L’ Esprit D’ Esacalier: So Far.

by | Dec 3, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

“The sensitive man such as myself, entirely absorbed by things that are being objected to him, loses his mind and recovers it only at the bottom of the stairs”.

A middle-aged GP lives and works in the poorest arrondissement in Paris, the eighteenth. Situated in the northeast of the city, it is a ghetto of immigrants, unemployed, and criminals. His interests are cooking, the opera, and theatre, the former he gets to practice during his monthly visits to his former college friends, and the other two he does alone. Time has passed the doctor by during his unwavering dedication to the hapless of the eighteenth. He finds himself living in a tiny apartment amongst his patients which is worth a fraction of the opulent homes of his friends in the most affluent part of the city.

He seems to have toiled a lifetime but retirement is still years away. In any case, who would replace him? His fellow practitioners only stay a year or two and are either attracted by the richer rewards of better-off areas or frightened away by the sheer poverty of their work surroundings.Lucien looks at his visits to the other trio as a paradox.

Excruciating when he’s there but finding himself desperately looking forward to the next gathering, a few days after the painful previous one. His lonely visits to the theatre leave him bereft, having no one to dissect each performance with. In thisrespect, he has not had a serious relationship, although he has been in love. He is still in love, with the same beautiful, talented, wicked woman he met forty years previously. The woman tortures him with her sharp tongue and razor wit, every four weeks. Finally, following the worst day of his life, he makes a decision…

Chapter One: Little Africa 

Château Rouge, an area in the centre of the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, is also known as “Little Africa”.

Lying in the North East of the egg-shaped city, enclosed by the Boulevard Peripherique, it is one of the poorest, yet most vibrant parts of Paris. Every day, an ebony tide flows in and out, like the Atlantic Ocean against the far away beaches of the Côte d’Ivoire. Their objectives vary from the specialist food shops to the cheap bars and cafés, from establishments selling unique religious items to those dealing in obscure CDs and DVDs. For example, Le Rou Poulet, Chicken Street, far from selling poultry related goods, is almost exclusively dedicated to shops selling Afro wigs.

In a tiny apartment, under the shadow of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, on the Eastern slope of the mount, lives Dr Lucien Muersac.

Lucien had resided and practised here since graduating from medical school, almost forty years earlier. In four decades, he had observed massive changes in his locale. His neighbours and patients now originate, almost exclusively, from such exotic places as Agadir, Timbuktu and Dakar. Their demands and ailments vary greatly from the minority septuagenarian and octogenarian Parisians on the other social scale. The former, seeking refuge from persecution in their own countries; the latter trapped in the poverty left behind by the exodus of the younger, indigenous people of the district.

His own apartment block is a microcosm of that demographic, home to a cross section of its population. Although a haven of Lucien’s love of all things cultural, his abode does not reflect the deterioration of the surrounding building, or its tenants. Once one exits his front door, one leaves nineteenth century Paris, the age of its construction, and enters twenty-first century decay and regeneration, its last dying breaths.

Chapter Two: Lucien

Lucien seems to have toiled a lifetime but retirement is still years away, thanks to Macron’s unilateral increase in the retirement age. In any case, who would replace him? His fellow practitioners only stay a year or two and are either attracted by the richer rewards of better-off areas or frightened away by the sheer poverty of their work surroundings. This is his story…

***

The ancient alarm clock buzzed on the bedside table. Like a thrush with its tongue cut out, it had long lost its ring. Lucien’s arm stretched out from beneath the covers and blindly felt for the source of noise, muting it with a click of the button. The tiny timepiece brought wakefulness and wakefulness brought pain. The pain of thirty-eight years of dedication to humanity. His thumbs ached, his knees ground, bone on bone and his hips groaned like an unoiled gate. Physician, heal thyself, the motto of his life.

He swung his aching limbs to the edge of the big, old brass bed, blindly locating his slippers in the dark. As he slid his feet into the threadbare house-shoes, he closed his eyes tightly, then reached for the bedside lamp. He  waited a few seconds then opened them, thus avoiding the initial glare of the bulb. This was his favourite moment of the day, as he took in the familiar surroundings of his bedroom.

This haven of Lucien’s other life lay before him. A refuge of Parisian culture within four walls. Nobody could invade his private sanctum, his one indulgence. The furnishings, from the elegant bookcase to the massive wardrobe, were all from an era when France was an Imperial superpower;  a post aristocratic Republic led by a diminutive Corsican.

