Monthly Archives: February 2012

Spring 2005

“When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”
~Rumi, Persian and Sufi Poet, 1207-1273

We moved into the Maison de Maître that my father had left us on Rue de la Faisanderie in the 16th arrondissement. Carl was now working for an American computer conglomerate as a logistics and support manager, making long hours to further his ambitions and prove his merit. Papa had left me a considerable inheritance, which I used to bring the house up to modern standards. I launched myself into renovations and interior design, redesigning kitchens and bathrooms whilst overseeing the workmen completing structural changes. We lived for six months on a building site, and by the end of it I had squandered most of the financial assets left to me. Thus I found myself living in a house with silk tapestries and taffeta curtains, fine art and Louis XVI antiques that didn’t reflect our meagre wealth or status.
The day I sold our last shares in Renault was the day I realised my life as I had known it was well and truly over. Gone were the security and safety, the wisdom and sapience, and perhaps most of all my childhood. They were all admitted to legacy, stored within the walls of a Parisian townhouse with its volumes of leather-bound books, silver-framed photographs of generations of family members and monogrammed cutlery and linen serviettes. They all spoke of my childhood and the family victories as well as defeats. I walked through the house in silence, touching the rich textiles, picking up the little family heirlooms, trying to remember every story attached to them. It was my way of saying goodbye to the past, with the promise to care for their tales and guard their secrets.
I once read that for as long as we are being remembered, we remain alive. I savoured those words as if they were the most exquisite of caramel bonbons, promising my father never to let go of his memory. As I did so, a book seemingly about to fall from the library shelf caught me eye. It was an ordinary blue notebook dated 1998. I had never noticed it before, and went to push it back into place when I discovered several others, all placed in chronological order. I removed some, leafing through their handwritten pages. Most entries were rudimentary logs of work schedules, outlining my father’s days in tilted block letters. There were meetings and lunches, sometimes a particular patient would be described. His writing was matter of fact, devoid of sentiment or emotions. I put them back again, making a mental note to come back to them one day. It would take five years until a good reason to do so would present itself.

I used what was left of my inheritance to set up my own business. It was never something I had planned or particularly desired, but one day my old history teacher contacted me for a research project for a book he was writing on the historical legends and myths of the Spanish-speaking world. I needed the money, and perhaps more so something to do as I was slipping further down into the black hole of monotone tediousness. I threw myself into stories of La Llorona and the ghost faces of Belmez, tracking and tracing the ripples cast by long-gone events. It took me three months to conclude the assignment, and after this more projects started to drop in. And so my business started to grow, slowly but surely, under the hospice of our townhouse basement.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I can’t say that not a day goes by without thinking of the past days’ events. I’ve done something terrible, that I know, and yet I feel no regret. Instead I fantasize about men. Many men. Men standing in a queue impatiently waiting for their turn. I want to return to Le Liberty once more, but I am too ashamed.

Cyril is not far from my mind either, nor are the Reaper murders. Despite my workload, I’ve spent every spare minute investigating the killings. Yet nothing of interest has come up. If the murderer is still alive, something has quenched his thirst for blood. And is there a connection to the Hellfire Club? The possibility can’t be excluded, and despite rigorous investigation into their present-day activities, my queries only find traces of their historic past.
In my pursuit of a starting point for my investigation, I decide to go to the source of it all. To Rue St-Denis. Subconsciously, you might say, it’s a way to find an outlet for my ever-so-fervent sexual fantasies. But my motives are honourable, or at least I tell myself this. To know the killer one has to know the victim. And St-Denis is where it all begins.

I inform my husband I will be home late from a dinner with a client. We haven’t seen much of each other since his return, but he doesn’t appear to be bothered. And I’m beyond the point of guilt as my transgressions are about to take a turn for the worse. I pack a small case with make-up, perfume, stockings and a couple of figure-hugging dresses. I haven’t decided what to wear yet. I call for a taxi and I’m told it will arrive within ten minutes. I’m anxious and pace up and down the kitchen while sipping a glass of Burgundy and chain smoking. When the taxi finally arrives, four cigarette butts lay discarded in the ashtray. For a brief second I ponder whether I should throw them in the waste bin, but as I find a poignant poetic cruelty in the impromptu still-life display, I decide against it and leave them on the kitchen table. A reminder that I was once here.

I arrive at the office on Boulevard Saint-Germain. It’s all dark with exception of the entrance and hallway, which buzz with faint fluorescent light. The constant humming obscures any other low-frequency sound, and for a moment I’m convinced I’m being watched by an invisible entity, knowing my every thought and move. I turn on all the lights and check every room in our sprawling office. It is ghostly empty and the night-time office looks vastly different from its daytime sister. Its not so much dark and sinister, but sad and grey. I conclude it’s well overdue for a renovation, but with the financial crisis still overshadowing our business there is little hope for change. I turn off all the lights again and walk into my office. There I take a little table mirror out of my cabinet and place it on the desk along with my cosmetics and perfume paraphernalia. I remove any remaining old make-up with a cotton pad and some cosmetics remover and start on a fresh set, transforming myself, step-by-step, into a nocturnal creature. After twenty minutes of application and reapplication, I’m satisfied with the result. I watch myself in the mirror, tracing the charcoal eyeliner and the smudgy, blackish-grey eye shadow with my eyes, my lips a crimson red. I favour a black velvet halter dress with a recklessly low décolletage, which is tied at the nape of my neck. The label itches my skin and so I take it off with a pen knife. FracasNoir. It drops to the floor.  Before putting on my shoes, I dab a little bit of perfume essence from Caron’s Tabac Blond on my wrists and behind my ears. The transformation is complete.

I arrive at Rue St-Denis a little before ten. It’s been years since I’ve treaded these streets — only women of a certain kind do — and although things don’t seem to have changed on the surface, it doesn’t take long to shatter this illusion. The les traditionelles, or parigotes as they are known locally due to their rough Parisian tongue, are all but gone thanks to the success of Sarkozy’s mission to clean up the city. In their place are clusters of scantly clad girls from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, with their Romanian and Albanian pimps discretely lurking behind bar windows and at corner vendors. I keep my gaze straight as I walk down the street, yet I know women are eying me with a look of condescension, and men with the prospect of sexual intimacy.
I turn a corner to a side alley where I enter a bar with the promising name of La Vie en Rose. I hand over my coat at the garderobe and walk down the stairs lined with red and pink Christmas lights – a remnant from the festive season perhaps, or perhaps left there permanently to lighten the otherwise dark passage. I can’t decide. Two doors separate the entrance from the main venue, which consists of two bars, one long and rectangular and the other squat and oval. A naked woman gyrates in front of an older man, and a scantly clad waitress is taking orders. The room is small and stifling and I estimate there is a clientele of about forty to fifty men, of all ages, vocations and social stratum. I feel relieved having found a sanctum in my journey, and even more so as the men around me part ways, leading me to a front-row seat.

As I sit down, a gentleman to my right asks if he can offer me something to drink. He’s not French, but I can’t quite determine from his English accent where he’s from. I say I wouldn’t mind a whisky on the rocks. The man seems happily surprised with my choice in hard liquor, and within moments I’m presented with my drink. It comes back straight nevertheless, but I take it down to being lost in translation. The man regards me for a moment before asking where I’m from. I say I’m from Paris, and again his face lights up. He stretches out his hand and presents himself as Hans, from Hamburg. I tell him I’m Severine, paying an impromptu homage to Catherine Deneuve’s enigmatic performance in Belle de Jour. I don’t think he makes the connection, but then again, Hans from Hamburg doesn’t seem to be the kind of man that would be a fervent devotee of art-house cinema. Nor does he know his Germanic literature well enough to have been made acquaintance with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs.

Despite this lack of common interests or general knowledge, I find something quite intriguing about his face. There is a softness that you so often see in German and Scandinavian people, quite lost to the people west of the Rhine valley. His nose is small, with a round edge, his lips full, his eyes a brownish-grey. Some years earlier, probably in his mid-thirties, his hair had begun to recede, presenting him now with a somewhat over-exposed forehead. Still, it makes him look worldly, business-like if you like. In fact he could be a sales executive as easily as a politician. I find neither occupation very thrilling, yet I take a distinct liking to him.

I return to the performance in front of me, a new woman having taken centre stage. She is the type of creature only to be found in the backwaters of Russia: thin, lean, long legs, with a mane of flaxen locks running down her back. I watch her breasts as they dangle like two pendants of meat, yet seemingly defy gravity as they are suspended in mid-air, leaving the nipples perfectly centred at all times. Her crotch is shaved and flawlessly formed with a stud crowning the rose of her clitoris. It catches the reflection of the disco lights, refracting colours I never expected to dazzle me from such an anatomical area. She is entertaining a customer to my left and lets him lick her crotch just below the studding. This against a hefty payment of thirty euros. It ensures him a five-minute exclusive and full-frontal show in which most types of engagements seem to be fair game. He takes advantage of this, and massages her breast whilst she straddles his face, which he’s placed strategically on the bar. The crowd is cheering and Hans is watching the performance with equal zeal and ardour.

