Tag Archives: 1994

TRAVEL // A Sunshine State Of Mind (2007)

Japan is not the first country I lived in other than my place of birth. Way back in the comparative calm of the early Clinton era, a few years after the end of the Cold War and before the Monica Lewinsky incident, I spent a few barmy months living in Florida. A toe in the waters of expatriation, if you like.

I’d carried a chip on my shoulder about the US throughout most of my youth, derived in part from my father’s attitude to the place and partly through my own observations and concern about factors like Ronald Reagan. Britain does tend to have mixed attitudes towards America anyway. Some people love the place, whereas others loathe it.

However, I’m not the kind of guy that really likes carrying chips on his shoulder, especially now out of the sprinted rush of teenhood and into the marathon run of adulthood. I had to put these ideas I had to the test, and so I tried living in America for a while. Lo and behold, I discovered that just like anywhere, there are some really good people in America. Just like everywhere else too, it also has its fair share of not-so-good people, but it was the good ones that turned my prejudices around and made me look at ‘that place across the pond’ in a different light.

Early on in 2007, I stumbled across a chance to write something that could end up in a book. A couple of Brits living in Denmark had come up with a home-made book project about ‘moving away from home’, named Being Abroad. Having written extensively about my experiences of living in Japan, I decided that I should exhume another story from the memory banks instead and tell my American tale.

In the end, my piece didn’t make the final cut. I don’t know what it is but I often don’t seem to have a lot of luck in getting anywhere with UK-related ventures! Perhaps I am forever bound to remain on the outside, looking in.

Rather than let my long tale of youthful adventure under the Floridian sunshine languish on my hard drive, it is instead presented here. Although it’s a lengthy tale, it is somewhat edited down from the original size.

‘A Sunshine State Of Mind’, then – the tale of three plucky young British men and the scrapes that pulled them apart out West.

A Sunshine State Of Mind

Remember fearing a nuclear winter? Remember Ronnie and Maggie? Perhaps, perhaps not. We’ve all interacted with the big beast in different ways and at different times, and while it comes in many guises, none of us can really ignore it. As a kid, I grew up with a fear and loathing of America. My perspective on the world was reasonably narrow, being an island boy at heart. The US was the big beast across the pond, the playground bully in the world schoolyard. A place stacked to the back teeth with intercontinental missiles, where the police not only had guns but used them too. And in Reagan, a man with his finger on the apocalypse button who seemed to have no clue of the implications of that.

It is also, however, laden with contradictions. The musical pioneers and outlaws, such as the old blues guys, the jazzers and the hippy crowd had great essences of cool and looked much hipper than any home-grown heroes. And somewhere that produced the likes of Martin Luther King and Jack Kerouac had to have something going for it. Yet my overall impression was negative – the perfect, white-toothed fake smiles and ‘have a nice day’ platitudes, the plasticity of Mickey and the Golden Arches and the camera-toting tourists who thought cultural relics were ‘cute’.

When the sign went up on the university notice board for an exchange trip to the US, I laughed it off. Why on earth would I actually want to go there? Somehow though, the opportunity seemed to stick in my mind. After stages of denial about taking the opportunity up, I finally settled on the idea that if I was going to carry this prejudice around with me, I might as well actually put it to the test.

Applied, got it, so where to go in that vast land? From the options, I decided to ignore the apparent backwaters of Arizona and South Carolina, plumping instead for America at its boldest, brashest and most plastic – Florida. After all, if you can make it in your most challenging point of a destination, you should be able to make it anywhere, right?

Two of my college friends had taken the same decision to head for the Sunshine State, and I’ll call them Matt and Richard here. We approached the situation as three cocky young Englishmen bent on plunder and adventure, heading West to take on America. In those days, there wasn’t a smoking ban on trans-Atlantic flights. We stocked up on cheap fags, then spent the 14 hour flight adding to the cabin fug and competing over who would be the first one of us to pull an American girl.

Landing in Orlando, the first thing that hit us was warmth. Coming from the wintry gloom of England in early January, it was a damned good start. First challenge, make it through the long lines of serious looking customs officials, second challenge, find a car rental place and the next one, drive an hour to Tampa. The Pet Shops Boys were singing about West End Girls on the radio in the rental joint, sounding utterly out of place but somehow comforting at the same time.

I was the passenger in the back, under glass and staring out at all this alien newness. The highway was so wide and the streets so utterly uncramped. Such a change from the terraced, identikit streets I was used to walking that wore their age on the outside. The neon-flanked highway flashed by, as huge billboards and brightly coloured fast food drive-in signs rose and fell.

We arrived in the early morning at a vast green campus and made our way to the international dorm that was set to be our home. I don’t recall it as that culturally diverse, but it was almost certainly the first time I’d met people with Mexican or Native-American blood. Matt and Richard were sharing a room while to my great luck, my American roommate spent most of his life at his girl’s place.

January 1994, and America was still basking in the relative calm of Clinton’s early days. The twelve long years of Republican rule in the White House had finally come to an end. It might have been before the dot-com bubble, but it was also before Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Tim McVeigh, Al-Qaeda and the bombs dropped in Afghanistan and Bosnia left their own stains on the man’s tenure. There was an optimism around that you could scent in the air. I remember one American student carrying around a cuddly Clinton toy. Try as I did, I couldn’t imagine our then unesteemed premier being treated in the same way.

In an early meeting, we had the house rules of the dorm laid out to us. No smoking inside. No drinking outside. No opening the windows. It seemed that the Land of the Free insisted on treating its young adults like kids for as long as it could. The dour greyness of England began to look a little more libertarian than I’d previously given it credit for. We were also told that as the American academic semester was longer than a British term, we wouldn’t be able to get any grades to send back home anyway and therefore it didn’t actually matter if we didn’t attend every class.

I tried. Made all my classes in the first week. Pictured some sort of ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of set-up – the cool kids, the pretty ones, the dorks and the misfits, all sitting on chairs in rows with an armrest attached to write on – and it was pretty much like that too. I had good intentions for going again in my second week, but it never quite happened. And that was it – I never took another class there. I dropped out of college, soaked up the Florida sunshine, grew my first beard, let my hair grow long, and took three months off from my life.

I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun, at least at first. Once you figure out how to break someone else’s rules without getting caught, you can largely maintain a lifestyle you’re used to. Being a Brit in the States had its advantages too. That ‘cute accent’ can open doors otherwise closed to someone who’s just a part of the crowd. Whilst trying to open a bank account, the teller had me repeat the stalwart British word ‘bloody’ a number of times, as it sounded cool to her. I’d grown up feeling apart from the crowd, but this was the first time that I’d actually felt ‘exotic’! Despite the plunder committed in the name of Queen and Country, the pioneering imperial swashbucklers that carved out a quarter of the globe for Britain established the reputation of the Englishman as a gentleman. It might not always be true, but sometimes it’s beneficial not to shatter someone’s preconception of you.

There were other noticeable differences too. Nobody actually walked anywhere. If the convenience store was 15 minutes away on foot, hop in the pick-up when you need to go. Even just a short trip across campus was done by car. With the cafeteria, you bought a monthly pass, then could stock your tray up with as much food as you liked. My first time in there, with eyes bigger than my belly and essentially a free banquet in front of me, I piled it high and gorged myself till could fit nothing else inside – and this was only lunchtime. But it was too much to keep up, so I imposed some sense of moderation on what I lined my stomach with.

