She glanced towards the departing trams, and then left, looking back at him twice as she crossed the street. He came inside and ordered a shot and a lager. As he waited, he laid his kepi on the counter and began speaking with me.
This was in Montpellier, in 2012. He was a legionnaire from Birmingham; his reclaimed name was Roger, and he was the most intelligent murderer I have ever met. At my prompting, he spoke about war. We spoke for maybe half an hour, and, in the end, it came down to me saying:
‘I would not.’
And him saying: ‘Someone else always will. Since this is true, it is me.’
He was so much more intelligent than me, and, back then, I thought of myself as being very intelligent. I would have been twenty; he might have been twenty-five, and had already completed two tours of Afghanistan.
I would have liked the conversation to have ended there, but he kept drinking and checking his phone, his face becoming closed in on itself, and then, as he was leaving, he asked to leave his kepi behind the bar. I refused, because if I had not refused that would have been the end of the bar.
‘This isn’t a legionnaire bar,’ I said.
He was smiling. His eyes were like houses in summer where the windows have been left open, and you can hear children playing inside. He put his kepi on his head and strolled out, saying nothing else.
Once he had gone, I realised our conversation had been a sounding out, but he had gotten too drunk too quickly. He came back three hours later, holding an airhorn, and his head was bare. He laughed when he saw me, like I was a wonderful joke.
‘Did you see my kepi?’
‘You wore it out, when you were leaving.’
‘They’ll put me in the hole for this,’ he said, and then he laughed again. ‘Give me a Stella.’
I shook my head.
‘No hard feelings,’ he said.
He blew the airhorn in my face, put it on the counter, and walked out.
I forgot about him. I was too busy suffering. Each morning I would wake up, and, eyes still closed, something was already waiting for me, inside, and I was drunk eight hours a day. Occasionally, I would burst into laughter at my own stupidity, but it didn’t matter how much I laughed, because, in secret, I still considered myself a tragic and chosen being.
Four months after our first meeting, Roger returned, and this time he hadn’t brought his kepi. He sat at the counter, nodding once at me, but saying nothing. I felt that he remembered me but didn’t remember how. He drank whiskey and Sprite, and kept glancing over at a booth where a North American businessman was laughing with two suited Frenchmen and a Japanese man.
The North American was a speaker at a series of corporate conferences set to last the week, and had come in the previous two afternoons with a small group—a different one each time—and he had paid for every drink. He had tanned, regular, uncomplicated features. His gestures were open, generous, yet repelled closeness. He always tipped casually and well.
Roger, brazen behind three quick whiskeys, kept staring at him.
‘Look at this,’ he said.
The North American was shuffling from his seat, standing up.
‘Look at what?’ I said.
‘You know what.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Will I tell him what he is?’
When the North American arrived at the bar his spine elongated, almost imperceptibly, and his chin rose. He ordered a round, and waited with an elbow on the counter.
‘How are you, sir?’ Roger asked him.
‘Good. I’m having a good time here. How are you?’
Roger nodded, and I wondered if it was a tense moment, or if it was just another one of those moments I couldn’t understand.
‘Where did you serve, sir?’
‘Originally, the United States Marine Corps.’
Roger grinned. ‘Originally, sir?’
‘Yes, originally, son.’
After this point, I was no longer able to follow the conversation. It became laden with acronyms, and compound nouns to the point where it felt like a joke, but from what I could gather Roger was talking about a company that specialised in protecting convoys travelling from Umm Qasr to Baghdad, and the North American—who said his name was Matt Woodward—spoke about a recent concrete contract that had gone out to tender to rebuild the port of Umm Qasr, and that he had been sitting in that booth two days ago with the man who had won it.
I couldn’t stand to overhear their veiled bragging anymore. It embarrassed me. I collected glasses from the terrace and cleaned down tables, and when I came back behind the bar, Roger said:
‘Two Bushmills, for me and my brother.’
The four pints I had served were still in front of Matt, their foam seethed to nothing, like sandcastles washed away to stumps.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m with these gentlemen, but thank you.’
‘All right,’ Roger said, touching his eyebrow with his forefinger. ‘Proud to talk to you, sir.’
The North American returned the few steps to his booth, and Roger started texting someone and said to me: ‘Send them over four whiskeys, and a glass of ice.’
I brought over the drinks, and then they were all saluting each other with their glasses. Roger drank his own whiskey quickly, put away his money into his wallet, and stood up, still staring at his phone.
‘Keep him here,’ he said.
I didn’t understand, and then I did.
Roger looked up from his phone.
‘You need to learn to relax,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’
After an hour and a half, Roger still hadn’t returned, and Matt and his three companions were in the process of leaving, putting on their jackets slowly and hovering around the toilet doors. As I was clearing their table, Matt came over to me.
‘Do you know that kid,’ he asked, ‘the one who was here?’
‘No, I don’t. I only saw him once before.’
‘Hell of a kid.’
‘Still.’ He dropped twenty euro onto the table. ‘See you tomorrow,’ he said.
At six o’clock, Jean, who was eighteen and from Réunion, came on shift. I took my break and sat on the terrace, waiting. I had a plain baguette and some cigarettes, and watched the people streaming off the trams, their rows of faces in the evening gloom changing colour as the traffic lights above them changed; their legs passing in and out of the beams of car lights they walked through.
When I came back off my break, me and Jean started drinking lightly, taking turns in the cold room. Then Roger came back around nine o’clock, accompanied by two other legionnaires who waited out on the terrace as he came up to the counter.
‘Where is he?’
I looked at his hands: they weren’t shaking, but the two other legionnaires out on the terrace were tapping their feet, and coughing into their fists. They were closer to my age than his.
‘I couldn’t keep him here.’
Behind the two young legionnaires were the hooded and barred windows of ground level apartments, all lit up, walled TVs morphing colours inside, every passerby glancing in. There was a Korean hairdresser’s opposite the bar, outside of which three Korean men stood, smoking cigarettes and looking at their phones. A plane blinked across the sky.
‘I just couldn’t.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You said you’d be back in an hour. You said.’
‘Three lagers, three straight whiskeys. Bring them out. Set up a tab. All right?’
I served their drinks. Afterwards, I had a cigarette in the cold room and then went out and explained to Jean about the tab—we weren’t allowed to give them, so we had to keep a note in a glass rather than run the drinks through the till.
Around half eleven, I did a stocktake, and when I returned I saw that Matt Woodward was sitting outside with the three legionnaires, his chair drawn a little away from the table so as to keep out away from the cigarette smoke.
He waved me over.
‘A vermouth for me, please—and whatever these boys are having.’
‘Cheers,’ Roger said.
He ordered for himself and the other two. I served them, then flashed the lights for last orders. Matt soon came inside to the toilets and on his way out stopped by the counter and took out his wallet.
‘I understand these boys have a tab; I’d like to pay it, if you wouldn’t mind.’
As I was tallying the drinks, I saw his reflection in the mirror above the till. He turned away, took from the inside pocket of his blazer a steroid inhaler, shook it, took two quick puffs, and then he turned around again, and there was something so vulnerable about his discretion that I felt a sudden pain; I had to redo the count.
‘That’s €74.20,’ I said.
He put down two fifty-euro notes. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘See you tomorrow.’
I put the takings and the float in the safe, and then I smoked another cigarette and had another drink in the cold room. Today, the drinking was making me feel ill, but I knew it was better to keep going through it. I sat on a keg and listened to the humming of the refrigerator. Somehow, I had thought when I left home there would be less waiting, less boredom, a different type of choice. I remembered being on the beach, every day the first summer, with the girl I had come here for, and still I was always looking through my fingers at the sea, waiting for her to stop talking so I could go into the water.
When I came out, all the lights were on and Jean was stacking chairs on the terrace. Roger was on his phone, waiting by the counter.
‘One more round,’ he said.
‘Sorry, we’re closed.’
‘Just one more.’
‘I don’t even have a till,’ I said.
‘I know you can do it.’
I took a glass that was still warm from the dishwasher, ran it under the tap, and poured a shot of Jameson into it. I placed it in front of him.
‘What’s this?’ he said.
‘It’s all I can do.’
‘And what about my brothers?’
