live comfortably, to live the relaxed life of an ex-pat abroad on the coast of the Mediterranean. Yes, it could be dull, tiresomely repetitive at times, but the turnover of students meant that she was always meeting different people, which helped alleviate those moments of professional ennui sufficiently enough to prevent Marie from ever lapsing completely into bored apathy. In the end, she decided, if a little tedium was the price of living in sunny peace, then that was fine by her; it was better than being bored in Birmingham. Besides, who was one hundred percent happy with their work nowadays? Well, she thought, probably a lot of people. But she doubted it was as many as those who weren’t. She was lucky really; she was working in a respectable school, not one of the more usual, profligate fly-by-night cowboy set-ups that popped up over Barcelona like blisters on an amateur hiker’s foot and which, rather than imparting some useful knowledge, were created with the sole goal of fleecing the Catalans of their money and making a quick, tidy profit before closing down and never being heard of again. A lot of people she had known and liked had been forced to reassess their lives somewhat drastically some years earlier when the English language sector had fallen into crisis over a run of bad business practices. Many of them had been obliged to pack their bags and go back to Britain or the US and start again. The more honest schools had suffered backlashes too, a case of guilt by association. Marie had certainly been thankful for her position then. Going back to Birmingham was not a prospect she looked forward to with any particular relish. None of that, of course, meant that she shouldn’t look to other options; she was young enough for life to take her in interesting new directions. Until then, however…
‘That George is a bloody pain in the arse, though, isn’t he?’ Andrew was saying.
Ah yes, Marie thought. George. Now, of all possible flies in the ointment, George, the new head of the didactic department, most assuredly buzzed the loudest. George Taylor had arrived two months ago and had in that shirt time managed to irritate just about everybody with his insufferable personality. A small, stocky, near-crimson coloured man, he didn’t talk, he shouted. He huffed and gruffed and strutted about the place like an angry tomato. As far as Marie was concerned, though, his worst habit was his tendency to read aloud the seemingly infinite and interminable memoranda he wrote daily to all departments, a tawdry list of grumbles and “suggestions” that achieved little else than putting his colleagues’ backs up. He would even pin some of his memos to the wall in his part of the office, he was so proud of them. Due to renovations of the school’s interior, George was sharing with the rest of the (already beleaguered) teaching staff for the moment. He would sit there sniggering and laughing to himself, impressed beyond words at his own sparkling wit and lexical prowess, reading out memo after memo like some fading Shakespearean ham who, having swapped the boards for the boardroom, still hears the irresistible call of the lights.
The trouble was that George’s memos were by no stretch of the imagination as sharp and to the point as he obviously believed them to be. In fact, to Marie, they sounded like the crazed ranting of maniacs who wrote their opinions down in letters to tabloids. It was all she could do to bite down the urge to beat him about the mouth with a dictionary and settle instead for an inward cringe and shudder. What made matters worse was the way George had singled her out for special attention; he had seen her doing crosswords, “the difficult ones”, and therefore, upsettingly, had naturally assumed that she shared what he saw as his wondrous command of the English language. So now he read his memos out to Marie for her approval, not that he ever expected anything less than approval, of course; he would undoubtedly throw a fit at the first whiff of criticism or counsel, constructive or otherwise. Marie was finding it increasingly difficult to sound sincerely moved. Fortunately for her, George wasn’t much of a listener. He only heard what it suited him to hear.
‘Yes,’ said Marie, shaking her head sadly. ‘He is difficult.’
‘Difficult? I swear, if I hear another memo, I’m going to kill him. I don’t know how you put up with it,’ said Andrew, a picture of bewildered concern.
‘To be honest, the way he annoys everybody, and I’m talking about the big guys here too, I don’t think we’re going to have to deal with him for much longer.’
Andrew inclined forwards conspiratorially at the prospect of a new morsel of gossip. ‘Oh yeah? Why’s that then? You heard something?’
‘Well,’ said Marie, putting her hands in her lap, ‘the other day I heard him telling the director about everything that was wrong with the way she ran the institute.’
‘I can’t imagine she was very pleased about that.’
‘No. But you know George; he’s unable to pick these signals up like a normal person. He even went on to tell her what a bunch of, and I quote, “dunderheads” the administration was and how if he had his way he’d sack the lot of them.’
