Wednesday 11 November 2015
It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
No, actually it wasn’t. It was more like about nine-and-a-half hours after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But it was in the ballpark (it wasn’t, like, Christmas Day or anything.)
Steven Hardcastle sat by the windows on the left, in the middle of the row of tables, with a wide-angle view of events and customers. The observer. He called this front part of the bar ‘The Arena’. Behind, there was an area with booths that was darker (literally) and shadier (metaphorically), which you had to cross to go to the toilets – a Grimm-like forest of dark wood, dark tables, false beams (colour on the paint can ‘Dark wood’), worn red velvet chairs, and ye olde England repro prints of twisted portraits and scary bric-à-brac. He’d always suspected deals of all sorts were done here. If he ever looked down at the suspects as he passed them, huddled in the booths, he got looks that would put him off even asking for the time or whether it would be sunny tomorrow, let alone today’s price for 100g of coke. Unimaginatively, he thought, he called this part of the bar ‘The Forest’.
‘Le Shakespeare’ (for that was the name of the establishment) was a mongrel pub-brasserie, the type of bar the French think is actually an Anglo-Irish-American pub but is really just a (good) old brasserie with (bad) imitation pub wood furniture, lighted Guinness signs, loud bass-heavy disco (disco, today?) and an enormous overhanging TV showing football or MTV. Happy Hour (Drinks Half-Price –7:30-9:30!) was in full swing and the usual motley crew of customers had, by now, almost filled The Arena. It was precisely this motleyness Steven liked about it. Every night there were different people, genres, classes, characters, races, flirtings, arguments, and the occasional fight.
He was nicely settled in, observing, musing, relaxing while he waited for the waitress to take his order for a second cocktail. He had drunk his first Macbeth Margarita, and had decided to have the Hamlet Hamburger tonight (fries and salad included), with a carafe of Rosé Romeo (de Provence luckily – he’d half expected Verona). The sheer unabashed, unaware tackiness of the bar owners’ ideas was another reason he liked it.
“What are those flags for?” Mo asked. The two strings of skull-and-crossbones-over-the-French-national-tricolour flags stretched from each corner of the bar and crossed in the middle.
“I think they must have got them cheap from a fair or something. They’re not supposed to have the pirate bit. Although … .” This was Fred.
“So what are they for then?”
Fred and Mo usually came in at the beginning of Happy Hour (it made their evenings more economically viable and there were always as many women as men) but tonight they’d been to see a film, ‘The Avengers’, so they arrived later. They were sitting at one of the high tables with bar stools which took up most of The Arena. The drink-and-pick-up tables. The rest of the room had normal tables round the sides for the patrons to eat their hamburgers, steaks, and fish and chips (yes, fish and chips – many British holiday-makers from the cruise ships stopped here for their evening meal before being ferried back to their leviathan and its overnight departure to the next Mediterranean beauty spot).
The new cruisers.
“The end of the First World War. 1918”.
“But that’s almost a fucking hundred years ago. What’s the point?”
“The point is so we don’t forget. That war lasted five years, was fought in the worst conditions imaginable, and sixteen million people died. It ended with a treaty, signed at 11 o’clock on the 11th of November 1918 (get it, Mo?), which was a big mess and a big mistake and really pissed off the Germans, who’d lost. So 20 years later the pissed-off Germans started the Second World War, which lasted six years and killed 60 million people, including 11 million in the Holocaust and half a million German civilians who melted like wax figurines under the fire-bombs the Brits dropped on them.”
“Yuk! You through?”
“Not forgetting the four million who died in the Vietnam War and – in your lifetime, dickhead – the half a million people who’ve died in Iraq since 2003. And so it goes on … . It’s called History, and we can learn a lot from it. And if you’d listen to me from time to time, you might learn something.”
Steven had also been looking at the flags. Since his early retirement from the European institutions in Brussels he’d had more time to study what he now realised had become an obsession – the First World War – in an effort to find some kind of meaning in it. There were times when he found it difficut to cope with. The banality of death, the incomprehensible slaughter, the lack of meaning and the horror haunted his darker moments. At those times, he often found relief in reading his favourite war poets, particularly Wilfred Owen.
