from “The Fourth Take”

As he was hastily and wearily glancing through the window at Gare du Nord, Michel felt as if he recalled Christophe's face at least twice a minute. Christophe's face was big and long, slow and thoughtful; but above all it was pale, pale as if Brussels had suddenly leaned inside through the window and spread all the fog from its bosom along his features. They were sitting in Christophe's flat somewhere in the vicinity of the Southern railway station. Christophe's mouth was wide and oblong. He was opening it. Christophe was talking. He was always talking in Michel's memory, and every time it was his face that turned up first. Christophe, talking. Arranging phonemes into strongly stressed words. Words into sentences. Short, prompt sentences. Christophe, gesturing with his lips. As if someone had turned off the sound without knowing. Only seconds, moments later, the sound broke into the image.

The good thing about this whole business is that every time can be the last one, said Christophe. He always said it first. Sometimes last too. Sometimes it was all he said. It depended on where Michel was and what was going on around him. Not that much on that he didn't feel like thinking. In fact, there wasn't much thinking involved. Christophe's words came by themselves, they invaded the space behind his eyes and spawned like an unstoppable, dangerous virus. Every time can be the last one, Michel. Good, isn't it? Even better when it's up to you to decide. And not up to those who catch you. Christophe's face laughed. There might have been dimples in his cheeks. The bad thing - well, the bad thing is that you can get caught. But you don't get caught as a rule. In fact, it's not even too likely. All you need is a firm plan. And it's a damn simple thing. Christophe leaned closer through Michel's mind. He pushed away a cup of coffee sitting on the bare table in front of him. White Brussels fog was hanging behind his back. Michel could nearly smell it. Let's say that the odds of waking them are fifty per cent, Christophe's mouth went on. But they're not. They're not even this high. Twenty-five. At highest. A generous estimation. Bear in mind that people are tired, who knows where they have been hanging about with them rucksacks and all. And then, said the image of Christophe. And then. If they do wake up, your odds to beat it before anything dawns on them are at least sixty - no way, eighty per cent. Here's where all your advantage lies. A human being needs at least a few seconds to get conscious when he wakes up. You are wide-awake, of course. Like a rabbit. And at least as fast. Christophe rapped on the table with the rim of his hand. Pop - and you're gone. Get it? Of course you get it. Why am I telling you this?

Michel closed his eyes and tried to trace himself in the picture. Himself, listening. Looking into Christophe's face. Nodding hesitatingly. White fog was snapping between his eyelids and scrambling up his nostrils. Odds are totally slim, Christophe said. Negligible. They practically don't exist. OK, they do. But only if you repeat it many times. Hundred times or so. Then it can happen. Once. Twice. A perfect theory of probability. Christophe seemed to be laughing. Laughing was easy for Christophe. He never even thought before stretching his lips over his cheeks. Michel thought that it couldn't be all that simple. Laughter was a complicated matter, and people were taking it all too lightly. Christophe looked through the window. He cleared his throat. Brussels, he said. The capital of the Union. It's great to live in this hollow city, isn't it? To stare at diplomats carrying their putrescent facades around. Putrescent, yes. That's exactly what he said. Not decaying. Not rotten. Putrescent. Indeed he could remember every word. And all this safety, Christophe went on. This wonderful make-believe of safety. How come that nobody ever doubts it? How come? Come to think of it, we really couldn't find a better city to live in. We're so damn lucky, aren't we? Aren't we, Michel?

