Friday, 28 October 2011

La Cage

Digby felt smug gazing across the tableau of Paris from the terrace of L’Institut du monde arabe. He exuded the smarmy content of a foreign resident, linguistically at ease in daily discourse, derisive of his transient counterparts with their superficial regards of the city, and enriched by a compendium of local knowledge afforded only to a denizen, like the existence of this terrace and tearoom nine floors up, in the heart of town, free to access and thankfully, for now, absent from any guidebooks.

He hadn’t appreciated the view two years back when a pretty but vacuous civil servant from the Ministère de la Défense invited him here for tea. She had quickly bored him, so he took her to a nearby hotel where he was able to extract the necessary information after a couple of libidinous hours. He promised to call her, which of course he never did.

Carrie was pretty too, but he knew not to cross that line. Each month she informed him of the time and place. He would hand over the flash drive and she would leave, often without a word spoken between them. There was nothing to link the rendezvous points: a bookshop in the Marais, the bric-a-brac of Clignancourt markets, once even Modigliani’s grave at Père Lachaise. And today, this terrace at the Arab World Institute.

Digby leaned on the railing as he waited for Carrie. He scrutinized the exposed skeleton of colored ducts on the Centre Pompidou and a carved angel atop Notre Dame before savoring a cluster of bronzed sunbathers on the cobbled embankment of Île Saint-Louis.

A man appeared by his side suddenly, facing him.

‘Carrie can’t be with us today, Mr Digby.’

He couldn’t place the accent. ‘I’m sorry, I –’

‘The flash drive, please.’ The stranger smiled genially.

Digby squared up to him. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, veiling unbidden alarm with incredulity.

The stranger sighed and a flash of discountenance flickered across smoky eyes. ‘You live at 1408 Avenue Daumesnil; your wife is a part-time kindergarten teacher in Nogent-sur-Marne and your two children attend a prestigious school across town in the 16th; after your wife – Madeleine, isn’t it? – goes to bed you have a predilection for spying on your nubile young neighbor across the street.’

Digby was in a daze and the stranger’s smile turned dark and hollow.

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I am your contact from now on, Mr Digby. You’ll know it’s me when I call. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and all will be fine.’ He extended an open hand. ‘The flash drive, please. And don’t do anything foolish.’

Digby fumbled in his breast pocket for the object and thrust it into the expectant palm.

Merci. Bonne journée à vous.’ The stranger strode off whistling the chorus of Big Yellow Taxi, leaving Digby alone on the terrace against the exquisite urban backdrop.

© Timothy Collard 2011

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


It strikes me as I pause outside the metal door that the throbbing muted pulse of the beat beyond might just match my heart rate. Not that I’m nervous; I’ve been here often enough. Every time I pass the all-night drug store (and unwillingly inhale the hint of menace on the antibacterial breath it oozes onto the sidewalk as its sliding doors swallow and discharge customers), turn the corner and see the fluorescent sign winking at me at the end of the lane, I feel an excitement brew. Halfway along I hear the first indication of the night ahead, a soft and recurrent thump, a rhythmic invitation, and my stride falls into its metrical line with wanton ease. 

There are other places to go if I want to cut to the chase, arcane alfresco locations under the darkest of shadows and steamy indoor labyrinths, places where prescient encounters, sometimes wordless but always physically candid, satisfy a common need. But I enjoy a more involved ritual, one not so stripped, sensorial cocktails of beer and music, conviviality and camaraderie. Sometimes it yields a handsome payoff ending back in my apartment a few of blocks away, and sometimes I’m happy to leave just with tinnitus. Tonight, though, I’m angling for the former.

I push through the door and am greeted by the roar of music. Gyrating shapes on the dance floor fizz like champagne bubbles, and to the side clusters of punters engage in blithely conspiratorial banter. Along the far wall by the bar stands a line of men in stoic masculine poises, elbows on ledges and bottles firmly gripped. Full-length mirrors are positioned strategically on columns to facilitate furtive scanning as much as self-regard.

A couple of buddies beckon me to their little group by the dance floor. They embrace me and bellow the names of their friends, which are rendered unintelligible under the thunder of syncopated baselines. I clasp an invisible bottle and jerk it a few times in the gesture of swigging, and everyone politely declines. 

I make my way to the bar, acknowledging some other familiar faces en route, and order a Bud. The first gulp is cold and succoring. This is where I prefer to loiter, far enough away from the howling Bose speakers to allow the luxury of conversational interaction and positioned perfectly to afford a tasty prospect of the whole establishment.

I tell the barman to keep the change, and when I spin around I lock, as if inevitably, onto you, casually propped against a mirrored pillar, out from the dark recesses of the back wall and close enough to the dancers to be daubed in disco light. You take a sip of beer and graze languorously on the shifting shapes on the dance floor. A trimmed auburn goatee neatly frames a gentle and cushioned set of lips. Wiry tufts spring through the V of your open-neck shirt, and I trek further south, over your beaming chest and down into the ripe contours of your jeans.