When the girl has concluded her lap dance she rises and starts walking seductively across the bar in the hope of finding another client. Hans picks up his wallet and pulls out a fifty-euro note, which he waives to the girl. She comes eagerly walking towards him, like a bee to honey, and bends over to take his request. He whispers something inaudible, but she seems to understand, and for a brief moment she looks at me and nods. I can feel my heart flutter with the nerves inspired by the unknown. The girl starts to dance to the tantalizing sounds of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. It’s a seductive performance and I can’t help but fall hopelessly for her enticingly sinuous moves as she uses them and her well oiled body as tools to draw the audience to her. I believe we are all at her feet ready to become her submissive servants forever after.

She kneels down in front of me, placing my hand on her ample, heavy breast. I instinctively follow the curves, tracing the outline with my index finger. She pulls my head to hers, and we embrace in a kiss. Despite the eagerness, there is an indulgence. It’s softer and gentler than any man I have ever kissed, yet more explosive and…yes, perhaps more pleasurable. Her lips taste of Chanel raspberry lip gloss – I know this because my bathroom cabinet holds the exact same brand. She holds my head between her hands and I find myself unable to let go. Not knowing where to place my hands anymore, I attempt to think like a man. So I let one hand slip towards the cavity of her vagina, brushing up against her clitoris before entering her with two of my fingers. I can sense her shallow breathing as I thrust my fingers deeper and deeper. As I do so I feel someone’s hand between my legs and another touching my breast. The circular movements against my clitoris bring me to a climax, and I slump back in the stool. Hans removes his hand from underneath my lingerie and asks if I want to leave. I nod in relief and he ushers me out.

His temporary lodging is a business hotel on Rue de l’Arcade. It’s basic comfort, everything one can expect from a travelling businessman whose company is under pressure. Hans pours me a glass of whisky, yet again without ice. I count this one to be the third, possibly the fourth, I can’t exactly remember. He sits down in a brown leather armchair tucked in the corner, and I take this as an invitation to undress. I carefully place my coat and handbag on the chair next to me, then proceed to untie my dress. Hans is watching me, not intensely as one would expect, but more with a distant gaze, like he’s seen it all before.
He asks me to remove my bra and then my culotte. I hesitantly oblige, knowing men always crave what is forbidden to them. The room is dark apart from a sliver of light that penetrates the net curtains. The light falls next to me, but I choose to keep away, preferring the darkness that is all too kind to the flaws of my body. He directs me to step forward. “Closer, closer,” he urges until I’m standing only centimetres away. I am not sure what to do next, and he notices my indecisiveness, taking my hand and leading it to his crotch. I begin to unbuckle his belt and pull down his zipper. I pull and tug at his trousers, eventually getting them down to his knees as he lifts himself slightly to allow me to slip his underwear down more easily. I am about to take his member in my hand, but instead he forces my head down on it. I begin to suck on him, as he pushes my head harder into his crotch. I gasp for air, but find little of it. Eventually I fall into a mechanic pace, going up and down his shaft. He moans and grunts, and I can feel by the force of his hands that he’s about to come. I keep thinking to myself that I don’t want his cum in my mouth, and as I feel he’s about to climax, I pull my head out of his forceful grip. He comes over his white stomach, the sperm barely contrasting in colour. I go to the toilet and get some tissue and wipe up the residue that has now liquidised to a translucent watery texture.
He pulls up his trousers and asks me if I’d like him to call a taxi. I say it’s not necessary and he seems grateful for my reply. I get dressed and am about to leave when he hands me a wad of twenty notes. He puts it in my hand, tightening it to a fist. Then he says the most remarkable thing. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.” Without thinking further I take the money and leave, his last sentence echoing in my mind.

Autumn & Winter 2004 – 2005

Carl moved in with me. In fact, it wasn’t a decision we jointly made or even discussed. It just happened, gradually over the course of weeks and months. It started with a toothbrush and deodorant, then little by little my wardrobe was filling up with men’s shirts and Calvin Klein underwear. He even transferred his plants to make sure they got proper nurture. Carl had a bedsit not far from the Champs-Elysées, and when the six-month contract wasn’t renewed he just moved over the rest of his belongings. In fact, it wasn’t much as it it came down to an armchair and a lamp. I found a place for them in a corner next to the balcony, signifying the completion of our merger.

Carl dedicated much of his time to his work, often sitting in his armchair with his laptop working on projects he’d been put in charge of. I had found a job as a guide-cum-conservator at a small museum that had once belonged to a wealthy merchant family and now had been preserved in a state of arrested development for the benefit of the 21st century.

One afternoon, I took Carl to see my father. I hadn’t seen Papa in months, despite regular contact over the phone. Although living in the same city, we were both preoccupied with our lives, and opportunities for family reunions seemed few and far in between. My father was happy to see us and I could sense he and Carl got on well. Carl was well versed in financials and political affairs and, as I met Papa’s eyes, I knew I had his approval. Papa was approaching seventy. He had been working full time until recently, but now only lectured a few hours a week. He looked older though, and I secretly wondered how much longer he would be with us. It filled me with sadness, and I asked Papa repeatedly if he was fine. He assured me he was as healthy as ever, but despite his certitude I wasn’t so convinced.

Six weeks later my deepest fears became reality. I received a call from the hospital to which my father had been hastily admitted. The doctor didn’t want to explain over the phone but invited me over for a private conversation the same day. It was a rainy January afternoon, and I took the day off from work. Carl insisted on being there for me, and we jumped into a cab that brought us to Broussais University Hospital in the 14th arrondissement. I walked to the reception, asking for Dr. Bienfait. The receptionist asked us to take a seat. I couldn’t sit down and was pacing up and down the corridor. Carl got us some coffee, but this only further fuelled my frenzied state of mind. I watched the clock on the wall, timing my pace to half a minute, going and coming. I must have walked the distance at least fifty times, because it took nearly half an hour before a small, dark-haired woman in her late forties came to see us. She shook my hand with a firm grip before repeating the courtesy with Carl.
“Come this way, please.”
We followed her in silence, Carl walking half a step behind me.
She closed the door and pointed to two chairs opposite her desk. We both sat down at her command.
“I don’t know how much you are aware of your father’s condition, Ms Bertrand?” She paused, waiting perhaps for an answer from me, but as no such answer came, she continued.
“Your father was admitted to our hospital two weeks ago with pain in his abdomen, unable to hold down his food. He also had blood in his stool. We’ve done a number of tests checking for ulcers as well as cancer, and unfortunately a biopsy report came back positive for the latter. Mr Bertrand’s condition has worsened in the last week, so we scheduled an operation to open up his colon. Unfortunately it was discovered that the metastasis had spread to other organs and throughout the lymphatic system. It is what we call a Stage III-C, which is in almost all cases terminal.”
She paused to let me speak, but I was in too much of a shock to think of anything to say. Carl took my hand and thankfully continued the conversation, asking the questions I couldn’t even begin to think of.
“Is there really nothing that can be done for Mr Bertrand?” he started.
“I’m afraid not. We have started chemotherapy, and we already managed to surgically remove parts of the affected tissue, but only about twenty per cent. The question is if this will actually have any effect apart from temporarily slowing it down.”
“How long does he have…to live?” I felt another squeeze of my hand, which by now was lying limp in Carl’s.
“Well, if we continue the chemo, then perhaps three months. If not, it’s a matter of weeks…at the most.”
“Has he expressed what kind of treatment he would like?”
“Yes, Mr Bertrand is still very lucid, although this will change as the cancer progresses, and of course the morphine will have an impact too. He understands his odds and seems rather resigned to them. He has expressed a wish to discontinue the chemotherapy and let the cancer run its course. In the end we cannot influence him on this, and given the bleak prognosis, it’s a very human reaction. He wanted in any case for us to inform Ms Bertrand before stopping the treatment.”
“I see. Can we see him now?”
“Yes, of course. He may be asleep, and do bear in mind he’s under heavy pain medication, which may impact his speech and judgement.”
“Thank you doctor.” Carl looked at me. “Justine, are you ready?”

I don’t think anything can prepare you for a loved one’s mortal demise. The sudden onslaught of destruction, attacking every living cell until death is all that remains. The first thing that struck me was the faint odour of alcohol mixed with something decaying. I could hear the laboured breathing of my father as he lay still, blissfully unaware of the sadness that surrounded him. His skin, always a golden brown against his salt-and-pepper hair, was now dry, yellow and papery. His hair had gone from grey to white. I didn’t say anything, nor did I cry. Instead I stood there, transfixed to the scene that rolled out as if imprinted on celluloid for my mere amusement.
“I can’t take it any longer,” I said to myself. “I just can’t take it.” Carl took me by my arm and led me away. He hailed a cab, and I can vaguely remember getting into it. Then everything went blank. Perhaps I fell asleep.

I went to visit my father every day. Some days he was awake, others not. But gradually the times he would be conscious became fewer and fewer. I remember the last day we talked. I turned on the TV in his room and we watched the news together. Papa told me everything was arranged. I didn’t have to worry. He wanted me to be happy and to live out my dreams. In fact the last thing he said was, “Justine, never lose sight of love. Because love is everything.” With that he softly squeezed my hand, and I squeezed his. It was the last thing he said before falling asleep. Tears filled my eyes, I think for the first time. I knew there was so little time left.

