Desolation

Gail Jones

1.
A melancholy seriousness settles on the faces of people attending concerts; it is a look both distracted and concentrated, disturbed and imperturbable. Something says: we shall endure this, it will eventually pass; we shall orient our serried faces to the irresistible stage,and hope for suspension in the glorious no-time of music. Everyone is the same; everyone feels this. Concerts impose a rude aura of collectivity and the tense AC/DC of the serious/glorious.

 

She had noticed it last night at a piano recital, in which a slim Chinese woman, beautifully intense, played Rachmaninoff with super-human celerity; and she notices it here, listening to Death in Vegas. Faces shining in the dark, riveted, young, are replicating the expression. The music they are listening to is electronically synthesized, and has a quality of pounding and insistent stammer: the squeal of a keyboard and the whine of electric guitars are encased in an over-amplified throb.

Repetition, repetition, repetition, she thinks.

On the stage, absurdly familiar, is a skull-and-crossbones flag, and behind it hangs a screen of fluctuating and synchronized projections. Images loop, and loop again, then accelerate to crescendo. There are soldiers marching in formation, dancers whirling out of focus, machinery, light bulbs, a weather balloon ascending.

She wonders what meaning operates here, that employs the visual as mere flash. The bald head of the keyboard player is her stable sign; throughout the concert it is variously and fantastically lit—red, blue, purple and then gold—but it remains somehow definite, a human globe, a wonderfully absolute, pure, and untechnical thing.

 

Ragged applause: then the system of repetitions restarts.

There is too much sound and too much light: she is feeling denuded and swathed in excess. Ordinary and strobe lights rake the dark crowd, and at some point this young woman, who has come to the concert alone, covers her eyes with one hand to counter the bluish-light blindness. Even with her eyes closed she can still see the fulgurous strobe, and she is even more willfully and emphatically alone; she is locked into some solitary concert and closed to community. She is a foreigner, people will know it, she does not belong here.

 

Someone reaches over and holds gently her other hand.

The young woman can feel the touch, which she takes as a gesture of solicitude. Perhaps, seeing her shade her eyes, someone has imagined her distressed. Perhaps it is simple kindness, a vague gesture of concert solidarity. When she reopens her eyes, blinking against the renewed brightness, a man is standing beside her: an Algerian, possibly, or an Indian, or a Moroccan. They are listening to music in Paris, foreign together. The venue for the concert is the Elysee Montmartre, an old cabaret—belle-époque-looking, even in dereliction—a hall gutted and transformed for dance parties and concerts. The plaster ceiling is decorated with eight women’s faces. They are gigantic and smiling and have flowing fin de siècle hairstyles; scarlet lights sit at their chins, so that they appear mean and infernal.

 

Here they are then, an instant couple, beneath eight scarlet-faced women. The man is staring at the stage; he has not attempted conversation. The music is now so loud that it has materialized as a physical force; the wooden floor vibrates with seismic shivers that move upwards through everybody.

Quaker, the woman is thinking. This is like being possessed.

The Elysee Montmartre is becoming hot and stuffy. Patrons are removing layers of clothes and buying more beer. The room is filled with cigarette smoke and everyone wears black. Afraid that she will faint or swoon, overcome by whatever bodily, existential, or foolish conundrum, the woman pulls the foreign man with her, drags him through the dense crowd, and leaves the building, still quaking.

 

2.
How to tell this compassionately? How to preserve his vulnerability?

It was a small encounter, saturated with contingent sadness.

 

In the street the strangers faced each other, mutually embarrassed. They were exactly the same height, and she has discovered that he is handsome and possibly ten years her junior. Light from pink neon burnished his features.

Eleanor, she said, and extended her hand formally.

Rashid. I am Rashid.

He took her hand again and performed an Indian affirmation, a brief sideways tilt and motion of the head.

Australia.

India.

We rhyme, she joked.

You have excellent cricketers, Rashid said politely.

Cricketers, yes.

International value; how arcane it is, how transparent.

 

She was relieved to speak English, but disconcerted by her own uncharacteristic assertiveness. She was already wondering if she would sleep with him, this Rashid, this young man, this youth she had dragged from a loud concert as her hysterical accessory. They left for a nearby bar, walking side by side, careful not to touch each other or forge obligation, and then soon after, more trusting, to his rented room. It was a pitifully small studio, on the fifth floor of an old building in the nineteenth arrondissement. Paint blistered on the walls; unintelligible graffiti inscribed all the surfaces. In Rashid’s room the lighting was yellow-brown and spilled from a glass tulip depending at an angle from the wall. The air was hung with persistent scents of Indian cooking. There was a small basin, a single chair, a pile of stacked dirty dishes.

