THE MIRACLE OF FONTANA'S MONKEY
a novel by
Copyright © 2002 Marcus Reichert All Rights Reserved
The night had been uncomfortably warm, with only the slightest breeze coming in off the sea. Those less energetic citizens, held in the irritating grip of insomnia, had spent the night shifting idly about their rooms, while the more adventurous ones had taken to the streets to walk and, in most cases, smoke, finding distraction in the subtlest nuances of Marseilles' nocturnal existence. Joey, uncomfortably warm himself and bored with the intermittent human activity beyond the Parc Borély's iron gates, had eased himself into the garden's vast public pool--more exactly a small lake--for a swim.
Wanting to linger near the bottom of the pool and gaze up at the moon, Joey was aggrieved by the preponderance of rotting leaves spiralling about him. Poking his head up for only a second, he sharply drew in a deep breath of air and carried on searching the pool for a stretch of clear water. What on earth must the people who manage the Parc Borély think of the public, leaving this muck in here throughout the summer months, thought Joey, and surfaced once more for air. But then, diving deeper and swimming harder to escape the shadows darkening the water, Joey spied two white living creatures wavering along the edge of the pool. Having given up meat for Lent several years before without ever re-acquiring his taste for corpuscles and fatty tissue, Joey was interested in the two only as a passing diversion; Joey never made friends with any creature less human than himself. But there was something peculiar about the pair that made him pause and think. It appeared they had tiny eggs clinging to their lowermost extremities.
Joey had never seen such simple tubular creatures before, except for fish. But no fish, as far as he knew, swam vertically except when feeding, and then for only the briefest moment, for only as long as it took it to suck the object of its appetite into its mouth--or gob, as Fontana called it. The tiny eggs, somewhat resembling petite white mushrooms, were therefore that much more mysterious. Again rising out of the water, Joey saw the silhouette of a large waterbird of some kind looming over the very spot at the edge of the pool where the two creatures remained submerged. It then occurred to him that perhaps the two pale cylindrical intruders were sea urchins disgorged from the great bird's gullet. Curiosity got the better of him, and, against his better judgement, Joey dipped back down, now seeking the shadows for cover, and swam closer.
The two white creatures were longer than he had surmised and were gently moving alternately forward and then backward in the water in an unvarying rhythm. Joey found something altogether appealing about their soft sculptural presence there at the edge of the pool. They were tantalising in their softness, like the powdery immaculately clean flesh of a virginal young woman, which, in his case, meant the powdery immaculately clean flesh of a virginal young woman about his size.
Daring all, Joey swam to within feet of the two creatures, keeping himself as close to the bottom of the pool as he could; they were, it seemed, totally unaware of him. He swam nearer still, wanting to reach out and touch them. The one creature moved forward in the water, the other back. The tiny eggs now appeared to be of different sizes, more elongated than rounded, and spongy like spoiled grapes. Finally, forsaking the thimbleful of sanity Fontana claimed God had granted him, Joey swam up between the two pale creatures and grabbed one in each hand.
With a monstrous jerk, Joey's head was driven up between the woman's naked thighs. Seated at the edge of the pool, her frock gathered up about her waist, the woman automatically slammed her legs shut. Trapped there, his nose and mouth pressed to her moist pubes, Joey's tongue shot out in reflex, encountering the slickness of her most secret parts. This tastes good, thought Joey, but it doesn't taste right. Shrieking with fright, the woman reached down and seized Joey by his infant-sized head and threw him into the air with the strength of a mature orang-utan.
As Joey flew headfirst over the pretty metal bridge spanning the channel that brought the River Huveaune rippling into the pool, he grinned with the thrill of it, unafraid: he knew he need only, after achieving his apex, shift his centre of gravity backward by raising his knees to land on his feet. And he did, on the limb of an exceedingly large fig tree.
Coming along the pathway below him were the two policemen Joey had seen numerous times before. Fortunately, they had never seen him: their assignment for nearly a week now was to roam the park, ever on the alert for the elusive marmoset, or whatever he was. As they strolled, the one usually smoked and talked while the other one listened. If he had smelled tobacco burning, Joey would have followed them, but tonight he smelled only manly sweat riding on the fumes of a cheap eau de cologne.
"Tomorrow they declare Joey officially deceased," said Patrice, complacently.
"They'll regret it," said Pierre.
"Maybe not. Yesterday, they caught Balbec in here with a prostitute."
"Bad luck," said Pierre.
"Very bad luck," agreed Patrice. "They've chosen to suspend his duty for a month."
"That's a bit harsh. Usually, they'd only threaten to inform the wife."
Patrice winced at the thought.
"They're worried it'll get out and they'll have the Bishop on their backs again. Perhaps even demand we search the entire city for the little fucker," said Pierre.
"Or something equally absurd," groaned Patrice.
"Inspector Balbec--your pal," said Patrice, and sniggered.
