Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 34
Desolation Rag


Madame Monique poured the rhum St James, the rings on her fingers catching yellow light, and watched him drink.

It was the same every time. A gleam of hope would cross his face as he lifted the glass to his lips. He would swallow the rum as if anticipating something from it, some lost joy or memory, and pause, expectant. But whatever he was seeking never arrived. She could see the disappointment. The shadows would resettle over his face.

He never got drunk, not really. Not crazy drunk like many of them, or weeping drunk like a few. He was one of the quiet ones. He could have been any one of the numberless orphan souls adrift in Paris since the Armistice. It was the eyes. The same cauterised blankness. He was what…twenty-three? Twenty-four? The eyes belonged to a man of fifty. Something vital had been rooted out and thrown away.

He had hazel eyes like her Philippe’s, Madame Monique had noticed with a shiver the first time this anglais, this piano player, had turned up from God knows where, penniless, starving, tramping Montmartre looking for work, some bar to play in. They were – would have been – about the same age, he and Philippe. They might have been friends, comrades. Brothers almost. They looked alike. Would Philippe’s eyes have looked like that, had he lived? She would never know.

L’anglais pushed his hand through his hair and rubbed the line over his right ear, the ear with a bit missing as if a magpie had stolen a piece from it. He was rubbing at his scar. She had seen it, a scored white groove from some murdering example of Boche Kultur, though he had grown his hair long to hide it. He would often worry at it, his eyes flickering like a projector.

Madame Monique suspected that the real scar lay deeper, inside the skull and not outside, a wound or…something alive, perhaps, something worming at his mind.

Why hadn’t he gone home? Was there no family back in England, no maman, no girl to hold him? He was handsome enough, in his damaged way, suiting the smoky light of the bar, and still had both legs and both arms – rare enough in Paris these days, God help us. The girls noticed him. And he understood French, certainly enough to know what a murmured ‘Tu viens, cheri?’ meant.

But when girls placed themselves in front of him, demanding a light or attention or just a response, his look would slide down and away along the floor, as if he knew what he was seeing but didn’t care to. He simply failed to react. Whatever had died in his eyes had also died in his heart.

The girls would shrug, turn away. There were many like him in this city of les mutilées.

But…the music.

He changed when he sat to play. He said little the rest of the time, imprisoned behind those broken eyes, but when he played he opened his soul. Madame Monique found it chilling, the way he could sit hunched in a bleak containment of self and piano, seeing nothing else, his hair falling forward, and strike sounds that shivered your heart.

He played in the modern style, comme le ragtime, which allowed the customers to dance – not that there was much room – but took it further. The music danced, but it danced on splinters.

His left hand would hammer out a remorseless, threatening, mechanical rhythm. The right hand would scatter runs of almost random melody, discordant with fear as if trying to escape the pitiless beat, like a bird fluttering in a steel trap. It was frightened life struggling to flee death. It was larks flying up from machine guns.

Strange. Beautiful. Un vrai artiste.

He had attracted some new customers to Le Chat Gris, a mongrel group of ragged, free-drinking bohemians from Montparnasse, painters and poets and their wasted, white-faced girls. They would sit together smoking and jabbering, voilàs ricocheting around the table, sometimes ordering champagne and sometimes the cheapest ordinaire, before falling silent to listen to him play. They were at their usual table now – it was an ordinaire nightwaiting for him to take his place at the piano.

Paris, especially Montmartre, knew how to appreciate an artist. It reflected well on Madam Monique that she had taken him in, had let him play in her bar for tips and allowed him to sleep in the empty room under the eaves. Customers would nod their respect to her. She was grateful for that. If Paris did not have art, what did she have? Especially now.

Philippe…ah…he too had been an artist, with his drawing and his painting, the disturbing, slashing shapes he would make, his excited talk of a new art for a new machine age.

Now he was dead, murdered by machine.

She had not been able to close her son’s eyes at Verdun. He would not be there to close hers when she died.

It was all wrong. It was all upside down. The young men, the bright bon hommes marching away singing, had either died in their millions like Philippe or become the lost, the living dead like this anglais and countless others like him. What were the women to do?

‘Finie la guerre!’ the people had shouted, when the church bells rang and the cheering crowds flooded into the streets.

No.

It would never be finished.

But – to business. She would allow l’anglais one more and then it was time for him to play. Artiste or no, he must earn his bed and his rum. Allez!

 

Two newcomers entered Le Chat Gris. An unlikely pair. Madame Monique watched them come in.