Of the three of us, I was the first to land an American girlfriend. I’ll call her Dionne. We met at some club or other and the British accent did the trick again. Back at the dorm, stood under a lamppost and with no-one else around, we got to know each other better. At some point, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a scrawny kid approaching. He turned his head as he passed us, and then realised that his girlfriend was locked in an embrace with another. He ran off, screaming and threatening suicide and she ran after him. I was left standing there.

Matt came by, having been out in pursuit of his own quarry. I told him what’d gone on and he commended me, as if the situation were a badge of honour. I’d earned my first plunder stripes.

After that, I had no particular desire to get any further involved. Over the course of a week, notes got passed, meetings hooked up and the next thing I knew I was in a relationship. A nice girl at first, the disturbed streak didn’t really surface until a little later on, by which time it was a little too late. A stranger in a strange land, I’d fallen back on a local to be my compass and guidebook, not quite the bold and intrepid explorer I’d imagined on the flight over.

Despite the challenges of this alien landscape and the undercurrent of a relationship on the edge running through my days, life was pretty good. The weather was knockout. I was a young man stuck in an adventure with a lot of partying to do.

Contrary to my youthful expectations of Americans, I met some fantastic folks there. As warm as the sun on my head, genuinely friendly and peaceful people who also liked having a good time. I discovered people who were just like me, yet lived on the other side of the vast ocean that divided us and were just brought up with different TV shows and cultural reference points. We fell in with a like-minded crowd pretty swiftly, and before long I located the musicians amongst them and joined up as one of their singers. We almost even made it to a show once, were even packed into the van, instruments at the ready. Never quite got there though.

Being so far away from home offered a unique perspective on the life I led and the kind of person I was back in England. It was as if I’d put that person on pause and could assess him from a distance. The vexations that had troubled the soul of that young British boy smoothed themselves out in the Floridian sun. Fairly early on in my stay, it dawned on me that I had made peace with myself and my past.

Of course, to find a silver lining you also need the clouds. In any environment, new or old, you can always find downers to piss on your parade, some circumstantial and some that you carry with you. No matter how far you run, you always bring yourself with you. I was funding my trip with a meagre Student Loan. Matt and Richard tripped off to New Orleans for their own Mardi Gras adventures, sleeping rough on the banks of the Mississippi in the process. As close as I got to steeping myself in classic Americana was sitting on the dock of a bay whistling Otis refrains.

The keg parties at friends apartments were good-time affairs but they’d be countered by others that got completely out of hand. We ended up at a frat house party once, with far too much testosterone on display for my liking. A gang of the house frat rats chugged back whatever was fuelling them and decided to throw a large couch onto the fire. Naturally, the police arrived. Not wanting to be implicated, we made a sharp exit when word got out that someone had taken it upon themselves to steal the car the cops had arrived in.

Adding to the element of danger, there were a couple of shootings near the dorm, one on the campus itself and another in the parking lot of the convenience store we used. The entire place usually seemed to be crawling with cops. As the only one in the gang over 21, I was often called upon to be the guy that went to the liquor store. I didn’t particularly mind, but I didn’t want to get deported if I was caught. The amount of rules and restrictions on the freedom of the individual made England’s nanny state look like a negligent babysitter in comparison.

One road trip near the end of the stay left me with a tale I still tell. The Grateful Dead had a tribe of followers that would throw parties and festivals across the country in the spirit of the original 60’s cultural explosions. Florida’s own Rainbow Gathering that year was to take place deep in the heart of the Ocala State Forest. I and another English pal decided to go and hang out in the woods with the hippies for the weekend and convinced a couple of girls to give us a ride. I picked up the goods at the liquor store on the way.

Dionne had warned me about the state law on not having open bottles of alcohol in a car. My friend Tim however, was much more carefree and as soon as we were on the highway, he opened his first bottle of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. We were looking forward to a little hedonism in a natural environment.

We exited the highway at our turning and headed down a dirt track surrounded by deep forest. A mile in, we were stopped by a police road block. An officer approached and gestured to us to wind the window down. We did as we were bade and he asked in an officious tone whether we had any drugs, liquor or weapons in the vehicle. Another officer had begun snooping around the back of the car with a torch. Naturally, we replied that we didn’t have anything. He asked a second time and we replied with the same answer. He then asked all four of us to step out of the car.

Jail? Deportation? Four kids, breaking the law with an American cop in the post-Rodney King era. It called for some quick thinking and my instincts kicked in with a solution. I was going to have to take the rap for Tim’s open bottle to prevent us all getting into even hotter water.

Having spent much of my time there changing my vocabulary and slightly Americanising my accent to be better understood, I suddenly switched to ‘genteel and naïve Englishman’ mode.

‘Well officer, now you mention it, I do have a bottle of beer.’

He asked me to step over to his car and bring the quart of Mickey’s with me. I did as I was told and he informed me about the state law on open liquor bottles in cars.

Ramping up the ‘gentleman abroad’ act, I replied something along the lines of:

‘I see, officer. I was unaware of that, but I’m awfully grateful to you for having alerted me to it. We don’t have such laws in my country, you see. I hope I haven’t caused you any inconvenience.’

‘You realise that you could have gone to jail for this, son?’

‘Could I really? I’m terribly sorry. Would you like me to put my hands on the bonnet?’

‘That won’t be necessary. Please dispose of the liquor by the side of the road.’

I emptied the bottle out next to the car and got a $25 fine. We were all a little shaken by the experience but they were very grateful that I’d stepped in and saved everyone’s skins. Best of all, it had taken attention away from the further seven litres of red wine we had stashed in the boot.

On another weekend, I trekked down to the Everglades with Dionne to meet the folks. Despite the pleasant warmth and subtropical feel of the place, there was more than a hint of retirement village about it. ‘So this is where rich old Americans go to die, slowly’, I thought to myself. Mom was nice and friendly. Pop was strict and keen that I kept to his house rules, but welcomed me anyway. After arriving, we took a trip to the beach. I lounged in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, basking in the glory of being somewhere so exotic sounding. Occasionally, I’d keep my head down to avoid the gaze of the beach police, who had laws to uphold even that stretch of sand. Nevertheless, watching pelicans fly past backdropped by a Mexican Gulf sunset made for a remarkable contrast to the scavenging English seagulls that tried to grab at your fish and chips on Brighton seafront.

As we rolled into the campus parking lot back in Tampa, Tom was standing in her space, awaiting our return. Before the car had stopped, he began kicking the fender and smacking the windows. Clearly, I was going to have to deal with the situation.

The following day, I agreed to meet with him. I found him under a tree. Sitting down, I told him that I was in a relationship with her and that he had to give up on what he was holding on to. He was broken by this news, but appreciated my directness and honesty in coming clean to him. After that, he slunk away. I sought Dionne out to bring her the good news. To my surprise, she flew off the handle and disappeared. Unbeknownst to me, she went to seek solace in the arms of Matt, my fellow explorer.

In the weeks that followed, what should have been a turnaround in our fortunes turned to shit instead. I stepped into Tom’s newly vacated shoes as the spurned and paranoid lover, trying to find out where she was. My mood spiralled downwards. Confused and dejected, I eventually wrote her a letter with my suspicions – no reply.

It finally dawned on me that my American fling was over. I sat on the bench outside the dorm, broken-hearted. Once again, I was alone, a stranger in a strange land, and I wanted to go home. Broke and on a heavy downer, my father was in the US at the time and wired me some cash to bring my flight forward. I said my goodbyes to the good guys, packed my things and got out.

