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VIRTUOSO

by

Guillaume Destot




It was October again, and I could not believe how simply asinine Iíd been to waste my summertime away, when I should have spent every available minute roasting in the sun, like a blissful, plucked chicken. Autumn, a cold slushy mop slapping against my neck, sneered at me. So you thought summer was stretchable? The bottomless well of sun and carelessness, of bodies turning golden and beautiful and mellow evenings that make you forget all the tripwire youíve stumbled on, and all those traps that just canít wait for you? How foolish Iíd been, I thought, as I walked up the Boulevard Saint-Michel, heading for the Sorbonne, where I was to spend another sickening day in the darkish, creaking, pipe-and-polish smelling library. A smart briefcase in my right hand I walked as fast as I could--not that I was late, or anxious to arrive; it was just autumn subjugating me once again, suppressing my easy-going leanings. Have you never noticed how people always stride at top speed along the corridors of the mťtro? Granted, some of them know that if they donít run these thirty years, theyíll miss their commuter train, but Iím sure at least half of them donít actually need to hurry. Itís just autumn settling in our skulls again, the weak-bodied, moribund little tyrant enforcing his diktat. Everybody wants to speed through the cold and dreary days, as if it could shorten the wet season.

So striding I was, the Sorbonne my ultimate, loathed objective. There were the resident kneeling homeless young men on the pavement, heads bent, a cardboard sign in their hands reading "Iím hungry, please 1 or 2 francs". There were the usual souvenir stands where tourists buy T-shirts, mugs, scarves with "PARIS" embroidered in tacky golden letters, to prove to their friends and workmates theyíve actually been there. Although most of this stuff is made in China, North Africa, India, everywhere but here of course. How pathetic. How criminally ludicrous. This is Paris, for goodnessí sake.

Further up the Boulevard, there was this cheery beggar who--I think--may not actually be a drunkard. He always looks reasonably sober and clean, always standing, never whining. But I donít like him, though my deep-buried crypto-Catholic reflexes bid my hand, every once in a while, drop a coin in his thick hand. I always try not to touch the skin. It is ridiculous, and I know it, it makes me feel like some righteous medieval bourgeois giving alms to the deserving poor and pinching his nose at the same time.

The man, letís call him Prosper, a touch of cynicism always adds class, Prosper had something new for me to wonder at that day. He was working a barrel organ. Iíd always seen him just reaching out his hand for money, never actually trying to earn it. It was a mild, but unquestionable shock. A little revolution in the microcosm that I whizzed through every morning, when I emerged from the bowels of the city to reach its most elevated and honoured parts. Something in this ever-stirring but immutable world had changed. Troubled, I forgot to buy my usual croissant.

I regretted it. It is always uncomfortable when your belly churns with hunger. All the more so when youíre stuffed in a perfectly silent environment with someone on each side and someone in front of you. There is no hiding the noises made by your bodily functions in the Sorbonne library. So I went for lunch at about 11h 45, a little ashamed. I headed for the studentsí restaurant but finally ended in the first Japanese cheapo eating place I reached, which I left as hungry as before. Thirty yards down the Boulevard stood sunny Prosper, still turning the crank of his wooden barrel organ. Some Central European melody was winding out from it. This time, what with the speedy lunch Iíd had, I felt unable to focus on a book, unable to dive immediately back down the muddy, smelly pit of the library. I thought Iíd listen to Prosperís music box, for a minute or two.

