Paris

For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to the tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening of Thursday 18th August, from London. In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning – aflush, aglow and awonder – from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to wonder whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh”, and I note on the tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good if not quite a lot better can be done, actually.” The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. I now, listening to myself then, sense I can maybe today do a little what I never could then, although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though it came incredibly easy to me: indulge myself, just a little. Now, I feel a warmth to me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…

I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988’, and try as I might I could not find a train listed to Grenoble anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness all that surprising that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my European mind was entirely reasonable then.) So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office to start over again, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.

I must have already had a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which looked plausible. It was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give this much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains and so I was maybe just a tad tired.

Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased and the lights went off. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station – all dark, all empty – obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night. Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacker rucksacks, and I felt laconic and unperturbed, as far as I can recall.

Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside, and while some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping a few feet next to him on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night’, I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again and those of us who had or thought we had trains to catch were let back inside. Now, what on the tape in my still a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep) I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at trying to find out how to get to Grenoble from Paris.

I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon. To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so after asking a few more people I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle. By this time I can barely keep my eyes open and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours rest on the pavement outside and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag, and I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed and asks me if I’m lost. ‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes’, I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of it may be, but the price flashes up on the machine and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. But before I can really explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.

I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they’d had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, coming up three decades later. And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man – with a smile, two minutes of his time and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money – has made the world a much, much better place. Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…

10 Choices

He wanders over, languid, slow, and sits down at my table, at a right angle from me, with a tentative smile: it’s most familiar this, this almost smile, this nearly-a-smile-but-not-quite, with an almost glint in his eye, but also a question.

He is frank but not so frank as to be forward, his mind is open, just as mine was when I was him, but also naturally cautious. I don’t remember this scene, this encounter from my youth at all, which makes me think that maybe this is a complete stranger and I’m projecting onto him my own invention of a version of my youth; and, seeing that I’ve lost my grip on continuity and the concordance of time and space with no possible explanation for how it is that I’m in Istanbul, none of this would surprise me.

‘Hello…’ – he looks at me as if he registered something from his own future or his own past (though that, too, may well just be in my mind), but he doesn’t recognise me, I’m glad: it was brazen to ask him over; I could ruin everything. What, though, is ‘everything’?

‘…I’m George.’

I want to say: ‘I know,’ but that would be certain to confuse him.

‘Good to meet you George, my name is Sebastian.’

He gives me another frank look with an almost-smile that this time round might just tip over into a grin, a benign one, but it doesn’t; instead his face settles into a look that says: you interest me and that alone is worth something, go on then.

I’m in. I don’t know what I’m in, or in for, but I can tell from his unjaded eyes that he likes the curiosity of this situation. He likes curiosity, and he’s not scared. He never was scared, I think, as I watch him look up at Ahmed who returns with our Mojitos. He likes Ahmed, he finds him attractive. Can you blame him. Ahmed thinks nothing of it and smiles at us both, in almost equal measure, though I sense a nod more towards me than my younger self George, but maybe I flatter myself thinking so and also I know what I was like then, I was incapable of flirtation. Nowadays I just surrender.

How to proceed? Am I going to tell George: look at me, I am what will become of you. That would be insane. And horrendously cruel, surely: what if he doesn’t want to look his self-to-be in they eye, at this particular juncture, right here and now and without warning or opportunity to think about it, what if he just wants to have a Mojito with an oddly familiar seeming stranger twice his age and maybe hear something about the world that nobody’s ever told him?

Nor, clearly, am I going to tell George my life story, the twenty-eight years or so that will constitute the distance between him and me. That would be simply unfair, and take forever.

So what am I going to tell him? Ask him? Want of him? For a brief but potentially panic-inducing moment it occurs to me that if we were to get on so well as to decide, maybe after a few cocktails or so, to go for a walk and then maybe dinner and then his hotel (seeing that I haven’t got one), I could end up quite conceivably in a sexual encounter with myself, in the most unorthodox way. That would be taking things way too far, I decide, and resolve to not let it come to this under any circumstances: this one Mojito, that’s it. (What are our circumstances, I continue to wonder…) He raises his glass and offers me cheers. I let it go and return the compliment.