A friend from LA offered me a ride from Tampa to Orlando. Out on the open highway, my mood began to lift as I left the life I’d led behind me. We reminisced about the times we’d had and my experience of expatriation. As every road trip needs a soundtrack, we switched on the radio. I flipped through the channels in search of something good.

‘…sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination…’

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ drifted out of the speakers and hit me. Sometimes a song has an uncanny way of jumping on you unannounced and perfectly summing up your moment. I was going back, homeward bound, my American dream tried, tested and put to rest.

Reflecting on it all once the jetlag had worn off and I was used to narrow streets and bad weather again, I knew that I no longer hated America as I’d done as a child. I actually rather liked it, even loved some parts of it. I’d learnt more about myself, the country I’d visited and my own one too, and by extension I’d learned more about the world itself.

One thing to be said for expatriation though. Once you’ve tried it, you’ve opened a door and there’s no looking back. Your country will seem that much smaller than it used to and you develop a taste for exploration. In 2003, I did the same thing. I said goodbye to the good guys in Brighton, packed up my things and got out of Britain.

I’ve been living in Tokyo ever since. But that’s another story.

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Filed under 2007, Features, Travel

SHORT STORIES // Waiting For The Light (1994)

When one starts writing fiction, one of the first hurdles can be either where to start or where to stop. The inspiration for a beginning can come quickly or it can take its time. Once you’re underway and have a little character development going, how do you end the story? The easiest way in a short story when you’re learning your craft is to kill off your character.

Around the time that this story was written, I’d been studying the literary works of the modernists such as Kafka, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, a collection of writers primarily writing in the earlier decades of the 20th Century. This literary movement was a change of direction from the Romanticists that had preceded them, and their work was characterised by the breakdowns of social norms and cultural sureties that fell in the wake of the peaking Western Industrial Revolutions and the move away from more ruralist lifestyles.

Perhaps subconsciously borrowing from Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (a man who awakes one morning in the story ‘Metamorphosis‘ to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect), my unnamed character in this story awakes in a completely white room with no idea of how he got there. He is then killed off by the end with no explanations given. So often in a narrative, we expect to be spoonfed the answers and background to a story. I was keen to explore in this one what happens when we have none of those.

I was told that the story compared somehow to Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness At Noon‘, although I have yet to read that tale. Whether ‘Waiting For The Light’ is a good yarn or not is perhaps not for me but the reader to decide, but I hope that it can capture some of the feelings of isolation and confusion that is still felt even in our post-industrial lives.


Waiting For The Light

I don’t like it here. It’s cold and all I can see are four huge walls that engulf me as waves would a small crab on the shoreline. My arms are sore and I haven’t been able to move them since I woke up. I think that that was about ten days ago. Not sleeping for ten days without being able to move your body and with no food or water….it certainly takes it’s toll on you. I think I’m dying. Maybe I’m already dead. Maybe this is hell? Was I that bad in my lifetime? I stole £50 from my brother once. That couldn’t possibly put me here? Anyway, I told him about it a year later when I could afford to repay him. He was very good about it. I cheated on my girlfriend twice. I was very drunk but that’s no excuse.

That wouldn’t land me in hell though. I must still be alive. There’s nothing else dead in here to watch decomposing before I do. Not even a cockroach. The floor is as white as the walls, just as bright. No windows. Nothing. Just white everywhere. Nothing but a bright white lightbulb which never seems to go out. Thank God. A lightbulb and me. And I’m all in white….sitting alone in my white corner.

The craziest thing is.….I’ve no idea how I got here. Maybe I’ve gone insane. I could be in a padded cell. That would explain the straitjacket. Have I gone insane and lost my memory? I have no idea how I got here so I could have lost my memory. But I can remember stealing from my brother and cheating on my girlfriend. And what I was doing before I woke up here.

I’d had such a tiring day at the bank. The manager had invited me out to dinner because his wife was away on business and he wanted some company for the evening. My girlfriend had gone back to her mother’s for the weekend and had left on the Thursday morning. As I had no company either and had been chasing a promotion, I jumped at the chance. We went to a little Italian restaurant, just down the road from the bank but still on the High Street. Conversation flowed more freely as the wine did. He even gave me one of those big Cuban cigars that he keeps in a draw under his desk. Hearing the waiters drumming their fingers on the tables, we realised that the restaurant had long since closed and we were starting to overstay our welcome. After settling the bill, we shook hands and went our separate ways. I walked home, jangling my keys in my pocket with my head buzzing slightly. Then I went to bed.

I woke up here. Ten days ago. Haven’t slept a wink since. Or moved my body. I can’t. I can only move my head. And there’s nothing to look at here.

I’m cold. And I’m hungry. And I’m very scared. I wish that I could get out of here.

There hasn’t been a sound since I’ve been here. No movement. No people. No cars. No birds. Nothing. I soon got bored of the sound of my own voice and ended up just letting my imagination run riot. I’ve had some parties in my head. They all end though.

I could be anywhere. No sounds to give the location away so that I could let my imagination picture the outside of this white tomb. If there indeed is an outside. I could be on the moon. I could be on the bottom of the ocean. I could be at the centre of the earth. Probably wouldn’t be so cold then. I could be in another dimension of time and space altogether. I could be….

…. Hey, I’m sure that the ceiling was further away the last time that I looked. It was. A lot further away. It can’t be moving towards me….

…. It’s not. By Christ, I’m moving towards the ceiling! The floor is rising. But I can’t hear the movement or cranking of machinery. This is moving fast. My death may have been imminent through starvation, but now I’m going to be crushed! Not even allowed the decency of falling asleep and dying in my dreams.

I’m glad that my watch is digital. If I had an analogue and could hear the seconds ticking away…. ooh, that’d drive me crazy. Feel like the seconds of my life were ticking away. Too much to handle.

Come to think of it, how cruel is that? The only one of my possessions I still have is my watch. I’ve been put here by someone or something, away from everything that is familiar to me and the one thing that I’m not allowed to escape from is time itself. What kind of an unfair trick is that to play on a man when he’s in an alien environment?

My nose is touching the ceiling now. THIS HURTS. I’M BEING CRUSHED ALIVE. OH, PLEASE STOP THIS THING, I PROMISE I’LL BE GOOD, FOREVER AND EVER, I’LL DEDICATE MY LIFE TO HELPING PEOPLE I’LL GIVE UP MY JOB AT THE BANK I’LLBELIEVEINYOUGOD IWILLIWILLIWILLIPROMISE ILLGOTOCHURCHEVERYSUNDAY EVERYDAYANYTHING .JUST.. .HELP. . .ME.. .PLEEEASE..

The only…sound..that I’ve heard in ten days.. with the….exception ..of…my… own.. voice……it’s….. the….. sound..of…..my…..spine……………. snapping…………………………….

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Filed under 1994, Fiction, Short Stories

SHORT STORIES // Sylvian’s Crash (1994)

There are many different ways of dealing with conflict, betrayal and pain in our lives when it arises. Some lash out and that makes them feel better. Some bury their feelings deep down and ensure that a scar never heals. Personally, I’ve always found that writing about it in some form or another externalises a problem and seems to make it into someone else’s trouble.

Back in 1994, I spent a few months living in Florida. The ‘Sunshine State’ was a perfect escape from the drudgeries of yet another English winter, which is often such a foul condition to endure. I had my fun and games, my ups and downs there, assuaged the anti-Americanisms I’d felt as a child, and generally look back on the period as having been a very good time.

