BY KIM FARLEIGH
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. Copyright is held by the author.
LAUREN BONAMOURE stood between her bedroom’s window shutters, each person below her moving as if their business would determine humanity’s future: Mothers herded children; waiters ran about; café owners surveyed their clientele; children played football: deft faints, clever turns, dreaming…A football struck a door; people charged.
Changes, she thought, are often imperceptible, like watching a clock; but not always.
Photographs covered her bed. A photographed boy’s eyebrows sloped into a long, thin nose; his lips curled; his fine, black hair was swept back; his arms encircled the youthful Lauren. Her wide mouth flashed with perfect teeth. Curving dimples bordered her voluptuous cheeks; her round chin curved like a crescent moon, translucent against war’s darkness.
His family had fled South. Staying indoors, as requested, was difficult. Youth’s urges affected his judgement. The sea, that he had never seen before, contained sails that glided upon an azure that even the laziest breaths of breeze rippled in sensuous swathes of royal blue. Dying suns created atmospheric silk as if Africa’s balminess, easing over the horizon, had filled his head with the girl downstairs.
She was returning from shopping; he dashed out onto the landing. She was thrilled by the wondrous desire upon his kind face, by his eyes’ sincere longing. Her smile’s warm eagerness provoked: “My father’s a photographer. Can I take a picture of you?”
She gripped the mahogany balustrade, a brace against gushing. Radiance illuminated her pale-blue eyes; gold specks surrounded her ebony pupils. Her face’s beauty created extraordinary hopes.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” he smiled, “I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you.”
Her eyes beamed soft like reflected harbour lights at night.
“Does love come so easily?” she smiled.
“No,” he replied. “You’re the 28,294th girl I’ve seen in my life — I’ve been counting — and you’re the only one I’ve ever loved.”
Her mother woke from the trance of her sewing. She saw the problems instantaneously.
“Lauren!” she yelled from the door.
“Tomorrow!” Didier whispered. “Here. This time.”
Didier argued for hours about borrowing his father’s camera and tripod; his father finally relented. What sort of life would it be anyway, his father thought, if we have to live like this, year after year, hiding, and not resisting? The argument with his wife had been tearful. She had tried to restrain Didier from getting the camera.
“This,” she screamed, “is crazy!”
“I know,” her husband hissed, “I know! But…”
He detested cowardly indolence. He could not resist his son’s will to live.
Didier, playing l’artiste, rigged up the tripod. Lauren’s red dress was patterned with yellow flowers; a crowd were clutching baguettes. A shutter-release cable ran from Didier’s hand to the camera; he put his cheek beside Lauren’s and fired away. Twirling follicles gleamed in the light shining on her face. Freedom embraced her with the gentle fearlessness of its spirit. People gazed from windows, their applause unusual in an occupation forbidding spontaneous eccentricity. Didier acknowledged the crowd with sweeping gestures of his arms.
“This beauty,” he announced, “has been recorded so that humanity can marvel over this triumph of nature!”
Secret rendezvous began.
The Rue de Malmousque finishes at a cove covered in fishing boats. Fish stench strikes where an island — a rocky outburst — comes into view 50 metres from the coast. In the late afternoon, the sun’s silver signature engraves the strip between the island and the bay. Burning white — the sun’s ink upon the sea — surrounds a lighthouse in a conflagration like love, gentle, but intense.
The water was entered via a concrete walk way cut into the cliff. A journey through the sea took Didier and Lauren to the island’s other side; gulls’ squawking sounded awkward, but passionate; fishermen’s distant voices whispered over lapping liquid.
Didier gathered Lauren in his arms. Their lips fought against separation, tongues swirling in three dimensions, like dolphins. The silver fury engulfing the lighthouse had hints of orange. Glump-swishing fishermen’s oars passed nearby.
Didier removed her bathing costume. Orange lustre clipped the island’s peaks. Gasps fluttered wings. Euphoric disbelief swept through her. He loves with me! They tore at each other like writhing serpents. Mango vapour kissed the heavens. A cry of pleasure swept across the sea. They floated in twilight. The sun’s disappearance left a masterpiece of pastel hues. Burning-crimson scrolls embellished the sky’s porcelain blue; they caressed and kissed, giggling in alleyways as they wandered home.
A long kiss completed the day’s sincerity. They floated into their apartments on streams of transcendental elixir. Lauren’s head hit a pillow with sensual grace. Her bed’s head was carved with a delicacy reminiscent of the haze surrounding her heart. Night’s hush whispered in through quivering curtains; stars twinkled above terra cotta. A street lamp painted a café with lemon light; a horse and cart’s rhythm tingled her nape. Why, she wondered, this aggression in a world so inherently at peace?
The police arrived that night at three o’clock. Her eyes flew open like birds escaping a cage.
“Sometimes,” Didier had told her that day, “the worry gets me down.”
She heard shouts. She almost slipped on the stairs. The Devalier’s apartment door was in splinters.