‘Yes.’ Marie was laughing now. ‘He’s heading for a mighty fall, that one. It almost makes me feel sorry for him. Almost.’
‘He was telling me this morning how teaching language was like building a bridge.’
‘Oh God, I can’t stand the metaphors. He must get them out of a book.’
Andrew was chuckling. ‘“A Hundred and One Great Organisational Metaphors!”’
‘It’s the “a good school runs like a good, tight ship” one I love,’ said Marie, which caused Andrew to explode in a sudden fit of hysterics. She put on George’s voice. ‘The mahst important fing is the Cappin, innit?’
The waiter reappeared with their drinks, looking bemusedly at Andrew, who was wiping tears from his eyes and repeating the word “cappin” to himself. The waiter grinned and put the drinks down on the table, slipping the bill beneath an ashtray to stop it from blowing away. Another barely disguised leer – an appreciative leer, though, Marie noted with a grim sort of satisfaction – and he was gone again.
Still chortling merrily, Andrew poured some tonic into his gin and raised his glass to Marie. ‘Cheers.’
Marie lifted her wine. ‘Cheers to you, too,’ she said, and took a sip. ‘Fancy some olives?’
Four hours later, Marie stumbled through the front door of her attic apartment, feeling cocooned in the special form of drunkenness that comes from drinking cheapish plonk in the sun all afternoon. She felt like someone had placed a large, malleable, elastic water balloon on the top of her head, and which was now rolling sluggishly down over her eyes and ears. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant but she knew she would be paying for it the next day. For the time being, however, she was home, in familiar surroundings, and the thought of winding down with a movie while the effects of the alcohol wore off was especially appealing.
They had ended up in the Born area. It was one of the city’s trendier haunts, full of bars, clothes shops for the rich and funky, and small but precisely designed restaurants. When she had first arrived, the Borne had been half-way to a dump, a local dive but, in the intervening years, graphic designers, fashion designers, restaurant owners, artists and hairdressers had slowly moved in and transformed the place into Hipsville, a continental Soho for those in the know. It was definitely more expensive than it had any right to be, thought Marie, who usually preferred to stay away, but there were a few bars she liked to hang out in, where the music was good and she didn’t need to take out a mortgage to buy a drink. In many ways, Gracia, her part of town, was pretty similar; it was also possessed of a superior, snotty ambience, but at the same time redeemed itself by being a little more low-key, less superficial, favouring darker, grungy bars where people could converse over carefully lit bars and where people nodded their heads to carefully chosen music while musing over their sushi. The Gracia crowd disparaged the Born for being too hip, the Born crowd accused Gracia of cerebral stuffiness. It was all the same to Marie. Sooner or later she would finally buy an apartment, a place where she might live out the rest of her days but it wasn’t going to be in the city. No, she preferred to go further up the coast, to find an apartment with a view of the sea. That was the important thing, a view of the sea.
She switched off her mobile phone and went into the kitchen to put a pizza in the oven; she was hungry but in no state to prepare anything overly fussy. She boiled a pot of coffee while the pizza warmed up and thought, for the millionth time, of getting a cat. It would be nice, she supposed, to have someone waiting for her when she got home, pleased to see her, even if that did seem a little vain. She would call it Mr. Pickles. Marie liked cats, although she had never got round to actually getting one. For a start, Uncle Henri was allergic to them, not that it made a difference now, of course. Maybe it was the responsibility of caring for the animal that always got in the way. Sometimes, she felt like she had more than enough to do just trying to take care of herself.
When the oven pinged, she took the pizza out and took it through to the living room. She put it on the table while she searched out a film from her sparse collection of DVDs. Eventually she slotted Four Weddings into the machine. Twenty minutes later she was snoring lightly, the pizza only a quarter gone and another coffee gone cold.
The following morning, Marie roused herself from the sofa, quickly wishing that she hadn’t, and made her way unsteadily to the bathroom. Her head spun and thumped as though it had been put in a tumble drier. Thank god for the weekend, she thought, pulling down her knickers and squatting on the toilet. Her pee smelled of wine, old wine now, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste. She leant her elbows on her knees and tried to rub some life back into her cheeks. Okay, she decided groggily, purification day today, detox. She would start with a good solid breakfast to fight the bubbling nausea, then no booze, no unhealthy food, and maybe a run near the beach. Yeah, right. She wiped herself and flushed the toilet and pointedly did not look at her reflection as she went past the mirror on the way to the kitchen. She picked up the cold coffee from the living room first and knocked it back, screwing her face up at the acrid taste it left in her mouth.