And he was fairly sure that it affected him more now because of what was happening in Europe. The rise of the extreme right, populism, racism, nationalism – and now this ludicrous referendum in the UK – leave or stay in the EU. Whatever its good and bad points – and he knew them all too well, he’d worked there for 30 years – it had prevented war in Europe for 70 years, and had seen off three fascist dictatorships which had then become democracies. It had made countries talk, argue and negotiate rather than kill each other. For that alone, it was worth remaining in it. And if the UK left, who would be next?
A break-up would wake the worms of war. They would crawl into the cracks. They would eat their way into the hearts of the broken pieces. And they would lay their eggs.
Steven reached for his margarita and saw that his hand was shaking.
“Hey Fred, look.”
Mo nodded to a table almost hidden behind the till, in The Forest. On the nearest velvet chairs sat two young women, one of whom had just looked across at Mo and smiled (or so he thought). They looked English, but didn’t look like cruisers, probably here on a cheap week’s package. And today was only Wednesday!
Fred looked over, looked back at Mo, and did a little drum-roll on the table.
They sauntered over (real cool) and asked the two young women if they could join them. In French. Uncomprehending stares. Fred tried again, more slowly, with hand signals. They looked at each other, half-shrugged, half-smiled, and said “Yeah, sure.”
Steven had noticed the two boys of course, first at their pick-up table and then coolly walking over to chat to two girls sitting in The Forest (boys, girls (?) – at his age anyone under 30 looked like boys and girls.) He guessed these four would be about 18-19, students maybe.
Passing them on his way to the toilet he heard them looking for a word in English. They were all clearly linguistically challenged. The girls were British.
“You know like in The Avengers. ‘Vengeance’, the taller boy said in French. Then tried with an English accent. “Vengeance. You must know what it is.” Blank, the girls didn’t. “Well, like, yeah you can say vengeance but …”.
“Excuse me, maybe I can help.” Steven. “I think he means ‘Revenge’”. “Yeah, revenge” the other girl said. That’s what it is, revenge.” General sigh of relief and thanks all round, in various English and French accents.
Steven walked on into The Forest.
And so it was that after about an hour of more cross-cultural faux-pas, entertaining out-of-hours language lessons, giggling, and general flirting, the girls left, with a promise to meet the boys here again at Happy Hour on Friday.
As the girls passed him, they smiled and thanked him for his help.
Pause … Should he?
“Can I ask you a quick question?”
“Yeah, sure, as long as it’s not too personal!” (giggles).
“You’re young, you have your futures, a clean slate. What do you think about Britain leaving the European Union? You know, the referendum. Brexit?”
Without hesitation one of them said “Oh yeah, definitely. My dad says we can go it alone much better without all them rules and things, telling us what to do. Like before. Choose who we want to trade with and that. After all, who won the War? (he’s not believing what he’s hearing). We did. Beat them Germans, my grandad says, and now they want to tell us what to do.” (his level of disbelief has shot up several points and is now in the red zone). “And my dad says Europe is falling apart anyway, so why bother staying in. We’re better out. On our own. Like before. Like the good old days, my grandad says.”
He knew it was impossible to argue, even discuss, any of this. These kids wanted new ways, old ways, and would probably get new wars. They hadn’t understood that bit. The bit about the worms.
“Bye, see you later.” And they pranced prettily out on their high heels and high hopes.
“You chatting our women up, you old lecher?” Said mockingly with a smile. The taller one. The boys were leaving too.
“Let me get you both a drink before you go.”
“See, Mo, now he’s trying to pick us up! Must be bi- or transgender.” Both laughed, then slapped Steven on the shoulder. “Just joking, mate. You’re alright … for an old guy”. More laughter. A couple of hours of beer had had its effect.
“I’m Steven Hardcastle. And you are … ?”
They sat. He ordered. They chose a more expensive beer as he was paying. They talked. They were both from modest familes and had grown up together in one of the many social housing high-rises around Nice. They’d been friends forever, same schools, same leisure activities. They’d stuck together against the aggro and the gangs. They liked to come into Cannes for their evenings out as it was calmer, less edgy, less aggressive, and only 20 minutes and 4 euros on the train. Both had been good at school and shown potential, but while Fred’s family had encouraged him to study, resulting in a place at Nice University studying Modern History (now in his second year), Mo’s Algerian family had played to type. The only boy, he’d been spoilt silly by his mother, spared tasks and discipline, and hung around street corners with his Algerian peers (male) instead of doing his homework, while his two sisters had to help with the cleaning, cooking, shopping and general household chores, after which they were told to go to their rooms and study. Anyone could have guessed the outcome. Mo left school with a pretty useless diploma, and his sisters succeeded. One was now entering university, the other had joined a bank. Both had bright futures, as well as a healthy mix of respect for their family and religion and a need to be modern and contemporary … and they were ambitious.
“Why did you choose history, Fred? It’s one of my favourite subjects.”
“Oh no, not bloody history again!” Mo.
“Actually what fascinates me is the history of war. I think its meaning has changed a lot. There are new paradigms – all informed by the internet, social media, advances in digital technologies, and we have to understand these if we are to survive. I’m hoping to do my dissertation on that. Then hopefully a Masters.”
“Great choice, Fred. One of my fetish subjects. We must talk more about this another time, when we’re all a bit less drunk. This is really quite exciting!”
“Cool, Mr Hardcastle. I keep trying to tell that to Mo, Mr Dumbo there. Idiot. He never wants to listen to me, learn anything.
“He keeps telling me to learn about Algeria to start with.” Mo.
“You bet I do. You know nothing of your family’s past or French colonisation, or the Algerian War, or even the shit that’s going down there now.”
“Tell him, Mr Hardcastle, tell him the importance of history.”
“But if he doesn’t want to learn?”
“He’s just stubborn. He’s not stupid. In fact he’s pretty bright. Just doesn’t want to show it. You don’t have to be at university to learn and study, dickhead. Sometimes talking to people like Mr Hardcastle here is just as good, even better.”
“Whatever,” said Mo.
Thursday 12 November 2015
Collecting vintage cars – or let’s be honest, old cars – relies for most enthusiasts on a little money, a lot of optimism, and a pink filter which leads the owners to believe that their car is near-perfect and has none of those annoying rusty, tarnished, noisy and smokey attributes that it takes a Rolls-Royce-sized willing suspension of disbelief to ignore.
There are many perfect old cars of course, fully restored down to the last chrome door handle, but these either took the owner years of effort and patience to restore to their pristine former selves, or pots of money for garages and bodyshops to do it for them. In either case they cost money.
Steven Hardcastle’s 1954 Morris Minor convertible, specially transported to France when he retired, was one such suspension of disbelief. Although it started and drove well enough, the engine was “tired”, the gearbox and clutch were constantly having a domestic, the bodywork showed its age like the black spots on a ladybird, and the creaking suspension had to be felt to be believed.
He’d decided to cut his losses and sell it now, hoping to buy another “1950s People’s Car” for what he got for it. A Volkswagen Beetle perhaps, or why not a Citröen 2CV? Cheap to repair, service and find spare parts in France.
Mr Garnier arrived a little late at 10am, took one look at the Morris and made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a grunt. Not an auspicious start. He had a young man with him who stayed in the car, and whom from a distance Steven thought he recognised. After a somewhat short inspection and a short turnover of the engine, Mr Garnier made his pitch.
“You see Mr … err”, “Hardcastle”, “Harcastle, yes, you see Mr Harcastle, people want spotless restored cars these days. They don’t want to pay for a car and then pay again to make it … respectable. Do you understand what I’m saying.”
Steven understood very well.
“But she’s a pretty little thing, and I’m sure I could find a buyer who’d be willing to add a little to make her perfect.”
Steven understood even more.
The boy – young man – got out of the car and walked over to the Morris.
