The Aquarium. Part 4. King Kong. Jacques Cousteau. WWII. A rescue. A death.
In order to pay for his food and the rent on the space above the Gare du Nord Nemo worked as Rédactrice de la Rubrique des Conseils for Le Courrier de l’interieur, one of France’s top newspapers.
“Ah,” said Njord as Nemo translated first one then another of the carefully handwritten letters. “Agony Aunt. We have the same thing in the Saltburn Messenger.”
Every week Nemo would return from the offices of the newspaper with all the letters packed in a shoe box tied closed with a length of string. Then they would go through them together, choosing the best to appear in the Saturday morning edition of the paper.
Chère Mademoiselle Solitaire,
I am in such pain that I can’t sleep at night and vomit at the sight of food. My husband tells me that he loves me but he will not touch me as a man should touch a woman. I am thinking of taking up vigorous horse riding. Is this a sin?
Chère Mademoiselle Solitaire,
My son does not respect neither his father nor me. He insists on sleeping in the nude and climbing up on to the roof to smoke the most noxious cigarettes. He says in the summer he will go down to Nice where he will take an older man as a lover. He says he does not like men in this way but he says these are new times. Are they?
Chère Mademoiselle Solitaire,
I am a man? Do you answer letters from men? I do not know…
My wife, I feel, does not love me any more. She is always inviting tradesmen to come to the house. Last week alone the plumber was called 3 times and on the 4th time even he refused because quite clearly OUR TAP DID NOT DRIP.
She says she wishes to be slovenly, to be taken advantage of, to be abused, degraded.
She says, as she wheels me into the garden in my bathchair, that I should do all this but does she understand the pain of gout? She does not. Does she know what it is like to be a man of 74 with a wife 50 years his junior. She does not.
She does not!!!
What should I do?
It was in this way, through this translating and forming replies, that Njord, step by step, improved his French.
“As long as I speak to people only about their misfortunes I shall be fine,” said Njord after 6 intense weeks.
“This is Paris,” replied Nemo, “people speak of nothing else. You will be fine.”
The time came when Paris Colonial Exhibition drew its doors to a close for the last time and all the pagodas, temples, ersatz huts and other sundry buildings were dismantled, packed up and transported back to whence they came.
It was with great relief to Njord though that the Aquarium tropicale de la Porte Dorée stayed and remained a fixture, now standing lonesome in the once heaving and bustling park.
But it remained to Njord a beacon and, while Nemo went off to his studies at the Sorbonne, Njord would make himself a packed lunch and make his way there to spend hours amongst the fish he loved, sharing jokes and pratfalls with the clown fish, electrifying the eels with his erudite repartee, convening the octopuses for council, a plan must be made, today the banlieue, tomorrow Atlantis!
One day, and it must have been some months later, he arrived to find Augustine, one of the aquarium’s attendants putting up a sign:
Doit être bon avec le poisson
Njord, who was quite comfortable with all the staff by now, calling them by their first names, sharing coffees with them at one of the many street cafés, ripped the sign down immediately with an exaggerated gesture of disgust and stormed directly to Fabienne, the manager’s, office.
“What kind of connerie is this?” he demanded, slapping down the ripped notice in front of her. “Why place this putain advertisement? Wasn’t he the man for the job? Who knew the place better then him? Didn’t the fish rush to their windows as soon as he arrived”
Sometimes passion in life can go a long way.
Fabienne, as pretty as a cuttlefish, with high dark eyes and long protruding lips, laughed gaily.
“You an English gentleman,” she said. “I never would have…” Then she tapped the desk thoughtfully. “The money is very small. You must be good with a broom.”
He started the next day.
Between 9am and 5pm he collected money, handed out ticket stubs, sold programmes that he had designed and made up himself, pointed customers in the direction of the WCs, snack bar, gift shop and then after hours, and this was the greatest thing, he was responsible for the upkeep of the molluscs, the squid, the cuttlefish, the nautiluses and, best of all, his beloved octopuses.
Sometimes he would sing to them or recite long heroic poems in which he changed all the names and made them, the octopuses, the heroes.
Odysseus became an octopus.
Perseus became an octopus.
Achilles became an octopus.
Aeneas became an octopus.
But best of all, Prometheus became an octopus, and when he flew too near the sun and his wax wings melted and he tumbled into the sea, he didn’t drown, but loved it there, Octopuses can live underwater!, and he formed a new watery kingdom.
In this way four or more years passed.
He was happy.
He had a job he loved, a man he loved, and he no longer had to kill a single seal.
But trouble, as they say, is always on the horizon.
After Nemo finished his degree he attempted, without success, to gain himself a place on an deep sea expedition.
This was his life’s dream.
All, except for Njord, the nights when they squirrelled beneath the covers in their freezing apartment, made love, that he lived for.
And so four times a year, exactly three months apart, they would take the train down to Marseille and hang out around the port, amongst the gangsters, sailors and scoundrels who congregated there and look for a likely boat. A squat, snub-nosed doughty craft with a hardy wind-worn captain and an eccentric backer, someone who had made their money in tins, or Brazilian rubber, and whose heart’s desire was to find, and bring back alive, a mighty kraken, that beast from the East. Or West.
It didn’t matter.
Nemo had made up some leaflets:
Disponible à la location.
Spécialiste de la marine.
There was a photo of himself. A copy of his degree from the Sorbonne. The phone number of whatever fleapit hotel they were staying in.