She began to feel better after a second cup of hot, fresh coffee and several rounds of marmite on toast. There might not have been much she missed about England but, even though she usually frowned upon the kind of British nationals who could only be comfortable abroad in British pubs, eating British food and watching British television, she still found it hard to imagine life without marmite. I suppose we’re all parochial one way or another, she thought as she crunched away at another slice and nurse-massaged her temples with her free hand. She flicked through the TV channels with the sound off as she finished up; Saturday morning kids shows with the volume on weren’t very good for a sore head, but the images were fun.
It was almost half past ten when she cleared away the remains of her breakfast and went to have a shower. She had switched her phone on again before slipping out of her clothes and stepping into the shower. With the door closed and the sound of hot water raining down and pattering against the plastic shower curtain, she didn’t hear the phone bleeping its ‘message waiting’ tone. After a few moments, the phone began to ring, but she couldn’t hear that either. It didn’t matter; the phone was still ringing when she got out of the shower.
Henri needed Marie. And after everything he had done for her, she was not about to let her uncle down. She stared out of the small round window at the passing cloudscape below the wing of the aeroplane. Further below she could see the murky grey soup of the English Channel, which would soon give way to the British coastline, a stark contrast to the Mediterranean azures she had grown so accustomed to. Poor Henri, she fretted, hadn’t stopped fretting. She pictured him lying there alone in his hospital bed and felt guilty. But then, lately, she always seemed to be feeling guilty about one thing or another. She knew it was pointless but she couldn’t help it. Why should she feel guilty about circumstances that were beyond her influence? There was no reason, but that still didn’t stop her from feeling the way she did. She sat on the plane, thinking that she should have taken the time to visit Henri more often; it wasn’t as if it was that expensive to fly anymore. Yet there was always something to put her off, the sun in Barcelona, or the lack of it in Birmingham, work, whatever. She felt guilty at not having been there when he’d had his heart attack. That she wouldn’t have been able to help him or offer him the support he had always given to her made no difference.
When she had stepped out of the shower, back in Barcelona, it hadn’t taken her long to become aware of the phone’s insistence. Having wrapped a towel around her body and made a turban for her hair with another, she had padded through to the living room and picked up the compact, turquoise device, frowning at the familiar English code but not recognising the rest of the number. A solemn, male voice on the other end had asked her, quite formally, if she were Marie Pawlak and then, when satisfied that this was the case, went on to explain that he was a police officer and that he had the unpleasant duty to inform her that her uncle, one Henri Roche, had been admitted to hospital after a coronary. The officer had been unable – or unwilling; he had sounded oddly cagey, Marie had thought – to answer most of her questions, saying only that her uncle had asked for her and given him the number to ring, adding, unnecessarily in Marie’s opinion, that she ought to fly over and keep her uncle some company. At first she thought he had been telling her off but she soon realised this was just the way her guilt-tinged mind had decided to interpret the words.
To take that mind off her current predicament, she opened up the free daily newspaper the stewardess had given her when she had boarded. There wasn’t much in there; it was one of those tabloids with delusions of conservative grandeur that have plenty to say while managing never to say really very much at all.
The paper was full of the usual Britain-going-to-the-dogs nonsense; there were gossip columns doing their job of feeding the brainless their daily quotient of vicarious living, reiterating or inventing their own brand of spurious trash, usually in reference to contestants on reality shows, celebrity editions or otherwise. Marie had tried to watch some of them, especially the first few attempts, intrigued by what might have been an interesting study into anthropology but she soon realised that it was all shit and probably the best example of millennial insanity going.
