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 mary 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…
Alone in the Dark – Flaer Smin