Sunday, 31 March 2013

Overheard Conversations

Source: Wikimedia Commons
James stepped outside the door to his hostel, and lit up a cigarette—the ones with a special mint bubble at the top of the filter that was activated by pressing down on it until you heard a snap. He breathed in that first awful mouthful of smoke that hits your lungs like a chemical gale; the first mouthful is always awful, but it lines the mouth and throat, preparing it for the chemicals about to enter the body, following by the rush of delicious, pacifying nicotine.

The first lungful of chemicals hit James with a force—he hadn’t smoked in a while—and his leg trembled as the chemicals agitated his nervous responses. The Parisian night was glacial cold, with a freezing mist developing in the air; the flashing green cross of a pharmacy across the road looked like a star, its light fractured, broken. The crunch-crunch of frost underfoot was pleasant to the ears, but not yet slippery enough to be irksome. The stars twinkled with the utmost clarity in the skies, without a single cloud to block their appearance; the day’s heat had been leached out of the ground, and the twinkling of the stars were small comfort to the people trudging the frozen streets. James’ black, knee-length trench-coat fluttered in the frigid breeze, and he cursed his gloves: too thin to block the cold, but not thin enough to hold a cigarette.

The hostel was on the rue des Morillons in Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement, a rather long street in south central Paris; the hostel found itself near the end of that street. Looking to his left and right, the frosty streets were lined with small, practical city cars of the Peugeot 206 and Smart variety: parked so as to still allow two lanes of traffic circulate on the small roads. Very few people traversed the streets at that hour, most of them preferring to stay tucked up in their cosy studio and one-bed apartments; apartment buildings sprouted around James like a growth of giant mushrooms. Looking around at apartment block after apartment block, the bluish-white flicker of televisions played in most of them; in a very few, that flicker was absent, replaced instead by the outline of a man or woman sitting in a chair with a book, and maybe a glass of wine. How sad, thought James, that the world spends so much of its free time gazing like morons at the trash on TV: the world was filled with billions of books by millions of authors dead and living, from contemporary literature to ancient Greek tragedies; books that could illumine the soul, incandesce the cerebral architecture of the mind, challenge people to become other than what they were. We are content to sit and allow the contents of our mind turn to mushy porridge as hour after hour of mindless zombie entertainment played: not that James hadn’t watched many hours himself. But he hated himself for it.

James snapped out of the reverie, realising with an internal laugh that he was, once again, being condescending, high-minded and judgemental. His cigarette had almost reached the filter, and he smoking the pure mint chemicals at the end: this was probably the worst thing for his health that he could do, but he loved smoking the mint at the end: it washed the awful taste of smoke out of his mouth with smoke-toothpaste. 

Around the corner from the hostel entrance, a group of people were having a conversation in French. James couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he was sure that they were the same group he had made friends with a few days ago: two girls and two guys from Nice staying in Paris for a month or two as part of a teaching programme. He had gone clubbing with them a few times. A nice group, easy to get on with. He walked around the corner, a smile starting on his face (look friendly, panicked his mind, they wont like you if you’re not friendly!). He stopped short, looking up the rue de Cherbourg with astonishment on his face: the street was empty. It wasn't creepy or anything like that, but no one was there; he was convinced he had heard Christa’s treble voice just before he turned the corner. And yet, nothing. The street lamps glowed and twinkled in the freezing night-time air, and the street looked like something out of a modern remake of a noir film. 

“Strange,” thought James, “I must be going a bit mad in the big shmoke.” (These last two words thought with a thick Kerry accent: a friend at home had pronounced it like that, and James had liked that expression said that way ever since). He slid another cigarette out of the packet and squeezed down on the filter until he heard the mint bubble pop. He lit up and took that first awful breath of smoke. The nicotine passed through his alveoli and hit his bloodstream in under a minute. James liked to wander around this district while he smoked in order to get himself better acquainted with the area, and so continued walking up to the top of rue de Cherbourg; his toes had gone numb by now, and he wrapped his coat tighter around himself to ward off the bitter cold. Lungful after lungful of smoke and nicotine and god-knows-what other chemicals entered his bloodstream: had he tried to move his fingers to release the cigarette, he would have found himself unable. Reaching the top of rue de Cherbourg, he approached the corner and was about to turn right onto rue de Fizeau; he stopped just before the corner, listening to a conversation that he could hear just around the corner. The voices were identical to the ones he had heard just a minute ago at the corner of rue de Cherbourg and rue des Morillons: it was, it must be, it had to be, the same group chatting. How had they moved all the way from the bottom of the street to the top of this one and around the corner without James noticing? The conversation was still in French, but James was almost certain that they were talking in more clipped tones: it sounded like they were using lots of monosyllabic words and shorter sentences, although they didn't sound intense or angry. James heard the voices of two more members of the group—the hoarse voice of Raphaël, who had started smoking six years ago, followed by the throaty laugh of Danielle; he couldn’t understand the joke, but thought he heard the word “couteau”—knife. It sounded like someone had told them that they had five minutes to have a conversation, and that they must touch on topic A, B and C and the guys were using monosyllabic language and clipped sentences in order pass the bizarre test.