Eleanor fought to repress a powerful intuition: What am I doing here?

Then she noticed a shudder, like an aftershock from the Death in Vegas concert. She assumed it was the Metro, somewhere deep beneath them. She heard its thunderous sound trailing into the night, and imagined the tunnel, and the tired driver, and the headlights flashing on walls lined with innards of cable and pipe, then the sequence of lit chambers and dark tunnels, lit chambers and dark tunnels, repeating on an efficient exhausted circuit; and she saw then the passengers of many nations embarking and disembarking, and heard the shoosh of electric doors, opening and closing; and she thought repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition . . .

You get used to it, said Rashid. You get used to the Metro.

 

He prepared cups of tea in the Indian style, milky and with sugar, and they sat together on the single bed, sipping and making self conscious small talk.

When they made love, it was in darkness; Rashid was shy and inexpert. Eleanor held his body closely, but he felt absent, anonymous.

The kindness of strangers. (She almost adopts a southern accent.)

Pardon? said Rashid.

In the companionable quiet, she could hear a dripping tap and his soft, murmurous breathing.

And then, clothed in darkness, Rashid began to confess:

 

I should tell you, Miss Eleanor, that I have great shame, he announced in a low and slightly hoarse whisper. I was sent to France by my father—at huge expense—to do a computer course, technology: that was the deal. Why not United States or England? He knew a family here. They said they would look out for me. Take me in. For the first two months or so I tried very hard but my French was poor and I could not understand the technical terms. I studied, and I tried, but fell further and further behind. The other students in the course were all confident and cool. They called me le singe, the monkey, and they laughed behind my back. Finally, I could stand it no more, so I left the course. I did not tell the Guptas, the family I was staying with—kind people, good people, from Bombay like my family—but left every day with my hair combed and my books under my arm. I would wait in the parks, or wander the streets, looking into shop windows. I became an expert at wandering and wasting time.

But then one day I received a letter from home, from my father, asking me how I was doing—was I well? was I successful?—and I felt suddenly such shame and such deception. I left the Guptas that day and simply disappeared. I knew another Indian, a Bengali—he rents this place—who agreed to let me use his room while I looked for work. He works on night shift, so I use the bed at night, and he has it in the day. I have found work here and there—I am a cleaner, part-time, at the Elysee Montmartre, so I get to see all the concerts—but because I am illegal, I am poorly paid. I have no hope at all of repaying my father. No hope at all of saving a fare back home. And I live in dread of seeing the Guptas appear on the street. I avoid the Indian areas, and get my friend to do the shopping.

I am stranded here; I am lost. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I feel I have become invisible.

 

Eleanor held Rashid in the now abysmal darkness. He curled away from her, his body distant and demonstrating shame. She became aware once again of the Metro, shuddering the whole building. It rolled beneath them both, in its corridor of hot air, in its unceasing, predictable circumnavigation of the city, carrying figures whose faces were blurred and carried away as they zipped into the underground night, like people dragged, fast motion, beyond any reliable identification.

 

3.
six disquisitions she tells herself

 

FOREIGNNESS
This man, this Rashid, carries the metaphysic of the stranded. He lies awake at night, in someone else’s bed, thinking of a home that becomes more precious with each new remembering. He knows too that his lost home is their found exotic. Everywhere in this city are chichi boutiques stocked with small objects from his country, familiar things relocated.

He is another kind of object: he has entered a state of abstraction. He imagines himself becoming phantom, almost invisible. Making love, even making love, has not embodied him wholly.

 

CITY
One’s own city is always stable; it rests, we reside. But the traveler and the refugee and the phantomised stranded know the secret instability of every city. They have felt the ground move and shift beneath their foreign feet, and know that collapse of many kinds is always possible. Sometimes this is an experience of excitation; sometimes it is the tremor of lives on the annihilating brink. She inhabits the touristic decadence of the casual encounter; he is her object and she has unintentionally compounded his desolation.

 

MUSIC
It was the democracy—or was it the fascism?—of music that united them. They listened together. They bobbed their bodies in sync. Each moved with a kind of instinctive and elated obedience. This transcultural age is the age of music. Words are disparaged, too difficult and too absurdly imperative. Young people everywhere hallow the names of musicians and seek their lost sacred in a riff or in a resonating chord. She dragged him away. She broke his tense AC/DC.

