I woke to the sound of you smashing my records in the night. Your body, naked, darkness in the gloom of our living room. The shards of vinyl were blacker than you were; a spectrum of the night dancing, wreaking havoc in our house. I watched without moving. Your still-defined muscles stood out as you shattered The Rolling Stones over your knee, as you threw Springsteen at the wall, as Genesis made new music. This was my pride. My collection long in the making, and I stood and watched as you unmade it.
Picking up one of the records, you paused. I knew what it was straight away. Your thumb, rubbing over the sleeve, felt the indented words on the cover.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping.
You took it out of its sleeve almost reverentially, moved your hand slowly across the vinyl surface and put it down, whole and intact, on the floor beside you.
We picked it up on our first holiday together. Paris, a hot June. Arm in arm down the Boulevard Saint Michel. My hands tapping complex ciphers on your palm as we shared mussels, oysters, steak, the smell of petrol and wine overlaying the stink of the Seine.
You spoke your patois with varying degrees of success. You'd seemingly forgotten your French, or didn't want to speak it. I was sure you knew the frustrations of taxi-drivers and bartenders as they tried to grasp your lilting, songlike speech. You didn't care.
You spoke to me of your father, back in Cameroon. 'He loved me. I know he loved. I was his only son. But what was I meant to do, faced with his belt, his fists? I watched maman take his fists too much. I'd taken them too much. For her it was so much worse. So we came here.'
“Here” was a tenement near Saint Germain. Missing from your account was the bribe, the fear, the sweat, the running. The experience of coming to a country where you nominally spoke the language, but where in reality Parisians turned their noses up at your 'filthy immigrant speech'. Where they treated you like shit for being the person you were.
'So I learned. I learned English, mathematics, French like they spoke here. I learned to see things others didn't. To pick up on signals, body language, slipped consonants. To read people. To read places. I saw what it was people wanted, and I reunited them.'
I didn't understand. I said so.
'I made some extra francs for maman et Elise. Ma soeur. My sister.'
'I know that,' I said. I wanted to know what you did. I held your hand as we walked down the street. The simple act of touching you thrilled me. 'But how did you do it?'
You looked at me. Your eyes were pooled quicksilver, inky mirrors; I could read myself in them.
'I don't know. It's like...' Your face crumpled. You stopped us on the side of the road as you tried to work out how to describe it. 'It's like a line. Between people and things. Or things and people. I see people, and I see what they want. I followed the line between a dejected boyfriend and the bracelet he should buy his girlfriend as a gift. That was the first – it was easy. His eyes were red. I saw her walk away. She glanced at the bijou as she passed it. I pieced it together, followed the lines. Told him to buy it for her – that it would make her happy again. He gave me ten francs, as a thank you, before he ran after her.'
'I don't understand. Why did he trust you? For all he knew you were a...' I pointed at a homeless man, cuddling his can of beer.
'He knew. In their hearts, they already know what they want. They just need a helping hand to find it.'
One day we pattered down the steps outside the Sacré-Cœur, the entire spread of Paris ahead of us. The sun drew beads of sweat one by one down my forehead. We were nothing amongst this savage beauty, the complex system of Haussmann avenues and tiny side streets, where turning a corner can take you halfway across the world. The church lay at our back as we picked our way through chattering crowds, a couple among couples, normal, a footnote.
I'd been to Paris before, on business, but never as a tourist. Back then my visits were fleeting, lunches, brief meetings about the financial health of the company.
You had never seen some parts of Paris either. We found it together as we found each other. Lost in the suburbs, your world was one of your neighbourhood, of football in the streets, of studying, of family. It was not of this world, this glamour of a city revelling in its own egotism.
We walked along the Rue des Trois Frères, toward Montmarte proper. We were determined to explore, to get lost in the twisting alleys on the hillside. White buildings loomed above us. We pushed through tourists thronged like sardines, watching the French go about the daily grind of selling their homeland to the camera-toting masses. As we lost ourselves among the passages, I watched your head bob up and down, twisting from side to side. I knew you were watching those lines of yours; when I met you first, in that pub, I thought you were nervous, looking for a way out, perhaps avoiding a former lover. Turns out it’s just your thing.
‘Why do you follow them?’ I asked.