History faded for another day as Lucien thought of the challenge ahead. The moment was gone and he concentrated on the task of getting ready. Bread came before anything else. Even clothing, as he took his overcoat from the back of the door, his keys and a handful of change from the dresser.

He exited the apartment into another world. A world of peeling varnish and chipped marble. The once elegant stairway stared in the mirror like a fading actress. The sweet, yeasty aroma of fresh baguette caressed his nostrils and his stomach cramped with hunger. Lucien descended the several flights of stairs and stepped out into the dark, empty street.

The yellow lights of Boulangerie Patrice bathed the pavement next door, the only sign of life at this time. Soon this area would be teaming with life from around the globe.

He tolerated the right-wing rant of Patrice Deschamps, a fourth generation baker of the eighteenth arrondissement. His bread was the best in all of Paris and several metres from his doorstep. As he padded back up to his apartment, clutching the hot baton by the napkin wrapped around its slim waist, Lucien anticipated breakfast. He pinched the golden crust at the end of the loaf and popped the morsel in his mouth. Today was going to be a good day.

How wrong could he be?

Chapter Three: The Phone Call

Lucien laid the bread on the cutting board and filled the kettle. He rubbed his hands together vigorously to create some temporary heat. More permanently, he padded into the lounge to light the small gas fire which nestled in the enormous mahogany fireplace. The open fire and surround had been consigned to history during the last renovation. Fuel was heavy and expensive now for the elderly medic, so he couldn’t complain much.

The room was a temple to the First Emperor and the furniture reflected it. Every item had been carefully collected from chiffoniers and sales throughout the years and around the provinces of France. Pride of place went to the  Empire mahogany bookcase, with four half-glass doors. Each shelf was lovingly stacked with leather bound volumes displaying their content and creator by means of gold and silver leaf. The names of Voltaire and Rousseau rubbed shoulders with Camus and Sartre.

Some days, Lucien wished he could just stay in his apartment and digest his literary collection while gazing at the enormous painting of Bonaparte astride Marengo, the small grey Arab he’d brought from Egypt. A print of the second of five canvases commissioned by the Emperor; it depicted Napoleon crossing the Alps at the St Bernard Pass. The doctor shook himself out of the daydream and returned to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

Lucien’s problems started when the phone rang. Six-fifteen a.m. could mean only one thing; Marrielle.

“Lucie! You’re awake. Do you ever sleep?” The pet name, the statement of the obvious and the judgemental question, confirmed his worst fears.

“Marielle. Good morning. I hope you are well.” Lucien refused to acknowledge her attempt to goad him into anything other than a formal response.

“Is it? Well, I’m glad you think so. No, I am not well.” The woman paused, waiting for a response. None was forthcoming. He had a long day ahead at the surgery before having the pleasure of meeting her face to face in twelve hours time. “Are you there Lucie?” Her tone had changed from light mockery to mild annoyance.

“Yes Marielle.” Lucien closed his eyes and waited for her irritation to ramp up a notch.

“Well. Say something, man!” As predicted, it did.

“With respect, you called me. What can I do for you?” The next level would be fireworks, he thought. He’d pay for that later.

“Oh, yes. Right. Do you have everything for this evening? I’m sending Pascal out to the delicatessen. In case you can’t find the ingredients in that sink of a neighbourhood of yours.” Marielle’s voice had risen an octave and he could sense the spite in her tone.

“It’s all in hand. The shops here stock everything I need.” He was determined not to let her win. She would have that opportunity later with the help of her two allies.

“Fair enough. See you later, prompt, six for seven. Try and take a taxi if you can. I can’t stand the stench of the Metro on you.” Touche. She’d come up with a late winner in injury time, before he could respond. “Goodbye Lucie.”

Lucien gripped the receiver until his knuckles were white. Then, slowly, he counted to ten and replaced it in the cradle, like an errant child he’d decided not to slap. His heart raced and his palms were damp with sweat. The love of his life had succeeded, for the umpteenth time, in raining on his parade. He often questioned the reason for his unrequited devotion to this witch of a woman. However, he only had to close his eyes and put a face to the voice, and his answer was there, burned on his retina.

The elderly doctor had worshipped Marielle, from the day he’d first laid eyes on her, forty five years earlier. They had enrolled at the Sorbonne in the autumn of nineteen seventy-nine, along with the two other members of their monthly soiree. While Lucien was tending to the sick and infirm of the eighteenth, the others had forged successful creative careers, bestowing them with great fame and wealth.

He contemplated the evening ahead, and his friends’ achievements. Marielle Deschampes was a celebrated painter. Gaston Grolet, the baby of the group at two years junior to the others, plied his trade in clay and stone, to great acclaim. Finally, Valery Doumer had written and sold millions of novels, in many languages.

