Montmartre, 2012. Struggling to survive the collapse of his IT company, the death of his father, a depleted sperm count and a saintly dentist wife, Y flaunts his impeccable clothes on the streets and café terraces of Paris as he searches for a new purpose. Salvation seems to lie in learning to craft a mediaeval instrument, but first he must tame the hostile local lutemaker, with help from his bohemian neighbours. So begins a charm offensive that will destroy Y’s marriage and ultimately his sanity.
A darkly lyrical tale set around four tables, a coffee machine, and an Arctic Lost Property Beach.
You shouldn’t be calling a lutemaker a sour old bastard, but this one’s brought the epithet on himself. Harsh? Dear imaginary visitor, how would you describe this red-eyed man in the shop window shaking his broom and making that obscene growl at us? Look, now he’s turned his ancient dungareed back and he’s still a sour old bastard.
Will we bellow torrents of Mediaeval abuse through that grubby intercom?
“Hey you! Serf! Think yourself a Hussar in your wistful furies, don’t you? Defying all the basic norms of civility – what are you after, you filthy underling, a duel? Well, my broom’s bigger than yours, I’ll go fetch it and then you’ll be sorry!”
Ah but if we do, we’ll never poke so much as a toenail inside his artsy-schmartsy little atelier. Plus I don’t know the French for serf, do you? I’m not in the habit of picking fights with shopkeepers – none of my rings on his bell have been violent. Yep, four times I’ve stood here, pressing it so lightly: the softest tiny teeny trills I have rung. On my first attempt, last February the fifteenth, the rear view of him looked ready to humble-bumble over and beseech me to sign up for his course but then he just glanced round with a shake of his half-bald head. Silly me: what with those eight advertising cards in his window, I’d formed the strong impression he was after pupils. Then I bothered to check in the dictionary and cours de lutherie categorically means lessons in the creation of lutes or any other stringed instruments – bouzoukis and zithers were even included in the list. But we’re in Paris, aren’t we: it’s dangerous to suppose anything here. Last week I tried to buy a screwdriver and the hardware man insisted all his screwdrivers were completely unsuited to my purposes. I wore him down in the end, though: gaining three exhaustive collections of French screwdrivers to be carried down the street, oh, shiny skinny battle trophies.
And now we are faced with this Lutemaker and his eight advertising cards, surely a scream of his desperation – yes, entirely to the point of whorishness! But you’re dead right, he’s a bluffing pimp.
My last visitor, James, suggested burgling the place – hard to say how serious he was – but as the lutemaker hadn’t been so rude at that point, smashing our way in felt disproportionate. Now… You don’t happen to have a large brick on your imaginary person, do you?
Look at this voluptuous instrument posed in the window, reclining on red velvet like an oil-painted Odalisque she is: her creamy wood patterned with mother of pearl and marquetry like tribal tattoos on a Baudelaire heroine. Taut from her pegs are fifteen strings, seven pairs and a single flighty chanterelle. Down her fretted neck they skim, coyly prominent over the latticed O of her mouth and on down under her bridge, where they’re tied in succulent neat knots. The fingers of a black-eyed Goya nude: come hither, the knot fingers say… Slither hither across my silky sheets…
Oh, I could be an Ancient Greek General – Xenophon preferably – appraising my exquisite Barbarian slave girl before performing the rescue from her uncouth master, he who has encircled her with squatly-spined baby cactus plants. I haven’t always been so melodramatic, but you must understand, distractions have been few since my loss of meaningful occupation and Wikipedia has reams and reams of pages on Ancient Greek Generals.
Behind Lute-Venus is the place of her birth: dark and dusty lutemaker badlands. Fresh tree-shavings, disarrayed jars and bottles, flat lute fronts for Tom and Jerry. Oh, the wrenches and planes strewn over that work-bench, the tools I recognise and the many I don’t. He’s at the end, his red tartan elbow and broom swaying in a peevish cripple-ballet.
Let’s devote our eyes back to Lute Venus, ah… there’ll be no liberating her today.