I stood there, by the news-stand and noticed that people lent more attention than they usually did to Prosper, some tourists even let go appreciative ejaculations, and the usual Saint-Michel female stalkers, high heels, smart dark tight fitting clothes, perfect make-up and Gucci handbag, were not quite as icy as usual--some of these urban she-sharks even let a faint smile show on their lips, a modest but appreciated wonder. Prosper glowed and saw his small plastic cup, which he had tied to his organ, steadily filling up. It was his big day, and it was obviously working better than heíd expected. To give myself something to do, rather than just stand and stare, I bought Libťration and turned to the entertainment section. Then, half-forgetting Prosper and his show, I ambled slowly up towards the Boulevard again, musing, and casting vague, half-intent, half-empty looks at the flashy shop windows. I changed direction, and decided Iíd go watch the pipes in the window of an old-fashioned shop that stood at a nearby corner. I tried to picture myself with a portentous, curved, stately pipe in my moustached mouth, casually thumbing some precious, leather-bound volume in my private library, in a large quiet flat, in some posh neighbourhood. My mind shifting slowly but painfully from this daydream to the grim reality of my being outrageously late for my thesis, and millions of francs away from the above-mentioned flat and library, I folded the unread paper, stuck it under my arm, and headed for the Sorbonne for good this time. I passed Prosper and the thought of giving him money did not even cross my mind.

Prosperís new gimmick, after a few days, had got exhausted as far as I was concerned--though not for the tourists. It had become just another fixture in the leaden routine of my daily journey to and back from the library. I even felt a hazy resentment against Prosper, for he had not been able to renew that pleasant, dreamlike instant Iíd had a few days before, when, letís admit it, Iíd enjoyed for a few moments being where I was, partly thanks to Prosper. Why the hell had he not found something else to take me by surprise? Why does everything have to turn sour in this picture-postcard city?

A sunny afternoon, however, brought some relief to this stupidly pessimistic mood. Iíd had lunch at the studentsí restaurant--this time honest, dirt-cheap grub--followed by a nice little cup of coffee and now I was on my way to work on an interesting--for once--book Iíd come across the day before. I thought Iíd grant myself ten minutesí music with my walkman in the small park, so I took it out from my briefcase and put the headphones on. I tried to press the "play" button, and realised it was already on. My batteries, as I found straight away, had run out of juice, quietly, steadily during the morning, because I had left my walkman run on in my apparently soundproof briefcase. I decided I wouldnít be dampened by this snag and went to the record shop, where, cunningly enough, they sold batteries as well. What I had not foreseen was that Iíd have to wait for ten minutes. When I left the record shop with my batteries, my leisure time was long up. I grudgingly took the direction of my scholarly gaol. There stood Prosper, beaming as ever, a sunray setting the brass corners of his instrument ablaze. An unusual wave of benevolence swept over me and I slowed down to a halt. I thought Iíd give Prosper a second chance to cheer me up, and I found a bench, ten yards behind him, from which I could see his face and organ at an angle. Then, as I watched the high clouds in the autumn sky drift along and thought that this was only Tuesday, I realised the music had stopped and turned my eyes to Prosper. He looked apprehensive and had stopped pumping. "Lunchtime" I thought, but it was with an uneasy gait that Prosper left his tarmac stage. I decided Iíd follow him and see what was the matter. My thesis could wait, I wrongly thought.

Prosper walked briskly up the boulevard and turned into a small street. I reached the corner a moment after him and saw that heíd stopped halfway up the street, behind a delivery van. He was in the process of opening the lid of his organ. I roared with laughter when, after much fumbling and many an anxious look around, he took out from it a medium-sized tape player. Still laughing I returned to the library. For a couple of hours afterwards I tried to concentrate on my work, but I could not get Prosper and his tape player off my mind. It was obviously very irritating for my neighbours to see me idling and smiling for no apparent reason, so I decided to leave early. Fifty yards from the libraryís exit, the eternal Prosper was sitting, with a pitiful air, his organ now shamefully hidden under his rucksack. I had no change in my pocket, but I thought Prosper had deserved some sort of reward for his ingenious swindle. So, walking up to him I fumbled in my briefcase for the new batteries, that were still in the blister, and I put the packet in his hand discreetly, just like a pusherman would give a client his dope. "Keep it going" I said, winking, and walked off to the subway, sniggering light-heartedly.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND COMPETITION


Guillaume Destot is a member of the 3AM team and a former Neo-Hydropathe. He lives in Paris. The first reader who can spot Guillaume on the picture of Boulevard Saint-Michel will win a prize.

Answers must be e-mailed to Andrew Gallix
before April 1 2001.







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