Lucien’s appetite had suddenly evaporated. Filling the kettle, he lit the solitary gas ring on his tiny stove, and took down the small single-person cafetiere from the shelf. Two material statements of his reclusive existence. He would survive the morning on caffeine. He gazed at the golden baguette on the breadboard and considered the waste; like looking at his own life. In less than two hours, it would be inedible, useless; except for pigeon food.

Lucien wondered how long he had left.

Chapter Four: The Past

Lucien half filled a wide ceramic bowl with thick, creamy milk. He placed it in the microwave oven and set the timer at two minutes. He poured the previously boiled water into the cafetiere and balanced the mesh on top of the black, frothy liquid. In two minutes, he would fuse the two liquids, to create his meagre breakfast.

The ping of the microwave signalled the start of the process. He slowly plunged the handle of the cafetiere home observing the coffee straining through the fine mesh. Taking the bowl from the oven he licked his lips at the globules of yellow cream floating on the off-white liquid. Lucien poured the coffee into the bowl, watching the two fluids entwine in a cloudy storm. The result was a concoction the colour of a mediterranean tan. He scooped in two heaped teaspoons of brown sugar and stirred.

Coffee made, he retired to the refuge of his lounge. He stretched out on the Louis XVI chaise longue, the only deviation from his post aristocratic world, and his most expensive acquisition. He sipped the weak, milky brew from the wide receptacle, and closed his eyes. The absence of a proper breakfast had given him more time to reflect; a dangerous activity for a man such as Lucien. Animation was the antidote to the toxic hand he had been dealt. Inertia was its lifeblood. Nevertheless, he indulged for the time it took to drain the bowl.

Lucien’s mind wandered to the day ahead and the tiny consulting rooms on the ground floor. He knew it would be busy as he was ‘between partners.’ This meant that the previous one had finally got the message, and he was yet to find someone gullible enough to replace her. The morning would consist of a mixture of poverty related ailments, interspersed with the ravages of old age. This double tsunami of conditions would have him drowning by lunchtime.

Following a light lunch of stale bread, salami and cheese, he’d be ready for the ‘Walk-ins.’  This lottery of human conditions would stretch his knowledge, and his patience to the limit. Add to this the trepidation of the evening ahead, and he wished he could just expire on this elegant velvet tribute to the Bourbon family.

He placed the bowl on the floor and closed his eyes.  Before the tiny dose of caffeine could kick in, he was transported into a semi-dream like state.

***

September nineteen eighty-two. The quadrangle of the University was teaming with life. Groups of people, made up of one child and two adults danced around like molecules under a microscope. Elsewhere, gaggles of young students huddled together, laughing and giggling with familiar abandon. A new day, a new semester and a new life for some. The return for another year for others.

The young man, sandwiched between the older couple, was stunned at the view before him. Like himself, he saw fear and trepidation in his peers and, like his parents, he observed deep melancholy in their guardians. A huge separation was about to take place and the scene was awash with emotion.

Just then, through the crowds, the young man spotted something. Like a diamond in a slab of granite, a rose in a bramble thicket. Her face. It was his dream, his life. From that moment, young Lucien Muersac’s existence would never be the same.

***

An insistent banging dragged the old man from his doze. He slid off the sofa, kicking his favourite bowl across the floor. It hit the giant book case, taking a chunk out of the black mahogany, then promptly broke in two. Lucien shuddered at the double calamity. It was nothing compared to what awaited him. The thuds were accompanied by high pitched renditions of his own name.

Chapter Five: The Death

“Doctor! Lucien! Come quick, please!” He knew the voice to be that of his neighbour, Caaisho, from the landing below. Ignoring his own mishap, he rushes to the door. On opening it he was confronted with the large Malian woman, her ebony face bathed in sweat.

“Doctor. Where have you been? It’s my Cheick, I think he’s having a heart attack!” The vice that crushed Lucien’s daily life, tightened once more.

“Go down and be with him, Caaisho. I will follow directly. I need to get my bag,” Lucien reassured the distraught woman. He physically turned her giant bulk and gently ushered her away from the door. She began to descend the stairs, turning to seek reassurance. The doctor nodded furiously, waving his hand. “Directly.”

As the woman disappeared from view, he looked down, realising that he was still wearing his pyjamas, slippers and overcoat. Even though the hysterical African woman wouldn’t have noticed if he was naked, he still felt a sense of shame at his appearance. He pulled the coat around himself, checked his pocket for keys and picked up his bag from near the umbrella stand.