‘This is all I can do.’
He put his hand against the glass, and grimaced. He rubbed his fingers together.
‘This is hot; I’m not paying for this.’
‘I’m paying for it.’
‘Well, then, cheers.’
He stuck his tongue out at me, drank off the shot, and made a pleased sound in the back of his throat. I took a post-it note; marked down the whiskey, and stuck it to the front of the till where I was sure he could see it.
‘Give me one of those,’ he said, gesturing, ‘and the pen.’
He wrote out something, and then offered it to me.
‘That’s the address we’re going to. Come along, you and your little French friend.’
‘Will you come?’
‘I’ll text you when I’m finished here to let you know.’
‘You don’t need my number. Just come up.’
‘Will you come?’
‘There’ll be girls. I’ll keep you one.’
At half one, I let Jean go home, ordered a taxi, took a bottle of Jameson from the storeroom, locked the doors, and closed and locked the shutters. I was on the ninth floor of the apartment block twenty minutes later. I knocked on 937 and a legionnaire I hadn’t seen before opened the door, turning his back on me before it had fully swung open. Four more legionnaires were smoking out on the balcony, their glowing cigarettes ends swiping across the darkness like fireflies. Three women sat inside around a glass table, smoking and texting on their phones. A long window behind them showed the stacked, deserted balconies of the opposite hotel. One of the women, who sat cross-legged on the floor, an unsmoked cigarette burning away between her fingers, I recognised. She was the one who had been with Roger on the terrace the first time I had seen him.
There was a Berber rug spread across the floor, and on the walls hung two tapestries. One depicted a tribe hunting okapi with spears, beneath a sun drawn as a diamond within another diamond; the other seemed to be east Indian, portraying a turbaned man and a veiled woman sitting in a square garden, surrounded by bushes full of spherical pink fruits. There was a framed medal propped on the dresser beneath the TV, and three photographs: a sunburnt family in Disneyland in the 1980s; a squad of smiling soldiers in front of a bombarded stone wall, and a graduation photograph, showing Matt Woodward as a very young man standing to attention in his dress blues.
There was no music, and no one spoke to me. It didn’t seem like a party at all; it seemed more like they were waiting for something.
I went into the kitchen and looked in the fridge. There was no alcohol. The ice trays in the freezer hadn’t even been filled. I opened the bottle of whiskey and poured myself a glass, and drank it over the fridge.
Roger came in and put his hand on my shoulder. He took the bottle of whiskey from me.
‘Thanks. Come with me.’
He led me through the living room into the master bedroom where the only light came from the half-opened door of an en suite. Matt was sitting up on the bed. Two suitcases lay open on the floor, clothes and documents rifled through. Roger went straight into the en suite, and I followed him. He locked the door after me.
‘Are you having a good time?’
He placed the bottle on the sink, took a sachet of coke from his back pocket and handed it to me.
I took out my keys and took a small bump and then Roger gestured for me to hand him the bag and the keys and he did a much larger bump.
‘Again,’ he said.
He handed me back the bag and the keys and I took another snort, and then I handed them back to him, and he did the same.
I had done coke several times, but nothing like this. I felt perfect.
‘How do you feel?’ he asked.
‘They’re going to put me in the hole for tonight,’ he said. ‘Have you ever been in a hole?’
He laughed, then took several long pulls from the bottle.
‘Of course you haven’t,’ he said.
The doorknob twisted.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Roger said.
‘I was just wondering if you were all right,’ Matt’s voice, on the other side, said.
‘Another minute,’ then he said to me: ‘You should go and talk to those girls.’
‘Who are they?’
He scooped out coke on a key, and offered it to me again. I took it, and then he did another bump, and then I drank more whiskey, and walked out, passing Matt, who was sitting up very straight on the edge of the bed with a wooden box in his lap. He looked like a schoolchild.
