INTERESTING TIMES 14: UNRULY TIMES ON AVENUE DE CLICHY

By Andrew Maben

VasarelyMPHBy about three in the afternoon we had reached Amiens, and after trudging from the centre of town finally found ourselves back on the side of the main Paris road. Traffic was sparse, no one seemed inclined to even slow down for us, except for one car that passed us at a crawl, the two men inside staring hard. Momentarily our hopes rose, but the car kept on going, only to pull over and stop some hundred yards or so up the road.

We looked at each other. We looked at the parked car. For a good five minutes nothing happened, but then the vehicle began to reverse slowly towards us. It was hardly a surprise when the passenger got out and flashed a police badge.

“Where are you going?”

“Paris.”

“Get in the car, please, we’d like you to come with us to the police station.”

What a drag! At best we’d waste time and certainly not get back on the road before dark, and at worst… Well, Roger had a hundred hits of acid on him…

Once at the cop-shop our escorts showed us into a squad room, where we were greeted with a light barrage of jocular comments on our appearance. Perhaps I should mention that we were dressed just a little flamboyantly? Roger had on his blue toreador’s suit of lights over a shirt with an elaborate ruffle. I was wearing my turquoise satin blouse, pink crushed-velvet bell-bottoms and salmon pink velvet coat. Both of us with dark eye-liner and mascara…

“We’re not arresting you,” explained one of the plain clothes cops. “We’d just like to take your photographs to add to our collection. Come this way, please.”

Accompanied by three or four other flics we followed him to the photo room. One whole wall was covered with photographs, a decidedly eclectic array of clochards, ne’er-do-wells, whores, petty criminals and rapscallions of every stripe, men and women whose looks ranged from an air of angelic blond innocence to visages twisted into caricatures of villainy. It felt a rare honour to be included in such company…

“Before we take your pictures, I suppose we ought to search you.”

As I stepped forward I caught Roger’s eye and saw him slip a hand into a pocket – that old speed telepathy was still in full working order…

One of the cops gave me a perfunctory pat-down, accompanied by more jocular comments on my sartorial choices.

“OK.” He dismissed me.

Rog stepped forward and as we passed, he slipped the little packet of trips to me. None of the cops noticed, but that may well have been because they simply didn’t care. I remembered  Jean telling me of being stopped in the Latin Quarter during the évenements of May ’68 with 50 grams of hash in his pocket and being sent on his way with, “C’est pas un flingue, on s’en fout, alors. Rentre, donc, et défonce toi bien.”

Once Roger had been “searched”, everyone piled back into the squad room, where we were subjected to a few more minutes of police humour before being turned out onto the now dark streets…

We finally arrived at the Place St. Michel around four in the morning. The celebrations were over and the streets all but deserted. We felt lucky to find an open café where we could get a cup of coffee…

Try as I might, I find I’m utterly unable to recall where we stayed for the first few days, weeks, months of 1970. Naturally I had been to visit Jean, but his mother told me he was in India and unlikely to return before spring. Michéle came back to Paris soon after our arrival, so I suppose she may have been able to arrange something. Certainly she and Roger embarked upon what was to become a long-term relationship.

Françoise, too, was back in Paris. At a clinic for an abortion, Michéle informed me. Foolish youth! I took myself, armed with a large bouquet, to her bedside, where she greeted me with a tired, sardonic smile, which effectively dissolved my hothouse fantasies of endless steamy nights together. Eventually I took myself off, never to see her again…

The family had seen little of Adrian, Dad’s son from his previous marriage, through our childhood, though there had been news from time to time. After university he had attended the Rome Film School, then somehow landed the plum job of assistant director on Truffaut’sFahrenheit 451, and was living in Paris, so I got in touch. When I asked if perhaps he could help me find some kind of job in the film industry, he rather haughtily informed me, “I don’t believe in nepotism.” He went on to ask if there was any music happening in England that I felt would be a good subject for a film. Unhesitatingly I told him to go and see Pink Floyd… And in the end he did find me a wonderful job, that naturally I fucked up in the end.

Atelier Arcay was a first-rate fine art silk-screen printers, whose main client at the time was Vasarely, star of the popular Op Art movement. The premises were spotless, my co-workers diligent and supportive. I began with retouching Vasarely prints. The actual printing was mechanised, and for the most part very accurate. But not always quite accurate enough to meet the artist’s exacting standards. The retouchers’ job was to carefully mix inks to match the colours in the print and then correct tiny misalignments using a draughting pen. It was hard on the eyes to stare all day at all those brilliant complimentary colours which seemed to flicker and dance – an effect surely exacerbated by the fact that, as usual, I was pretty much constantly high on hashish.