When Jerome had asked to live in a flat of his own rather than the Negresco during his stay in Nice, Hugo de Hauteville had readily agreed. He also consented to Jerome using taxis to get around rather than having to rely on studio transport, which greatly inhibited the spontaneity of one's movements. Jerome's per diem wasn't large but it was sufficient to cover a meal in one of Nice's better restaurants each evening. His salary on the other hand was generous--more than twice what he had been paid for his last picture. Needless to say, Jerome was pleased.
His flat, by choice, was in a distinctly unfashionable part of the city on an equally uneventful street, St. Rita's Apron. Jerome remembered this place fondly from a visit he had made to Nice as a child. He said he enjoyed the obscurity. It was quiet there. At night, his neighbours, being predominately working class, were inclined to retire early. His building was comprised of four flats and an empty storefront. The lettering on the glass, its gold edges blistered by the heat, read Coiffure Fartumé, stylised heads of two women resembling tropical parrots on either side. As if occupied eternally by demurring Alexandrian demoiselles, the alleyway below Jerome's bedroom window still occasionally gave up a whiff of ottar. The flat itself was another matter altogether.
As Jerome and Duckie had chatted at some length at the studio about his new accommodation, he felt obliged to make her his first guest. He sensed she would find the antiseptic quaintness of the place just as amusing, if not more so, than he did: Duckie had subtly revealed herself to be quite the card. The kitchen was spacious, the stove set starkly against a blank pink wall, with a table and three chairs, the fourth serving as a sideboard by the stove. Duckie, having had a brief tour of the flat, watched from the table as Jerome set about making tea.
"Well, it's perfect for a humble chap like yourself," she said.
"Man of mystery," Jerome assured her.
"I shouldn't think you'll be having King Farouk over to play cribbage."
"Perfect neighbourhood for it, wouldn't you say?"
"I have to say, they're immaculately clean and most of the men dress better than I do. Anyway, my neighbours are primarily Italian. Venetian, I think."
"They got around, didn't they?"
"That they did. Look at Corfu--palazzos."
As they drank their tea, they more fully absorbed each other's presence. Jerome felt comfortable with the oddly clumpish woman with the lopsided grin. She wasn't nearly as unappealing in her chalkiness as he had previously thought. In fact, her puffy little face looked rather pretty against her royal blue jacket, and her royal blue jacket looked rather nice against the pink wall.
"Been reading about the monkey?" inquired Jerome.
Duckie took a bite of sugar biscuit. "Hugo and I were chatting about Joey just last night. Hard to believe but the little scamp belongs to an old friend of his. I met the chap once in London, used to work as a columnist for the Telegraph. Only ever drinks champagne, according to Hugo."
"Fontana, I saw his picture in the paper the evening you and I met."
"It's going to be all the rage, and this freakish story about the babies fits right in."
"Do you believe it?"
"You must be joking. Fontana had to have planted it. Probably on a dare."
"You have to admit, it is a great story."
"I feel sorry for the monkey."
"You took the words right out of my mouth. Like a glass of sherry?"
They took their tea into the living-room and Jerome poured them each a thimble full of Spanish sunlight.
"Lovely drink," cooed Duckie.
"How's Hugo getting on with finding a leading lady?"
"Didn't he tell you? He's found her."
"No, the girl knows Sergei. He knows a lot of girls."
"Don't tell me she's not a proper actress."
"Oh, she's an actress all right, but not a proper one."
"And she's perfect for Tati--why are things always so predictable?"
"Jerome, don't look so miserable."
"So, how did it happen?"
"Hugo was in the dining-room at the Negresco and spotted her across the room. On the way out, he stopped to say hello. He said she was very, very beautiful. And her smile, returning his, made her even more beautiful. This was the big moment. He said it was wonderful, truly wonderful. Even her breath was enrapturing--olfactory euphoria."
"Like the best cocaine. I'll bet her breasts smiled back at him too."
"You can rely on it." As Jerome returned their cups to the kitchen, Duckie called after him, "Do me a favour? Don't let Hugo know I told you about Violette."
They later parted warmly, agreeing to meet for drinks in a day or two.
It was on La Bonne Santé as Lord Billingsley and Hugo de Hauteville lay side-by-side sunning themselves, Billingsley's flesh steadily turning a painful shade of pink against the blue cushion of his chaise, that the solicitor revealed his complete and utter stupidity by asking, "En passant, Hugo, do you want the funds sent over in pounds or francs?"
"Charles, my dear boy," replied de Hauteville, resisting the urge to admonish the fool, "no money whatsoever need change hands. As I've said before, your fellows need only deliver the necessary paper to Golden Lamb. Their bloody dosh can go on Mayfair tarts, for all I care. Have a few on me…"
Billingsley blushed, although it was impossible to tell, chuckled good-naturedly, and asked, "But then where, actually, do you get the money to produce the picture--or am I missing something?"
"Once Frankel, who does all the banking for the studio, sees your fellows' guarantee, he'll open an account for Golden Lamb. Naturally, I'm sole signatory."
"And do you pay the actors as well?"
"That's already taken care of--easy as ABC." De Hauteville now smiled up into the sun, encouraging Billingsley to make an affirmative noise of some sort.
But Lord Billingsley, perspiration running along the crease between bosom and belly and thence over his ticklish flanks, only blinked and took up his towel.