Papa passed away peacefully on the last day of February. It was a cold winter morning, the rain of the night before having turned into treacherous ice. I received a phone call early in the morning – I didn’t check the time but the streets were still quiet – alerting me that my father was near the end. Carl called for a taxi, and despite slippery streets, we were at the hospital within the hour. I talked briefly to the nurse who confirmed my father didn’t have long to go. Hours, minutes, no one could say.
I walked into the room, which somehow had become a second home in the last weeks. I sat down next to my father, Carl remaining in the background. I told him I loved him, and that we would see each other soon. I told him to say hi to Maman, and to tell her I loved her too. And finally I told him that love was the greatest gift, and I would always remember that. As I stroked his cheek, I heard a last shallow sigh. Time stood still, or at least so it felt. I watched him intensely for any signs of life. A raised chest, a gurgle, a flutter beneath his eyelids. But everything was still. I checked his pulse, put my head on his chest, but all was gone.
So this is it, I thought. This is dying. It seemed so peaceful, yet so cruel and grim. I thought for a moment I sensed a dark shadow standing in the door opening, reminding me that the Reaper had called for another soul. But the spectre was gone before I knew it.

I thanked the hospital staff and asked them to send me my father’s belongings. A nurse wrapped her arms around me in an effort to comfort me, but I don’t think I responded. We walked down the stairs and out of the hospital. The air was crisp and I was glad to clear my lungs of the decaying stench of death that permeated my nostrils. We walked home in silence. I didn’t want to take a taxi or the metro. I just wanted to let my thoughts run wild. Yet my mind remained empty.

Summer 2004

I was about to graduate from university. A near twenty-year-long stint of being buried in books was about to end. It was with both sadness and anticipation I received my grades in a ceremony conducted in the school auditorium. My years of coming of age had finally come to an end, and I was about to enter the mysterious phase of adulthood. I wanted no graduation party, but instead gathered a small group of friends for an intimate, low-key dinner around the corner from my house. I came home late, happy and elated from the knowledge of the onset of freedom. The lift was occupied so I walked upstairs, still holding a bouquet of flowers and a cuddly toy in my hand. Halfway up, I saw the shape of a man sitting on the steps above me, barely visible through the grille of the lift. Not knowing whom it was, or if it was someone waiting for me at all, I walked up slowly hoping to ascertain his identity before I was noticed. The visitor must have heard me, as he stood up and then walked a few steps down. It was Carl.
“Hi there!” Still the same tilted smile; still the same good looks.
“Don’t say anything,” he continued. “I’m really just here to congratulate you on your exam.”
I said nothing. I just stood still, watching him. He held a bouquet of pink and white roses.
“Here, these are for you.” I took them, without so much as a thank you in acknowledgement. There were just no words. Everything I had wanted to tell him evaporated, seemingly blown away. My mind was in chaos, yet silence reigned. I took out my keys and opened the door. He continued to stand outside.
“You might as well come in,” I muttered.
I placed the two bouquets in different vases, one a brown plastic bucket where I chucked the flowers from my Swedish visitor. He didn’t say anything but his expression had a faint look of humility.
“Would you like a glass of Champagne?” I finally asked.
“Sure.” I took the bottle I had received from a friend, which I had planned to open regardless of the circumstances, and poured two glasses. There was no toast, just a subdued silence as we both sipped on our drinks.
“So what brings you here…well and truly?”
“Well and truly…my work. I got a management trainee position at a Swedish telecom company here in Paris. But I also wanted to see you. I heard you just graduated.”
“From who?”
“From a friend of a friend.”
I decided not to pry further into our mutual circle of friends. “Yes, my university years are finally over.”
“Do you know what you will be doing next?”
“Nope, I don’t have the faintest idea. But for now I am going to sit back and let this summer be the start of something tremendously good.” I wanted to add that this would naturally exclude any involvement with Carl, but I held my tongue.

In vino veritas: in wine is the truth. ~Latin proverb

An uneasy atmosphere enveloped the room. I think we only started to talk after our third glass and, by then, the Champagne bottle was already finished. I opened a cheaper version, Canai, and perhaps the fizzy bubbles did the trick because we haltingly began to converse. We avoided our last months together, and the subsequent aftermath, instead focusing on the good memories we shared. It seemed like ages ago — another lifetime — and as we talked about the happy times in which we had both partaken and the future not far ahead of us, I felt once more the overwhelming sensation of love. The alcohol didn’t help, instead diffusing any judgement I might have still been capable of maintaining. Eventually I fell asleep, in the arms of Carl.

I woke up the next morning, the light shining through the white muslin curtains. Carl was gone, and if it weren’t for two empty glasses one would have thought it was a mere dream. On the table sat a handwritten note, a single pink rose adorning it.

“Thanks for letting me in. For being my friend. I wish I could turn back time, unwind it until the moment we met. But as the laws of nature ignore my prayers, I can only hope for time to mend the wounds I’ve caused. I yearn for your happiness. For your laughter to return and your eyes to sparkle – to smile once more. Like I smile on you, whilst you are sleeping ever so gracefully.”

There was no reference to an email address or a phone number, and those I had, had been long ago deleted from hard disks and SIM cards. If things were meant to be, time would tell. In the end it did.

Three weeks later Carl made a similar appearance, once again unannounced. I let him in and he opened a bottle of wine as I was getting ready. I wished we could have left things behind and moved on with our friendship, but memories kept casting a shadow over us. He asked me about my plans, and I told him I didn’t have any. I suggested we go out for dinner, and he agreed. We were both starving and before long ended up in a Japanese Tepanyaki restaurant. The kitchen was bustling, with around eight chefs flipping eggs and chopping up chicken filets at top speed. We both ordered sake, which kept on coming in a steady flow, and I must have swallowed a handful of carafes. I knew I officially crossed the line between being tipsy and drunk when I suggested to my ex we check into a hotel for the night. He readily agreed, and from the moment we stumbled out of the restaurant we were both on a mission.

The summer had taken ahold of Paris, as the temperatures soared into the thirties. We walked along Champs-Elysées to the Place de la Concorde and I stepped into the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation, letting water pour over my head. I felt like Anita Ekberg in the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, and Carl took a beguiling picture in black and white, which used to sit propped up in my perfume collection. I looked happy, carefree and radiant – and looking back on the moment I was all of the above.

Hotels in the area were expensive, but we managed to find a two-star hotel on Rue St Roche. The hotel was situated in a ramshackle building on a street littered with dog excrement and other waste, but we couldn’t afford to be picky. The entrée consisted of flaking faux-leather furniture that reminded me of retirement homes. I sat down on one of the wide armchairs as Carl negotiated the rate. The manager on duty was an Algerian, or perhaps Moroccan, in his late fifties. He argued his rates well, but in the end settled for 110 euros including breakfast. He gave Carl a key to room 505 with the addendum that breakfast would be served between seven and ten in the dining area to our right. Carl thanked him for everything and walked over to me. He took my hand and we continued to the lift. A notice, half torn down, explained it was broken and apologised for the inconvenience. There was no other alternative but to walk up the stairs.

The room was hot and stuffy. I tried to turn on the fan but it was broken. Carl opened up the windows, but there was no breeze, so the act did little to cool the room. The space we’d just rented was almost as derelict as the building itself. The blue-striped wallpaper was peeling from the walls, and a fungus-ridden brown stain on the ceiling threatened to spread during rainy weather conditions. A bed and a table with a chair took up most of the space. I worked out that there were about three square metres left of walking area around the bed.  Carl took a seat at the window and lit a cigarette. I went over to him and hijacked it for a moment, taking a long drag before expelling the smoke. He brought me closer to him until my face was only centimetres away from his. It was as close as our faces had come to each other since rekindling our friendship. I could feel butterflies in my stomach as I imagined what was about to happen. I pulled in my stomach, stuck out my chest and pretended for a moment to be Rita Hayworth’s screen legend Gilda. With a suitable perfume, Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, I imagined I had managed to capture the essence of her mystique. But looking back I think I only smelled like Rita Hayworth. Or smelled the way Rita Hayworth looked.

Whatever the perfume did for me that evening, it was soon corrupted by sweat and body fluids, creating an animalistic scent…equally enticing. I must have worked the whole Gilda scenario to a T, making it a first-class act as I threw Carl down on the bed holding his hands above his head while I straddled him. The bed was squeaking with every move, and I remember thinking the whole courtyard would have knowledge of our carnal union. He came and I collapsed on top of him with exhaustion.

Our relationship didn’t get the official stamp until the day Carl said I love you. I had been careful not to utter those fateful words, and I kept a distance from Carl, as if he were a burning fire I was afraid would singe me. And in many ways, so it was. But like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to him. And being privy to the legend of Icarus, I also knew my wings would be burned one day. But eventually I gave in to his courtship and admitted defeat. When I expressed my eternal love over a Sunday breakfast, my fate was sealed, and whatever would happen next would be a direct consequence.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

“Si vous avez vu quelque fois mourir un homme, considérez toujours que le même sort vous attend.: If you have seen several times the death of a man, consider always that the same fate awaits you.” ~Unknown, from century-old graffiti in the Paris catacombs

I look to my right and see Cyril lighting a stack of candles that have been placed on a series of skulls flanking the wall. They illuminate the stone walls, with their piles of bones that have been glued together by something that looks like old cement.

“Sit, please sit,” he instructs, gesturing at a set of large silk-clad cushions that cover the ground.

“Lovely place you have here,” I smirk.

“Yes, isn’t it?” He replies, almost unaware of the irony in my voice.

“We use it for the most clandestine of meetings. Only a few of the absolute inner circle of the Hellfire Club know of its existence. So you should feel privileged.” He laughs rather awkwardly at his own joke. I say nothing.

“Well, there is something I want to show you. Let me see, how I shall get this out… Oh yes…” He removes two skulls from the wall and takes out a small, rather plain wooden box.