Aren’t you feeling the cold, standing about in this state of unarmed broom-less-ness? Let’s go a few doors along and stare at this Japanese French menu instead.
Makis sans algue? …It is useless. I cannot use chopsticks respectably and seaweed or no seaweed, it’s no distraction from lutes. The more I think about them, the more I research them, the more I absolutely must create my own – a simple eight-course Renaissance one would be grand, to start with. I’ve joined the Confrères Luthiers online and look forward not only to receiving their quarterly magazines, but also to attending their June conference. Parking will be free and the star speaker will give a presentation on how the Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification system devised in 1914 relates to ancient instruments. The English Lute Club pairs you up with a lute Buddy, though my address may be a barrier as they match you by locale and the closest available Buddy was in Berkshire. Ah, but a Berkshire lute enthusiast could be persuaded to move to Montmartre, surely. I’ve ordered a used copy of Robert Lundberg’s Historical Lute Construction; it hasn’t yet arrived, but I’ve trawled beyond Wikipedia, even, and am more than prepared to discuss the competing qualities of sheep-gut versus nylon strings. The French for sheep-gut is corde de boyau de mouton; incidentally, ancient prophylactics were made from it too. I’ve checked the French words for belly, fruitwood pegs, and shellac. In short, my behaviour’s been impeccable. So why have I become the object of Monsieur Lute Man’s wrath?
Things ought to be considered from his point of view?
Sure, he may be afraid I’ll ask stupid questions – and you’re totally right, I haven’t presented myself as a devout-looking apprentice. I suddenly regret not owning any dungarees, fond as I am of my Dalston Dandy tweeds, my vintage dress shirt, and the black silk handkerchief artfully spilling out of my blazer pocket. Hell though, why should I change just for Monsieur Lutherism-Martin-Lute-King-of-Lutetia? But you do have a point: I’ll tone it down next time. Shufflety-Mufti will be the order of the day. The moustache has to stay, though: I grew it after my Dad’s funeral last summer and true, on some dark mornings my razor-primed hand circles like an apache helicopter close to these caddish whiskers, I grimace in readiness, but so far the ‘tache has been spared – there’s the chance that if I did shave it off, my millions of lazy Hibernian squigglers would give up their egg-hunt once and for all.
My genes are probably doomed to extinction, but a lute promises endurance. Invented I forget how long ago by some adept Arab. Once I’ve made Lute Venus, I could choose a nephew to bequeath her to. Is that why I’m so narked about the old fart in the shop – is he denying me an experience I’ll be too dead to appreciate anyway? Are there degrees of deadness? God. All this death rumination at the tender age of forty-one, I sound like a thespian depressive.
It’s almost six in the evening: apéro time.
My correspondent brogues echo on the cobbles as I hone in to the café terrace at the top of the road. “Hone, honeys, hone,” I tell my shoes. “May your delight in climbing and descending these streets never fade, may this sloping Haussmannian-Mediaeval-Art-Nouveau jumble remain forever as creamily elegant as it is in this moment.” And there are my hands, look, paler by far than these stucco facades. No sun has danced across my skin in a long time…
“Mons Martis! You may change me in your own time. I submit to your discerning Bohemian savoir faire.”
“Why, thank you Y.” The street bows before me.
All café terraces here slope. This one does by at least ten degrees: doesn’t sound much, but our table already jitters on the cobbles, so watch your glass doesn’t slide off. The trick is not to dislodge that stone under the lower pedestal edge. I struggle with this, my feet being the twitchers they are, but a charming figment like yourself needn’t worry.
Whited bourgeois collars lunch here, the rest of the day is for the idle French and the more discerning tourists. It has something of the grandstand: lines of red wicker chairs spectate over the wide street hump down to rue des Abbesses, then the spread of Paris under its pink-grey sky. Look at all those roofs, thousands too many and too cluttered for us to count: they genuflect in the sun-fade. Spires and domes bob on the tiled sea; chalky towers clump along the left horizon. There are more beautiful cityscapes in Italy, but this perch is where I’ve sympathised with a friend of the late Charles Bukowski’s as he wept for the best woman he ever left; it was here I learned there’s a shortage of Hebrew professors in Montpelier and that Doncaster in northern England is trainspotting central, second only to Crewe. I’ve lost count of all those urgent strangers.
