keep smiling with great minutes
Volsie came out of me in a room at the Les Halles Citadines, from somewhere near the top of my left leg.
It was hot and soft, a lot of discrete masses like grapes, or the inflationary universes of the new cosmology. I got hold of it in my hands and struggled with it and pushed most of it back in. I had just that moment arrived–it was my first time in Paris–so I let the rest sink into the carpet and went straight out. I didn’t think much of it. That was my mistake.
Pere Lachaise cemetery, the Metro gate: a lunatic, bearded and dreadlocked, spun round and round at the top of the steps, raising his arms to bless us as we entered, while he recited an endless list of the fallen. “All those who failed to find the ashes of Max Ernst,” I heard him say, “in the columbarium in the year 2006. All those who failed to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde. All those who wandered about looking for Colette but found only Jim Morrison. All those who went to the wrong place.” It was hardcore rant, rich with the sheer physical sweat of a world being held together for the benefit of the tourists, with their unknowing souls and dormant sense of the relations between the spiritual and the spatial. “All those,” he concluded, as if only now testing the pivot of his argument, “who gave up, but later found a monument to the death commando at Buna Monowitz work camp, and couldn’t for once think of anything cheap to say (being instead silent).
“This song,” he told me, “is respectfully dedicated to all those who refused to sign the truce because it was written in the wrong colour ink.” Too late I understood that he was Volsie too, and so we wandered together in and out of the little unkempt tollbooths and wrought iron urinals of the many dead, up and down between the cobbled levels, dirt paths and exposed tree roots in the sunshine.
“What are you on ?” I said.
“You’ll find out,” Volsie said. “See that man there ?”
I said I saw him.
“Stepped on a grave this morning. Dead within the year.”
He looked ordinary enough to me. He looked like an American.
“Which grave was it ?” I said. “Out of interest.”
“Someone called Darjou, 1757 to 1843. But see the expression on his face ? Dead before August.”
I was puzzled by that: by what it meant for me. I went back to my Citadines apartment with its chic, nervous little kitchen and the special bed from under which a second bed slides suddenly and bangs your ankle. I listened all evening to the quiet yelps of laughter from down in the central courtyard.
You ask how it is that Volsie manifests as an episode of psychic piles one moment, a madman in a famous cemetery the next. You ask what its voice sounds like. Volsie will come out of you soon. It might be in the form of the oyster, it might be in the form of the pearl; it might come out of your mouth in the form of the Teratoma of Entitlement, a ball of dry Victorian-looking gristle, horsehair and compacted papiermache complete with a single eye from a species on the extinction list. You won’t ask questions after that. Answers will be the last thing you want. If you didn’t have bad teeth before, you will now. That cough will soon appear to be the worst thing that ever happened to you; the glaze of the eye–the passive eye of a dead seal, the button eye from a French teddy bear bought years ago by some old friend of the family–will encode all the information you need.
Next morning proceeded with fine rain. Paris rain, not enough to stop anyone going out but enough to soak them piss wet through in half an hour. I walked around. I began by crossing the river a few times, going the same way each time, over by the Pont des Arts and back across the Ile de la Cite, looking down at the tents of the homeless pitched along the bank. I took to the Seine on a sightseeing boat and watched the rain run down the curved viewing glass. I saw Concorde Square, I saw the Alexander III bridge, “the most luxurious bridge in Paris”; I saw the Eiffel Tower lurch abruptly out of its own fog. Arches of blue and yellow plastic flowers ran the whole length of the boat inside; also lines of fake lamp posts with dim lights behind bright orange glass. Right down the middle of the boat. What do you say about something like that ? I didn’t get it. I debarked cold, and had to have a calvados in a cafe near the Musee D’Orsay.
Volsie came out of me while I was there.
This time it came out from a bit higher, somewhere around the upper bowel, and slithered into my lap.
“I know how you feel,” it said. “You feel like an outsider, as if you ought to be living in a tent near the Pont-neuf.” I felt soaked. I felt odd to be sitting with all those purple grapelike universes inflated over my thighs as warm as a pet dog. “Not one of your contemporary lifestyle-choice outsiders either,” Volsie said. “Just some old bloke who can’t fit in.” There are those who believe Volsie is synonymous with death. Others associate him with any journey by train. He was with me in Paris and he was with me on the return journey, where he gurned up and down the aisles of the Eurostar in the guise of a food steward.
“All those,” he said, “who ate Ghent ham and Westland salad, all those who ate macaroon au chocolat noir. You never look me in the eye, but I piss in your mouth while you sleep and you taste it when you wake. Oh, don’t thank me, it’s what I do.” He pushed his face into the face of the woman sitting next to me across the aisle. She was reading the Sunday Times. “Watch this,” he said to me over his shoulder, before passing his face right through the paper and into hers: “They fall alseep like children, clutching their mobile phones.” The Sunday Times, he said, was a red top for people who thought they were special. He said, as if it was connected, “All that counts is the individual moment of suffering.” He said that everything else was ideology, hypocrisy, lies, claim and counter-claim, bullying and self-serving and pretending to be the victim: everything else was the financial news. “The only time people are human any more,” he said, “is in the moment of having their humanity taken away from them by other human beings. Being killed revalues your life, it’s a way of choosing dignity. Another thing,” he said, “I never saw a nuclear explosion I didn’t enjoy. You think that’s all over ? Think again.”
