Le Plouc de Paris
Sam Knowles, political exile adrift in Paris, has bought his plane ticket home. But the day before he leaves, after saying goodbye to a few characters in the building where he lives, he meets with Alexandre Bakelunde, an Australian actor on a weird mission. There seem to be people out to kill the movie star. The two hide out in the hotel room of a fellow Aussie, a writer intent upon inventing a new school of literature.
Knowles left it to fate. Or what he called fate, a species of chance – anything but destiny. That was too hazy, heavy, too inescapable – too Germanic. They were in France, where the word impossible did not exist. Whatever happened next was dependent on Bakelunde remembering their encounter and making time for Knowles in his busy schedule. Knowles had the plane ticket back to the States on Sunday evening. Did the film star need him? He must have known what his family was up to.
Saturday was slipping away like the last days before long trips always do. He had business to take care of, a close friend or two he wanted to see in the evening. A short visit to Clarisse to pay the rent a few months in advance and, yes, watch mutely, without giving anything away, as the money lay on the table under her gaze. The kitchen table? He’d never been inside her and Henri’s apartment but guessed it was the pick of the lot, with rooms facing courtyard and street. Their bedroom, what was it like? Henri was an old biker and Clarisse something of an artist so he imagined a turbulent mess behind closed shutters, everything in piles, dirty sheets. If Clarisse was still drawing, there would be smudges on the drinking glasses or a pencil half-under the pillow, maybe the bed was strewn with crumbs after they stretched out to watch a film. There were overgrown plants in the rooms facing the courtyard and the entire apartment was lazy with the mismatched bric-a-brac landlords collect from every tenant who strays into their orbit.
He wanted to say goodbye to Hervé if he could find him. Their meetings cheered Knowles. Always fortifies you to know someone else is in the soup, even if it’s a different pot.
Knowles spread the bills, laying them across his working desk out with a croupier’s flourish. He stared at the money. He couldn’t bear to part with any of it even if he knew he had to give Clarisse and Roland well over a grand for three months’ rent: July, late like always and then surprise her with August and September. He wanted to see her face, to see what changes it provoked. That would be some small revenge for perennially teetering on the edge of insolvency. It was a grand gesture, akin to giving his status away. He lectured himself that he shouldn’t indulge in anything like that but knew he wouldn’t be able to resist.
Knowles went down the corridor to see if Hervé was in. He knocked once – no response. He waited and was about to give it a second go, a little louder this time, when he heard a small scratching noise. Knowles leaned closer. At first, he thought it was mice, their tiny claws scraping the floor as they ran a relay back and forth. It kept on, faster than slower. Well, there must be plenty for the little pests to chew on in the room Hervé used to store his things. But there was another sound, barely perceptible, like someone pressing a wheezy old bellows. Hervé had left the windows open, and the blinds were moving back and forth. That was it. Sure. His wife had left him so where else did he have to sleep? Knowles listened, his head leaning against the door, a smile on his lips, waiting for the words, for a groan or a cry. The narrow cot Hervé had in there was tipping back and forth. The springs were sagging, the shoe repairman was with a silent one, a refined lady, a long-time client who needed her old heels patched up quickly. All work done on premises in 20 minutes! No cries, no chants, no slaps – the man was a regular methodical hole puncher – just the aura of sex, waves of glimmering heat off a quick one a few blocks from the cordonnerie. Knowles had arrived after the seduction, in time for the famous old rhythmical mechanical, the wellsprings of life. How often do we get to listen to others having sex ? Knowles let his head lean on the door as July sweat rolled down his forehead and he suppressed the urge to roar with laughter. It was fine, it could go on forever, just like that, an endlessly subtle grating full of variations, pauses, deep breaths, bodies turning wordlessly on the cot. He had to listen closely, the silence was a bit odd given how famously verbal the French are but Knowles could wait for the fireworks. Maybe they were old lovers who’d already said everything there was to say.
He could have left. He stayed there leaning on the door and listening to gentle cries, like a cat when you stroke its ear. The bed made its little rasping noise. Their exclamations barely rose above a whisper.
Someone was on the stairs. Knowles straightened up as they walked by, pulled himself together and headed down to Clarisse’s, his coat full of money and good omens.
He counted it again quickly and laid the full sum in the middle of the table. No flourishes, no grand waves of sudden wealth, no braggadocio. With his version of a businessman’s air, Sam explained that he had things to resolve in the States, he’d be there for a while and not knowing precisely when he’d return – he was coming back, bah oui, Paris was home – thought he’d better pay everything in advance, this being one way to repay her kindness. Her kindness in what, Clarisse asked, leaning forward and shuffling the money with quick hands. In renting him the battered old apartment, he said, at decent price, for putting up with his lateness etc., adding whatever civilités came to mind. He’s joking, she decided. Clarisse folded the money and slipped it beneath the table, into her purse. Knowles couldn’t repress a smile. Madame, Knowles bet, was quite fond of her pognons, those discreetly wadded bills that arrived from nowhere, untraceable, and prone to be spent any way she pleased. She must have a few arrangements like that scattered around the building.
Clarisse believed Knowles had come into an inheritance. She’d long suspected something on this order. Now he could enjoy life without worrying about some rosy future that never came. His legal status was screamingly obvious and functioned as the unspoken premise of their relationship: He wouldn’t have taken the apartment otherwise. Her belief about his new-found wealth rested on little more than the old adage that people with money never talk about it. That, and something in his body language, his cool detachment, the easy way he parted with a considerable sum.
How he and Clarisse ended up in bed, her bed, was a lingering mystery to Knowles, the only thing he was sure of, being that he didn’t initiate it, while Clarisse Roland was certain her attraction to Knowles had nothing to do with his new-found confidence or his better situation. The perfume of body heat, his air of diffidence, as if it didn’t matter to him where they sat as long as they kept talking, as well as her sense that there was another man behind the tightly controlled mannerisms, it all became an irresistible game. She decided to torture Knowles after months of stray, ineffectual glances.