“Un rosé s’il vous plait,” I tell the waiter.
In these lower quarters of Mons Martis there’s absinthe to be had, though it’s not the trippy poison of Toulouse-Lautrec’s day. Rosé comes from red grapes fermented without their skins, in effect it’s circumcised red wine. According to X, Provençal farmers treat their pot-bellies to nothing else, so there’s no shame to be had in glugging your rosé and toasting your inner farmer: like my pal Angus on his allotment in Walthamstow but with far more panache. London for me was mostly wetted with lager, or G and T in my investors’ clubs… No point whining about that now, not some also-ran fifth Beatle type, am I? Merely: that fella who spent all his investors’ money on a networking website without bothering to notice that the American lad with the sugary Germanish name had the idea first. Anyone could’ve made the same mistake.
Tits up went JustClickIt. No more G and Ts on doilies for me.
Guinness was the thing to down in my student days back at Trinity, when I was the hopeful one. Guinness doesn’t travel; maybe hope doesn’t either.
A gaggle of black-wearing French women convene round the table beside us: they furiously abhor l’aggressivité des femmes.
It would be interesting to ask them if my lute idea is a baby substitute. X would see it that way, probably. I’d have to explain that X equals my chromosome-inspired-sweet-nothing moniker for my wife. She’s half French, a dentist, and one or both of us have fertility problems. X’s latest theory is that we’ve spent too much of our lives beside computers; she never understood my old job. Then again, I know nothing about gum diseases. Theoretically, that is: a dreadful one took hold of me a few months back, but then X diagnosed a mild bout of gingivitis and I should floss more. Dear imaginary visitor, never expect sympathy from dentists who specialise in treating torture victims…
The waiter brings my glass with a dish of slick green olives. I tip rosé into my mouth and swirl, the coldness makes it briny.
Now the women in black tackle l’aggressivité des hommes. They seem significantly less bothered about this phenomenon than they were about aggressive women. I spit out an olive stone. There is no point asking them about babies or lutes, no: that was just a languid flâneur fancy. Flâneurs have no purpose. That is the point of being one. Free to waft the streets, indulging irrelevant whims all day long. In both liquid and human forms.
Remember how Lute Venus was milky tea coloured, glassy skinned? A sigh must have come from her mouth when we walked away. She is already luring me from my futile existence, I should be nervous.
Tall dried flowers stand in the restaurant window to our left. The puny sun has vanished. Wilting petals will spin through the air and fall on us when spring finally kicks in.
There’s a girl sitting on my right. She must have tip-toed over; I hadn’t noticed her. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” she asks.
Sometimes when I hear that question, I pretend to be French. I shrug my Gallic best and give out garbled directions or whatever; rolling my r’s deliriously to encourage the purchase and study of a phrase-book.
“Absolutely,” I smile now, because in this case the girl has gorgeously healthy blonde hair waving down to her shoulders, and she’s wearing a cute brown vintage skirt and jacket. She has a full café crème in front of her so she can’t be wanting to rush off, plus her slender knees are pointing at me – meaning: let’s get naked soon.
“Oh good,” she says and beams her wonky teeth.
Now I wish I’d replied with a bewildered: Quoi?
“I was just wondering, do you know of any cheap flats to rent in this area?” she asks.
“Ah now you’re after the Holy Grail a bit there. Montmartre and the Marais are where everyone wants to live, so all the cheap places go in a flash – after there’s been a fistfight between the competing parties, yes, seriously. You’d be better off looking in Belleville, more space for your money there.”
“Oh, do you know, you’re the third person who’s told me that.” She taps her feet, she’s wearing the most incredible shoes, green velvet they are, indecently high heeled with clusters of yellow roses stuck round her toe-cleavages; almost cancelling out the scariness of her gnashers but not quite.