“We found this a few weeks ago when we were doing our own rudimentary excavations. What do you think?”

I take the box.

“It looks rather new and quite cheap. I’m sure you can find these in the dozens at Tati or equivalent stores.” I say while I study the object with great intensity.

“Yes, I thought so. Here…” He hands over a small metal key, which I use to open the box. Inside I find women’s jewellery. Not expensive by the look of it. Ordinary bracelets, pendants, rings. Pieces that would have once been valuable to the owner despite their lack of worth in the eyes of the common man. Perhaps even what she treasured the most. I start to untangle the lump of metal. It is no more than I can hold within my fist.

First is a silver cross with slightly diagonally skewed cross section. The front is rugged, like hot liquid silver has been dropped on the surface and then been left to coagulate. It looks like a confirmation gift, and behind it is a date engraved: 27/07/1986.  I put it next to me on the silk cushion. There are three rings. One gold wedding band with the engraving filed down to something almost unreadable. Perhaps it has been used as a means of distraction, constantly twisted and turned around the wearer’s ring finger. Another is a white gold ring with a small diamond, a fourth is a large ring with a flower. It bears no marks and looks to be of little value. There is a pair of earrings, gold-coloured with small red stones. Undoubtedly bijoux too. I untangle another two necklaces. One a gold-plated pendant with an amber stone, a prehistoric insect encapsulated firmly within its hold. The last is a silver necklace with a heart pendant inlaid with opal stones. I turn it over and find the name Catherine da Luz engraved in italic handwriting. The name rings a bell, but I can’t recall from where. I take the torch and shine it on the collection in front of me, then bring out my mobile phone and take several pictures from different angles.

“Where do you think they come from?” he asks, sounding intrigued.

“Hard to say, but somehow I don’t believe they belong to the same person.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, for starters the jewellery is all different, mismatched. Every woman creates a distinct style and these all look….so haphazard, carelessly put together.” I regard him before I pick up the rings.

“Look at these. I have rather small hands and I can only wear the wedding band…barely…on my ring finger.” I put it on to show.

“The rest are all too big, the flower ring I can just about wear on my thumb, but it’s way too big. Cyril, I don’t believe these are from the same person at all.”

“Yes, I thought so, but I wanted to hear what you thought of it. I value your opinion…a lot Justine. After all you are the investigator here, albeit a historic one.”

“Have you looked up the name – Catherine da Luz?” I ask.

“As a matter of fact I have, and this is where things are turning quite murky. Do you remember the murders in the late 1990s by a killer dubbed the Reaper of Paris?”

“Yes, I do. You are referring to the decapitated bodies that they found in the Seine, right?”

Oui, oui, exactly! Seven in total, all prostitutes. They had various suspects but none ever led anywhere. And then…poof…,” he gestures with his hands, ”…the killings stop. The murderer vanishes into thin air, just to become another serial killer legend.”

“Yes, I remember I was about seventeen, perhaps eighteen at the time. My parents forbade me from going outside late at night. And it was summer, I recall. When usually a lot of people were out at night. Suddenly backstreets went from being quiet to utterly silent. You just wouldn’t go anywhere where it was dark and empty.” I stop myself.

“Can I have a smoke here?”

“Feel free. I don’t think the dead are desperately worried about succumbing to lung cancer.”

I laugh at this remark. Cyril has an odd sense of humour. But this is also the only thing that makes him marginally endearing.

“I suppose not.” I light my cigarette, and hand Cyril one too. He takes it, more out of courtesy than desire.

“So, yes, where was I? Oh yes…so, of course I Googled the name Catherine da Luz, more so to find who the possible owner of the jewellery box was. At that point I hadn’t drawn such brilliant conclusions as you just have yourself. There were a lot of search results I had to go through: Facebook, Linkedin, but further down the result page popped up articles on a certain woman with the same name. And that’s how I got on the trail of the ‘Reaper of Paris’ murders. Now the interesting thing here is there were seven murders, and there are seven pieces of jewellery.”

“Is there anything else we can identify them with? Did you check their photos to see if you could identify any of the jewellery? Or was there jewellery reported missing in the investigation?” I ask.

“I must confess, I haven’t come that far in my own primitive investigations. At first I didn’t think much about it, and it wasn’t until last week I actually started to do a bit of research. But all valid points of course, all valid points.” He touches his chin as if this will bring forward an epiphany.

“OK, so let’s recap what we know so far, and perhaps a little help from Wikipedia wouldn’t hurt.” I bring out my mobile. “The reach is crap, but at least it will do. OK, I got it here. The Seine murders/the Reaper of Paris:

 

The Seine Murderer (also known as the Reaper of Paris) was an unidentified serial killer who murdered and decapitated at least seven female victims in Paris, France during a three-year period between 1996 and 1998.

Murders & Victims

The official number of murders credited to the so called Reaper of Paris is seven, although two separate murders two years after the killings stopped are still being disputed to this date. The first two victims, Marie Laroche and Chantal Moreau, were found four months apart, both bodies floating near the suburb of Charenton. Marie Laroche, 35, a prostitute and drug addict, had been strangled and her head decapitated. Four months later, on September 27, 1996, a second body was found not far from the site of Marie Laroche. The body was identified as Chantal Moreau, 29, also a prostitute but with no known prior drug problems. The autopsy report concluded that she had been decapitated while alive. Chantal Moreau was last seen in a bar on Rue St Denis three weeks earlier.

There were no further murders until the following year when, on May 1, 1997, the body of a Jane Doe washed up on one of the Seine embankments not far from Île de la Cité. Intense media coverage followed, and the name “The Reaper of Paris” was assigned to the killer. The murder followed a similar modus operandi as the last killing, with decapitation by a sharp object whilst the victim was still alive. Although the victim was never identified, she had a rare double-headed-eagle-of-Skanderbeg tattoo on the side of her torso. The tattoo, which was shown to the public in a bid to identify the victim, was entirely made in grey-black ink. Beliefs that she might have been from Albania circulated given the tattoo’s link with the now dethroned Albanian royal family.

12 weeks later, the corpse of another woman was found, that of Leila Girard, 37. The body, which had been carried by the currents as far as Argeuntuile, north of Paris, was in an advanced stage of decomposition and, based on the last sightings, she was thought to have died around June 3. Her cause of death was thought to be asphyxiation prior to decapitation, although a conclusive cause of death could never be established.

On September 7, the fifth body was discovered near a water-cleaning plant north of Paris. The woman, who was thought to have been Eastern European, was never identified. She was thought to have been between 25 and 30 years of age. The cause of death was decapitation itself.

Again there were no further bodies found during autumn and winter, only for the killer to resurface in April of 1998 when a group of Japanese tourists on a sight-seeing cruiser spotted the headless corpse of a female floating in the Seine. The body was identified as Celine Martin, a 28-year-old hairdresser from Versaille. This was a breakthrough in the investigation as Martin had no prior records of prostitution and was described by family and friends as a hardworking woman dedicated to her profession and family. Martin had been out with friends on a bachelorette night on April 25, and had left the group after midnight a few blocks from Rue St Denis. Her body was discovered three days later. Cause of death was determined to be decapitation.

The last known victim was Catherine da Luz, a 32-year-old prostitute from Marseille. Da Luz had been living in Paris for eight months when her body was discovered shortly after she went missing on July 2, 1998. Cause of death was also in this case ruled to be decapitation.

All victims, with the exception of Celine Martin and the two Jane Does, where occupation could never be firmly established, were prostitutes from working-class areas in and around Paris. Two victims, both Jane Does, were thought to be of Eastern European origin, whilst the other five were confirmed as native French. There were rumours of torture and rape, but this was never firmly acknowledged by the team of investigators in charge of the inquest.

Possible Victims

At least two non-canonical victims are commonly discussed in connection with the Seine Murders. Both murders happened two years after the Reaper of Paris murder spree came to a halt. The police never made any admissions to the connection of the killings, and the police investigator in charge of the investigation, Bernhard Roux, hinted that it might have been the work of a copycat killer. The first victim was found near La Frette-sur-Seine, north of Paris, on April 8, 2000. The body was identified as Valerie Gravois, who had disappeared a week earlier on April 1, 2000.

Nine months later, on December 9, Chantalle Bukowski’s severely mutilated body was found near Croissy-sur-Seine. Both victims had been strangled and then decapitated.

Suspects

Several suspects were questioned during the investigation, but no further charges were brought against them. Given the nature of the decapitations, it was speculated in the media that the killer would have been well versed in the medical profession, possibly a medical student or doctor. The murders taking place on irregular weekdays indicated to some experts a person with a flexible profession, a doctor suiting this profile.

The murders came to an abrupt halt in July 1998, lending the belief that the killer had received a jail sentence, died or gone into remission. The first is highly unlikely given that DNA technology was so advanced at the time that a further crime would have brought up a match. However, it should be noted that the police never confirmed securing DNA from the victims. The case remains open to this date and continues to be a subject of speculation, frequently figuring in popular media.

I take out my last cigarette and light it. I watch the embers glow in the semidarkness. It’s getting cold, and my legs are stiff from sitting on my knees. I move them into a lotus position to circulate the blood. Cyril has been watching me the whole time. Never interrupting my narrative. He looks to be lost in thought. Like something has triggered his neural connections, his mind now running leaps ahead of my own conclusions.

“You look preoccupied. What do you think?”

