Tales of the Wretched – Fantine Chapter 3 : A way out
28 November 2017
Michel enters his car, puts on the radio and clasps his hands together to stop them from trembling. The countenance he had kept earlier when meeting Fantine and Patrick falls apart as he is flooded by memories and deeply hidden desires. After all those years of searching for her, he has finally found her and perhaps, just perhaps, he can make things happen between them. He remembers that she used to feel some sort of pity for him and would always protect him but back then already he had fallen in love with her. She was his hero and the love of his life. He remembers the day she had put on her jasmine perfume for the first time and how he had loved its smell. He had loved it to the extent that he got into a broil with the Ugly trio just so that she would come rescue him and he could smell that scent again while she interposed herself between him and the Ugly trio.
Slowly Michel extracts a photograph from a brown bag he retrieved from the glove box. It is a class photograph and in it Fantine and he are sitting side by side among several other classmates. He looks at the photograph lovingly caressing the contours of Fantine’s face. What would she think of him if she knew how madly he was in love with her and how desperately he had wanted her to be his. All those years looking for her had not reduced on bit of his longing for her. She pervaded his every sense and was the motivating factor of all those days at the gym when he sought to get a body that she would admire. He wanted her to be proud of him, to love him, to find him worthy of her and to finally become his.
Michel puts the photograph back in the glove box and eases himself out of the car again. He walks rapidly towards the shawarma place where Fantine is still finishing her shawarma plate. If she is surprised when she sees him come back she does not let it show on her face as she welcomes him back.
Hello Michel. Did you forget something
You. I mean, no, I could never forget you. What I mean is I have come back for you
What do you mean?
I want to make you a proposal. I want you to be mine
I don’t do the paid mistress part. It is not my cup of tea as I earn more doing what I do.
I don’t mean that. I mean a real proposal. I want you to be my wife
Fantine draws a sharp breath in but says nothing. In the earlier years she used to fantasize that some man would come rescue her; someone who would make her such a proposal and she would be able to live in a small house with children and a man to make a home for but it had never happened. As the years had gone by, she had got used to doing what she did and ultimately come to terms with it.
I don’t think that I can accept that Michel, she says softly
I used to have that dream once but now I am used to what I do. Besides, who would pay me and arrange for the money to be sent back home if I stop working
I would. I will give you all the money to match your earnings and even try to surpass it. I am well paid you know, as a commissioner
You have no idea how much I make. How could you match it
I am not only offering you money. I am offering you a way out. Don’t you feel tired sometimes and wish you could do something else?
Fantine bites her lip. Yes, she does feel sometimes terribly tired and wishes that she were doing something else but that thought is soon forgotten as she focuses on the outcome for her mother.
You are right but I know I can count on myself while I don’t know if I can count on you
I will not betray you. I will never leave you
If you knew how many men come here that are married, you would understand why I find it difficult to believe you. I am sure they too told their wives at some point that they would never leave them.
I have some savings. If you don’t believe me I can give you all my savings in advance so you are assured that you would never lack money
Fantine bites her lip again. In all the years she had dreamed of someone coming and rescuing her she had imagined a grandiose declaration and firework everywhere. This seems so calm and measured that it somehow feels unreal. Yet she can feel her heart warm up to the idea and Michel is a handsome man though graying. She holds her hand out to him and whispers that she might just take his way out even though she does not know where it will lead the both of them. Michel cries tears of joy and holds her against his heart. He does not care what the men working under him will think or say. All that matters is that Fantine will be his at last.
Tales of the Wretched : Fantine – Chapter 2 : Meeting Michel
27 October 2017
Patrick suddenly squeezed her hand startling her out of her thoughts regarding the new comissioner.
There he is, he says. What is he doing here.
Where, she says. I don’t see any man
Don’t turn your head now as he is several feet away behind you. You can look later
What is he wearing ?
Brown pants with a beige shirt. I guess he is off duty today.
Slowly Fantine turns when Patrick signals she can and sees the back of a man who is graying and whose clothes seem starched. While she is appraising him, she realises that he is doing the same. She had forgotten that there was a large mirror on the wall of the shawarma dine-in and now she sees that he clearly is watching her watching him. She feels a bit embarrassed at being caught peering and becomes even more unsettled when she sees him stand up and walk their way. Fantine hopes that he will just pass by them but he stops at their table.