“D’you live here?” she asks. She has on scarlet lipstick, which is wise because she’s so pale and blonde she’d look like a ghost otherwise.
“Yesss,” I purr. “It’s a great quartier. Belleville’s only next door, you know.”
Her name is Amy, and jaysus can she prattle. Recent graduate from Cambridge, double first in Ancient History and Archaeology. From Surrey but always dreamed of living in Paris. She’s applied for several jobs in museums here but she barely speaks any French; she supposes she could always teach English, though it’s tricky to find that sort of work now the Spring Term’s nearly over. She’s started intensive French classes: they terrify her about making grammar slips whereas they ought to be helping her “Learn More on the Conversational Level”.
“How utterly utterly dreadful,” I sympathise, swooping a finger along my moustache. “How on earth can you bear it?”
Amy’s grey eyes boggle. She says she knows grammar’s important, she’s trying her hardest but languages have never been her strong point, though she coped fine when she had to learn hieroglyphs.
Now we have her pegged, don’t we! Amy’s one of those reasonable types, despite her facility with hieroglyphs and despite the flighty madness of her footwear. She’s finished her coffee so I wave the waiter over and request a bottle of rosé: we’ll pour half of it down Amy’s pale throat and see if we can cure her pursuit of a life so entirely directed by reason. If we can’t, she may as well drop dead this minute.
“My treat,” I insist. She is sizing me up; check, check, go her eyes: I’m at least a decade and a half older than she is, but my hands are clean and she’s already told me she likes my accent. Of course she has an Irish granny, almost everyone does; I’ve already told her we’re distant cousins, with emphasis on the distant. Now she says how very kind I am, she approaches her chair closer to my table and our wine arrives. I topple it into her glass, a scant centimetre below the rim, then tell her how centuries-old lutes sit in museums, how less ancient ones can be found lying on brocantes tables.
She says she’s always liked old instruments; her father plays the two-hundred-year-old organ in her village church.
Obscene jokes galore charge through my head but such facile crudery will not be indulged today; I am forty-one, after all, and very well-dressed. Obscene jokes are for men in shell-suits who play on fruit-machines, largely.
“If my lute got washed away in a flood,” I say, “waves would pass her to mermaid hands; their webbed fingers would treat her kindly, stealing only a few of her strings to thread shells for their headdresses. On through the shallows she’d float, where shoals of prismatic fish shimmy her and take her for their sainted Mother Goddess Fish, then forget her as they slip from hungry seal jaw-snaps.”
Amy smiles, she says how poetic Irish men are, and how much she enjoyed Seamus O’Beanie’s Beowulf translation.
I ignore her blasphemy. I watch her sip her wine with her steady hands, and I go on. “My lute would not be swallowed by a whale; if she were to temporarily associate herself with plankton and land in the cathydraulic cavern of a whale’s gob, she would surf right back out again. Plank-Town, Tank-Plown. Yes, I believe whales are musical mammals. A baby whale will find my lute and shoot her high into the air so sprays of sea follow, trying to catch her like diamanté angling to stick to an acrobat’s knickers.”
Amy doesn’t flinch, but looks as though she’s about to.
“I’ve watched whales on Youtube,” I tell her. “That’s what you tend to do when your life becomes a yawning empty diary like mine. You observe strangers’ holiday videos and then you’re an expert, Amy. No need for the chugging around in a motor launch, or the trekking through puncturing jungles, no need to blind yourself away in a hideyhole for a month to catch the piri-piri-litus bird having a moon of its ruffly underpants, flicking its frothered feathery kilt – that’s a major turn-on for piri-piri-litus demoiselle. Let’s see, is piri-piri-litus a weird sauce or a gum disease? It ought to be a bird though, hey?”
“Lovely!” The grey eyes of her are fixed wide now, impossible to say whether it’s terror or inspiration.
