© Bernard Briggs January 2010
‘Tell me who invented the human heart and
then show me the place where he was hanged.’
Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet (Justine)
Pavement café – Paris
It is early in the morning and the sun is only just stripping the moisture from damp pavements. I am thinking about love.
The café is deserted as I ask the waiter poised beside me for just a plate and a sharp knife to accompany my espresso.
I recognise him from when we’d eaten here a few days ago because my wife had loved his French accent. I’d watched her as she’d gazed up at him while he took our order and noticed also the way he had looked at her. The look in her eyes and the way she’d held her mouth; slightly open with the tip of her tongue resting just behind her upper lip, had made me want to leave there and then, but something had held back me in a sort of voyeuristic trance. She’d wanted to come to Paris because she thought it was the capital of romance; the heart of love, and also because she thought all French men talked liked David Ginola. It looked like the waiter was playing a blinder for her and watching them I’d felt a little like a hunter, waiting in the bushes for the perfect shot.
The waiter responds with a raised eyebrow and a quick glance at the menu, as if to check whether my request appears as a side order. Then he peers down, around the edge of the table, presumably to see if I have some food of my own tucked inside the carrier bag at my feet. He raises his hand to his mouth, coughs and smiles patronisingly, then gestures at the sign on the wall which states, quite clearly, that only food purchased at the cafe can be consumed on the premises. I smile back and ask for a pain au raison, insisting though that he provide a sharp knife so that I can cut it. This makes him frown with a gentle, pitying contempt, but scribbling in his notebook he heads inside. As my eyes follow him I notice the iron sharp creases in his shiny black trousers and the crispness of his white shirt; deciding that he is just too neat for his own good. Someone someday would take great delight in messing him up.
My thoughts continue on love once again as I watch the pigeons fluttering around the square like windblown autumn leaves. And as they copulate on the rooftop opposite; rattling and beating their wings, I wonder if there is one split second, within which they experience any feeling in their hearts that could be described as love. They have hearts, I know that, but I doubt that they love with them; not like human beings anyway. I wonder if I should pity them this lack of emotion; or envy them (is ignorance bliss?). In drifting moments; when I am reluctant to grant love any worthy place in life, I often find myself looking inwards at my own heart; much like a parent constantly checks a child to see if it is alright; to see if it is awake. I then begin to wonder if hearts even have anything to do with love. Maybe it’s like religion; a belief held only by the ones that feel loved and those that believe they love (heart’s of the unloved are therefore lost). At times, to me, love feels like some sort of dark and dangerous dance floor, with my heart the solitary dancer - at the mercy of myself! Maybe love is something we are ensnared in while we wait for death; like life tricking our hearts to enter a darkened room, locking the door and snapping the key. That image scares me, so I try to forget love for a while; internally discussing other subjects in great detail, just as two entomologists might concentrate on specimens of rare insects; discussing their place in evolution to the exclusion of everything else. As always, if you concentrate heavily on anything for any length of time, everything else ceases to exist, including love and suddenly I realise that I’m thinking like rain, falling on already sodden ground and Robert Plant starts singing in my head:
‘If it keeps on raining, the levee’s going to break and when
the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay’.
Sitting back in my chair and laying my hands palm down on the table, I start to hold my breath for as long as I can; trying to starve my brain of oxygen so that it can’t think any more. Love (damn) has a habit of doing that as well, taking your life to a depth where there is no air to breath. I give up when the waiter arrives with my order. No knife! I sigh, thinking that it would have been much easier to have brought one with me!
I look up at him and raise an eyebrow in what I hope is enough of a question. He raises an eyebrow in reply, nods his head curtly and turns away with just enough implied impertinence in order to greet an elderly couple who are just walking in. They are dressed smartly as if attending a formal function. If they had been a younger couple I might have guessed that they were returning home after an all night party; but then again I cannot tell how old their hearts are so... The waiter seats them in the corner; about as far as possible from me it would seem. They ask for coffee and croissants and he once again returns to the kitchen (where does his heart lie and with whom?). As the lady removes her leather gloves, I steal a look at her left hand. An expensive looking solitaire diamond tries to impress me across the tables, but the solid band of gold next to it denies its brilliance.
‘Ah, real love.’