However, a great trouble arose there when a relationship I had became very twisted, resulting in not one but two ménage à trois. My girlfriend of the time never quite managed to finish her relationship with the previous boyfriend, so eventually I took the situation in hand and cut the guy out of the picture myself. To my surprise, this sent her into a rage and she then ended up going off with a friend of mine that I’d travelled to the US with, also behind my back. I was not only double-crossed by the woman in my life, but also by somebody I’d previously thought of as a good friend, a partner-in-crime, a fellow explorer.

Having decided during that period that I wanted to become a writer in the future, I began to put together what was probably my first short story. Some of the characters in the tale were based on those that had been causing me the strife in my own life. A good thing about fiction is that the writer can bend pretty much any rule and let the story tell itself without having to conform to such practical realities as truth. Thus, the tale began at the funeral of a ‘very good friend’ of the storyteller and told the story of their friendship. Taking a classic narrative device, I killed off my main character before the story even began, thus also dealing with the issue of how to end the tale. I was also able through the story to forgive him for taking my girl away from me – something that was a little tougher to do in real life.

The title came from Bowie, who I was listening to a lot at the time. The song ‘Drive In Saturday’, one of the Thin White Duke’s clear pitches at an American narrative in his tales, included the line ‘crashing out with Sylvian’ – so there was my character and his fall set out for me. The main setting is Paris, a place that I very much romanticised at the time, the nearest place to the UK that was so very different from what I knew. A visit with my father a few years previously had cemented it as somewhere that stories happen in, so that’s where my tale began. The rest of the story reflects some of my other interests at the time – the novels of Burroughs and Tom Wolfe, jazz music and that of The Stones, artistic freedom and expatriation, etc.

It’s somewhat longer than a traditional short story perhaps would be considered to be. Sometimes, however, when you have a tale to tell it’s best to let it tell itself.


Sylvian’s Crash

Sylvian had always been an unusual character, but we all loved him. That’s why I don’t think that there was one dry eye when they laid him in the ground. We admired his wayward, streak but were mostly too reserved to join him in his quest for personal freedom. I suppose that’s just the English for you; always putting up barriers.

My first encounter with him was on a sidewalk in one of the shadier areas of Paris. I was people-watching, with a bottle of red wine for company. Of all the big cities the world over through which I have passed or lived in, I have yet to find a place to quite match Paris for people-watching; one of my favourite sports. London I won’t touch. It is full of intriguing characters but they refuse to give you the time of day. London’s arrogance chokes me. Maybe it is still harbouring under the illusion of being at the heart of the Empire. Maybe not.

The French are just as arrogant but in Paris that somehow doesn’t seem to matter. Whether it’s a front or not, Parisians seem to be more interested in what you have to say. One thing that we found hard to work out at first was whether Sylvian was ‘one of us’, part of our inner circle, or just a sneering observer, fooling us with his imbecilic French grin and laughing inwardly at our petty Angloisms. I believed him to be perfectly genuine, as did Arnauld and Theo. The others took a lot longer to drop their outward reservations about him. I knew though that deep down in the caverns and chambers of their hearts, they loved him dearly. The other four cried the hardest at the funeral. Mariette had to be sedated.

I introduced him to the rest of the group. With the afternoon I’d spent with him following our sidewalk encounter firmly tucked into my memory, I found him an impossible character to dislodge from my mind. I knew that they all had to meet him.

He had sat down at my table, closed his eyes for a couple of minutes, then turned to face me, removing all manner of junk from the pocket of his jeans. Laying everything down meticulously and fixing me with his wild eyes and that grin of his, he barked ‘Wait!’ and promptly disappeared around the corner. With that smile, he left me placing absolute trust in him. All I had to do was to look into his eyes when he grinned and see that his eyes were smiling too. That’s my gauge for placing trust in people; if their eyes smile along with their mouth. I’d never met a happier man.

He returned about ten minutes later with sweat on his brow and a miniature plastic Buddha, which he laid down next to the empty cigarette packet, the disposable razor and the corkscrew that he had already placed on the table.

Neither of us said a word for a while. I sat there in silent contemplation while he just finished off my wine. Sylvian never bothered with glasses but felt more comfortable wrapping his Jaggerlips around the neck of a bottle. Many years before, I had decided that I could never fall in love with a man. Most men I had known were Men’s Men, laden so far down with their own testosterone and machismo that they appeared as prisoners of their own masculinity, unable or afraid to recognise the feminine sides of their characters. Atlas with the weight of the world on his back.

Not Sylvian. When he fixed you with his deep blue eyes, ringed in black mascara, you knew that you could fall for him irrespective of gender determination. I looked him up and down, at the mop of dishevelled brown hair that hung loosely yet comfortably on his head, at the slightly unshaven jawline (he had a facial structure that you would die for), at the faded black T-shirt emblazoned with the legend ‘Societie D’Hedoniste’, at the scruffy blue jeans literally kept together with threads, down to the cuban heels of the boots on his feet. I felt it my obligation to be the first to strike up a conversation and wracked my brains for something to say. The only thing I could think of of any interest was,

‘Isn’t maintaining an organisation a little structured for a hedonist?’

At this remark, he stood up, shoved the line of junk back into his pocket and grinned again. ‘I am its sole member,’ he retorted with a smile. He wandered off, beckoning me to follow and leaving me with the tariff.

After I’d settled up with the waiter, I followed him about three paces behind. I had no idea where he was taking me but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t take one more look into his eyes. The sun had begun its descent as I followed him over the bridge across the Seine, leaving the sky an astounding mêlée of reds and yellows. Parisian summer sunsets are something I’ll never forget. It is not so much the setting of the sun itself, but the combination of Parisian cityscapes and the nature of sunsets that made it so special.

We appeared to have walked for miles before reaching his studio apartment. Neither of us had spoken a word on the journey and I’d stayed about three paces behind all the way. We still didn’t speak until we were both sitting on the floor and he had cracked open another bottle of wine, followed by vodka chasers. Combining a lack of food with the vast amount of alcohol that I was continually plied with, my head began to spin. I laid down on the Moroccan cushion covered floor and tried to soak up my environment.

The room appeared sparse. Cushions were his only furniture and only two walls had any sense of decoration. One wall was coated in sleeves from Rolling Stones singles; those thick cardboard seven inch sleeves that always featured photographs of the band looking fresh faced yet mean, as if they had all just emerged from prison cells. Which they probably had.

I awoke the next day on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral with the morning sun prising open my eyelids, a stinging headache and a note pinned on my chest. It said ‘Call Me’ and was followed by a phone number.

The next time that our paths crossed was at a party for a new gallery opening up in one of the many artists’ quarters of Paris. It was roughly three weeks after our sidewalk encounter. I had been so unsure as to whether to call him or not that I hadn’t. I had finished work and was relaxing in a cafe when we had first met. I waited tables at a small Vietnamese restaurant, around the corner from the Café Duophonique. The manager was a swine but we got to take good food home after the restaurant shut, and as the wages kept me in cigarettes, I was left happy.

When I didn’t show for work the next day and having missed a very heavy shift, Monsieur Leclerc was happy to tender my resignation in my absence. Blissfully unaware of all this, I was becoming an early morning tourist attraction, sprawled on the cathedral steps. Mariette informed me of my firing when I finally made my way back to the apartment. ‘Oh,’ I said and crashed for another few hours. There are more comfortable alternatives for mattress material than stone.

After losing my job, you can understand my reticence at calling Sylvian. If he’d already helped me to lose my job, then what else could be in store?

