The Aquarium. Part 3. La vie en rose.
And he kept running.
He ran past a bountiful zoological garden, startling the real live gazelles grazing there, past a grand lake with two bijou islands to which sweating paying guests were rowing in a procession of small bobbing boats, past an Italian basilica dedicated to former Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, fated founder of the last dynasty of the Roman Empire, past a working replica of a Belgian hospital, groaning men and women, formerly out of work actors and writers plucked from their tiny garrets in La Marais, lying prostrate on iron gurneys, ersatz doctors applying greasy sucking leeches to their buttocks and other intimate regions (fannies, willies) to the shocked patronising horror of a gathered crowd, past displays piled high with rubber goods (sheets, shoes, gaskets, tubes, battery cases for submarines, caoutchouc gloves!), past crenellated kiosks selling many kinds of coffee, graham crackers, tea biscuits, tins of rabbit meat, tiny rotten pineapples, other sundry exotic items not so fresh from the doomed despotic colonies, past a diorama of hooded muffled Esquimeaux and their panting packs of pulling dogs, past all of this wonder until he came to a a huge slowly rotating wheel hauling cars big enough for a family of four to move into, beds, baggage, the lot, up into the air and then back down again as if the altitude didn’t agree with them.
Now there was a thing…
La Grande Roue de Paris
Un Merveilleux Voyage!
Ignoring the cries of the heavily bearded operator, done up like a prancing and preening Napoleonic soldier, Njord leapt over the protective barriers and, hand over hand, climbed the iron structure, up and up, passing one by one the swinging cars, the shocked faces within them, until he was perched right at the top, wind whipping his hair.
This is it, he said, Enough is enough. I am going to jump. I cannot take any more:
4.Blood on my hands.
5.And father, father, father!
He was quite mad.
Quite in a rage of passion.
And he was going to jump, was right on the point of it, but then in the distance he saw the building.
A building he had been looking for all his life.
It was beautiful.
And he was saved.
Alerted by all the hulla and baloo there was a stocky gendarme waiting for him at the bottom of Wheel. Fortunately for Njord, and it was the magic of that building, pulling him, pulling him, the very same hairy-arsed one he had watched pumping his whore in Hotel L’Amour the previous night.
Having first put their fingers to their lips in the international symbol of secrets, to the cheer of the crowd, the gendarme slapped his iron-y menottes on Njord’s slender wrists, took him around the back of the Wheel and then unclasped him readily.
“Plus tard,” the flic said, his breath full of garlic and conspiracy. “Room 5c.”
Plus tard, Njord knew meant later, but he was thinking of now.
Children went past bearing clouds of candy floss. From a nearby tent came the scratchy sounds of an Audiophone, feet tentatively scratching a makeshift dance floor in a toneless accompaniment, a percussion of glasses clinking.
Njord, pulling his buttonless shirt around him, set off at a pace back through the park, stopping only when he reached the building he had spied from the top of the wheel.
The sign, although in French, was easy enough to understand.
Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée
That was the killer, the bone shaker.
He had traced that word many a time in the huge old dictionary kept on the reference counter in Miss Ravenscroft’s library.
1.Aquarium: a glass-sided bowl or tank or other specialised receptacle in which fish or other aquatic species are kept and maintained.
2.Aquarium: a building in which fish and other aquatic species or plants are kept for exhibition or study or both.
Returning from a trip to London several years earlier, sent there by their father to sell a new exquisite range of sealskin gloves to the up and coming politician Oswald Mosley and his growing pack of devoted followers, his brother had told him of just such a building in Regents Park.
“A dolphin,” he had said. “They had a fucking dolphin, kiss my arse.”
The first thing that struck Njord was the smell. It took him back to his morning walks along the beach; the wind, the air, the salty tang of the flotsam and jetsam.
He had been 7 years old the first time he had swum in the sea alone. Shedding his clothes, he had dived headfirst from the shallows, could still recall the fish swarming, surrounding his body, lifting him so he seemed to be riding the waves.
That was where he had felt at home.
So, breathing deeply, he walked with awe amongst the exhibits. In room after room there were many hundreds of glass cases. Some were filled and vibrant with fastly moving colours, while others were pond-like and murky, hiding mournful eyes, bottom dwellers.
Quite forgetting where he was, Njord stopped and pressed his hands, face and, his shirt having fallen open once more, naked chest up against one of the tanks.
A school of blue gouramis swarmed towards him, beating their little bodies against their side of the glass.
It was a kind of love.
It was love.
Not sexual; sensual, reciprocal.
At last he came to the room containing the Cephalopoda; squids, cuttlefish, nautiloids.
He had always had a special place for octopuses. One time, six years old, he had found a baby one while scouring the beach and placed it on his head as a kind of hat, its tentacles hanging down across his face. He had fairly screamed the house down when his mother said he could not go to the church like that but reluctantly he had removed it, bribed with a salad bowl full of salt water. This he had taken with him, much to the shock of the elderly curate. Especially when the octopus had escaped somehow, gone scuttling up the nave for communion.
He had so many fish stories.
Fifteen years old he had straddled naked a shark. For a dare. Two big boys, boxers, part of a visiting team from Boosbeck, fishing shiny half crowns from their deep silken pockets when he had won. Their subs for the match.
Another time he had kissed an electric eel on the mouth. Brought to Saltburn-by-the-Sea as part of a travelling freak show it held more wonder for him than The World’s Fattest Man, The Bearded Lady, or The Fire Breathing Salamander from Japan.
Sticking its head above the tank he and the eel had done what was known as French kissing.
The crowd were more shocked than he, like something from a dirty postcard sold on the pier end it was said, and for days afterwards fishermen would come up to him with their eels out, wanting them to be suckled.
Rumour was he could make the fish come. This boy blue.
Njord was still at the aquarium when its doors finally closed for the night and it took an elderly attendant, Gitane hanging languidly from the corner of his mouth, brandishing a stiffly bristled broom, to shoo him out of a side entrance.
But he was there the next morning for opening.
And the morning after that.
And the morning after that.
On the day he was supposed to return to England, and to his father, glove contracts safely secured, the family fortune escalated even more, he went to a bureau de poste, sent off a curt telegram.
Not coming home STOP torturing me STOP.
It was on his seventh day at the Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée that he was approached by the young man. Startling in appearance he was wearing a green jumpsuit with tasseled gold epaulets, moleskin ankle-length loafers, and had dark staring eyes, like those of a Black Moor Goldfish.
Njord had seen this young man several times before, how could he not have noticed him!, and he had admired the way the thin material of his jumpsuit clung to his long muscular thighs and had wondered how he might negotiate the toilet, did the whole thing come off in one piece or was there a discreet zip?
“I’ve seen you looking at the fish,” said the young man. He had a strong French accent, a thick book with a fish’s skeleton on its spine under his arm. This arm he held out suddenly so the book went tumbling to the floor.
“I’m Nemo.” He leaned in close for a whisper. His skin stank of brackish water. In his left ear was a fish hook, a tiny submarine dangling from its end. “Captain Nemo to my friends. Would you like a drink with me sometime?”
An audience of Thai fighting fish crowded against the glass of the adjacent tank, their fins billowing expansively.
It seemed they approved.
The two young men, comrades already, went to a bar on the Rue Edmund Nocard, Le Petit Homme. All the staff were midgets, all the tables very high, so drinks were delivered on trolleys that could be cranked upwards and downwards with a furious little wheel.
The bar had a live singer but she sang so quietly and at such a distance from the tables that it was necessary to stand right next to her to hear. Customers took turns to do this and they would come away, tears in their eyes shaking their heads, saying it was the most beautiful thing they had ever heard.
Nemo revealed, over one pastis and then another, that he was studying oceanography at the Sorbonne. And that his parents, road sweepers from Nancy, were huge fans of Jules Verne which went some way to explain his name. The Captain part he had added himself since coming to Paris. And the outlandish dress.
“In this city you have to stand out! And anyway it suits me… One day I’m going to be a deep sea explorer.”
From within the book he had dropped earlier and then retrieved he pulled out a foldout map which he proceeded to unfold there and then right across the table.
It showed all the oceans all of the world. Several of these were circled, annotated like town centre guides.
And below this.
Nemo rented an old storage room above the Gare du Nord. There were bats in the high ceilings and many dozens of copies of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea scattered across the bare floorboards. These were sent to him by his parents. On the first of every month a new copy would arrive, its pages interspersed with francs they had raised from selling the items they had found on the road:
1. Brooch with broken pin on the corner of Rue Gabriel Mouilleron and Rue Saint-Léon. 5 francs.
2. Amber hair comb in the shape of fiddler crab. Parc Sainte-Marie. 3 francs.
3. Art Deco terracotta bookend with Chinese man. Rue Sainte Barbe. Not one of a pair. 35 francs.
4. Papier-mâché bust of Napoleon (hat broken off). Rue de Hollande. 125 francs.
5. Red pillbox with bird motif. Rue du 8ème Régiment d’Artillerie. (Bird missing.) 54 francs.
6. Bronze gazelle mirror (broken). Av. des Jonquilles. 250 francs.
The majority of this money, Nemo explained, was going to pay off the debt he owed on a large tin bath and an aqualung he had obtained on exorbitant credit from a shady one-legged man in the Bois de Boulogne. Stripping down to a pair of streamlined briefs Nemo climbed into the bath, it was filled to its brim with turbid water, and asked Njord to kneel at the far end and push against his shoulders as he kicked.
“I do one hour without the aqualung and one hour with. One hour without in case its ripped off one day by a kraken. I need to be prepared.”
“You will be,” said Njord. “You will be.” And under his breath he mouthed, “We will do it together.”
Their meeting had been like a hermit crab finding its shell.
At the end of that very same day, sopping wet from all the splashing, Njord returned to the Hotel l’Amour and collected his belongings.
He stopped at the landlady’s door to reckon up his bill.
“You are returning to England my handsome boy?” she said, leaning towards him so that her hair became the Leaning Tower rather than La Tour Eiffel.
Njord let out a laugh, unable to contain himself.
“I’ve met the man of my dreams. This is it. At last. A life. It’s going to be perfect.”
The landlady chucked him under the chin as she had done on their first meeting, said sadly, “Oh my boy, I had dreams like that one day. In France we call it la vie en rose. In English, how do you say it?”
But Njord had already gone.
The sun was pink.
It was setting behind the Eiffel Tower.
It was Paris.
It was beautiful.
Edith Piaf - La vie en rose - https://youtu.be/kFzViYkZAz4