Some weeks after my arrival at the studio, Vasarely himself paid us a visit to select and sign prints from the edition we had been working on. He swept magisterially through the door, wearing a splendid floor-length fur coat, a gorgeous woman on each arm and with two Afghan hounds. Champagne was served, and the master took a seat at a large work table. One by one the prints were presented for his inspection. Those that failed to pass muster were dismissed with a disdainful flick of the wrist, but if deemed good enough elicited a graceful sweep of the hand and would be respectfully lain on the table for him to sign with a flourish. I have often regretted not having rescued one or two of the “failures” from the rubbish bins outside…

Now that the print run was over, I was set to work cleaning screens. This proved to be my undoing. The method consisted in vigorously rubbing the silk with soft rags soaked in ether to remove the masking medium. No doubt the fumes would have had their effect simply from working in an enclosed space at such close proximity. But of course that was not enough for me with my taste for experiment, and I took to holding every fourth or fifth ether-replenished cloth over my nose and mouth and inhaling deeply… I can’t possibly surpass Dr. Thompson’s description of the effects, so I won’t even try:

“It makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel. Total loss of all basic motor function. Blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. Which is interesting because you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.”

Well, yes.

I am quite sure that you will not be the least surprised to hear that this indulgence severely hampered my ability to complete assigned tasks within the allotted time, or indeed within anything remotely approaching a reasonable time… So it was that I found myself facing a regretful M. Arcay informing me that he found that he was no longer in a position to avail himself of my services.

I still have no idea where exactly, but by now I had found some kind of accommodation in Montparnasse and was making a little cash dealing hash. Spring was making its first tentative appearance when once more I took the metro up to Brochant and knocked on the door chez Jean.

“Oh, yes, he got back a couple of weeks ago,” his mother told me. “He’s living with his girlfriend,” and gave me an address on Avenue Charles de Gaulle, close to Les Sablons metro station, out towards Neuilly. A girlfriend? That was something of a surprise, in all the time I had known him I had never seen Jean with a girl, or even heard him talk about girls in general, or any girl in particular.

Within the hour I was ringing the intercom at the front door of a rather impressive apartment building. A woman’s voice answered.

“Who is it?”

“I’m looking for Jean..?”

“Oh yes, come in, come in. Take the lift to the third floor.”

When the lift arrived, Jean was standing before an open door. We embraced and he showed me in.

“This is, Josette,” indicating a striking middle-aged woman, who smiled and graciously shook my hand.

“And this is Brigitte.”

She was one of the loveliest girls I’d ever met – to describe her as a gentler Faye Dunaway does not really do her justice, but perhaps will give you some idea. I fell more than half-way in love at first sight, though for years I did my best to keep my infatuation hidden.

“Come,” said Jean, and the three of us went to the room he and Brigitte shared, to smoke a celebratory joint of the very fine Afghan hash that they had brought back from their journey. I was envious and enthralled as he described hitching across Europe, through Turkey and Iran to Afghanistan and on to Kashmir, where they had lived on a Srinagar houseboat. How different the world back then…

Later in the afternoon Josette’s husband Hubert came home from work – I never did find out what kind of work – and Brigitte’s little sister Nanou came home from school. I was invited to stay for dinner and sat through what I came to see was something of a family ritual. All was affability over soup, then as the main course was served some point of contention would be raised, battle-lines drawn and a shouting match would ensue between two camps (whose membership would vary from day to day, topic to topic). Then the animosity would fade away and by the time cheese and coffee were served everyone would be friends again. In the early days of my acquaintance with la famille Salisbury, I would squirm embarrassedly, eyes downcast, through these altercations, but when I realised that there was never the least rancour in their aftermath I began to join in enthusiastically. I found these dinners invigorating and liberating, a stark contrast to our English affairs, where a flare-up of tempers would be followed by days of simmering resentment…

“Come back in the morning and I’ll take you to visit some people I think you’d like to meet.”

So next morning Jean, Brigitte and I took the metro up to La Fourche and walked a short way down the Avenue de Clichy, into a building and up a couple of flights of stairs. Jean knocked at a door.

A blonde, be-spectacled English girl opened the door.

“Hello, Jean, Brigitte,” she smiled, and glancing at me, invited us in.

“Sarah, this is Andrew.”