He showed me his own phone, black, rubber-coated, the size of a fox. By then we were in Waterloo.
“This is my stop,” I said.
Volsie walked me as far as the Dali statue. Then he got smaller and smaller across the polished concourse floor and went spinning into the crowd, like a dropped coin of small denomination no one bothers to pick up any more, off towards the Embankment. He was going to the Tate Modern. After that he was off to Clapham to undermine a reading group. I thought I’d got rid of him but I hadn’t. The next time I saw him it was three weeks later, in the Pret A Manger on Cranbourne Street W1. He was a thin man about sixty years old with cheeks hollowed by a fanaticism like the desert wind etc etc, and he was eating the All Day Breakfast with Free Range Mayo. He watched the women going to and fro along the pavement outside, up and down the kerbs, waiting at the junctions. It was Thursday lunchtime. After a while he put the All Day Breakfast down with an impatient sigh.
“You think you see the real world,” he said to me.
“You heard. You think you see the real world. But you don’t.”
I had a bite of my sandwich. He watched me with satisfaction, as if he was eating it himself. “Good,” he said. “Good!”
“There’s a world, then ?” I said. “Somewhere round here ?”
“A world, but not the real one. The real one would—” He shrugged. “I don’t say what the real one would do to you,” he concluded.
“How could I see the real one ?”
He shrugged. “It’s easier than you’d think,” he said. His watery blue eyes measured me. “In your case,” he said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Some are strong enough. Some aren’t.”
“I’m going to a get a pecan slice,” I said.
“Get me one, too,” Volsie said.
When I came back with the pecan slices he was looking out of the window again. I didn’t want to disturb him so I drank my mocha and unwrapped my pecan slice, which I ate in silence. After a while, he smiled to himself.
“Ask me another question,” he said, still looking out of the window.
I woke up this morning from the same old dream.
New Year’s Eve, I’m at someone’s house. It’s in Warwickshire. Snow falls on and off all evening. Every so often someone opens the curtains and reports, “It’s wet. It won’t settle.” Then at half past twelve, adults and children alike, everyone puts on their coat and boots and they run out into the village street. One three year old, rather bemused, wears her little Boden parka over her pyjamas. In the orange lamplight every snowflake rushes down to meet its own shadow. The sky shakes with fireworks from some other party, red, greeny-silver and a strange heavy blue, a blue too dark to be seen yet visible anyway just for this one night. Two inches of snow are on the ground. The parents can’t believe it; the children easily can. Christmas at last! They dance in the hallowed empty street. They throw snow at one another. I watch from the window with a woman I have just been introduced to, like me she’s up from London to see friends. We kneel on the leather sofa with our champagne glasses, looking out, saying things like, “This is amazing!” and, “Isn’t this amazing ?” We don’t know each other. We don’t even like each other much. But we can’t stop smiling and saying, “This never happens!” and, “I mean you couldn’t wish for more.”
You can’t wish for more than snow falling after midnight in the lamplight at the start of a new year, to structure the children’s expectations, remain as a memory, magic their lives forever. After that everyone goes safely home wrapped up in a suit of initials, SUV, BMW.
At the end of any dream Volsie comes out of you whether you welcome it or not. It flops down your leg or swells up under your arm. You find yourself at the foot of the stairs still half asleep. Volsie is half outside you, you are still all the way inside it. It is a condition. It is a space or state. You don’t have any further queries when you understand that. What a sight you’ve become. You look even worse without clothes than with them, some old desert man or woman with long hair and half focussed eyes, emaciated or running to fat, with spectacles or without, still reeling about under the impact of having once been born. It’s never any less than that. Some of us are just shocked and appalled to find ourselves alive. It keeps echoing on. For me that’s the meaning of it, anyway; for you, perhaps, it’ll be something else. There are those who equate Volsie with the conceptual motor of the empty heart, those who know him as lovely food and drink. They are not right but they are not wrong either.
Every time I travel into central London by tube, Volsie comes out and looks at the debt-servicing ads. He looks at the ad which tells you everything is possible. He looks at the ad that reassures you, Fly Business and be as cossetted, as protected, as the handsome, lone, powerful-looking wild animals in a conservation park, as if you are under threat when it is you that threatens everything else. “The strangest thing,” he says in a kind of gentle wonder, “is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten.”
He says, “’Keep smiling with great minutes’.”
Keep Smiling with Great Minutes is copyright M John Harrison 2008, & was originally published in Celebration, edited by Ian Whates.