“Sleep is brilliant, but you can’t enjoy it while you’re having it.” Vladimir stopped in the middle of the street. “I’ll need a coffee,” he thought. He spun slowly around on his heels. The morning sun threw odd patches of light above a butchery. A car pulled up behind him and tooted. He turned again to face a light blue Renault and walked as far as the left headlight. “I know you, swimsuit,” he shouted.
“Name of..” the driver fumed, winding down the window. “You are standing in the middle of the road!”
“I need a coffee,” explained Vladimir. The driver opened his door, got out, walked right up to Vladimir and looked him in the eye. “Get outta here!” yelled the driver, motioning toward the butchery. A car swerved round them.
“Hey, fuck off!”
“You look like you’re in a big hurry. Give me ten francs. Or better, take an hour off and have a coffee with me. You’ll need to pay.”
“I’ve got no time for this!”
“I got no money.”
“Get outta my way.”
“Alright,” enthused Vladimir without moving.
“What’s your problem?”
“I need a coffee. I haven’t slept since last Thursday.”
“You look like shit.”
“You gonna buy me a coffee?”
“Give me ten francs then.”
The driver made a farting noise with his mouth.
“You owe it to yourself,” said Vladimir. “You put all those spare coins on the dresser at night when you undress. Tonight you’ll go home and pay yourself back.”
Another two cars pulled in behind the Renault, both tooting their horns. The driver of the Renault looked in their direction. “We’re busy here! Go the fuck around!” He waved them past and turned back to Vladimir. “Look friend, I advise you to get a job.”
“I already got a job. Researching sleep deprivation.”
“Species of drainpipe!” The driver shook his head.
“A week ago I turn up from Avignon and go straight to the hospital with my cut hand.” He showed the driver the scar on his hand. “Cut bad with a pocket knife. And the nurse looks at me and says have you read that? I say, read what? She points to the wall and there’s a notice asking for volunteers. I have to report there every day for an hour. Seven hundred francs they’re gonna pay me. A hundred fucking francs a day.”
“The hospital put me on speed. Except they call it Mosicol. It’s speed. I’ve run out of that now too. I need a coffee.”
“You’re kidding me.” The driver pulled his cap further forward. “I’m going to work,” he intoned, turning back to the car. “Keep out of my way.”
“I was crossing the street,” Vladimir chimed back.
Once inside the Renault, the driver adjusted his cap once more, and sped off.
Walking towards town, Vladimir could smell the snow a month and a half away. “The last day,” he said aloud. There were still a couple of hours to kill.
The building had nothing to say what it was there for. Vladimir walked across the lobby and up the stairs. Passing a door on the third floor he heard the murmur of voices and stopped. German. German TV. He walked to the next door and turned the handle. It was locked. Turning right he came to the end of the corridor where there was a window. He pulled it open and leaned out. After a moment’s reflection, he climbed through and stood on a ledge three stories up, facing outwards. Before him lay an unsuspecting street. A silver rubbish bin. A tree losing the last of its leaves. A man wheeling a bicycle. Holding his arms out either side, he crept along the side of the building. Passing the next window along, he checked for an entry. At the corner of the building, where the ledge ran out, he stopped. He placed his leg around the corner of the building, searching for a footing. A woman exiting the building across the street chanced to look up. Their eyes met.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying to break into this room,” said Vladimir replacing his foot. “Keep quiet.”
“Are you mad” remonstrated the woman, raising her arms. “I’m calling the cops.”
“I am the police. Keep your voice down.”
“You’re breaking into that building?”
“Don’t be nosey.”
“Why not break the door open?”
“Help me around this corner. It’s too far. Have a look for me.”
The woman seemed to want to stand her ground. “Who’s in there? You have an accent.”
“I used to be Austrian. Hurry.”
Arriving at a point where she could see the southern wall of the building, the woman stopped. “What’s your name?”
“Vladimir. What’s there?”
“Another ledge and some windows.”
“It’s too far. You can’t make it.”
“As far as this one?” he asked, looking at his feet.
Vladimir edged backwards to the window and, holding the shutter, turned himself around to face the wall.
“You won’t make it,” repeated the woman as Vladimir once more approached the corner. Hugging the wall as tightly as he could, he reached round with his right leg and touched the ledge.
“There’s a.. there’s a plug..” the woman advised.
“There’s some sort of thing on the wall. A box.”
“That’s good. Where is it?”
“Put your hand a little higher..”
Vladimir felt it, inching his hand around a small box, checking its stability. Then, in one movement, levering himself off the box, he pulled himself round the corner and gained the ledge with his whole weight. The woman closed her eyes. A few steps took him to a further window. He looked it over.