“I’ll tell you what I think…,” he starts. “We are sitting in the killer’s lair. This is where he went to relive the murders. He didn’t want to keep the mementos in his house for understandable reasons, and thus kept them here, outside the reach of prying eyes.”   “Yes, I think you might be right. But if so, it could be possible he’s kept other collectables here too. Such as memento mori.” I look at him and he knows what I am thinking of.

“Yes, quite possibly so. This would be an ideal location to store the heads for safekeeping. Adding to an already vast location…” He trails off. We both fall silent, knowing the place we are in is the final resting place of those long forgotten.

“I really need to go,” I excuse myself. The place is filling me with foreboding, and the cold yet repressing air lays heavy on my chest. It’s almost as if an overwhelming sadness, a dying spirit uttering her final words in a curse full of scourge, torment and bitterness, has descended on the crypt.

“Of course, I understand. But we need to agree on what to do next.”                            “What do you mean what to do next? We need to take this to the police.”

“No, I don’t think so. This is Hellfire Club property, and, remember, we have all sworn an oath to live by our motto. No police.” He blows out the candles, one by one. The room will soon be in total darkness. “You’re either with me or you’re not. Though I could use your help. We need to excavate this place, and only you have such knowledge and tools. Moreover, there’s an investigation to be conducted…”

“And then what?” I interrupt him. “After you uncover the killer, what then? What if the murderer is one of your fellow kinsmen?”

“Impossible, why hide this here if it was used by the Order? I don’t even think we knew about its existence until years after the murders. But we’ll discuss what steps to take at that point – whatever the outcome. But until such time, it’s all hypothetical and, moreover, completely superfluous to dwell on at this stage.” He’s about to blow out the last candle before he adds, “Are you with me or not?”

“I suppose I am.”

“Good!” And with that he snuffs out the last source of light.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

We walk along dark, empty streets. It’s like the sudden cold has taken Paris hostage and its citizens with it. Cyril takes my hand, squeezing it. He pulls out a new cigarette and lights it with the other. A flame dances on its end, fanned by the wind, before moments later being snuffed out to a sizzle. We walk, huddled together, like a lonely couple on their way home from the cinema or an intimate dinner. It’s quiet and neither of us seems inclined to talk. Instead we walk silently through the streets, our only objective the warm apartment at a yet unknown destination.

Cyril pushes the key into the door. Two quick turns and it unlocks to the sound of a dull click. I look for a nameplate on the door but there is nothing. We walk inside the apartment. A large Renaissance-style console table adorns the entrance, above it hanging a late-17th-century painting of a stern-looking man cloaked in priestly vestments. The apartment has an old parquet floor which creaks when treaded upon. As we walk deeper into the hall there is a junction opening up to a large drawing room on the left and what appears to be a dining room to the right. Cyril has already left me and I hear his voice from a far distance.

“Justine: coffee, wine or something stronger?”

“Can you make me an Irish coffee?”

“Of course I can. With cream?”

“Yes please,” I respond.

I hear him working something in the kitchen, and in the meantime I decide to explore his bolthole. Just as he did mine. The apartment is vast, each room interconnecting with another. It’s almost like a maze, with several reception rooms and a library-cum-study. I make a mental note of returning to it after completing my impromptu expedition.

The library connects with an antechamber, which in turn connects to another room. It’s locked, but a quick search turns up an old key hidden in a flowerpot. I insert it into the keyhole and it fits perfectly. I turn the key and I’m just about to open the door when I hear footsteps behind me.

“Ah you found the theatre. Don’t worry, I’ll show you in a moment, but first your drink.” He is strangely animated. Not as dark and melancholic as on our last meeting. I take the drink and follow him into one of the sitting rooms. The furniture is an eclectic mix of old antiques, Scandinavian 50s and 60s functionalistic design along with a few pieces that look distinctly IKEA. Modern art flanks the walls, mostly abstract expressionism from the Cobra and Tachisme movement, I believe. He lights the fireplace and I sit down on a hard, but rather comfortable, leather sofa.

“How long have you lived here for?” I begin.

“Well technically it’s not my place. It belongs to a group of people, but you can say I am the custodian of it. I’m one of the few that has free access to it. “

I watch him, trying to figure him out. “So who are these people you are referring to?”

“Mmm, if I told you I would have to kill you, wouldn’t I?” A quick smile flashes before reverting to neutral. “Have you ever heard of the Hellfire Club?”

I know where this is leading. The Hellfire Club was an old establishment known for mocking (and often shocking) society in their times, taking part in immoral acts of debauchery. Or so the story goes. It was frequented by high members of British society, including, among others, the Duke of Wharton and Sir Francis Dashwood. It’s even been claimed that Sir Benjamin Franklin was a guest while he was living in London, and there are several masonic conspiracy theories tied to the legend.

Fais ce que tu voudras,” I reply.

Très perspicace, Madame! Do what thou wilt. A wonderful concept, don’t you think?”

“Well, it depends what that is, I would say. There are norms, laws…”

“Ah, you disappointment me Justine. Fuck the law! Some people are simply above it and you would be a fool to think you are living in a society upholding the rules of justice.” He stands up and walks away. He’s gone for maybe a minute or so before returning with a thick book, which he demonstratively kisses.

“My bible for esoteric societies – the Encyclopaedia of Secret Societies: history, myths and legends debunked. Who needs internet, eh?” He flicks through the pages until he finds what he’s searching for.

“Are you ready to hear about the real Hellfire Club?”

“Please, I can’t stand the suspense.”

The Hellfire Club was the name for a number of exclusive clubs for the high ranks of society in Great Britain and Ireland in the 18th century. Its original name, the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, derived from a complex of grottos and caves at West Wycombe Park, which belonged to Sir Robert Dashwood.

The clubs were said to be used as meeting places for “persons of quality” who wished to take part in unethical, immoral and illegal acts. Although no definitive member lists have ever been published, the general consensus is that several high-profile politicians and members of the establishment took part. Most notable are Sir Francis Dashwood, Thomas Potter, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson, Paul Whitehead and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, in addition to its founder, Philip, Duke of Wharton.

The first Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1719 by Philip, Duke of Wharton, together with some close friends and associates. The society grew, and several new clubs sprung up during the course of the 18th century.

The club’s motto, “fais ce que tu voudras”, was a philosophy attributed to François Rabelais’ fictional abbey at Thélème, and would later be used by Aleister Crowley’s Satanical Church.

Devil Worship?

What is perhaps most interesting, and has been put down to legend, are the actual activities taking place. As very few sources exist, and most of those are based on hearsay and innuendo, it’s difficult at best to paint a clear picture. The general consensus, however, is that the clubs were rather innocent by today’s standards, although at the time they would have constituted a clear threat to particularly the Church of England as well as polite society at large. In contrast to that of Freemasonry, which has often been mentioned in the same breath due to crossovers in memberships going as high up as Grand Master level, both men and women attended the gatherings. It was said a great deal of wine was consumed and sexual innuendo appears to have set the tone. Mock processions of both Church and Freemasonry rituals have been recorded. Paul Whitehead, a well-known poet and Republican, once organised such procession of tramps and beggars in parody of a yearly Freemasons’ parade.

It has often been assumed that the society engaged in devil worship through the unsubstantiated link to Aleister Crowley’s organisation 200 years later. However, no evidence can be ascertained beyond the odd séance and occasional dabbling in the occult.

He closes the book. “Et voilà! The Hellfire Club – the official version anyhow. We have a book entirely dedicated to the subject, but I can’t find it anywhere. It, however, paints a slightly different picture. And as they say, no smoke without fire.”

“And no fire without a spark,” I retort.

“Exactly!”

“But let’s get back to the point. What is it exactly you are doing here? Re-enacting mock religious ceremonies, worshipping the devil and having unrestrained sex? Oh, and let’s not forgot the most important thing: being above the law.” I let out a frivolous laugh, but stop myself as I meet Cyril’s stare.

“I see you don’t believe me. Let me show you something now.” I half expect that he will take me to the locked room, but instead he leads me towards the main door.

“Take your coat. It might be a bit chilly where we are going.”

He walks briskly and hands me my coat. I follow him outside and he closes the door behind us. Impatiently he presses the button for the lift. It’s not reacting and we can see it is stalled somewhere between the second and third floors. It appears to be ancient, probably at least a century old, enclosed by an iron grille that exposes the shaft and mechanics.

He takes the lead and starts walking down the stairs encircling the lift. When we get to the bottom, he brings out a key and opens a door to the basement. Instead of offering me first right of passage, he charges ahead. A light is turned on. It seems to come from the same era as the lift and is attached to a manual clockwork. It’s ticking in the background, and I give it thirty seconds before it’s out. Cyril continues to walk ahead, leading us through a maze of boxed compartments made out of wooden planks. It wouldn’t take much to break into one of these, and a few seem to have indeed suffered such a fate, with their broken padlocks and doors ajar. But this is clearly not what my tour guide is about to show me.

At the end of the maze stands a brown door exposing remnants of green through a peeling layer of paint. Cyril unlocks it and whisks me in. There is hardly room for one, let alone two people. He brings out a torch, which he directs towards a wooden staircase. Without a word he descends into complete darkness. Not wanting to be left behind, I follow him in his decline. We arrive in what appears to be a cave, but I soon realise we are in the infamous catacombs that run underneath Paris like a cité des morts. Through my studies and subsequent profession I have been here numerous times before. The catacombes des Paris are home to the remains of over six million deceased and a few thousand light-evading living who, for whatever reasons, have sought their shelter.

