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Authors: Sarita Mandanna

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BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
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The megaphone crackle to life again and the announcement of the fight echo round the velodrome. The crowd fall silent for a moment.

‘Go Moran!’ a man calls.

‘Jack!!!’ I holler in return. The couple seated in front, they turn round to look at me, frownin’, and I grin.

They go twenty rounds, and from what I see, it ain’t no match at all. Every now and then, Jack’s wife, she yell from the front row.

‘Go Daddy! Give it to him, pop!’

Someone should’ve told her to save her breath, ’cause the Giant, he don’t need no such encouragement at all. In fact, he make the match seem so easy that people start to complain.

‘Fake!’ they hiss, ‘fix!’

I know there nothin’ fake ’bout his win at all. This ain’t no fixed match. Moran, he try his hardest, but the Giant is just that good.

Moran don’t land even one of them Mary Ann punches. Each time he try, Jack just dance out his way, this way, then that. Round two, Jack land an uppercut in Moran’s face. It break the skin and the blood start from his nose. Round ten, another cut, this time below the eye. Round fifteen, Moran so tired, he nearabout holdin’ on to the Giant just to keep hisself on his feet. Five more rounds he lasts, and I tell you one thing – Moran, he got grit and he got stayin’ power. Full twenty rounds he go against the Galveston Giant, and ain’t many men who can say that.

Close to midnight when the match finally ends. The referee declares the Giant the winner, and I yell his name somethin’ hoarse. Jack Johnson just proved that he still the champ of the world! I race down the stairs that lead to the centre of the floor like a madman, not even noticin’ those too-tight shoes that been pinchin’ my toes all evenin’.

The ring awful crowded and the Giant just ’bout drowned in champagne. He surrounded by folks pumpin’ his hand, slappin’ him on the shoulder. I push my way to the ropes and I’m lookin’ up at him, wavin’ the hat to catch his eye and ’bout to call his name, when somethin’ ’bout his expression makes me pause.

There all this ruckus around him, so much laughter and talk and congratulation that Jack, he should be the happiest man alive. But there he stand, with the strangest look on his face. Tired, he look, worn out, and suddenly very old. It stop me cold. I just stand there, the hat in my hands, lookin’ up at him and at that deep tiredness in his face. Slowly placin’ my hat on my head, I turn and start to make my way out of there.

The exits are crowded and I guess I weren’t payin’ too much attention ’cause I never did see who it was that knocked the hat down. Could have been any one of them – the fellow walkin’ a blonde right behind me, the Americans to my side. The hat, it roll off my head and right into the feet of the crowd. I push my way down in my fine dandy clothes and all but it keep gettin’ caught under all those feet, and by the time I catch up to it, its brim is dented somethin’ awful. There’s a tear in that fine black fur, and a shoe print on the linin’.

I pick it up and dust it off the best I can, my heart damn near breakin’, ’cause that been one proud, beautiful hat and now it ruined.

Take me a long time to get to sleep that night. An awful long time, and when I do, I sleep right through the mornin’.

I wake to a right commotion in the corridor outside. When I ask, they tell me that the Duke of Sarajevo was shot a little while earlier.

I ain’t fully followed the how or why, but the German Kaiser, he go and declare war on Austria in return.

SIX

he afternoon sun is hot on my skin. Still, after nearabout a month in prison, it sure feel good. I lift my face to it, and it beat down on my closed eyelids with a sharp, white light that clear La Santé from my mind.

All these past weeks, I been coolin’ my heels in there, inside a stink-filled cell hardly tall enough to stand upright in, and crowded with three other men besides. Leanin’ against the peelin’ walls stained with mould and dried piss, dreamin’ of the chers I’m going to get with soon as I’m outta here. Brown-eyed dolls, the kind who smell real nice, with skin like warm honey silk. Most days I been dreamin’ of those girls, and in between, cussin’ out that skipper and his lyin’, weasel neck.

It was his doin’ that I ended up here in La Santé. Soon as that Serbian count was killed, Paris been struck with talk of war. Rumours spreadin’ wide, a treble riff cuttin’ right through the heart of the city. Jazz bars start to lie empty as all the tourists leave. Like rats from a troubled ship, ’cept these rats, they run fast as they can
towards
the ships, squeezin’ into every spot there is and payin’ triple, sometimes five times the regular price to get away before the Boche arrive. Instead of havin’ to pay wages, skippers suddenly gotten entire crews willin’ to work for free, just for a safe passage home.

When I mosey on over to the docks at Le Havre for my balance wages, the skipper say he owe me nothin’. What’s more, he say, cocky as anythin’, if I want to get back to Philly, I got to pay
him
proper.