“I’m going in.” Vladimir jimmied open the window and climbed inside. Casting a quick glance around the room he turned and leaned out. The woman remained where she was. “Thank you,” he said, then held his finger to his mouth and pushed the window shut.
The room was full of boxes of various kinds, as though someone were moving in. By the curtained window which Vladimir had passed from the outside was a table, and to its left, a couch wrapped in plastic.
Through one door was a kitchen with a yellow formica table and two matching chairs against the window. He opened the fridge. It was empty but for a single bottle of beer. A set of keys lay on the bench. He turned them over in his hand and, dropping them in his jacket pocket, opened the remaining door leading to a room devoid of furnishings but offering the beauty of a balcony at its far end. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down on the tiled floor of the balcony pushing his feet against the wrought-iron balustrade and for the first time in a week felt tired. He closed his eyes. A sudden rush of images careered through his brain. He staggered to his feet, found the bathroom, and threw up. Then he took a shower.
Dressed in a towel, he wandered room to room, not daring to close his eyes. He tried his newfound keys in the main door to the hallway.
“Food,” he thought.
“Go to the hospital early..” he said aloud, opening one of the boxes. “From now on it’s eyes open..”
Vladimir carefully searched the contents of the boxes, methodically placing items across the floor and table, as far as the kitchen. The sight of explosives calmed him down.
Eventually he sat on the couch, his hands lightly touching the plastic. Satisfied, he stood up and peered through the curtains. Down the street, three men were getting into a car, soundlessly talking among themselves.
Back out in the corridor, Vladimir put his ear to the German TV apartment. Hearing nothing he tried the door. With one of the keys the lock clicked open. He eased the door open with his foot. There was no one home. The TV silent as an elf.
At the hospital, the doctor ran the usual tests and asked Vladimir the same questions with slightly obscure variations. The doctor seemed generally oblivious to the miracle he had achieved. But a free lunch was a free lunch.
Doctor Cooper was young, not a year or more older than Vladimir. His was a correct and precarious way of doing things and consequently none of his clothes fit. He was English.
“What are your eating habits?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“So you don’t eat?”
“I wasn’t saying that..”
“When do you eat.”
“When I can.”
“Have you slept?”
“Have you felt tired?”
“Once. I threw up. Speak in English.”
“Good. Good. Any hallucinations you’ve been aware of?”
“As I’ve told you, I can see fairies..”
“Oh? And where again are these fairies?”
“I told you. You have to find them.”
“And where do you find them?”
“At night time.”
“In places where people don’t go.”
“And where is that?”
Vladimir ran his hand through his hair. “For example, I don’t know.. on the street.”
“People go on the street, Vladimir,” the doctor pointed out.
“Just off the street. Like in people’s wardrobes. They hide.”
“From whom do they hide?”
“And do they have anything of interest to say?”
“They’re like a sitcom. They know everything about everybody. They’re super-poetic.”
Doctor Cooper wrote something on his pad.
“Just like what you’re writing,” said Vladimir.
“You seem chirpy,” said the doctor without looking up.
“I found a whole room full of weapons.”
The doctor stopped writing..
“And some clothes.”
“Vladimir..” he started writing again.
“And a book.”
“You are stealing.”
“I left them all there.”
“Except the jacket.” Dr. Cooper finally looked up and eyed Vladimir from the neck down.
Lunch was tiny sausages, mashed potato and stir-fry vegetables in cream. Sauce was extra.
“What do they look like?” Dr. Cooper seemed even more awkward outside the surgery. More like himself.
“Like nothing we would recognise.”
“Not like us?”
“Vladimir, this is our last meeting.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Think not for tomorrow, Herr Doktor.”
In the hallway they said goodbye.
Outside the building, Vladimir touched his shoes. Goodbye was goodbye. He took them off and left them on the steps.
In the library, Vladimir wandered from section to section, taking down a book here or there, sometimes not bothering to open the cover, sometimes removing to a table in order to read. Eventually he arrived at the counter and asked to borrow a pen, a ruler, some twink, scissors, and to use the photocopier.
The bells chimed out three o’clock as he emerged with new shoes and an updated prescription. He made his way to Rue Madeleine looking for a place to read. On the way he bummed ten francs from an old lady walking her dog.
He was stopped by two cops in plain clothes. They wanted to know about the old lady, about his finances, about his passport, his address. While they looked at his passport he spun them a line about getting back to Avignon, to his girlfriend, and how did they know he was not a multi-billionaire? He meant: what would they do if they were multi-whatevers? Still be cops? Or buy some slapped up mansion on the coast of Portugal? He bet they would get bored, no?
