‘ …La nuit, tous les chagrins se grisent; de tout son cœur on aimerait, que disparaissent à jamais, les papillons noirs, les papillons noirs, les papillons noirs…’
From inside his black pea-coat, Jacques took out his phone and looked at its cracked screen.
Why he hadn’t changed the ring tone, he had no idea.
It had been over seven years since they’d got divorced and he had been deported.
Shaking his head, Jacques put the phone back without answering it. That wasn’t what Simone wanted from him. As she had said many times, that wasn’t what their situation was.
On the south side of the river, Jacques looked out across the gray water and tried to focus on the large white dome on the other side. A structure which had been built to celebrate the millennium but had long since changed its name and purpose.
Jacques nodded at his shifting thoughts.
The Pearl Tower. Shanghai. Spring Festival.
“Baby,” his wife had whispered, nuzzling her cheek against his own, “I just know this year is going to be a good one. Don’t you think?”
Nodding, he’d looked up from the crowds of people, who’d gathered up and down the Bund, and smiled, as fireworks blazed across the midnight sky. An explosive riot of red and gold, which faded to the greys and black of monsoon clouds, which had now appeared above Shwe Dagon pagoda.
Wiping his eyes, Jacques reached down for the bottle beside the wooden bench.
The vodka wasn’t great but it would have to do.
Like their apartment in Botataung. Like the white shirt and longyi they’d had to rush out and buy because of that jumped-up local funeral planner.
“It has to be done tomorrow,” he’d shouted at Jacques’ partner, slamming his hand down on the tea house table, “Tomorrow! You understand? You can’t just sit there crying woman. There are things you have to do.”
Her brother had been dead for all of forty minutes. He was her younger brother and her last relative. A twenty-eight-year-old Burmese man, whom they’d both watched die without any medical assistance, while they both held his hands.
“No,” he growled at the river, “There is no loving kindness here…”
Just as there’d been none in that Cambodian border town.
“Ah, Joy Mrai…”
Sat inside their small wooden hut, the border guards had been drunk on beer and eating skewers of barbecue pork. Their commanding officer swearing at him in Khmer through the window, before he then came to the door, brandishing a pistol.
“What the bloody hell do you want?” the officer had snapped, motioning with the gun to the other guards to move his bruised and bloodied figure on , “Look, I’ve already told you, we don’t bloody care if you were robbed, stabbed and beaten senseless. We are not going to do anything about it. Not unless you pay us to investigate. Do. You. Understand?”
He did, just like he had in far too many other places.
Shaking his head, Jacques got up from the wooden bench and carried on down the path.
Up ahead was a Victorian pub. As a child he went there with his father and his father’s father. It was one of the oldest in the area. One which they would always go to after they’d been to see the nearby tea clipper. That was long before the old Gypsy had set sail again. And long before its dry dock had been filled in with a café and a fake sea; made out of toughened glass.
“Super,” smiled Jacques, lighting up a Gitanes.
Walking slowly through the tourist groups, Jacques looked up past the old pink pub, and on towards the green grass slopes of his childhood park.
His mother’s father – Jacques – had lived in a small room not far from its east side. According to the census of the time, there were eight rooms in the building with between ten and sixteen other immigrants living in each room. A squalid and overcrowded house, which was now worth over a million. Distracted by the ghosts in front of him, Jacques walked into a young man in a gray suit with a full beard and tattoos.
“Drunken bastard,” the young man sniped at Jacques, but he didn’t hear a word.
Standing still upon the river path, he stared up at the autumn sky, his ears filled with the distant sound of laughter, screams and police sirens.
“Qué guapa eres,” Jacques whispered, running his hand down the back of her black dress.
None of it had made any sense.
She was married. The bar had been packed. He had planned to leave the next day.
Shaking his head, Jacques raised the bottle to his lips and walked on down the path.
He had no idea what he was thinking. His thoughts, memories and his feelings were like the ground beneath his feet. Always moving. Always changing. A glimpse of now. A flash of then. Some half-remembered, half-imagined space.
“Bene, bene,” Jacques nodded, stopping on the path again, “Tutto a posto, tutto a posto…”
He really was drunk now, just as he’d been back then.
Back in that small town in Lombardia. A crazy bar full of crazy people. A clear bottle on the wooden counter. A bottle so over-proof, that more than three shots and you’d go blind.
“We only give it to our friends. Kind of like a ritual. Like that coke and acid, Jacques. You drink that shot, you become one of us. What do you say, brother?”
Laughing at the staring figures, Jacques lifted the bottle to his lips and started turning round and round.
‘…La nuit, tous les chagrins se grisent, de tout son cœur on aimerait, que disparaissent à jamais…’
“Ta gueule la mouette…”
There had never been a Simone and Jacques.
Smashed to pieces by the path below, the river swept it all away.