“Actually I think it means your appendix exploding: Amy, you’ll have to help me on this one, there are too many things to find out now, I can’t be expected to remember them as well. Hard drives have our memories now don’t they? Like when we domesticated wolves and gave them our smelling powers.”
Amy’s trying not to frown. She glances round for an escape reason from the café bore and his streams of gibberish. I’ve suffered the same thing myself. Is this why café bores become café bores, a misdirected form of revenge?
“I digress,” I say. “I was on the crest of a baby whale’s blow, was I not?”
“I’m not sure,” she says, with careful politeness. Poor girl. I top up her wine and grab her skinny wrist.
“My castaway lute might end up on the distant shore of a Canadian island, Amy, where Eskimos will find her. Maybe the same ones who found the Harley Davidson washed away in that huge tsunami. There must be a particularly officious current that sends all the best things to that cold lost property beach. Neatly, you know, before they can go further north where the polar bears will be able to trash them. Polar bears are extreme vandals.”
“I read on Wikipedia that the Canadian authorities have built special prisons for them,” she says, moving her wrist in my grip. “The bears get starved, except for ice to lick. It’s terrible. But they’re not Eskimos up in Canada, you know, they’re Inuit, or Aleut sometimes.”
That was too prosaic. We must try harder or Amy will never abandon her dreary sanity. “Will the Eskimos take off their thick mittens and play my lute? How do they heat their igloos? My lute is too beautiful to be thrown on their seal-roasting barbecue. Eskimos and Inuits and all those tribal types are craftsmen, aren’t they? They understand how only real treasure survives the ocean crossing to their Lost Property Beach. Think, Amy, remember the best thing you ever lost, well now it’s safe with the Eskimos but you’ll never see it again. And the other stuff, the crap? Blown off somewhere, many wheres. In space, floating giant ribbons of computer parts and satellite arms and dead Russian monkeys, weightless trails of snotty astronaut litter. Orbiting. Pointlessly. Never delivered or found. Lost things evidence failure, what you lose is what you’ve failed to protect.”
I release her wrist then open my silver cigarette case. I offer her a Gitane and light up my own first. She doesn’t smoke like a habitual fumeuse, I bet she only accepted out of terror.
“It’s so romantic here,” she says. “No-one in Surrey talks about things like that. But you’re right.” Holding her cigarette as far from herself as she can, she trots out some anecdote about being burgled and how the insurance money was no compensation at all for losing her grandmother’s vintage Cartier watch. Ah, this Amy chick illustrates the compliant rationality of the too-young, but she may be salvageable in a year or so.
“Shocking, vintage Cartier!” I say, and take a lovely long drag on my Gitane.
Mons Martis did that to me, though it was more with joy than vengeance that I resumed smoking on our second evening here. The city was frozen white but oddly cheerful. London makes cigarettes look grubby and smokers all look ill, whereas cigarettes in Paris epitomise bohemian insouciance. The only snag is you have to go out and puff the little darlings under those head-fryingly hot lamps, as your feet deaden with frostbite.
Now I’ve a bit of hindsight, January was not the best month to start a sabbatical: we should have beached it up in Morocco or the Seychelles first, drinking contemptible coconut cocktails. Being shamelessly irrelevant, sunburned. Intending to visit monuments that are must-sees, musty searching for The Old Town that is supposed to lie around successive breeze-blocked corners of suburbia. Our failures drain from us, eking away with our rare sweat.
Amy’s downed two glasses of rosé but her green velvet heels strike the cobbles with perfect regularity when she excuses herself for a WC visit.
Can drink whilst wearing stilettoes, probably learned at Cambridge, I note. Google – do they have cobbles in Cambridge? Amy’s grace is another factor off-setting her wonky teeth, yet it’s too early to tell whether she’s benefitted from her crash course in cultivating an imagination and I don’t plan on seeing her again after this evening – well not necessarily, though she may possess other pairs of interesting shoes. I must ask whether she stuck on the yellow roses herself.