Hello Fantine, I am Michel, do you remember me ? says the commissioner
You two know each other, questions Patrick
I am sorry, I don’t know who you are, says Fantine
I am Michel, your previous neighbours’ son whom you used to help with studies. You used to also give me some of your lunch when the ugly trio beat me and took mine and you used to defend me when they picked on me in your presence. I could remember your face anywhere.
Michel ! she gasped. He looked anything but skinny now. In fact he was looking pretty fit and handsome while he had been such a sickly boy back then. She remembered rescuing him countless times back at school in Caissargues near Nîmes from an ugly trio that had called themselves infernitrio and used to terrorise most of the pupils at school.
Yes, it is me, Michel, my dear Fantine. How glad I am to see you. I asked your mother countless times where you had gone and she only recently gave me the address you wrote from
You will not…
No, I won’t. I understood from the address that you might be… although I hoped..
You hoped I was indeed a seamstress. What do you know about the life we lead ? We earn our bread like you earn yours. It is a job like any other job. Why should you hope me to be a seamstress where I would earn less than one third of the money working my fingers and eyes off three times as fast as I work the other parts of my body in this profession.
Fantine, I did not mean to be demeaning. It was just a surprise. You were so bright at school. I thought you would have done something else
Well I am what I am. I am not doing anything else
Please, Fantine, do not think that I think the less of you. I have always kept you in mind as a dear dear one and it will stay like that forever
I am sorry I got annoyed. I just…
It is okay. I can imagine how you feel…
Patrick had followed their verbal exchange with a strange mixture of curiosity, perplexity and cunning. When they had finished and Michel bade them goodbye after the heated exchanges had cooled down, he pointed towards Fantine and smiled knowingly
I know exactly what the commissioner can be given now and it won’t cost you a thing
What do you mean ?
What do you mean me ?
It’s your safety. He will not ask us why we are touring the Rue des Pâquis more often and neglecting other areas because he will be happy you are being preserved. We will just say that there tends to be more fighting in this area and that is it.
Fantine bites her nails absent-mindedly like she always does when nervous and wonders whether this is possible. Surely enough Michel was very grateful towards her for having protected him all those years at school but they had lost touch for over 13 years to the extent that she had not even recognised him. Yet it did seem possible as he had recognised her despite the long period of time they had not been in contact with one another. She looked back at Patrick and swung towards him the gift he had refused earlier and he beamed.
Fantine sized Patrick up and wondered whether she should shift protection from him to Michel but was sure that none of the team who had been getting gifts would be too happy with the change. Besides, she did not expect that Michel would be the type to authorise illicit concentration of outings of the police force in one area to the detriment of another area. Patrick stood up, the gift safely tucked into his breast pocket and the other packet of gifts jutting out of his coat pocket. He smiled at her and she could see again that same cunning run through his eyes. She sensed that he had guessed what had gone through her mind earlier but he chose not to say anything. He kissed her with a peck on the cheek and bid her goodbye. Slowly Michel extracted himself from the shadow where he had been hiding watching both Fantine and Patrick and started walking towards his car…
Tales of the Wretched: Fantine – Chapter 1: Haunting Rue des Pâquis
15 October 2017
Fantine quickly put on her coat and rushed down the stairs, her suicidally high shoes almost tripping her as she ran down the narrow staircase. She was slightly irritated at her mother for staying so long on the phone with her that she missed the first half hour of the prime time. This was the time between five o’ clock and seven o’ clock when most of the customers came as they could still invent a late evening at the office excuse without it looking suspicious. It was now half past five and Fantine was still not out on the Rue des Pâquis where her regulars would surely be picked up by some of the newer girls who did not respect quarters.
As Fantine emerged from her building sure enough she could see some of her regular customers being chatted up by the new girls. She rushed towards them and shooed off the girls who did not dare question her authority as she was one of the older girls in the neighbourhood and benefited from police protection as one of her boyfriends was a police man and she also knew how to pay the others without the related money looking like a bribe. Indeed, although practising as a sex worker was allowed by the government and followed a strict set of hygiene and other rules, it was a criminal offence to bribe a policeman.