Down the hall resounded a hoarse, burnished call of someone gasping under a heavy backpack. Michel winced. Christophe's voice went silent and his image was covered by colours and shapes of the interior of a second class compartment. Michel cast a brief glance at the hall. He almost expected the fog to invade from there, having escaped from his memory and burst out, into a heated August evening lazing about the ground of Paris. Brussels, fog. Paris, smog-wrapped sun. He was early. Of course he was early. He could hardly wait for the train, darting inside as soon the nearest door opened. He needed room. He had to have it. It was the first step. Be alone. Alone. Be with nobody. The steps of whoever the voice belonged to thumped past his door, dispersing into the back of the hall. Michel sighed with relief. I don't want anybody in here. Please. The air behind the window was yellow, and the glass dammed movements and noises from the other side. Inside it was serene. Almost idyllic. Christophe's face twinkled in the air behind the luggage rack, its pieces oozing back into the close-up. Michel narrowed his eyes and waited for the voice. Brussels, Christophe said. A name you'll never find mentioned as a place where caution is recommended. Rome, Milan, Amsterdam - yes. This is where everybody's holding on to their wallets, shivering at the sight of lurking natives. But Brussels - p-lease. Christophe flattened his voice to an official, stilted tone of a reporter on the national TV. Brussels. Come on. This is where politics is. This is where the great, bright Europe is. You won't say you doubt it? Christophe burst into a short, angular laughter. Michel ventured a smile in his mind. Christophe got serious. I'm telling you, he said. I'm telling you. It's all true. People believe it as if it was the only truth in the world. If they as much as feel that nobody makes any fuss in the streets, you've immediately got them walking around with open bags and unbuttoned coats. This race is incredible. In-cre-di-ble. Christophe's voice acquired a greyish, tough nuance. Michel thought he could say something; that he was expected to say something. But he kept nodding. It seemed. He was used to nodding; with a slow, balanced movement learnt from countless situations when this was the easiest way.

The doors in the hall were smacking open and closed. Densely scattered steps were sliding over the floor, varicoloured voices babbling on. Michel glanced at the clock which dictated an impending departure. Nobody came in. Not yet. As if there was a universal, unspoken agreement about him being untouchable. The most important thing is to be alone, said Christophe as he took him along for the first time. Tell them you're waiting for friends, tell them you've got AIDS, tell them anything. As long as they clear off. To stumble upon an insomniac who sees it all is a top catastrophe. You're left with nothing. All you can do is stare into the air, wishing for Brussels to come soon. And counting your loss as you go. Bleak, right.

The compartment door was thrust open. Michel turned frantically.

"Vacant?" asked a small gasping creature with a pair of round dark eyes. It had an Italian accent. At least it sounded like that.

"No," Michel said. He spread his arms as if in regret. "I'm waiting for my friends."

"Okay." The creature nodded, turned around and shouted a couple of prompt words. Then it closed the door.

Michel found his hands shaking. He looked at the wall in front of him, hoping against hope that the train was about to leave. Come on, he thought. Take off. Leave those who are running gasping through the station building, hoping they might still catch the train. Those coming with the sole intention of crowding his compartment. I'm on time, he thought. And you're not. It's not fair.

The minute hand was hanging on the fifth scratch with all its weight. They should have departed. They should have departed indeed. Michel cursed French railways in his mind. Have you heard of Switzerland, you lazy asses? A minute's delay is a disaster. This is what I call developed. Not you. Clinging to the hand with his eyes he eavesdropped with one ear. The sounds were dying down. High time, Michel shouted in his mind. High time. A light beckoned somewhere in the distance. The train moved.

Michel waited for another few seconds for the steps to die down in the hall. Then he fell back on his seat and gasped with relief. He knew it was over. They weren't coming. There was no danger. He took cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt and lit up. Mind what you wear, Christophe would say. It's crucial to keep up appearances. Wear frayed jeans and they'll all point their fingers at you. Be all dressed up and nobody will doubt. Silly world, isn't it? Michel nodded in his mind and peeked at his leather shoes which rested shiny and clean on the floor. He might have been the only person in the whole train not wearing a pair of battered trainers or at least a sweaty T-shirt. Not that it was that important, but it was still an emergency exit. Nobody will see me, thought Michel. Hopefully. Hopefully. The train gained full speed, plunging peacefully and steadily into the night.

*

Michel stared at the darkness thoughtlessly, striving not to be drawn back to the state of painful alertness by the silence that prevailed. He tried not to remember that he had an intention. That he was not just an aimless, accidental tourist who went to see Paris out of simple interest. In fact he didn't know why anybody should find Paris interesting. He took Paris for granted, a huge rotting capital somewhere close, thinking like most of his fellow citizens that it was full of pretentious French and nothing more. Come to think of it, Europe itself wasn't much of a thing, at least its supposedly developed and organised part with disappearing borders which were rapidly turning it into a single country growing more monotonous each day. A country which never ceased to intrigue. Which intrigued practically everybody on this train. Including the foreign girl sitting opposite him carrying a cigarette to her mouth in regular slow intervals, thinking absent-eyed about who knows what. But it had to be like that after all. The more intriguing they found Europe the better. They made him be here. They provided an intention. An intention.