James moved around the corner, drawing in a lungful of smoke through fingers trembling with cold. The informal “ça va ?” was poised at the edge of his mouth, ready to be thrown off the cliff of his lips and into the frigid air. He turned onto rue Fizeau, and stopped in surprise: an empty street greeted him, lined on either side by two snake-lines of cars and pools of frigid yellow lamplight at regular intervals. 

“Seriously?” he thought. “I must be fucking wrecked, there’s no way this is happening.”

It was bizarre: he was hearing voices, but the streets were empty whenever he turned the corner. Really bizarre. James felt a breath of hot air on his neck, as though someone had breathed down his collar; a scent of CK Homme eau-de-cologne floated on the air.

“Jean wears that,” thought James. Jean was the achingly attractive last member of the group, and James’ blood stirred involuntarily at the thought of his broad chest, the glasses that seemed at odds with the rest of his appearance, the gorgeous sweep of his sandy blonde hair. He looked around, expecting to see Jean standing behind him: nothing. A ghost of a laugh echoed ethereally in the air, as though it had been laughed on another plane and only some of it had trickled into this one. Hair stood up on the back of his neck, and he swivelled back around. He continued walking along rue Fizeau, and came to rue de Chambéry. Once he reached the end of this street, he would have walked a full square and would be back at the hostel. He walked towards the corner of rue Fizeau, stopping only to stamp out his cigarette before walking on. 

As he approached the corner, voices drifted to him. They seemed menacing now, although not for any concrete reason that James could pin down: they just had an aggressive tone. Their voices were clipped even more than before, and the sentences were composed of just one or two words. Again, James couldn’t understand much, but understood some of the words. The words “couteau” (knife) and “sang” (blood) popped up with startling frequency, as well as this other word he couldn’t make out, but which sounded like “hurt-her”. Danielle’s laugh rang out again, cutting through the icy air like a knife; it sounded like the cawing of a crow. In fact, come to think of it, the black sweep of Danielle’s hair did have the green-tinted black of a crow’s wing. Christa’s voice rang out again (just the word “hurt-her”), a stiletto shrieking across a mirror, followed by Raphaël’s scratchy, nicotine-stained voice rasping out the word “sang”.

James’ heart jumped a little bit, but he knew he was just being foolish. He had spent the past three days on his feet, wandering the boulevards of Paris in search of a job and he was probably just suffering from a fatigue-induced hallucination. He needed to get to bed. He hesitated before moving towards the corner of the street to walk down rue de Chambéry towards rue des Morillons, but scolded himself for being silly and afraid of nothing but shadows and his own sleep-addled mind. The streets, after all, were well lit, with pools of frozen yellow light illuminating the street every fifteen metres or so. Just before he turned the street, he heard a pitiful whine, followed by the sound of striking flesh. Was that Jean’s voice that whimpered? James’ heart leapt as he heard Jean plead for them to stop. Danielle’s laugh rang out again, coloured by a cruel tone now; they were delighting in whatever pain they were causing Jean. 

James rounded the corner onto rue de Chambéry to confront them. A tinkle of teasing laughter shattered the raw air, cutting into James’ frost-bitten ears; a hint of CK Homme again (followed by the customary arrest of James’ heart), but no people. James’ heart hammered, but he knew he was being ridiculous; he was deprived of sleep and was in need of, as Lady Macbeth put it, the “balm of hurt minds”. He continued on down the street towards rue des Morillons, attempting to ignore the sounds of a car in the background, refusing to turn around and look at it. He knew he was being a superstitious twit, but he couldn’t help feeling that someone was following him. As he walked down the street, he tucked his hands into his pockets; after a few seconds, he felt a soft, warm hand reach in and clasp his own in a comforting grip. Forgetting himself for a second, he let the person to whom the hand belonged snuggle up against him as he walked down the street.

Memories of walking to a show in Broadway with Patrick on an icy winter’s night in New York came back to him. He remembered pausing with Patrick over a subway grate, both of them sighing as the warm, smelly air from the subway fluttered up the legs of their jeans and around their crotches, warming them for a moment before they continued on their way. They had laughed at how ridiculous it was to warm themselves over a subway; they stole a kiss outside the theatre as they waited for the interim of the show to end, rubbing noses in an Eskimo kiss, and smiled in their own private world. An involuntary smile flickered across James’ face, followed by sadness. Patrick wouldn’t even answer his calls now, or respond to simple emails.