“Hey Mr Hardcastle, I thought it was you!” Mo. “He helped us with a load of English words in a café last night, Mr Garnier. What a coincidence.”
“Synchronicity, Mo (look it up). Good to see you.”
Garnier was totally uninterested, reading a text message that had just pinged in. Mo turned to Steven and whispered “And the girls, Mr H. Thanks a lot. We’re seeing them again tomorrow night. Happy Hour. Bound to get lucky after they’re a bit drunk. He winked lewdly.”
Garnier was now sending a long text.
“So why do you buy and drive these old cars, Mr H? They’re old, noisy, pollute, go slow, don’t have power steering, on-board computers, ABS, automatic suspension correction … .”
“Thank you Mo, I think I understand.”
But Mo, clearly the curious type (and Steven had always rated curiosity high on the rungs of the intelligence ladder), looked back at Steven and grinned his most winning grin.
“So what is it with this old car that you like it so much?”
Steven breathed in slowly, opened the passenger door, beckoned for the lad to sit inside, and himself took the driver’s seat.
“You remember what Fred told you last night. About the wars. The millions of dead. Going way back into the past and right up to the present?”
“You weren’t too drunk?” A smile.
“Me, no way. I can take my drink.”
“OK. Then listen.”
So Steven talked to Mo of War – in its many forms, shapes and sizes. Similar things to what Fred had told him the night before, but with causes, explanations, theories, more details, dates, and numbers killed and wounded (armed forces and civilians). It lasted some time, but Mo never lost interest.
He stopped, finally.
“Mr H. You alright? You’re shaking.”
“Oh. Am I? Sorry. Got carried away. A bit lost. This subject, and particularly the First World War, have fascinated me for years, but it’s beginning to have strange effects on me. Like it’s taking over. And it seems to be getting worse.”
He sits up in the seat, looks at Mo and smiles.
“But I’m alright now”.
“How do you know all this stuff, anyway?”
“Reading, researching, writing it down. You’d be amazed how few people know all this.”
“I didn’t. But I do now. It’s … difficult to take it all in.”
Mo’s face was alive and opening. Steven watched and could have told him he was having a mini-epiphany (look it up, Mo) but he said nothing. He sat and waited until Mo was ready, slowly trying to formulate his thoughts.
“Can I tell you something I’ve never told anybody before?”
“My Grandad told me once about some stuff in Paris in the 1960s, where Algerians were, like, demonstrating peacefully, but got arrested and tortured and killed in a sports stadium, and others were beaten up and thrown in the river Seine to drown. He said up to 200 died. I suspect he was there, but he didn’t say so. And there was more, but he didn’t want to tell me. I was only 14. But like, that’s the past isn’t it? I’m French now. So what’s the point. What good does it do me now?”
Steven was quiet for a while, still staring through the windscreen. The sun was beginning to shine on the mimosas and eucalyptus.
“But it already has. Telling me that story was brave of you – and the beginning of something – I don’t know what, that’s up to you. Just learn – for the future. This is a cliché (look it up, Mo) but knowledge is power.”
There was a long pause. Steven looked exhausted. Both looked through the windscreen. Mr Garnier seemed to have forgotten them and was permanently on one of his two mobiles. It takes a special kind of person to be a second-hand car dealer.
It was Mo who finally spoke.
“The car, Mr H.”
“Ah. Yes.” Smiling. This is the good bit, after all that death and destruction. The good old days.
You see, when the Second World War was over, most of Europe was decimated – that means there wasn’t much left of it, even the countries that won – everybody was poor, and all anyone wanted was to get a job, make some money, buy nice things and be normal for a while. During the 1950s car manufacturers all over Europe started making what I call ‘People’s Cars’, small and cheap, perfect to go to see family, friends, the seaside … . The Morris Minor, Fiat and Seat 500, Volkswagen Beetle, BMW Isetta, Citröen 2CV, Renault 4, and many more. Because, you see, before the war people didn’t have their own transport, they only had bikes – most people went to work on their bikes. Some had a motorbike and sidecar, but most took buses – and trains for longer journeys. So this was a revolution. And at the same time people started rebuilding their lives and making them easier, more comfortable. They bought fridges, cookers, washing machines. These were real needs, especially after so much hardship. It was a kind of Post-War Golden Age, an Age of Innocence.”