Since the time of the Romans, Paris buried its dead outside its city walls. However, this practice changed as the pagan religion gave way to Christianity and the final resting place for the faithful came to be within church crypts and the adjourning cemeteries that sprung up. As the city population began to rise rapidly, the few resting places that existed became horribly overcrowded, and soon only the wealthiest of city dwellers could afford a proper church burial. The city was facing a real problem, which would eventually be resolved by the opening of mass inhumation. But this only shifted the problem onto a new dilemma far worse, as the residues resulting from decaying organic matter entered the earth, eventually reaching the groundwater and the connected city wells.

By the 17th century the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents were beyond intolerable and it was decided to excavate the mass graves to create a sepulchre with lined walls. But even this reorganisation didn’t help much as the earth continued to be saturated with decomposing human remains.

Eventually the city had enough of the stench, protesting to great pandemonium, and after a series of ineffective decrees to control the situation, it was decided to open up three new cemeteries outside the city centre.  Montmartre in the north, Père Lachaise in the east and Passy in the west. These were finally to be consecrated in the early 1800s.

In the meantime, the city settled upon using the old underground mining tunnels in the south of Paris as the final resting place for the bodies in the mass graves in the city centre. The exhumation and transfer of the Paris dead began in 1786. The city had finally found a solution to its lethal problem, rather in time before heads were about to roll.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I’m at a cocktail party. The host is a friend of a friend, someone I only know in passing who lives not far from the office. It’s an eclectic crowd. Most are in marketing and advertising, I gather. The more established firms such as Ogilvy & Mather and JWT. There are also accountants, doctors and the obligatory Directors and VPs, from finance to support. If my husband were here, he would already be in deep conversation about his company’s loosing market share to Apple. But of course he is not, and in my lack of company I turn my attention to an improbably handsome young lawyer in his early thirties. It’s a fleeting conversation, not lasting for more than a few minutes before we are interrupted by who I presume is his wife or girlfriend. He wants to introduce me but she pretends not to hear and pulls him away.

I stand once more alone, throwing back my third glass of Champagne and finding myself desperately wanting another one. I look around the salon. People are strangely animated, but in some sort of farcical slow motion. I try to listen in on the conversations next to me, determining which one I should join, but the sounds don’t make a connection, as if they belong to a language I don’t understand. I realize I need some air and walk towards a pair of French doors opening onto a balcony. Well, ‘balcony’ doesn’t do it justice; it’s more of a rooftop terrace spanning the entire south side of the building. I walk towards the iron balustrade. It’s 9 PM exactly and the Eiffel Tour begins to sparkle. It’s a clear night and the air is freezing. I wrap my arms around myself to fight off the chill. It’s to little avail.

“I bet you are thinking of how to escape this dreaded party.” The voice is familiar but I can’t exactly place it. Before I turn around I feel two hands on either side of my shoulders. The warmth is a welcome reprieve from the sub-zero temperature.

“You’re cold. Let me give you my jacket.” Cyril takes off his sand-coloured corduroy blazer and places it over my shoulders. Still the same smell: Gauloises mixed with Fougère Royale by Houbigant and stale sweat.

“Have you been observing me all evening?”

“My-oh-my, don’t we think highly of ourselves tonight? I just arrived, as a matter of fact. But God what boring people are here.” He waves his cigarette in the direction of the party, like it’s a wand with magical properties that can put an end to tedious parties and their lacklustre inhabitants.

“Yes, I was just working up courage to leave,” I say.

“Would you like to come with me? I have an apartment not far from here. In the Latin Quarter. I promise it will be very civilised. Only coffee and jazz.”

I don’t have to think for long. Since last night, I’ve been left in a state of loneliness. I’m dying for company. If only to escape myself.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cyril sat at the window of his apartment on Boulevard Saint Germain. It had begun to snow again, dampening the noise outside to a dull and muted resonance. Cyril chuckled to himself as he went through the past days’ events. He’d been watching Justine for some time. He’d first seen her a little over a year ago in the midst of her blooming pregnancy. It was around the time she moved into the office across the street. He was in the beginnings of his second novel, writing the synopsis to what would become just another dark tale of human suffering. It was what he knew best and, although his publisher was trying to persuade him to make the leap to a broader genre, Cyril had no such inclinations. His ambition, since an early age, was to become a great author. He wanted to write with the rawness of Steinbeck and Graham Greene, the passion of Zola and the elegance of Hemingway & Flaubert. He wrote, and re-wrote, perfecting his prose until there was little more to be perfected. Yet the audience remained small albeit receptive. A few obscure literary magazines and left-wing publications took up his work, often giving moderately positive critique. Someone compared him to a modern-day Maupassant, which was as close to his ambitions he would ever come.

He had kept tabs on Justine from the moment he first laid his eyes on the woman with the unruly, red curly hair. Two weeks later he had bought a pair of binoculars to trace her movements inside her office, which was directly opposite his own study. He would sit at his desk watching her morning rituals, lunches often taken at her computer and series of endless afternoon meetings at the round table that stood in a corner. Even though he wouldn’t admit his obsession with the red-haired woman on the other side of the street, he agreed to himself that his interest was probably beyond the borders of nonchalant curiosity and that which most people would consider healthy. But he would only go so far as to admit a certain fascination. One that could only be stilled by taking matters into his own hands.

But as often happens, fate intervened, as one day Justine did not show up to work. He put it down to her life having taken on the dimension of motherhood, and true to his perceptions, she arrived at work two months later, this time without the distinct signs of pregnancy. She looked sad.

Autumn 2003 – Spring 2004

There hadn’t been much left to be said, between Carl and I. Our whirlwind affair was already relegated to the status of emotional baggage. So I picked up the pieces as best as I could. I called friends and let their soothing words boost my damaged ego. I let them take turns on pot-shot character assassinations at Carl’s expense. And it felt so very good.

I decided against telling my father. Although I needed his paternal wisdom, I feared it would only be met with disdain. And besides the topic was far too intimate in its nature to be shared between father and daughter.

It was a Tuesday morning when I arrived with my friend Liza at the hospital. I was told to have a shower and was handed a blue hospital gown that was to be tied at my back. Liza stayed at my side whilst I waited for the procedure to take place. I was thankful for her company, as she did her very best to distract me with a generous dose of insider gossip. In the meantime a nurse came into the room and inserted a tablet to soften and dilate my cervix.

“This might hurt a little, so relax,” she warned, her voice soft and gentle as if she took pity on me. I looked away, focusing all my attention on my friend who, oblivious to my anguish, kept going on about Gregory, our childhood friend, finally coming out of the closet. I couldn’t help but laugh and I reminded her that he had tried to fondle me during a game of “human pyramids”. We laughed so hard, only stopping when the nurse said she was done. An hour later I was rolled into the operating theatre and was put under general anaesthesia. I could feel my eyes go heavy as I tried to distinguish the sounds emitting from the doctors around me. Then my senses were all obliterated as I drifted into a deep sleep.

 

I was dazed and groggy when the nurse prodded me awake.

“You will be ready to go home in the next hour.” I nodded, feeling relieved by the knowledge that it was all over. Liza packed my belongings and drove me back to the apartment. She prepared tea and blueberry muffins whilst I lay on the couch under a massive dose of painkillers and wine and watched rom-coms that she’d brought as relief effort. The thought was kind, but only made my situation all the more poignant.

I spent the next months focusing on my studies. My upcoming graduation the following year was a welcome distraction.  We had a long Indian summer running well into the depths of October, but then came the chill. It was an early October morning when I woke up to a thin layer of frost that had descended over Paris. I opened up the balcony and inhaled the crisp air into my lungs. The wind swept by me and into the apartment, touching its content with an icy rawness. When I closed the doors, it was as if the summer leftovers with their clinging remnants of memories and reminiscence had vanished for good. I got dressed and went to school grateful to have dispelled the last remains of love.

I didn’t hear anything from Carl. I didn’t know any of his friends from his Paris university time, and his circumstances in Sweden were still obscure. Occasionally I Googled him but found little of relevance apart from some essays and a thesis from his Business Administration Studies. He also appeared to have taken up running as his name was linked to a number of marathon result lists. But beyond this, there was nothing. It was all rather quiet and any attempt to track his whereabouts proved fruitless.

People say abortions are hard to bear. I’m not so sure. Or at least I wasn’t back then. As soon as my bleeding had turned into a mere trickle of pink, I resumed life with an even greater vigour than heretofore. I gathered the few friends I had around me (I often prefer my own company to that of others) — or, perhaps more accurately, joined their group once more with the clear intention to land invites to parties and openings. I succeeded, and soon I was back on the never-ending bandwagon called dating. French people are rather carefree, and we live for pleasure and titillation. It’s rather an end to a means, but in our pursuit of it, we will use and abuse it as we see fit.

“Pleasure, which is undeniably the sole motive force behind the union of the sexes, is nevertheless not enough to form a bond between them…even if it is preceded by desire which impels, it is succeeded by disgust which repels. This is a law of nature which only love can change.” ~Marquise de Mertuile, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

So I threw myself into some meaningful affairs, as well as those less so, with a multitude of men. I’m trying to count the number as I write, and come to the figure of thirty-one. Some are lost to alcohol and class II drugs, although the latter only figured in a handful of occasions. Others are lost to selective memory, which thankfully kicked in during moments of stupidity and embarrassment.