*

Christophe called it side earnings. Police called it petty crime. Needless to say, Christophe roared at this expression. Petty crime, he said, what on earth could that mean? Taking small things? Things shorter than half a metre-I don't know, narrower than ten centimetres? Is it still petty crime to nick a ten times ten plastic sheet from a garden? Is it? Christophe reached for the cigarette box sitting on the table between them. Now seriously, he said. If you steal a car it is not petty crime. If you steal a wallet it is petty crime. And it doesn't matter whether you've stolen one of five cars or the whole property. Is it fair? Christophe's voice rose to the half-hysteric tone. Say it - is it fair? Michel winced, shaking his head ardently. See, Christophe said and lit a cigarette. His voice calmed down to a tepid, resigned tone of an old man. So it goes. In this society. Some have it all and others have none.

*

Crime, said Michel rolling the word in his mouth as if it was a bite of something that might be poisonous. He clenched his teeth so that his gums tickled. Despite all, we're talking*Š crime. Christophe waved his hand. Come on, he said. Come on. We're no criminals, us. Our task is to warn the society there's something rotten in it. To make it realise it's eating itself from within. If there's something in it for us, so much for the better. Michel observed him slowly and reluctantly. Christophe smiled at him, encouragingly, like at a child who's afraid to wade into the water. No reason to worry, Michel, said Christophe. Are you afraid they'll get you? Is this it? He was watching him, long, for a second or two which spanned out towards eternity under his steep look. Michel remembered the feeling in detail, the panic search for the word, the one and the proper word which could exactly summarise everything bustling inside him and bluntly crashing against his brain. And the simultaneous awareness that there was no such word, that there never had been and that it may come but in long years, after all those periods he couldn't see the end of. If ever. Nonsense, Michel, said Christophe. I mean, this is really nonsense. I was scared too when I tried it first, I can't lie. But it only took another time to see it's simple like ABC. I told you-a plan. You need a plan. And we've got one, don't we? Michel shook his head. He said this was not what troubled him, that he was not afraid and that he knew what his chances were. Christophe smiled, in relief, as if he was proven not guilty after a long interrogation. It's a deal then, he said. Come over tomorrow so I can show you the details.

*

Details. A word typical of Christophe. Details were everything that didn't fall into the main category, the intention. They were means leading to a goal, the one and only goal, the one glittering through Christophe's being and voice like a unique, priceless token. Awakening. Awakening of the society. Which led to positive anarchy, as Christophe called the condition of the world's bliss. He didn't mention it many times, but when he did he sounded like a prophet. My mission will be completed when this fucking world is fair, he'd add sometimes. Michel never even attempted to think so broadly. Michel was merely there. He was a detail and seemed to be OK with it just as much as Christophe. A detail which can be dropped whenever he pleases. And which could re-enter anytime.