“You lost me there a bit at the end, but till then I think I got it.”
“And then along came TVs – until about 1952 there were only radios. And that was the beginning of the end of the Age of Innocence”.
He pauses, starts to breath faster. He’s beginning to get angry, is Steven.
“And then we started fucking it up, went too far and built a society based only on what we bought, what advertising told us to buy, what made us look better than our neighbours, which gave us too much choice. The Consumer Society was born. The Material World.
“Hey, that’s Madonna. The Material Girl. Used to like her, but she’s got really old. Lost it. Now Gaga – she’s something else.”
But Steven was on a galloping horse, angrier and angrier, Madonna and Lady Gaga nowhere in the race.
“And the values we used to have – helping, giving, listening, working together for better lives – gave way to just objects and money. We lost our inner selves, our spiritual selves – sorry if that sounds corny – and we sold our moral compass for bigger cars, fancier houses and credit cards … and we lost our way.”
He pauses, stares through the windscreen at the eucalyptus and mimosa trees, now dappled in the morning sun in every shade of green.
“And we became decadent (look it up, Mo). Now many people, mainly young people, are rejecting that decadence, each in their own way. Some are living alternative lifestyles – New Agers, organic farmers, whatever – but others, especially in that part of the world around where your parents came from, would like to destroy our decadent godless society and us with it, and replace it with their own. Of course they can’t. They don’t have the people or the power or the forces, but they’re trying. Remember Charlie Hebdo? Thirteen dead. That too was war, Mo.”
He stopped, took a deep breath, turned to the lad, and smiled.
“So that’s why I like to collect and drive 1950s People’s Cars. Their simplicity and who and what they were designed for represent an age of innocence for me, of basic, real values. Maybe I’m stretching it a bit, being nostalgic, but there’s a lot of truth in it for me at least. I hope you see what I mean … .”
He looked at his watch.
“Shit, how I’ve talked. Sorry about that. Mr Garnier must think we’re plotting a revolution in here or something.”
“No, Mr H. Honestly, that was really interesting. Like kind of waking up. Stuff I didn’t know, so couldn’t think about. Didn’t get it all of course, but I’ve got enough to go on. You know Fred keeps trying to teach me things, how to think about stuff. But because it’s Fred, my old friend, my drinking mate, my pick-up partner, maybe I don’t listen, don’t want to listen. Envy maybe, clever-dick Fred, went to university and I didn’t. My stupid fault really. Hanging out instead of studying.”
He paused, thinking, slightly lost.
“But after everything you’ve said I’ll listen to him a bit more now. Learn stuff. And talk about it. And do stuff if I can. And maybe you and me – and him – we can talk more about it from time to time in Le Shakespeare? Yes?”
Steven got €4 000 for his car (quite a bit less than he’d wanted), but enough, if he added a bit, to buy a Beetle or 2CV or maybe an older Renault 4CV. He decided he wouldn’t go down to Le Shakespeare tonight (it was becoming a bit too regular, too obsessive, and the Margaritas must be pushing his blood sugar index up to Type 2 Diabetes level). Time to take it easy a bit, go online and check out cars for sale, read up on the Algerian War perhaps.
But tomorrow, Friday, he’d go. TGIF, Thank God It’s Friday, the weekend starts here. Old habits from youth die hard. And he could see how the boys got on with those girls.
Friday 13 November 2015
Steven Hardcastle walked into ‘Le Shakespeare’ and headed for one of his favourite middle tables by the windows on the left, where he could drink, eat, and observe. Fred and Mo were already at their drink and pick-up high table, with two places left free for their dates. He ordered a Margarita (best cocktails this side of New York he always told people), then went over to the boys.
“Hi there Mr H” said Mo. “Good to see you again”, said Fred,
“Get the train OK, because …. ?”