“What’s your job?” asked the larger cop.
“Guinea pig. I’m a guinea pig. I’m working for my girlfriend’s company. They wanna know how little you can pay a guy before he starves to death.”
“Smart ass. What company?”
“It’s a shoe company. Drêle. We make shoes.”
“What’re you doing here?” the shorter one wanted to know.
“She kicked me out. Don’t come back without a mammoth, she says.”
“You fucking loser. Now you’re wandering round with no place to be.”
“Look, that old lady gave me the time of day. What should I do? Steal rabbits?”
“Go home.” The cops looked at each other.
“As it happens, I’m going home in the next day or so.”
“Go home tomorrow.” They gave him back his passport.
“And say sorry,” said the shorter one.
Vladimir wandered into the nearest bar and ordered a beer. He pulled out a book from his bag, set it on the table, found a page, and began to read.
By the time he looked up his beer was gone, the sun dipping. He packed up and left.
Vladimir turned into the narrow streets running back towards the bottom of town. Some way along he came to a small square, drenched in the afternoon sun, with several people there sitting, talking or reading. He began to ask each in turn for ten francs.
“Can you give me ten francs? I have a nervous disorder. I need medicine. I have a prescription,” he repeated to each in turn, holding up the prescription. All shook their heads. The very last candidate, who had been reading, gave him the answer he required.
“I’ll give you ten francs,” he said in an accent. He pulled out his wallet. “I have only a fifty franc note. Let me come with you to the chemist.”
“Sure,” said Vladimir as the other stood up. He was younger than Vladimir, blonder and taller.
“My name is David,” he said.
Not far from the chemist, Vladimir explained that it was a prescription for speed. The other nodded in reverse, from down up.
“I’ll present the prescription and you pay for it. Ten francs. OK?”
The girl had handed over the bottle. Vladimir showed it to David.
“You see? Mosicol.” David admired the bottle and gave it back.
“David,” said Vladimir walking out the door, “why don’t you join me for the evening? See, there’s ten pills here,” he said, stopping. “We’ll split them. I’ll have seven. You can have the other three. I’m used to this stuff. OK?”
“You want to eat? Let’s get some food. We’ll drop these pills later.” Vladimir put the bottle in his coat.
“Sure. Where will we eat?”
“Let’s have a party,” said Vladimir. “To celebrate. A party on the street. We’ll go to the supermarket.”
With this plan, they walked to the supermarket. Vladimir told David to wait in the car park. Twenty minutes later Vladimir emerged with a carton full of food and wine.
“How did you do that?” asked David incredulously.
Vladimir looked him in the eye. “Better you don’t know.”
With the sun going down they walked towards the centre of town. On the way, Vladimir had another idea. He’d steal his friend’s car and they would drive to Avignon. All they needed were the car keys from his friend’s apartment.
They shared the lift up with three others.
“Want to join us for a party?” asked Vladimir. They didn’t understand. He repeated the question in German. David showed them the box of food. “We’re having a party in the street,” he said.
They weren’t interested.
Strangely, Vladimir’s key wouldn’t open his friend’s door. “Must’ve changed the lock,” he said.
They continued their walk towards town.
“You speak German,” noted David.
“I’m Russian-Austrian,” said Vladimir. “My dad was Russian. But my mum was Austrian. I was brought up in Austria.”
A man exiting a clothes shop managed to bump into Vladimir. On a whim, Vladimir asked him for one franc.
“No,” said the man plainly.
“You know, I get this quite often down here in Aix, this “no” line of..”
“Really,” the shopper butted in. “That’s sad.”
“Actually, it’s quite educational. My guess is you work for a company selling photocopiers and you learnt the word “no” from your nanny.”
“And you are who, now that I’m all out in the open?”
“I am a blend of total bum and total bum. I ask any particular person I like for any amount of money that comes into my head. One franc per minute, if that makes sense. All this makes me, average, fifteen thousand three hundred francs per month.”
“OK. Not from me.”
“Of course, you will give me a franc.”
“I will not give you one franc.”
“I bet you a franc you will give me one franc.”
“Fantastic! You’ll give me a franc!” laughed the shopper.
“By the way, if I lose, it’ll be my friend here who will pay,” said Vladimir, turning to David.
David reverse nodded.