As I write, and courage is replaced with boldness, I find I should paint the picture of this time for you with some of the affairs most memorable. If I ransack my mind, there were perhaps only two.

The first one that springs to mind was a software developer called Hugh. I had taken up a part-time job doing translations at a development company in the outskirts of Paris. It was a two-day-a-week job, which only required my onsite attendance once weekly. This suited me fine as lessons had dwindled down to a near nought on the last workday of the week. Hugh was from an old Poitou family related to the counts of La Marche through an illegitimate daughter born to Hugh XI. Ever since, the family had taken up the custom of naming every first-born son Hugh, my colleague no exception.

As I didn’t hold a permanent desk, I took whatever was available, which in most cases was a desk opposite Hugh belonging to a colleague who didn’t work on Fridays. The only girl in an office of testosterone-fuelled Java programmers, I soon became the colourful feather in their hat. Hugh was different from the rest as he was one of the few who could skilfully carry a conversation with the female sex. He had, against all odds, managed to cultivate the skill of separating Java from women, and could perfectly well switch between the two at any given moment — just as his forefathers had been able to switch swords between both hands. It was a parallel rather fitting, as Hugh also happened to be ambidextrous.

Our relationship, which as we shall come to was of a purely platonic nature, albeit with sexual undertones, started off as a series of Skype messages querying the backend structure of an affiliate platform that had to be translated into commercial spiel. As the lead developer and the only programmer with one foot in the real world, Hugh seemed best equipped to answer my questions. However, our chats soon turned towards more personal, NSFW topics, where two dark minds met in the vast space of the virtual universe.

[17:46] Primal_Fear: so what do you like then, in bed?

[17:46] Narcisse_Noir: Hmmm…a lot 😛

[17:47] Primal_Fear: like what?

[17:47] Narcisse_Noir: I have certain fantasies…

[17:47] Primal_Fear: I’m listening

[17:48] Narcisse_Noir: I want to be in control, dominating my subject

[17:49] Primal_Fear: really?

[17:49] Primal_Fear: I don’t believe you

[17:50] Narcisse_Noir: Why not?

[17:53] Primal_Fear: ‘cause you are rather demure. just my experience…

[17:54] Narcisse_Noir: in your experience? So what exactly would that be?

[17:55] Primal_Fear: you are attempting to change the subject

[17:55] Narcisse_Noir: no

[17:55] Primal_Fear: yes

[17:56] Narcisse_Noir: well, maybe

[17:58] Primal_Fear: honesty prevails my fair lady

[17:59] Narcisse_Noir: I don’t agree

[18:01] Primal_Fear: so you prefer lying?

[18:03] Narcisse_Noir: perhaps

[18:04] Narcisse_Noir: ok, I will tell you a fantasy if you tell me yours

[18:06] Primal_Fear: fair enough. as long as you start

[18:06] Narcisse_Noir: you were right

[18:06] Primal_Fear: about what?

[18:08] Narcisse_Noir: I’m not into domination

[18:08] Primal_Fear: I know. you like to be dominated

[18:10] Narcisse_Noir: so how would you know?

[18:10] Primal_Fear: I can see it on you. again, down to experience

[18:11] Narcisse_Noir: But I could swing both ways

[18:13] Primal_Fear: no, you are either one or the other, although as submissive you are usually the one in control. That’s the paradox

[18:15] Narcisse_Noir: I don’t agree, and I think one can swing both ways. but yes I suppose as a woman I like to be fucked well.

[18:16] Primal_Fear: define well

[18:17] Narcisse_Noir: good, hard, deep

[18:20] Primal_Fear: you sound like a 3rd-rate porn flick. I am sure you can do better than that

[18:21] Narcisse_Noir: how do you want me to describe it then?

[18:22] Primal_Fear: well for starters tell be about your fantasy

[18:24] Narcisse_Noir: that puts us back to square one

[18:24] Primal_Fear: touché

[18:25] Narcisee_Noir: OK, give me a minute to think this through

[18:26] Primal_Fear: certainly

[18:30] Narcisse_Noir: so, there is this guy. He is dark haired, tall, large hands. I watch them whilst he is typing. He is good with his hands. Knows how to use them well

[18:32] Narcisse_Noir: One day we go to see a client. I give a presentation and my colleague fills me in, backs me up where necessary. I wear a pencil skirt with a high waist all the way up to the bust line where a cream silk blouse picks up. It’s summer and too hot for stockings. So my bare feet are only covered in a pair of black Mary Janes.

[18:35] Primal_Fear: go on

[18:37] Narcisse_Noir: My colleague is stealing glances. I notice it when I bend over to connect my laptop to the beamer. His eyes level with the cavity of my chest.

[18:39] Narcisse_Noir: We return to the train station. At first waiting at the platform. It’s sweltering, the underside of my breasts creating sweat marks on the blouse.

[18:41] Narcisse_Noir: We find a train compartment that is empty. I position myself opposite my colleague. We sit there for about five, seven minutes before the train leaves the platform. When the train is at full speed he comes over to me. Kissing me, he unbuttons my blouse. I fumble with the belt, tightening it before the pin is released from its position. The zipper comes down relatively easy and I insert my hand into his underpants, grabbing his already stiff cock

[18:42] Primal_Fear: and then?

[18:44] Narcisse_Noir: I massage it, first with my hands, then with my mouth. He comes. I swallow

[18:44] Narcisse_Noir: for practical reasons as well. I don’t want cum on my skirt

[18:45] Primal_Fear: of course you wouldn’t

[18:46] Primal_Fear: and this is it? your fantasy?

[18:47] Narcisse_Noir: Well not the only one. But one of them I suppose. Perhaps with a different ending

[18:49] Primal_Fear: I know. your fantasy has certain flaws

[18:49] Narcisse_Noir: What do you mean?

[18:51]Primal_Fear: I mean…in your scenario you take control. but in fact you want to be controlled. perhaps you are afraid of letting your true feelings speak. either to me or to yourself

[18:52] Narcisse_Noir: you might have a point there

[18:52] Primal_Fear: I know I do 😉

[18:54] Narcisse_Noir: so what is your fantasy?

[18:56] Primal_Fear: well you didn’t exactly deliver on yours so I reserve myself the right to hold off on that one

[18:56] Primal_Fear: until a later date perhaps

[18:57] Primal_Fear: hold on a sec

[18:57] Primal_Fear: phone

[19:00] Narcisse_Noir: ok

It was the defining chat of many more that would come to play a significant part in a largely platonic relationship consisting of an exchange of sexual fantasies. Hugh was quite peculiar in the fact that he never gave any indication as to his own true feelings towards me. He signalled a preference for small, primarily Asian women. Petite with small busts and delicate hands and feet. A fetish I suppose.

He had a girlfriend, although he didn’t speak much of her. She was living in Dublin, and every so often he would be gone from work for what I assumed was a visit to her. On one occasion, during a late-night chat that extended so far that it might have passed for being an early-morning one, he alluded to his urge to dominate his girlfriend. He didn’t say how, but explained it was something she wished for – and he readily obliged. I probed him for any reasons for her submissive demeanour, to which he hinted at an abusive childhood. His answer terminated the subject and he never brought it up again. Sensing a disquieting unease, I avoided the topic from then on as well.

In response to his aloof manner, never hinting at or revealing any feelings held towards me, I never told him that my fantasies were about him. I never told him of the forbidden reveries I harboured, of being tied down to the mahogany table in our family dining room whilst he penetrated me with objects of various kinds. How could I? My assignment came to an end six months later, and so did the chats we had engaged in. In hindsight it was all a mere flight of fancy, but at the time I thought there had been something of substance. And yet there probably was, when I think back on the countless name- and faceless men that had entered my bedchamber only to leave me before the wake of dawn.

I told you, of course, I would name two, thus I shall honour our agreement. The second, the most significant, started in early spring the following year as I enjoyed cocktails with a friend at Chez Jeanette on Rue Faubourg St Denis. It was early in the evening and the usual crowd remained largely absent. My friend who had a later appointment left, but I decided to stay on, finishing my drink and reading a book that I had picked up earlier at Shakespeare & Co, an English bookstore on 37 Rue de la Bûcherie. The bartender was busy taking an inventory of a new batch of spirits. I was the only one sitting at the bar, and the temporary drop in clientele probably provided ample opportunity for ad-hoc tasks and inventory management.

“Excuse me!” I called, and the bartender shifted towards my direction.

“Sorry,” I smiled, “but could I have another Cosmo?”

“Certainly, mademoiselle.” He picked up a glass and brought the ingredients to the work surface that mirrored the bar. I watched him as he measured the spirit.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” I opened, bored of reading a book that after ten pages had proved to be a mis-purchase.

“I’m new here,” he agreed in a deep, accented voice. Greek, possibly Turkish?

“Where are you from?”

“Montenegro.”

“Former Yugoslavia?”

“That’s right.”

“What are you doing here?”

“For the moment working, trying to make a living. It’s not always easy.” His voice had a guttural, harsh, grating quality to it, and he pronounced his O’s from the depth of his throat. I liked it. If French was the language of Venus, the Montenegrin must surely be the speech of Mars.

“So how did you end up here?”

“A friend of mine, actually. He’s married to a French woman and convinced me to come over. Three years later and I’m still here.”

“So have you met your own French mademoiselle yet?”