“You must be joking. They were on bloody strike. Assholes. We had to get the fucking bus. Took us an hour. Don’t know if we’ll get home tonight. And Mo had to leave work early. Garnier didn’t like that. He’ll probably take it out of his pay, tight bastard.”
It was unusual for Fred to be so wound up. He was usually the quiet, reflective one. Probably nerves about the girls. He was glancing (a bit too) regularly at the doors.
“Don’t worry, I’ll leave you when your two lovelies arrive. I wouldn’t want them to spend too much time with me. They might realise how much more attractive and interesting one 57-year-old is compared to two 19-year-olds. … And richer.”
“ Bugger off Mr H, if you’ll excuse my language.”
They all laughed, raised their glasses and the boys relaxed a bit. Just what Steven had hoped for – relieving their tension before meeting these two pretty, but pretty dumb, English girls.
“And if you need any more help with translation, call me over. My vocabulary is very large, very deep, and very modern!”
“I said he was a dirty old lecher, didn’t I, Mo?”
More teasing, then he went back to his table, just as the two girls came in.
“Hello Mr … .”
“Steven. How are you? You’re looking good. All dressed up for a Friday night out!”
“You can talk, look at you two. Fred and Mo are going to have to fight off the Mongol hordes tonight.”
“Why thank you. It’s Friday night for us too. TGIF. Half the world our age – and some of yours too of course” (they look at each other and giggle, but nicely) “goes out on Fridays and drinks and has fun and forgets work and the world. And it’s our last night, so you bet we’re going to make the most of it. See you later.”
They short-skirted, tight-topped, and high-heeled their way over to Fred and Mo’s table, where much cheek-pecking and smiling was to be seen by Steven the observer.
The girls ordered white wine and there followed more chinking of glasses, cheers, santés, amusing cross-linguistic confusions, and uber-compliments on the girls’ ‘stunning’ outfits.
“You know,” said one of the girls, the blonde (the other was a brunette) “we don’t even know each other’s names. Well, I’m Penny, but all my friends call me Pens. And this is Chloë, but everybody calls her Clo. So we’re Pens and Clo. Nice to meet you, kind sirs!”
“And we’re Fred and Mo” said Fred.
“Now that’s cheating, that must be your short names. What’s your real names?”
“Well, I’m Frédéric and this is Mohammed.”
The boys smiled.
The girls didn’t.
Clo: “So you’re, like, a Muslim then?”
Mo: “Yes, but I don’t practise much, just the basics – occasional Friday prayers with my dad, and Ramadan. That’s a pain, especially in summer when we were kids.”
Pens: “And you’re from?”
Mo: “My dad’s Algerian and my mum’s half-French, half-Algerian”.
Clo: “Ah, so your mum’s not a Muslim then?”
Mo: “Yes she is. She converted after she married my dad”.
Pens: “I guess that’s why you don’t look too much …”
Mo: “Like an Arab?”
Happy Hour was one of the more brilliant of the American components of the Consumer Society – sell as much of your product as possible, and always more than your customer needs. In the old days in the US, between five and six o’clock, all drinks would be half-price. It was after work. People took advantage, drank more than they should (Half-Price!) and after the end of the hour, they just continued drinking. Couldn’t stop. And ate. Burgers and fries and ribs and steaks. And left at one in the morning blind drunk and a couple of hundred dollars lighter than when they went in.
Since then, it’s become a global institution (how well we’ve learned) so bars from Alaska to Australia have Happy Hours, starting and ending at any times the owner decides.
‘Le Shakespeare’ was packed. Luckily, it was a balmy night for November and the oversflow spilled out into the street (where they could also smoke …).
Happy Hour (Half-Price 7:30pm to 9:30pm Fridays!) was over, but it had had its desired effect. The party was in full swing – inside and out – with noise, laughter, swearing, shouting – a good old normal Friday night. The TV in the bar was one of those mega-Samsungs that you could almost see 50 metres away, and faced out into The Arena and towards the door. It was always on – either football (in the week), or MTV (at weekends) and music videos were blasting out in Full HD, Mega-Pixel, Double-Dolby Surround Sound. If 3D live had existed the owners would have had that too.