“Didier!” she screamed.
A deadened thud ended Didier’s speech. A sound like a wailing bird about to be eaten by a cat emerged from Lauren’s mouth. Arms flailed. Her father restrained her from tearing the eyes out of a policeman. Didier’s unconscious body was removed.
“You should know better,” a policeman hissed, “than to mess around with Jews.”
A rage, like a thousand high-pitched drills, buzzed in her head. She recognised one of the constabulary.
“Michel Deschamps!” she screamed. “You miserable coward!”
Deschamps refused to look. Her father, his heart swimming in a lake of sympathy, stroked her head.
Didier was dumped into a truck beneath the statue of our Lady where the Jesus child was engraved into a façade down the street. The statue’s distance mirrored pervading attitudes: a moral façade covering the stone heart of self-interested fear.
Lauren gazed at that statue that was supposed to remind us of things greater than ourselves; cold and serene, it faced a world where women could now choose their lovers without interference. Beneath it, Arab women, wearing green-and-gold-checked shawls, entered a restaurant, that, in that summer of 1940, Lauren had burst into to smash a carafe into the spirit bottles above the bar. Michel Deschamps’ father had looked up from a table, counting money.
“You and your bastard son!” she screamed, “had better start hoping your Fascist, bastard friends win this damn war!”
She gazed at that restaurant. Her memories had been intensified by the invasion of football supporters for the World Cup. The reduction of individuality into simplistic, nationalistic identity was occurring again, but this time with a frivolity acceptable in this era of peace. Each night, she could hear chants, accompanied by trumpets, from the old port. Norwegians danced on the tables and chairs. One pulled the awning along with him as he bounced; a girl, wearing a Brazilian headscarf, was being waltzed by a massive man whose beetroot face made his hair seem as snowy as the sparkles glittering upon the water near the Rue de Malmousque. Several people were either slapping or having their backs slapped. A couple were kissing at the bar. A group, in the centre of the throng, all wearing Viking helmets with horns, were singing: “Stand up if you love Norway.” The crowd was so thick, it was not possible to get into the bar. One woman fell off a table and landed across the lap of a man whose friends urged him to smack her bottom. The staff couldn’t sell beer fast enough. A crowd men wearing Norway shirts swamped two long-haired beauties. The racket was so intense it seemed as if the Quai des Belges was the appointed place in the country for the concentration of all noise. Even the roofs of the telephone boxes out the front of the cafe Le Quai were used as dance floors. Scotsmen were singing: “Tokyo! Tokyo! We’re the famous tartan army and we’re going to Tokyo!….Qualify! Qualify! We’re absolutely shite and we usually never qualify!”
Lauren thought: They’re having the times of their lives, and they don’t even know it.
She was qualified to make this observation. The people she witnessed embracing the spirit of events were not much older than she had been when the war had been both close, and far away; the realisation that these people’s lives possessed the audacious hopes of unrestrained youth filled her with envy’s dull buzz. So many of these people, she thought, are going to fall in love, exchange addresses, cement friendships, and fate won’t intervene. Their relationships can blossom. The ones unlucky enough not to realize their luck would believe, she knew, that this is normal.
A man, with a Norwegian flag painted on his face, his blonde plaits decorated with red ribbons, began beating on a drum: Boom, bammma, boom, boom, “NORGE!!” boom, bammma, boom, boom, “NORGE!!” The Scotsmen sang: “The bars are closed where the English are, nah, nar, na, nah, nar; the bars are closed where the English are, nah, nar, na, nah, nar.” A Norwegian woman lifted up a Scotsman’s kilt, exposing his arse; French women at a table nearby chortled in disbelief. It was true! They don’t wear underwear! It’s true! It’s true! It’s true!
A Frenchmen, wearing a riding-bike helmet, that he had spray-painted white, and then had painted the flags of the thirty-two competing nations upon it, carried a bottle of wine in a wicker basket attached to a leather strap; emerging from the helmet were moose antlers carrying the ribbons of the competing countries.
He danced around, stopping to shoot sauterne into the mouths of passers-by. Each recipient thanked him generously. Every time he shot wine down someone’s throat, cameras flashed.
He offered Lauren a drink. The spurt gleamed under a streetlight. The honeyed river bit her tongue with the harsh sweetness of memory.
“Let’s hope,” the antlers man said, “that no one ever does any harm to anyone else ever again in this town.”
She did not know it was Michel Deschamps’ son.
“I hope so, too,” she said.
He kissed her on the cheek and several Norwegians cheered. The attention brought back the bitter embrace of experience; she thought: For some, euphoria will yield something long-lasting and beautiful that history will not deny. And they won’t even realize how lucky they are.
Later in bed she thought: At least I’ve experienced bliss. Imagine being denied that?
It was the last thing she ever thought. The photograph, falling out of her hand, hit the floor, the elusive plenitude that it represented leaving with a soul, that, caught in that moment of thankfulness, departed peacefully.