The Mojito is – much as the Bloody Mary had been – near perfect with an appreciable kick to it, and I further resolve not to resolve anything more for the moment and instead allow myself simply to be there in that moment and see what next might unfold.

5 Youth

Talking to the man who doesn’t need to shave fills in me a well of melancholy, sudden and post conversation. The conversation features the most delightful frog in short film history (yet to be made) and many things that give me mirth and pleasure, not least looking into his silvery eyes. Unlike most other young men of an age at which they don’t have to shave, he holds my gaze, steady as a hypnotist. His eyes are memorably shaped, as if they were placed in his face upside down, just a little. Silvery grey.

The sadness sets in after I’ve left the party at which we spend a couple of hours or so talking as the sun goes down over the back garden. It’s more of a backyard than an actual garden, with wild grass growing all over and a neighbour’s dog actually digging up his there hidden bones. I’d never seen that before, other than in comic books (and I’m not an avid fan or consumer of comics). It’s not his youth that brings on my deep sorrow verging on despair, nor anything he said nor the fact that he is bright and well spoken nor let alone that he doesn’t seem to need to shave. I reckon I must be close to twice his age but luckily not as old as his dad. His dad sounds ancient and excellent, formidable in one field or another. By age though, I could be his dad. This casts a pall of umbra over my otherwise sanguine disposition.

I know! I’m having my midlife crisis. It’s plain and perhaps just tadwise banal. I am projecting my discomfiture with the impending calamity of fifty onto the part of my mind that clings on to diversion for dear life. I make believe. The irksomeness of my situation begins to creep up on me, like a nebulous mist. (Tautology.) I have made it to midpoint completely unnoticed: I am invisible to the naked eye. 

And the next few days will have been cataclysmic, so small wonder I’m having an existential wobble. But the good thing is that this time I did not fall in love: not with my friend on the South Bank (though that would have been easy), not with the young man who doesn’t need to shave. (Easier still.) Most certainly not with Poshvoiced Hoodie and, no, not with the man in a blue shirt at Clapham Junction, should you wonder. (Have you ever noticed how many sprucely scrubbed men, tender in years and wearing ironed blue shirts, stand at any given station on any commutable morning… – It’s a rhetorical question?)

As well as being unfamous I am also perennially poor. My chosen path of professional endeavour has so far yielded no hint of a fortune. This has the advantage that I remain unencumbered, I suppose, by wealth’s weight: what I don’t have I can’t lose and I know more than I care to reflect on that the things I own own me quite as much. Take my laptop for instance: without it I am nought. I have dislodged myself to the continent’s end but my Mac is still here: I find that reassuring.

I will the straw in my drink to suck up one more residual sip of tomato juice laced with vodka and it complies with a gurgling sound, which attracts the attention of a boy sitting two tables removed. He gives me a look of aloof disdain and in his eyes, which are the colour of mine, I detect a familiar glint that I cannot put name to nor nature, no. He seems to consider disapproving of me but stops short of a sneer and his very fine lips instead curl into almost a smile. I’m so surprised at this, I put down my glass and smile back at him, which changes his demeanour to a tinge of distaste.

He, much like the young man who does not need to shave and whom I am yet to meet, has no facial growth and his lightly tan skin looks fluffdown soft. He appears as out of place here as I do, and quite as at home. Wherein lies a paradox that tickles me and I catch myself grinning just to myself.

The boy lets a few moments pass in contemplation of his plate on which there appears to have been a kebab or salad, as if to decide whether or not he should scrape the remnants of whatever it was with his fork or knife or even fingers (though he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who, given the choice, would use his fingers to scrape up anything, let alone food); or maybe he’s versed in the mystical art of reading the scraps. As far as I can tell from where I’m sitting (and without ungainlily craning my neck) it looks unlikely that the plate is going to yield up much insight. He appears to come to that same conclusion himself and now looks up, but not at me or at anyone in particular, but into the generality of the world straight ahead, a little bemused and distracted.

I feel like I know him already but clearly I don’t. I have no idea. I have a looming sense of foreboding.