*

The afternoon Christophe and him did the first trip - that was a part of Christophe's terminology too - seemed so close he could almost touch it like a double windowpane in front of him. It was cold and humid, so typical that it felt as if November itself was enough to build an impenetrable wall between the Sun on one side and Brussels on the other. Christophe and him were pacing towards the cathedral more or less silently. Michel was afraid to meet an acquaintance who might ask him where he was going, or even invite him somewhere warm, for a beer. There wasn't a soul. Nobody was out in this weather except diplomats and tourists. Christophe noticed his uncertainty. Don't stare, he hissed in his ear. Pretend you're going somewhere. Pretend you're running some terribly important errand. Pretend you're not thinking about anything. Michel nodded sharply. They were walking towards Manneken Pis, the most overrated of all Belgium's sights, which, like any other day, gathered a crowd of Japanese tourists with their cameras pointed upwards. Michel had wondered before about how many tons of such pictures, perfectly identical, cluttered the already crowded Japanese homes. This time his mind was empty. He was indeed thinking of nothing at all. Christophe accelerated his pace and briefly bumped his hip against a thin middle-aged Japanese. Sorry, he said with a remorseful look as the man lowered his camera and looked at him. Crowds, you see. The Japanese flashed a trained smile immediately shifting his look back up. Michel followed Christophe down the street and then around the corner. It was two or three hundred metres further on that Christophe turned to him. So there, he said. Easy, isn't it? Michel sent him a wondering look. Have you - I mean, have you really? he asked. Christophe nodded. He smiled. Yes, he said. Simple, isn't it? The guy has pockets holding a gallon and wide as the Scheldt. His wallet, of course, in the right one. This rule never fails - and even if it did, you see straight away which pocket sags. Like on a sale. Someone has to do it, damnit! Michel was watching him, nodding hastily. Christophe walked on. As they entered a short, narrow street without any people he opened the wallet, pulled the money out and quickly examined it. Then he hastily flung the wallet in a dustbin. Seventeen hundred, he said. Average. Everybody's more or less on plastic these days. This job won't make you rich. You'll survive alright, but you'll never be rich. He laughed, and Michel winced instinctively turning his head to see if someone was watching. There was nobody. There was nobody in the whole wacky city to see them. He felt a short pang of relief. Now you, Christophe's voice said. Michel gaped as if he was proposed to fly to Mars just like that, on willpower alone. Christophe was smiling encouragingly. Come on, he said. We agreed. You see there's nothing to it, or though? Michel gave a prolonged nod. But we can't just go back, can we, he said. Somebody could recognise us. Christophe waved his hand. No way, he said. That's for amateurs. Kleptomaniacs. Rich uptown kids with full stomachs who steal out of sheer wantonness. So that some innocent immigrant can then take the flak. Fucking world. Christophe's face acquired an air of exalted seriousness like each time he came across an injustice. He was silent for a moment. We're going to another place, he said then. In front of the Parliament. Fantastic spot, you'll see. Hundreds of absent-minded diplomats with unzipped bags. An incredibly trusting population. Well, they can afford not to give a damn about money. The state refunds it, tenfold. From our money, dammit. He went silent again. After all, he said then, it can't do any harm if you start making changes at the top. They'll start thinking sooner or later. Right, Michel? Michel nodded automatically. Christophe turned around, nodded, and together they started walking back, towards the centre. Michel tried to calm down his heart which climbed higher, towards his throat, with every step. He was thinking about what would follow. Follow. How he'd stretch out on the sofa reading a good book. How he'd go to the bar and say hello to the lads in the evening. How he'd call Marianne who might be just bored enough to let him into her narrow rented bed. How he could still say no, decide against it, get out and let Christophe dismiss him with a disappointed sigh. It was ever so simple. Nevertheless he felt as if he was programmed, as if Christophe was holding a remote control in his hand pushing the buttons absently, without thinking. He couldn't leave. He had to make it through the task. It got warmer with every step, and as they approached the Parliament to a hundred metres his memory became hazy. A cloud sat there, dark and thick like ink, hot and sticky like porridge. There was nothing inside. Not a thing.

*

He remembered the woman only by her smell. Maybe that's why he never forgot it. She could have been old or young, attractive or the type you look at with some lame mercy before forgetting her. He didn't know a thing. She wore a bag, alright. With a zip undone. You didn't have to remember such things, they went without saying. He didn't touch her, at least he couldn't feel it. There was nothing between them, not even an awareness that his fingers instantly reached into the centre of one of her worlds. Just the smell, faint, fresh like a bunch of some lilies got stuck in his nostrils and escorted him through a dark narrow tunnel, to the end where Christophe's face blinked before him, grinning from ear to ear. Well done, mate, said Christophe. That was bloody professional. I can't believe it was your first time. You must be a natural talent. They were already walking on, through some obscure, unknown alleys. Christophe handed him two thousand francs and some small change. An ideal target, he said. You're lucky. Do this a couple of times a week and you'll be quite well off. Michel nodded. Of course. Again. He said he wasn't feeling well and that he wanted to go home. Christophe nodded sympathetically. Sure, off you go, he said. See you, right? Yes, said Michel. He dragged himself down the streets as if he'd never seen them before. Narrow and threatening they wiggled and opened in front of him while his nostrils were choking with the smell of lilies and his back pocket was burning with money, his side earnings, his petty crime. It can still be the last time, he thought. Last time. Last time. He spotted his reflection in the glass. It was nine months later and he was there.