For the next couple of months I found myself spending a lot of time at what I always thought of as Sarah’s place, though there was always a bewildering international variety of people to be found there. After a while I’d worked out that the flat was rented by Sarah and her friends Joanna and Caroline, studying in Paris for a year. The English contingent also included Joanna’s boyfriend Fionn, and Joe and Alan, also students who may in fact have had their own place but seemed to be pretty much permanent fixtures. The French were represented by Alan’s friend Christian, a French student with a deep interest in mysticism, and Michel, a delightfully arrogant fellow taking a master’s in English at the Sorbonne, who were frequent visitors, and Patrice, Sarah’s boyfriend, an artist who worked as a house painter, as well as Jean and Le Dorze. Finally the Americans: Betty, a very fat, very cheerful girl from Chicago, and Howie and Joey, New York dope dealers who would stay whenever they were in town… And then there was Captain jimmy, but more on him later…

Wherever it may have been that I was sleeping in Montparnasse – some wretched top-floor piaule, I imagine – I settled into a fairly steady routine of walking across town each morning to Sarah’s, where I’d spend the day smoking and eating the snacks that they were too kind not to offer me. Somehow I’d fallen into a habit – born of some misplaced notion of cool – of reducing my conversational contributions to an affectedly drawled “Cr-a-zy…” It is a testament to the tolerance of all concerned that they not only put up with this pretension and my endless sponging, but actually welcomed me into their circle. Then I’d walk back, usually late at night.

One evening, very late, I was wandering the streets around the Gare Monparnasse when I encountered a group of young Poles congregated in a doorway. They invited me to join them and we all went upstairs together to someone’s flat where we spent the entire night drunken prodigious quantities of Polish vodka. My memories of the night are hazy at best, but there was a very attractive redhead and an early morning trip on the metro…

I still went everywhere with a sketchbook in my bag in which I jotted sketches and poems, but it was not until years later that I wrote:

Polonaise

I remember, suddenly:

Paris – so long ago –

Walking the cold streets

Of loneliness;

The company of exiles;

Soft red hair,

A tender smile,

and shy green eyes.

And poems and vodka.

I remember, sadly now,

Another’s drunken kisses

On the metro,

And angry words.

I remember –

And still it rends my heart –

Soft red hair,

A bitter smile,

And sad green eyes.

I wonder now – years later –

Walking, once again,

The sad streets of loneliness,

How often

Loneliness has chosen

Drunken kisses,

Afraid to reach out

For love.

And it was on another night that I had my first, last and only deliberate homosexual encounter. I’d walked down the Avenue and was crossing the Place de Clichy when I was approached by two youngish Arabs wondering if I’d be willing to offer them both my sexual favours for cash. My first inclination was to refuse, but to my surprise I found myself experiencing a tingle of sexual arousal, and that, along with my perennial penury, and a certain curiosity, led me to agree. We found an open doorway on the south side of the square, and within, another door that opened into a broom-cupboard – I suppose in fact they must already have been familiar with the locale. I stepped into the cupboard with the first of the two, who indicated that I should pull down my trousers. So with my jeans and pants around my knees he got behind me. I could feel his hands on my hips, pulling me backwards, and then the heat of his prick poking and thrusting between my cheeks, probing unsuccessfully for my anus. Then, within seconds, a hot sticky wetness…

“OK, wait. My friend comes now,” as he buttoned his trousers.

And out he went. I stood for a few moments, bum out in the chilly air, his sperm trickling coldly down a thigh, and feeling rather ridiculous, until it dawned on me that the other guy wasn’t coming. Luckily there were some rags and cloths on a shelf and I managed to wipe myself more or less clean. And yes, you’re right, I was so naive that I hadn’t even asked to be paid in advance… Oh well, never again.

As well as Sarah’s, I visited Patrice from time to time with Jean and Le Dorze. Both of them were indulging rather heavily in heroin by now, which Jean seemed to tolerate reasonably well, but it was obvious that Patrique was becoming an irredeemable junkie. They’d usually offer to turn me on, but I would always refuse. At this point hash, acid if I could get hold of it, and various pills were enough for me.

Speaking of “various pills”, one day someone, I think it was Christian, offered me a couple of pills that he claimed were some kind of heart medicine, but with hallucinatory side-effects. I was also still in touch with Rog and Michéle and a few of their friends, and after taking the pills I set off to visit some people who had a flat near La République. I arrived at the building, and as I crossed the courtyard a fire-hydrant in the corner transformed itself into a friendly little dragon that smiled at me as I passed. Once upstairs, I found no one at home, but they’d shown me where they kept the key and I let myself in. I settled in front of their black and white TV and watched a programme in colour and in English – hell, for all I know the damn’ thing might not have even been turned on. Later I was engaged in an intense conversation with several people, who, Michéle’s friends informed me when they finally came home, were not in fact there… Some years later I discovered that I had taken a dose that was just a few milligrams short of fatal. Hey, ho…

And then there was Howie’s wager. He and his partner Joey had a thriving business bringing sheets of blotter acid from New York that they would sell. With the proceeds they would then buy hash, that they carefully concealed in boxes of chocolate to take back and sell in New York. (The memory of those boxes of chocolates afforded me the only amusement at that intolerably smug movie Forrest Gump). Anyway, one morning Howie accosted me in the hall.

“Listen, Andrew, I know you like acid. I have a proposition for you. I had a sheet of a hundred trips that I hid in a pair of Y-fronts and I put them in the washing machine by mistake. I pulled them out right away, but the sheet was wet and the dots had all run. So. There may be nothing there, it may all still be there, but if you’ll eat the whole sheet, now, you can have it.”

“Cr-a-zy.”

So he handed me the still-damp sheet, I chewed it up and swallowed it down. I really did not expect anything from it. As it happened, I was supposed to meet Michéle for lunch, but as I was about to leave there was a joint going around in the living room.

“Come and have some, Andrew. It’s pretty good stuff.” So I did. And it was.

Five or ten minutes later I was walking down the Avenue to catch the metro at Place de Clichy. Whoa, that was some pretty strong hash, I thought to myself. A few yards further on: no, there’s no hash that’s thisstrong, the acid must be coming on. Oh well, I’m sure it won’t get much stronger.

Down the stairs to the platform to wait for a train. I was blazing nicely by now, but holding it together. The train arrived. I got on board. We pulled out of the station. I glanced around the carriage. There was not a single person on the train, just zoo animals dressed up as people! No, this was a little more than I could handle. At the next station I left the train. Rather than simply cross to the opposite platform and catch a train straight back, in order to avoid suspicion I took a triangular route via the Gare St. Lazare, and then walked back to the flat by way of back-streets.

Sarah opened the door and took one look.

“Andrew, you’re back. The acid came on then?”

“Ng. Uh.” I nodded.

“Well come in then”, she smiled.

Now, at the best of times I’ve always found it hard to talk when I’m tripping, but on this occasion I was quite literally struck dumb. I could make out what people were saying, but was utterly incapable of vocalising any coherent response. They sat me down at the kitchen table. I think Hendrix was on the record player, in any event I became transfixed by the kitchen wall, where I was treated to a vision of “Jupiter’s sulphur mines, way down by the Methane Sea”…

Betty bent over me.

“Are you alright.”

I nodded. Yes, I was fine. Very fine.

“I think he might be going too far,” I heard someone say.

I shook my head. In vain.

Someone else, “I’ve got some nembutal.”

Some part of me was quite certain that what was coming was not a good idea.

But, “Open your mouth.” Someone popped in a couple of capsules.

“OK. Now have a drink of water.” I took the glass and had a good swallow…

Yeah, I was right. Not the greatest idea. A few minutes later I was kneeling in front of the toilet bowl, puking in technicolour and at least four dimensions. Then I passed out cold…

I suppose I have to talk about Captain Jimmy now, as he’s going to be fairly prominent for the next few pages. I first had the rather dubious pleasure of meeting him one evening soon after I’d first started visiting the Avenue de Clichy flat. He showed up at the door and joined us in the living room, casting an immediate pall over the atmosphere. It’s a bit of a mystery why his presence was ever tolerated, as nobody seemed to actually like him. But for whatever reason there he was, a looming and subtly threatening presence, exuding false bonhomie and dominating the conversation. His hands were crooked claws, his face a twisted mask of scar tissue, which he seemed to wear with a perverse pride, and he’d not been long in the room before he stood and took off his shirt to reveal a torso equally disfigured. His story was that he’d been a BOAC pilot and through some egregious error of judgement had managed to crash on take-off at Heathrow. The plane had become a ball of fire in which all the passengers and other members of the crew had perished, while miraculously he was the sole survivor, albeit with a body engulfed in third and fourth degree burns. His apparent pride in his part in this disaster has never ceased to astonish me, and he spoke of the inquiry which followed, and which he claimed had found him solely responsible, with an offhanded air astounding in its callousness. If in fact the story was true. I was sceptical at the time, and have not been able to find any reference to such an accident, though I suppose there’s a possibility that he was a passenger on BOAC flight 712 in April 1968, in which 38 passengers had been injured. He also claimed that whilst serving with BOAC he had been kingpin in a gold smuggling ring centred in Delhi. Whatever the truth of his antecedents may have been, he was now running a sleazy student travel company with an office near Les Halles, where Christian had found part-time employment. It was this connection that had brought him into our orbit…

Jimmy did not reappear for some weeks, until one evening he arrived and announced that he would be going to Morocco in a few days, and wondering if any of us would like to join him for the trip, which he would be making in his VW mini-bus. He left saying he’d be back the night before departing to find out who would be coming.