He laughed.

“I probably shouldn’t say it, but more than one.”

“Really?” I feigned a look of surprise.

“But I am single as we speak.”

“So am I.” Three cosmos down and the alcohol was talking.

I can’t recall the exact conversation that followed. Perhaps because of the reason just mentioned. But Milan (as his name turned out to be) invited me to a music performance that evening where he played the guitar. That same night, we ended up at his place. Late enough for the earliest rays of the sun to break through the cream cotton curtains.

It was a small, crowded studio off Boulevard de Clichy. Despite my drunken state, I remember feeling abomination melting into fascination at the view of a stained mattress barely covered by a crumpled sheet. He straightened it out and told me to lay down. Whatever my fantasies and desires had been for Hugh, they were now bounteously fulfilled.

The one-night stand turned into a three-month affair. There were times I thought, in my drunken hallucinations, we had a future ahead of us, but then there were times it was clearly not so. Yet, one day he told me he loved me. In his own language.

“Volim te,” he whispered.

I repeated it. “Volum te.”

“Listen. Volim te.” He emphasized the i.

Volim te,” I said again.

“You got it.”

Later that day he asked me if I loved him.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Say it then.”

“I can’t remember.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, really. I’ve forgotten it.”

He took my face in his hands and looked me deep in my eyes. “My teacher once told me that to remember a difficult or foreign word you should think of a word you already know. Like “volim te”. It sounds like volume tea. Almost. So if you think of this you will never forget.” He paused, then added, “Think of me… and you will never forget.”

He was right. Seven years and I still remember. Milan, I will never forget.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” ~Benjamin Franklin

I celebrated a quiet Christmas with Father. We watched old films and feasted on foie gras and confit du canard. I left the house on Boxing Day, ready to re-conquer my place on Rue du Trésor. A stack of postcards mixed with direct mail and bills covered the entrance floor. I pushed it aside with the door, only picking up a few cards that I quickly scanned as I was making myself a cup of coffee. Lola, my cat, jumped up on the kitchen work surface, meowing frantically for the food she had been starved of for two days. I gave her double portions to settle the score.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I’m standing outside a dark door. There is a security camera attached to the wall on my right, presumably tracking my every move. Nobody opens so I unfasten my coat, just a little, exposing a hint of flesh. It appears to work as the door drifts slightly ajar.

“Oui?”

“Is this Le Liberty?” I ask, faltering slightly.

“Oui.” He opens the door and lets me in. The entrance is flooded in red light. I look at the man. His face is gaunt and pock-marked. Like he’s been through something far worse than adolescent acne.  He grins at me, at least two teeth missing in his upper maw, the cavity now a mass of black, empty space. His hair hangs in long, waxy strips. It looks to be a dirty brown mixed with strands of grey, but it’s hard to tell in the red light. He has a deformity on his back, lending him a stooped posture. It makes me think of Quasimodo from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and I can’t help but feel pity for this most unfortunate of creatures.

Quasimodo asks for my coat and I hand it over to him. I pay the obligatory sixty euros and receive a ticket for my jacket.

“Follow the corridor until the end, then go to the right. You will find the bar there. Someone will pick you up for a tour.” He leaves it at that and I don’t ask any more, but I ponder his last words with dread mixed with intrigue, and possibly anticipation.

The corridor is long, narrow and deep. It’s underground and I have the feeling I’m descending into a worldly hell, or the cavity of an ailing throat. Cold, damp, red. I walk the long stretch, the ending a mere black hole. I’m not alone. A warm and slightly sickly breath clings to the nape of my neck. I’m too frightened to turn around and so continue to walk. A hand flutters past my hair, sliding down my backless dress. A laugh, or more like a giggle. I stop and turn around. But there is no one there.

I reach the end. There’s a door to the left with a “No Entry” sign. In the current setting it looks like a deadly warning. I walk to the right as per Quasimodo’s instructions. The passage continues and then opens up. Next to the cave-like walls, there’s a bar. A topless girl is serving two men and a woman standing slightly apart. The woman, ebony skinned with long gazelle legs, breasts like an amazon and the face of a Nubian princess, is wearing an elaborate costume made purely of strings, covering the barest of necessities. This does not include her breasts. She appears to be more prop and furniture than a client. A little bit of honey to sweeten the experience.

The two men are clad in business attire, as if they’ve just swung by for a casual after-work drink. I shoot them a quick glance. Their seemingly normal appearance puts me at ease, calming any apprehension about my own uptight vesture. I wear a low-cut, black YSL dress studded with small gold and silver Swarovski crystals. It’s backless, exposing down to the curve of my spine. My only accessory is a prized pair of Christian Louboutin black patent-leather Mary-Janes. I’ve once been told by an overly amorous client that they are what they call Come-Fuck-Me shoes.

I order a Cosmopolitan in a bid to make myself at home. The girl behind the bar mixes the drink and I find myself watching her breasts as she works the shaker. I wonder if they are real or just the work of a great plastic surgeon. I estimate they are running in sizes beyond E, as they are several cups larger than my own.

At a certain point she notices my stare and smiles at me. It almost seems like an invite, but if so what for? She stretches over the bar to serve me the drink. As she does so, one of her breasts touches the back of my hand, if ever so briefly. For a moment I stroke it with the tip of my finger before jerking my hand away from their heat. Like the touch of a burning stove. I blush and take the cocktail, sipping it until only an ice cube remains. Its content is already hitting me, and I carefully slide down from the barstool, holding on to its back. I feel dizzy and for a moment I vacillate before centring my balance.

As I turn around I see a man standing quietly in a corner, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He seems to be in his mid-thirties, has dark hair and is wearing a tight white t-shirt, barely exposing a Maori tribal tattoo on his right arm. He approaches me. When he’s less than a metre away, he suddenly grabs my arm, tucking it under his own, before leading me away. I’m about to ask him what he wants but he places his index finger on my lips, silently hushing me.

We walk down another corridor, where a large amount of equipment is positioned. It reminds me of medieval torture devices, and in a moment of inebriated enlightenment I fully comprehend the paradox of church-devised torture. All are standing empty, like they are installations in an art exhibition, but given the still-early hour, I have no doubt they will be used later on. The stranger takes me to a dark room. He detaches my handbag from the firm grip of my hand and leads me further into the heart of the darkness. I have lost all sight and from now on must fully depend on my auditory, olfactory and tactile senses.

There are voices in the room, hushed male and female voices. I feel touches on my skin and clothes. Calloused hands of men. Someone tries to slip a hand up the skirt of my dress, while another pulls me towards a wall. My guide has let go of me and I’m alone with my violators. There are at least two. I feel a hand travelling up the inside of my thighs reaching for my underwear. It tugs at them, yanking at them hard until I hear a tear and they give way. I gasp but a hand is placed over my mouth. It has a sweet, slightly pungent odour. Like it’s been places I don’t want to know. Why am I not making for my escape? Why don’t I scream or run? In truth the situation is as exciting as it is frightening. It’s the first time in more than a year that anyone has devoured my body, consuming it without inhibitions or restraints. And I want to be consumed. I’m prepared to give myself up like the blessed sacrament of Corpus Christi. So I let the hands guide me; my skirt is pushed up to my waist, whilst I’m forced to bend forward. Hands feel their way between my legs, fingers penetrating me, making way for a stiff, hard cock. He pushes me hard, rocking me back and fourth from behind. I try to stabilise myself by reaching out for the wall. I hear a voice murmuring, “yes, yes, oh yes.” I try to distinguish it, believing it to come from the side and not from behind. There must be several taking part in this debauched act of defilement. It all comes to an abrupt halt in a climax resulting in three hard thrusts and a warm and wet sensation between my legs. A stream of sticky liquid runs down my left thigh, mixing with the pearls of sweat that have formed in the course of the event.

Moments later then hands are gone. I’m overcome by an empty feeling. There is no one to fondle me, kiss me or whisper beautiful, soothing words in my ear. There is no tenderness or feeling of warmth. There is nothing. Instead I find myself sober. There is only the hangover — and the feeling of loss.

I find myself alone, and although I can hear voices, they are faint and metres away, probably on the prowl for their next target.

I walk along the wall, occasionally seeing a dark menacing mass, which I try to avoid. It takes me several minutes to find the exit. My world is once more red. I find a box of tissues standing on a side table and pluck one, mopping up the excess fluid. The protein has already started to coagulate, and the thin paper sticks to it, leaving traces of white fluffy bits on the inside of my thigh. I feel dirty, abused. A second-rate whore who has long stopped counting her clients.

I follow the exit signs, walking past the bar and the woman who served me only moments earlier. I avoid her eyes, which I am certain are tracing my escape. I go to collect my coat, my handbag left to an uncertain fate. Feelings of shame inhibit me from asking for it. Quasimodo hands over my jacket, and I’m about to turn around when he says, “Madame, don’t forget your bag.”

He puts it on the counter.

“Thank you,” I say, confiscating it before I leave.

Warm water drizzles over me, only marginally quieting the cold shivers that run like electric currents through my body. I stand there in silence. Although thoughts are making their best efforts to penetrate my mind, I keep them at bay. I reach for bath salts and a natural sponge and begin to scrub myself clean. Purifying my body and mind from the dirt, the smells and the dilapidated filth I’ve just witnessed and succumbed to. The water is whirling and dancing, before finally surrendering to the force of the drain. I trace its getaway, wishing I could escape with it.