They were in her bedroom, Knowles hovering on the edge of the mattress while she lay curled on the far side, vulnerable yet open, both talking in low voices as if someone were nearby, each one waiting for the other to make the first move. An hour later he was climbing the two flights to his place.
-Out! Get out! My husband will be back at any moment, Clarisse growled in a panic that was maybe real and maybe not and may have been nothing more than her desire to pretend she hadn’t taken the fatal step. She couldn’t bear Knowles just now. Well, so there it was, he thought – mari means they’re married, doesn’t it? They’re traditional enough to get hitched, as if that mattered. Knowles put his clothes on at a leisurely pace and let himself out, taking the stairs to his apartment in a dream, testing each step to make sure it was real. There’s an old Zen story about a neophyte crossing paths with a master, the younger man gamely sauntering up to the elder and asking, what’s happening? To which the master replied, Everything – all the time.
The phone was ringing. Alexander Bakelunde on the line. He was intrigued by Knowles’ idea of a walking interview, no holds barred as he ambled around the unfamiliar town. They could allude to his being an actor but that wasn’t determinate, was it? He’d talk and express his opinions freely. Could Knowles publish it in France ? That would be the best. Where did Knowles live? This was a different Bakelunde from the pushy tyro of the night before. Knowles gave him the address and Bakelunde said he’d be there at three. Knowles stood there listening to Bachelunde, agreeing with everything the actor said without giving it any thought. His body was swimming in all the pleasurable sensations that linger after a rousing fuck. With Clarisse it was all dark clouds and thunder, the strange sense that she was trapped in her apartment and they had to go through with it... The actor wanted publicity, did he? The back page of Libé was always hungry for fresh exotics.
Alex Bakelunde arrived at Cité Monthiers five minutes early. Giving Knowles the once over, he began walking around the place like he owned it. As far as the interview was concerned, he forgot he ever mentioned it. He stood in the empty room in the middle of the apartment.
-Is that the way you use it? For pacing, thrashing things out? Brilliant. A blank space right in the middle. Every home should have one. Pretty ramshackle, he said, nodding at the high ceilings, the peeling paint and the stains on the plank floor. -A portrait of me in Paris? Sure, why not? Shake the branches and see if anything falls. There’s something else I want to talk to you about, he said, leaning against the wall where the alcove and the empty room met. -I want to introduce you to someone, maybe someone you already know. Is there a phone around here?
-Someone I know? What was Bakelunde up to? Was he one of those tiresome people always angling to turn an acquaintance to their advantage? Knowles’ desk was a mess once again as he unearthed the cumbersome old phone with its second receiver on back. You could see the gears turning with people like that, but Knowles couldn’t see Bakelunde’s. He assumed the actor meant Chalmers Manville in Australia, in which case the jig was up. He set the phone down in the middle of the desk.
-You have international?
-It’s a fixe. Call anywhere you like.
Bakelunde reached for the phone and stopped, glancing at Knowles.
-One of the old models.
-That’s right, Knowles said. Complete with a second earpiece in back. Property of the State.
-I’ve seen one before. In a museum.
-That’s right. Or in an old film. I’m not sure why it wasn’t chucked but it works. Where to, by the way?
-Late over there, isn’t it? Knowles could see that life around Bakelunde was always going to be sur le vif – on one’s toes.
-He’ll pick up.
Bachelunde dialed the number from memory and put his hand over the receiver. -His name is Eddie Trafalgar but it might as well be Frankie Fountainebleau. He’s really just Jones, born in Canberra, and I doubt they were Joneses when the family queued up for entry. I sometimes call him that just to annoy. He’s late of Flox & Co. Talent, Sydney, shown the door due to certain financial irregularities, now operating out of a highrise in one of the better districts. Care to guess who made that possible? We’re thick as thieves. I’m here because of him and he’s there because of me. Two oceans seem a safe distance.
Guttural noises of someone clearing their throat and spitting came flying out from the other end of the line. Bakelunde took charge. -Hello, Eddie... Eddie, how are you? Yes, it’s me, Ed. Sorry to disturb at this hour. Yeah, I’m in Paris. Where else would I be? No invites to Monaco yet... Everything’s fine, production just getting under way. I’ve got the day off... Stop being a grandmother, Eddie, we need to talk. I’m here with a man, a friendly fellow. I think you know him. His name is Knowles. Sam Knowles. A very unassuming gent, a quiet one who, once you’ve been introduced, you hardly remember a thing about him. Remarkable quality, wouldn’t you say? Perfect for a spy. I believe he’s in your employ? I believe you’re keeping an eye on me by means of this fellow, yes? ... Come on, Eddie, no need to protest like that. Spend your fifteen percent any way you please. It just seems to indicate a certain lack of trust, Ed. I’m not a product, I’m a human being who can very well handle my own business here in Europe. Like to speak to him? He’s here and I’d like both of you to know I know. Talk to him, Eddie... You doth protest too much, old man.
Bakelunde handed the phone to Knowles and reached for the receiver in back.
-Wallo. Who is this, please?
-Sam Knowles. A friend of your client.
-Is that so?
Knowles listened to Trafalgar and answered his questions. Trafalgar seemed as mystified as Knowles, who’d never heard his voice before.
-Well, he likes to pick up strays, that’s all I can say, Trafalgar rasped. -You know your way around Paris? You live there? That’s probably it. Put Alex back on the line.
This time it was Bakelunde who was quiet, while Trafalgar emitted a long stream of denials, assertions and confidences. Knowles had no idea if Trafalgar was who Bakelunde said he was.