"Charles, what I'm saying is…" de Hauteville paused to sigh a pitying sigh "...our distribution advance covers our stars. Like a cuddly blanket of clouds."
"Oh," said Billingsley, somewhat uncertainly. To de Hauteville's pleasant surprise, he then inquired, shyly, "Any idea where I might find a nice tight bit of quim for the evening?"
Nearly as portly as he was tall, Lord Billingsley was the solicitor of both Lady Duckworth and Count Lazovsky. One of the old boy network, he had arranged a guarantee through his banking chums in London for Golden Lamb, de Hauteville's film company. This he had achieved by offering them shares in Mr. Didot and a modicum of security, using the Count's worthless holdings somewhere in Turkey--tin mine, carpet factory, etc.-- as collateral, with Duckie's family seat, Greysteads, in Northumberland, as bona fide cross-collateral. Villiers Bank would provide the documentation. For talking his chums into having a bit of speculative fun, Billingsley was to be paid a handsome fee as an associate producer on the picture out of the funds so graciously provided by the studio's bankers.
All of this had been arranged on the condition that Mr. Didot be filmed in English, not in French, as Gaumont, the film's French distributor, had assumed, thus giving sufficient reason for Billingsley's chums to expect full recovery of the cost of the production in Great Britain alone before their guarantee was called upon. It was understood that the guarantee would be called upon--by the bankers for the film studio, La Victoirine--only if the financing provided for the actual production of the film, through the usual arrangement with the studio, was not paid off by Golden Lamb on the agreed schedule. Conveniently, these payments were to begin only after the production had been completed to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.
Distribution of the finished product would be on the new ABC circuit rather than Gaumont-British. If the picture didn't do sufficiently well immediately, as de Hauteville had assured all concerned it most certainly would, and Golden Lamb was unable to make the required payments to the studio, it was understood--in this instance, only by Duckie and the Count--that Billingsley would somehow delay the guarantee from being called upon. Thereby, as de Hauteville loved to say, keeping Greysteads from swinging on a meat-hook.
"Her eyes are the largest I've ever seen," de Hauteville whispered to Jerome.
"Like saucers?" Jerome whispered back.
"Mock me then. When you look into them, you'll be consumed by wonder."
"Ah yes, Sin."
"Nothing so mundane."
Lunch, a Spartan plate of black olives, sectioned tomatoes, and feta cheese--for Jerome--had been served on the balcony. De Hauteville confined himself to sipping Campari and seltzer, a recent innovation on the Côte d'Azur.
"Once touched by the diabolique," de Hauteville went on, "Violette will spell ruination for any man unequal to her pitiless appetites. But for now, she shall remain the child-angel that she is, held gently to my breast by these caring hands."
There, shimmering on the screen of de Hauteville's imagination, was Christ's temptation, a girl known to the otherworldly character of Victor Didot only as Tati. Pleasure spreading throughout their beautiful young bodies, Victor and Tati would exchange the same miraculous smiles de Hauteville and Violette Desroches had, only Jerome would be standing in both men's shoes.
De Hauteville and his leading actor had agreed to meet privately for lunch on Tuesdays, the pretext being that only Jerome could be relied upon to give him a real sense of how his cast was shaping up: although the players were being rehearsed by a very fine theatrical director from Paris, the picture's actual director, Pietro Pollo, insisted on remaining in Rome until his advance, which was a substantial portion of his salary, had been delivered to his door in lire. It was apparent to Jerome that de Hauteville was trying to say as little as possible about the antipathy between himself and his director.
"Duckie feels she should be in Rome, working with Pietro on the script," offered Jerome. "She told me last night--they invited me out for a drink--but she's wary of bringing it up to you. She's worried you'll see it as manoeuvring."
"Lombardi," intoned de Hauteville, frowning sternly, "I can tell you, my son, avoiding conflict-any awkwardness whatsoever-that's what we must be about. It just wouldn't do, regardless of her concerns. Duckie's just fine in the right company, but she really doesn't travel very well."
"Isn't it for the good of the picture?" argued Jerome, hoping to elicit a more pragmatic response.
"Duckie hasn't the savvy to know when she's being taken in. Pietro would make minced meat of her. He'd use her to have his way with me. Whose vision has guided her every word, and whose vision do you think will bring her words to life? For fuck's sake, it won't be Pietro Pollo!" De Hauteville felt his heart throbbing erratically in his narrow chest. His hands weakly gripping the edge of the table, he teetered on the spindly legs of his chair, and whispered, "We must make every effort to keep Duckie sane."
Now Jerome thought he understood: although Pietro Pollo's contribution, as everyone knew, was essential to the picture's success, de Hauteville wanted the world to know that he alone had redeemed all those years he had wasted in the dusty confines of his postal cubicle. But Jerome was wrong.
"Like Father and Son," de Hauteville began, "you and I shall transform that infernal nothingness that all men suffer into a mystical presence invulnerable to the ticking of the clock."
Jerome, concerned that his employer might be imagining a mystical bond between the two that he would find impossible to accept, decided to cut de Hauteville short. "Fine. I mean, yes-- we shall. It's just that Duckie's still struggling with the ending."