Slightly squashed by now at his table, and no longer able to see ‘his’ boys and girls, Steven was drinking his latest margarita and taking notes. But the noise was getting too loud for him and he was slipping into one of his ‘states’. He could feel it. His obsessive micro-detail knowledge of the First World War would start filling his mind with the unbearable images, the uncountable numbers, the horror – and take over until he could find some calm again. He started panicking, trapped as he was in all these people, all this noise. He stood up to get out, but was hemmed in, couldn’t move, everybody pressing harder and harder, laughing and shouting, louder and louder. He had to get out. Now.
Suddenly MTV stopped. The music stopped. The picture stopped. A big “BREAKING NEWS” banner came on. Bright red.
Then he heard firing, turned his head, and saw two young men in black with assault rifles pushing calmly through the crowd and firing at anybody and everybody. Laughter and shouting became screams of panic, pain, hysteria, as people fell, tried to hide, run, got stuck in jammed crowds, were trodden on. He saw two waitresses shot in the head and chest, blood exploding onto their black uniforms as they crumpled into the crowd. He saw Mo and Pens blasted off their bar stools by a sustained round of automatic fire, blood squirting out of their chests and onto Fred and Clo as they fell. And then Fred and Clo went down as the gunman did a reverse sweep. The man lobbed a grenade behind the bar. Smashed bottles, glasses, arms and unidentifiable body parts still wearing their bloody clothes flew into the air like multicoloured fireworks. The gunfire, screaming and moaning were unbearable. His head was about to explode.
So far he had been lucky because the gunmen had started at the right and middle of The Arena, and he was on the left. But now the shooting was aimed at his side. Two young women fell onto his table, their blood running over the edge, or soaked up by his serviettes until they too filled and poured their contents onto the floor. One of the women fell onto his wine glass and the jagged edge in her neck started a rivulet of blood which trickled across the table and joined the river in flood. He was transfixed by nature in death.
But then he heard more firing, much closer, and he clambered under his table, slipping in the blood, and rolled himself into a ball. Through a small gap between dangling arms, table legs, and a curtain of dripping blood beads, he saw the two gunmen turn and leave, shooting into the street. By now most of those outside had run away in panic and fear. He heard sirens. He could just about see the men get into a black car and drive away, not even at speed, but just as if it was part of a day’s work.
The TV was on. The bar was silent. He opened his eyes and he was on his seat at his table. He looked around, shaking. There was no blood, no dead people, no injured, no chaos. Just a bar full of people watching the TV in silence.
Images of streets in Paris, bars, blood, people being treated by ambulance crews, police cars, fire trucks, screams, weeping – all in Full HD, Mega-Pixel, and Double-Dolby Surround Sound.
“For those who have just joined us, there has been a coordinated terrorist attack on a series of targets in Paris. An attempt was made to attack the Stade de France, where the President of the Republic was watching a friendly match against Germany, but the three suicide bombers failed to gain entry and set off their explosive belts outside, killing themselves and one bystander.
In the centre of Paris, several attacks have taken place in and outside cafés and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. The attacks appear to have been well planned and coordinated. The terrorists have left these scenes, but we are getting news of a major attack at the Bataclan Theatre where a rock concert is in progress. We have no figures yet for the number of dead and wounded, but first estimates are in the hundreds. We will keep you up-to-date as … .”
Steven looked at the blood and victims in Full HD and Mega-Pixel. All the pictures he had seen and collected from the First World War had been photos in black-&-white or sepia, moments of pain, dying, post-death, and extreme hardship and despair. Now he was looking in real time at real blood, dark crimson blood running out of people onto their faces, their clothes, the street, their carers. It was a major shock. Like all of his generation he had never had to join the army, go to war and see it at first hand. Because this was war, just like all the others before it, big and small. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t soldiers against soldiers. Civilians had been the targets of military and ideological aggression thousands of times in thousands of years.
The bar was beginning to stir. People were in shock, but were starting to talk. And they talked about two things.