She had already done the crossword, it had taken about three minutes, and glanced at her horoscope (“a good day for Aquarians”) so now she had a look through the national news section. Marie rolled her eyes at the daily round up of murders, rapes, robberies and fears; a small village terrorised by children with their hoods up; more “asylum scroungers” causing inner-city troubles with their refugee sob-stories (Marie found she was really beginning to hate the borderline fascist slant of the newspaper in her hands); a salesman called Brian Dinks had been found shot dead in some woods in Birmingham; a local priest had been arrested for molesting young boys. God, she thought, leaning her head back against the cushioned seat, it was all so depressing. What made it worse was knowing just how many people read this sort of newspaper and took its credo of patriotic panic as gospel. Marie regarded the news as just another reason why she was better off living abroad. Of course, politically, there wasn’t much difference from one place to the next; Barcelona had its fair share of nationalists, morons and fool politicians, but Marie felt somehow separate from the whole stupid shebang there, as if, being a foreigner, none of it was really her concern, even if she did pay taxes. Probably, she thought, all ex-pats felt the same, a symptom of living life in another context.
She stuffed the paper behind the elastic netting stretched across the back of the seat in front of her. She didn’t bother picking up the airline’s own magazine; she wasn’t in the mood for the brainless articles about golf and yachting or for boring lists of over-expensive gifts masquerading as cheap beneath the misleading banner of Duty Free.
Marie closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The pilot’s mellifluously reassuring voice came out over the speakers, informing the passengers of the weather in Birmingham (rain), the temperature (cold) and how long they had before landing (thirty minutes depending on visibility). Thirty minutes. Marie kept her eyes closed and forced herself into one last doze.
She stepped out of the black taxi-cab and looked up at the ugly concrete shell of an inner-city hospital. She had dropped her luggage off at Henri’s place first (he always sent her a new key whenever he moved or changed the lock), before making her way straight here. A small, disparate group of people stood outside the doors, smoking furtively and wearing the glum expression peculiar to all NHS hospital visitors and outpatients, studiously avoiding eye contact with one another as they puffed and dragged on their cork-tip filters. She walked past them and through the doors, approaching a tiny reception desk set behind a sheet of Perspex, probably there to protect the strained, mean-looking receptionist from the angry, powerless outbursts of people fed up with waiting. The woman behind the screen, mid-thirties, pinched, with her hair up in a tight bun, gave Marie a friendly, sympathetic smile which changed the entire demeanour of her face – once again, Marie felt a pang of guilt at having been so quick to judge by appearance alone – and told her where she could find her uncle.
She was surprised to see that her uncle had been given a room to himself. Granted it was pokey but it still had to be better than sharing a ward. What really surprised her, however, was the policeman sitting at the foot of her uncle’s bed. ‘Is he under arrest?’ Marie asked sardonically.
The policeman started, not having seen Marie standing in the doorway. Some guard, she thought. He stood up from the chair, tucking his hat beneath his arm. He coughed. ‘Miss… um… Paw-lak?’
‘It’s pronounced pav-lak,’ she told him kindly.
He smiled back politely. ‘Miss Pawlak,’ he repeated, correctly. She nodded. ‘Just as well to know these things,’ said the policeman. ‘I’m Officer John Baker.’ He proffered his hand.
‘Pleased to meet you, Officer Baker,’ she said, taking his hand.
‘Call me John.’
‘John.’ She looked at him and then to her uncle, lying pale and asleep on the bed, his arms flat against the sides of his thin body. ‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘I was told he’d had a heart attack but that doesn’t normally require a police presence, does it?’
‘No, Miss, not normally. To be frank, I’m only here because we were told you would be coming today and we thought it was important to tell you what caused your uncle’s heart attack.’
‘You mean it wasn’t natural?’
‘In the circumstances, I’d say it was totally natural. It’s the circumstances themselves which are… unnatural.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You see, Miss, I’m afraid to tell you that Mr. Roche was the victim of a particularly brutal and… er… odd attack on his physical person.’ Officer Baker shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
‘He was attacked? Beaten up?’
‘Not exactly, Miss.’
‘So, what was it for Christ’s sake?’ Marie was losing patience.
‘Well, for a while, we’d be grateful if you kept this information to yourself but it would appear that your uncle is the latest victim of some lunatic going about… um…’ Baker was struggling to find the words.
‘Yes?’ said Marie, now exasperated.
‘This man, he puts… he spikes people’s food and drink with very strong laxatives, Miss. Very strong.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Marie, unsure if she had heard properly. ‘Did you say laxatives?’