 

PARENTS
He is enchained to them. We all are, even when they die. Of all the authorities in the world parents are the most sovereign, and they follow like a double and separate shadow, everywhere we go. Here is a young woman traveling, wondering: What would my parents think? The trouble we cause them. The loving shame that they wield. If life were a blindman’s bluff, we would always touch them in the darkness; they would always be there, somewhere.

 

SEX
When he came inside her, his body responded with a chorea-like shiver; she found it somehow anguishing. The sigh he gave up was such a distant and sad-sounding relinquishment. This certainty, then: that in the effacements and anonymities of the night, other things find metaphorical definition. The physical body in crisis and its transphysical continuation are like the indivisible image and after-image of the blinding strobe.

 

NIGHT
As a child she was obsessed with the idea that the planet is always half night. It symbolized, even to her child-mind, the impermanence of all states and the principle of alterity and radical conversion. Now she knows it more boldly: that night is a mode of magnification. Depression. Insomnia. Concerts. Sex. The enhancement of both misery and its forms of consolation. This is banal knowledge but now, in this lightly shaking room,it somehow reassures her.

 

4.
They were lying together asleep, on the narrow borrowed bed, when Rashid woke with a start and switched on a nearby lamp. His face was damp and shining with tears.

Eleanor turned drowsily towards her lover, her shanghaied youth, and saw his red swollen eyes and his look of taut dishevelment.

I dreamed . . .

 

There is more, he said slowly, there is more I didn’t tell you.

Rashid leaned away. His face was not visible.

When I left Bombay, my mother was dying of cancer. She was very, very thin, and had dark rings beneath her eyes. I knew then that she was dying—and she knew that I knew-but my father nevertheless insisted that I leave. She wept so much; I shall never forget it. I said: I will return soon and make a journey, and bring you some Ganga water; I will return and get the holy water and you will be cured. I think I believed it then. I was confident when I left. I thought all the time about going to Europe, about money, about success. In the letter, my father’s letter, he told me that my mother had died. I left the Guptas’ house because my mother had died. Just that. Because my mother had died. I could not bear to be with people. I could not bear the knowledge of her death.

 

I dreamed just now a dream that I have had three times. I dreamed that my mother came to me wearing the white sari of a widow. She was looking like a skeleton, and her voice was strange and very quiet. She said: I wrote you a letter and you didn’t answer. Where is my answer, Rashid? Where is my answer? She began to pound her chest in mourning, as if I were the one who had died. I remember that there was spittle on her chin, like an old person, like a cancer patient. I wanted to wipe her face with a cloth but I could not stretch far enough to touch her.

Here Rashid paused. He was silent for a long minute.

She wept so much, he repeated, I can never forget it.

And then Rashid too began to weep. Eleanor had never seen a man cry with such disinhibition. His whole body sobbed; he was like a small child. He clenched his fists against his eyes, as if trying to contain his dreamy sorrow.

Je suis desolé, he said. Desolé. Desolé.

Please leave, he said. Desolé. Desolé.

 

5.
Eleanor is on the street, at four in the morning. The look of things is black glass—it has recently rained or the streets have been washed and cleaned—and everything appears remarkably still and settled. Her lonesome footsteps echo down the tunnel of the rue de Meaux. She has returned to her habit of itemization; she begins to replay her nighttime memories.

 

This is what she is remembering:

She is remembering that the only lyrics in the Death in Vegas concert were “All gods suck, all gods suck,” combined with a spinning Shiva image and the round surface of some dark, possibly planetary, object. Did it hurt him, this crude and flashy combination? Did it recall some childhood moment of a more holy and private life?

 

She is remembering the scarlet women peering down from the ceiling; how gigantic and superintending they seemed, how ambiguous in their presences. They rested somewhere between benevolence and malevolence, between charm and grotesquerie.

This night has made every detail retrospectively symbolic. Their hair. Their oversized, European smiles.

 

She is remembering his face under pink neon, how young he appeared. He had large lustrous eyes and a patina of electrical shine. He had a shy expression and a quality of good-looking tenderness. Yet she desired him, quite simply, because he had held her hand. When he first touched her, she could not have guessed that he was so insubstantial.

 

She is remembering the woman playing Rachmaninoff, the Chinese woman, and the bald head of the keyboard player, repetitiously recoloring. She is remembering too the precise look of melancholy seriousness that begins in a concert, extends into gestures and confessions,and then moves outwards, traveling like vibrations, traveling so mysteriously—not like the Metro at all, not regular and entrammeled—but fanning open, invisibly, like vibrations in the body, into all the glories and desolations of a black city night.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter