The Aquarium. Part 2. Exposition Coloniale Internationale
Francis Sheldon Snr had supplied his son with a bundle of French francs and told him to find himself a decent hotel, something you can see your mother in.
His mother was dead.
But since her death, in trying to envisage a different life for her, one away from his father, Njord had often imagined his mother a whore, plying the crepuscular streets of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, and so fifty minutes after he arrived in Paris he found himself in an area called Pigalle.
A seedier place he couldn’t have invented.
The hotel he finally chose was named L’Amour. There were red curtains in all the windows, a man with no legs outside on a wooden trolley, and a landlady whose hair was stacked up to resemble the colossal iron building he had seen dominating the skyline.
After he had attempted his schoolboy French, he would like la chambre for une semaine, she had chucked him under the chin, asked him where his beard was, and told him, in perfect English, that the hotel was the kind of place where ladies of the streets brought their tricks for one hour at a time but as he had such a handsome face he might be good for business and for him she would make an exception.
The room was in the attic.
It had a narrow iron bedstead with stained sheets. There was a crusty chamber pot, a greasy armchair, and pictures on the walls depicting scenes from the French colonies; a portrait of French explorer Colonel Parfait-Louis Monteil standing proudly on the shores of Lake Chad, a street scene with a thousand Chinamen in Shanghai, a group of large-hatted women paying obeisance in Tonkin.
Leaping onto the bed he lay with his hands behind his head.
He was home.
Njord was woken in the night by a rhythmic banging and a need to urinate. The bathroom was one floor down. The door was unlocked and in there he found a French policeman, his trousers halfway down his legs, arse as hairy as a bear’s.
At first, as he was manhandled down a flight of stairs, shirt collar and seat of his Everlasts gripped tightly, he thought he was being arrested but then he realised he was merely required to watch and for this he would be given a quantity of francs.
The room had lampshades everywhere, as many as there were Chinamen in the picture in the room above. Njord perched himself on the narrow window ledge, the window thrown open, and half-watching the policeman and his whore go at it, he was more enamoured with the carts below, the shouts in a foreign language where every word sounded like love, the gentle breeze on his back, and in the distance, rising up over the rooftops, the splendid sails of a windmill, an indicator of a life more bizarre and exotic.
He took his breakfast at a café with small bronze replica cannons on the tables and pictures of Napoleon on the walls. All the staff had babies, or if not babies then perfect porcelain replicas of babies, all of which were kept on the lower shelf of the trolleys they pushed around and served the food off. It was a beautiful day. He was in Paris. His heart was full of joy.
Or not joy but joie.
The landlady, before he left, had given him an impromptu lesson.
Aidez-moi – help me
Pouvez-vous me branler? – can you jerk me off?
Merci – thank you
Joie – joy
Then she had told him, clearly seeing which side his bread was buttered on, to avoid the sailors at Porte Maillot, they were a rough lot from Tobago who fucked like they fought and fought like they fucked, and then she had placed a tag around his neck with the name of the hotel on it, in case he should get lost or have an accident, and pushed him out into the thriving streets like a Lady launching a ship.
From Saltburn-by-the-Sea Public Library he had his Pocket Guide to Paris, ‘Published by the DAILY MAIL TRAVEL & INFORMATION BUREAU 5, Rue Scribe, Paris.’
He had masturbated over its pages many times. As well as men, men’s underpants, socks, fish, oysters, terrapins, a certain kind of crab, whales, dolphins, porpoises, he also had a fetish for books. He had once returned a library copy of Tom Brown’s Schooldays practically dripping to the blushing Miss Ravenscroft and when, nine months later, she had given birth to a beautiful boy, perfect except for his webbed feet and a tendency to lean longingly towards large bodies of water, he had stripped naked and swum out to the Horseshoe Rocks where he had beaten himself with fronds of seaweed until his back was raw with welts. He must be more careful. He had read that a single cod could father 500,000 babies per kilo of its mate’s weight.
If he didn’t like the men just how many babies might he have sired?
Putting this frightening thought out of his head he stopped by the window of a glittering patisserie and folded out the old map from his guide book, tracing a finger along the narrow representation of streets and highways.
République, le Marais, Place de la Bastille, Nation, on foot he made his way to the Bois de Vincennes where the Exposition Coloniale Internationale was taking place.
His father had seen the article in the Alnwick Mercury. 9 million people were expected to come from all over the world to glory in the magnificence of France’s colonies. Native arts, crafts and sundry goods would be displayed in glorious reproductions of huts, temples, cabins, chalets, shacks, pagodas, tabernacles, shrines. And although Saltburn-by-the-Sea was not a colony of France per se, Paris was the spiritual home of fashion and so the exposition would be the perfect place to drum up trade for Sheldon, Sheldon and Sheldon gloves.
He spat viscously on the ground and, putting a hand in his pocket, he caressed the boiled egg he had placed there before setting off.
It was a memory of his mother.
Boiled eggs had been the only things she could cook and she would do so, sometimes as much as seven or eight times a day. Growing up there had been whole nests of them around the house and they became missiles, croquet balls, things to dress up and use in small theatre productions.
The Three Sisters, each sister perfectly represented by an egg.
The audience of eggs went wild.
His brother Wallace had developed the trick of putting the eggs up his bum and pushing them out shell-less. One day, he said, it would make his fortune.
Whereas Njord had been born under the fish star Wallace had been born under that of a wolf and once a month when that pumpkin satellite was full in the sky he would be turned quite mad, his teeth and jaw stretching most painfully out, little hairs shooting up out of his spine and across his back, buttocks, thighs, feet.
Wallace, dear Wallace, was in Wormwood Scrubs now for outraging public decency and holding up a postal train. It wasn’t the post he was after but a consignment of raw meat on its way to EVANS Butchers. Sent wild by its scent he had been caught scratching at the roof of the carriage, butt naked and covered in hair, his mouth open wide as he had howled at the moon.
The closer Njord got to the Bois de Vincennes the more people there were, ladies with umbrellas, men in top hats, and other men and women of every hue and garb, babbling in more tongues than he could ever hope to recognise.
Finally, being so jostled by the throng that he could hardly move forward, Njord stopped to take stock and there through the trees he spied vast pagodas, colonnades, African huts pumped up and amplified, Grenadian Carib houses, New France mansions with decking and pitch perfect lawns transferred to a Parisian field.
Suddenly, and for once, he was overawed.
What did he have? One single suitcase containing his product.
Or his bastard of a father’s product.
He would set up where he was.
Under this tree that a mountain of a Great Dane and it’s barrel of an owner were both pissing up right now.
And besides, he reasoned, entry to the park itself would be monitored, passes would be needed, certificates, invitations, and in his experience, Poulton-le-Fylde lido on a balmy August evening being a case in point, not all security guards could be bought off with a grope of the tightly packed snake and a lingering French kiss.
The suitcase, designed and developed in his father’s own infernal factory, had legs that retracted outwards so that once they were extended the case itself formed a kind of small rigid stall.
Open the lid and, hey presto, there stitched on the inside were the words, Sheldon, Sheldon and Sheldon.
What kind of ridiculous figure must he have struck? A ponce within a ponce doing ponce-like things.
How the mighty had fallen.
“Roll up, roll up,” he shouted half-heartedly while at the same time his mind raced, desperately trying to come up with a plan to make his own money that didn’t involve selling his own arse.
Although if it came down to it that’s exactly what he would do.
Anything not to have to go home.
He couldn’t do any more killing.
Oh please, anything but that.
There was most interest in the two gloves he had soiled. A tall black man with a trolley full of elaborate rugs asked if it was a tribal pattern. He said that it was and he acted out a small skit in which he and his tribe made gloves under a full moon and used them to strangle the first born of every family in the kingdom.
The black man went away without buying any gloves.
Then a lady with a disinterested entourage was interested in them. But she wondered if the design could be changed? And could there be four of them? They would be perfect for her most darling horse, Nordstrom.
At lunchtime Njord sat under the tree and this tree brought to mind another tree, one in the grounds of their family home and in the branches of which he and his brother had built a tree house from old glove boxes.
On this day in question his brother had been lying quite naked, his arms under him, pushing his arse and legs grotesquely up into the air. On the base board before him were 7 hard boiled eggs lined up in a row. He was trying to come up with patter for his act.
“Not one! Not two! Not three! Not four! Not five! Not six! But seven! SEVEN eggs skinned from my own glorious bumhole. Seven eggs fit for a king!”
Njord was to be his glamorous assistant but even he was struggling to see the glamour in pushing seven hard boiled eggs up his own brother’s butt and then catching them in a baseball mitt as they came shooting out. He had drawn a line under catching them between his teeth which had been his brother’s first proposal. Still, anything was better having anything more to do with gloves.
They both hoped it was not their destiny.
Wanting the boys to learn the glove industry inside out at five and seven years old respectively their father had set them to work in the factory.
They started out doing the little fingers, sewing two halves of material to make a mitten. Easy stuff.
This wouldn’t be so bad they thought.
Then they were taken out of the school they loved and a despotic tutor, a former soldier and survivor from the killing fields of Flanders, was brought in. He would teach them, reading out from heavy books without pause, while they were working.
The lessons, turgid every one of them, were much of a muchness. Gloves and religion. Gloves in history. Glove maths.
‘If one crate contains 7 score of gloves but that 10% are mittens and we, by point of fact, discount the thumbs, how many fingers are there?’
But they, in retrospect, were glory days.
By the time he and his brother were ten and twelve respectively they had been moved up to the slaughtering houses, a series of brick built windowless stinking structures behind the factory proper.
On a conveyor belt the seals would come in roped up but still alive. Their bodies glistening and beautiful. Their little seal faces still full of hope and wonder.
Then the brothers would club them to death, the clubs embedded with nail after nail after nail.
Then would come the butchering, the skinning, the cutting of the skin to avoid unnecessary loss.
It was an art, their father said. This is what our family fortune is founded upon.
They should be proud, proud, proud!
But he was not proud.
At night little Njord would have nightmares. He would be in the sea. He would be swimming with a herd, a colony, a rookery, a harem, a bob of seals. But then the water would be filled with blood.
So much blood.
And in his hand, a knife.
He had no idea how many he had killed.
He was a murderer.
Well, he would do it no more.
Leaping up, his mind still brimful of these memories, Njord went over to his glove case and launched it with a blistering kick, sending the gloves scattering, flying, fluttering down to the ground.
“You bunch of cunts,” he screamed to no one in particular, to the fallen gloves, and in a kind of frenzy, tearing at his hair and shirt so that buttons went flying he ran into the park.
And he kept running.
Josephine Baker - J'ai deux amours https://youtu.be/0lLly_oHvSo