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.
Her hands were filthy. It seemed like the grime of a lifetime had been packed upon them. Her nails were broken and uneven and seemingly chewed upon repeatedly. Her hair was as filthy as her nails and hands and her face wore patches of filth and smears where she had attempted to cleanse it. Her outstretched hands begged for a living that was scarce to come. Sometimes she wondered whether people would give her more money if she were to be cleaner but then thought the better of it. If she were to clean herself, which would take a lot of trouble to accomplish given the lack of a stable abode, then they might simply think that she did not need the money.
She sat with her hand outstretched in front of the church every day and ostensibly holding her hand out and shaking the jug she usually left at her feet every Sunday. She had noticed that at least on Sundays she got more coins and sometimes even notes. It was as if the Sunday sermons finally reminded people of judgement day and of the need to be kind to the downtrodden whereas the rest of the days their work and other preoccupations mattered more. Sometimes on Sundays she would shuffle in after everyone had gone in for mass and sit at the back of the church listening to the sermon. While some sermons would bring tears to the eyes of the assembly, she would sit there dry-eyed, watching carefully those who let tears flow so as to insist more with them and get some coins when they were on their way out.
She did not care how she looked nor did she care what people thought of her. There was one thing that bothered her though and it was that nobody would address a word to her. It was as if by being forced to beg and looking haggard and unclean she had ceased to become a human being entitled to be part of the living, conversing human beings. She had tried once to talk to a man walking by and he had barely moved as if her voice was totally absent although he had stooped down to put a few coins in the jug in front of her. Another attempt to speak to a young woman had also gone unheard.
One Sunday on her way back to the shelter she realised that more than her lack of means and comfort, it was that human voice addressed to her that she missed the most. She felt like a ghost living in the midst of a flurry of people who hardly had the time to stop by her jug and fill it. She could hear them talk to each other but none graced her with a sentence towards her. That feeling of being a part of something bigger than just herself was what she lacked. That identification with a larger part of the population and validation as a fellow human being was what she craved for now that nobody would look upon her as equal. Her eyes brimmed with tears that blinded her. She stepped down the sidewalk.
The driver rushed out of his car to see whom he had hit. He recoiled at the sight of her bloodied dirty body sprawled at an ungainly angle on the road. Realising she was not dead he kneeled on the ground to see if he could do something. Blood was slowly leaking from her mouth and dripping to the side of her cheek. She seemed to be mumbling something so he put his ear close to her mouth. “Speak to me once”, she said. “Just talk to me like my life matters and you’re sorry”. “I am sorry”, he said. He held her hand. She smiled and closed her eyes. He felt her hand go lifeless as she slowly breathed out her last. He slowly let go of her hand as the ambulance came by to pick up her body. He wondered whether there would be someone attending her funeral and made a mental note to attend. She looked at him from behind. It felt normal now not to be looked at nor talked to.
Ahmed closed his eyes frantically as the girl swayed lasciviously in front of him. He prayed god internally that he would be forgiven to have to witness this terrible display of nudity. There was flesh everywhere, inescapable, palpable, exhilarating and nauseating all at once. He checked himself and thought he should whip himself a hundred times at least for allowing this perversion to make him feel exhilaration. He knew he had no choice as this was his heavenly mission, follow and destroy his target, Senator McMillan. He had no doubt that his mission was heavenly as just the last two nights had shown him what evil he should remove from the Earth. It was a bonus to his mission described earlier as mainly the removal of a hindrance to the motion on the reinstatement of free trade with his country which had suffered sanctions earlier owing to the very radical views of its leader. Senator Mc Millan had opposed the motion ferociously arguing that if they allowed such radical leaders to get away with such atrocities committed and with the disguised support of terrorism then there would be no point in applying sanctions in the first place.
Senator Mc Millan had a wife and 6 children as he was visibly enacting in his personal life his goal of being an example for his community to further his no abortion campaign. Ahmed thought to himself that this was perhaps the only thing that united him and this man, the idea that a baby’s life was precious. Senator Mc Millan’s life on the other hand was worthless it seemed as he did not really live up to his ideals. A good father and church going, charity funding person in public, he was actually a depraved man who loved to have women in a dance bar step with high heels on his back in private rooms where they danced for him and a few others.
What else they did he knew not as he could only see from a distance what was going on and that too behind half closed lids as he felt he could be tainted by watching fully this display of exuberant depravity. Ahmed had succeeded in seducing one of the waitresses at the bar and she had let him in on the secret life of Senator McMillan one day as well as given him access so he may view this himself one night. He had made her believe that he was a journalist and that he was in love with her, would marry her and respected her too much to have any form of sexual contact before they were married.
The barmaid, Amanda, was elated to have found her knight in shining armour. Every day for a week now she had waited breathlessly for his arrival when it was her time to go home and surely enough there he had been, escorting her to her residence and then kissing her hand before saying goodbye. She could hardly believe her good fortune at having found this absolute gem of a human being who was so knowledgeable on a vast number of subjects and always so humble as well as so caring in introducing her to all these concepts.
When she had first confessed that she had barely made it to high school as she had had to work after the death of her father, he had become very emotional mentioning that education should be a basic human right and that all people should be entitled to get to at least university level without hindrance. He had mentioned at the time that if he had his way, things would change hugely in society. He had talked with such passionate intensity that he had seduced her even more and it was therefore without the slightest qualm that she had broken the golden rule of privacy she had maintained at the bar for years and allowed him into the inner room.
On the third night he visited the bar’s inner room, he told Amanda not to stay in the room after she had escorted him in and she agreed although slightly fearful that he might step out of line if she did not keep a close watch on him. He had promised however that he would only take a few pictures and nobody would ever know that she had been the one to allow him in. She left as he started drawing out small boxes she presumed were tools for his photography from his knapsack.
As soon as Amanda had left, Ahmed started putting together the mini-bomb kit. He wanted to make sure that all the occupants of the room were killed and not just Senator Mc Millan. He did not think they deserved to die with him and had therefore decided at the beginning of the week not to use his suicide vest but just to put it in a corner of the room. He moved stealthily across the floor to the other exit Amanda had showed him after securing the bomb under one of the tables.
The group of men and women were so engaged in their activities that hardly anyone noticed him. Ahmed went through them, eyes almost fully shut, shying away from the display of flesh. He could not help but notice again that there was so much flesh everywhere, white, pink, rosy or reddened by streaks of what seemed a whip. A chill went through him and his forehead broke into sweat as he thought back to how he had whipped himself for straying and another image of a whip on pink offered soft fleshy skin crossed his mind like a lightning bolt and he shuddered with a mixture of pleasure and horror at that thought. He was glad it would be soon over and he would never have to think about this again.
As he reached the other door, he quietly let himself out and engaged the detonator’s mechanism. It was set to just twenty seconds as he knew the charge was just enough to blast everyone in the room and he would be safe behind the solid door. Only a small oval porthole in it allowed one to see through it. Just seconds before the room ignited with the blast, he saw Amanda enter it from the other side looking for him. A chill ran through him and he closed his eyes as the blast shook the ground under his feet. When he opened them again, there were pieces of flesh on the porthole. He knew he should be leaving fast now as the police would soon be there and the bodyguards were running towards the place from the other side. Like in a dream, he opened the door and looked into the room. He could not distinguish in the pile of flesh on the ground what belonged to whom. He saw pieces of what was probably the short black skirt that Amanda wore and knew that the pieces of flesh there must be some of her. He knew he should leave but he wanted to find the rest of her. He was not sure how to distinguish the pieces. There was flesh everywhere. He closed his eyes but could still see flesh everywhere under his eyelids.
Ahmed’s walkie talkie buzzed as his friends wanted to congratulate him on a successful mission. It was not every day that such a junior member of the team got to bring down one of their heavy weight targets so quickly. Their leader had initially hesitated to send an unexperienced young man into the field but Ahmed had quickly convinced him with his intelligence and strategical thinking. Besides, most of them were already known to the police and none of them would have got this close to their target without being noticed. The walkie talkie kept buzzing but Ahmed did not answer it. He did not move either but remained prostrated on the floor, his eyes seeking pieces of her.
When the police finally came, they found him in the same position. They had an inkling that he might be involved in this and he was anyway their only suspect for now as nobody else who did not bear identification was anywhere near the room. Ahmed allowed himself to be hauled up by the policemen. They seemed to be asking him questions but he could barely understand what they were saying. All he could focus on was how much flesh was all over them. He blinked, attempting to cancel out those vast stretches of skin from his mind’s eye but he could only see flesh. He blinked again trying to remember what Amanda’s face looked like when she turned towards him with a smile but all he could see was pieces of flesh.
One of the policemen answered the walkie talkie which had been buzzing again and realised that Ahmed was indeed a terrorist and that his friends were waiting around the corner to retrieve him from the location. The whole group was caught in no time and tried for acts of terrorism. During the whole trial, Ahmed remained mute while his friends yelled out death threats to the prosecutor and the judges, warning them with all hells fires if they sentenced them. When the judge came to the question of whether any of the condemned had anything to say and it was Ahmed’s turn, he looked at the judge blankly and upon the repeating of the question, he screamed “Flesh, there was so much flesh. It was everywhere, everywhere” before toppling over, unconscious, frothing at the mouth.