Some men’s voices carry further than others. French men talk the same old shite as the rest of us, but to half-comprehending ears they all sound like philosophers. It’s not just the accent, there’s a specious sincerity. “J’adore notre géneration blah blah,” he said.
Apparently Western thirty, forty-somethings like X and I are normal. I can say this because no-one at the clinic was surprised when we funnelled enough money to save all the hungry lives of an African village into our efforts to create a single new mouth, on which we planned to spend even more: feeding, indoctrinating and entertaining. How much does the kid’s value appreciate when it grows teeth and plunks through its first grade piano exam, or when it becomes an item for trading in a bloody divorce? How much would I value my child, or my horse sculptures or my lute or whatever, once the congratulatory pats have worn off my shoulders? I begged for a guitar when I was twelve but never learnt to play more than five chords on it, though one was really tricky, E minor seven or something. Fuck knows what happened to that guitar…
Nothing’s gone according to plan these last two years and while X soldiers on proclaiming how lucky we are, my response has been Stoical. Lutes aren’t symbols of phallus-driven destructive rage, are they? It’s not like I’m after a Magnum gun or a set of torture instruments to use on my old investors. I’m a civilised man – I’m into bloody Jazz.
A lute’s not going to make me stop missing my Dad.
Why ring the lutemaker’s bell four separate times then? Jealousy of his tools? Yes, you heard: jealousy, not envy.
Lutes are real.
Lutes cannot be switched off and put to cybernetic beds in the cells of distant servers.
Amy comes back and I wonder why she’s still here. “I’m staying out in Bagnolet at the moment,” she tells me. “It’s with a nice family, but there’s not much privacy, er, it’s a bit tricky if I want to invite guests.”
Surely she’s noticed my wedding ring.
The waiters wipe their brows. White shirts, short hair, all. Black trousers that make their legs invisible, they could be jigging and no-one would notice.
I clip a twenty euro note and some shrapnel on the bill saucer, then tell Amy I have to be going.
Out comes a sparkly pink Eiffel Tower pen; she writes her phone number on the back of the café receipt and asks me to call her if I hear of a cheap flat, or “if you’d like to meet for another drink some time.”
Giggle, flutter, vintage tweed hips.
As easy as that, hey? “Lovely to meet you too,” and we stand, my hands rest on her shoulders as we air-kiss. Her hair smells of coconuts, the way my wife’s does. Once, I adored that smell – perhaps I equated it with fertility, Gauginesque, South Seas style.
I ought to get to the boulangerie before it shuts. Down to Place des Abbesses I walk, and the spread of Paris sinks with me, out of sight.
Raging Monsieur Lutemaker can go sit on the back-burner. There might be other, better things to do in this surprising city, like going out to Bagnolet and being a tricky guest. No, I was just being benevolent there. If I’m ever to rise from this misery, from the stinkingly affluent void my marriage – no, in fact my whole life – has become, ah, the doldrums of whole mornings on Youtube and the afternoons serenaded by all the tone-deaf gypsy violinists on rue des Abbesses, I’d be best sticking to lutes. Lutes.
A detached iron eyebrow was the first of it. Alarmed by the Arctic freeze. Where was the eyeball, the other eye? Another wave rolled, and the eyebrow ducked down, resurfacing like a periscope from a small submarine and then there was more: suspicious sun-glints catching metal roundnesses; black leechy shapes dull and defiant in their clinging…
The Alutiiq child on the beach blinked, in silence. Making loud excited noises was sometimes a good idea but hardly ever advisable when your father was fishing in the next cove.
After a quiver the wave rallied, having decided to offload its strange cargo after all. The child on the beach raised her mittened hand to her mouth. Whoooosh, rabble-scrabble – pebbles shored with every wave – but for once it wasn’t all stone on stone, there were also flat sounds like someone complaining, and up surged the mass of bonded forms.
Should she be afraid? Large machines didn’t normally arrive out of the sea. No, she had been bred without the encumbrance of fear.
Closer – she saw it rinsed bright, rusted only in spots, speckly clusters that begged to examined. Ugly jetsam in its wake. A dead motorbike.