Lucien closed the door, and his world with a soft click and entered the battleground. It was like leaving the trenches in the great war, the unknown waiting in the smoke and mist ahead. The door of the apartment below was wide open and he could hear the sound of voices ahead. Many voices in different tones and languages. It was like some mad modern opera, with wailing and shouting bouncing up the hallway.

The flat was identical to his own, spatially, which was where the similarity ended. He stepped through into the empty hallway with its peeling walls and rucked up rugs on the floor. As he entered the lounge, the noise abated and the source, the multicultural crowd, turned to greet him. It seemed that the whole apartment block was in this tiny room. A few seconds later, the ruckus started up again as the mob parted to confirm his worst fears.

Sitting in an old tattered armchair, arms and legs outstretched, appeared Cheik Warsame at the end of the corridor of people. As Lucien sidled through to the victim, it became clear he was too late. The man’s black face was covered in a sheen of sweat and had already taken on a grey pallor. His unseeing eyes stared up at the single incandescent bulb in the centre of the ceiling. His prosthetic right leg lay on the floor next to the stump, as if it had just been amputated. He turned to the crowd, who collectively abated again and silently bid him to work a miracle.

Lucien kneeled by the giant Malian’s cooling corpse and opened his bag. He went through the motions of checking for vital signs. CPR was impossible due to the man’s colossal mass and position, so he prepared a syringe of adrenaline and injected the substance into his massive chest. He repeated all of the checks again then turned to the new widow.

“I’m afraid we are too late, Caaisho. Cheik has already passed.” He reached out to take her hand but she batted him away.

“Too late? WE are too late? What do you mean doctor? You have just arrived. You must do something!” Her pleas were accompanied by murmurs and profuse nodding from the spectators. Lucien felt the rock expand in the pit of his stomach, the one that lay there to remind him that everything was his fault. This one was going to be huge.

“Caaisho, there is nothing I can do. Cheik has been gone for some time. When did you discover him?” He began to swim against the tide of shrinking optimism that was the bereaved woman and her entourage.

“Please Lucien, do something!” She ignored his question and begged him, her words were echoed by the crowd, in a ripple of words. Yes, do something please Doctor Lucien. He replaced his equipment in his bag and clipped it shut.

“I’ll call the undertaker before it’s too late. He needs to be moved.” Lucien’s mind had already fast forwarded to the problem of how to get this giant’s corpse out of this tiny flat and down three flights of stairs. Once rigor had set in, this quandary would double. His morbid thoughts were disturbed by a single voice in the crowd. The croaky Parisian accent was unmistakable. It was that of Raymond Cournoir, the oldest resident.

“Don’t you understand the doctor? He’s gone, dead. There’s nothing he can do. Now, can we all go back to bed and let him do his job?” The mob, silent to a man, turned their attention to the diminutive Frenchman, who shrugged his shoulders in true Gallic fashion. He turned and shuffled down the hall and out of the apartment.

Lucien brought his hand to his forehead and closed his eyes tightly. This could go one of two ways, he thought. He was ready for either.

Chapter Six: The Undertaker

As it happened, the crowd dispersed peacefully, returning to their respective apartments. Lucien turned to the woman who remained in the room.

“I must apologise for Raymond’s outburst; he is unwell and doesn’t really know any better. I know it’s not an excuse,” he said to Caaisho, placing his hand on her ample forearm. He noticed the crease between her arm and hand which gave the impression they didn’t belong together. It was glistening with sweat.

“I detest that man, what does he have against us? Does he know what we have been through?” She turned to her late husband and wrung her hands in grief. As she tilted her head, and her face creased with pain, she seemed to step from the world of hysterics to that of anguish. The sound of her pitiful crying bit into Lucien’s consciousness. Suddenly another thought overcame him: the children.

“Where are the twins?” He asked, patting her arm. He watched the wave of fat ripple up forearm and couldn’t help thinking that she would be next. Lack of exercise and living on a diet totally alien to that of her home country, combined with constant stress of living in poverty; these were killers individually. Together they were the trilogy of death.

“At a sleepover with my cousin. Oh my God the girls! What am I to tell them, Lucien?” Her frenzy stepped up a level.

“What about Ousmane and Mari? Work?” He felt as if he was hammering nails into her coffin with every question, however necessary.

“Yes, yes. They won’t be back until evening, twelve hour shifts.” Each individual word came out as a sob from her trembling lips.