‘This pattern, it calls to me, fascinates me. If you saw these lines, would you not follow?’
I couldn’t picture this. It must be more than that, surely...
‘And… it gives me power.‘
It was refreshing, this honesty. I hadn’t had it in a lover before. Usually, it was you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, as we fought to hide our dirty laundry.
I loved you for it.
I flicked on the light. The devastation you’d wrought became clear. Shards littered the floor. Pieces that had once been my joy, that we once danced to, hand-in-hand like teenagers in some American movie.
I had expected anger, not this controlled demolition of my life.
'I know,' is all you said. I think I saw - hope I saw - a tear slide from your eye as you picked up your clothes, put them on sedately, and walked out the door.
Before closing it you stopped. Your hand whitened around the frame as you wrestled with something inside. You turned your head, looked at me. I was on the floor by now, legs having given way, powerless to stop you when I knew, you knew, we both knew that you should leave, that now I'd given you the perfect excuse; now you could leave. Could find your own line, what you truly wanted and deserved; someone to whom you wouldn’t have to say ‘I know,’ one last time.
You smiled, that chipped front tooth showing one last time. A smile laced with grief, with stories that would never be told. 'Goodbye.'
You shut the door.
We found ourselves in a junk shop in an old windmill. Quite what a windmill was doing in Paris, let alone what a junk shop was doing in a windmill was a mystery to me, but I followed you, and you led us, unerringly, to this place.
I found a gun.
It was old – 19th Century. It looked like a piece from a film about the Crimea; a heavy revolver, bronze slowly fading into the same colour as the wooden handle. Every part of it ebbing away with age.
It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with a policeman back home. He told me that most guns on the streets of Britain are from the War – First or Second I didn't know. That when criminals shot each other, they'd often blow their own arms off. These old guns were notoriously unreliable.
He'd said it with a grin, like it was the best thing in the world.
Your face was the exact opposite. It shrank from the gun, fled as much as an expression can. You pulled the gun from my grasp, set it down gently, gently, ever so gently on a table, as though it were a precious vase. I know now that your lines don’t always lead to the good. That you can see the darker paths, and choose not to tread them. That one day, that dark line, would lead to me.
'Come,' you said, leading me by the arm.
We wove between bric-a-brac, a treasure house of another century. Typewriters. Books. Furniture, lamps, spiders' webs, effigies, 80's computers, 1880's parasols, mouse droppings, a desk, a stuffed toy, a board game.
A box of records.
We stopped in front of them. I rooted. You knew this would take my mind from that gun, taking me to another place. A better place for both of us. I found few things of interest. Lemon Incest by Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Some French funk. Old Pink Floyd I already owned, and in better condition.
I was about to walk away, when I spotted that the box lay on another LP. Green sleeve sticking out from beneath the age-worn cardboard box.
'Benoit,' I called across to where you rummaged through a jewellery box. 'Come and help me with this.'
We wrestled the box off the record, heaving it onto the floor, somehow managing not to knock over any of the precariously balanced rags and riches that surrounded us.
We coughed as a plume of dust erupted from the box as we set it on the floor. I swiped my hand back and forth ineffectually to clear the air, picked up the vinyl, stroked its dusty covering and stared.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping it proclaimed, embossed gold print on a forest green cover. No artist. No record label that I could see, no track listing. Just a plain green background, those golden letters gleaming in the shop's half-light.
I knew I wanted it. An oddity like this was perfect for my collection – yes, I usually went for 60s and 70s rock: first pressings, mint condition – but rarities, mistakes, printing fuck ups were a particular foible of mine. I had a White Album first pressing without its number stamped on it. Ironically, it was perhaps worth more because of that, but still it was the oddness of it I loved.
I opened the sleeve to make sure the vinyl it contained wasn't scratched, botched, warped, or otherwise unusable. I'd have to put it back then, on a point of principle.
I slipped the sleeve out, handed the cover to you. Gently, so as not to mark the vinyl, I pulled it out, and stared in disbelief.
I don't know why you loved me, Benoit. I don't know why your happiness became part of me. I'm boring. You helped me notice what others slipped past. The beauty in the light falling through the leaves, the art in the words on the walls.