“There, you see! On top of which I can give you tips for selling photocopiers. Right here outside this..” Vladimir looked up at the sign on the window “ ..this shop. The answer is this. Fear. For a single franc I give you fear. Fear to live. Fear to give a franc. Endless fear on all sides. Fear of the truth, my friend. Is this boring? I’ll cut it short. I am, after all, on my way to a street party.” Saying this, Vladimir patted the box in David’s arms. “You have a wife, a lover, kids.. certainly a television. Even your customers, I guess, have wives and TV’s. God knows, your wife has a wife and a TV. Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. But I only charge a franc. Sound silly? I still only charge a franc.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is, I’m a bum. That’s what I do. I tell stories. I make it up.”
“So what about fear?”
“Your wife is having a affair with a woman called Jeanne. Today you are well off, tomorrow you will have nothing. By springtime you will be camped out in Céret, waiting to pick cherries with a bunch of chicken-stealing hippies. The cherries will never come. In three or four or five years your two children will not even recognise you.”
“Who told you this?”
“You’ll be driving a truck.. containing milk, I believe. There will be an accident. And you..”
“Who told you this?”
“No one will remember. You will have achieved next to..”
“Now you are scaring me.”
Vladimir composed himself. “And why is that?”
“I have two kids. I know a Jeanne. Where did you get this stuff from?”
“I got this stuff, as you say, from the diminuitive nature spirits who frequent our suburban gardens, and who like nothing better than to gossip incessantly.”
The shopper was silent for a few seconds. “And what course of action do you think one should pursue?” he said finally.
“Well. These small, pathetic creatures are adamant that if I should ever bump into a dark-haired man, namely this day.. and that if, when asked, when confronted with.. well, if this man should be able to cough up one franc, a single franc, then that particular man, possibly the man I am now looking at, will be blessed for the rest of his life, and that all I have recently told you will be averted. Especially the bit about the hippies. The bumping was, well, that’s the way these creatures operate.”
“One franc.” Vladimir held out his hand.
The shopper smiled and pulled out his wallet.
It was a short walk to the Place des Chapeliers. David and Vladimir sat down on a street corner with the carton, and began asking passers-by if they would care to join their party on the street. Three or four people passed before two men, of a similar age to Vladimir and David although better dressed, stopped. After a short discussion the four decided to move into the lobby of an apartment building across the street.
With the large foyer to themselves, David distributed food and glasses of wine, and then sat on a step listening. Vladimir, Philippe and Stephane remained standing.
“Where will you sleep?”
“We won’t sleep. David and I are on speed. Tonight, we will look for fairies. I met David this afternoon. He don’t understand too much.”
“Our friends are on speed and look for fairies,” said Stephane.
“You have a job?” asked Philippe.
“No. I have no money. David has money, I think. I’ll have a job though to find the fairies.” Philippe and Stephane both smiled.
“And after that?”
“I have no tomorrow. No possessions, no money. Haven’t you heard? This is 1979. We stole this food from the supermarket. What do you do with your money?” Vladimir looked at Stephane. “Go to the supermarket?”
Stephane didn’t reply.
“You see! We’re nearly the same,” concluded Vladimir.
“You’re from Aix,” proposed Philippe.
“Avignon. I am a cop.”
“You’re a cop?!”
“I’m a cop on the trail of some nasty fairies.”
All three laughed.
David pulled another bottle of red wine from the box and walked over.
“Philosophy is for ghosts,” Vladimir was saying. “I take what I want. I do not believe in any kind of ownership.”
“So you do have a philosophy!”
David refilled the plastic wine glasses and returned to the steps.
“Of course. I am a ghost," said Vladimir. “People assume an ownership of things but in reality have nothing but the clothes they wear. The difference is, I know I have nothing. Look. We wake up. We spit and fart like animals. Aeroplanes fly overhead. Underneath, we rush about searching for the perfect milkshake. Assumptions are the lies told us by our own brains. We see what we want to see. And what if I don’t belong to this shit-hole program? Then? And what if there is another colour scheme, some other footpath in another suburb where ownership is four notes on the bass guitar? And where the point is not who owns what, or who has what, but what are we doing?”
“You are fighting the whole world, Vladimir,” proposed Philippe.
Vladimir looked at David.
“I am not fighting,” he said. “I am drinking.”
Vladimir and David walked uphill toward Vauvenargues.
“Did you see that guy put a fifty franc in your pocket?” David wanted to know.
“No.” Vladimir began searching his coat.
“In that pocket,” David pointed.
Vladimir pulled out the note. “I’ll buy you a coffee,” he said, holding it up. “Let’s drop this speed.”