The legionnaires had come in from the balcony, so the sitting room seemed much more crowded now. I sat down straight in front of the woman I recognised and told her that I had seen her some time ago and that I remembered her. I told her she looked like someone from long ago, that she possessed a type of austere beauty more appropriate to an earlier decade of an earlier century. I told her that when you are young you want to die, but you also want to have sex. I told her the woman, or women, who take you on that journey at that time, are to some degree your death animals, no matter how long you end up living, and that though sex goes deep, it cannot go all the way, not in the final moment. I told her that no matter how I tried to draw my awareness back to the stumble and flow of the crowd I could not. I could not see any patterns, only a confluence of accidents, but I knew in things like traffic and mess halls and sunsets and shipping schedules there had to be a pattern, but I could not feel it. Then I paused for a moment, because I did not know why I was talking about any of this. I paused for another moment, and looked down.
‘Listen,’ she said, in French, ‘I do not know you and I do not want to know you.’
It was funny. I still felt perfect, but when I was finished laughing to myself I remained sitting there, looking down at my lap, grinning to myself, knowing I would remember this moment later and that in my memory it would be worse than it was now.
The bedroom door opened and Roger came out. Behind him, Matt stood, stopped in the doorway, his hands open: ‘You said.’
‘I don’t give a fuck, mate.’
Roger looked around and nodded at me. There was a focus to his gaze, of a sort that I had only ever seen before with certain athletes.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
An awareness came upon me, then, and I realised that Roger didn’t like me, and that he had never liked me from the time of our first conversation. It had been stupid to come here, but now that I had done it, I wanted to suffer some consequence. Above all, I wanted to know that there was such a thing as a consequence.
Two legionnaires were standing close above me, but facing in different directions, away from each other. I stood up, and they didn’t react so I knew that they had been paying attention to me.
‘Come on,’ Matt said.
‘Show one of the girls,’ Roger said.
‘How would they understand?’
‘Show him,’ Roger said, nodding at me again. ‘No one else will go with you.’
Matt’s face was very pale. He swallowed, and I could see a thread of perspiration below his ear. Then he lifted his lips above his teeth and looked at me. There was something dazed and lost in his expression.
‘We are soldiers,’ he said.
‘Some of us,’ Roger said.
A legionnaire laughed briefly, and then there was silence. Matt covered his eyes with his forearm.
‘I’ve got a,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a meeting at seven in the morning. Eight.’
‘Go to bed, then,’ Roger said. ‘We’ll let ourselves out.’
‘You don’t want to see it.’
‘No one wants to see your little axe.’
‘That’s not what it is.’
‘You need to stop, mate, right fucking now.’
Matt leant against the doorframe, breathing heavily, and stared at Roger.
‘I’d like to see it,’ I said.
‘Really?’ Roger said.
‘Good lad. Keep him in there until he cools off.’
I walked past Matt into the bedroom. The door was closed behind us, and I looked around. Everything was the same as before, but now the rectangular box with a teak finish was laying upright on the bed.
‘Is this it?’
Matt said nothing, and I unlatched it. Inlaid in fitted red cushioned felt lay a tomahawk. Its blade was like an arrowhead turned sideways. A series of irregular knotted circles, almost faded now, had been carved into the handle. It was less than the length of a forearm, and seemed smaller than it should have, unassuming and frail. I felt like a child in a museum, pretending to understand what the objects meant.
‘It is Topsannah’s, a Comanche warrior. He was killed in 1862. He was nineteen years old, and it has more than fifteen scalps, one belonging to a colonel of the Confederacy.’
‘Why is it here?’
‘My commanding officer gave it to me when he got lymphomas in his throat. They spread to his chest. The tumour, the tumour, it was eleven inches long. I was only a marine for two years. I wore it into battle, fixed to my thigh. I wore it when we took Ibrahim al-Aruri. Do you know who that is?’
Matt lowered his head, and raised his eyes so they were staring at the tomahawk, and then he began burping, his shoulders rising and falling like a horse’s.
‘Fuck. Jesus Christ. Jesus.’
‘You should sit down.’
‘They aren’t loyal, you know. You are, but they’re not. You can’t trust. It’s just… and every election it’s a different thing…. You do it for them, and they don’t even… oh, fuck.’
He started rubbing his face with his hands.
‘These guys, you know,’ he said. ‘These guys. They have like seven or eight wives, and they’re always pregnant. All these kids. All these kids. In the compound, there were all these children, like nineteen or twenty, just there. How can someone have nineteen daughters? That might not have been all of them. That was just the children, the girls. Does that make sense?’