Looking down at his arms, James started, realising that no one should be holding his hand. Worse, he could feel someone, something, still squeezing his hand in his pockets and snuggling up against him for warmth in the cold; snatching his hands out of his pockets, he panted in mild panic. He looked down at his hands: still a little ruddy from the cold, but otherwise normal. He needed sleep.

Reaching the bottom of the rue de Chambéry, James turned onto rue des Morillons and walked into the hostel, glad to get that walk over and done with. Feeling lazy, James took the elevator up to the fifth floor instead of walking. Stepping out of the elevator, James saw with surprise that Jean was sitting outside his room, his head in his hands and his shoulders quivering. Jean looked up, and there were two tears running down his face. Despite himself, James couldn’t help noticing how perfect his nose was—even, not too big or too small, and just the right size.

Jean stood up when he saw James, smiling wanly.

“They hit you,” James stated, rather than asked, in French, and sat down beside Jean.

Jean smiled again, a strange smile that spoke volumes without saying a word. 

“Voices echo down the corridors of eternity and you will be mine forever, young James of New York, you will be mine forever and you shall scream and dance as the flames of the darkest bowels of my inferno consume your immortal soul over and over again

A crescendo of echoing words burst into James’ head, licking tongues of flame and pain along his mind, terrifying him before dying back. Shaking his head, his heart still hammering from the shock, he wondered if the voices had even been there.

James turned back to Jean, who was looking at him as though going silent for several seconds and then shaking your head was just the most normal thing in the world to do. For a second, Jean’s eyes became transparent and James could see into his soul; it was black as the deepest coal mine, frothing and turning with angry, vexed demons shrieking and chanting and demanding flesh all the way down into the bottom of Jean’s evil evil, very very evil soul. James’ heart hammered at what he was seeing, terrifying him and freezing his blood all over again. But Jean’s eyes turned back to normal, and James realised he had just been hallucinating again. He needed sleep.

Jean, smiling that knowing smile, was watching James with curiosity. As James lost himself in his eyes, Jean moved his head forward, tilted to the side. Leaning in, he kissed James with soft lips. The kiss was a little bit too hard, Jean was pressing James’ lips against his teeth, but that was even more erotic—the humanity of Jean being a bad kisser was much more of a turn-on than the perfect Jean he had masturbated to. He kissed back with fervour, moving his tongue into Jean’s hot mouth. Their tongues met for an instant, pushing against each other and exploring shape, texture, taste; he could feel his palm pressing on the ground for support as he leant into the kiss.

James shifted his mouth, and felt Jean respond in kind; each mouth was massaging the other, hyper-sensitised erogenous zones fluttering. Pulling back for a second, he looked at Jean; a smile flickered across Jean’s face, revealing two rows of white teeth, the canines pointing down to his chest. He would love to rip off that too-tight shirt and… How was this happening so fast? The thought was quashed almost as soon as it slid across his mind: Jean was stunning, and James was damned if an average-looking guy like himself was going to turn down hot, sweaty sex with a guy like Jean just because it seemed to be moving too fast.

And where did that thought come from? Jean was never like this! Still kissing him, Jean stood up and, reaching down behind him, opened the door to James’ room; how did he do that? wondered James’ mind, you need a key-card to get in, but he brushed aside his trepidation and pushed Jean backwards into the room. The lights were out and James pushed Jean towards the bed. He moved towards the bed, pushing Jean ahead of him. He was still kissing him, kissing him so hard and Jean had moved to his ear and was nibbling on it and that was the luckiest ear in the world and James thought that he would die from the pleasurable sensations coursing down his body. As they moved onto the bed, James paused and said into the dark, without knowing why:

“You must have been so afraid.”

“Oui,” Jean replied, “j’avais tellement peur.” 
Moving to take Jean’s shirt off, button by button, James found that he couldn’t move his hands very well: it was like they were held down in cement. He realised that Jean was pinning him to the bed, in a vice-grip. He giggled, wondering if Jean was into rough-play. He reached up to kiss him again, and Jean slammed his head back into the pillow with such force that he was red and yellow stars for a second—just like in the cartoons.

As he stopped seeing stars, he saw four pairs of eyes glowing in the dark.

“Couteau,” said the first—Raphaël’s scratching voice, the gates to Hell slamming open.

Sang,” said the second—Christina’s high-pitched voice, nails across a blackboard.

Hurt-her,” said a third voice—Jean, the allure of an incubus.

Danielle’s laugh, more crow than human, sounded out in the darkness. With a lurch, the meaning of the word that, until now, had sounded like “hurt-her”, became clear.


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