When he came to again, the guards hissed at him and told him that he was going to be fried in a few days, just like he had fried all those innocent people inside that room. Every day they made sure they came in and described to him how he was going to be friend while they brought him his meals. Ahmed did not answer anything but just prayed silently in his corner until they left and then ate some of what they had brought. On the final day, when it was time for the execution, they came for him jeeringly, expecting him to give in to fear finally but it was the same indifferent Ahmed that met their eyes. They pulled him across the corridor slightly more brutally than they pulled other prisoners who were going to be executed. He was not just a killer but an emblematic loathsome figure of a society that they did not understand and abhorred which practiced a radical and prehistoric version of a faith they could barely begin to fathom.
When they started securing his bonds, he closed his eyes, only opening them again after they had finished securing the bonds holding his head against the chair. A tremor passed through his frame and his eyes glazed over with tears as he saw Amanda on the glass pane in front of him. He had only known her for a week but a million images of their times together jolted through his body at the same time that the electricity surged within it. He wished he had known her earlier and perhaps then, he would have truly married her and taken her to his village in the mountains where they could have raised pigeons and babies and he could have taught in the local school. Perhaps after all, it was love that was the answer to all that hate in the world as she had told him once, her hand soft on his. He could smell the burning of his flesh while he experienced the searing pain in his loins. He closed his eyes again, his eyelids imprinted with the face of Amanda, no longer pieces of flesh but a fleshy landscape of love as she turned towards him, her smile restored.
A short (10 min play) play by Geetha Balvannanathan (email@example.com)
17 September 2016
ERIC: SEEN AND HEARD, AN AGING MAN GRAPPLING WITH THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE AND LEFT ALONE ON HIS BIRTHDAY
BARTENDER: SEEN AND NOT HEARD, HE HAS PICKED ERIC OFF THE FLOOR OF HIS BAR COUNTLESS TIMES AND KEEPS WARNING HIM NOT TO DRINK TOO MUCH.
TWO ANGELS: NEITHER SEEN NOR HEARD BUT ERIC TRANSLATES THEIR COMMUNICATIONS
Setting: A bar initially and then a room which is dark and small.
Time: Beginning of evening
Opening scene in a dim lit bar. Eric is seated alone under a spotlight and drinking and then all of a sudden he drops face first on the table.
Lights go out.
Lights come back again only on Eric.
He is confused and trying to look all around him but can barely see anything.
ERIC: (SPEAKING TO HIMSELF) Man, that was one heck of a drink. The doctors said I should not have anymore but I can still stomach a good one. And that stupid bartender. Well, that’s what happens when you become a creature of habit. You go to the same old bar and the barman starts to get chummy and the next thing you know he’s the preacher from the church doubled with your step-mother from hell freshly out of her grave with that pointing finger telling you not to drink or it’ll be the death of you.
(looks alarmed at something on his right) what the… who are you? Angels? You don’t look very much like Angels and what the heck… I’m dead? I’m dead! It’s my birthday. Christ! I cannot be dead! (turns back to the two angels and turns back to the audience) I’m dead! Just a drink or two and wham! I’m dead. Now what? You’re going to withdraw my license or ask me to walk on the straight line in the dark (snickering to himself)
What? I can keep the humour for later? Oh come on lads, you can take a good joke, can’t you? Can’t you? I mean come on Gabriel, Gab! I am sure you must have a great sense of humour…No… OK so where am I? Huh? In purgatory? Why purgatory? What am I doing here and why am I not in heaven? My wife and my mother always told me I was a good man. A good man who had gone wrong sometimes but a good man all the same.
What? I have to think of three good deeds during my lifetime and then I get to go to Heaven? Only three good deeds? You are sure? Three good deeds. Okay, okay. Three good deeds. I have done three good deeds. No problem. Three good deeds….
When you say three good deeds, you mean good as in good for whom. Huh? Good deeds are something that you do for someone else? Ok.. Three good deeds… Three good deeds…. Three good deeds. One two, three…. Three good deeds… Yeah coming coming. Geeze calm down. I’m getting there. Don’t worry, I’ll find three good deeds to talk about in those 8 minutes left. I thought in eternity you had no time and now you’re counting the minutes? What? This is purgatory, not heaven? It has almost the same rules as on Earth. Okay, okay okay. I am getting there.
(Scratches head, keeps thinking over and over but cannot find anything to say). Whaaaat? You’re already fed up? I’m just starting! One good deed is enough? Okay okay okay. I’m sure I’ve done one good deed in my life (raises voice again addressing the angels) I can hear you snickering over there. I really don’t find you very angel-like you know. You strike me rather as two gossiping women getting their back on someone. I did nothing to you fellas, why’re you taking it out on me. If you have a problem with your boss for overtime, take it out on him, not on me.
OK here we go. It was in 2011, 15 years ago. My 25 year-old nephew came to me and talked to me about this beautiful girl whom he loved dearly. She was such a poor and delicate thing. She was working very hard at Wallmart, was underpaid and was trying to graduate at the same time. I took pity on her and funded her so that she could be able to finish her education without having to go work at Wallmart anymore. How’s that for a good deed.
