“We shall be notes in that great Symphony
Whose cadence circles through the rhythmic spheres,
And all the live World’s throbbing heart shall be
One with our heart, the stealthy creeping years
Have lost their terror now, we shall not die,
The Universe itself shall be our Immortality!”
– Oscar Wilde
Once beyond the tunnel with its twinkled fairy lights, Lisa and I entered a room heavy with bronzed francophone drag queens. The queens were shucking caps of cocaine vials like tinsel-clad toddlers at a sherbet party. Lisa rejected the line of cocaine offered to her in the lady’s bathroom. Kok-ay-een they called it. The gesture didn’t register with her as flattery. Lisa was bulletproof like that. I felt neglected. The dealers had profiled my doe eyes and I was on the no-fly list. No-one even offered me ecstasy, that was generally handed out like breath mints after a meal. Probably for the best. Some people don’t need additional assistance. Added to that, I was already several bottles of Pilsner down, which I had topped off with a few drops of mescaline. Two buttons of mescaline that had acquired from some swarthy fellow called Pascale off the Montmartre. I soaked the mescaline in my afternoon tea, overboiled from a tired kettle at the backpackers. Pascale said that adding it to beer turns the winter into a warm summer’s day, so long as you do it right.
Paris in February is a frozen wasteland. The only way to survive is with Nutella crepes in the morning chased with nips of brandy throughout the day. The evenings are tangential and you can do no better than a saxophony of swinging bourbons at Le Caveau de la Huchette followed by a misty walk across the Seine toward the île de Paris, searching for Notre Dame and its gargoyles.
Lisa would have none of that touristy nonsense. The visit that morning to Pere Lachaise cemetery, stocked with its celebrity corpses, was “all a crock” she had said. Not even the gendarmes’ berating the whisky’d up teenagers in swashbuckling French slurs did anything to offer us respite. I thought that if I listened closely to the spot where Jim’s bust would have been, had it not been recently stolen, – encore un fois said the guard – that I’d hear The Crystal Ship’s before you slip into unconsciousnessechoing though the floor. From beyond the grave.
“It’s all a crock. Idiots mostly who end up as deadbeats planting old daisies into whisky bottles just like the musicians they venerate. Let’s go and see Chopin.” Lisa was having none of it.
“What about Oscar Wilde?” I replied. “At least while we are here.” I didn’t come all this way not to be inspired.
“Not sure what Wilde did to end up here. We can look if you want, but I think that it’s all the same.”
When she saw Oscar Wilde’s graffitied Sphinx, she pursed her lips into a feline grimace and flickered her eyelashes.
“As I thought. All pretty much the same,” she said. “Let’s see Chopin and then we go to the College of Music. This is getting old.”
The day quickly doldrumed, concertinaed between us walking miles through secondhand coat bootleggers and desperate mimes who were dabbed in cheap metallic paint. Perusing pamphlets with information for musical courses was not doing it for me. I longed to find a roadside cafe with a view of l’Arc de Triomphe, ingest un café et une pain-au-chocolat and read the first pages of Alex Garland’s The Beach.
In one bold moment, with the night thinning away, Lisa redeemed herself by nonchalantly offering some crumpled francs to la videuse with the clipboard at a random building’s entrance. The building wasn’t much to look at. You would walk past it unless you had a reason for being there. It’s entrance was a large warehouse door guarded by two security guards that had squeezed into black suits. The building squatted in the 18th arrondissement between the Sacré-Cœur and the Seine and could have easily housed a textile mill or steel refinery. Other than the sign on its exterior which read La Nuit, it looked vacant. Its patrons, snaking along the building’s flanks, hinted at the extravaganza that lay beyond the warehouse door. Pearls and chiffon, leopard skin and leather, studs and buckles, pumps and cowboy boots, white haired people like creatures from alien planets. And drag queens, a bingo of them, towering above everyone else in their pumps and cameo calves.
It was clear to Lisa that la videuse with the clipboard and stalked headset was its gatekeeper. The gatekeeper was not Parisienne, perhaps French Canadian. This was a godsend because my year of high school French was lousy, and I was failing dismally at passing off as a local.