-Eddie, there’s something else on the agenda. About our film here in Paris.
-Yeah? Trafalgar replied with thinly disguised reluctance.
-I think we’re in quicksand. Not sure but I get that feeling. The actors are telling me things. Finances are shaky. A delay right now I can’t account for. Everyone is assembled and we’re suddenly on hiatus. The line-producer announced new funding, but where is it? Meanwhile they are or maybe aren’t paying my hotel bill. So let’s be prepared to open the spigots. I know, I know, it sounded grand but maybe it’s a busted flush, Eddie, one of the great could-have-beens. What? Why? No, Eddie, I’m not coming home, tail between my legs and all that jazz. No chance in hell. Come on, Eddie – would you?
And with that, Bakelunde hung up the phone without so much as a goodbye.
-Punchy character that fellow. Did you really think I was checking on you? Knowles asked. What exactly does your agent think you’re up to?
-I don’t think Eddie Trafalgar has a fair clue in hell. But he’s an agent with time and money on his hands, so why not? If it’s not you, it’s somebody else. I’m his first client to escape the penal colony and he’s probably gnawing on contracts that I’m going to bolt and he’ll lose me. And you know what? A European agent isn’t a bad idea. When you turned up, I had you pegged for a spy, someone to keep Trafalgar abreast.
Knowles watched over Bachlunde’s shoulder as the actor scanned the papers strewn across the desk and the theatre announcements on the wall.
-Your French is good, Bakelunde said idly, apropos of nothing.
-Passable. Knowles watched Bakelunde’s lips moving as he slowly read a postcard and poster invitations to events, his eyes squinting with painful effort. Dyslexic, Knowles concluded, or borderline. Perfect profession for someone like that but how does he learn his lines? So, what was he going to tell Bakelunde? He wasn’t sure he was going to tell him anything. He was too intrigued. The actor demanded attention – he brought his dramas with him. Knowles didn’t feel like calling it a day.
The two men were only a few feet apart when Bakelunde spun around. -So who do you work for? If not Trafalagar, who?
-Good question. Knowles smoothed the hair on the top of his head, paused for effect and stared directly in Bakelunde’s wide-open, cool green eyes. -Strictly independent. No contracts with anyone, not even a detective really. But interested. That’s the truth. Now it’s my turn. Who would be checking up on you? Second choice says it’s your family. If not your employer then your family or your wife if you have one. Correct? Who are they?
-No, no, they wouldn’t be interested in my life in Paris. Bakelunde seemed a little uncertain of his own statement. -I’m orphaned you see. Not exactly written out but politely excused. As long as the havoc I cause doesn’t disturb them.
-I can get away with everything short of murder.
-They’re wealthy, are they?
-Enough. You weren’t brought up –
-Rich? No. Strivers, bosom of the middle class. I gather the air is different up there.
-They’re rich, they have everything, and they live in fear. Fear of losing everything overnight, fear it might disappear while they’re asleep. Fear someone will come for it, claim it, saying it was stolen and doesn’t really belong to the secretive Bakelundes. So, therefore, they must accumulate more, to reassure themselves, and they must be eternally on guard. Not the life I wanted to lead. I took their money up to a tender age and walked. So no, I don’t think they’re after me, or even interested.
-Even if they thought any publicity was bad?
-I’m a long way from Australia. If I have a bit of fun, it’s local news in a lingo Australia can’t fathom.
-What happens if I turn on the ancient model here and type in ‘Bakelunde, Australia’?
-You’d get me with a line at the end saying that I am the son of Rebecca and David of the notoriously reclusive Bakelundes of Upton Hills. They’re very careful about things like that.
Talking about his family put Bakelunde on his back foot. He became reticent, guarded and let Knowles get away with the flimsiest of excuses. The air inside the apartment was stifling.
-You don’t have to believe a word I say. I’m not a detective. Just a writer, a curious type. I don’t completely buy your family story. From what you say, I think they’re interested. Why I don’t know. Where’s the money come from?
-I couldn’t say. For an instant, Knowles noticed, Bakelunde was fidgeting. -This place of yours is stuffy as hell. What say we get a beer? I’m on a small mission of mercy this afternoon. You can come. Might interest you. Another writer. The guy who wrote the film you saw last night. He’s here in Paris working on the follow-up. Apparently. he’s in bad shape, coked out, refusing to write the sequel. I’m going to see if I can cheer him up. Come with me if you want, Bakelunde added as if he didn’t care either way. -The guy’s probably bent out of shape by now. Knowles watched as Bakelunde transformed before his eyes, once again playing the movie star, the man people deferred to without knowing why – all because he gave good camera, as the saying goes.
The two men charged off, Bakelunde in the lead, enjoying his untrammeled freedom in Paris, Knowles, watching Alexander from behind and marveling at his ease, his belligerent child-like openness, couldn’t help thinking of him as gifted beyond all measure: a talented actor on the rise, from a wealthy, mysterious family, possessor of a brusque glamour women somehow couldn’t resist. He said anything off the top of his head and turned any corner he liked – who was going to stop him? They’d headed downhill, out of the French quartier and into a small district full of bright lobbies in renovated buildings, where the company names were all baby talk in the bright logos of the start-ups. Knowles stopped him. -Any clue where you’re headed? Bakelunde replied, -None. Does it matter? They made their way across the Ninth to Moncey and Chaptal on the bare shoulders of a July afternoon. If this were a film, shot from above, Knowles thought, we’re bounders rambling around an abandoned city. They walked down the middle of the steep, clustered streets where life had closed its shutters and retreated indoors. Near Pigalle they gave up and fell on the bench in a shade facing the merry-go-round at Place Ventura. The decorative gondolas and painted horses were abandoned. Paris was at a standstill. A dark-skinned gypsy stood in front of a crêperie sawing on a violin.