‘Yes, Miss. So strong they cause the victim to, er, evacuate him- or herself quite violently. For a man with a weak heart condition like your uncle, Miss, the consequences almost proved to be fatal.’ Marie looked at her uncle again, feeling guiltier than ever. ‘He was lucky, Miss. It was touch and go for a while but the nurses tell us he’s going to be just fine after a bit of rest, although we think he'll need some psychological, emotional support; these attacks are pretty humiliating; the perpetrator appears to enjoy striking in public places.’ Marie glanced at Henri again, full of pain and sympathy for him, trying to imagine what it must be like to have a group of strangers watch you defecate uncontrollably. She just couldn’t picture it; the whole scenario was so outside her range of knowledge and experience. ‘We’ll be making a statement soon, Miss, so, again, we really would appreciate it if you didn’t go telling anyone else about this.’
‘Okay,’ said Marie quietly, still staring at the suddenly ancient-looking man tucked up beneath the crisp hospital sheets.
Officer Baker cleared his throat and replaced his cap. ‘I’ll leave you two alone then, Miss.’
‘Hm? Oh, yes, thank you, John. Thanks for being here to tell me.’
‘All part of the job,’ he smiled. ‘Take care now.’ He shook her hand once more and strode from the room, leaving Marie alone at last with her uncle. He seemed so much older than his sixty-four years. Maybe hospital beds do that to you, she thought. His fine grey hair had almost completely gone now and the skin around his fat, bulbous nose was cracked and lined like an old ceramic mug. Marie sat down beside her uncle, watching his chest gently rise and fall and trying not to take too much notice of the tubes up his nose. When she had left for Barcelona, Henri had still been taking an hour’s run every morning. It didn’t seem right that he should end up here, in this hospital bed, whatever the cause. But then, Henri was also fond of red wine, spicy sausages, baguettes and French cheeses. His jogging and metabolism may have kept him relatively slim but, Marie supposed, the fat content of his daily diet had gradually built up in his arteries over the years, making his heart weaker, making him age quicker. She would make sure that stopped right now. She would speak to the doctors, ask about diets, and then threaten Uncle Henri with eternal estrangement if he did not comply.
She hardly heard him. It sounded more like he was breathing than speaking. ‘Uncle,’ she said, smiling at him as his own, rheumy pale blue eyes (a family trait) blinked up at her. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked, stroking a bony shoulder.
He managed to shrug with his face alone. ‘I’ve been better,’ he said, his voice little more than a dry rasp. He rolled his eyes towards the door. ‘They say I can leave tomorrow.’ He paused. ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ he whispered, lifting a hand and placing it on her leg. If she hadn’t seen the movement, Marie doubted she would have noticed.
‘Me too,’ she said.
He turned away from her. ‘Did they tell you?’
‘Yes,’ she said, and bent forward to kiss his head.
‘Putain,’ mumbled Henri.
‘Try not to think about that now,’ said Marie. ‘What’s important is that you get back on your feet. We…’ She stopped. Henri was crying softly. ‘Come on, Uncle,’ she encouraged. ‘Don’t let them do this to you. You’re stronger than that… both of us are.’ She surprised herself by actually believing her own words.
‘C’est tres embarrassant,’ said Henri.
‘I know, I know. But we have to move on. Worse things have happened to us.’ A memory of blood stained sheets glimpsed through the open crack of a door. ‘This… this is…’ She gave up. ‘We’ll get through it,’ Marie told him firmly. ‘I’ll stay with you for as long as it takes. Don’t worry about anything now.’
She stayed by her uncle until he fell asleep again, after promising that she would be back the next day to take him home. She left the hospital and decided to take a walk around the city. It had been over three years since she had last visited Birmingham, enough time for a few radical changes in the city-centre landscape to take her aback. The Bullring was totally different for a start. The familiar cylinder of the Rotunda was still there but, now, next to it, there stood a new indoor shopping centre, a disgusting great silvery blob with lilac polka dots, like a gargantuan novelty condom that had been flung sopping to the Earth after God had finished with it. The Olympian prophylactic utterly swamped the smaller, rather more elegant structure of St. Martin’s church. Old world Victoriana had been overwhelmed by brash modernity. Surely, thought Marie, the breathtakingly hideous result of a drug-abusing architect’s vicious insanity. The open-air market beside the church appeared much the same as it always had done. She walked along an underpass that led to the other side of the main road leading into the city centre and discovered that the other market that used to be there, five minutes away from an old second-hand bookshop that Marie had long ago spent a great deal of time in, had gone. This development did not upset Marie too much. In fact, as far as she was concerned, the cadaver-like stench of sweaty cheese, so powerful and pervading it seemed to enter the body as a solid, was neither a sensation she missed nor felt in any way nostalgic for.