It was through Mariette that Sylvian and I met up again. She was exhibiting a few of her paintings at the new gallery and brought me along to the opening as her guest. Although we occasionally slept together, we were nothing more than good friends who shared an apartment. Her eyes are the kind you can drown in. I’ve always been attracted to eyes. They are truly the windows to the soul.

Halfway through my conversation about Oriental cuisine with one of the city’s more unsavoury art dealers, I felt a warm sensation on the nape of my neck. As Oriental cuisine was hardly flavour of the month with me and my conversational partner was excruciatingly dull, I turned my head to be faced with two pairs of eyes that only Paris could forge.

‘Jean, I want you to meet somebody.’

‘We’ve already….

‘Sylvian, this is Jean. I share an apartment with him. Jean, meet Sylvian. He and I met this morning on the Champs Elysées. Somehow, he knew that I was a painter and handed me three brushes that I lost last week in a fountain. Isn’t that incredible! We hadn’t even spoken to each other!’

The French had always found it preferable to address me as Jean. John was too dull for Paris.

I marvelled at their meeting for Mariette’s sake although I knew what a junk hoarder Sylvian was. I was somewhat surprised that they were actually Mariette’s brushes. Once you knew Sylvian, very little about him surprised you, although he would continue to astound strangers.

It transpired that had I called him, I would not have been answered anyway. He had been away in Puerto Escondido, a town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Twenty-nine years beforehand, he had been born in the back of a Mustang whilst his parents were passing the town. Every year, he would return there to lay marijuana leaves on his parents’ gravestone. Whilst his mother was giving birth, his father lost control of the car and crashed into a tree. She was hospitalised and lapsed into a coma. Miraculously, Sylvian survived. They turned the life support machine off two years later at the request of Sylvian’s grandmother. Or that’s the story as he tells it anyway.

‘I picked up some fine mescaline in Mexico City last week and I’ve spiked both your wine glasses with it. We’d better leave this joint and head for your apartment.’

Mariette and I were left with little choice but to follow Sylvian into the cab.

‘Listen, Sylvian,’ I stuttered to him in the back seat, ‘neither Mariette or I have taken mescaline before. My hardest has been snow and she’s strictly a smoke girl.’

‘Hey,’ he retorted, ‘you guys have nothing to worry about. I’ve read you both and you need to stretch your personal boundaries a little more than you already do.’

I awoke a couple of days later with very little recollection of any of the time that had passed since the cab ride, but startled to find that there were three canvasses leaning against a wall in my bedroom, all seemingly painted by me. They were of the most incredible scenes, such that made Hieronymous Bosch look as tame as Judy Garland. Had I realised that there was such a wealth of material locked inside my psyche, I would have taken Mariette up on her suggestion that I started painting much sooner. Or dropped the mescaline earlier!

Mariette had only ever seen me doodling on the phone pad. It’s not as if I painted very much anyway. Most of my time had been taken up at the restaurant anyway. When she was out in the evenings and I was alone and bored, I’d take her paints out and mess around a little but it rarely amounted to much. The results would normally end up thrown away or hoarded away at the back of my wardrobe. I’m sure that she believed that I had a flair for it, but whenever she’d mention it, I’d change the topic of conversation or stop talking altogether. A little too unassuming for my own good, I suppose.

It was a Thursday when I awoke. 10:30 didn’t seem like too bad a time to rise, seeing as I was under the impression that I’d been asleep for days. Not only did I discover the canvasses I hauled myself out of my mescaline-induced coma, but when I went into Mariette’s bedroom to ask if she wanted a coffee, I found her on her bed with Sylvian lying next to her. They were curled up fast asleep so I thought that it would be rude to wake them both. I still felt a small knife twisting in my back, even though I knew that it was merely innocent slumber.

When people would ask me about Mariette, I’d tell them that we were nothing but good friends. The truth was that she meant an awful lot more to me than that. We had shared quite an intense relationship at first, when we met in Marseilles and moved to Paris together. In our first apartment we had shared a bed and had been very much in love. As things do, we gradually drifted apart. Our close friendship remained but the love wasn’t the same, so when we were evicted from our last apartment for non-payment of rent, we moved into a new place with separate bedrooms. Relations between us were fine but I did still find it hard to give up the occasional pangs that I still felt for her. When I was in India about three years previously, I was able to give up alcohol and nicotine without so much as a flinch. Genuine addictions are a little harder to kick. Mine was Mariette’s eyes. They were so deep and so beautiful and they told me so much about her that I could have kicked a lifetime smack addiction just to gaze into those eyes for a few more moments before shuffling off of this mortal coil.

What hurt me most that Thursday morning was that even though they were both asleep, I knew that underneath those subtly painted lids, Mariette’s eyes were pointed towards Sylvian’s. She explained it all to me afterwards, that I’d been getting too serious again, that I had nothing to worry about, that Sylvian was only a friend after all and that we were all very inebriated from the night before. As ever, I only had to look into her eyes to know that she was telling me the truth. The knife still turned though.

I spent that morning sitting in the kitchen so deeply immersed in my own paranoiac thoughts that I didn’t realise that I was making my way through my second packet of Gitanes of the day and had already polished off three cups of coffee. The only thing to rouse me from my hypnosis was the sound of Sylvian and Mariette rising and their 1:00 PM conversation breaking my early afternoon kitchen silence. I turned the oven on, placed a tray of croissants inside and put on another jar of coffee. By the time that the three of us were sharing breakfast, my concerns had drifted through the window to mingle with the anxieties of the other Parisians with whom I shared my air

After another two coffees and with the caffeine positively charging through my veins, I’d forgotten everything that had rattled through my mind that morning and was calling Leon, babbling excitedly down the phone about this guy that he was going to meet that night. It’s funny the way things work out. The knife in my back remained until a couple of days before Sylvian’s death. It was more like a blunt poke in the end but was nevertheless still there.

It was approaching the midnight hour by the time that our assembled horde was complete. We would always meet up in a small bar near the Place De Montmatre and discuss how we’d all spent our week and what collective plans we had for the weekend, over a few bottles of wine. Every Thursday. I hate habit or convention but we always enjoyed ourselves and it was the easiest night for everyone. Arnauld had a residency in a jazz club, playing sax with his band on most nights. Thursday and Sunday were his only nights off. Leon was a night clerk for four nights a week. Again, Thursday was his night off. Mariette worked for herself, selling her paintings. She had always chosen Thursday as a day off from painting, but she had become so habitually attached to her artform that she would tend to spend her spare time wandering through the streets looking for strange and interesting characters to incorporate into her canvasses. Theo and Emily were a couple who were quite happy to go along with everyone else’s plans, as long as it meant that they could be together. I used to arrive after my shift at the restaurant had finished but as I was no longer working, I had all the time in the world.

It was Arnauld who had kept us waiting. His band had been attracting larger audiences each week and the manager of the club had been worried that they were going to move on to a larger club with higher wages. Most club managers are only concerned about selling their drinks, so with the prospect of his profits plummeting without the house band to entertain his clientele, he had engineered a renegotiation of contract with Arnauld’s band. That had taken up most of his Thursday night but he would never miss one of our weekly gatherings.

This week, we had a new recruit to our private drinking club.

‘Madames et monsieurs, permit me to introduce a new face to our assembled crowd. This young man goes by the name of Sylvian and I believe it to be his duty to explain himself, should he so desire, and not mine. To Sylvian.’

Seven wine glasses were simultaneously raised, drained and refilled. I continued my conversation with Arnauld about his new contract and Sylvian was suddenly bombarded by a multitude of questions from three different sides. He didn’t mind. One of his perks was finding unusual answers to obvious questions. Mariette sat in silence.

