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.’
‘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.
‘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!’