They stopped while Vladimir dished out the pills. They swallowed them on the spot, and chased them down with nothing.
Two thirds the way up the street, they found a café and sat down at an inside table by the window.
“Where did you learn English?” David asked.
“I spent three months in London, a couple of years ago. Also a little at school.”
David was amazed. “How many languages do you speak?”
“Well, Russian, and German. Portuguese. The country for me is Portugal,” said Vladimir. “The weather. The people. I can work there. I don’t know why. Of course, I am French. I did my military service here in France. I have a French passport. France is my country now. I owe it to her and she.. she allows me to stay.”
“What other languages?”
“Ahh.. of Spanish, pretty well. What else?”
The coffees arrived.
“I speak a little French,” said David, and he pulled out some book he was reading. “Vladimir, can I read you a page of this book?”
“Miller.” He handed the book to Vladimir. “This chapter I’ve been reading.. actually, in the square, when I met you. It’s really brilliant. You’ll like it.”
Vladimir handed back the book. David found the page and began to read. Vladimir immediately stopped him.
“No, no. You need to sit up, like this, back.. sit straight.” Vladimir demonstrated the art of sitting straight and breathing.
David tried again, and got a little further.
“David. Reading aloud is.. you must..”
“No no. Go on.”
David got to the end of the paragraph and gave up.
They drank their coffees.
“There is one thing I can tell you, David, a thing I learnt in the military.”
“That you are your own worst enemy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you..” Vladimir leant forward across the table “are your own worst enemy. I learnt that in military service.”
David somehow absorbed this advice.
“Here’s my passport,” said Vladimir, and he handed it over. David studied the passport. “You keep it,” continued Vladimir. “But give me something of yours. That way, we’ll get to be in the same army.” David pulled a pocket-knife from his jacket and handed it over.
“That’s funny. I just lost my knife,” said Vladimir.
They left the café and continued up the street.
“Let’s just keep walking,” said Vladimir.
They walked on, street after street.
In a little square they came to a drinking fountain where David stopped for a drink. As Vladimir took his turn, he showed David the right way to drink from a fountain. Splash your hands and face first, then drink.
They continued walking uphill, the speed beginning to push them on like a breeze in the back. More and more streets.. At length, they were confronted by a large metal gate blocking their way. A dead end street. Without hesitation, Vladimir climbed over. As David followed, Vladimir turned in the darkness and said “Be careful, David. People here have guns.”
On the other side of the gate was the crunch of a gravel driveway and a house. They skirted along the driveway towards the garage. Beside the garage was a wall too high to climb. Vladimir shifted a garbage can into place. Above the wall was a shrubbery. Vladimir led the way and climbed into the shrubbery. As David took his turn, struggling with the height, he kicked over the can. Vladimir hauled him up. They stopped to listen. A dog had thought to bark, and someone came out from the house. Footsteps stopped on the gravel, then turned in another direction.
After a minute or so, the footsteps returned inside.
From there on, Vladimir and David decided, in a whisper, to be more circumspect. So they crept from shrub to garden ornament to shrub, across an expanse of lawn, towards the darkness of trees. They crossed a path to another shrubbery. They climbed a wall. They nearly walked right into a pond. They climbed a fence. If they walked, more often they crawled or crept on their bellies. So it went for an hour or more.
Vladimir burrowed his way beneath a bush beside an empty dog kennel. David waited on the lawn. A minute, two minutes, ten minutes. Vladimir backed out on hands and knees, grabbed David over the shoulder and, in a triumphant whisper, said “see! Do you see!” He pushed David under the bush. David saw nothing.
On they went garden by garden searching for fairies. Climbing over a stone wall, they landed back in the street. Vladimir searched along the wall for another point of entry and climbed over. David’s feet stayed put. After half a minute he called out Vladimir’s name. He called again. There was no answer. He called one last time. Then he walked away.
By daybreak, having twice circled the entire town, David found himself at the top of a peak overlooking Aix. He sat down on a rock. A faint rain fell. In the pre-dawn light he could see far out over the surrounding country. He lit a cigarette. He poked his tongue out. His tongue stayed out, pointing north, east, south, not willing to go back in.
There was an explosion in the town. An enormous BOOM! sounding towards the outlying villages. A moment later there was another. Then another. Returning booms! Boom after boom! Church cannons!
What if the world were coming to an end? David was glad. He had the box seat. His tongue made circles.
And he? Which side was David on?
He was for the dogs barking! The earth, the melting of her ice-caps! For fountains gone crazy, ejaculating into the street! For shops exploding, cars stopped, the trains piled up like chromosomes.