The first ray of sun gingerly peeked through the horizontal slits of the blind that hung precariously in the window. As it gained a little more courage, it began to spread itself off the floor in a pattern of dark and light symmetrical bars. The room began to light up as the sunlight encroached further into the apartment’s darker domains, challenging the blackness to disappear for another day until the sun became too weak to continue and had to succumb to night’s blanketing glove.

A sorry looking state of affairs was on hand in Sylvian’s room. to greet the daylight as it stole into yet another Parisian household. Sylvian’s long, elegant fingers were trailing out from underneath his sheets. They were the only proof of his existence ignoring the foetal shape they attached themselves to from underneath the bedclothes. Theo and Emily were slumped against the wall, entwined in each other’s loving arms. Very photogenic. Those two will die in each other’s arms. Arnauld and I were sprawled on the floor cushions, each of us with a half drunk bottle of red wine resting on our chests with our sleeping fingers wrapped around the necks. Mariette and Leon had, perhaps quite sensibly, pulled out early on and ordered a cab on the Saturday evening, returning to their individual sanctuaries, in order to recover from their excesses of the previous couple of days.

It had been one of those nights. One of those nights that had turned into one of those weekends, as they had alarming tendencies of doing with Sylvian. The floor was strewn with empty wine bottles and water bongs. The ashtrays were all overflowing and the cigarette butts were making new acquaintances with the colonies of dust mites resident in the carpet. There is nothing quite like the clinging aroma of stale smoke and spilt bong water that hangs like a radioactive cloud over your waking hour to remind you of the night before.

The sunlight found it’s way over to Sylvian’s huddled form and gently eased it’s way over his protruding fingers. As his hand warmed to the sunshine, it instinctively reached towards the floor, where a packet of cigarettes were lying in waiting as the hand’s elusive bounty. He pulled a cigarette from out of the packet and his weary yet immaculate face appeared from the gap in the covers.

Lighting the cigarette, he stayed in his safety-zone like a rabbit in the mouth of it’s burrow, waiting for the coast to clear. Then he slid out, snakelike, from his sheet sanctuary and crawled towards the record player. ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ charged through the speakers and taking one look at the assembled horde, ran over to each one of us and shook us all by the shoulders, hauling every one of us away from which ever dreamscapes we were inhabiting and leaving us blinking into the sunlight and the flotsam and jetsam of another weekend with Sylvian.

Sylvian had brewed a large jar of coffee ready and waiting for his guests as we all trooped towards the kitchen area.

The afternoon wore on and our company gradually dispersed; their attempts to return a little of their sanity before Thursday came around again. Mariette would be in her studio and I had no job to return to so I decided to stick around. As I watched him roll the first joint of the day, I realised that there was something crucial that he was hiding. Sylvian could lie better than any politician but his eyes always told the truth. To me, anyway. When he was applying the final saliva seal to the joint in his hand, the secret that he was hiding shouted to me in silence, locked beneath his gaze. Being a good conversationalist in times of need and a hoarder of many of my friends darkest secrets, I hoped that I had the key.

We sat in silence for a moment until he tore through it with the harsh rasp of a match against the rough plaster of the wall. I watched as he brought the match up level with the joint and sucked hard, diverting the miniature flame raging away on the matchhead towards the twisted paper end of the roll up in his mouth. Inhaling deeply, he held the smoke in his lungs for what seemed like an eternity and then blew out a cloud that appeared to fill the whole kitchen.

‘I am almost sorry that you have come to know me now,’ he said calmly, finally breaking the engulfing kitchen silence that I was becoming used to. ‘It was very selfish of me to let us become such good friends. Will you promise me that you offer my sincerest condolences to Mariette and the others after I’ve gone.’

‘You have my word on that,’ I stammered hesitantly, ‘but gone… .gone where?’

‘From this old life,’ he replied with a little sigh.

This answer hurled my mind into a dark, seething pit of confusion.

‘This,’ I retorted with a very unconvincing air of authority, ‘needs some explanation.’

He sighed one of his deep, resigned sighs and passed me the joint as if to prepare me for what he was about to finally unburden onto someone else.

‘I have only been in Paris for eighteen months. I was brought up in France but I spent a few years living in San Francisco. Having visited Paris many times when I was younger, I knew that however much of a cliché it may appear to be, this was the only city that could truly be my final resting place. New Orleans and Bangkok I had considered but New Orleans was still in the States and I felt that I simply had to leave the U.S. Bangkok was too far to go for me to still feel at home. So Paris it was. At least when I move into my necropolis, I’ll be in good company!’

‘You came here to die!’, I asked incredulously. ‘But you haven’t even reached thirty yet. How can you be so assured that you’re….,’ I hesitated, ‘….on the way out?’

‘I’m coming to that. You may well find my story quite unbelievable but please have faith in me and hear me through.’

His eyes were not lying.

‘I’d always score my acid from a guy just inside the gates of the Golden Gate Park. He was known to everyone as Reepa. If you’re ever in ‘Frisco, swear to me that you will not approach him.’

I swore and asked how I could identify him.

‘Always dresses the same way. He wears a long, black leather coat that nearly reaches the ground, knee high red boots that lace up to the top, and no shirt. There is a circle of white feathers that hangs around his neck and he has long, straight, black hair that cascades down his back. Deepset black eyes and the look of an eager hawk across his face. If you can fear beauty, then he is beautiful. Dangerous.’

Sylvian then drifted off into the deeper recesses of his memory while I poured another two coffees and rolled another joint. The spark of the match brought him back round again.

‘In all the places the world over that I have scored in, I have never experienced trips as wonderful as those from his pockets. When you’re onto a good thing, temptation always drags you back for more. If I’d only never set eyes on him.’ He broke off again, momentarily. ‘The Fried Piper of ‘Frisco, they used to call him,’ Sylvian continued. ‘The signer of my death warrant.’

I was getting used to his hesitations at this point but I coaxed him out of this one, such was the sadness that I felt for my friend and the need to satisfy my own personal curiosities. He carried on.

‘I guess I’d got to know him pretty well in the end. We’d sit down and chat when I went to score and I made friends with many of his customers. But there was a very major fault in his character. He was a fearful misogynist. All the women in the park who wanted to score would have to ask any guy that was passing to score for them. Everyone wanted Reepa’s acid, y’see. But….and this is where the big contradiction came in….there was one person in the world whom he adored more than himself. That was his mother.’

‘Now he was in his early twenties and his mother had given birth at the tender age of fifteen, so she had yet to reach the big four-O. She was a beautiful woman. A Native American who’d left her reservation at the age of thirteen for the lights of San Francisco, armed only with a change of clothes, a few dollars and enough peyote to pay her way for at least two months. Don’t forget now, this is years before Kesey and his Pranksters set up their Kool-Aid Acid Tests. This girl was turning people on when you and I were still shitting in nappies. Quite a woman.’

‘Anyway, one night, after I’d known Reepa for a few months, and having still not met his ma, about whom he talked so much, I found myself wandering the streets in my usual acid haze. As was customary for these late night strolls, I’d amble into whichever bar I was passing that took my fancy. The one that I ended up in on this particular night had a most beautiful woman sitting alone at the bar. I naturally approached her and offered to buy her a drink. She was quite pleased with the company and we proceeded to get roaringly drunk together. Tequila is a notorious aphrodisiac and we were like dogs on heat by the time that the bar had shut. We virtually ran to the Golden Gate Park and once we’d found a quiet enough spot, we tore off each other’s clothes and made mad love, bathed in moonlight. Sounds a bit like some sorta cheesy movie, doesn’t it?’