Fantine always chose an appropriate gift that the policemen could convert into cash as she made sure she gave them something that could be refunded at the counter. It was usually costly perfumes, cigars and expensive clothing that her boyfriend gave to his colleagues on her behalf. One could think of him as her beau but strangely enough Fantine never introduced him as such but always referred to him as agent Patrick. Although there were not huge fights in those alleys, it was always good to be able to count on the police doing a tour of the streets and Fantine felt better that they always came up and down the Rue des Pâquis several times per night so that no customers got any strange ideas.
Several weeks before Fantine had been late for her regular haunt of the Pâquis because agent Patrick had paid her a visit but it was seldom that he resorted to passing time with her in her small bedroom. Today, she could see him at the corner of the restaurant where they usually met to chat casually and smoke. Agent Patrick liked chatting with her because she was one of the few women he could talk to without feeling inferior. All the other women intimidated him and he felt too shy and awkward to start a conversation with them. With Fantine on the other hand, the words flowed freely and he could feel the burden come of his chest.
It was thanks to these conversations that Fantine grew to know absolutely everything about agent Patrick. She sometimes felt more like his psychotherapist than his girlfriend and he surely did everything to make it feel that way aside from the very rare times when they would share a certain form of intimacy. Fantine signalled to agent Patrick that she would need some time with her current clients before she could come and chat with him. He did not voice out anything but signalled back that he would be waiting and indicated the number three. To Fantine it was clear that he was telling her to come after her first three clients and she mouthed back yes.
Her first client was finicky and insisted that she bathe first which she had already done before going out but she humoured him and started doing so while reminding him that her charge was per the hour. He asked her to bathe slower so that he could watch her while she did so. Fantine started to soap her body much slower and it seemed to please the young man who told her that his wife was pregnant and he had liked to watch her shower but now he felt she looked horrid and missed those moments.
After her shower, Fantine lay down and started compiling mentally her list of things to do as she usually did when someone shared their emotional secrets with her. It was her way of keeping a distance with all the emotional surcharge that was poured at her by so many clients. Very few clients dealt with her as a commodity because most of her regular ones had come to know and had recommended her as a witty woman who was also soulful and could be trusted with secrets. Fantine on the other hand was not always happy to carry around these little secrets and these peeks into the sad parts of her clients’ lives. She preferred to see the clients as a means to an end and that end was having enough money to buy a house back in her hometown, get married and have enough money to live off when she would become old.
Some of the girls laughed when she shared her views on retirement because they could not see how anybody would want to marry a prostitute but Fantine would also laugh shake her shoulders and tell them that nobody in her hometown knew what she was really doing for a living. Her mother had told all the folks at home that she was a seamstress and Fantine laughed inward thinking that yes, she was definitely stitching back the burst seams of men whose life was often in shambles.
After her third client, Fantine showered again and went to meet agent Patrick. He did not seem in a very good mood today and was sulking rather than talking as he usually would. She ordered a shawarma meal for both of them and put the money on the counter between them. Next to the money she also laid the monthly bag of gifts for agent Patrick’s colleagues but he pushed it away.
We have a new commissioner, he said
So what, she answered
He has mentioned rumours of police haunting the Rue des Pâquis
Is that a crime?
No, but receiving money in exchange for their extensive visits to this area is so we need to tone down the gifts or find another way
What about including him after finding out what he likes best?
He’s one of those tough nuts to crack and we were told that he does everything by the book
Fantine sighed and looked at the other customers of the dine-in. They were either clients that she recognised or some tourists. Funnily enough, despite being the red district area of Geneva, the Pâquis attracted a lot of tourists because of the artistic atmosphere there. On occasion though some fights would start and it was better that the police be around to make sure nobody got seriously hurt. She knew from experience that the men who haunted these streets did not have much to lose and often thought of women, especially prostitutes as the right target for their unjustified fury after a few drinks. She sighed again and started thinking of what she could do to make sure the new commissioner would not change the status quo…
Tales of the wretched: Ashok and his mother – Chapter 3: A place to call home
5 October 2017
After he had eaten all of the bread, Annie washed her son’s face with the little water in the bottle she had carried from the shelter and hugged him. She then lay him back in his pram and fell asleep next to him on the mattress on the floor. The otherwise silent night was interrupted only by cooing of her son who seemed to be questioning her presence and to which she responded by a croaking type of cooing that seemed to delight her son. Slowly, both fell into a deep slumber.