In the end five of us decided to go: Fionn and Joanna, Christian, Sarah and me. As promised, Jimmy returned a few nights later to tell us he would pick us up at eleven the next morning. The drive south on the autoroute was uneventful, and we continued into the night as Jimmy gobbled handful of his nasty Spanish over-the-counter amphetamines. He was reluctant to cross the border on the main Perpignan to Barcelona road, and we took a wide detour to the west and through the Pyrenees. The guards at the tiny posts that we reached just before dawn were tired and bored and waved us through without incident.

A few miles down the road we passed a hand-painted sign “BAR”, and soon came across a small stone building beside the road.

“Let’s get some coffee,” said Jimmy, pulling into the small gravel parking area. Christian and Sarah were asleep in the back, but the rest of us went in.

The bar was tiny, with no room for even a single table, in fact there was scarcely room the four of us and the one customer who stood leaning on the bar, chatting with the landlord.

We ordered coffee, Jimmy also asking for a brandy, presumably to mitigate the effects of the speed. While we waited, Fionn and I continued a conversation about politics that had been going off and on for days. When Fionn spoke the word anarchism, he old man at the bar drew himself up straight and beamed.

¿Anarqista?” he asked, reaching out to shake Fionn’s hand, then mine.

Si, si,” we agreed, at which he launched into a lengthy speech. Fionn spoke fluent Spanish, as his family had longstanding ties to the country and he had spent many of his childhood holidays there. As the old man finished, he smiled and nodded at me. Fionn offered a translation: he had been a worker and member of CNT/FAI and had fought in the streets of Barcelona during the civil war. With the defeat of the Republic, the Falange had put a price on his head and he had taken refuge in the mountains, eking a living as a goatherd, protected by the silence of the people from the universally detested Guardia Civil. Grinning now, he said a few more words and concluded with a rousing “¡Viva la Revolución!“, enthusiastically echoed by the bartender Fionn and me. When the time came to leave he embraced each of us and offered a firm handshake…

A few miles further on, Jimmy pulled off the road, saying he needed a few hours sleep.

“Does anyone have anything to smoke?” None of us did, so he rummaged under his seat and pulled out a bag of seeds, some of which he proceeded to grind up and roll into a joint. None of us was interested so we left him to smoke it alone where he lay on a blanket in the shade of the van. We were parked at the head of a rocky arroyo and wandered off to explore. As was becoming more and more usual, I struck off on my own. As the path wound down the mountain it opened to a view of a lovely little hidden valley, brilliant green against the browns and yellows of the hillsides that enclosed it. Coming upon a small tor, I started to climb, hoping for a better view from its summit. But about halfway up, as I pulled myself up onto a ledge I found myself face to face with a large snake that gave every impression of being as annoyed by my intrusion as I was alarmed by its presence. I made an undignified scramble to the ground and back to the van…

Night was falling when we reached Barcelona, where we stopped to stretch our legs on the Ramblas. In a café we ran into a group of hippies who asked us to join their table. One of them claimed to be a guest at Dalí’s house.

“I’m sure he’d like you,” he informed me. “Why don’t you come stay for a few weeks?” But I demurred.

“No, I think I’ll stay together with my friends. Sometimes I wonder what I may have missed…

Soon we were on our way out of town, pausing only to buy fresh-cookedcalamares from a roadside stand. And on into the night. We skirted Valencia and after consulting his map Jimmy fancied that he had found a short-cut throughout the mountains to Almeria.

I must have fallen asleep at some point during the night, and awoke to find the sun already high in the sky. Jimmy seemed just a little irritated. We were driving on a very minor road, and every few miles he would pull over to the side and angrily peer at the map. It was pretty obvious that we were well and truly lost. It was equally obvious that it would be dangerous to suggest such a thing to Jimmy, and anyhow none of us would have been able to offer any useful solution to our situation. So onwards we went, until the road we were navigating devolved to gravel and then bare dirt, eventually petering out into two ruts disappearing into a pasture, steeply sloping, sun-scorched and sparse, in which a few skinny sheep were morosely grazing. Jimmy finally conceded defeat, turned off the engine, pulled on the hand-brake and climbed down, map and a pair of binoculars in hand. Fionn, Christian and I joined him.