On the table next to me are the remains of a partially eaten meal. A plate that seems to have once contained a breakfast of eggs and some form of fatty meat lies rejected, with a neatly mated knife and fork sleeping together in the debris. Next to it is an empty coffee cup; some of its former contents dribbled down one side; just below a neatly printed crescent of pink lip gloss. I try to visualise the lips that had sipped the hot liquid from the rim of the cup, but cannot without falling in love with the image in my head (for such a small device a heart, it would seem, is such a big open space to fill). I reach over and carefully pluck the knife from the plate before the waiter returns. Even so I get a puzzled look from the elderly gentleman who is looking at me over his wife’s shoulder. He mutters something quietly to her; half shielding his mouth with his hand. She turns to look in my direction, but only raises her eyes at the last moment and just for a split second, as if she is afraid to catch my eye. She turns back to her husband and the back of her neck flushes above her orange silk scarf.
I close my eyes for a moment; simplifying the world in the blink of an eye and when I re-open them, I am turning the knife over and over in my hand, seeing the reflections of everything around me twisted in its blade. My mouth corrupts a smile as I return it to the table and reach down to lift the carrier bag from the floor onto my lap. Inside the bag my hand closes on another smaller plastic bag; tied at the top with a simple knot. I’m not sure if it’s an excitement of beginnings, or a fear of endings that make my fingers tremble as they untie the knot and slip inside. I tenderly grip the still warm heart and pull it slowly from the bag, placing it on the plate in front of me. It starts shouting questions; so loudly that my head cannot hear. What...who...where...how?
But, for the answers, I need to act quickly as I can already hear the elderly gentleman as he calls for the waiter in a strangled, gulping sort of voice. I cannot hear his companion; I assume she is busy somewhere finding a scream to fill her throat. I snatch the knife up again and as I bend to my task, exerting pressure with the sharp blade, a small drop of crimson escapes with a sigh onto the white linen tablecloth. I smile at the fatal irony as I realise that this heart, usually the bluntest of tools, has cut me as surely as the blade now slicing across its flesh. I continue to slash hurriedly through the seeping organ, pulling at its valves and chambers with the fingers of my other hand; desperately searching for answers, until it lies flat and deflated on the plate.
‘Nothing,’ I whisper to myself as a crimson delta of blood creeps away across the table cloth; escaping its life sentence (love always runs away). The remains look exhausted and empty like the corpse of an old dead friend; almost unrecognisable and shrunken by disease (what have I done?). I recognise it now as my own heart, here in front of me, dead and without any hope of salvation. I might as well have torn the heart from my own body. I grip the handle of the knife now with both hands and turning the blade to point at myself, I push its tip through my shirt and into my skin beneath. There is a brief moment of pain in my chest when suddenly my head snaps to the right and my chair rocks madly on its legs; almost toppling over. The knife is thrown from my grip and clatters onto the floor. Gasping for air, I raise my hand to my left cheek that is stinging with a sharp heat. Something or someone had struck my face.
My eyes click open and I look over my shoulder to see the waiter, who appears to be a little less neat and composed than earlier, standing over me. He is looking at me with a concerned and frightened expression; the elderly couple are looking on just behind him. Her face is crimson (blood). His is grey and wrapped in a stiffening cloak of protective distain. I see that he is holding a mobile telephone to his ear and is speaking to someone using deep spittled words that I cannot make out. Then I slump in the chair, staring at the table, where my pain au raison lies chopped up into small jagged pieces; crumbs and raisons scattered across the table.
The waiter is still looking at me, but his expression is already changing from concern to pity as he tells me I must be feeling unwell; suggesting that I wait for the doctor that has been called. I try to reply but even I know that the words coming out of my mouth are not making any sense, so I hurriedly stand and throwing a twenty euro note onto the table grab the carrier bag from the floor where it has remained since my arrival before muttering a weak apology. I stagger from the café and across the road; running erratically off down the nearest street and through the gathering rush hour.
As I thread my way through the crowds on the left bank, I catch sight of a beautiful young girl; Paris slim with auburn hair, dressed in the tightest of light blue denim jeans and a tan leather flying jacket. She stops beside an artist who is painting and speaks to him. They laugh at something he says and she tidies a strand of unruly hair away behind her right ear. I stop and sitting down on a bench that overlooks the river, observe them for while as they talk and laugh together. Eventually they part; exchanging kisses on each other’s cheeks. She walks in my direction and I cannot help but stare at her face; my tongue resting just behind my upper lip. As she approaches the bench where I’m sitting, she glances across and smiles gently at me; an open, innocent (inviting) smile and even though I don’t know her, I can see she has a warm heart. Maybe she has just enough love left for me. I wait for a minute, watching her walk off and then slowly get to my feet to follow her down the path, leaving the carrier bag and everything that happened in the café behind me on the bench.