I feel the onset of blush when I look up to discover you’ve clocked me, that moment when the surreptitious becomes the apparent. I wonder if places like this heighten our frequency and make us more alert to the searching, penetrating, predatory sizzle of a man’s gaze. I don’t dwell on the supernatural, but in moments like this, two pairs of eyes in mutual transfixion, loaded and cocked, telepathy seems utterly possible, with tacit actions and words and hopes and desires colliding in a supernova of startling clarity. 

You make the first move, sauntering over to me, smiling in shrewd collusion. A popular hi-NRG track announces a shift in tempo and more punters charge onto the dance floor, their rapturous limbs illuminated by kaleidoscopic swathes of light and occasionally punctured by the hectic staccato of strobe. They remind me of a shiver of sharks in an orgiastic feast.

‘You like this crap?’ you ask in a silky baritone timbre, flicking your handsome head in the direction of the dance floor.

I actually adore this particular slice of Europop - Searchin’, it’s called - and I suspect the glorious irony isn’t wasted on you. ‘Can’t stand it,’ I say with a coy moue. I want to add something but am deliciously spellbound by our new physical intimacy.

You put your half-finished Bud down onto the bar. I’ve a case of that in the fridge at home, I remember. ‘Then let’s get outta here,’ you say. ‘Buddy.’

© Timothy Collard 2011

Friday, 10 June 2011

Statue Park

The brakes hissed and the engine growled. Guy and Marcus shivered as the bus pulled away, leaving them on the side of a lonely stretch of road on the desolate western fringe of the city. They had spotted the gates to Statue Park through the fog too late and missed their stop. By the time Guy had convinced the driver to pull over, they were half a mile further along the road.

When the two friends arrived in Budapest days earlier a merciless cold and an oppressive fog had greeted them. Much of Hungary was gripped in an icy vise, although the ground remained unseasonably snowless. They felt like the only tourists in town, which was a welcome change to the relentless sweaty throngs they’d encountered in Prague the previous summer. ‘We’re almost forty,’ a weary Marcus had said then, ‘and I feel like we’ve gone into battle.’ The delicious payoff of winter in Budapest was that they had the run of all the museums, thermal baths and cobbled backstreets.

Guy had always been interested in post-war European history and was looking forward to visiting Statue Park, an outdoor repository of monumental statues from Hungary's communist days. They decided to go on their last full day in Budapest. Marcus would have preferred to spend the morning in the soothing thermal waters of the Rácz or the Gellért, especially after the amount of vodka they’d consumed the night before, but he knew how much a visit to Statue Park meant to his friend. Bleary-eyed, they jumped on the 150 bus and thirty minutes later, having missed their stop, were ejected onto the misty roadside.

As the din of the bus faded, Guy tightened the scarf around his neck. ‘It’s not that far back,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Anyway, a brisk walk will clear the cobwebs.’

Marcus felt in his pockets and cursed. ‘I’ve left my gloves on the bus.’ But Guy was already marching back up the road.

There was no footpath, just a narrow strip of grass that dipped steeply into a gully, along which was strewn an array of litter – cans, newspapers, plastic bags, even a washing machine. The taloned steel supports of a pylon came into view in an adjacent field and a low drone of electricity hummed from unseen wires overhead. They listened out for the sound of oncoming vehicles but only heard their own dull syncopated footfalls on the acned bitumen.

Something caught Marcus’s eye ahead in the ditch. At first glance it looked like an overturned wooden sawhorse, like the one his father had kept in the tool shed, but he averted his gaze abruptly when he realised it was a large dog, motionless, its legs rigid like boughs and its short coat of fur tinged light blue. He said nothing to Guy, who hadn’t noticed.

Towering effigies soon appeared through the fog like bruises on waxen skin, and the men found themselves standing in front of the closed gates to Statue Park. A large sign dangled from the chains: ZÁRVA.  

‘Damn,’ said Guy. He looked over to the tall wire fence that encircled the park. ‘We can still get a look from the outside.’

‘I’m not sure –’

‘We’re the only ones here,’ he said eagerly. ‘Come on!’

The visitors were afforded a worthy view of select pieces close to the perimeter as they followed it round. They passed the charging soldiers of the Béla Kun Memorial, then came to the looming Republic of Councils Monument which depicted a striding virile worker, flag flying from one fist, the other poised to strike. Marcus regarded it warily, almost expecting the figure to lunge from its plinth. Guy focused on a point deeper into the park and thought he recognised the silhouettes of Lenin and Engels through the wintry shroud.

They came to a halt at a section of fence by the Martyrs’ Monument, a giant bronze cast of a man, head flung back, arms outstretched and knees buckled, appearing to fall. Guy bent down to grip a corner of fencing that had come loose from the post. He jerked it upwards, creating a small rent.  

Marcus looked at him, puzzled. ‘What are you doing?’

Guy winked. ‘We can crawl through and get a closer - ’

Behind them, a menacing growl brewed from the fog. They turned around and stiffened their bearing. Another growl was now discernible, a little further back. Then two more, one on either side of the men. Caliginous smears began to emerge, becoming more cogent as they drew closer. Quadrupeds, low on their haunches, crept through the slab of fog. They resembled emaciated feral canines. Ribs and vertebrae punctured their thin smoky fur in places. Their eyes were cadaverous voids, as listless as the fog that had borne the breed. The creatures’ snarls intensified, and one of them curled up its lips to unsheathe a ghastly rictus of scything fangs that didn’t belong to any animal the men knew of.