“Caaisho, shall I cover him? It would be more dignified but it’s up to you.” The doctor’s words were met by short sharp nods from the woman as she dragged her hand down her face, in a typical mournful fashion. She pointed to the shabby flat-pack cupboard in the corner of the sparsely furnished room.

Lucien took a grey sheet that had once been white, from the cupboard and draped it over the prone corpse. The sheet seemed to emphasise his huge bulk and he immediately returned to the practicalities of the situation.

“If you excuse me I will make a phone call.” He got up and walked out into the landing. The space was eerily quiet after the commotion of a few minutes earlier. The residents had all returned to the sanctuary of their own little worlds. He selected a number on the screen, pressed send and waited.

“Hello Bernard, it’s Lucien. I have one for you; it’s big I’m afraid, and the third floor too. Probably been gone for about four to six hours. Could we move fast with it?” There was a pause on the other line Lucien waited.

“Yes. How much? That’s fine, just charge my account.” The final words took another chunk out of his dwindling retirement fund. Reunion Island was looking even further away.

“Two hours? That’s great. I’ll be in the surgery; the paperwork will be waiting for you. Thank you Bernard.” Lucien hung up and returned to the unfortunate apartment. He checked the time on the phone. One hour since the alarm sounded. It felt like a day. This was going to be a long one.

“Come on, Caaisho. Let’s get you sorted. I have made arrangements for Cheik. He will be well looked after and we have much to do if you’re to give him a good send off.” He knelt down near the woman and put his arm around her shoulder.

“Will you stay with me, Lucien? I don’t want to be alone with him. This is a mess. His spirit will be so confused.” Caaisho turned to him, her eyes, large and white, pleading.

“Of course. Would you like a drink? Is it tea or coffee? I don’t know what your preference is.” Lucien’s question masked the dread of the day ahead. Even the punishing routine of a normal day had been pushed out of his reach. He sighed inwardly and decided to go with the flow. Like a man clinging to a tree trunk in a flood.

Chapter Seven: Caaisho

Caaisho Warsame lived in the outskirts of Bamako, the capital city of Mali, with her husband Cheik and four daughters. The children’s ages varied from three to ten. Members of the majority Bambara people, they led a comfortable life. Cheik was a mechanic for the city’s bus company and their modest house was clean and tidy, thanks to Caaisho’s dedication to her family. The elder children attended the local school and the youngest two remained at home.

In March 2020, that all changed. Unrest was growing with the government and the army intervened. The ensuing violence and instability meant that Cheik lost his job and the family their home. Some men in the district were rounded up and accused of terrorism. They were never seen again. It was then that the family decided to leave their beloved country and head north. France was their ultimate goal.

There were stories of a Frenchman who was rescuing orphans in the North. He had long grey hair tied in a ponytail and a matching beard, also tied. They said he wore a skirt of wool in a checked pattern and a dagger in his sock. He had liberated over three hundred children and placed them with childless families in France.

Caaisho decided to make contact with the man and have her babies placed where they could thrive. All but the youngest had been “cut”, a procedure to preserve their virtue. So she kept the baby until it could be done. She handed the three girls over to the Frenchman and she, Cheik and the child set off north for Agadir in Niger.

This was where the agent sent them to meet the contact who would escort them to the coast in the north. It was a long and dangerous journey and disaster struck on the way. The convoy of vehicles was attacked by Islamic militants and their daughter was killed by a stray bullet. Cheik developed dysentery and was wracked with pain. They had to stop many times. Despite being told not to stray from the road, he had to make frequent visits into the bush when the cramps came. On one such trip, he stood on an anti-personnel mine. He was thrown several feet in the air and his left leg was obliterated from the knee.

The traffickers treated his wound the best they could and loaded him into a pick up. Caaisho was devastated by this double blow. However things were about to get worse. When they arrived in Agadir they discovered that the Frenchman had been arrested by the Malian authorities. Her daughters had been returned to Bamako and the eldest had died in an orphanage. She had no choice but to return home, leaving her husband in a UN hospital in Agadir.

Caaisho’s life had become a living hell. Two daughters lost and a husband with life changing injuries. What had she done to deserve this? She managed to recover the girls and head back north. Without the protection of her husband, Caaisho and the girls were under constant threat of violence and sexual abuse.

In a change of fortune, the wife of the arrested Frenchman arrived in Agadir. The French government had intervened and she was able to offer safe passage to the depleted Warsame family. Two weeks later, they arrived in Morlaix in Northern France. Their saviour’s name was Christine. She found them an apartment in north East Paris. It was cold and cramped but they were finally safe.