Nobody ever imagined that such cold-blooded attacks on innocent civilians could happen on a fun Friday night in bars in Paris. This was much too near home. It was home.
According to the first eyewitness reports, the attackers, none of whom were wearing masks, were “of North African origin”. That meant Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian. A powder-keg of public opinion and national politics was about to be lit, and who knew who it would take with it when it blew?
Over at the bar table of Fred and Mo, of Pens and Clo, there was an embarrassed silence. They had all been instantly sobered up by the news. The Friday night routine, the booze and mating ritual had been destroyed. If their waitress had dropped dead while serving their drinks it couldn’t have been worse.
It was Pens who dared to say it.
“Do all you guys think like that? Do you secretely plan killing people like us when you’re hanging around street corners or meeting after the Mosque?” Addressed to Mohammed, obviously.
There was no clear, unambiguous, understandable answer he could give to these girls. And even if he did, even if he could, they wouldn’t understand. They were no rocket scientists, that much had become clear during the first couple of hours of the evening. So what was the point? After what he’d seen on TV, and how it had affected him in more ways than any of them could understand, even Fred, he was certainly not ready to take on a couple of dumb racists, however pretty they were, however lovely they looked in their outfits.
Mo glanced across at Fred, who nodded slightly, and they both got down from their bar stools, gave the girls a couple of pecks on the cheek, said goodnight, and left.
Their last bus left in 10 minutes. With a bit of luck they’d catch it.
Steven ordered an espresso and a whiskey.
His mind wandered through the backstreets of time and came to Wilfred Owen’s door. Who else? He rang the bell.
“You know that phrase you got from Horace, Wilfred, in 1917, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”? And used it in the poem? You were the first one to call it “The Old Lie”.
Wilfred was silent, listening.
“Well, you didn’t go far enough, you see. So, with all due respect to your good self, and to Horace of course, I’ve come up with my own version for today’s world. Do you want to hear it?”
Wilfred remained silent, but tilted his head to one side in what Steven took for curiosity. And he smiled the smile of the dead, who know either everything or nothing.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria, fide, doctrina, potestate, religio mori.
It is sweet and right to die for a country, a faith, an ideology, power, religion.
That’s it. That’s the key, the big mistake they’ve made down the years, all of them. Pro patria mori means to die for a country, not your country. Not necessarily. It includes everybody – the victims, the civilians, everybody! So it’s bullshit, Wilfred. Just like you said when you first turned it on its head. Especially when it’s not your country or faith or ideology or religion. It gives the killer a reason, or maybe just an excuse. But for the killed it is NOT sweet and right to die for somebody else’s country or faith or ideology or power or religion. It is WRONG, Wilfred. And it is WRONG to kill yourself and take hundreds of others with you. Just as it was WRONG for those incompetent imbeciles to send you and your millions of comrades to your deaths. They didn’t have you killed for their country, they killed you for their ideology.
It’s time to teach a bit of Latin revisionism to the warriors, foreign policymakers, splinter groups, industrial-military-complexers, Zionists, state-funded death squads, special ops teams, drone drivers, Jihadists, school killers, private terror groups, state terror militia … and the terrified children who need to grow up knowing what words really mean so they can use them as their weapons.”
Steven was seriously beginning to fade, his voice dwindling to a whisper.
“I’ll talk to Fred about it. Fit well into his studies. Sure Mo will come on board too. Bright lad. Just needs a bit of help. … You couldn’t have known, Wilfred. War, its offspring, its sub-species are seen by billions now. In real time. In colour. One gunman with an assault rifle and intent is seen by millions more people than a million riflemen with somebody else’s intent 100 years ago. When you died. Friend of mine studying it. “Death in a digital world – re-defining war in the internet age.” Good, that. Just thought of it. Must be the whiskey. Remind me to tell Fred … .”
He put his head on his arms and fell asleep.
Wilfred reached over, gently took off Steven’s glasses and put them in his pocket, so they wouldn’t break.
He watched over him a little while, then went back inside and closed the door.