was one of those looks men give one another. An angry searching
look. The eyes probe from under the ridge of the brows, the lips
are closed, the cheeks tense and the jaw stiff. He had probably
felt Lombard’s eyes on him as he made his way head down across the
expanse of grass from the bandstand to the café. He had probably
reflected on the fact that he would have to walk right past Lombard’s
table. It couldn’t be helped: Lombard sat right outside the café’s
steamy glass door. Perhaps he’d even considered turning around,
giving up the idea of going to the café altogether, so as not to
have to walk past Lombard’s dark stare. There are men who will take
such undignified precautions when they feel thwarted or vulnerable,
to avoid the defeat of not returning the look, to avoid the humiliation
of looking back but too humbly, or merely to avoid the confrontation
that too proud or hostile a look might incite.
People stare for a reason. And when the stare belongs to a grim-faced
stranger hardy enough to sit outdoors on a freezing winter morning
in nothing more than a thin raincoat, black suit and white shirt,
it can be intimidating.
But the man had walked on, determined, and the look he sent Lombard
on passing his table showed that he had indeed felt his stare.
Still, he wasn’t intimidated. His eyes held no fear. He was a
leader, a man used to giving orders, a man used to responsibility,
as he had just proved, even though this time things had gone wrong.Lombard
stared at him purely out of curiosity, as one does on such occasions.
The man had made a fool of himself, carried his wounded pride
like a burden, and whether stupidity or clumsiness was to blame
for his pain, Lombard neither knew nor cared. The fact was that
an old man and his dog had conspired to make him lose his composure,
effectively turning what a few moments earlier might have been
seen as the symbols of his authority – his leather jacket, short
ponytail, cell-phone and bunch of keys that hung from his waist
along with a two-way radio tucked into a hip-holster – into a
lot of silly-looking and seemingly useless paraphernalia. Yet,
in the past hour or so, under his leadership, the bandstand and
its surroundings had been commandeered. Two small trucks had been
emptied of chairs, spotlights, cameras, generators, musical instruments
and countless other props and pieces of equipment. It had been
smooth, professional work. Eventually the quiet of the Heath had
been shattered by the generator’s drone, someone had switched
on the spotlights set up high on scaffolding and the circular
bandstand which, with its wrought iron railings and wooden roof,
had looked a grey, uninviting structure – as English bandstands
do on bleak winter days – was transformed into a gleaming movie
set. Garlands of flowers, multicoloured balloons, steel chairs,
brass musical instruments now glistened inside its railings. Yet
more chairs, these of blue and white striped canvas, stood in
neat rows on the grass around it. There were gaps here and there,
for cameras, and a small trailer bearing a camera crane was already
set up on tracks laid down to skirt the whole set. It was a strange
sight. Whereas the rest of Hampstead Heath lay in dull morning
mist, the bandstand area seemed bathed in bright sunshine. And
it had been he who, leading his crew of about twenty, akin to
a little general, bawling, conferring, consulting scripts and
drawings, had overseen the creation of this summer island of light
Lombard had observed all of this from his table on the café terrace.
He had drunk two espressos, smoked three Gitanes. Then the dog
had turned up, little knowing its appearance would soon lead to
the man abandoning his baffled crew and summery film set for the
refuge of the café.
Lombard could see his anger; short, hurried puffs of breath from
his nostrils clouded the cold air in front of his face. Little
of his former confidence remained; the keys dangling from his
belt swung with each of his steps, prompting him to clasp them
tightly to silence their attention-drawing rattle. In this manner,
head down, awkwardly clasping his now bothersome keys, he was
a sorry sight as he neared Lombard’s table. But Lombard had gone
on staring. By then, he had perversely decided to keep his eyes
on him, just to see if...
He’d been right. On passing his table the man had felt compelled
to glance, to send one of those looks men give one another. Anger
searching for approval or, if not that, at least some kind of
sympathy. He was proud; humbled but proud. In the short moment
their eyes met, Lombard saw he expected nothing less than approval.
‘Jesus Christ! What’s a guy supposed to do, huh!’ he might have
said had he chosen to speak. Doubtless he’d also have found room
for a swear-word or two somewhere in there: ‘What’s a guy supposed
to fucking do, huh!’ He looked the swearing type, the type
who interjects into every other sentence a ‘fucking’ or a ‘bloody’.
He was used to bossing people around, used to the privileges that
the authority to do so brings, like the right to swear when addressing
Lombard looked quietly away. He wished neither to reassure nor condemn
him, to confront nor add to his embarrassment. He wasn’t really
interested in this man or what had just happened to him.
He heard the café door swing open behind him, felt the warmth
escaping from inside hit the side of his nape, heard it swing
‘Another day, another asshole,’ proclaimed a voice, aloofly.
Lombard frowned. The French accent, the blasé tone of voice were
Nathalie’s. He looked over his shoulder. Nathalie stood by the
door, in a long black overcoat, her hands in her pockets, gazing
stoically towards the bandstand. The man must have walked right
‘How are you, Nathalie?’ he said with a dry grin.
The dry grin was his way of telling her he was pleased to see
her, because he only had twenty minutes left, because they’d have
missed each other if she’d turned up after eleven, as she sometimes
did. But Nathalie didn’t know that yet. She just fixed her black
eyes in his. It was a habit of hers. Sometimes she stared, created
silence, a moment of suspension, as if to give herself the time
to inspect the soul of her interlocutor before committing to a
reply. Returning her stare Lombard saw she was stoned again. She
saw he saw, raised one brow, pursed her lips, glanced at the two
empty cups in front of him, turned to the door.
There was no need for him to answer this. She’d bring him another
espresso. She always did. She always arrived after him and however
many coffees he might already have had, he always had one more
with her. Such was their ritual.
‘Yes,’ he said anyway as she stepped into the café. His eyes lingered
on the door slowly swinging shut behind her. He nodded, gently,
almost imperceptibly. He was upset. It was not yet eleven in the
morning and she was stoned again. He turned away, reached for
his pack of Gitanes and lit one with a frown, now oblivious to
the bandstand where the film crew was back at work.
‘Merde,’ he muttered softly, pulling the lit cigarette
from his mouth.
He’d already tried. He’d already wasted the time. Nathalie didn’t
need him to tell her what heroin did. Nathalie didn’t need to
be told anything by anyone. Was that not why they’d once thought
they could make a go of it? Was that not what had brought them
together in the first place and in the end caused her to break
off their relationship? Neither of them needed to be told anything
by anyone. They’d always understood that much about each other.
Could they really have expected it to last more than the three
months or so it had?
‘It’s not working. We’re too alike, Xavier,’ Nathalie had announced
one day. She was already packing her bags. Lombard had not tried
to dissuade her. She was right. Living together had been like
living with an unforgiving mirror, each being a constant reminder
to the other of what they were not, of what they had not, of what
they’d lost. Even so, he still wondered if something good might
not have come of it.
A gust of wind froze the air around him and went on to sway the
garlands and balloons in the bandstand. Lombard was glad he’d
got his raincoat back from the dry-cleaner. He owned a warmer
one, a fur-lined buckskin coat which he’d bought at the Jones
Brothers store on the Holloway Road just before it closed down.
It had been one of those stores that still employed courteous
middle-aged men in their men’s department and, for some reason
unknown to Lombard, the assistant who’d sold it to him had called
it a ‘car coat’. It was expensive, but he’d liked it, only to
discover after wearing it a few times that he’d made a mistake,
that he didn’t really like it after all; perhaps this was because
it had turned out not to be truly waterproof. He’d understood
then why the store-assistant had described it as a ‘car coat’.
But, to bother manufacturing fur-lined buckskin coats without
making the seams impermeable…? Be that as it may, even though
it was raining that day, he’d still been wearing it the first
time he and Nathalie had met in Perkins’ butcher’s shop.
At the beginning, Nathalie had put their meeting down to fate.
Lombard already knew better, already distrusted such notions as
fate. He preferred to think of their encounter as the accidental
crossing of drifting lives. But Nathalie was still young, still
desired things to make sense. So fate it was...
Eric Leclere. All Rights Reserved