Today, Marseille is as unwelcoming as never before. My hometown used to encounter me as an old friend always pleased to see me, ready to listen and help. After my getting off the train, it used to embrace me with the familiar scent of roasted chestnut, the smiles of news vendors and the laughter of children snaking their way through the crowd. I would go to the next café, drink two shots of espresso and chat with Giovanni, an Italian barista with a hoary head of hair who, despite his age and portly constitution, would constantly waltz behind the counter and whistle every song playing on the radio. The whole town used to be my sanctuary.
Yet, everything feels different on this November evening. As soon as I step out of the train, I see people with somber countenances rushing back and forth. The drizzle slaps into my face as if blaming me for being the worst of traitors – someone who gave up his own hometown for the capital city, exchanged familiarity for uncertainty. I stand on the railway platform and watch the train leave back to Paris. Its silhouette moves slowly away from me until it disappears in yellow lights. I have spent nearly a third of my life there. These years were spectacular, remarkable, reckless, yet arduous, hopeless and desperate. I know that I must bear the burden of the decision I had made, even if it was the right thing to do, even if regret might eventually suffocate me. As I bid farewell to the city, tears blur my eyes. The unexpected gush of wind draws me out of my recollections and I head off towards my old apartment. The salty sea air fills my lungs. The autumn cold creeps under my clothes. I put up the collar of my tailor-made coat with my right hand, carrying the suitcase in the left one. I walk along the broad street lit by a solitary lantern. Having turned around the corner, I see a flickering dark-blue sign of a bar – “Tristesse.” I decide to go inside and have a drink. Whether alcohol will wash away my sadness or double it is of no concern to me today.
I push the steel door open and see a dozen square tables scattered across a half-empty room. Three elderly men in olive-green, working-class clothing discuss some matter of seeming great importance near the bar counter. Their vigorous exclamations and heehaws fill the air. They swing their foggy mugs of beer, spilling the white foam on the floor. I try to meet the eye of the barkeeper who is busy wiping dust from the bottles on the shelf and half-listening to the loud ravings of the guests. When I meekly clear my throat for the third time, he turns around with a bored expression on his stubbled face. I order a glass of scotch whiskey and take a seat at the table in the corner.
The surface of the ash-sprinkled table is sticky with spilt alcohol. There is no music playing here, unlike in many bars in Paris. Apart from the husky voices of the inebriated trio I hear someone gently sobbing. I look around and see a middle-aged woman on my right. A purple bowler hat conceals her eyes full of heart-breaking tears. Her chubby cheeks melt down into the collar of her orchid raincoat. She holds a letter in her hands. I can see her grief, I can feel her heart bleeding, as if every sentence were a dagger, every full-stop were a stone, every comma a hooked whip. She puts the letter on the table, her trembling hands reach for a pack of cigarettes. After failing to light her cigarette, match-stick after match-stick, she picks up a candle from the table and holds it up to her face. The woman reads the letter over and over again, puffing smoke into the paper. As our tables are no more than a meter apart, I find myself engulfed in a cloud of fumes. My memories drift into the past. This woman’s grief reminds me of someone I met in a smoke-filled bar. Her name was Lady Frisson.
It was my second month in Paris. I had explored every corner of my neighbourhood and made it a habit to walk down from Montmartre to the Latin Quarter in search for an idea for the next picture. My sketchbook was filled with rough drawings that eagerly awaited animation on the canvas. All I would need were a few careful strokes of the brush. On that day I started to work on the painting of the Jardin des Plantes and noticed that I had run out of a green colour. Without looking out of the window to see if the weather had changed since the day before, I stepped out into the September afternoon. I spent a good hour in the shop and was looked forward to returning to work. To my utmost astonishment and especially after an unusually dry summer, the clouds burst open. I took shelter from the rainstorm under the roof of a building. Apart from the deafening pounding of the rain, I thought I heard the sound of a piano coming from somewhere behind me. I turned around and saw a beveled glass door. After slowly pressing down a handle, I stepped inside and found myself in a bar.
The room was submerged in cigarette smoke so that I could barely see anyone. Judging by the decibel of raised voices, it was undoubtedly a well attended place. Elbowing my way forward, I noticed a free table in the back corner. As soon as I raised my hand, a young black-haired waitress with the gracefulness and swiftness of a panther came up to me and took my order. In a few minutes she brought me a glass of scotch whiskey. I took a sip and started to look around. There were people of different appearance and occupation. Resembling a flock of pigeons fluttering around a single breadcrumb, a group of young women in silken dresses and veiled hats gathered around a suited gentleman with pencil moustache. He was telling jokes and proudly thrust out his chest whenever the ladies laughed or exchanged approving glances with each other. Two elderly women with cigarette holders, who were seating in front of me, were looking towards the group and shaking their heads reproachfully. The smoke made my eyes prickle as if a thousand needles were stuck inside. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sounds around me. Through loud chatter I could distinguish again the sound which enticed me here. The piano. The soft swirling of jazz tunes above a black-and-white keyboard, the measured rhythm of its joyous movements and smooth modulations filled my heart with serenity.
The choir of voices reached a crescendo. Yet, gradually the occasional laughter turned to a murmur and then died down completely. I opened my eyes and saw each and everyone stand facing the half-circle stage raised on a platform. At the back of it, the pianist was seated at the diagonally placed instrument with his hands on his knees. At no more than two arms-lengths apart, a woman was sitting on a high chair with her head low, a microphone stand in front of her. I instantly noted her autumn-coloured hair hanging in waves to her waist. She was wearing a black ankle-length dress, with a matching shawl gently wrapped around her shoulders. For an instant I could swear it was her. It was Patrice. I felt the urge to come closer and greet her when she lifted up her head and broke into a song. Her pale face formed a contrast to dark-red lips, her eyes hidden behind the sunglasses. It was, however, another woman. Her deep slightly raspy voice echoed across the room. After the pianist played the first minor chord and duplicated it an octave higher, he changed to arpeggios. The melancholy melody drifted softly among the audience. The quality of the singer’s voice was mesmerizing. I noticed that she kept singing with her head turned up to the ceiling as if she was singing her heart out to the stars. How mistaken I had always been in thinking that only a piano could most accurately reflect one’s feelings of sorrow and despair. As it turned out, it was the voice of a bereaved woman that was capable of reaching every fiber of your being. I was still shaking like a leaf when she finished her performance and was led off the stage to generous applause. A man with a towel on his shoulder, apparently the barkeeper, took the microphone and said:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Please some more applause for Lady Frisson! Thank you. And we continue our evening with Big Charles at the piano. Enjoy your drinks!”
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