Read Good Hope Road: A Novel Online

Authors: Sarita Mandanna

Good Hope Road: A Novel (51 page)

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
8.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Drôle de guerre
all through winter, and the spring.

Truth be told, I never seen the jest in it. Sure I tried to shrug it off like most others done, but I known all along. I been feelin’ the war from the start, a hot, dry wind stirrin’ the leaves. I be hearin’ its tread, in the thin light between wakin’ and sleep, be seein’ its skeleton shadow among the audience as they clap and holler and call ‘
!’ How many years in Paris now? I been back a couple of times to America, when the old hankerings taken over. Followin’ the music trail in Harlem, goin’ down South, wanderin’ ’bout as my fancy taken me, but things there, they ain’t changed all that much, not for folks like me, and each time, I just turned around and moseyed on back to Paris once more. How many years now? I stare at the stage, tryin’ to work it out in my head. Nineteen? Twenty? Ain’t never been too good with numbers. Many years, enough for the stubble to come out white each mornin’, for a stiffness to set into my fingers and knees, a creakin’ and crackin’ in them that weren’t ever there before. A long time, a lifetime, in these up-and-down streets of Montmartre, claimin’ this itty bit of Paris for my own.

A sudden hush fall over the room, breakin’ into my thoughts. The band finish settin’ up on stage and Django walk to his chair in that grace-filled, don’t-care-none style he got. He pluck casual like at his guitar. The A string, a low E. The audience clap. He look up briefly, at nobody particular, a quiet, knowin’ sort of smile on his face as he start to play.

Django Reinhardt one of the few musicianers still left in Montmartre. Most others gone, headed for America, leavin’ for Spain, Lisbon, London, even, anyplace away from the war that now be beatin’ on the doors of Paris. ‘
Drôle de guerre
’ they said, but I known better. It been whisperin’ in my ear from the start. Like a thing woken from winter rest, with the first flowers of May, from among them quiet, grass-covered graves, the war risen again in blooded hunger. Not three weeks and Belgium fallen, the Allies beaten back to Dunkirk, the Boche surroundin’ Amiens and Arras like they did once before.

Paris a changed city since. Shutters on shops, restaurants closed, thousands fleein’ to safety. Saint Germain gone quiet, Pigalle deserted, Montmartre an empty shell.
Drôle de guerre
, they call it, all through the winter and the spring, but there been nothin’ phony ’bout this war. I seen it waitin’ in the shadows, felt its fire eyes in my sleep. I known from the start, in the hurts that started up again, in these old, old wounds, opened and leakin’ once more.

Django play on, smilin’ that small smile. The strings he pluck be the same as on any other guitar – simple A and D and G – but in his fingers they turn magic. The notes be liquid, fallin’ like rain. The melody a river, a broad, rushin’ river with hidden depths and secret ripples, and in its waters lie the stories of all our lives. The Government, they done retreated from Paris this mornin’, they gone and left the city to the Boche. Better occupation than bombin’, better a fallen city than one lost for ever to rubble and dust. This city be forsaken, our Paris surrendered to the Boche, and Django, he pick at the hard knot of pain in our hearts, layin’ it open with his playin’.

Music, such music flowin’ over the room, gatherin’ up all manner of thoughts and things unspoken, things a man ain’t even realised been lyin’ inside of him until he hears it mid-chord. It wash over the silent audience, deep into me. Tellin’ the things I ain’t got no words for, sweepin’ up all that be lyin’ broke and splintered, things I tried so hard to forget, bringin’ them together once more. I hear it again, the roar of war, but it from all those years ago. Here – the tread of marchin’ boots. We young, we strong.
Vive La Legion
La Legion
la Legion
, we brothers marchin’ along a road touched with gold.

I turn blindly, stumblin’ in the dark as I make my way from the club. The music follow me outside as the door swing shut; even after it fade from hearin’, I feel it swellin’ inside. Brown silk water, of riff and arpeggio. Storm river, haint river, filled with all the glory and sadness of the world.

The streets lie quiet, so empty. Paris under blackout once more. The streetlamps painted a dark blue so it harder for attackin’ aircraft to see them, their wartime light throwin’ strange shadows into the night. A dog sniff at a stoop. The buildin’ all dark; ain’t no doorman to shoo away the dog tonight. It look up cautious like at my approach, give a small wag of its tail. Doorway after doorway, all lyin’ silent, windows painted over or draped in heavy black. Some gone and taped strips of paper over theirs, crisscrossin’ this way and that, all over, so the glass don’t shatter too badly in a bombin’.

Most Americans gone too – Gene Bullard, Bricktop, the Baker girl, all the bands, the singers and dancers, bouncers and bartenders, all upped and left before the Boche get here. ‘You ain’t leavin’?’ they asked me, surprised, and I grinned and made jokes ’bout being a comer, not a goer.

‘The Nazis ain’t colourblind,’ Gene warned. ‘Things ain’t going to be the same in Paris no more, going to get real ugly for us folks once they get here.’

Think I ain’t known that? The Boche this time, they ain’t just soldiers. They got Nazis among them, hatin’ on Jews and black folk and pretty much anythin’ that don’t look and sound like them. There been this exhibition in Dusseldorf couple years back. Real big affair I heard tell, on what the Nazis be callin’ ‘degenerate music’. All the dangerous, devil-spawn music that goin’ to take their culture right back to the dark ages if they ain’t careful.
Jungle music
, they call it, all the beautiful, soul-touchin’ jazz that be playin’ in Harlem hotspots all the way to Montmartre. Heathen jungle music, thought up by backward, degenerate folk.

The poster for that exhibition, it was a paintin’ of a man of blackest skin, with the face of an ape. A black monkey-man with native hoop-rings in his ears, ape lips curled ’bout the mouth of his saxophone and a Star of David on his chest.

music, they call it. I wonder what they goin’ to make of Django’s gypsy tunes.

One by one, most everybody gone, but this degenerate still here, waitin’ for what, I can’t clearly explain. As if . . . as if by stayin’, by tryin’ mule-headed like to hold on to this life I done built for myself here, a life around melody and beat, this world of music and song in the up-and-down streets of Montmartre, maybe this war, somehow it go away. It just go away, this phony war, this war of tomfoolery and jest. So I stay, but each day the sound of war grown louder, and it feel like the years done rolled back with its roar.

The call of the beast, just like I heard from behind prison bars at La Santé, all those years ago. Only this time, ain’t no thrill in the hearin’. This time I know better. I done fought the war to end all wars and there a deep, deep hurt in my bones.

There this piece I read in the
yesterday. Paris under siege again, it say, same as way back in 52 BC. Turns out that two thousand years ago, this Roman general named Labinius, he try to take Paris. His legions come along the Seine in nearabout the exact approach the Boche usin’ now. Two thousand years! I read that article, and damn if I don’t almost turn around to ask James, him what was always talkin’ of Romans and Vikings and such, just what he think of that. The past jumbled with the present, all mixed up in my head. I think of James, I ’member the way we marched once, like so many are marchin’ now. I know what lie ahead for them, and it bring a chokin’ to my throat.

Damned, devil-spawn war, bringin’ up all the old things, all the set-aside, buried things. Like river silt, they come pushin’ up once more.

I walk down these blue-lit streets, lookin’ at empty corners and barricaded walls. A man stand alone on the quay ahead, fishin’ in the half-light. He turn as I come closer and our eyes meet before he turn back to his line. He too be holdin’ on, I figure, hangin’ hard as he can to the life he known before. Who can tell what this day goin’ to bring, who knows what tomorrow hold. So here he stand, on this empty quay, before everythin’ change, a last time, fishin’ in the Seine.

Somewhere across them bridges, the Boche steady advancin’ there’s the smell of rain in the air.

