Cane paid for his perfume. He’d never done that before. The tight-bodied bitch who ran the counter had eyed him considerably while he perused her store.
‘I wondered why I was getting such good service,’ his mother said, out on the Grand Boulevard de Montesquieu. ‘But now I see. It certainly wasn’t my business she was after.’
But Cane daydreamed he’d take this perfume back to the French girl and stand there over the counter. He’d pretend it wasn’t quite right. She’d look askance once. Making pretence for her elbow, he’d reach out. Would she wince?
He’d take her to drink little coffees, nip at petit beurre biscuits, just soft after being dunked in the sugary black brew. After, they’d pop shewinggommes into their mouths as though this prelude to intimacy wasn’t happening. They’d walk under the lamps of Rue de Strasbourg, where the hotels were commonly-priced; he’d take her up the winding stairs, and he’d have his way with her after the cheap fashion of such things.
This never happened.
In reality, Cane would take the perfume home and his mother would snap at something and then he’d leave quietly to drink alone in the taverne that quoted the whole of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat on its ceiling. Perfume was a loaded word for him.
Demitrious, his barman, the man he dreamed would one day play Alfred to his Bruce Wayne, was there in inimitable style: reserved, ascetic, black waistcoat and bowtie and a workingman’s rolled sleeves.
‘Tell me about diamonds, Dimiko,’ he liked to say.
‘My father,’ Demitrious would say, with a light laugh, shaking his grey head, ‘We face the bankruptcy on our island of Konstantinoupoleos. He go see the Jews; they say: “Go to West Africa, man; bring back a diamond the size of that cannette de coca. It’s waiting for you.” They gave him address of port authority in Liberia. What choice for my Papa? The C.I.A. ruined him when they first come to us in the seventies.’
‘What did your fine daddy say to the Jews, Dimik? Go on, tell it!’ Cane would laugh aloud, smacking the bar with the meat of his palm.
‘He said: ‘No, I give you an address in East Africa. You bring diamond to me and I give you one million dollar. Or, you give me one million dollar now, and I get that cocacola diamond for you. But first you pay; then I work. Not the other way.’
But Demitrious would gather the seltzer and smile ruefully and shake his head. There were the faded tattoos of a merchant marines’ whorehouse on his forearm.
‘We went to work, started again in Bruxelle, the whole family, again. From nothing. Not-A-Ting, I promise you, haha! Goodbye papa, your mathematics boychick is barman!’
‘Goddamned Demo,’ Cane would say, as though enjoying a song, sometimes getting up if the juice had hit, and dancing a little with snapped fingers.
Demitrious would laugh too, the great belly laughter of a boss.
Then once, six years into this routine, Cane looked up at the ceiling of Demitrious’s bar.
Le Bateau Ivre, the poem he’d copied out fifteen years earlier when the flush of youth was still on him like a blushing girl, was painted above in stylised font. Those years ago when Cane had studied with Richard H. Dun (Dick Dunny, he called him) on a Mediterranean island with the Erasmus Mundus prepsters, though Dunny and Cane were Canadian-born.
On that island Cane and Dunny went to classes and ran scams together. Once they’d adjudicated a local beauty contest for the island’s Catholic virgins. Another time they’d disqualified a local wine called Lachryma Vitis, Tears of the Vine, from its place as the winner for its ‘acrid, chalky and acidic hue.’ Dunny even wore a silk scarf for that one.
‘Sure sign you like anal fisting, in some circles,’ he’d said, with an elaborate wink.
But Cane, who was not as carefully nonchalant as his brother-in-arms, had fallen in love. Before he left for the Christmas vacation to his pension on the North Sea, he’d copied out the sixth stanza of Rimbaud’s poem into a simple card, in French, and on the other side, English, and left it signatureless in her pigeonhole. When he came back, just in time for the New Year’s celebration, they’d be lovers. Rimbaud’s drunken boat had given rise to his hope, and he’d never seen the poem again until some eleven years later in Demitrious’s bar.
A timeless Abrahamic beauty, this Armenian virgin from Yerevan, with the curled ruddy tresses of a brassy sculpture, had been raised on the sunny cold lowlands at the base of Mount Ararat, on the plains before the Turkish border, where the barbed-wire men with assault rifles and moustaches shot you Russian-dead if you neared the DMZ. Hitler had been wrong: everyone remembered the Armenians.
Her name was Yana and she had the hooked Scimitar nose of a long-ago beauty. He often thought in later years that it was distinctly sexual and heat-seeking. Her nostrils pricked like a colt’s at the smell of the sex act. A two-year piece of horseflesh about to be raced for the first time. That’s what she was, his Yana.
That youthful New Year’s Eve on the island they’d stood far out on St. Julian’s rocky let, far past the oily clubs and the fast-foods, the nightlife gone and just the night now. The stars above and the night sea masticating God’s shoreline like an old man gumming a bone.
Yana had moved in close and smelled him and said that his ‘perfume’ left her weak-kneed.
‘Cologne,’ he’d said then, immediately wishing he hadn’t. ‘A man wears cologne.’
He hadn’t known then that you could give your words to a girl by the sea only to find them years later on a ceiling in a place where the mirrors were always behind the next door you opened. Mirrors that when you lay down you looked up at yourself and saw something else entirely.