One was a tall, lean, impossibly handsome nègre the colour of dark honey – one of the many black American ex-servicemen lingering in Paris, seemingly reluctant to go home – the other a plump Russian in a black Spanish hat, carrying a bronze-knobbed cane. He peeped out from the tall man’s wake like a fat boy in shadow.

The American had a long, fluid neck, a planed Ethiopian face and the eyes of a sage. He carried a scuffed leather instrument case in huge, eloquent hands. He wore workmen’s clothes: baggy black trousers, a square bleu de travail canvas jacket and a too-large paysan beret sitting on his narrow head like the cap on a mushroom.

The Russian – before the war the cafés had been full of exiled revolutionaries; now they were full of exiled aristos, Madame Monique reflected – was dressed in a well-cut but exhausted brown suit. A yellow tie outshone his sweating face. He darted pale eyes around the bar from under the brim of his hat, spotted the Montparnasse group and tugged at the American’s sleeve, pointing.

They made their way between the tables, the American moving ahead with a proud, easy swagger and dispensing smiling pardons in brown Louisiana French, the Russian waddling after him quacking mercis, a lion followed by a duck.

The pair attracted looks. The American was easily the tallest man in the room, possibly the tallest man who had ever been in it. The Montparnasse contingent caught sight of them and waved, scraping back to make room and pulling up empty chairs for them to sit on.

The Russian hand-kissed the girls with elegant formality while the American waved a massive, laconic hand as he settled in his seat, eyes scanning the room. One of the group, a black-browed and intense young Frenchman, pointed out l’anglais staring into his rum at the bar.

He had remained oblivious to the newcomers’ entrance, the only person in the bar not to have noticed their arrival. The Frenchman chattered into the American’s ear and made enthusiastic piano-playing motions with his hands. The tall man nodded, poked at the Russian to take notice.

The table fell quiet as l’anglais crossed to the stage and sat at the piano, raising the lid. He took a breath, lifted his hands and let them fall on a chord. Something passed between him and the instrument, and he began to play music that sounded like tears falling on iron. A mahogany frown appeared on the American’s face. He leaned forward, focusing.

He gazed at l’anglais, watching the hands moving on the keys. Occasionally he lifted his glass of red and held it up to the light, swirling the wine around, studying the colours, looking like a professor musing over some abstract problem. After two or three tunes the faintest of smiles appeared, forming long furrows down either side of his mouth.

The Russian sat sideways on, not looking at the stage but cocking one ear towards it, nodding spasmodically and drumming soft rhythms on the table top with chubby fingers. Occasionally he would hesitate as if confused, then pick up the beat again. Once or twice he nudged the American to draw attention to something he was drumming. The honey-coloured man would bend, listen and nod. They appeared to be arriving at some agreement.

One of the white-faced girls, a dancer from the way she held her cigarette in a long, mannered hand, stared at l’anglais with lips parted.

Don’t waste your time cherie, thought Madame Monique. He can’t even see you.

He played for an hour and then seemed to come to. Applause and whistles exploded from the Montparnasse table. He glanced over, taken aback, and nodded distractedly.

The American arrived at the piano with his instrument case at the same time Madame Monique arrived with the bottle of St James.

‘You-suh, you gotta name for that last tune?’ he asked.

‘That’s…uh, that’s Desolation Rag.

‘Sounds ‘bout right. You ever been in New Orleans?’

‘No.’

‘So where d’ya learn to play like that?’

‘Like what? Nowhere. Here. Germany.’

Germany?’

‘Prison camp.’

Madame Monique thrust forward with the bottle, feeling suddenly protective towards her artiste. She filled the empty glass on top of the piano, placing her curvaceous but steadfast body between him and the American. The tall man became aware of her and stepped back a pace.

Excusez moi, Madame,’ he said, ‘allow me to introduce myself – I am – je m’appelle – Rufus Abraham Lincoln LaGrange, late of New Orleans, Louisiana, and of the 92nd Infantry, United States Army, and now of Paris, France. Most gratified to be in your fine city. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Enchanté.

She angled back her head and looked down her nose at him through narrowed eyes, not really following the English and certainly not convinced.

‘You-suh, piano player,’ he said. ‘Mind if I sit in?’ He hefted the instrument case. ‘Got my cornet.’

‘Well…yes, if you like, but I don’t have any dots.’

‘You don’t need dots to play jazz.’

‘Jazz? What’s that?’

‘It’s what you’re playing. Colour it blue and you’re there. You gotta name for you?’

L’anglais frowned, as if reminded of something he’d rather have forgotten.

‘They used to call me Tolly. Before.’

‘Well, Tolly Before – and we all have a Before, my friend – pleased to make your acquaintance. Call me Rufus. Shall we?’

 

 

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