"So, let her struggle," de Hauteville replied. "She always acts as if she's not taking in what I'm saying, and then, without fail, all my ideas appear on the page. You see, she simply can't reconcile herself to the idea that Christ-excuse me, Victor-simply returns to his job."
Fiddling with the long hair behind his ear, Jerome tried to recall the final scenes of the screenplay's latest draft but gave up, remembering only the consternation creasing Duckie's face the evening before. "What job?"
"Need you ask?--Postal clerk."
"Of course, sorry."
"Regardless of what Pollo tells you--he's a great one for getting the audience to read emotion in a face where there is none--as Jesus Christ returned to unworthy flesh, weak flesh, flesh that slips and slides upon other weak, unworthy flesh, you must not merely pretend to die upon the cross--a splintered piece of ship's decking or something, I haven't decided yet--you must bring a terrible passion to the subtlest puckering of your lips, to the feeblest flickering of your eyes..."
"I like to think I'm rather good at that."
"Well, absolutely, Lombardi, that's why I hired you." De Hauteville was watching him intently. "You know what confidence I have in you."
"It means a lot to me. Don't worry about Pietro, I've watched him work, I can handle him."
The maestro was smiling. "Jesus Christ resurrected through the miracle of light passing through a membrane tender and supple as the Holy Virgin's, only made of cellulose nitrate--who would ever have imagined?"
Jerome and Violette Desroches were meeting at last. Lunch had been arranged, naturally, by their employer. De Hauteville, while giving Jerome protracted instructions on how he should behave when in the presence of his leading lady, had confessed, with hypocritical smuttiness, to cherishing the scent of Tati on his genitals. In fact, he cherished it so much, he said, that Dudu had recently objected to its presence in their life.
"It's very long and very smooth," said Violette to Jerome. "And if you've been wondering if he's a Jew, he's not."
"It hadn't crossed my mind," said Jerome, and immediately began weighing those attributes of de Hauteville's that might very well be Jewish against those that might very well be not.
He now glanced from the oysters hovering on their plateau of ice to Violette, who quite forcefully held his gaze. Her eyes were huge, with irises of the palest glimmering purple. Jerome couldn't help but stare. It was as if, pupils permanently dilated, she were in a state of constant wonderment. But her smile told another story. It was lascivious. She was like a perfectly smooth, perfectly formed female demon. Once, in the fragrant shadows of a Japanese import shop, Jerome had come upon a doll--he had even held it very briefly with trembling adolescent fingers--its tiny breasts apparent beneath its miniature silk kimono. Eyes round and glistening as two droplets of ink, lips smiling and red, as if drawn with a scalpel, the doll had provoked a strange and disquieting response in him: he had stolen it, strolled out into the street, and crushed its dainty head under his heel.
"You're Jewish, aren't you?" Violette playfully insisted, fingering the end, squared and nubbly, of his argyle tie.
"Well, I'd have to be, wouldn't I?"
She looked up at him uncomprehendingly.
"How else could I play our big love scene with any credibility?" Jerome remained unconvinced of the value of such coarse humour.
"It's not that kind of picture, is it?" Of course she was kidding too.
Jerome placed another oyster on her plate. Violette raised the shell to her lips and sucked. The oyster resided there, upon her tongue, for a moment before slipping without injury down her throat.
"Hugo was a postal clerk," stated Jerome, glumly.
"I don't much like the idea of portraying Jesus as something Hugo's been."
Jerome wondered if anyone could truly be so lacking in empathy. He decided it would be best to draw the conversation back to her. "Hugo gave me a rather fanciful rendition of your first meeting."
"There really wasn't much to it. I was having lunch at the hotel one day with Count Lazovsky when Hugo came over to say hello."
"He didn't tell me you were having lunch with the Count."
"I wasn't having only lunch with him."
"You're not jealous?"
"Why should I be jealous?"
"Men like to think I belong to them."
Modesty clearly not on her agenda that afternoon, Violette opened her mouth and lolled her tongue between her teeth, signalling the desire for another oyster. Jerome couldn't help but think of Hugo de Hauteville at that moment: how he would have savoured her performance, her flawless neck lightly flushed and pulsing, her eyes narrowed, her mouth gleaming wetly, her small but fruity breasts mounded over her bodice, cut like the ruffled sides of a candy-box. But Jerome found it all so very predictable.
As he put another oyster on her plate, she caught his free hand and lowered it under the table where it served to remind them, his fingers finding a hidden mouth that also wanted to be fed, that each had best consider a main course before the kitchen closed for the afternoon.
"I seldom see the Count anymore," Violette assured him.
"I doubt the Count would want to risk seeing you."
"I said seldom." She glanced at the bottle of champagne in its silver bucket--it was nearly empty. "Lady Duckworth never took me seriously anyway, not until Hugo cast me in the role of Tati."
"How do you know she takes you seriously now?"
"I don't. But I do know she assumes I'll be spending considerably less time with her precious Sergei--because Hugo's so possessive himself." Violette cast her smile in the direction of a table nearby, challenging the woman seated there to keep staring at her. "Hugo's not much of a man, but he is rather nice."
"He's obliged to be nice." Jerome withdrew his hand from the soft small place and signalled for the waiter to bring another bottle.
"I was always told gentlemen liked pathological sex," said Violette, stretching her arms and feigning to stifle a yawn.
"By the Count."
It was just then that a very unkempt clochard strode by the restaurant waving a newspaper wildly in the air.
"Look there--outside in the street!" exclaimed Jerome. "There he is!"
"Who?" Violette remonstrated, more annoyed than startled by his behaviour.
"The man's in a kind of ecstasy..."
"Perhaps he's swatting flies," suggested Violette, reaching for a cigarette.
"But don't you see--there's a photograph of Joey on the front page."
Now Violette looked more closely at Jerome, who was staring out into the sunstruck street, oblivious to her wants. She held up her unlit cigarette, pouted, and inquired indignantly, "Who's Joey?"
The anemones stood in a porcelain Chinese pot before the window. The lace curtain, tiny pom-poms along its edges, had been drawn back to let in the breeze. Although the sea was blocked from view by the buildings along the Rue St Säens, the sky beyond the window was alive with its rectifying brilliance. Over the pale yellow walls of the nursery were looped innumerable magenta peonies, some faded to pink, the wallpaper itself powdery with age. In a slightly darker yellow, a volume of the thoughts of Pascal rested on the table before the window. The table, which was draped in white linen, also held a bowl of lemons. The bowl was the colour of old ivory. The crib was also white, but its white was as fresh as the lemons were yellow.
There was a harmony to this arrangement that Joey greatly appreciated. He continued to admire the scene as he finished his cigarette, his other hand resting on Raphaela's delectable bottom. Raphaela slept peacefully beside him. Glancing down, Joey noted the woman's purse he had stolen while leaving the park, which lay by his lover's hip. This touch of black, glossy but muted and not quite round, was the single element, he concluded, that gave this fine interior its mystery.
Raphaela's lips puckered as she slept, and a crystalline bubble, pure as the purest spring water, eased out between them. Joey leaned over and kissed the bubble away. As he did, he tasted, regretfully, the exquisite sweetness of her being.
From the sill, another still-life was conjured, the crib hovering perfectly at the top of the arrangement. Joey rose on his toes to glimpse Raphaela one last time before descending into the street and retracing his steps back through the dust of Marseilles to the sanctuary of the Parc Borély.
As had been agreed beforehand, Jerome returned to the Negresco after his luncheon with Violette to make a full report to his employer. But before he could even say how much they had enjoyed themselves, de Hauteville was off and running.
"It wouldn't be good for your concentration," he said. "On the other hand, once you've had her, she'll be utterly irresistible to you, and this will, undoubtedly, read quite clearly and effectively on the screen."
"Only in the close-ups, I would imagine," Jerome conjectured.
"But desire is best communicated by one's total--what?--demeanour. It should be evident even in one's stride," de Hauteville declared, with satisfaction.
"I'll have to work on that," said Jerome. He then got up and paced to the far side of the room and back. "What do you think?"
"Not bad-for a first attempt." De Hauteville glanced at himself in the mirror over the settee on which Jerome had been sitting and nodded in agreement with himself.
Always delighted by his own paradoxical nature and the unselfish joy he took in making his friends' hearts beat a little faster, Hugo de Hauteville gave in to glorious compulsion. Savouring the irony, he telephoned Violette--with Jerome standing right there next to him--to warn her never to visit the actor's rooms. Lombardi, he said, was a young man without conscience, who would certainly take advantage of her without sufficient recompense. For Jerome, it was a hurtful kind of joking. But de Hauteville's callow behaviour was of no matter, because Violette and Jerome had already agreed to meet that evening--at his flat on St. Rita's Apron.
"I know what it is to die," said Jerome to the woman standing next to him at the bar, her tiny purple hat clinging to the side of her head like a sticky candy.
"Do tell," said the woman. Her spurious aristocratic tone was utterly at odds with what Jerome knew intuitively to be her sympathetic nature.
"The trees overhanging the path were black, quite black. The path, I sensed, led to the place where I belong, where I am truly myself, without fear, without guilt or remorse."
Jerome glanced at the woman, wondering if she knew he was performing.
She said nothing.
"It was this distance I wished so desperately to attain. The air in which I stood was a lustrous filmy grey, and the black trees, the path penetrating their bower, were sublime, unnervingly sublime."
Now he would use his eyes, imploring, losing sight of all reason, to draw her in, until she literally melted into him, as so many had done in the darkened depths of the theatre.
"I was overcome by a feeling of helplessness, a failing in the limbs that surely extended from my very soul. My body, I knew, was relinquishing its presence in the world." If only I can bring this intensity to my rendering of Victor Didot, Jerome prayed silently. "As the trees grew blacker and the silvery air came to permeate my being, my way along the path became impossible. This was to be my ultimate limitation, my undoing. And the trees grew blacker still."
The woman was staring, he knew, through the shaggy limbs of those black trees at a terrible, terrible image of herself.
"No longer was I capable of any action, and my heart grew sad, with regret. But then my heart grew sadder still, with its passing into the enveloping atmosphere." Jerome gasped a little.
He couldn't help it, he was so moved. "The luminous air shone into me, and my mind, retreating into my soul, yearned for my heart to be still, murmuring, evermore softly, slow… slow… slow…"
The woman and Jerome shared a long quiet moment. Finally, her lower lip trembling, the woman said, "A place where I too might belong."
Jerome put some money on the bar--enough to pay for his last drink and for several more for the woman, for whom he knew the night would be endless--and walked out into the street.
Dusk was shimmering on the walls of the buildings, turning the yellow plaster a peculiarly roseate hue of pale green. Farther along, at the corner, was another bar. It cast its fanning aura of orange over the tables, their white cloths like smouldering discs of sulphur. Jerome wondered what Violette would think of his meagre rooms with their view of the ordinary little chapel on the square. He wished he didn't feel quite so anxious about being altogether alone with her, and stupidly wished he hadn't refused the chloral his pal Delphine had offered to send from Paris. The entire enterprise, and especially the content of Mr. Didot, suddenly struck Jerome as unworthy. He saw himself floating just blocks away in the bay, the morning sun glancing over his lifeless upturned eyeballs and grimacing teeth, and he saw this same image looming in monotone over an audience held captive by the overwhelming reality of what they saw on the screen before them.
"But I'm not a martyr," he snorted, "I'm a fool. From what infestation of the soul do I suffer to be so bereft of conscience? Somewhere, at this very moment, a dying child is gazing beseechingly upon Christ's atrocious wounds. But how could anyone, especially a dying child, find comfort in Christ's suffering?" Overcome by a dreadful queasiness, Jerome walked on.
At the kiosk, he stared down at several newspapers laid out one on top of the other, each with its name and banner headline showing. Closest to him, at about the middle of Le Monde's front page, its contents slipping round the fold, was an item which read:
MONKEY INFLAMES MARSEILLES POLICE.
Unprecedented allegations of bestiality are being brought by sixteen married couples and one widower against Reynolds Fontana, the British society columnist, for sexual violation of their infant daughters by his pet monkey. Three of the families claimed their daughters, the oldest fourteen months, were impregnated. Medical examiners have confirmed these claims without explanation. In a contretemps requiring public apology, the monkey, which was to be destroyed, an action halted by an injunction brought by Mr. Fontana, vanished from its cage in the…
(here Jerome turned the newspaper over and read on)
Borély Gardens on the weekend. Police guarding the cage are uncertain as to how and when the animal escaped. Mr. Fontana is seeking a full investigation of the matter.
"It does put my particular quandary into perspective," said Jerome, as he flipped the paper back over and neatly aligned it with the others.
"How's that?" asked the tobacconist, reaching out to re-align the entire row of newspapers.
"The miracle of Fontana's monkey," said Jerome, holding the man's gaze.
The tobacconist raised his eyebrows, communicating nothing. Jerome smiled, feeling much better, and walked off in the direction of the nearest taxi stand.
Her chin rested delicately on the heel of his palm like a precious egg. His other hand, fingers wet with her exertions, cupped her buttocks, both buttocks; she was that small. As she rode relentlessly up and down on his penis, Jerome continued to think about Fontana's monkey--he couldn't help it with Violette squatting over him, poised on her toes like a little creature waiting to spring from the massive limb of a gigantic rubber tree. She was bringing herself to orgasm, and went on working the helpless shaft, itself beginning to jerk involuntarily in its own death throes, until Jerome heard her distant cries echoing throughout the jungle.
Having lain on the beach taking the sun most of the day, Jerome was in a pleasantly stuporous mood. He still had sand between his toes but hadn't the ambition to run a bath. Violette wouldn't be joining him that evening. She had promised to go directly from La Victoirine to the Negresco for drinks with de Hauteville and Lord Billingsley. She said the set-up stank but spending time with her boss's cronies was part of the job. Jerome said it wasn't. She said she didn't care.
Jerome caught himself dozing on his feet by the open window. He took in the simple beauty of the square. There were kids playing in front of the chapel, flinging themselves about like dervishes. Just watching them was exhausting. Jerome sat on the arm of the sofa behind him, then leant back so that his legs were dangling over it. He closed his eyes, the kids' squeals and shouts mingling with the cries of the seagulls on the roofs nearby. Now, as he dozed, Jerome recalled an incident from his childhood:
Le Petit Lac du Verdon was filled with mud--slowly moving, viscous red mud. It was Monday morning and the Bastille Day festivities had thankfully passed without mishap at La Bourrique Allemande, the Lebowitz family's fishing retreat. There had been the customary cooking fires, knives left carelessly about, miniature explosives strewn unexploded in the grass, and the luminous shallow water of the delicate fountains of Manosque wanting a baby's lungs. But the most threatening and grandest phenomenon of the weekend had been the storm that blew in from the west on Friday evening.
Uncle Max had taken Jerome and his parents out onto the porch to watch. Harold and Helen--by then known by the name Lebow--Londoners with a penchant for luxuriating in the sun by turquoise seas or, inelegant as it was, Uncle Max's stretch of the Verdon, huddled fearfully in the doorway with little Jerome, then aged just nine. At first Jerome was distracted and annoyed by their interest in the storm, but then, as the tall trees between them and the lake began to sway and groan, he was hypnotised. He had never seen such convulsive savagery. The wind drove the rain under the porch roof to strike them full in the face. Jerome stared blindly out, while his thoughts turned wordlessly inward. He sensed his father's concern for the rust that would form in the works of his new rifle left in their open car, and his mother's worriment over the hydrangea blossoms in her garden on Brompton Square. Then, without anyone noticing, he had walked quickly across the porch and out into the storm. He could still feel the rain on his face.
Jerome promised himself he would ask Violette about her own childhood. He knew she would tell him things she had never told anyone. That's what he wanted. Then she would be more like him. He couldn't remember ever having wanted to love anyone before. But this was what people did--they decided to love someone and went ahead and did it. Even the sofa on which he was lying smelled of this cosy charade.
Violette withdrew from her contemplation of the sea and crossed the street. The Negresco lay dead ahead, like a huge sandcastle made of salt. Although she had pinned a fresh cloth to her new satin underbelt earlier in the afternoon, she knew that any man familiar with such intimate considerations would scent her predicament. Her pungency would have been an asset with some men, but certainly not Lord Billingsely. Before going up, she would make the necessary replacement, first applying a generous dash of eau de toilette to the material. The w.c. off the bar awaited her.
When Dudu ushered her into de Hauteville's study--an artificially lit atrium leading to the bedroom--Violette found the producer and Lord Billingsley standing side-by-side peering at a small picture on an easel.
"She's here," said Dudu, mildly startling the two men.
When they turned, the object of their fascination was visible between them: a glossy photograph of a dancing girl in a lavish costume. It was the first of many stacked on the easel. De Hauteville glanced from Violette to the photograph on the easel to Billingsley.
"You see," he declared, "none of them have her hauteur."
"Not very tall though," commented Billingsley, as if height were a prerequisite for true feminine beauty. His eyes however were filled with admiration for the petite attributes of the neophyte actress.
"The Venus di Milo isn't very tall either," said Dudu, winked at Violette, and left.
Billingsley, as far as Violette was concerned, was little better than a fat English version of the Count. Introductions were made as, curiously, de Hauteville moved off not in the direction of the grand salon but his bedroom.
"With all this talk about art," he said, "there's something I must show you. She cost me a bloody fortune, but she's worth every penny."
Violette found de Hauteville's taste in decorative objects offensive. It wasn't that his acquisitions were gauche in the usual sense of the word, it was that they were so very refined and therefore intimidating, especially to the type of person he most enjoyed sexually: the uneducated, the disadvantaged, the emotionally needy. But when they entered the bedroom Violette couldn't find anything sufficiently elegant to make her cringe, except perhaps the maestro's white silk pyjamas which had been arranged to suggest an exotic flower at the centre of his bed. Lord Billingsley himself looked unsure.
"Ever see anything like it?" de Hauteville inquired.
A twinkle in his eye, Billingsley frowned at Violette. But she refused to join in the game, whatever it was.
De Hauteville, with a great sweep of his arms, threw himself onto the bed.
"What indulgence is this?" asked Billingsley.
"Every man's who ought to know better," replied de Hauteville.
Violette thought she knew what he was getting at--he often spoke in riddles.
Giggling shamelessly, de Hauteville plucked at the delicately mounded pyjamas, then patted the bed, meaning of course that Violette and Lord Billingsley were to join him.
"Oh, come on," he insisted, "it's not as if I'm asking you to do anything naughty. Violette, you surprise me."
Billingsley was smirking. Grabbing Violette's hand, the great blimp flung himself down. Jerked over on her heels, she landed awkwardly beside him.
"Bravo!" shouted de Hauteville.
"Fucking children," muttered Violette.
"Listen to that! Charles, you're a very bad boy!" gushed de Hauteville.
"Well, so are you," Billingsley grumbled, breathing heavily.
De Hauteville sat up, dragging Violette with him. "Don't you adore these mad evenings?" he whispered. "Really and truly?"
When she didn't respond, he brushed her hair back from her face and, letting her know that Billingsley couldn't see, briefly but firmly cupped her breast.
Violette stared at him.
"Oh Tati, Tati..." de Hauteville sighed, now disheartened.
But in an instant, a playfulness came to shimmer in her eyes, and she said, "I was promised champagne."
Over Duckie's right shoulder the Baie des Anges lay dark and still, while over her left the waiter appeared with two more gin and tonics and a fresh ashtray. Jerome had been waiting for this event, primarily because Duckie's ash had grown to an unwieldy length and he was worried for her pristine yellow linen jacket. Although the sky had remained overcast all day, Duckie nevertheless wore her sunglasses. It was not only alarming for Jerome to see himself super-imposed twice on her pallid face, her rouged cheeks like two clouds on which he floated, it was also rather fascinating: he looked much younger than his 29 years. Wearing his hair without oil, so that it just touched his lapels, did, it seemed, give him the slightly haunted look he imagined for Victor Didot.
Duckie took a sip of her drink, then another. "If you and Violette have so little to talk about, why not spend your time together rehearsing your lines?"
"It may sound peculiar but I don't believe in rehearsal."
"Oh yes, I've heard all that--it ruins the spontaneity of the thing. Well, suit yourself."
"Trust me, I wouldn't tamper with the language."
"Fortunately, you don't drink like some of these chaps. They can't remember anything, so they make it up as they go along. The director doesn't care. It'll give a good screenwriter cancer of the stomach."
"What about a bad one?"
"Let's him off the hook."
"Or he can take credit for something he didn't do."
Jerome sensed, as Duckie shakily lit another cigarette, there was something troubling her. He also sensed it hadn't anything to do with the production. "What's on your mind, if you don't mind me asking?"
Duckie gazed out over the sea. She was wearing one of those very fashionable wide-brimmed white Panama hats and its shadow now fell to the bridge of her nose. Jerome waited for a tear to trickle over her cheek and into the sunlight.
"It's Sergei," she said. "You mustn't ever say anything. Promise me."
"I've realised I may never find anyone else. The thought of only ever having him is unbearable. And please don't ask me if I love him."
Duckie set her drink back on the table, inhaled deeply, and looked at Jerome.
"You've known him a very long time," he said.
"Yes, and there isn't anything he wouldn't do for me. This is what I find so horrible."
"Occasionally, someone just appears. This happened to a friend of mine. He'd lost his wife and--"
"Yes, I know. That's all very well, but the Count and I are in business together. He couldn't manage without me."
"And Hugo couldn't manage without the both of you."
"Is that what he told you?"
"In so many words."
"I'm flattered. He very seldom says anything about it to me. I know he's told Sergei he's grateful."
"I feel better."
"Why not just wait and see how we get on with the picture. If it's a success, you'll meet all kinds of new people."
Duckie smiled, the black lenses revealing only Jerome's compassion. "A very, very rich man."
"Who's also extremely good-looking. An ambassador."
"Then he and I could look after Sergei."
"You could give him a proper job. The film business isn't for Counts and the like."
And the conversation went on from there, tit for tat, until Violette arrived to take Jerome away for a swim.
"He's a rare one, you know," laughed Duckie.
"Aren't they all?" Violette relpied.
Smiling without affect, the two women nodded good-bye.
"Miserable afternoon for a swim," said Jerome, as he and Violette made their way through the cool sand to the cabana she had hired.
"You'll find it soothing," she said, again taking his hand. "I don't mind if the water's cold."
They undressed together, each silently marvelling at the beauty of the other. It was during this interlude that Jerome first tried to come to terms with the fact that Violette saw other men, and very likely would continue to until she became a mother. This was how it went with some Catholic girls. Jerome wasn't about to become a Catholic father. He wasn't about to become a Jewish one either. Violette ran from the cabana. He followed at a trot. They both dove into the sea and, as Jerome bobbed about, Violette swam a long way out. He gazed back at the shore. There was the seaside bar where he had just had drinks with Duckie, and there, he was absolutely certain, sat Duckie watching them. Violette was waving, apparently resting on a sandbar, her bathing costume lowered and breasts bared to the mists. Jerome could feel the gooseflesh rising round her nipples. He swam out to her. When he too had come to rest on the sandbar, she wrapped her legs around him, lifting him off and into the deeper water, and rode with him, her icy flesh pressed to his.
"Would you ever marry someone like me?" she asked.
"What a question."
"Are we talking about someone like you, or you?"
"We know so little about each other."
"My mother and father are dead. And yours live in London. Neither of us have any brothers or sisters. Your people came from the east, from Mesopotamia-- "
"What?! Who told you that?"
"Crap. They came from Germany. A few contrary stragglers are still there."
Violette thought on this, or at least appeared to. She then reached down to see if he was aroused. "You don't know anything about me."
"No, I don't." His penis was thrumming.
"So, would you marry someone you don't know anything about?" She opened her legs wide and fluttered away, leaving him bobbing in the water like an empty bottle. "Just to keep other boys from having me?"
Jerome watched as Violette turned onto her stomach, her back a knot of pale sinew, and swam away.
All images courtesy of Marcus Reichert
with special thanks to Anya Varda
Read the first installment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is the author of three novels, including the cult classic Verdon Angster
, and several screenplays. The first neo-noir, Reichert's film Union City
was hailed by Lawrence O'Toole, film critic for Time
magazine, as "an unqualified masterpiece." He was given his first exhibition of paintings at the age of twenty-one at the legendary Gotham Book Mart and Art Gallery, New York, home to the Surrealists during WWII. American critic Donald Kuspit has written of his Crucifixion paintings that 'both Picasso's and Bacon's pale in comparison.' Marcus Reichert's film works are held in the Archive of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and his writing and a selection of books on his work are available from Art Books International, London. A book of Reichert's photographs, with text by Stephen Barber, is in preparation.