He broke off to roll and light another joint and then continued.

‘I didn’t realise that Reepa had been watching us all along and, yes, I had been sleeping with his mother. It was foolish of me not to realise but I was drunk on tequila and moonshine and San Francisco is a big city. I would find out later that he had watched our every move from a tree. And he was not pleased. A little protective over his ma, shall we say?’

‘The next day, I went to score in the Park, as I always did. As I’d had such a good night, I felt a great sense of optimism for the coming day. To celebrate my good mood, I decided to get four hits instead of my usual two, and drop them all in one go. If I had only seen the evil glint in his eye, I might have abstained from tripping that day.’

I necked all four and we chatted for a while. Standard innocuous ‘Frisco bullshit. The bastard was waiting for me to come up. When he could see that the acid was starting to take effect, and I was therefore at my most vulnerable, he turned to me, cool as a cucumber, and asked me whether I’d ever played Russian Roulette. I hadn’t, and told him so.’

‘Well you have now and you’ve just shot yourself in the head,’ he replied. I placed a death curse on one of those trips. You’ve got just over a year and a half. I could have told you that you were playing but nobody sleeps with my mother.’ And with that, he turned on his bootheels and was gone.’

‘I was astounded and started tripping hard at that point. You’re not going to hear about the whole trip because I don’t want to relive it, but I can say that I have never been so scared in all my life. The gates that would have led me out of the park had become the gates of Hell and I was rooted to the spot, a deer in headlights. You see these little scars under my eyes?’

I leant over the table and looked into his face. A myriad of barely visible little scars were lined up beneath his lids. For the first time since I had known him, I could sense a great fear welling up in his eyes. His face was masked with a look of resignation and he was pretty stoned. But I could still see that he was basically afraid.

‘I see them. How did they get there?’

‘I was trying to scratch out the ‘devils’ in my eyes. I looked like a lamb preyed on by ravens.’

‘When I finally came down from the worst experience of my life and could leave the park, I ran back to my apartment, packed my bags and jumped on the nearest tram to the airport. I made up my mind on where to go by process of elimination from the departure board. I got on the next available flight to Paris. That’s how I got here. And….um….I’ve now got a month to live.’

Sylvian came to the end of his tale and remained silent. I sat there in disbelief, finding the whole thing a little incomprehensible.

‘Um…are you sure that this guy wasn’t just trying to freak you out. I mean….a death curse! And I don’t mean to be rude, but you were tripping. Are you sure that it wasn’t just the product of an intensified imagination?’

‘Jean,’ Sylvian replied, ‘the man’s eyes were not lying.’

‘I really don’t know quite what to say,’ I said after a pause.

‘Don’t say anything. Just believe me. I’d like to go to my grave knowing that someone knew why I had gone there. I just need someone to believe in me. If you don’t, then my death will be the proof.’

I returned to my apartment that evening rather forlorn and sworn to secrecy about Sylvian’s fate until after the funeral. Mariette asked me why I was looking so downcast.

‘Am I?’, I replied, feigning surprise. Fixing her with a weak grin, I said, ‘And I thought that I was in a good mood!’

She knew where to stop and closed the case with, ‘If anything is troubling you….

‘….you’ll be the first to know.’ I didn’t like keeping secrets from her, but in effect I was only delaying telling her, out of respect for Sylvian.

‘Is Sylvian paying us a visit tonight?’, she inquired, determined to keep the conversation flowing to try and keep my mind off whatever was troubling me.

Wrong subject!

‘Urn… .yes, I think so. I’m… I won’t be in tonight though. I’ve been asked out for a few drinks with some friends that I haven’t seen in a while.’ This was a lie but I felt obliged to give Sylvian a little time alone with Mariette.

I drank alone that night.

When I returned, the sounds of Sylvian and Mariette making love drifted through my bedroom wall. Under normal circumstances, the idea of her being with anyone else, especially Sylvian, would have stoked the fires of jealousy. Instead, I just felt numb to the whole situation. I went straight to bed and submitted myself to troubled dreams.

The next fortnight was very sombre for me. On the morning after I became aware of my good friend’s fate, I received the doubly devastating news of my mother’s death. She had died of breast cancer at the age of sixty one and I was asked to return to England to deal with her funeral arrangements. Unable to replace the receiver in its cradle, I broke down.

Manchester no longer seemed to be the joyous and bustling Capital of the North that I remembered it as, but a sprawling and intimidating carpet of grey. When the plane touched down at Manchester International Airport, I was greeted by tumultuous sheets of rain. The slightest glimpse of sunshine would really have been too much to ask for to welcome me back to my birthplace. I suppose that the rain was quite fitting, considering my mood. As I waited for the ‘fasten seatbelts’ light to go off, my mind started to wander and I began to imagine myself as a character in somebody else’s story, a bit part, with my destiny already mapped out and written up, waiting for me to follow it.

A few of my old Whalley Range schoolmates had heard of my arrival and the reasons for it. They did their best to try and cheer me up but it was all quite in vain. We went on a tour of all our old Greater Manchester drinking holes; the places where we had all bought our first pints at the tender ages of fifteen, the places that most of us had taken our first girlfriends to, the places that we had fought in, the places that wedding receptions had been held in….everywhere we could think of. None of it was able to lift my depression. When I was sober, I was making the funeral arrangements. When I wasn’t doing that, I was blind drunk.

Whilst I was grieving and drinking heavily in Manchester, Sylvian and Mariette were taking the opportunity to get to know each other better. They would take morning walks, arm in arm, by the Seine and stop for coffee at regular intervals. Paris was drenched in sunshine as the summer started to gain momentum, and they started to fall in love. He treated her, she said, like a queen and she adored him in return. Her studio door remained resolutely locked for two weeks. He had moved in with her for the time that I was away.

My plane touched down at Charles De Gaulle Aèroport and I returned to my apartment, dejected and hung over. The curtains were still drawn, offering me sanctuary from the taunting sunlight. Sylvian and Mariette were sitting in the kitchen, she in her nightshirt and he in my dressing gown. I didn’t have the heart to be incensed at this so I just looked at them and said ‘It was awful’, then crawled off to bed to put the memories of Manchester as far behind me as was possible.

The next day, I was awoken early by Mariette brandishing two coffees and a newspaper. Sylvian had gone.

‘Morning, Jean. Sleep well?’, she inquired as she opened the curtains, temporarily blinding me with the bright morning sunshine.

I sunk further into my sheet sanctuary and bid my head under the pillow. She sat down beside me and pulled the covers off.

‘Oh come on Jean, you can’t grieve for ever. Sylvian has told me how he dealt with his mother’s death. He was very strong and positive about the whole situation. We’ve….’

‘Mariette, I think I need a cigarette.’

‘Here you go.. We’ve been talking death amongst other things and he seems to be quite prepared for it. He said that he’s going to grab the Reaper with both hands and land him a big kiss on those dark, hollow eye sockets of his, partying all the way as he goes.’

‘Oh Christ,’ I thought to myself, ‘he’s preparing her for it without actually telling her. Oh Christ.’

‘I do hope that you’re not angry with us, Jean,’ she continued ‘but he’s such a sweet guy underneath the strangeness. He’s been so good to me. Sometimes, a girl can’t help herself, y’know.’