“I don’t know where the fuck we are.” The four of us pored over the map, trying to reconstruct the route we had taken, and to triangulate our position in relation to distant mountain tops. Far below us in the valley Jimmy espied what might have been a road hidden in an avenue of trees. He poked a finger at the map. Yes, there was a valley, and yes, a road ran through it leading in the general direction of Almeria.

“That’s where we should be.”

Unfortunately the map offered no indication whatever of the “road ” we were on, and only the most circuitous of routes leading from where we guessed our location to be.

“Fuck it,” announced Jimmy, “we’ll just have to drive down the hill.” We shared alarmed looks – it was a very steep hill. But there was nothing to be gained from raising any cautious objections, except to become targets of Jimmy’s ire.

We piled back into the van, Jimmy started the engine and we plunged down the hillside, scattering sheep. Somehow we reached the bottom without coming to grief, bouncing from tussock to gully, the engine screaming, Sarah and Joanna stifling their screams…

Finding a gap in the scrub hedge, we emerged onto a deeply rutted lane. The ruts were so deep, and so widely spaced, that it was impossible to drive with the wheels at the same level, and the vehicle was canted to such a degree that Jimmy commanded us to all sit on one side to keep the van from tipping over. Astonishingly, after a kilometre or so the lane gave onto a narrow paved road. Still more astonishingly, this road proved to be the one that Jimmy had identified on the map.

Jimmy’s plan had been to catch the evening ferry from Malaga, but the “short cut” had cost so much time that that was now impossible, so he announced that he was going to spend the night in a hotel, and Sarah and Christian opted to go with him. I preferred to spend the night on the beach, Joanna and Fionn said they’d join me. We all agreed to meet up on the dock about an hour before the departure of the first ferry in the morning.

As we were walking to the beach on the outskirts of town, Fionn told me that he had a few hits of Howie’s acid and invited me to join them. We found a relatively secluded spot and settled back to enjoy the show. A full moon glowed over the glittering Mediterranean, the gentlest of waves lapped the shore…

It must have been around three in the morning when Fionn pointed out two figures far down the beach headed our way. As they came closer we could make out that they were Guardia Civil, with their distinctive patent leather hats, rifles slung on their shoulders. We made ourselves as inconspicuous as we could, but concealment was out of the question and moments later we were confronted by two young policemen, nervous and angry and not the least friendly.

“The beach is forbidden at night,” one snapped, “we shall have to arrest you.”

Fionn quickly translated then turned back to the cops and embarked on a lengthy speech. Gradually their attitude seemed to soften, and before long the confrontation had become a friendly conversation, punctuated with smiles, occasional ripples of laughter. Then, with Fionn translating, I had to give them an explanation of my bizarre clothing choices, which was a source of still more hilarity.

Next, and who knows how this came about, they were at attention in front of us and demonstrating their parade-ground rifle drill.

Foolishly, no doubt, but hey, I was tripping, I was on my feet reaching for a rifle. They both stepped back and one pounded his gun at my chest.

“What the fuck are you doing?” asked Fionn.

I explained that I’d been a cadet and wanted to demonstrate the English drill: port arms; shoulder arms; present arms. The initial reaction was outright refusal, but Fionn spoke again and moments later, there I was, certainly a bizarre figure in my ragged hippy finery, rifle in hand going through the British army’s parade drill.

The two of them stayed another half-hour or so, shared some wine and griped about the interruption of conscription and the hardships of barracks life, finally departing with handshakes, embraces and promises of eternal fealty…

When we reconvened on the dock, it was to find a couple of awnings close to the gangplank under which a number of men, most in uniform, sat at folding tables. It seems that Morocco was so inundated with hippies, and the ferry company fed up with bringing back those who’d been refused entry, that the Moroccan customs and immigration office had set up shop here in Spain. Within full view, our tatterdemalion crew made somewhat pointless efforts to make ourselves presentable with conservative shirts or dresses, long hair in pony tails inside shirts. Oddly enough, all to no avail. All of us except Jimmy were turned away. A very brief conference ensued, and there was some talk of continuing south to Algeciras, but as it seemed all but certain that we’d face the same down there, and it was even further from Paris, we opted to hitch-hike back. And so we left Jimmy on the dock…

Christian and Sarah paired up for the journey, and I went with Joanna and Fionn. First stop Madrid, where Joanna’s sister Mia had a flat, and where she said we’d be welcome to spend a night or two.

