The Year Before the Invasion
At 8:34 in the morning I exit from the Blue Raddison Hotel on Avenue du Printemps in the depraved heart of Paris, the area where the epidemic has hit the hardest. I leave Adolphe in the room, in pieces. I can't think of a more appropriate punishment for him — while it's not for me to punish him. However, he stubbornly holds on to his plans, forcing me to confront him time and time again with his unfortunate fate. The outcome of our interactions never varies.
"All these foreigners," he says, "are intent on visiting Père Lachèse, where they expect to find the graves of Napoleon or De Gaulle. How silly they are. Exactly like you. Why don't you just accept you are bound to me for eternity? Why don't you make your peace with all this, and consider it an adventure for the both of us? "
He uses this excuse over and over again, creating radical but absurd situations, and then he expects me to untangle them. "You and I," he insists, "are bound by our mutual fates."
I end up solving these radical situations, but always in some unexpected fashion. Hence the scène in the hotel. Yet he is rarely surprised at what I have in store for him. The police will enter the hotel room within a few hours — or tomorrow morning at the latest. The detectives will be amazed at the dry, fragile remains. They will even doubt whether a crime took place.
A clochard predicts the end of the universe to anyone who wants to hear it. We're going to perish, whatever we try. That universe is happy to lend a hand: huge fires, locust plagues, an epidemic, false prophets, terrifying totalitarian leaders. The clochard - dirty and naked under his filthy cloak - waves his hands heavenwards and summons the apocalypse, which will come to pass this same year.
I'm sure he will be accommodated.
When Adolphe reappears, he sneaks in front of the gesticulating man, but of course the clochard doesn't notice him. "He's right," Adolphe says to me. "For the most part anyway. Yet what is missing is an alien invasion." And he says, "He'll be dead in a year." I suspect he's talking about the clochard.
My new home is near the Musee d'Orsay, a three-star hotel with a desk, bar and lounge taking up one small room on the ground floor. I leave a trail all over Paris, but no detective will make the effort to uncover it. My wound has opened again: something resembling a yellow-greenish tentacle is protruding from my thigh.
The moment is poorly chosen, but this can't be avoided. I tend to ignore the phenomenon, but I have committed myself to report even the most intimate of my adventures. Reporting my every physical change, that's the job. I have to stick to that.
For three days, Adolphe disappears. Nothing to do with me this time, but his absence suits me well. I try to decipher the hidden meaning behind paintings in the Musée d'Orsay. I write down my ideas in a black book. Every evening I report on the state of affairs, Orsay, the city, Adolphe and my physical changes. Those reports are sober and concise. I'm not writing a novel.
Britta doesn't drink coffee, at least not pure. She drinks a cappuccino with marshmallows, and sometimes other complex coffees. She has never met Adolphe and refuses to believe in his existence. As far as she's concerned, he only lives in my imagination. I read too many of those bizarre and difficult books. When I mail an open-ended story for her to read, she sends me a terrified emoji. To her, every story must have a solid ending.
Of course she has no idea who I really am.
"I'm not sure I want to experience another year like this," she says. Is this about the epidemic or does it concern a much more personal crisis, the details of which she tells me only sparsely (a story in which betrayal, lies, and disappointment prevail)? She runs the risk of ending up as a character in a book or a story of mine, and of course she's aware of how writers are in that regard. How are they? They are — I tell her — parasites that feed on the lives of others, especially when they personally lack imagination.
From the roof of the Printemps, she observes people in the boulevard below. She brought binoculars. Two attack helicopters pass on their way to Orly where, it seems, riots between passengers broke out again.
"Why should we be concerned with trite and boring lives?" she inquires, rhetorically. She's not lacking in imagination, but is convinced otherwise. "I used to dream stuff," she admits, "and then I wake up and have to admit to myself reality is very different."
A copy of The Awakening Consciousness adorns the elevator. William Holman Hunt, my favorite Pre-Raphaelite. Maybe there is an exhibition of his paintings somewhere in Paris.
"I wonder," she says, "to what extent events still have meaning. So many things happen, but they seem not to have purpose or use. Take that epidemic for instance. Why did it happen? What purpose does this event serve? Thinning out the human gene pool? Even that is meaningless."
I tell her that I saw the future and that nothing ever has any meaning. "But life is everywhere," I tell her, by way of consolation, "and as such not everything is meaningless. There is information all around. Entropy does not yet have the upper hand. "
"Not in this part of the cosmos, anyway," she agrees. "But we can do better. We simply have to do better."
I offer her a second cappuccino. She doesn't turn it down. She looks up, frowning. "How long will you stay?" she asks me, after a while. "By the way: I never understood the message behind that painting."
"The painting in the elevator," she clarifies.
"Betrayal, I think," I say. "The discovery of the truth such as it was, far beyond your reach. The lost innocence, and the guilt about it. The garden that is reflected in the mirror. The Pre-Raphaelites were good at symbolism."
"No one cares about that kind of thing anymore."
"I do. My mission is to decipher the subtle messages of this civilization."
"That seems like an impossible task."
"It will take a long time," I admit. "It takes a lot of patience, because culture is a matter of time and patience."
Adolphe returns, as he always does. Without him my life seems to have little meaning or consequence. But involving myself with his problems is part of my mission. For what purpose, however, has never become clear to me. Britta keeps him out of our flat (we now share a flat) and he meets me on a terrace at the Place des Vosges, near the house where Victor Hugo once lived.
"Maybe they'll call you back soon," he says.
I notice a deformation on his neck, a sort of growth that does not belong to his body. He doesn't seem to be bothered. People at other tables try not to stare. Fortunately, they don't see my appendage.
"You're with Britta now," he continues. "That doesn't seem like a favorable development."
It's not like we have any agreements on my personal involvements, he and I. "She means more to me than you do," I tell him. "She is patient, to start with. A rare quality in people, these days."
With a glance he admits I am right. "Even then, you will have to leave her," he warns me. "That's how things are going to happen."
"But not any time soon, I presume? When do they want me to return?"
"I said maybe."
It's 8:34 in the evening and I have a date planned with Britta. We'll have dinner somewhere classy. She has earned a bit of luxury in her life, that's how much I appreciate her. Adolphe growls. "Never mind her. How do we proceed this time?"
Since we are in a public place, there's little I can do. But even then I honor my reputation. I leave him there, on his chair, after I've paid the waiter. They will find another stiff and empty shell, vaguely human, which will not yield any of our secrets. There won't even be anything close to DNA for the investigators to work with. Again, there will be an abundance of conspiracy theories on social media, but none of these will be anywhere close to the truth.
If someone asks me, at some point in the future, what the point of all this is, I now know the perfect and inevitable answer: observation. As long as there is life, and therefore observation, we exist. We observe, but that's the end of it. We too have no theories about what life really is.
William Holman Hunt rented a room somewhere around St. John's Wood, in a maison de convenance, while starting on The Awakening Conscience. There his fictional lord installed his equally fictional mistress (for whom Hunt's young girlfriend Annie Miller stood as model). You may notice upon careful examination of the painting that she is not the lord's wife, and maybe nobody's wife, because she is not wearing a wedding band. Together they have been singing Thomas Moore's "Oft in the Stilly Night," and she suddenly has a spiritual experience.
She gets up from her lover's lap and looks out into the garden (which is reflected in the mirror behind her). She realizes that she is losing her innocence, but that remission from sin is still possible.
As always with the Pre-Raphaelites, symbols populate the entire painting. The man has thrown his glove aside (a warning to the mistress who, once left by him, will end up in prostitution), and a tangled skein of yarn on the floor indicates the dangerous web in which the young lady finds herself.
Britta pushes aside her steamed milk & coffee, with ice cubes and maple syrup. "Show me that painting again," she asks. I bought a book of illustrations, for her, and for myself as well, of the work of the principal Pre-Raphaelites. She studies the illustration. She's jealous because I saw the original twice.
I check the clock. Adolphe will come by again, but we still have some time for ourselves, Britta and I. I'm still keeping him away from Britta. He is sometimes a chatterbox, and talks too much in the presence of ordinary people. Inevitably rumors spread and conspiracies expand manifold. Britta and I prefer to keep our affair secret.
Later today I will leave what's left of him somewhere again. Maybe I should tidy up better this time. The police are going to come to certain conclusions, even if they have no idea what is going on.
Later, when it's all over, all this will not matter anymore. Until then, I am between secrecy and discovery.
Guido Eekhaut has published more than forty books in Belgium and Holland, including half a dozen concerning the imaginary city of Orsenna. He has also written crime novels, which were nominated for major awards and the first of which, Absint, won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (and was published in the US in 2018). His stories have been anthologised many times, and several of them have appeared in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Argentina and China. He has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He also publishes essays on literature, geopolitics, history and philosophy, while working as a futurist. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal (as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader); "Time Machine" appeared in Issue #21; "The Unicorn in the Park" in Issue #60; "The Conspiracy" in Issue #62; "The Moose," in Issue #69; and "On the Bed" in Issue #72.