He straightened up and walked into the en suite, and then bent over the toilet retching, but nothing came up. Then he stood up and looked at me as though he had never seen me before
‘And all there,’ he said. ‘Just there. Does that make sense? They were supposed… If they say there isn’t any, but there is, you just go. You just have to go. When you’re there, you’re there. You can’t just go in, and then go back. You just go. Where were his sons? You know where they were, don’t you? Being trained in the mountains. This is what they do. I’m so fucked up.’
He retched again, and then got down on his hands and knees on the tiled floor, arching his back.
After a while, he said: ‘Will you help me?’
I held him up from behind so he was leaning over the toilet. He heaved in my arms for so long that the rising and falling of his ribcage within my grasp became almost meditative. Then his heaving became turgid, and I heard the irregular slap of liquid against the toilet bowl. I flushed, and we were both sprayed with cold water. Then the door from the sitting room to the bedroom opened.
‘Don’t let them see me,’ Matt said.
I closed the bathroom door, and heard the footsteps come towards us.
‘Don’t come in,’ I called.
‘I won’t,’ Roger said, and his voice was close.
‘I’m sorry,’ Matt said, a string of bile hanging from his mouth. ‘I’m so sorry.’
He got sick again loosely, the acrid, clear liquids tumbling out of him, and I waited for the cistern to fill again so I could flush the scent away.
There were more noises in the bedroom, and some whispering.
‘I’m going to go,’ I said, ‘but I’ll be back.’
‘Don’t leave,’ Matt said. ‘Please, I’m so fucked up. I’m so fucked up.’
He started crying.
‘I’ll be back.’
He tried to grab my arm, but he couldn’t reach and he lay back on the floor on his back, sobbing with his eyes closed, so that the tears seemed to seal the eyelids crossways.
‘Did I say anything?’
‘Did I say anything about it?’
‘No, you told me nothing.’
‘You can’t tell anyone. You’ll get in trouble. It’s really bad if I said anything. I’m just fucked up. I was lying. It didn’t. I swear. I didn’t. I’m not. I’m not. I’m just not.’
The back of his head jerked up and then fell, cracking across the tiles. I took a pillow from off the bed, and then placed him in the recovery position with the pillow under his head. Then I looked back over my shoulder, and saw that the wooden box lay upside down on the bed, and that the two suitcases were gone from the floor.
‘Roger,’ I called.
I went into the sitting room. Everyone had gone. The tapestries, the photo, the medal, the Berber rug had all been removed. I checked the corridor and then the street below the balcony, but I couldn’t see anyone. On the glass table around which the three women had been waiting lay a single glass of whiskey and a line of cocaine next to it.
I sat down on the couch, and tried to think. Roger had taken my keys, so I couldn’t get into my studio, and I couldn’t open the bar the next day. From where I was, I could see the wooden box splayed across the sheets, a slight glint coming off its finish from the light of the en suite. I wouldn’t even check inside: the tomahawk would have been the first thing he took. I did the line, drank the whiskey, and smoked a cigarette.
When I went back through the bedroom, it took me a moment to realise what I was looking at. Matt’s body was prostrate and his head was rested sideways on the pillow, indenting it so that his vomit had formed a small pool around his mouth and his nose. I went down on my hunkers and watched the cheek and the closed eye that had not been submerged, and it occurred to me that it would be a good thing if he had died.
Eventually, his right leg twitched, and I leant over him and removed the pillow. I opened his mouth and let the vomit pour from him, and then I drew my fingers around the inside of his nostrils, clearing their passage, and he took a ragged breath that caused him to splutter and then choke.
‘I can’t,’ he gasped. ‘I’m so fucked up. I can’t.’
‘It’s going to be all right.’
His body was curled up. His shivering head was resting in my lap. I ran my fingers gently through his hair, felt the sweat on his scalp warm beneath my hands. The smell of his vomit stung my eyes and made it difficult to breathe. I had never hated someone so much in all my life.
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I can’t.’
‘Be quiet,’ I said. ‘We’ll be all right.’