I walk along the flowin’ river, and from the heart of this watchin’, waitin’ city, I start to hear her song. The song of Paris, a song of love, of war, the music spillin’ from Django’s guitar.

A thin light breakin’ in the east, and faces in the mist along the Seine. Karan, Gaillard – Brother Strong Heart Mighty Oak, the Captain. I see them in the chords, feel them in the music; James, he look up from his book and smile. I hear it now, the bass note, I hear the distant call. All that I been turnin’ away from all these years, come alive now with the war.

I keep movin’, one foot after the other. There’s a feather-tail of black smoke risin’ into the sky across the river, like smut against the grey. I ain’t got no more to say, got no more fight left in me. I’m just followin’ the music, lettin’ the chords lead me home.

Music, it be a road. Ain’t no tellin’ where it begun, ain’t nobody can say how it goin’ to end, but once it get hold of a man, ain’t nothin’ he can do but follow it along. And sometimes, maybe sometimes, for it to move ahead at all, the music, it got to go way back, windin’ back on itself.

The music, it be a road.


August 1916

hich one of us seen the mirror first? When I think back on that mornin’ now, I ain’t none too sure. Maybe it were me? Or was it James? Maybe we seen it together – I don’t ’member clearly, ’cept I looked up and he was starin’ at it too.

It was real late by the time we reached the village the night previous. We been a long time on the road, so tired that the
fallen dead asleep on every ten-minute break we taken on the march. Hell of a thin’ to wake them too, with some near sleepwalkin’ even after. Me, I ain’t slept. Ain’t been sleepin’ too much at all, not since Champagne. My eyes feel like they stuffed with sand, all gritty and burnin’.

We march through the empty streets, the sound of them hobnailed boots loud against the stones. A dog bark somewhere in the dark, stop. The village is empty. Shellin’ turned real bad in this sector, and all civilians have been moved out in a hurry.

We passed them on the march here. Old men. Children. Women. The rich ones ridin’ in hay carts, but most on foot, pushin’ handcarts, the sort used in gardens and such, stained orange with rust. Hoistin’ on shoulders and backs the few things they got. A loaf of bread, a wheel of cheese, one a ham, tied in string.

Some of the chers quietly weepin’, others got faces blank and hard as stone. Sets me on edge to see the ones who cryin’. I’m suddenly angry – ‘Ain’t no room for tears,’ I want to tell them, ‘
C’est la guerre
,’ it the war, just the war and what cryin’ or feelin’s got to do with any of it? It only when pain shoots through my fingers that I realise how tight I’m holdin’ my rifle. I loosen my grip, easin’ the skinned knuckles still sore from the most recent brawlin’.

A few of the folks, they nod weary like at us but most just shuffle by in silence. Ain’t nobody cheerin’ us on, and for this at least, I’m thankful. The war, it gone on too long for no cheerin’ or clappin’, taken too much already from both soldier and civilian.

There’s a shift in their column, and my shoulders go tight. Only a woman, steppin’ off to the side of the road. Her stomach hang round with child; she set a hand down in the dust to steady herself as she try to squat. She stare straight ahead, no expression in her eyes, as if she ain’t here at all, like it got nothin’ to do with her, the pool slowly spreadin’ from under her skirts and darkenin’ the dust.

We keep goin’, James a little ahead and to my left. We ain’t talkin’ much, him and I. Things ain’t sat quite right between us for a while now. Gaillard, that wounded Boche officer I gone and shot . . . I was sure that James goin’ to report me back then, seein’ how particular he be ’bout everythin’. He don’t, and it shame me even more, make me bitter angry. We ain’t spoken of that night since, and our silence, it stretch between us.

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
8.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Force of Love by E. L. Todd
Mortals by Norman Rush
Mother by Tamara Thorne, Alistair Cross
A Whole New Light by Julia Devlin
Silent Warrior by Lindsey Piper
Just The Thought Of You by Brandon, Emily
Dead End by Leigh Russell