As she walked further into the main, commercial areas, Marie saw that the walkways had been shuffled about and reorganised, many having now been given over fully to pedestrians, the buses and taxis that used to stuff the streets rerouted elsewhere. The pavements were a neat arrangement of small, red-brick stones, dotted here and there with black, wrought-iron street lamps, signposts, benches and bins.
Marie headed for the Pallisades, which she remembered as one of the first glitzy commercial centres to have opened up in that part of Birmingham many years ago. It was packed with the customary array of clothes shops, sports shops, perfumeries, department stores (the back end of the centre connected onto a branch of Marks & Spencers) and all the other temples of consumerism you would expect to find. She went up the escalators and straight to one of the various bar-restaurants arranged around the massive circular opening looking down onto the lower floors. Each bar was afforded the same amount of space, selling different items from junk food to semi-junk food to food attempting to be a bit more upmarket (but generally only succeeding in being a slightly better presented kind of junk), all of them fronted by metallic ridges for customers to slide their plastic trays along. She approached a counter that sold only tea, coffee and cakes – by far the safer bet, she calculated – and ordered a pot of tea which she then carried over to a white-topped table beside the waist-high glass barrier that surrounded the large drop into the centre’s deeper levels. Marie briefly thought of Hell before she settled down to watch the parade of shoppers, browsers and school children milling about below.
Part of Marie’s mind was subconsciously alert for signs of anyone who might be eying up her tea with a view to lacing it with laxatives. Ridiculous paranoia, she admonished herself, but allowed her subconscious to get on with it all the same. All those people, she was thinking, and perhaps one of them is the bastard who put Henri in hospital. She shivered involuntarily. How crazy would you have to be, she wondered, to want making people shit themselves to become your personal goal in life? She peered down at a round, middle-aged man who was staring at a suit in a window-display. The bright lights of the centre glimmered against the frames of his glasses. Maybe it’s him, she thought, and found it surprisingly easy to picture the man at home, his suit thrown off and lying in a heap as he sat, chuckling maliciously, at a table in a darkened room, the only light coming from a small lamp illuminating the lunacy in his eyes and the weird chemicals he mixed in a sterile bedpan. Marie fell back into her seat with a sigh.
She sipped some more tea, soaking in the over-lit, clinically clean ambience. Henri would hate this, she thought. He had never been able to feel comfortable sitting down to eat or drink in such a cold, functional atmosphere. He always said it made him feel like a cow at feeding time, shuffling in orderly fashion along with the rest of the herd, uncomplainingly accepting the low-grade sludge served up in the name of convenience. Henri hankered after the Parisian bistro or café, after personality and character. Any place, he said, where the lighting so brutally revealed every shape and globule, every faded scratch on the plate, was fundamentally, philosophically wrong. Marie suspected her uncle was just trying to be French, attempting to boost what remained of that identity in the face of what he regarded as unimaginative English practicality. He probably came here every week, she thought with a smile, indulging in a clandestine, shaming vice that only made him enjoy the experience all the more for its secrecy. She shook her head. No. Henri was a deli man, through and through. He’d rather kill hims… She just about stopped herself in time. The last thing she needed right now was to picture Henri dead, especially after seeing him so close to that state. Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, Marie abruptly stood up and, not bothering to finish her tea, went back out into the street to pull some real oxygen into her body.
The next day, Sunday, she woke up early and had breakfast in Henri’s kitchen. After a long shower she put on a colourful print dress – she wanted something cheerful to greet her uncle with, even if she wasn’t feeling similarly cheery herself – and went downstairs. At about half eight she heard Henri’s newspaper being shoved through the letter box and land with a heavy thud on the carpet. She padded through to the hall and picked up the paper. She watched television for a while, to take her mind off itself, before straightening out the living room and, finally, leaving to pick Henri up from the hospital.