Unfortunately, Cheik became depressed at his new environment and inactivity. All he did was eat, sleep and take his frustration out on his wife, both physically and sexually. Eventually, Caaisho gave birth to twins. This coincided with a change in her husband’s moods. He believed that the twin girls were a gift to replace his two lost daughters.

There was a new calm and harmony to the family. Caaisho got to know the strange old doctor who lived on the top floor and had a surgery on the ground floor. The old man arranged to have a new leg fitted for Cheik so that he could go out to work, tending the gardens in the nearby Parc des Buttes Chaumont. Relations were not always rosy with the doctor, however, as he strongly opposed the impending procedure on the twin girls, saying it was illegal in France and cruel. She would deal with that problem when it occurred, she decided.

One morning, Caaisho’s world was blown apart. She woke to find that Cheik had not come to bed. Rushing to the lounge, she discovered her husband slumped on his favourite chair. The TV was still on, and he’d removed his leg. As much as she tried, she couldn’t wake him. Dashing out of the apartment, she dragged her huge frame up the two flights of stairs, screaming hysterically. Residents of the block began to appear on the landing. She pounded on the door of the doctor’s flat for what seemed an age, until, eventually, it opened.

Chapter Eight: The Surgery

Lucien straightened and tightened the brown woollen tie and fastened the yellow checked waistcoat over his small paunch. He pulled on his Harris Tweed jacket and stared into the mirror. It seemed an age since he’d reached over and turned off the alarm, yet he had the rest of the day to endure. The empire carriage clock below his reflection chimed nine a. m. Time for surgery to begin. He shuddered, trying to alleviate the electric tingling sensation of stress that flowed through his body.

For the third time that day he closed the door on his apartment and descended the stairs to the surgery below. Entering the waiting room, he was greeted by the raised faces of his morning patients. Usually he could predict their identities down to the last one, depending on the day of the week. However the ranks of the erstwhile unwell were swollen by several residents of the block. Trauma related, he suspected. Although Lucien had seen hundreds, or maybe a thousand corpses in his long medical career, he appreciated that it was a rare occurrence for the average person.

Nevertheless, his own desensitisation was blunted, on this occasion, by the demise of his friend and neighbour. In two years the giant Malian had endeared himself to the doctor. Lucien was aware of the life he and his family had led and a terrible journey they had endured to be here; a place where his fellow countrymen took everything for granted.

He recalled times when Cheik would bring him flowers for his flat or herbs from the garden to enhance his cooking. He grew each in the giant gardens nearby, where he’d managed to find work. After years of being a grease monkey, the transition to all things green seemed to bring him an inner calm. He would miss the big man.

The tragic events for the morning distracted him, notwithstanding the fact that the undertaker was yet to arrive and address his logistical challenge. He sensed a dozen pair of eyes following him through the outer area, to his consulting room.

Closing the door behind him, he pressed his body against it and tilted his head back, standing motionless for several seconds. He pushed himself away from the door and took a seat behind his desk, rubbing his face vigorously with both hands. Lucien placed them, palms down on the worn leather top of the desk, and took several deep breaths. He tried to concentrate without success at the room full of ailments awaiting him. The doctor felt like a jigsaw puzzle that had been dropped on the floor.

He was startled by an insistent rapping on the door. Collecting the pieces together, he put them in the box and replaced the lid. The knock was familiar: it was Raymond Cournoir.

“Come in!” He shouted, his voice frail and cracking with the weight of the day. Another knock, louder. Lucien’s fists clenched on the desk.

“Come-in, Raymond!” He rasped, thumping his fist on the soft leather. The door opened and the wizened old Parisian shuffled in, taking the seat opposite Lucien.

“Good morning doctor.” The old man’s smile was as false as his greeting, a mile away from the scowl of the vicious imp who’d disrespected Cheik’s death.

“Good morning Raymond. What can I do for you today?” The words squeezed from his mouth like dry toothpaste from a neglected tube. He wanted to shake the crone until every one of his hollow, uncaring bones was dust.

“It’s not what you can do for me Lucian it’s what I can do for you.” The man’s words assumed that of pity: equally as counterfeit as their predecessors.

“I’m sorry Raymond you don’t understand. We have a busy morning, as you well know” Rage began to boil up from deep in his stomach where the stone grew large.

“No Lucien it’s you who doesn’t understand; who doesn’t see the nose in front of his face. It’s time to call it a day , stop carrying me and these sad people. Your time is up that Indian Ocean island is waiting for you.” Suddenly the old man’s expression softened. Lucien felt the backs of his eyes prickle and his nose began to pinch. Tears would follow if he did not get rid of this harbinger of the truth.