Normally, seeing her so happy would have put such a smile on my face that I would have worn it for the rest of the day. I didn’t want to dampen her spirits but it seemed desperately unfair on her. One drunken night in some Mancunian bar, I had finally lain the last shreds of doubt to rest and chosen to believe Sylvian’s story in its entirety. Nothing would have pleased me more than to have been the victim of one of his more harsh jokes, but somehow it was all so believable. And I didn’t want to see Mariette getting hurt. Yet what could I say to her without upsetting her or betraying him?

‘Please be careful. I’m sure that there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. Just tread carefully.’ It was the most tactful thing that I could say.

‘Oh, you’re just jealous, you old fool!’ she laughed. ‘Now get up and help me to cook lunch. I’m not having you moping around here all day. I’ve got to get into the studio in an hour. There’s someone coming over who might want to buy one of my paintings!’

‘Well at least there’s some good news around,’ I said, getting out of bed and following her into the kitchen.

Thursday came around and we all gathered together in our bar. I was offered enough condolences to open up a card shop. Theo and Emily cooed harmoniously at me about how sorry they were to have heard about my mother. The well wishes drifted over my head as I began to wonder whether I had ever seen either of them alone. I hadn’t. Leon, who I had known from Manchester, asked me how the old city was faring. I relayed the excruciating tale of my misery there and he didn’t say much else. Arnauld patted me on the back, bought me a drink, and rolled another ‘Sorry to hear about your….’ past me.

As the drinks flowed, my spirits began to lift and I chatted with everybody. As was often the way, the conversation tended to be directed towards either Sylvian or me. He was still held in a certain sense of awe by the group but they all now knew him well enough to call him a good friend. Arnauld was particularly pleased by Sylvian’s complimentary remarks on his saxophone playing. Sylvian had turned up to the jazz club to see him play and had turned up backstage to slap him on the back. Theo and Emily asked his advice on a painting by one of Mariette’s friends that they were thinking of buying, as he and Mariette shot little smiles at each other from across the table.

I hadn’t spoken to Sylvian for much of the night, being annoyed with him still over what I saw as him taking advantage over Mariette. But as the night had proved to be the perfect tonic to lift my depressions, my annoyances began to flow out of me. By the end of the night, we were under the table, laughing wildly together. It was to be the last time that I saw Sylvian alive.

I was awakened late on the Sunday morning by the shrill and incessant cry of the telephone. Crawling out of bed and into the kitchen on all fours, I lifted the receiver.

‘Oh Jean, Jean….terrible….awful….it’s terrible….’

It was Mariette. She was wailing like a banshee.

‘Hey, hey, hey. Slow down. What’s going on? You’ve just woken me .‘

I heard her take a deep breath and then she spoke through her muted sobs. ‘Jean….can you come over….I’m….I’m at Sylvian’s.’ The wailing rose up again like an air-raid siren, then the receiver clicked and purred.

This was really it. He had been telling me the truth. Christ, this wasn’t going to be easy.

A puffy eyed, wet faced vision of the girl I remembered to be Mariette opened the door of Sylvian’s apartment and fell into my arms, sobbing hysterically. I closed the door behind us with my foot and held her for a while as the shoulder on my shirt became wetter and wetter.

The light was out and the blinds were down in Sylvian’s room. A wave of nausea washed over me as I inhaled and the foul stench of decay smacked me full in the face. I felt as an observer to Dr Faustus’s impending demise. The moment that I turned on the light, Mephistopheles would appear to take Sylvian away to the fiery depths of bell. If hell is indeed a pit of wailing souls, Mariette gave me her best attempt at replicating one once I had found the light switch.

Any vision of fiery pits could not have prepared me for the sight of what lay before me. He was unrecognisable. The blackened, skeletal corpse of my old friend lay contorted on his bed, a grimace of pain and terror fixed upon what remained of that once beautiful face. His eyes had gone and all that remained was a pair of blank, hollow sockets. Someone could have spent a weeklong hunger strike in a furnace and come out looking better than Sylvian did now.

A deer in headlights, I stood aghast for an eternity, soundtracked only by the wails of the vet rag in the corner. My paralysis was finally broken by my nausea finally gaining control, forcing me to mobilize my pylon legs to carry me as far as the toilet.

After I had wiped the last signs of vomit from my mouth, I managed to pull myself together enough to pour Mariette and myself a shot of whiskey to calm our nerves and light us two cigarettes. She had stopped crying now and we both sat against the wall, supporting each other in silence.

The funeral happened a week later. Naturally, the news had devastated the others too. I had to tell Arnauld just before he took to the stage. He was fighting the tears back pretty well, and his playing was more beautiful and more poignant than ever. It was only after I reminded him that Sylvian would have told him that the ‘show must go on’ that he agreed to take the stage at all. He dedicated the last song, a Coltrane tune, to ‘a very special friend’ and the tears finally broke free of their ducts and coarsed in salty rivulets down his sleek, golden saxophone. I haven’t seen that many standing ovations in jazz clubs before, but that night….well, it seemed like a fitting tribute to Sylvian.

Mariette had held herself together pretty well throughout the ceremony. Her veil managed to hide a lot and her gently muted sobs were the only accompaniment to the priest’s ‘Ashes to ashes….’ But when the first clod of earth from the undertaker’s shovel hit the coffin lid, it was the last straw for her. She pulled off her veil and hurled it into the grave. Then she broke down. She was shaking violently and tearing out handfuls of her own hair. The undertaker led her away as gently as possible to the funeral parlour, and she was left under supervision and sedation. The rest of us gradually trooped away from the graveside in silence, with blank expressions on our faces and with handkerchiefs habitually dabbing at our eyes.

The autopsy had uncovered a mystery virus that had lain dormant in Sylvian’s system, as if in wait for the right moment to strike. Maybe his dealer in San Francisco had found a way of training viruses, or had stolen some sort of government chemical warfare package with a time delay system incorporated into it, and had spiked his acid with that. it certainly hadn’t been a natural death by any means. Sylvian’s body had been completely decimated overnight. I’m sure that there are answers to the secrets from the darker side and maybe even a natural or rational explanation for his death. Whatever they are, and out of respect for Sylvian, sleeping dogs will be left lying.

Without his catalytic presence to hold us all together and traumatised by the event, our group eventually went their separate ways. Theo and Emily married soon after the funeral and moved to Venice to raise a family. Arnauld and his band, tired of a one club residency, decided to hit the road and slogged their way around Europe and America. He and I lost contact with each other. Whilst scanning the music press one day, two years after Paris, I read that he and his band had been killed in a highway pile-up whilst driving into Memphis. The death of one close friend doesn’t make the death of another any easier. I dug around in my record collection that day until I found what I was looking for – my Coltrane albums. As soon as the needle hit that scratchy old piece of vinyl, the memories all flooded back, as did the tears.

Leon and I eventually moved back to Manchester together. I started working for a publishing firm and he met up with his first girlfriend from schooldays. They married and became teachers.

As for Mariette, she stayed in Paris and moved into Sylvian’s old apartment. Once she had grieved all that she could, she began painting with a furore that I had never seen in her before. Most of her work was very uncommercial but she had never been happier with what she was producing. The day before I left Paris, I paid her a final visit to say our goodbyes. When I looked into her eyes, I could see that her vitality had returned. There was also an impish glint to them that I had never seen in her before, but recognised nevertheless. An imbecilic, French grin covered her lovely face.

‘You know, Jean,’ she said, as we exchanged our final hugs at the door, ‘I’m sure that Sylvian’s spirit is still around here somewhere. I can feel it in my bones.’

I looked at her and smiled.

‘I think you could be right!’

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Filed under 1994, Fiction, Short Stories