It was only a couple of hours later when they both returned, Henri leaning a little unsteadily on his niece’s arm. Marie guided him to the big, soft armchair in the living room and left him there while she went to put the kettle on. It gave her time to compose herself, unhooking the cups from a nasty mug-tree that was so lightweight it would topple over if only one cup remained hanging on its stumpy branches. She searched out the sugar and teabags, glad to be occupied with mechanical, mundane tasks.
When she returned to the living room, Henri was staring out of the window. She gave him his tea and sat down on the end of the sofa nearest to her uncle. She held her own cup between both her hands for a while, watching a tiny, singular iridescent bubble float about on the surface of the milky liquid. Eventually the bubble popped. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that your heart was getting weaker?’ she asked suddenly, not looking up from the cup. She heard Henri move in his chair and felt him looking at her.
‘I didn’t want to worry you,’ he said gently. ‘Besides, it sounds more serious than it is.’
‘Yeah,’ said Marie, somewhere between a sulk and sarcasm, ‘looks like it.’
Henri shifted awkwardly in his chair. ‘These were… extreme circumstances,’ he said quietly.
Marie lifted her eyes to look at her uncle, feeling churlish about her remark. ‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘They were. I’m sorry, Uncle.’ She went back to staring at her tea. ‘But you should have told me.’
The aging Frenchman shrugged. ‘Perhaps you are right,’ he said. ‘But really, mon petit, what difference would it have made? You have your life and I have mine. And both will end when they have to end.’
‘Please, Uncle, spare me the stoic fatalism.’ He just shrugged again at that. ‘We don’t have any secrets.’
‘Pah! We all have secrets, Marie. Even the son of a bitch who reduced me to this has his secrets. This must be very clear, no? Merde. Shitting myself to death… what a fucking God awful way to go.’
He waved her quiet. ‘Alright, alright, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. We have such a tragic history, really you more than I, it seemed, I don’t know, trivial. A heart condition? What is that? It means nothing. Nothing. Most men my age have one. As long as we are not the victims of crazy pharmacists with anal fixations, we can usually live for a long time, Marie. Why should I make you worry over what is so commonplace? Did you think I was invincible, that I was immune to the effects of age? Would you really have been happy, thinking I was doomed?’
‘Of course not. I just… Oh, I don’t know.’
Henri leaned forward with a little difficulty and put his hand on Marie’s. ‘Death is not so cut and dry, you know this. A man with a perfectly healthy heart can still wake up in the morning and put a gun to his head. If I thought life had always to make sense then this,’ he gestured at himself, ‘this would probably have driven me mad.’
‘So you don’t mind? You can just laugh it off?’
‘My God, Marie, what is the matter with you? You never used to be so bleak, and heaven knows you had enough reason. Of course I cannot just laugh it off, of course I mind. But I am more angry than anything else. I want to take this putain and kick his ass so hard he can never take a crap again. It would be, I think, poetic justice. I am not going to sit here and cry about it, though.’
‘You seemed upset enough in the hospital,’ said Marie, aware that she was increasingly sounding as though she were nine years old again.
‘Drugs,’ said Henri, as if this should have been patently clear. ‘And hospitals. I hate hospitals. They are miserable, depressing places. They make you feel worse about life, not better.’
‘I thought everyone was very nice.’
‘Ha! It does not matter. You know what? I want this bastard caught not because he humiliated me in front of strangers – I didn’t even know them so why should I care what they might think? – but because he made me spend three days in a hospital. Three days, Marie, with their insipid food and muted colours and stupid pills that make you forget who you are. My dignity had already suffered enough without having to shrink to a dribbling, crying old fool in front of his niece. That is humiliating.’
Marie, conscious that it was more than what had happened to her uncle that was making her so negative, relented at last and smiled at Henri. ‘Is it still okay if I cry in front of you?’
‘Of course,’ whispered Henri.
So she did.
On the following Wednesday morning, Marie came downstairs to find a copy of Henri’s edition of The Contemporary lying on the kitchen table. She was about to push it aside when she noticed what was written on the front page: “Birmingham diners get the rough end. Full story page 5.”