He was just about to get up and escort the old man out of the surgery when the door flung open. Standing in the doorway, with a face the colour of morello cherries, stood another neighbour. The thin drawn features and mousy hair were those of single mother Anna de Marisy.

“Lucien! How could you? She’s only fifteen! What were you thinking of?” She glared down at Raymond, who was savouring this interruption. “And what are you staring at you old warlock!” The old man recoiled, as if he’d been slapped hard, and scuttled out of the room. He slammed the door behind him, shutting out the curious crowd.

“Anna please, take a seat. I can explain.” Only he couldn’t.

Chapter Nine: Anna

Jean Louis de Marisy married his childhood sweetheart Anna Beauchamp, in the year of the new millennium. Amongst the joy and optimism of a fresh era, the couple set up home in Pontoise district, northwest of Paris, in the Val d’ Oise. The sterile modern environment, far from their upbringing in the centre of Paris, was ideal for raising a new family.

One year later, the couple welcomed Alain to their world, followed in a further 12 months by Emily. For ten years, la famille nucléaire française, existed in the epitome of perfection, becoming an integral part of the thriving suburban community.

Alas, following the stillbirth of her third child, Anna’s world began to implode. Her ability to carry out the most basic of tasks, became impossible. She failed to return to the position of deputy head at the town’s Middle School, following a diagnosis of postnatal depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Every aspect of their previously idyllic life collapsed one by one, like a row of dominos. The absence of the glue that  Anna represented, caused the family to dissolve and disperse into a random collection of individuals.

Jean Louis focused on his job as a train driver, by excluding every aspect of his new chaotic existence. He ate in the staff canteen, and slept in the vacant annex of their smart, suburban home. Alain locked himself away, only surfacing to attend school. He began to dress strangely and steal makeup from his mother and sibling. Emily’s torment was exacerbated by the onset of puberty and her clothing began to get more scant. Boys started hanging around the house like stray dogs.

The annex was listed under Gîtes de France, as a holiday let and, as such, the income dried up with Jean Louis’s occupation. In addition to this, Anna’s salary disappeared and soon financial problems added to their woes.

Another catastrophe brought the situation to a head, when Jean Louis was hit by a speeding food delivery driver on an electric cycle, on the Quai Voltaire. He died of his injuries three days later. Effectively, the family’s income disappeared overnight.

Anna and the children, now thirteen  and fifteen, were evicted from their home when the bank foreclosed on the unpaid mortgage.

A post mortem carried out on Jean Louis revealed that he had four times the drink drive limit of alcohol in his blood. This was a mystery to Anna whose husband had previously been tee-total; the fact was borne out by the healthy test records filed in the Paris RER train company’s human resources department.

Nevertheless, Anna lost all entitlement to his pension, and no compensation was forthcoming for the accident. Broke and heavily reliant on medication, Anna moved her family into the Chateau Rouge district of Paris, where she’d grown up. However, things had changed significantly since the millennium. She was forced to take three jobs, cleaning for residents across the river, on the affluent left bank.

Anna’s children enrolled into the local school, the Lycée Professional Edmond Rostandnot. Not the most ideal of environments for two vulnerable, traumatised teenagers. The school was a boiling broth of the offspring of post-colonial immigrants, and impoverished locals. The environment infected the exposed wounds of the children, each at a crucial stage of development.

The apartment block in which they lived had seen better days, many years previously. It was now run down and occupied by a ramshackle collection of folks in a similar position to the single mother. There was however one exception; the General Practitioner who occupied the apartment on the top floor and held his surgeries on the ground floor. The ageing doctor was a source of comfort for the young woman and her two children. Over the ensuing three years, he succeeded in weaning Anna off the drugs. She managed to secure a position as head of year in the local Middle School. This meant less hours and more time for her family.

However, behind the scenes, the two teenagers were experiencing their own problems which they took to the doctor. Alain was struggling with his sexual identity and his sister had taken up with a boy six years her senior. Each brought fresh challenges for the under pressure medic who had to conceal these problems from the children’s mother. The doctor investigated the opportunity of counselling for Alain, which saw him apply for gender reassignment surgery. As for the girl, he prescribed the birth control pill. She looked several years older than her fifteen and was awash with hormones. He had seen too many such girls bring unwanted babies into the world.

It was chores day, and Anna was emptying the bin in her daughter’s bedroom when she spotted a small blister pack. The familiar appearance, of days written on the rear of the empty packaging, stunned the woman. She frantically began searching through the child’s drawers and cupboards. Eventually, she found the box and her worst fears were recognised.

