By Simon Barget
When he walked through this lobby Paul was accosted by all the bowing and vacant smiles. A parade of employees paid to stand there and nod. It was all very uncomfortable.
He was there the concierge and he signalled at him, wanting to talk. Paul thought about pretending he hadn’t seen him but he didn’t have the guts to go through with it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk, but he knew he was being called to account.
‘You’re leaving today?’
‘I’ll go to the place you said, Kumosheki.’
‘What is Kumosheki?’
‘Kurasheki or something. Sorry, I probably got the name wrong.’
‘Kurosaki maybe is where I told you to go.’ He seemed to cast him a chiding glance for his mistake.
‘Yes, that’s it.’
‘I wanted to say something to you the other time. You know it was an interesting conversation we had.’
They’d talked about Japanese attitudes to foreigners, primarily.
‘Shall I tell you what’s going through your mind?’ the concierge continued.
‘Huh! My mind!’ Paul’s own response was a tonic, he was making light of things in spite of himself and he found himself breaking out into a natural smile.
‘I am good like that, an amateur psychologist.’
‘You can try if you like.’ Again Paul felt his ambivalence, waiting with keen interest for what this man had to say, yet maintaining also a natural defence.
‘Every day it’s the same old accusations the same hurtful things you say to yourself. Don’t you get tired of it?’
‘I am French by the way. I know you were wondering.’
In fact he wasn’t wondering; he’d assumed he was French or Belgian from his accent which was too strong to be in doubt.
‘Yes I thought you were French.’
‘You presume automatically that you are wrong and at fault and that everyone hates you and you are the villain they’ve all been patiently waiting for to make some petty disturbance, dirty, black, dark, grotesque, but not even necessarily gross examples of evil, but just something subtle within you that everyone spots immediately and you can hide it like you’ve tried to do, you can fool people some time, but they’re all just waiting for it to pour out because you can’t help yourself and then they go ‘tut-tut, there it is again, the same old Paul you haven’t changed one bit’ and everything you think is some convoluted interpretation of a neutral event or statement turning it into an imprecation or a slur like not enough respect or not quite the right tone of voice, or she smiled funny, or whatever, if they look it’s because you’re ugly, if they don’t they’re ignoring you. This is without mentioning your awful bind with the women.’
‘Ok, that’s pretty accurate, I have to say I’m surprised.’
He wondered also how he knew his name; maybe he’d seen it on the computer system. But this wasn’t plausible because this concierge seemed to operate independently of the reception desk as if he was his own man, and as if to confirm this, his table was at least twenty feet away the front desk all the way across the expanse of this gilded lobby, incongruous, free-standing, plonked almost in the middle of nowhere and with nothing to set it in context. Nothing on it brought forth any official function; there was just a push-button phone that they still had in these big hotels. No computer. Maybe he wasn’t really the concierge, maybe just an impostor. But the Japanese girl in what Paul had thought was the concierge’s booth had pointed him here with some conviction. She can’t have been lying. He had a concierge’s badge. It didn’t say concierge, but they never do. It said ‘Michael’ with two insignia each side of the name like two crossed swords or a butterfly. Michael wasn’t a very French name at all.
They were standing right in the middle, a few feet away from his table, far enough to be a foray into the mainstay of the lobby but still close enough to be within his domain.
‘Then the flies go buzzing round your head and not anyone else’s. You look to see the flies round their head. There are no flies, but maybe you can’t see them because these are small flies you get in Mediterranean countries. I don’t mind that you were rude to me, I really don’t.’
‘What flies? How was I rude to you, I don’t understand?’
This concierge’s cheeks were sunken, sucked in, bisected by a beaky nose with a protruding bridge. It was still a thin nose, in keeping with the thinness of his face, perhaps almost a refined face. The curve was pronounced like on an older man, but this man exuded youth or callowness and at any rate he seemed to be in his early 30’s. It was as though he was making this conscious effort to appear old, having this failed air of gravitas or some sort of misconstrued display of Gallic charm. What came through was awkwardness, moving and squirming as he spoke, waltzing and jerking, placing weight on one foot until the next took over. Every so often he emitted a highly contorted smile, a grimace, but one that was not only false but ill-timed in some way, not matching the expression in his eyes, so that at the point where the eyes showed the greatest degree of anger, because that was what it was, the lips gave their greatest effort to compensate. In combination with this, he didn’t look at Paul, as if he was talking for the benefit of no one or the entire clientele, as if he didn’t need to pay anyone particular attention, rather people should pay attention to him. A trill on that typical combination of arrogance and insecurity.
‘It is your attitude, your state of mind, it is obvious. You cannot be rude to me, I am used to it with all these Chinese and Korean guests and sometimes the Japanese are very rude, especially the management in the hotel, the way they look down on you, you would never imagine.’
‘I understand that there are hierarchies in Japan. I don’t know much about it.’
‘Never mind. You are asking yourself all the time if you are some scourge. You think everyone says that about you, but they are only seeing it after the event. They see what you present.’
Paul looked around to his right, fleetingly took in vague images of the front door area saw the marble floor which had the colouring of marble cake, oranges and soft browns and muted yellows.
'You know the people here’ and at this the concierge swung his left arm around directing it at all the guests in the lobby ‘they’re all like you. Try to imagine you’re talking to yourself. We’re just vulnerable people, stupid, quick to take offence, bad and wrong. Why don’t you try flattery? Why not smile? You don’t know how to get what you want. Plus you take everything to be so reflective of yourself which it is not. They couldn’t care less about you. You know the greatest stumbling blocks are pride and vanity. What is pride? Pride is telling people if you hurt me I will bite. What is there to hurt? Why would you even be thinking about being hurt in the first place? Same goes for the other one - dignity. You don’t need pride when you feel good.’
‘Can I say something?’
‘Of course. You don’t need to ask.’
‘I do feel I am often defending myself against something but I only realise after the event. Then I think, what the hell was I defending myself against? And then I realise I am protecting myself from all the harassment I’ve felt in my past that I’m so afraid of happening again.’ It felt inexplicably normal to be talking in these terms to this stranger.
‘You just don’t know how to get what you want. When you came and asked me if I can recommend you a place in Japan, it’s like you are expecting me to say no. This is my job for god’s sake. You are so timid. I know you feel like a young boy. I know how people get what they want. People ask me all kinds of stuff. One guy wanted to get me to deliver a running machine to his room. It was clear he didn’t expect no as an answer.’
‘That’s crazy. Obviously you didn’t do it.’
‘Wrong. We did. We had it delivered that afternoon. He paid.’
‘And what did he do with the running machine when he left?’
‘It’s still there in room 1289.’
Paul didn’t believe the story at all but didn’t say any more about it. He had changed his mind about this person. Perhaps he didn’t know. He felt then he was always placating; he felt clearly now that he was the normal one and it crossed his mind that he always ended up wasting a lot of time in conversation with slightly unhinged people. Still, what this concierge had said about him was fairly close to the mark.