Authors: Paul Ableman
But the crazy thing is, Horace, we had nothing to say to each other, not a blessed thing. It was:
And then all we could think about was cementing bellies. At first, I attempted conversation with remarks about, say, the decline of the meat trade in Chicago or the beauty of bank-notes. But I
couldn’t get any meaningful response from Lotte. She’d smile and chew her dainty lip and shake her head. And then, if we had even elementary privacy, lay my hand on her breast.
I didn’t like the sea. It’s the only thing I was ever scared of although I licked it in the end and became a spear fisherman. But when I was heaving to Europe on that liner I’d stand by the rail and I’d see that grey surge of water stretching away to meet the sky and I’d think: hell! Then I looked up and I saw the white bird riding the air and I’d think: fear. If we hit an iceberg like the Titanic and went down, the white bird would go on riding the sky. I guess I was too gregarious for the sea. In my day, it was the loneliest place on earth. Oh sure, in the saloon, ladies with jet necklaces were talking and smoking but out on deck there was just the sea and sky. So at three o’clock in the morning when it was still dark, I headed for the deck and found a concealed place by the rail between two lifeboats. Then I swung myself over the side and hung there, fifty feet above boiling oblivion. I was so scared I puked. And when I puked, my arms went limp and I could feel the spray sucking me down into the heart of the sea. So I gave an almighty shout and the next thing I was stretched out on deck with an officer kneeling over me. He asked:
“What happened, sir?”
“I guess you pulled me up on deck.”
“But how did you get there?”
“I swung myself over the side because I’m scared of the sea and I don’t like being scared—or at least feeling it.”
“You did it deliberately?”
“That’s right, Admiral.”
And that British officer just stared at me, amazed. And I grinned back at him. The next morning a steward came and conducted me to the Captain’s quarters. The captain of that liner was a big, red-faced type of Englishman. He gave me a glass of scotch and then said:
“Now then, old chap. What’s all this I hear?”
“What do you hear, Captain?”
“They tell me that you’ve been doing your exercises over the ship’s side.”
So I explained to the Captain how I’d never been scared before and how I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t faced what was scaring me.
“Most extraordinary! But have you considered this, old chap? You can’t test them all. I mean to say, there’s fire and heights and jungles—the world’s littered with dangerous things. You wouldn’t have much hope of reaching retirement age if you tried to test them all.”
I finished my whisky and winked at that old salt.
“The thing is, Captain, it’s only the sea that bothers me. I’m not scared of any other thing in the world.”
And that was the truth, Horace, because you see I wasn’t scared of death. I laughed at death. I met death in my dreams and I wrestled with him. And it always ended up with me pinning death to the ground and him weeping thick mud tears out of his skull’s eyes. I met death in books and never winced. At that stage of my life, I knew perfectly that only total contempt for death could gain me perfect enjoyment of life. And, oh boy! Horace, did I enjoy life!
I rode a mule through the Sierra Moreno mountains. And behind me rode a whole village. I wanted to live in a Spanish village and I wanted to move as well. So I hired the whole village to ride with me across the slopes. And on those slopes grew wild hyacinth and fern. Above them towered frosty peaks and our procession, tuned with pipes and guitars, ambled for weeks through the Sierra. At night, I’d warm myself with a village girl and I was amazed to find that none of those proud Spanish males ever tried to hinder me. While riding, I learned Spanish from Pedro, the village baker. Some days, we’d troop into the courtyard of a Spanish aristocrat and then I’d accept the hospitality of the hacienda for the night and stagger my hosts in the morning by turning up for breakfast with a ragged wench. But they all loved me in spite of my
ways for I was life itself in those days, Horace, and who could resist me?
After about a month, I suddenly had a yen for the city. So I paid off my village handsomely and took a train to Paris.
I stayed at the Crillon Hotel in the Place de la Concorde and I found out it was just like Chicago: Americans with cigars and fedora hats stomping about the lobby. So I moved out of the Crillon and walked about until I found a hotel on the quay where there were no Americans.