Once we were inside the bespoke nightclub and frisked by the suited men with their cologne-soaked hands, I handed my coat to a girl, about my age, behind a kiosk. Her eyelashes were so very long. Her lips pouted as though she was about to say the word paparazzi. In the split second of looking at her eyes and lips, I’d have then and there given up my chance at salvation if she were to lift the wooden barrier from the kiosk, toss her “STAFF” lanyard over her shoulder and leave her world behind for me.
“Votre ticket?”” she said. But she could as well have said “Destiny is a concept. Fate is a consequence of bad actions. This moment is all that matters. You and I are like the moon and the sea, eternally linked by the tides. My breath is meaningless without you. I feel the magnetic pull. The thunder. The quake. I shall never leave you.”
I folded the ticket between my thumb and forefinger and squeezed it in the small pocket of my jeans. The heat from her fingers that lingered on the ticket sizzled against my groin.
“Une bouteille de vodka s’il vous plait,” I said crooking my index finger in the air like a man signalling a taxi.
It arrived in a crystal vase with the neck of a swan and two long glasses alongside a jug of cranberry juice. I ladled in some ice and mixed generous Cape Coddlers for us.
Scantily clad dancers writhed on the stage, like nubile demi-gods. They were bronzed and glittered with mascara framed eyes, swimming in impossibly long eyelashes. A ringmaster, wearing white spandex trousers and a red jacket, took out a small bottle and held it to his lips and spurted a flame from his mouth into the air. The heat made the audience turn its head away and gasp at the surprise. The music thumped into a frenzied farandole in between the balustrades and scimitar stairs.
I leaned across to a couple whose backs were to us in the neighbouring booth.
“Vodka, or cranberry juice?” I said.
The woman turned and looked at me. “You are not a debutante, are you?” she said.
“Predacious possibly. Wiley spirited most certainly. A debutante? Never!”
She turned to consult with her man and after a brief exchange both leaned over. “Vodka,” she purred.
I poured out a thumb of vodka for each of them, flipped some ice into the air and caught it in the glass.
“What brings you two to Paris?” they enquired.
I did not feel the truth would add to the occasion. What was there to know that would make any sense? I had abandoned my second floor semi-detached London flat and two thousand pounds per month gig as a lawyer, evicting families from Borough of Greenwich council houses. A gangster for the council the locals had yelled at me across the main square near the bench where the alcoholics met every morning for their fried breakfast and tallboy’s. I escaped the chaos and banality of daily life. There was no parade at my send-off, other than a resignation letter that I had slotted into an envelope entitled “To Simon English, the only man who ever taught me anything” and laid on his tattered desk.
I left behind an apartment, empty but for a bookshelf teeming with books and magazines and the letter to Simon. And with my rucksack, duffle bag, writing book and bouquet of pens, I stepped onto a bucket of a ship and headed east along the Thames and past the tideway, like many writers and soldiers before my time heading out to the open ocean. Like Ishmael in the book about the whale, I wanted to sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. And so it was: off to adventure, unto the high seas, into the Heart of Darkness.
“We are here on business,” I said. “Third oldest profession they tell me. I’m not sure how you would say it in French.” I looked around the room which was levitating. “And what is it that you do?”
She laughed and whispered something to the man.
“I am at the Sorbonne. I do, how do you say, philosophe en sociologe. He plays rugby for Toulouse.” She turned to him and translated the French. He mumbled something. “We are not together, he wants me to tell you.” The words dribbled off her lips like caramel that had escaped from the depths of an expensive dessert.
Lisa wedged herself between me and the couple.
“Rugby you say?” She stretched out across me and shook the hand of the rugby player from Toulouse. “I am Lisa.” She stroked his beard and placed her petite fingers into his broad knuckles. “Enchante.”
The rugby player’s beard took the attention away from his broad almost alienlike forehead. His eyebrows lay limp across his soft eyes. Eyes that oozed empathy rather than venom. He had beautiful red lips which caused his moustache to wiggle as he spoke. The black eyeliner carried over to the corner of his crows’ feet with lines like the flick at the end of a judge’s signature.
“What is this,” she hesitated for an intake of breath, “third oldest profession?”