Vintimille wasn’t far away, not even a ten-minute walk, but the heat set them back, the streets were like walking on hot coals. Crawling along Victor Massé in the shadows under the awnings, Bakelunde and Knowles barely noticed the shuttered stores as the actor drawled a picture of the man they were going to visit.
-Greene came out of nowhere with a mean little book Sydney hated so much it became a hit. Published it himself – no one else would. A few actual living people, pillars of society, took offense, they weren’t used to the unflattering depictions. The book sold so Trafalgar took a chance, putting together money from people who don’t precisely get on with the nouveaus. The film took off. It suited the public mood. Doesn’t happen every day.
A driver far away revved a van up rue Pigalle and pulled over, the humming engine turning into a turbine roar as the sound bounced off the walls of the narrow street. The rest of the world had come to a halt. The men searched for a bar. They’d never make it to Vintimille without a little help.
-You saw the film. Know anything about Sydney? No plot, just snapshot x-rays of the city’s characters, the old crowd being pushed aside by new money. Came out a few months ago and took off like a rocket. One of the cable companies offered him a hundred grand for the next big thing and he grabbed it. Now he’s in Paris, tourist visa about to expire. Hasn't written a line. Has the money and can't work. Strange bunch, writers. Laughing all the time and telling anyone who’ll listen, ‘The jig is up. No worries.’ No place open around here for a quick one?
The two men dawdled across Pigalle, Knowles listening intently to Bakelunde as he went on about the writer when the small white van suddenly careened out of nowhere. It revved again and bore down on the intersection. Bakelunde jumped but Knowles gestured not to worry, certain the van was going to slow and let them pass. It kept coming and at the last second swerving, aimed directly, sending the two men sprawling onto the curb. A crowd of onlookers gathered while the van disappeared in the roundabout a block away. The two got up slowly. Knowles had had a close shave with a wall of hot air but was otherwise unscathed, Bakelunde’s forearm had a raw tattoo. A second later and they’d be cripples.
-You think he took his hands off the wheel for a second? Bakelunde asked, as if the whole thing were a joke. -It’s been known to happen.
-I don’t think so, Knowles replied, brushing himself off and glancing down the street to see if any more surprises were coming. The inside of his jacket was damp with sweat. -That was a little too perfect. He stared at Bakelunde with all the attention and guile of a dog panting for instructions. -No, Kemosabe. Someone wants you out of the way.
The man at the front desk of the Vintimille had his head down, fast asleep. Bakelunde shook his shoulder.
-Hartley Greene? The Australian? He still here?
-The writer. Who shall I say is calling?
-Alex Bakelunde. Don’t call. We want to surprise him. The deskman sat up straight.
-Hotel rules, sir. No worries – he never picks up. You’ll have to climb – the elevator is out.
Out of breath after the second flight, they paused on the landing so Bakelunde could go on with the story.
-We got in each other’s hair a few times on set, he leapt out of the cheap seats yelping I should play the scene as written and when I told him it wasn’t possible, cinema isn’t made up of words, he should stay at home and count his money if he has any, the penurious scribbler threw a fit that his precious novel was being traduced, calling me Great Lord Ozzie Over The Top in a loud voice until I ran him off the set. Someone filmed that little imbroglio I’m sure. The movie’s made a nice pile of dough so it’s all bygones, hatchets buried. At least I think they were. We’ll see soon enough. Tread softly – he’s a real piece of work.
-You’ve got to clean that arm, Knowles said, either unimpressed by cinema stories or exhausted.
Hartley Greene, frazzled, exhausted from wrestling with his “New Idea,” leaned in the doorway, shaking with something between delight and terror, surprised by the appearance of Alexander Bakelunde, his bête noir, in the hall of the Vintimille. -Well, well, well. Bakelunde looked like providence itself, with a six pack of cold ones under his arm. Greene, not completely sure that Bakelunde wasn’t a figure of his imagination, led the way through his room to the narrow balcony and gave the actor a full-dress inspection. He set two chairs facing the narrow balcony and prepared himself for a barrage of questions.
-I was just having it out with your ghost the other day, right here in this room. I was sure it was you. Uncanny, no? A phantom double. That anything you know about? Greene rolled a cigarette carelessly, letting curly threads spread across his lap.
Bakelunde kicked his moccasins off and wrapped a wet towel around his forearm. He watched Greene, his old antagonist, his slumped shoulders, fidgeting fingers, his tendency to chew his lips when he became agitated, constantly flicking his head to throw his hair back. Unchanged. Bakelunde let the silence linger. Greene was a good sort, ineffectual but decent. He didn’t want to scare the man, and he didn’t want to talk about what had just happened on the street. Greene was in fragile shape. The silence continued while the two men sipped their beer.
Greene finally gave in. -So, what are you doing in Paris?
-I’m with the sisters of Charity now, Bakelunde said languidly. -International division. Saving the world, one writer at a time. Hartley Greene leered back, and Alex softened a little.
-Decent part in a small film. Trafalgar got me out of Australia for which I should be eternally grateful. And you?
Greene gestured toward the desk behind them.
-Working. How’d you know I was here?
-People talk, Hartley. Paddy Ashland told me you been on the horn with him about the film. He mentioned the hotel in passing.
The two men stretched across the balcony of Hartley Greene’s fourth floor room with a view of the Paris rooftops, shooting the breeze and rehashing old quarrels, while Sam pushed a chair into the corner a short distance away. Greene pestered him for details on the film, by which he meant whether people were still buying tickets. To Bakelunde it seemed a pleasant way of passing the afternoon after what had just happened. Greene didn’t comment on his rumpled suit or the bruise on his forearm. Bakelunde was adept at directing attention elsewhere. Greene was oblivious.