They would hand out these until they had none left and then they would sit in their hotel room, waiting for contact, for the concierge to come clomping reluctantly up the stairs, to rap on their door, and to tell them there was a strange man, or woman, enquiring for them at reception, one who smelt of briny water and who had harpoon nicks all across their hands.
“One day I will be famous the world over,” Nemo would say, and then he would punch his chest proudly. “The man who captured the kraken. A beast more mighty than King Kong himself.”
In 1933 when that film had come out Nemo had dragged Njord to see it 40 nights in a row at the same cinema.
“Carl Denham is me,” he would say. “Except I won’t let my monster escape. It will be the talk of the town. Of the world.”
Njord worried about Nemo sometimes.
It happened that one season in Marseille some years into their sojourns there Nemo aligned himself to a brilliant young explorer he had met in a seedy bar down at the port and all Njord heard for days on end was Jacques Cousteau this and Jacques Cousteau that.
“He’s a man after my own skin,” said Nemo. “At last someone who understands me.”
And this hurt Njord because he did understand Nemo, only too well, and as he sat and watched Nemo and this Cousteau smoking pipes together, discussing Cetacea, crustaceans, ocean currents, tides, the shortest cuts to undiscovered regions, he could see only one thing.
That Cousteau, like all brilliant men, was both selfish and driven.
He was only out for himself.
So when one day Cousteau was suddenly gone, to Shanghai and Japan apparently, funded by a Greek millionaire who was famous for his liking of arse, Njord was not surprised.
“Your time will come,” he said to Nemo, gently caressing the hair on the back of his head, as this man he loved more than any other wept over the front page photo of Cousteau standing proudly on the deck of the doughty ship they had always imagined for themselves, wearing his own patented underwater goggles that would soon make him famous around the world.
And then their trips to Marseille were curtailed by the coming of war, the invasion of Paris by the Germans in 1940. Life, for the time being, was concerned only with the getting along of it.
Some nights, in the early days, they would watch the German soldiers on the station concourse through a hole in their floorboards. Big strong boys, the most of them, who looked lost and sad.
“They are just like us,” said Njord. “The only difference an arbitrary border.”
The aquarium remained open but the customers, slowly, like the turning off of a tap, dried up. When life became about finding food, and sometimes he and Nemo would walk many miles just to obtain a baguette, the looking at fish was a luxury.
The agony letters sent to Le Courrier de l’interieur were now mostly too angry or too sad to print, people writing of the smells coming from their Jewish neighbours, how these very same neighbours were hoarding gold and silver while true Parisians starved. Or there were letters from the Jews themselves, a relative had disappeared suddenly from their apartment overnight, their was a new French family living there who claimed to know nothing. They, the letter writer, had been to the authorities but had been met with a wall of silence. Where could they go next? What could they do?
Can you help?
We must wear this star around our necks. We must obey this curfew. Not go in to certain shops. We worry where all this is going….
And then one week there was a whole sackful of letters.
The message was the same.
Pack a single case.
Come to the Gare du Nord.
Do not worry.
It is a simple act of relocation.
“We have to do something,” said Nemo.
So on the day in question they were waiting on the station concourse dressed in the uniforms of station porters that they had stolen.
“This way,” they said. “Follow me. Direct orders. Do not panic.”
And in this way they spirited 179 men, women and children through the door in the cleaning cupboard and up to their apartment.
169 wearing the yellow star, 10 wearing the pink triangle. The former marking them out as Jews, the latter as homosexual.
It was a fraction.
But it was something.
When the war ended they took up their trips to Marseille once more.
Nemo was not one to give up hope.
And on one of their trips it seemed at last they would have some success.
Omar and Omar were Egyptian scientists who dressed like the Thompson Twins from the Tintin books both Njord and Nemo loved. An expedition was planned to the Gulf of Oman, the Bay of Biscay, the Red Sea.
“At last,” said Nemo, “at last!”
But on the night before they were due to embark the police raided the warehouse Omar and Omar had rented. They were a pair of fraudsters it turned out, the expedition a front for drug running.
To cheer him up Njord used all his savings to take Nemo to Coney Island in the United States of America. Although they could not marry Njord said it could be a kind of honeymoon. He had bought them secondhand white suits and slender cheap rings but Nemo was only melancholy amidst the glamour of the boardwalks, between the strings of lights and muscular boys and pretty girls.
On the liner on their return home, a majestic beast with parquet dance floors and a rambunctious live band bursting with jazz standards sung by a throaty singer, Nemo wouldn’t even come out of their cabin. He even went so far as to pull the curtain across their porthole so he wouldn’t have to see the sea.
It burned him, he said. Seared his soul.
What he wanted most from life he would not have.
Requesting pen and paper from the purser he spent all his waking hours writing agony letters. Many hundred spewed forth from his hand.
He had become a broken man.
It was springtime in Paris when they returned and Njord decorated their apartment with daffodils. In an attempt to amuse Nemo he walked around naked except for an aqualung.
“I’m underwater,” he said. “I’m a fish, a crustacean, a deadly orca.”
But even that did not raise a titter and Nemo took to his bed without any supper.
Njord was at the end of his tether, not sure what he should do next, when the telegram that changed everything arrived from his brother, Father dead, STOP, return to England STOP, Don’t stop. STOP.
Debussy - La Mer - https://youtu.be/nn0tZHOuTKQ
Part 5 - https://www.abctales.com/story/drewgummerson/aquarium-part-5-i-can’t-make-you-love-me