She took it through to the living room and sat down, opening the paper at page five. “Watch what you eat, by Chris Bolton,” it said at the top. Marie settled down to read the article.
"Over the past four weeks at least six people have fallen quite literally foul of a violent and humiliating attack on their person. In this day and age there doesn’t seem anything new about that; violent attacks are an everyday occurrence that we read about and hear about all the time. Yet these new attacks are different. The perpetrator, who by all accounts appears to be in the serial mould, does not lay a single finger on his victims. Instead he administers a heavy dose of a very powerful laxative compound to their food or drink. Quite how he manages this without being noticed remains a mystery. The compound, both tasteless and odourless, is immediately absorbed by the body. None of the victims noticed anything amiss with their meals.
"The result is both spectacular and, especially for the victim, horrifying. Between five and twenty minutes after intake, the laxative takes hold of the victim from the inside and twists, causing the unfortunate party to empty their bowels in a painful, demoralising explosion. All attacks have taken place in public places, adding further pain and embarrassment to an already distressing situation.
"The question, clearly, is why anybody would feel it necessary to inflict such a terrible fate on a fellow human being. To make matters more complicated, the attacks appear to be utterly random, with nothing to connect any of the six victims to each other or their mystery assailant. This in itself might be a clue, an indication of what the victims might represent. Since, in effect, anyone can be a victim we can perhaps say that these attacks are therefore directed at society as a whole.
"The entire affair has given me much cause for thought, as someone who is often accused of having a pessimistic opinion of the world as it is. Anyone familiar with my usual column will know that is not entirely true; while I might sometimes despair of humanity, I do not despair for it. I certainly would not go about dropping laxatives into people’s chips to try and understand it. But then, people do tend to express themselves in very personal ways. If I think things are dire, I write my complaints down and force those down your throat. When our rampant 'scatologist' observes society’s ills, he forces laxatives down your throat. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… and something else entirely for this latest assault on our peace of mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, everything comes down to the final product for our hands-on scatologist.
"Of course, nobody really knows why this is happening; nobody really knows what could possibly be going through this person’s mind. All we can do is speculate. All actions are reactions. The scatologist reacts to the excrement he sees surrounding him by creating more of it; the more other people see it, the more the scatologist feels realised as a member of society, vindicated and, possibly, not so alone in his unhappy world-view.
"Then again, the cause might be as simple as an unforgotten childhood nappy trauma or an upsetting incident during a school trip to a farm. For now, the whys and wherefores remain unknown, none of which is likely to bring any comfort to those who have already suffered at the hands of the scatologist or to those who may well very soon suffer the same fate themselves. As far as these people are concerned, the scatologist is an insane menace who needs to be locked away. They will have little interest in what the psychologists have to say and who can blame them? In that respect alone, perhaps the scatologist will have succeeded in bringing his victims round to his perspective: forget justice, forget fairness… it’s all gone down the toilet."
Marie threw the paper down, unimpressed. The article had told her nothing. But then what did she expect? Nobody would know anything until this “scatologist” was either caught or decided to get in touch with someone to let them in on the plan, like serial killers in the movies. Trouble was, thought Marie, that only happened in the movies, didn’t it? Bolton was just trying to be smart. Well, she had no time for smart in that sense, no time for Bolton’s empty speculation; she had other matters to deal with, like looking after Henri. Yet there was this nagging feeling, a sense she couldn’t quite put her finger on, that her fate had suddenly somehow become tied up with that of the so-called scatologist. She couldn’t understand it but it occurred to Marie that she would very much like to find this maniac herself, more out of compelled curiosity than revenge, she told herself, although revenge, too, held its attractions.
There would, of course, be logistical problems involved in such an undertaking. For a start, she had no idea how to go about looking for someone, especially someone who would be hiding themselves very carefully right now. How did an ordinary Joe get information without money or a press credentials? Marie blinked as the seed of an idea split open and sent a cautious exploratory root tendril down into her mind. Maybe if you got to know someone with a press credentials, she mused, looking at the now crumpled newspaper. Maybe she wouldn’t have to wait long until one of them came knocking. Maybe someone would find out that Henri had been a victim and come sniffing round like a hungry dog after scraps. Then again, hanging around hoping something might happen was not really all that proactive. No, she realised, if she wanted things to start moving, it was up to her to turn the key.