The next day, Annie went to the shelter again, feeling more emboldened by the previous night’s success. She looked for Ashok and finding him there volunteered a smile which somehow lit her otherwise crumpled and unhappy face. Ashok smiled back at her and moved closer, hoping that she would tell him more about herself. It was not that she interested him in any way personally but somehow he felt that if he could help her, then it would be like compensating the time when he was not able to help his mother. Today the meal was vegetable patties and he had saved a couple for her which she took with gratitude and slid into her bra.
As she made her way out after the meal, Ashok followed her stealthily and found out where she dwelt the night. His eyes took in keenly the presence of the child and the feeding scene that brought tears to his eyes as it reminded him of a time when his own mother had fed him like that. He retreated soundlessly and promised himself to come the next day so as not to startle her during a timing when most women would feel vulnerable, especially that she would know he had followed her. He did not want her to mistake him for a stalker although funnily enough it could be viewed exactly that way as he had followed her from the shelter.
The next morning when he arrived he was surprised to see a bulldozer on the premises knocking down the building. He started running towards the house before he was stopped by one of the workers.
You can’t go in there Sir, said the worker
There’s a woman and her child in there
Nobody lives in this place Sir, it is a deserted building and we had put the warning signs that this building would be knocked down today for any squatters that might still want to use the premises
I tell you there is a woman with her baby in there
The workers stopped and Ashok raced inside to where he had seen Annie last with her baby. Sure enough she was there lying on the mattress with her baby next to her, oblivious of the fact that the building was about to cave in on her. Ashok woke her up and the trio left the building closely followed by the workers. One of them who seemed to be in charge mentioned they would have to report the incident to social workers as there was a baby involved but Ashok mentioned that there was no need for that as he would take in Annie and the baby. The man resisted but Ashok and the other workers sided together to convince him that the matter was better solved this way.
Annie followed Ashok to his home wondering why he was being kind. Many thoughts raced across her half-dazed mind on what may be the reasons: was he a weirdo, would he hurt her but that thought disappeared as soon as it surfaced, would he attempt to pimp her off, etc. Meanwhile Ashok just glanced at her from time to time sitting behind with her baby in her lap and the seatbelt fastened on top. He thought to himself that he would need to buy a proper baby seat now. For some reason it created a tight knot in his neck which was not uncomfortable. On arriving home, he opened the car door for her and took the baby from her while she eased herself out. He could see that it was a long time that she had not been in a car from the awkward way in which she came out as if emerging from a pool.
Ashok put the baby back in his pram that he retrieved from the trunk of the car and pushed the pram along while Annie was taking in the surroundings still dazed. This was a nicer neighbourhood than any she had been in aside from that neighbourhood a long time ago when she had worked in a beautiful office and earned a lot of money. She sighed thinking that sometimes one ruins one’s own life with some very small mistakes that cumulate over time. She could not even remember how she had slowly got into debt and how it had lead her to prison. She could not even recall properly the time after that when she had had a child with a man who had then abandoned her. Slowly but surely her descent into her wretched state had finally led into living on the streets with her baby.
When they reached the house, Ashok eased the baby out of the pram and put the child in his mother’s arms. He then proceeded to show her the bathroom mentioning that she could bathe the child there while he would fetch some clothes. He left her and the child and rapidly went to a convenience store to fetch some food as well as some clothes both for Annie and her child. Upon his return he could hear loud splashing and when he knocked on the bathroom door Annie mentioned he should not come in so he mentioned he would put the clothes on the floor and waited in the living room. Shortly after he had started putting together a meal, Annie entered with her baby. Ashok was surprised to note that she looked less grumpy and was almost pretty though her face was still puffed up. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
You may consider this place your home, said Ashok
Thank you. I am very grateful, she said
You are most welcome
Annie could not hold back her tears and rushed to Ashok and hugged him tight, feverishly repeating may God bless him to which he answered that he already felt blessed because his mother was surely smiling now from where she was.