Hitching went remarkably well, and by late afternoon we were on the uncannily quiet streets of Madrid. We drove past what Fionn told us was the entrance to the University, blocked by a pair of tanks. Sarah and Christian had already arrived, so we all went down to the café at the entrance to Mia’s apartments for a superb cup of hot chocolate, so thick it was almost hot chocolate pudding. As the city was under curfew because of anti-Franco unrest at the University, and most shops and museums were closed, we decided to continue on in the morning. That evening Fionn and I went with a friend of Mia’s in search of hash. Our soft footfall echoed quietly in the deserted streets. Headlights and the sound of an approaching vehicle. We ducked into the shadows of a doorway until the jeep had passed. I spun fantasies of the French Resistance…

The next night around midnight, the driver we were with pulled into a roadside in that suddenly loomed amid the empty plain. He treated us to coffee, and as we sat sipping an unremarkable looking middle-aged woman climbed onto a table, amid sporadic applause. The whole room hushed as she began to sing. A meandering, sometimes strident melody, words evidently heart-felt, and uttered with naked passion. On the song went, and on, for fully ten minutes or more, ending with a final searing, soaring wail…

In the middle of the night in Andorra we spotted Christian and Sarah at a petrol station. As we walked to the border with France, Christian told of a mountain-ringed valley not far from here where the last of the Cathars had suffered their martyrdom, as fires were set at the holy caves where they had taken refuge, and then the caves’ mouths walled in so that any survivors must starve. Of course we all agreed to make the small detour.

The valley once held a lake behind a massive natural dam, the caves had ringed its shores. A friendly farmer gave permission to sleep in one of his fields, and as we lay gazing up at the stars beyond the valley’s mountain rim, Christian outlined the history of the Cathars and their teachings. He told of a communal and moneyless agricultural economy throughout the Pays d’Oc, guided by Cathar wisdom; of a king’s jealousy of a region’s wealth that escaped his tax-collectors; of a Pope’s collusion in a purely economic and political military intervention masked as a crusade against heresy; a vicious war of plunder and rapine waged against a peaceful population; how priests and citizens had been thrown from the battlements of Carcassonne and Monségur to perish on the rocks below; and of the final massacres of the caves.

We rose at dawn and after coffee brewed on Christian’s camping stove we each dropped a hit of acid. We climbed the valley’s side as it rose towards a distant ridge that marked the shore of the ancient lake. The air was cooler and clear, the stillness so complete that we could hear birdsong and conversation from the village far below as clearly as if we were standing on the main street. Easy to imagine the lake spread before us, coracles perhaps, or boats, plying between the communities on each bank, the setting more glorious than any cathedral.

The caves we entered at first were unspectacular, large sand-floored tunnels marked with old limestone formations, but Christian led us to a small opening low on one wall and we crawled through one by one to find ourselves within an upturned bowl of rock. The silence was complete, and the only light a faint glow from the entrance tunnel. Once back at the lake shore we climbed a steep path to a small ledge some twenty feet up the cliff face. At the back of the ledge was the entrance to a natural chute sloping down into the mountain at a steep angle and leading into impenetrable darkness. This, Christian informed us, was Le Diable. I imagined the chute opening onto a precipitous fall onto rocks where our broken bodies would lie dying, or perhaps worse an insoluble maze where we would stumble blindly until we perished, mad with thirst and hunger…

“Come on,” said Christian, and slid away to disappear in the darkness. I braced for his scream, but we soon a cheerful call of, “Who’s next?”

The tunnel did indeed end with empty blackness, and, even knowing that it was safe, I felt fear clutch my stomach as I dropped into empty space, only to land on soft sand after a fall of just a couple of feet. There was indeed something of a maze, caves branching to left and right from the route that Christian guided us on, to re-emerge into the brilliant sunshine…

We spent that night at a communal farm north of Toulouse, again courtesy of Christian, then set off for the final leg to Paris. An uneventful journey whose only highlight was the passage of an army convoy, conscripts calling and waving from the back of the trucks. Someone threw something that narrowly missed my head, but my shout of anger was cut short when I realised that the projectile was in fact an unopened packet of Gauloises…

Captain Jimmy kept coming back to the apartment on Avenue de Clichy. No one could figure him out.

One day we were sitting around as usual – music playing, joints passing, Howie manic in the back room turning a kilo of hash into a box of chocolates. The doorbell rang. Someone went to answer it, and moments later in slid Jimmy. Instantly, as usual, the atmosphere turned stiff and cold.

“Hello, everyone.”