-I don’t know how he got my number! Greene threw his head back, guffawing and showing off his decaying teeth. -I slipped out of Sydney without a soul knowing. You can see how that turned out.
-Not so bad, mate. You’re set up in Paris, writing the sequel to Canoe.
The writer snorted. The match was on.
-Why would I do that? You think I came to Paris to repeat myself? Harbour Canoe2, the sequel in which the writer excoriates a new town with a wry grin? Will that be my grand tour of Australasia? Alterno-boy vs. the Hypocrites? All because gullible Americans from cable have touched down on Planet Oz to throw dollars at anything with a pen in its hand? Greene stretched out in the chair, his feet pressing through the wrought iron balustrade. He was on a roll. -I’d better take advantage while I can, is that it? I’m out, I’m free. Lived on nothing for years before I got lucky. I took what they offered but I never agreed to become a product booster. Nothing personal but it would be better if we drowned our little mutual creation. Maybe we begin the next film with the guy’s last bubbles rising to the surface. Who killed Philip Sanders in The Harbour Canoe? I’m working on other things. I’ll figure out something for Sydney later. His words sounded conciliatory, but his body language and delivery said he couldn’t care less.
-A damned irresponsible position to take, Bakelunde drawled while staring at the skyline. -Have it your way.
-You think so? I made it to France with bread in pocket while the world burns at an ever-accelerating pace. Seems pretty well thought out and responsible to me. You come from money; you’ve never had a worry in the world. Everyone knows the Bakelundes. You’re an actor because it’s an almighty lark. He stood up, heading to the dark recesses of the room.
-Moi? I was penniless for years, he called over his shoulder for the whole world to hear.
He came back clutching a half-gone bottle of vodka.
The two men’s voices rose as they got into it, having it out without worrying whether anyone behind shutters was listening in.
-You can’t do that. A lot of people are depending on you, the film crew, the actors, the public you never knew you had. You’re Australia’s success du scandale. And what are you doing precisely now? Leaning back, Bachelunde’s fingers slipped between the covers of a small pile of books stacked precariously close to the corner of the desk, ruffling the pages. -Do you have any idea what will happen if you abscond? They’ll never forgive you. You won’t work in films for years. Well?
-Oh la di dah. Do you think I set out to work in film? Is it my sworn duty to write Canoe 2 and 3 and insult a whole new set of dignitaries? That’s what got their attention. Not the style, literary despite my best efforts, but the fact that my little vignettes named names, ever so slightly camouflaged. They’re coming after me with lawsuits, did you know that? Will the Bakelundes give me refuge on one of their private islands if I go back? I’m happy where I am, I’m on the way to a new kind of writing, whereupon Greene, dropping avant-garde French writers’ names left and right, launched into an impenetrable discussion of his new book. Bakelunde seemed unfazed and impervious to every insult Greene lobbed at his family. Their discussion went on until Greene folded, saying he’d consider it, but only because he was tired of being browbeaten.
-You write it and I’ll make it a hit, Bakelunde said without a trace of bluster. Greene faced Bakelunde while he rolled a new cigarette. His eyes were like pinpricks, and he was growing more furious by the instant. He’d opened his door to a real demon, exactly what he’d come to Paris to escape. -We can all use a hit from time to time, the actor went on, low key. -You’re enjoying this, being in Europe, aren’t you? Doing wonders for you, right? Well then. The actor had sussed out just how hungry his opponent was for success, but Greene wasn’t ready to give in. He shot up from his chair and searched for something on his desk. It was his turn to attack.
-How’s the family doing? Still moldering away with their millions?
-I don’t know. None of my business, mate.
-Oh come on. They’re only among the wealthiest in Australia. Where does the money come from?
-Wise investments. So I’ve been led to believe. I don’t see any of it, or very much of them.
-You’re not curious? About the money? About who they were before they landed in Australia?
Bakelunde deflected the questions, unsure of what possible use a loose nut like Greene could be to him. -Tabula rasa. Wash up in Oz and all sins are forgiven. Forgotten. White skin? You’re in.
Greene didn’t believe Bakelunde, but he had no way of knowing. His conception of the rich was confined to things he read, happenstance and chance encounters, like the politico, not precisely rich but on his way, that he’d written about in Canoe. He had no first-hand acquaintance with the system, unlike Alex who, growing up, was used to Prime Ministers and titans of industry stopping by for dinner and staying late. Greene wanted to pry Bakelunde open on the subject but didn’t have a clue how.
-I won’t bring up your family again if you’ll stop resurrecting that loon from Canoe. Or any of them, he added grandly. We’re free men, in Europe. Paris. A beautiful surprise that six months ago I could never have imagined. A toast, Greene burbled as he poured out the last of a pricey vodka with a snowy scene engraved on the label.
-Sure, Bakelunde said, raising his glass. -But let me get this off my chest. Do anything you like. You should do anything you like, the actor said, buoyant and generous. -Give them the script or story you want but give them something. Bakelunde felt a bit like a mogul at that moment, and he sensed how corrupt it was to give advice. He was about to go on when Greene cut him off.
-Cheers and fuck every single one of ’em, he said, raising his glass.
-Precisely but give them something. They paid you? He joined Greene at the desk, looking over his shoulder.
-A hefty portion up front, Greene drawled absentmindedly.
-Well done. If you need more –
Greene jumped, gesturing at the surroundings and cackling. -Look around. Anything in this room that leads you to believe I’m burning through a hundred grand?
-How about a party tonight? You could use a little fresh air, Greene, Bakelunde said, teetering comically over the bed and falling, his face drooping with boredom. He had no interest in Greene’s room, preferring to stare through the curtains to a scene far away, where afternoon breezes rode to town on the back of the swells. One hand rested on the hotel phone on the night table.
Later, when he was planning his next move, Bakelunde took advantage of Greene’s distraction to slip a piece of paper under the book at the bottom of the pile on the writer’s desk. Written when he was in the water closet washing his arm and folded in half, the shaky handwritten note said, ‘If anything happens to me, Greene, my family is responsible. Even better material for your next book. Alex’
-Boys I’m off, he said. Shaking hands with a non-plussed Greene he said, -Great to see you again. Glad we cleared the air a bit and turning to Knowles, -Talk before eight? He was halfway out the door when he paused before either man could react. -You’ll let me know if you need anything, Bakelunde said, flicking his fingers and disappearing down the hall. He was gone before the writer could tell him again that he didn’t need anything except a breakthrough. Knowles hadn’t reacted quickly enough. Standing up, he straightened his clothes and headed for the door.
-Hold on, Hartley Greene said. -I didn’t even catch your name, did I? Who and what are you and what are you about? How do you know Alex? he said as he folded himself onto his chair with his legs crossed and one elbow on his knee like an ornamental sea creature who stirs the sand every time it crawls across the ocean floor. -I thought you were part of his entourage. Do you want to smoke? We can. And humming to himself he pulled a thumb-size wad of green hash out of his pocket.
-How do you like that? Wants to throw money at me. Knows I don’t need it. Want to hear the funny thing? I had more or less the exact conversation which just transpired with Bakelunde’s ghost a day ago, right here in this room. I thought he was here and I defended myself from the assault. Uncanny, no? He finished rolling and licked the papers. He had no idea he was repeating himself. -Care to join? Who are you, anyway?
Knowles sketched his biography in approximate strokes, more left out than in. He spoke of the journalism with Dufrêne as if it were still on-going.
-So, you’re a writer, really, a real writer? The full-time variety?
-And you live here in Paris? Greene was being polite. He was still recovering from Bakelunde’s surprise appearance in the flesh. -Decent fellow all in all. Canoe has done extraordinarily well, a complete surprise to everybody in Oz. Made on the cheap, quick turnaround, unlikely hit from the first weekend. Bakelunde’s over the top. And here he is in Paris.
Greene stood up and ferreting around behind the overturned sofa, returned to his chair with a second bottle of vodka.
-I hide it there – from myself. He tipped the sheeny liquid from the bottle into two dirty glasses sitting on the desk. -These film people, you have to lie to them all the time. Such perfect lives, everything to order – their favorite bottled water is written into the contract, a pleasure, I think it’s fair to say, most of the world has never known nor ever will. You couldn’t ask for more. Always jetting here and there. A bunch of absolute and complete dickheads. They want Harbor Canoe II, and they want it straightaway and I’m not going to give it to them. Let them think I’m fucked up beyond belief. Good. Then they’ll apply their tender mercies. He took a healthy slug from his glass. -The machine was ready to pounce. I slipped away in time. Better they think I’ve gone off the rails over here in France. Everybody else does, don’t they? France is a crack-up machine for wayward westerners. It’ll buy me some time. Greene warmed to his subject. -Ever written any fiction?
-Nothing I’d haul out in public, Knowles demurred. Greene was obviously loaded on something that came before his current apero. It remained to be seen if he could learn anything of use about Bakelunde.
-Well but you write.
-I destroy what I’ve written. I’ve got a pile I’m going through. I hunt for ideas and toss the pages over my shoulder. How long have you known Alex?
Greene wanted to talk, and Knowles, quiet, observant Knowles was the perfect foil. A writer too, after a fashion. Greene had kicked around the Australian scene, published a few novels that went nowhere and then somehow struck gold with a book he wrote after he’d given up. A heave, he called it. He was in bad shape, he said. He’d been out late at a party the night before. Seeing Knowles all ears, Greene resumed striding between the desk and the window, coughing in between phrases and occasionally losing his balance.
-Not so long. A marriage of convenience. We have nothing in common and if the script for Harbor Canoe hadn’t fallen in his lap, we’d have passed our two lives amicably on parallel tracks headed to entirely different destinations. He’s OK – Greene broke stride to cup his fist and take in a long hit – a pleasure to watch on screen, a decent guy considering how stinking rich his family is – I can’t let him know any of that.
-Tell me about the family. I’m interested.
Greene waved him off. -What is there to tell? Fabulously wealthy and no one, I certainly don’t, knows from where. They seemed to have washed up on Australia’s shores après guerre with gold lining their coats. Greene strode off to the corner of the room, where he kicked the curtains open and leaned against the wall. -Their existence is a highly guarded secret, they are not written about or discussed, they maintain, one may imagine, direct access to the men who run the continent behind the scenes, and they’ve never once done a single thing to make humanity happy, or if they have, they paid their lawyer to squelch that, too, because their greatest fear is that someone may somehow get past security to knock on their door and ask for something, if only a cup of sugar which means they’d have to rouse the servants. A tawdry affair, having servants but what can you do? Alex Bakelunde is, so far as anyone knows, the kink in the genes and the first one to find his way out of the family labyrinth. He enjoys himself and pulls a long face when the family comes up in interviews. I can’t tell you any more than that, I’m just mongering what everyone else claims is true.
Greene fell silent as the air began to fill with clouds of burnt resin. He threw the last window open and resumed pacing the narrow space.
-I’m almost there with a new book. Almost there... Everything seems different from here – from Paris. Can’t write the way I did before. Bear with me. Want more? He held the smoking stick out to Knowles, who waved him off. His whole arm was shaking. -The psychology of the individual is exhausted. No one is interested or thinks it will change a thing. Only 19th century readers cling to it, in books they can't remember they read a month later. No more character, no more alienation, no easy resolutions. Greene came to an abrupt halt, saying he had to go to the toilet in the hall. He reappeared a minute later.