I know why I loved you. I loved the lines around your eyes. The strength in your hands. The smile that played over your lips, as if unsure, as you found something that someone wanted, yet again. You always knew the perfect birthday presents. The right moments to hug me, or to step away and give me space. You followed your lines, stepping from moment to moment without hesitation or worry. I loved you for your confidence.
I knew none of these things, and it frightened me. Did you think me inadequate? Judge me constantly for not knowing like you did?
I'm not sure if it was tears or the rain falling outside the window that blurred my vision as I watched you leave, hail the cab, drive out of my life.
I don't know how you found out.
I was always careful. I deleted his texts. I wasn't friends with him online. We always fucked when you were out, or at his place, whichever was easier.
I have no true recollection of where I met him. I was at some bar with a client, some late-night drinks party. But the details are hazy, easily forgettable.
Our first meeting I'll never forget. The pub, your eyes, fierce brown. The taxi, our feet touching, the kiss, deep, passionate. The club, anonymous enough to make it feel normal. The music. The dancing.
The alleyway. The taxi.
Waking, that first morning, to your padding footfalls in my apartment. A little pile of lost, forgotten things on my bedside table; an unpaid bill, the TV remote, my phone resting on a book by a potential investor I needed to email. A casual pile of tomorrow’s problems, easily fixable if only I'd remembered.
Your eyes, glinting, holding my gaze as you heard me wake.
The vinyl was blank. It confused me, strange in its smoothness. Why go to the trouble of pressing a disc, giving it a cover, a name, if it were blank.
The stylus would simply slide across it, a burst of static, an ending.
I bought it. It could only be a curiosity, a thing that held no value but the personal. You made no comment, only a pleasure that crinkled your eyes.
You had brought me to something I wanted.
I knew, then, that I loved you.
I kissed you there at the counter as the shopkeeper put the record in a blue plastic bag. He muttered something, busied himself beneath his table. I didn't care. I loved you more than anything in that moment.
Every time I watched you follow your lines, watched as you got that stony determination in your eyes, I fell a bit more in love.
When we found a kite in our back garden, and I watched as you gently untangled it and strode out the house. I trailed you like a puppy as you turned left and right seemingly at random. At the park, a little girl with blue beads at the end of her braids looked up at you beaming as you handed it to her, her father blustering his thanks as he juggled toddlers in both arms.
After, you told me that the line was blue, like her beads. That you had picked it from the mass of lines, because it pulsed so brightly, and because it was in our garden.
‘Does everyone have a colour?’ I asked.
‘What colour am I?’
‘The green of The Sound of One Hand Clapping,’ he said.
You said you looked out for my green. When you came home, drunk, with exactly the right lamp to replace our broken one, purloined from the pub you’d been at. When you read me my favourite poetry under the stars.
When you made other people smile, me smile, and I watched as you smiled.. Happy to follow your lines when you wanted, to bring my mother hyacinths, not roses, on the anniversary of Dad’s death, me books and music and everything I wanted.
I couldn’t give that back to you. What hope did I have, when you were so fucking perfect, without fucking trying? And he was imperfect, like me. It was easy, to slip. Easier than watching you, driving away. You were following your lines, of course, only this time what I wanted was not-you.
We played the record when we got back home. It crackled, hissed static, ended. We played the B-side. Hoping.
We kept it anyway. It reminded us of us, of that time, a postcard in white noise.
When people came over, we played it to them. We told the story, we smiled, laughed, kissed. Our fingers wove intricate knots. We showed them pictures, too, of us smiling, selfies, or taken by a random stranger we’d stopped and asked to take a photo, but they never meant as much. Those pictures were lost, on the hard-drives of dead computers, or on long lost memory cards. You never brought them back to me.
Our mantelpiece changed. Showed us both in suits, a vicar smiling, your mother and sister beaming by your side, my best friend standing by mine. I looked nervous, you at ease. A small boy, our son, on your shoulders, arms waving as the tide came in behind you. The boy on the edge of manhood, by a blue hatchback with a bow on the roof. A man in a graduation gown, your arm and mine draped across his shoulders. We are looking at each other, pride evident in the wrinkles of your forehead, the set of my stubbled jaw.
I broke your heart. I can see that.
You wouldn’t break our memories.
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