Horace, in those days I could breathe in a city the way you could breathe in magnolia in a Southern garden. I’d step out of that hotel lobby and cross the road and look out over the Seine, across to the huge king-box of the Louvre and up towards the fancy bridges by Government House, and along the avenue of trees
and I’d feel Paris charging my whole body. So I’d take off and do crazy things. Within a week I knew ten houses where they had curious diversions. In one of them, they had a bed the size of a swimming pool and on that bed half the gentry of Paris were jigging and rolling. With their own women too sometimes—not just with the whores who fluttered all over Paris like butterflies in an orchard. These big-eyed whores plucked at you in the narrow streets. They wore short muslin dresses the colour of flame or coal and one of them, called Mele, first took me to the Maison du Grand Lit. I was just using Mele as a guide since I still had
from my Bible-laced boyhood. I had no yen to get into the action myself. So I bought Mele a gin-sling and myself a tumbler of scotch and we planted ourselves on two plush chairs, provided for voyeurs, and watched.
There were near a hundred people on that sprung plateau, most of them naked, some, particularly the women, with wisps of
still clinging to them. Time to time a couple would roll off the great bed and stagger away to the changing rooms or perhaps a new couple would arrive. But all the time, on the great bed, the orgy went on thrashing. There were coils of girls and knots of men. There were pyramids and loops of mixed bodies. And the whole was writhing and twitching to the accompaniment of a hissing, slurping, sluthering kind of noise, of human gasps and moans and the muted grating of springs.
It was one of the most extraordinary things I ever saw, Horace, and it made me think of pictures I’d seen—or maybe I saw them later when I became a collector?—makes no matter—pictures from the Middle Ages of bodies twisted and heaped and usually being tormented by devils. But was that gang in the Paris “maison” being tormented by devils? I couldn’t rightly say, Horace. The nearest I figured it was, watching those judges and senators and officers, that if this was how they liked spending their time it must be pretty frustrating to have to sit in court or run the country or do their other boring jobs. As for me, I won’t say I’ve never jerked off remembering that pageant of abandon but at the time I never even got a hard-on, whereas at high school in Kansas I’d feel my body shiver with lust if Miss Perkins, our young geography teacher, accidentally showed the calf of her leg.
I began to see a lot of Sylvie, a girl who lived in the same hotel. In spite of her name, she was some kind of oriental and she had those deep, measuring, smooth-rimmed eyes. She was
. I’d been noticing her appreciatively in the rickety elevator
and also down at the desk where we deposited our keys. One evening, we shared the elevator and, on impulse, I got out at her floor and noted which room she went into. Then, an hour or so later, I went down and knocked at her door. When she opened it, I bowed with a big Kansas grin and said:
“Would you do me the honour of dining with me tonight?”
She looked at me startled—or maybe it was just the big, inscrutable eyes—for a moment and then she smiled and said:
“You are lucky. I speak very good the English.”
I told her I was a poor student and asked her: could she recommend a cheap restaurant? I didn’t want her to realize I was rich. I’d had enough trouble in Chicago with dames who couldn’t see me for the glare of gold. She took us to a fine little place, packed with youngsters, where we ate terrific chow at long, festive tables covered with paper. Two or three people knew her there and one boy kissed her affectionately. I couldn’t get over this, how in Paris, everyone touched and kissed. In the rumbling old trains of the metro, couples stood locked together for minutes on end and meanwhile folk going to work just read their newspapers and paid no unhealthy attention. It seemed to me for a time that Paris had the secret of living.
So that night after dinner, Sylvie and I wandered about the Latin Quarter. She told me she worked in a bank, that she was Indo-Chinese and that her ambition was to go to America. She explained:
“I am very modern.”
Time to time, we paused for a drink on the sidewalk terrace of a café and once we went into a little purple basement where a Frenchman was reciting on a platform. He made Sylvie laugh and she explained that he was being funny about the government. At that stage, I couldn’t understand a word of French and my Spanish didn’t help.
Finally, we drifted back along the quay with the lights of Paris cupped in the sliding black waters of the Seine and the stone prow of die Isle de la Cité riding ceaselessly into the current. Back at the hotel, I let my arms gently forage for their prey and tug her body against mine. And, after the union of brandy lips and wine lips, I turned towards my own door but her small, peremptory hand clasped mine and led me by it into her room.