-Bit of old French there. Small tub in the bathroom proper but the toilet’s in the hall. We share our shit. He paused. -I’m not in the best shape, I woke up late and was just getting on track when you arrived. A Kurdish ritual of some kind, the whole community present. They discuss politics, chew the fat and then some guys in the corner are blowing weird sounding horns, playing a melody only goats can hear and the crowd is swaying in the middle of a conversation. Like instantly. Next thing you know the men are barechested, dancing around the women, serenading one after the other in a circle. Everything in a group, completely tribal. The man dances a controlled frenzy. He moves towards the woman, arms and knees thrust out. With each movement he makes towards her she withdraws in the same measure. Then she, forward, towards him – he moves away. Their hips are moving in concert. They submerge their identities in abandon. The men are like Assyrian reliefs, their hair piled in knots on their heads. I couldn’t tell one from another. The whole thing is traditional, nothing improvised.
Knowles prodded him. Didn’t Greene know more about the Bakelundes? It was the first time in months Knowles had been around another writer. He wondered what Greene’s idea was, what this new fiction he was talking about was. It didn’t take much to get the Australian going. Success had crept up on him when he least expected it and now innumerable suppressed plots and plans rose to the surface.
-What I think is that Connected Men, the men of our time, have killed the Man of Character and thrown his body out to sea, where he will be nibbled on by urchins and anemones until he washes up a thousand years hence, to be exhibited in the Museum of Once Was. Everything is too fast for him now. He’s easy prey. Man is a thicket of possibilities. Only his character, his reticent, tradition-bound, inherited character holds him back. The world is information now. Does that work? It’s all around us. How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking? You see it, don’t you? No one wants to be an individual anymore, they want to download the same programs everyone else has so they can interface and say the same thing the guy sitting next to them on the train is saying.
Greene doubled over, coughing until his lungs were almost up his throat.
-So we can be done with character once and for all especially since there is less and less of it to go around. All those books, all the films: endless depictions of nearly identical characters. Messmen. Mundane Joe and his complexes – his brood. The novel is done with character. Now it can move between people, in and out of bodies, listening to the voices of a wandering flower seller, barmen, concierges if there are any left, the diplomat gliding by in his limo. The ones who escaped. I've even got a name for this school of writing: psychosynthesis. The body consciousness of everybody. No one cares about psychology anymore and only sick people want to know why anyone does things. Sensitive bourgeois girls with mental hang-ups (who get jiggy at parties and regret it for days after), doctors, detective types, professors, handsome fellows who inherit the estate: out with all of them. Greene began pacing the length of his long desk, dragging his fingers along the tabletop and knocking books to the floor.
Best not to tell him about Simon, Knowles reflected. Claude Simon was a good one to read for modern French lit but it would only spoil things for Greene if he thought another writer had got there fifty years ago. He wants to strip away absolutely everything that makes fiction interesting, doesn’t he? Knowles mulled as he watched the man barging back and forth across the room, waving his arms, and thinking out loud. -So that’s how I look, Knowles mused, when I’m pacing the floor. Nobody sees me then. He was fascinated by Greene’s back. Fifty percent of the time that’s what we see – someone’s back as they walk away.
-I’ve got to go further… I’ve got to get past the frigging Canoe, the character sketch. I’ve a horror of becoming a comedy writer. Greene stared at the floor.
He’s interested in the wandering souls, isn’t he? Knowles thought. The incomplete ones, the ones without strong definition. That’s the fault with Greene’s argument – he’s plunged into the weeds, the netherworld. Anything goes down there.
Greene must have been reading Knowles’ mind. He stared at the street through parted curtains.
-Have you heard that strolling violin player? From Rajasthan I think. Passes under my window at all hours. At least I think he does. I may be hallucinating. He turned around to face Knowles, who was standing now and about to clear out.
-So, what about tragedy? Hartley Greene said out of nowhere. -What’s that? What does that mean now? How does it work? Can we reimagine tragedy in a world full of massmen? That’s what I want to figure out. The shape of it? I don’t really know what tragedy is. It’s inexorable, implacable, relentless – that’s the way they describe it on the back of old paperbacks. It isn’t a spy story, I know that much, it isn’t another little horror show of suffering and degradation either. I need something grander than how this one decides to kill his wife or how she decides to betray her husband while he’s out making business deals... I’m in way over my head. He stopped pacing and stood there with his hands on his hips, laughing out loud. -And I’m expecting you to rescue me. Greene stared at Knowles, who’d sat down again and ended up sprawling across the bed, just like Bakelunde an hour before. It was a good show but the Australian’s phrases had pricked Knowles, as if someone were pushing sharp needles into his face. The intense heat and the fumes from Greene’s joint had dulled Knowles’ ability to concentrate, and yet there she was, Clarisse, gesturing to him. He sat up and concentrated on the writer’s question.
-I could write a book set in Paris –
-Why on earth would you do that? You’ve just barely landed.
-Even better. It’s fresh – to me anyway, Greene said, propping himself on the writing table. -Imagine that – fresh Paris. Novels are just angles and optics anyway. Take my word for it, I’ve written ten of them. Where were we?
-Tragedy, Knowles muttered as he rubbed his eyes and peered through his hands, wondering how it was that a few phrases had so powerfully evoked Madame Roland and a story he had no idea existed but which seemed to him now quite real, -As essentially defined for our age of, as you say, mass mutations, as either when bad things happen to good people unexpectedly, such as our old pals the Nazis appearing in your living room in jackboots or when a man, a woman, cannot restrain themselves from their bad habits, when they put so much toot up their nose they combust and thus, a tragedy, a tragedy of possibility we could say, of how much better they could have been if they could only have resisted beating their wife, living a life of crime or simply squandering their talents, none of which measures up to the Greeks, whose sense was that tragedy is character in collision with fate, a mystery that plays havoc with our good intentions and insists we are not who we say we are. Knowles droned on, unable to shake the sensation that unknown to himself he was thinking something completely different from what he imagined he was thinking at any instant, and that this lambent plane of thought responded to whatever passed within hearing range, in this case the obvious fact that something was happening close to him he had been entirely ignorant of and that Monsieur Roland’s appearance on the roof proved it : who was watching whom ? Were they both busy playing around? Knowles was their plaything, eager to be sacrificed in their tragicomedy. Wasn’t that it? Knowles cast it aside for an instant. -So, yes, agree with you there, we don’t produce tragedies. We prefer hard-luck stories with happy endings, live and learn. Is that what you meant?