The four beasts edged closer to their quarry. Guy and Marcus backed up against the fence. The creatures were only eight or nine feet away. The men had seconds to act. ‘On the count of three,’ said Guy, his voice a hoarse whisper, ‘climb the fence as fast as you can.’

Marcus was crying. One of the beasts snapped its jaws erratically at him and expelled a deathly reek from its gut that made him want to gag.

‘One –’

The pack surged in an ululating frenzy, felling their prey like woodcutters a rotten oak. Then they gorged. Only when sated did they retreat, wisps of fog almost herding them back under the icy veil.

Snowflakes began to fall on Statue Park, at first in playful sprinkles, then in an unrelenting barrage. The monuments stood defiantly in their wire compound, the martyr’s scream, the soldiers’ roar and the worker’s rage frozen in perpetual tumult.    

© Timothy Collard 2011

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Iris Garden

Kenji manoeuvred his bike around the pitch like an expert. The August sun, low and fat in the late afternoon sky, cast long fluid shadows on the baked earth. He often came to the local elementary school on the other side of the park as it was the ideal place to practise some neat tricks on his BMX. Most of his friends, indeed most other ten-year-olds, were inside playing Super Mario, the current craze gripping Japan as BMX bikes once did, but Kenji never cared for computer games. He missed showing off to his friends on the bike, and kind of resented Mario for it. 

Undeterred by the heat and heavy cloak of humidity, Kenji persevered until he had mastered a new move, and it was only then that he looked at his watch. Six forty-five. Be home by seven, his mother had said. The last time he disobeyed this instruction she locked his bike away for two weeks.

Normally he followed the flat streets bordering the park, but this would take too long now. Kenji pictured the park’s vast network of pathways that meandered through forests of red pine and oak, up and over grassy knolls and along groves of cherry and plum trees. He quickly calculated the fastest route home, stood up on the pedals and powered across the pitch into the park.

The park was the focal point of the neighbourhood, a place everyone could enjoy all year round. But this evening there were no couples strolling, no families clearing up after a picnic, no dogs running off their leashes. It was still and silent. The sun now hid behind Mt Kongo, and Kenji made out the pointed grey roof of the local temple tucked into the foothills like a nesting scops owl. He felt sluggish as he pedaled up a steep incline, like the air was compressing him from above. Gliding down the other side he passed some lavender bushes, and thought it odd that they remained motionless in his wake.

As he rounded a corner he espied old Mrs Kuroki and some other ladies from the neighbourhood down in a clearing, dressed in their colourful summer yukata and in a circle rehearsing their folk dancing for Obon. In a few days Kenji would come here with his parents and many of the local residents to celebrate Obon, a Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. It reminded him that he would have to go to the Mie countryside with the family next weekend to visit the graves of his grandparents, and he outwardly groaned at the thought.

The pathway narrowed as he approached a large mature garden of blood irises. There had always been irises growing on this spot, even before there was a park. They stood in their thousands like serried guards, many of them taller than Kenji. Their purple blooms, like delicate folds of silk, were iridescent even in the wanness of dusk.

Kenji slowed a little as he negotiated the sinuous path through the iris garden. He looked ahead to where the pathway widened and led away from the irises up a hillock towards one of the park exits. He wasn’t far now. He checked his watch. Five minutes left.

At that moment a stringy root sprung out from the undergrowth and coiled tightly around Kenji’s ankle, yanking him abruptly. His head collided with the handlebars on the way down, and the teeth of the sprocket gouged deep into his forearm as he was dragged off the bike and into the irises on his back. Instinctively he forced his palms and heels hard into the ground to brake, but they only ploughed through loose topsoil. Iris blooms flashed by, looking down at him like mocking giants, complicit and unmoving. Searing pain began to course through his body as he was crudely drawn deeper into the iris garden. He looked like a rag doll being dragged along by an ungrateful child. Kenji tried to scream but his voice was gone, ripped from him, rendered a guttural rasp. Suddenly he was still, but the ground underneath was not. Manifold roots erupted through the soil and latched onto him like a jellyfish its prey. Adrenalin surged through his little body as he struggled to free himself, but the roots pulled down harder. He watched helplessly as first his legs vanished beneath the surface, then his arms. A tendril snaked across his neck. It felt coarse on his skin, like his mother’s hessian rug. Tears streamed from his eyes. Kenji’s last memory was the taste of earth: rotten and burning. Then silence and stillness descended once again on the iris garden.


Old Mrs Kuroki led the ladies through one last sequence of steps. If you had looked into her eyes at that moment you would have seen plumes of dark red ink emanating from her dilated pupils and clouding her sclerae. But no sooner had they formed than they vanished, sucked back into unseen recesses like scurrying trapdoor spiders. Invigorated, Mrs Kuroki smiled and made a mental note to take a detour through the iris garden on her way home. The child’s bike would need to be removed.

© Timothy Collard 2011