What do you mean that was not exactly a good deed? Okay okay okay. I slept with her but no harm in that. What do you mean I did give her the money but only because I made her my mistress. Why is that a bad thing? She had a sugar daddy taking care of her what else could she wish for? She did not have to work anymore and I gave her money for her siblings too… What do you mean I should have given him the money so that he could marry her and they would have both been happy. I had no problem with her marrying him at all. She could have married him if she wanted to. I was not the jealous type. After all, I was married myself so I would not blame her for being married. He neither. After all, he found her first (snickering to himself). What? He killed himself? Roger? Na… you got it all wrong. He killed himself way after she became my mistress and it was an accident, his car drove off the road, skid right off the road because of the ice on the road I think. It had nothing to do with me at all…What do you mean it had everything to do? What? He tried to kill himself many times and only succeeded that Christmas eve? I remember thinking how odd that he should have just drove off the road, it was not even a difficult bend for Roger who was such a great driver (his voice trails off)
I guess that one’s completely out, right?
Okay okay One good deed, one good deed, one good deed. Yes, got it. I remember the summer of 1983 Helen was giving birth to our first baby and I was of great help that night. What do you mean how? I gave energy and vigor to the midwife who helped Helen deliver. A wham slam in the pantry is hardly a good deed? Why not? She was energized, I was energized and God knows Helen was energized when I went to the room and took care of her and of our baby daughter. What the midwife? She delivered my child? Yes, my child so what? She delivered mine and Helen’s child. Not our child? Not Helen’s and mine but hers and mine? The midwife’s and mine? We had a child together? 7 years of trying to get Helen pregnant naturally and then another 5 long years with in vitro and with that one night wham bam the midwife had my child? Okay okay okay, that has to be a good deed right? You’re the ones that keep saying that children are a gift of God and have only good in their heart. If I brought that into the world then that must count as a good deed. She killed herself? Oh come on man. Gabriel? Gab! She killed herself? Why would she do that? The guilt?`! She was married? So what? I was married too.. She had a conscience. Oh please, don’t give me that conscience smoncience thing… (shakes his head as apparently the angels are not happy). Not a good deed….
Okay okay okay I got one. It was the spring of 1959 and there was this young thing. She was selling two different sets of cookies one to sponsor her scout club trip to Canada and the other one to contribute a gift for her mother’s wedding. I took both sets of cookies and she didn’t even have to beg me to. What do you mean I did not pay for them properly? She did not ask me to pay something specific. She just said give what your heart guides you to. Well my heart did not guide me to anywhere else than a penny at the time. She should have been more specific. Anyway, it is not like I stole them from her. That does count as a good deed doesn’t it? No? No! Okay. Okay. Okay.
Winter of 1969. I remember my fiancée Amy, she was crying. I really wanted to have some good time but her dad had just died a week ago and she was not in the mood and she started crying so I sat there listened to her cry and then consoled her. There, that is your good deed. Me, Eric, I triumphed over my bestial instincts and did a selfless act for another. What? It was not me? It was not me! You’re right! It was Philip, our neighbor. He had always been a good bloke. Always happy to help others. Even his wife, she was a very good woman. It was not me. I had left the apartment. I was angry she was not giving in and was upset. I remember… Amy.. I listened to her sobs from behind the door. I wanted to go in and take her in my arms and console her, tell her everything would be alright but I didn’t. I was just angry she could not put a lid on her feelings and be the sexy woman I had always known. I failed miserably. Amy… Then I went to the bar to drink. That’s how I started drinking every other day. The bartender sent me off saying I was too young to spoil my night drinking myself silly. I went back to the apartment and Philip was there consoling her. At the time I was too drunk. I thought he was seducing her. I was hateful. I told her so many awful things. Amy… I do not deserve to go to heaven. I think you should put me straight in hell. That’s all I deserve. I cannot think of one good deed that I did. Amy….Why? Amy.. If only…What? You can’t decide? Another test? Go back? Go back where?
Lights go off, thunder resounds. Lights come back and Eric finds himself back in the bar with the same bartender
Back here with him. What use. Stirring up all those feelings and coming back to this lonely birthday party with no party in it. What do you mean what birthday party young man. Can’t you see? It’s the old villainous Eric as you usually say. What do you mean what old. It’s me! Eric! Sir? Sir? You’re calling me sir? You’ve lifted my old carcass off the floor so many times and thrown me out of here and you’re calling me sir. What old? Me! (turns towards the mirror at the bar) Oh my oh my! Yes! (addresses himself). You sexy beast! (runs out of the bar yelling at the top of his lungs) Amyyyyy… here I come!!!
The song plays in the background “I believe in miracles, you sexy babe, you sexy babe”…
You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) by Hot Chocolate