The writer, standing, stared down at Knowles. -Ha! That’s interesting. A little discombobulated but interesting. This is what I think. Tragedy is passion, that forbidden word. We have plans – not passions. Catastrophes and concerns – not defiance. Either we’re afraid of character or it’s useless in present circumstances. Tragedy is the inevitable. I’m just working my way into it.
Knowles closed his eyes and plunged into images of Clarisse, as if the entire nexus had been laying in wait for him, ready to spring once the trap door opened. He was now convinced that every one of Clarisse Roland’s visits had been an attempt to ensnare him in her plans. He’d been set up, he was being set up and it would likely continue into the foreseeable future: he was the fall guy for the death of Monsieur Roland. That was the motivation behind their many meetings, that explained her coquetry. He had to move before the old man was dead and he was implicated. Something was happening around him he could not explain. Did Clarisse intend to have old man Roland kill him in a fit of jealousy, and then seize the property after he tottered off to jail? She’d be a free woman then.
-I lost you somewhere after the Kurdish dancers, Knowles said.
- I need a murder here in Paris.
-You do? A murder in Paris?
-Is it so hard to understand? I’ve had a success, a surprise success for a writer no one took seriously. And then I escaped. Escaped to a place where no one knows me. But my success is back there, in a place where they are preparing to welcome me with open arms into the great and grand money machine, where I will become a Writer capital W on a weekly salary. I’ve got to strike before the offer does. Once I’ve got the idea I write quickly, I can bash it out in ten days. Did for Canoe. And why shouldn’t it take place in Paris? That tells them I’ve got bigger things in the hopper and Paris, that puts me on the map internationally. You know the city. Tell me something, anything, give me a line.
And so Knowles described what he now perceived to be a slow moving conspiracy, a collision of people ignorant of exactly what they were doing while being pulled in to a vortex. It was based on real estate and hence not personal in the sense of annoying Greene’s dreaded character phobia. The young art student who married an older man for security and relinquished her dreams, who finds a younger man, whom she does not love but who is easy to manipulate. She will, in the trial of regaining her freedom, play the two men off each other, making one jealous and leading the other into a compromising situation he will never be able to explain to anyone’s satisfaction. So much the better if he is without papers and falls behind on rent. Either he will be killed by the jealous husband, or it will appear that the husband dies at his hand. Isn’t that the way it worked? And she would walk away from the crime because she had been the object of desire and therefore innocent. The immigrant walked freely into the trap. There she was, a woman about to regain her lost freedom before it was too late, trapped between two men. It rang all the zeitgeist bells. Knowles outlined the basic plot to the astonished Greene, who listened to him with a defiant pose, as if he were daring the writer who crumpled paper to come up with something and ended by listening to Knowles’ last lines slumped in the chair with fingers tapping his mouth.
Clarisse could arrange a separation from Mr. Roland, couldn’t she? Knowles asked himself while he droned on to Hartley Greene. She most certainly could arrange one and, in all likelihood, she would walk away with absolutely nothing but her memories. But with husband out of the way, she inherited the apartments in the building and lived as she pleased.
-Where the hell are you getting this from? Greene broke in.
-Just making it up as I go, Knowles deadpanned. But I’m a sitting duck if any of it turns out to be true. I’ll have to move and quickly. He decided to turn the conversation around to Bakelunde. Greene surely knew more than he was letting on. There must be rumors, hints, legends. Was Manville Eddie Trafalgar? No similarity in their voices. Two controls operating out of Australia made matters more puzzling. There was something lurking there, too, but Knowles was too preoccupied to see it.
Sam Knowles gave in to pacing reluctantly. It was his only way to understand where things stood. At that moment his apartment, denuded of doors, seemed to be full of them and he was trapped inside. But if he moved, maybe he could find a way out. What was behind that one? (Bakelunde’s family.) He couldn’t say, he hadn’t done any real research on it. That one (the mysterious writer)? Another: why had Bakelunde fled like that? Or that one (the murderous van)? The driver had yelled something as he flew past, hadn’t he? What was it? He could see the man’s mouth moving but had no success in putting the words together. But that wasn’t the question. It was the violent tenor of the man’s words. Was he talking to him, Sam Knowles, or Bakelunde or just shouting something like, Get the fuck out of my way? Murderous heat bends people in strange ways. And: Did Knowles believe what he’d said to Bakelunde, that someone wanted him out of the picture? He continued pacing, which he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, didn’t really help anything. He should practice standing still.
The phone rang and Knowles leapt. Bakelunde was on the other end. He skipped the preliminaries. -Want to join us for that party tonight? were the first words out of his mouth.
-Should be an adventure. I’ll bring Hartley.
Bakelunde gave him a rough idea where the party was, somewhere on the other side of the river, close to the Orsay. -All right, let’s meet at the foot of the column in Vendôme in a few hours. What time is it now? Knowles pushed their meeting back, he disliked getting to parties where everyone was sober and making the usual polite introductions, with all the pointed questions he’d have to answer evasively. -You can’t miss it. Straight downhill from where you are, turn left at Opera. Ragged old barrel cannon jabbing the sky, he told the actor. -Napoleon’s in a toga marooned on top.