The label on the box froze the blood in her already chilled veins. She had been betrayed by the one person she’d trusted in the world. The words read Dr Lucien Muersac. Anna gripped the box tightly, crushing it in her thin, delicate fingers. She dashed out of the apartment and down the stairs. Bursting into the waiting room, she ignored the glares and muttered protests and swung open the surgery door.

Chapter Ten: The Explanation

God knows, Lucien had experienced some bad days in the last forty years. Days when he wished that the Earth could swallow him up. No death, painful all otherwise; no funeral and no wake. Just a slit in the ground that he could nonchalantly step into, taking him to wonderful oblivion.

Today, however, was different. This tortuous obstacle course of a day had hardly begun and yet it stretched ahead of him like no man’s land on the Somme. He had already lost one friend and neighbour, and had been lectured by an 84 year old fascist. Now, what stood before him, was a delicate flower he’d spent four years nursing back to mental and physical health.

Staring into Anna’s puce face, he saw the vulnerable wreck that had turned up on his doorstep with two broken children in tow. As she’d slowly improved, her offspring had gone in the opposite direction thanks to the environment in which she’d introduced them. It had been Lucien’s job to balance the scales of this unstable family and today they had finally collapsed.

Anna glared at the doctor but it wasn’t her face he was looking at. The woman’s hands, one clutching a small white box, were shaking violently like those of an addict without a fix.

“Well I’m waiting, what have you got to say for yourself?” She yelled, waving the box and engulfing him in a shower of spittle.

“Anna, I’m sorry. I think it’s about time I explained about both, but I have a full surgery. Come we talk later?” As the words left his mouth Lucien realised by the look on her face; which he now took in with all its devastating glory, what he had just done.

“Both? What do you mean both? Don’t tell me you’ve been treating Alain as well!” she had lost all self-control and raised her hands as if to strike Lucien. Several large gobs of saliva left her mouth, one landing on medics forehead the other on the lapel of his jacket. Unconsciously, Lucien wiped them away with his hand. Anna noticed this and suddenly seemed to realise her predicament. 

He looked on as the anger slowly drained from the woman. It was as if she’d been dropped naked into the middle of a crowded football stadium.

She glanced around anxiously; first through the open door at the curious crowd, then back to the diminutive figure of her GP. 

Her hands blindly felt for the chair that Raymond hard vacated, and she slipped back into it, bowing her head and placing it into her open hands. The sobs emanating from this poor curled up creature were like nothing Lucien had heard before. He watched with horror as four years of treatment unravelled before his eyes. He glanced down at the Hanowa wrist watch his mother had bought him as a newly qualified graduate of medicine.

Nine fifteen…

The day lay ahead of him like the slowest form of torture. Lucien couldn’t contemplate enduring the rest of this torment. Never before had he wanted to just get up from his chair and walk into the busy street: into the path of whatever vehicle was passing at that moment.

Nevertheless, he was dragged back to excruciating reality by the actions of the young woman. Anna lifted her head and gave the doctor the tiniest of smiles. She then got up from the chair and faced him.

“Later,” she growled, holding the faint trace of that grin. Behind it was pure tragedy. Then, slowly, she walked out of the room. Raising her arms, she stopped in the middle of the outer room, turned back to Lucien and said one more word.

“Next!”

With that, she marched off into the hallway emitting a laugh that relegated her previous wails to the second division of audible horror. Lucien got up and before the next patient could enter he slowly closed the door.

“I’ll be with you shortly,” he said through the narrowing gap between door and frame.

Then silence.

Returning to the desk, he folded his arms on the leather top and gently lay his head on them. He allowed the deep sadness to inundate him like a drowning man in a vast ocean, with no hope of rescue. He assumed this position for what seemed like an age, the tears cleansing him of his vast melancholy. Then, he sat up, took a deep breath, and wiped his face with his handkerchief. Lucien checked his watch.

Nine twenty.

It was going to be the longest of days. His whole body jumped at the knock on the door, and he remembered the room full of people on the other side of the thin wooden membrane

“Come in,” he called. This time with more assertion. The door swung open and there, filling every square centimetre of the frame stood the colossus that was Abdulaye Haidara. He was followed by his constant companion, the sickly sweet aroma of marijuana. Dragging the baseball cap from his shiny, bald, black head, he spoke. His voice rumbled like the sound of the passing metro trains many metres below the surgery.

“Good morning Doctor Lucien. I have a problem.”

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