CAFE DU NORD
I am an English man, I’m not of these parts. This cafe I happened upon when I first alighted the train from Calais. It spoke to me… it said these are the people for a person to watch. It is what I am, a watcher not a joiner. I fetishise the downbeat, turn the mundane into the intriguing. This cafe exhorts my pretensions. For in every corner, groups conspire. Obviously at first sight these animated parties meant nothing to me… My French was rusty and rudimentary at best, and these people high on absinthe, spoke fast, in short staccato bursts, like the rattle of a machine gun, in conspiratorial tones which were not designed to carry beyond the booth they sat in.
The groups, though nominally convivial with each other, jealously guarded the group they belonged to, artists sat with artists, anarchists with anarchists, and the dark grey men sat alone… listening. Only the whores had carte blanche, they were able to roam from group to group, selling a smile for a glass. They did not trouble the grey men. They had no budget for largesse. I sat on a stool by the bar and whispered conspiratorially with the barmaid, who spoke limited English, she knew slang and swear words, which she had learnt from decadent Irish writers who once frequented the bar, but had since moved their court down to Montmartre. Her limited English made me laugh out-loud.
This was my undoing. Although naturally a watcher, my laugh was, to my chagrin, very loud. This drew dark looks from all the ensemble, anarchist plotters felt I was belittling their plans for world domination; the artists felt I was laughing at their earnest proselytising of their vision of art in the 20th century; and the grey men looked around in fear that their machinations of subterfuge had been found out.
To be despised by all of the clubs embroiled in this small cafe, gave me some eminence. I had become the de-facto arbitrator of all disputes. Over time the language which ha excluded me slowly came into focus. The mist of half remembered words and phrases slowly danced into a syncopation with my mother tongue. Words which had been translated now arrived in my mind as a subset of received words in their own tongue, and I became fluent in rebuttals. Where once unknown and mysterious sobriquets had been thrown blindly at me, to which I would just smile, I now would bat back with filthy immodesty. My use of French slang and swearwords, would make even the whores scuttle around smirking behind their handkerchiefs.
And it was thus that I was taken in by the artists. They above all the others enjoyed my vulgarity immensely. Of course, this was an act, nominally a member of the aristocracy, I was considered a gentleman in my own country… which is probably why I had left. I hated the idea of a ruling elite. My political bent was closer to the Anarchists than to the English elite, but back home that would never be tolerated.
So, I had managed to recreate myself here in the Cafe du Nord. I was a bohemian character. I was sucked in to the orbit of the artists… It was fun to be around them. They were as catty as old queens and as two-faced as gossiping neighbours.
ok that’s the set-up… the story will commence in the next episode.