Ah, Horace, I could show it to you. I could hire a geographer to draw it up for you: Pratt’s Love Map of Europe, with coloured pins stuck all over it to reveal the number and kinds of my physical
loves. In Norway, there would be only two pins, one ice-blue to represent a Viking lady who swam naked in a fjord and who had once delivered her own baby. In France, on the other hand, there would be a hundred pins but most of them would represent later trips, the time when I had a château in France. But in Paris, in a poor section of the quay that borders the river Seine, there would be one crimson pin like Aphrodite’s standard. There are nights, Horace, which you don’t forget. Maybe there’s no reason for it. Maybe you can’t subsequently isolate any special quality or element which makes them unique. But in memory they become citadels, withstanding the assaults of the grey, besieging armies of time. That’s how it was—how it is!—that night with Sylvie. We only made love once—but it lasted three hours! Straight, Horace, I never unhorsed nor sheathed my lance for three glorious hours of joust! We rolled and tumbled together like comets through the starry cosmos, and as we heaved and raced, the stars flashed brighter and the worlds span faster and all the veins of energy that lace the void blazed with light.
“It’s killing me, Horace. Do I know you, boy?”
After that we slept together every night. On Sunday morning, my eyes still glued shut with hangover, I heard Sylvie moving about the room. I called:
“Come back to bed, honey.”
She whispered in my ear.
“Stay there, chéri. I will be back soon.”
For a while I just dozed and then the meaning of her words jabbed through and I opened my eyes.
“But where the hell are you going?”
“I am going to mass, chéri.”
Mass? Somehow the idea surprised me. I thought about it and I realized, with slight shame, that I’d vaguely figured that Sylvie probably worshipped idols with eight arms or fat, grinning Buddhas. I asked her about it and she explained that her family had been Catholic even out there in Indo-China because of the French
they had there. By this time I was awake, so I got up, dressed and accompanied her to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for Sunday morning mass.
It was a mighty place, that cathedral, Horace, but when I tried to think of it as the house of God, it seemed to me more like
a barn. I could only imagine God as a huge penned beast. The windows were brilliant, like glowing tiles of ruby and sapphire. Thousands of candles blinked in the crannies. Like the moaning of wind in a winter forest, the chant of the priests echoed coldly in my ears. I rose to leave and, just then, a sigh swept through the congregation. I heard an irreverent yell and turned to see a comic figure capering up the central aisle. It was a young man wearing a red and green piebald tunic and tights. The bells that tipped his conical, drooping cap and his long, upturned shoes jingled as—dodging to avoid spiteful hands that plucked at him—he skipped past me.
His name was Gaspard Luria, Horace, and he was a dreamer and buffoon. When I ran into him, now wearing ordinary “quartier” clothes, a few days later in a café, I said:
“You’re the one that shouted ‘God is dead’ in the cathedral.”
He replied in pretty good English.
“That is correct, monsieur. Are you drunk?”
“Drunk? How do you mean drunk?”
“Some subtle quality about you, monsieur—ah yes, the fact that you are on your hands and knees.”
I’d been amusing Sylvie, Horace, by showing her how a bronco bucked when I’d caught sight of Gaspard. I
somewhat drunk but not as bad as it looked. I grinned and got up and joined him at his table. I asked him:
“Why did you do that?”
“Do what, monsieur?”
“Why skip about in the cathedral, shouting ‘God is dead’?”
“For the same reason, monsieur, that you murdered the Italian ambassador.”
“I—what the hell are you talking about?”
“Why did you do it, monsieur? He was a swine who ruined women but, for all that, one of God’s creatures.”
This was a shrill shout, Horace. The next thing, Gaspard had darted out on to the sidewalk and accosted a couple of passing cops. I saw him talking eagerly to them and pointing at me but after a while they pushed him aside and continued on up the crowded boulevard. He danced after them, hissing and jeering and suddenly one of them swung round and hit him on the side of the head with his truncheon. Gaspard collapsed on the pavement and a crowd of indignant youngsters clustered round him. A little later
they carried him, bleeding a lot, back to his seat next to mine. He blinked at me and offered: