The man and woman, sharp suited strangers come into the twilight of my great-grandmother's concierge lodge on the Champs-Elysées to take me away in their car, followed the road out of France and into Belgium to a busy Brussels nightclub where, having branded me a friend's son to staff and clientele made curious by the sight of my having a late meal at a table by the bar, the woman led the way to an upstairs room, handed me some clean pyjamas and tucked me into bed. I was four or maybe five years old, can't be sure, wore short pants, had seen my first cow and meadow on the road trip earlier and found sleep at once, yielding to gravity, too jaded to worry about where I was, what morning would bring, for how long or why. Besides, it wasn't bad to lie alone in the dark with the sound of people living it up one storey below - made a change from sharing my great-grandmother's bed shrouded in her lumbering breaths - and the room around me was neat, straight lines and soft furnishing, better than what I knew, and the woman who'd brought me there, who went by the name of Françoise - the man was called Michel - looked and smiled and smelled fine. It felt safe, I was safe, and the way things were, when required - though I'd yet to put this impulse into words inside my head - I already knew not to dwell on things I lost or did not have, reminding myself instead of things that I didn't want that I didn't have. As good a way as any to bring colour into grey, I guess, some childish play on relativity conjured from having no one to talk to in a world of gold sparkling unsteadily on account of matters I knew nothing about happening among grown-ups.
"How about the three of us playing a game till we get to where we're going, eh kid? Ever play the Pretend Game? You know, when you pretend you and the folks around are different from who you really are? It's fun."
Outside, lines of wind-blown trees sailed past the car window, ashen clouds dragged down the sky, with wispier lighter ones racing across beneath. Autumn was turning into winter and the light was fading.
"How would you like to pretend me and Françoise here are your mum and dad, huh? And we'll pretend you're our son, that your name is Bruno, and that we're all heading back home to Brussels from visiting your great-grandma in Paris. Do you think you could do that? You think you could call us Mum and Dad if we call you Bruno?"
I'd never heard of this game, failed to see the fun of it, but as they went on to say it would be particularly important to act our parts well if stopped by guards at the French-Belgian border, I figured I'd better go along with it. In the event, we made our way across the border unhindered, in the dark along an empty country lane, and the game was called off with my being handed a toy gun as a reward for having been a good sport - a plastic six-shooter in a cardboard box with a picture of a cowboy which I kept silently on my lap for the rest of the trip. There was no point in asking questions. For one thing, it was plain this ride would go on no matter what; for another, I was too shy to ask questions, which was just as well since - I wouldn't be told this the next morning, only some years later - it turned out that on that day these two were smuggling me out of France to save me from being taken into care by the Paris Social Services. Still, at the time such a piece of information would probably have left me cold, counted as worthless knowledge, most certainly never have led to my pondering weighty matters such as whether it meant I was now some kind of fugitive or outlaw or refugee in Belgium. Or they my kidnappers.
My great-grandmother had said "These folks have been sent by your dad to take you to some place better for you", handed them a bag with my things and sent me on my way. And I'd left as if it was the only thing to do, never asking where for or whether "dad" would be there, even though - or maybe because - I'd never met "dad". By then "dad" was a far-off stranger who for some reason cared to send me the odd toy by way of parcel post. It wasn't much to go on, but the way I figured, anyone who sent me toys had to be all right. To be sure, he couldn't be bad, or worse than anyone I'd already come across. So life was likely to be better with him than without him. And anyone who knew him had to be all right too. There's no denying it, the man's brown-paper parcels had steered my mind a long way towards being well disposed towards their sender.
I've heard it said that each life is a journey, that some inherit first-class passes, that junkyard campfires sustain stowaways, and paying through the nose for a cut-price front seat is no guarantee against tripping on barbed wire. Maybe all or some of this is true, and so the law being an ass is no real issue, merely another hurdle to skip over along the way.
In France some years back, though this may well still be the case nowadays, the law stated that children born out of wedlock were illegitimate, had to bear their mother's name, and made it so that the mother was also their sole legal guardian, thus stripping the father of all rights over the child's affairs. In my head, life began at my mother's parents', two low-ceilinged rooms off a corridor up high in the eaves of an old block of flats a stone's throw from the Champs-Elysées. One of the rooms was everything the other, a bedroom filled with beds, wasn't, and five of us lived there: my grandparents, my mother's teenage sister, her younger brother and me. My mother's sister had shiny black hair and crimson lips and nails, and my grandfather smelled of wine and was known to go off into drunken fits during which he let rip through everyone and everything that moved but me, who he never spoke to, struck or even looked at. As he also often ran out of wine, I was almost as often sent down the shop to get more, as a result spending a great deal of my conscious time there holding onto a string bag going down and then coming back up the long unlit stairwell between our top corridor and the building courtyard. I never really understood who I was to these people, what my place among them was. They must have told me what their relation to me was, but as I didn't know my mother it didn't mean much. What was plain though was that I was work to them, a responsibility or duty or both, that some kind of price was being paid for my being there. But I was well-looked after, kept from hunger, the cold and danger, and now and again my mother's sister would take me along for the short distance to the department store across the Champs-Elysées where she worked before sending me back home with a few sweets.
I had no complaints. I was safe. Had I been asked I'd have stayed there, made it the only home I ever needed to know, but nobody asked and then one day I was taken to hospital with the measles not to be allowed back when I got better. I don't recall being sad, or any out-of-the-ordinary feeling, when a woman with black hair and sunglasses turned up at the hospital one afternoon with a "I suppose you don't remember me" before announcing she was my mother and then leaving never to be seen again, but I remember liking it when her sister showed up some time later to take me to her grandmother's a few blocks down the Champs-Elysées from her department store. She left me there promising to visit often, having explained that, owing to my grandfather's fits, the old place was no longer good for me. I'm not sure I understood what she meant by this, but seeing that it seemed like the only thing to do, I took her word for it. Be that as it may, this was a goodbye for good.
Whispered shadows, cobweb skin, creased morning sheets, fairytales from a small radio high up on a chest of drawers. My great-grandmother's place also counted two rooms: one her living quarters, the other her concierge lodge where she dozed away the hours in between handing out mail and trading small talk with fleeting faces looking in from the building's echoing entrance hall. As she hardly ever ventured out of her slippers or opened any doors, and wouldn't allow me out on my own, time there became a matter of sitting on the floor killing the days playing with my toys - dad's as well as, by now, a few more donated by some of her building's residents. I don't know how long the two of us shared our lives for - no less than a month, no more than a couple of years - but it was never meant to last. Even then, even to my uncritical eyes, the arrangement had the feel of an unnatural affair. Like dusk to dawn, she was shade where fruits ought to ripen, shut in where space ought to unfurl. Too old and fast getting older to look after a four or five-year-old. Had I been asked, sought to remain there - had she been keen - the chances are it could never have happened. The way things turned out though, the end came in much the same way the beginning had begun: without warning and without my being asked anything. One day the strangers named Michel and Françoise had showed up to take me "to a place better for you" and the old woman had given me the last kiss her withered lips would ever offer me and sent me on my way. And I'd gone as if it was the only thing to do, as if there was nothing to refuse, readily made for the life on the other side of the front door, unaware and unconcerned that it would be some years before the grown-ups would let on enough to enable me to give sense to this story, and learn whose child I was.
As far as the chain of events which led to my being shipped to Belgium goes, the links would follow a straightforward enough course. Soon after my birth in Paris my father was sentenced to several years in a German prison. Remaining in France, my mother tried single-motherhood until, a couple of years into doing what she was supposed to, she left me at her parents' to set off for a new life in the United States. At this point, it may well be that had grandpa taken a chance on his wayward daughter's love child, or been better off or less partial to drink or prone to letting rip, I may never have been sent away to my great-grandmother's. But I was, and eventually someone other than myself must have felt this arrangement to be unnatural. One day great-grandma had written to dad in his German prison to warn him that Paris Social Services were about to come to take me away, and he in turn had sent Belgian friends of his to spirit me away out of reach of the French authorities. Since he and my mother had never married, the law wouldn't have allowed for him to appoint a guardian to look after me while he was in prison, never mind accepting him as my legal guardian once he'd served his time, so, short of leaving me to my fate, he did the only thing he could. Up in Belgium, I didn't exist, had never been born, would not be the subject of a search, could be anybody's child, like, for instance, one Bruno, son of Michel and Françoise on their way back home to Brussels from visiting great-grandma in Paris.
I never became Michel and Françoise's son though, slept in the neat room above their nightclub only a few nights. They already had a son about the same age as me by the name of Bruno, which, in fact, was the reason they'd been chosen to collect me; in the event that we'd been stopped at the Franco-Belgian border, they conveniently held bona fide documents supporting our pretend family story. Still, thinking about this now, I wonder what would have occurred if we had met with a border patrol and, say, I'd stupidly given the game away. Then again, knowing what I now know, it's likely that they were ready for such a contingency. For sure, they wouldn't have stood by the side of the road not knowing what to do. After all, this wasn't a dream.
Some years later, seated on the front passenger seat of an Alfa Romeo convertible, I once again crossed the Franco-Belgian border. Like the time before, it happened on a quiet country lane, though on this occasion heading in the opposite direction, from Belgium into France. Next to me at the wheel sat my father. He was taking us to Southern Spain for the summer holiday, I was eleven, he was forty-three. We'd spent the previous night at a nearby hotel, woken at dawn, found the road across the border open. Then, a short way into France, the rising sun was in my eyes and his were on the road, my father reached for my knee, squeezed and whispered loudly enough for my ears to catch above the car's engine: "We did it again, son."
Probably, this remark was nothing special to him, a way to let off some tension once safely across the border; a "phew" with a quick glance at the rearview mirror. To me though, it changed things. For the first time that I can recall, it allowed me to feel like I belonged, that more than the moment I was in mattered.
Experience - one time, while high, a junkie who'd just been quizzing me about my life after I let him stay at my place with some friends when I was fifteen asked how come I didn't think my father a "bastard"; years later, commenting on a story involving my father and I that I wrote, a film director declared "I know it's true, but it doesn't sound like truth"; and there would also be those couple of girls who would charge me with trying to play them - experience taught me that there are risks involved in venturing to convey unfamiliar realities. So, any attempt at explaining what this "We did it again, son" meant to me on that morning is maybe doomed. Now and again though, some things can get through. Sometimes, some things play right into the soul. And these few words did just that for me on that morning. Their inclusiveness, their implied affirmation of triumph, of togetherness, opened me up. Certainly, the world outside carried on sparkling just as unsteadily as it had before, but for the first time, I saw it no longer as if through a keyhole, boxed-in visions of strangers to cooperate with or be wary of, presenting no reason or direction to look further than the present. "We did it again, son". I asked no questions, didn't squint away from the sun. Seated next to my father in that car coasting through the open French countryside, it wouldn't be far from the truth - even if it doesn't sound like the truth - it wouldn't be far from the truth to say that the atoms spinning the air around me loosened and swelled with whatever it is that is within that line of Elton John's song that goes "how wonderful life is now you're in the world".
For the first time I can recall, I found myself happy to accept there were possibilities, could be better days to come.
My grandparents and Paris were almost illusions by then. Things had happened, the grown-ups let on enough to allow me to get a good idea of whose child I was. Why I was living in Brussels was no longer a mystery. I knew mother had gone and father had a gun and was a gangster or bandit or outlaw - it all meant the same to me. I'd first met him three years earlier, in a prison visiting room shortly before his release. He'd served eight years and I was eight. I remember thinking about this, him being locked up everyday of my life, and reckoned those eight years must have been for him like what it would have been for me if I'd stayed at my great-grandmother's for all that time. In the three years between landing in Brussels and my father coming out of prison - when I moved in with him - I'd stayed in so many places with so many faces I never actually caught some of their names. Most belonged to women though, the types some call bad girls; I think they took turns looking after me. Some of it was hard, some taken for granted, none of it ever ugly. At some point during this period I'd also started school, where I lied about my name, address and almost everything else, when asked about home saying I stayed at my aunt's on account of mother convalescing in Switzerland and father being away on business. I must have made a good liar, no one ever challenged my stories, but again I was told what to say. Understanding safety to rest on such deceit, I took to lying like a bird to a wire. Besides, as I'd never done anything bad - or come to that been accused of doing anything bad, not as far as I knew anyhow - I was never going to imagine it wrong or bad of me to lie. Rather, my having to hide the truth simply to be free to stay with the folks who looked out for me suggested that it was they who had to be lied to who were bad. They plainly didn't wish me good things. And if anything, in this respect, instead of softening, this need to be on guard hardened when my father landed on my horizon.
Eight years in prison hadn't brought riches. Money had to be made and he made it the best way he knew how. I wasn't exactly kept informed of what he was up to, but kids have eyes and ears, so, wise that careless words could put his freedom at risk again, it became even more important for me to feed strangers a script. It wasn't hard though. Having met the man, though I'd go on calling him Monsieur in confusion and shyness for some time, and he never tamed me, I soon enough realized that I much preferred life with him in it. To be sure, he didn't do only good things, he even did some bad things, I guess, but he was "dad", the brown-paper parcel man, he who from prison had saved me from the orphanage, got people to protect me, now was there in full and in colour to care and give me time that I'd never received before. I don't believe I ever stopped to think about the nature of his occupation. Other than inciting storms of worries that he may be put back in prison or shot down, it had no meaning. Of course, there'd be times in years to come when I would hold it against him, and others when I would admire him for being prepared to risk his life and freedom to bring home food and keep us warm, but not yet. Those were early-shared days, our wary honeymoon, timid time feeling ways. Everything was new and dissolved into a big newness, and of the many things I learnt about the man during our first three years together, only one stirred enough swirling thoughts and emotions to stand out above the rest.
My father was Hungarian, not, as I'd taken for granted, French like me - though he no longer could claim Hungarian citizenship given that his only official identity document was a grey sheet of paper identifying him as a stateless United Nations Refugee. The reason for this was that he was also born a Jew, and for that had seen the inside of Auschwitz and Dachau during WW2, had had his entire family killed in there, and once freed and recovered from typhus had decided against heading back home, in part because he had no home to go back to, in part because to an eighteen year old who'd gone through what he'd gone through it hardly made sense to go backwards.
At the time of finding out about this, I only knew the word Jew as a mild insult, an easy term of abuse shared between kids in Brussels school playgrounds. As to Auschwitz and Dachau, a kid would have had to go out of his way not to hear mention of concentration and extermination camps, but I believed they weren't real, merely scary places belonging to grim tales of weird beings, like stories about cannibals or Cyclops, not part of the life from which I was born. To learn they were a part of that was unsettling. Never made it onto the worthless knowledge pile. To learn that my father belonged to a tribe other tribes wanted to destroy led to my asking for reasons and explanations, and when I accepted that a Jew is not a monster, and it became clear that my father had not even been a gangster or anything like that when they'd come to take him away to kill him, that like me maybe he hadn't done anything to deserve being hurt, I swear, sitting alone on my bed one night I swore that I too would have a gun one day, and, in the meantime, if it could be helped, that none of those strangers who needed lying to should ever intrude in our life.
For the time being though, I could stop wondering why the man, like me again, had come without a family of his own. And how come his fine shoes, sharp suits and easy smile never quite concealed his tired eyes, even if, I swear to this too, he never complained or raged about anything or against anyone. Except once perhaps.
I was still illegally in Belgium, missing in France and, for want of ID documents, unable to travel or normalize my situation with the Belgians. The only place to go to try to sort things out was the French Consulate in Brussels. It was a dangerous thing to do. With me being a minor and he being wanted by the French police as well as still having no legal rights over me, the risk that we'd both be held once inside the Consulate walls was real. But, seeing that it is a legal requirement for all French citizens to hold valid ID papers, he'd decided to hope that on hearing what he had to say about my mother being gone and him being in prison and the mess I was in, they would not only let us go but also take enough pity on me to issue me with the documents I needed.
He never stood a chance. The best he got out of the fine woman across the desk of the elegant office we'd been shown into was what he already knew: any proceedings on my behalf required my mother's sanction. I'd never seen the man plead, beg and bang his fist and stamp his feet. "Why are you punishing the boy for our sins?" I don't know what was going on in the woman's head, but I remember her red shirt, pearl brooch and drop earrings, and the glint in her eyes when she said "On this occasion we won't take the child or arrest you. But this won't be an option if you show up here again. If you're so set on sorting out the child's status, I suggest you go through the courts to get custody from his mother."
were well on our way home when my father gave me a "I'm sorry, son", and then went on "Still, you must not judge what you are not."
I failed to understand what he was offering, but could see from his knitted brows that he was a raging battle inside.
After all these years
I still remember the fine woman in the red shirt. That time spent with her is the only time I saw my father frantic. Thinking about
it afterwards, the glint in her eyes, her words, I'd decided that she'd scared him, reckoned that her holding our freedom in her hands
and not helping had brought back to his mind memories of the time they'd taken him and his kin in broad daylight and no one had been
there to help. That's what I figured then. But many crazy patterns and stepping-stones and hazy outcomes on, I recognize that it was
only me who was scared. Him, he was finding it tough, that's all.
That is how far I'd traveled by
that morning when, safely across the border into France, my father reached for my knee and whispered "We did it again, son." The car
was an Alfa Romeo. The road open country lane. We were heading south for the summer and the sun was in my eyes. I was eleven, he forty-three.
But I don't recall the names in our passports, whether they made us father and son. There would be more trips and border posts and
the names would all get lost. But the man's words, they're still there. Before, only the present mattered; after, it was much better.
Their inclusiveness, implied affirmation of triumph and togetherness, made me less scared. Helped me face the possibility of better
days to come.
Torn shoes on the sidewalk. Twines of blood and broken dreams on the kerb. It's a catastrophe. Sometime in June 2002, just before summer, some young guy with a grievance stepped into a packed bus and blew himself up. Set on destroying as many lives as possible, he slaughtered nineteen, maimed forty and, or so I'm told, for this selfless impiety of his reckoned he'd be heading straight to Heaven. Soon afterwards, with some moaning still to get under way, and the living still to be sorted from the dead, commenting on the affair from some charity do she was presiding over in London the wife of the British Prime Minister came up with "As long as young people feel that they have no hope but to blow themselves up, you are never going to make progress." No words for the nineteen dead and forty wounded; whether they too were young, they too had had no hope, whether, if they did have hope, they'd just been cheated. And no words for those they left behind, who'd now have to learn to give them up. But the youth they never knew and who may well have seen the whites of their eyes before he blasted off to Heaven, well, he was young and presumed to have no hopes.
One year on and more moans and reaping reams of guilty crimes later, and some young woman with a grievance stepped into a crowded restaurant and blew herself up. Tearing through the autumn afternoon, set on ruining as many lives as possible, she slew nineteen, maimed sixty and, she figured, for this selfless desecration of hers would join the ranks of humanity's martyrs. A few days later, with the charred ground still groaning, the Guardian Media Group printed through The Observer newspaper a piece headed "The Revenger's Tragedy", the revenger being she who'd just turned mass-murderer, the tragedy her story. One line told of her age and name and hopes, another of red ripening fruits and pomegranate trees, most spoke of her loves and wounds and trials and pain, and a couple of her ruby lips and the bashful blushes that claimed her cheeks as, the day before she set out to die, she announced on camera the wounds, trials and pain she was about to dispense. But of the tragedy of any of the strangers and diners she slew, maybe they never knew any, or if they did there was nothing there worth telling as, plainly, none had hurt enough to turn into ruby or cracked lipped mass-murderers before dying. They'd died celebrating the New Year though.
A few months on to the summer of 2004, more premeditated pre-recorded crowd ripping pomegranate tragedies later, and the good elected Mayor of the great open city of London, one Ken Livingstone, welcomed on behalf of all his town folk some much revered scholar. This distinguished man, who also happened to be a Trustee of Oxford University, declared he welcomed deaths such as the ruby-lipped revenger's, styled her and all deaths such as hers martyrdoms in the eyes of God, dubbed her young body a weapon of the weak. And Ken Livingstone, the good Mayor of London? Well, on behalf of each and all of his town folk he gallantly lauded the man's moderate views and wisdom.
And at some point along the way while all this goodwill and understanding towards crowd-killers unrolled, an honorable member of the British Houses of Parliament obligingly disclosed that, had she been born braver and had she too felt despair such as that known by those who blow others away, she too may well have sought mass-murdering Heaven-seeking martyrdom. In the event, she was spared that road. Rather, for her contribution to humanity, they made her Baroness Tonge of Kew in The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, and she headed straight for the House of Lords.
Now, I understand about demographics and the way the wind blows. And that there isn't much some wouldn't do to get ahead. Newspaper editors need to keep their eyes on copy numbers, rabble-rousing politicians on disgruntled voters, and comely prime ministers' spouses must be seen to foster charitable organisations for registered losers. It's all for the love of thee and there's no telling what tomorrow's decreed crimes and virtues will be. But surely, with power and influence comes responsibility. Surely, it can be hard to get things right, but how hard can it be to get it all so wrong.
The exhibition of so much generosity and understanding expended on so much murder troubled me. Touched uncharted shadows and sent arrows across the sky. And the sky changed colours, thunder cracked, the waters billowed. It appeared that, like some pirate of the high sea, a proposition not known about before had been lurking beyond the horizon. According to some, given they had the right credentials, some others now held a special passport on their person. A special passport spawned of hardship, despair and unaddressed grievances. A special passport granting goodwill from influential men and women and express admission to Heaven from God to anyone willing to die in the act of killing. A special passport where I could see none.
And I started wondering what was going on. Pictured towns, deserts, rivers, oceans and islands. And peaks, caves, yards, bridges and burial grounds. And webs of trails winding and twisting in every direction. Bowed, hunched furrows. Dirt. Dead-ends pounded by aching feet. Bad fares and stationary queues. The sick, the poor and desperate. The cheated, scorned, spurned and maligned. The relatives of all who died trying, or died dying to die or died tired of living. The iron chains of the enslaved and shackled hands of the damned. The so hopelessly hurt and shy they ask no questions. The children without nations and the braves of defeated nations. The populations in need of being saved and the populations with nothing to save. And the sky erupted. What if tomorrow these untold armies of unsung soldiers of despair were to decide enough was enough? Having found the expressway to Heaven, determined to buckle-up and buckle down to blow the whole damn place to Kingdom come? And for a moment there, I swear, drowning in bitter waters, I asked myself how come my father had never thought of avenging the cold-blooded legal and organised slaughter of his people? Why, after Auschwitz and Dachau and before no one and nowhere to go, finding it so hard to smile at or pardon you, instead of grabbing a gun to hold up a jeweler and landing eight years in jail for stumbling while getting away, why he had not instead turned himself into a martyr and sought a crowd to ruin and burn? Why, instead of going on bearing it, he hadn't given in to revenge when, having failed to take away his son, the French then did what they could to ensure the son would pay for sins that had nothing to do with him? Why, instead of taking the trouble to provide me shelter and false papers, instead of trying to be a father, to be a family, dad hadn't primed the both of us and, one day, one other dark day, at that time of the year when the good people plan their holidays, why, having primed us, he'd not then walked us into a crowded French Consulate where, at the cost of some heat and the sun turning cold, he could have got us both passports to Heaven in one go? After all, the forecast for the future was grim. The report for the present filled with necessary lies. What if that summer morning in that Alfa Romeo, instead of being armed with false passports, he'd aimed for a busy border post and, with the sun in our eyes, instead of reaching for my knee with a soft "we did it again, son", he'd held up some martyr passport and made straight for Heaven?
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