“Hello, Jimmy.” Unenthusiastic, at best, but Jimmy was never one to notice, or if he noticed, to care. He sat himself down in a chair with graceless ease, took the joint that someone passed him and sat back with a stiff casual smile. I guess it’s hard to relax when your body is one huge scar, but whatever the reason, his presence was always unsettling.

“Look, I have to drive down to Montpellier tomorrow. I’ll be coming back the next day, and I was just wondering if anybody wanted to come along for the ride?”

A chorus of mumbles, hesitant shrugs. Finally Merry, a girl who’d just arrived at the apartment, says she’d like to go.

Sarah asked me to help her make some coffee. As soon as we got to the kitchen she turned to me.

“Listen, Andrew, we can’t let her go on her own with Jimmy. Why don’t you go too? It’s only a couple of days, after all.”

Well, she does have a point. Besides the fact that everyone – me included – is sort of wondering what I’m doing in Paris…

So when we took the coffee in: “Hey, Jimmy, O.K. if I come too?”

So it was arranged: 2:00 am departure andJimmy split for a while.

While he was gone, Jean and Patrick showed up. I told them of tomorrow’s trip.

“Listen,” said Jean, “I know you always say no, but if you’re ever going to try it, now’s the time. This shit is fresh from Marseilles.” That’s right, from the infamous French Connection…

I did put up a token resistance, but it wasn’t long until I was rolling up my sleeve. Le Dorze bound my arm with a tourniquet, and Jean gently pushed the needle into the bulging vein in the crook of my arm. “Veins like this shouldn’t go to waste,” he smiled, as a little red rose of blood bloomed in the neck of the syringe. Patrick loosened the tie and Jean slowly pushed the plunger home. An ineffable glow, warm but without heat, spread from a somehow luxurious tightening of the stomach. Though not in itself pleasure, I was bathed in an absence of pain, a nullification of the very possibility of pain, that surpassed any pleasure… “Just this once,” I impotently promised in some still-sane corner of my mind… Patrick went out to wash the syringe, that he then slipped into my bag.

Jimmy returned around eleven o’clock with some cheap Spanish speed and a bottle of wine.

“It’s kind of rough,” – oh yeah, don’t I remember just how rough – “but four or five give you a bit of a buzz. And the wine softens it up. A bit.”

After a while two o’clock came around, and the three of us skittered down to the van. Merry in the middle, Jimmy at the wheel, we hit the road… picked up a hitchhiker on the outskirts of Paris… driving, talking, watching the lights, bug-eyed… The hitchhiker curled up asleep in the back. Jimmy clinging to the wheel. and the music playing loud.

Just another night ride…

The sky began to lighten at last, the way it does: pink, violet, orange, blue.

Jimmy was yammering on about some scheme or other. Jefferson Airplane – “Volunteers of America” – on the soundtrack. Flat country, green, a few trees. The road stretching straight, four lanes, divided, a four meter embankment.

“…on the back seat there. There’s a form I have to fill out.”

Merry turned. Kneeling, she started poking around the back seat strewn with papers…

Not fast enough for Jimmy.

“It’s right THERE!”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Help her find it, it’s right there on top – a contract form…” yack…

So I turned around too. A confusion of papers, none of which looked like an obvious candidate.

I began to try to gather them together so as to be able to go through them methodically. Nothing like quick enough for Jimmy, who turned around also, to be stupefied by the inscrutable shambles…

“Wait a minute,” I wondered, “who’s driving?”

No one was watching where we were going. Not the optimum procedure at 120 kph…

I turned to the front.

“We’re going off the road!” I shouted.

The wheel beneath my feet went over the embankment…

Adrenaline. Flooding my head with calm terror. Time slowed… Or began happening in several places at once… Death grinned…

Jimmy wrenched at the wheel as we lurched over onto the slope of the embankment, trying to turn back onto the road…

“No. No, nooooooo…” I shouted. Another massive jolt of adrenaline as the wheels left the ground turned shout into scream, even as my mind disassociated itself from my body…

The calm certainty of death.

How beautiful the morning sky.

Calculating: the part of a rolling body in contact with the ground is not moving, so if I go through the window when the van’s on its side, I should be left lying on the ground as the van rolls on…

Still screaming.

Again, how beautiful: the view in front of me turns milky, a fine tracery of bright lines, pink and powder blue, dissects the whiteness; the lines join, intersect, thicken, finally eliminate the milky opacity and the dawn sky reappears. Extraordinarily beautiful…

Now! Now is the moment to move!

“PLEASE LET ME LIVE!”

An overwhelming pulse of life sweeps over me, and all is black…

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