Her name was Sarah and I could see her clearly beneath her golden wig and blue butterfly painted eyes. It saddened me that I had not known her as a young girl, because she would have been the girl in the treehouse with the pigtails and broad smile. The only girl to tell me about things as they were and how they should be. I was curious why a girl who clearly grew up in the countryside with trees and long paths – away from the casual malevolence of Paris – would be in such an eclectic place with this behemoth of a man.
I sat down beside Sarah and moved closer so we could hear ourselves above the rhythmic base of the music.
“The oldest profession is motherhood.” I said reaching out for our glasses filling their vodka with cranberry juice.
“The second – of course,” I said slipping two ice cubes into her glass without disturbing the liquid and inviting any ripples, “is prostitution.”
“Motherhood and prostitution. You might say there is a crossroads in there somewhere. Do you smoke?”
She smiled and shook her head.
I thought as much and took a long sip of the Vodka and cranberry juice, lit up and continued.
“My profession has been the glue of society. The order in the chaos. The rules to fight off anarchy. I am a procurer of beautiful women for men who have such needs. A matchmaker if you will. My services are the representation of women who provide services of,” I paused for effect “the flesh.”
I poured the rest of the Vodka between our glasses and concluded.
“And therefore you could say that this makes it the third oldest profession.” The cigarette dangled off my lip like a sheriff in Tombstone, awaiting the outlaws. It looked like a move that I had practiced in the mirror countless times, which it was.
“But what is it called?” she said.
“In English, we say pimp or maybe procurator. In French I do not know.”
“Ah, mais oui,” she said. “You are a proxeau.” She grinned.
I crinkled my nose. “A what?”
“Proxeau. You are in ze middle. A Monsieur Proxeau.” Sarah crossed one knee over the other, her black dress reflecting glitter and daring. She pointed to Lisa who was absorbed with her rugby player.
“Is she your sister?” said Sarah.
I looked across to Lisa. She was as striking as the day we had met. Bulletproof and beautiful someone less critical might have said. Her views on the world were clear and as far as she was concerned should never be challenged. Everything needed to be tested. There was a solution to every problem. The human embodiment of Occam’s razor, the most obvious solution is the correct one. She played the piano like a mathematician. Precise and unerring. Which meant she’d never been able to play jazz. Insufficient rules to abide by. Lisa could play Mozart and even Rachmaninoff but died a little every time she tried Fats Waller or god-forbid Thelonious Monk. I played in an impromptu band with her at the local Catholic Church in our varsity days. She controlled the gig with her piano while I hid behind my guitar and bad strumming. It wasn’t a match made in heaven by any means but the Italian ladies at the church would smile every time we played Quelli Erano Giorni. Lisa would place her fingers in a chord pattern on the keys, turn to me and with a nod of her head she’d kick it off. I’d keep up as best I could with my eyes diverting to the floor to avoid detection.
“No. She is not my sister,” I said looking back to Sarah. “She is my friend.”
Sarah’s shoulders turned towards me.
“So Monsieur Proxeau. How long are you here for?”
“This place? Or Paris?” I swallowed.
“Both,” she replied.
Five hours later, we were on board The Universe. The Universe was a hollowed-out Citroën T46 FPT fire truck with a metallic paint job depicting flames ejecting an array of planets alongside its side. We were aimed at Calais for the ferry to Dover. Sarah took out a pot of warm tea and dropped in some mescaline. She stashed her satchel of Descartes and Sartre with a thin case containing Dali lithographs in the backseat. Enough French philosophy, she said, to start la révolution. Lisa had decided to stay with Etienne, who had a rugby tournament in a few weeks. She would submit a few forms to the College of Music and see what happened. Sarah and I had decided to throw our lot in together. Glastonbury would be starting that week and we were off to write, philosophise and fornicate.
Before we committed to the morning ferry there was some arbitrage alcohol to be acquired to fund the journey. And we had to find my little brother. Sarah reached across and took my chin into the palm of her hand, bringing her mouth gently to my cheek and kissing it. I looked in the driver’s mirror and saw a reverse butterfly pattern on the side of my face. She handed me my tea cup as I put the car into gear.
“Allons-y! To the sea, Monsier Proxeau,” Sarah whispered as her head drifted into my shoulder and she surrendered to the deepest of sleeps.