‘I ain’t doin’ no such thing!’ I say heatedly, warnin’ that weasel that he’d better pay up if he know what good for him.

‘I’m jesting, is all,’ he protests, grinnin’ his oily grin. He make a big show of countin’ out part of my wages, sayin’ he need a few days more, to sort through the rest of the accounts. Why wait here at the docks when I could go back to Paris, he say. He can send the rest of the money and my papers to the landlady there.

Ain’t that much to do in Le Havre, and the money he put in my hand, it enough for a few days more of summer lovin’.
Laissez le bon temps rouler
! Fool that I am, I hotfoot it right back to Paris – a powerful good time I had that night too. The next mornin’, the police, they come bangin’ on the door, fussin’ to see my passport and other papers.

‘The skipper got them back in Le Havre,’ I tell them. The skipper the one who reported me to the police, they say. One thing lead to another and what with tensions already high with talk of war and enemy spies, and my not havin’ any sort of identification on me, I land behind bars in La Santé.

The way things work here in Paris, a man can be put in prison before even being charged. Most of July I spend locked up in La Santé, waitin’ my turn before the judge. All the while, talk of war keep spreadin’ outside, like jungle drums bein’ beaten, deep inside the city’s heart. I feel the bass notes of their warnings as I cool my heels in that stink hole, feel them rollin’ through the sewers, pushin’ up along the floors and walls. On Saturday 1 August, the warnings come true: mobilisation notices posted across Paris as Germany prepares to declare war on France.

At first, there’s dead silence at the news. Even from inside the prison, I feel the quiet, the thickness of it, coatin’ the city’s tongue. Paris been stricken dumb. The French, they didn’t ask for no war, they ain’t invaded no country or anythin’, but war been pushed upon them all the same. A shock-filled silence and then the city
explode
in sound. Bugles and trumpets, and the thrillin’ notes of the Marseillaise.


Allons
!
Enfants de la Patrie
,
le jour de gloire est arrive
!’

The French, they didn’t seek this war, but now that it at their doorstep, they gonna put up a fight. Motor cars and trucks crank up and down the roads outside the prison, soldiers march past to the sound of loud cheerin’ and there the clatter of horse hooves at all hours as the French cavalry rides off to war.


Vive La France
!’ The cry is taken up by voices across every arrondissement, as church bells ring out over the Seine. ‘
Vive La France
!
Vive l’Armée
!’

I raise up on to the balls of my feet, pressin’ my chin against the small windowsill to look outside, my fingers restlessly a-tappin’ on the bars of the window.

A right grand affair it look to be, the cheers of the crowd rattlin’ the walls of the prison and lightin’ a fire in my blood. Men bein’ requisitioned for the Front from around the country, we hear. Everyone between the ages of eighteen and forty-five been called up, not that folks be waitin’ for their official papers before linin’ up in front of the registration offices. Proper soldiers they goin’ to become, for as long as this war goes on, set up with full gear, shiny rifle and all. By all accounts, it shapin’ up to be one grand, slap-up fight and it got me hankerin’ somethin’ bad to be outta this cell, out there in the sunshine and in the middle of it all.

Some weeks later, when a captain from the French Foreign Legion visit La Santé, it feel to me like my first stroke of luck in a long time.

‘Prisoners held on minor charges are permitted to enrol in the Legion,’ he informs us.

If we volunteer to sign up for the length of the war, our offences will be pardoned. I know that I ain’t even had no trial yet, but this sound like a right sweet deal to my ears anyhow. Out of this stink hole into the real world once more. And how bad can the Front be? A couple months of ruckusin’ ’bout there, then back to Paris for the victory celebrations. I ask, cautious like, if folks like me can sign up, men of colour, and the Captain look surprised.

‘Yes, of course,’ he say.

My hand ’bout the first to shoot up in the air.

The Captain laugh. ‘Not so fast. Every recruit joinin’ the Legion is given a day to change his mind,’ he explain. The same rules goin’ to apply to us; he gonna be back tomorrow with a doctor for the physical examination. I can’t hardly wait, countin’ down the hours. The next day, he return. The doctor turn away quite a few, one man for no more reason than his rotted-down teeth. When it my turn, I send up silent thanks to my mammy and pappy for the pearly whites they passed down to me and open my mouth wide.

I pass the physical easy, and that how me and a few others come to be soakin’ up the sun outside the main gate of the prison. We waitin’ for Gaillard, the legionnaire sent to escort us to the headquarters of the Legion at the Hotel des Invalides, to finish his cigarette. The sun, it’s hot alright, and I look curiously at him as I roll my sleeves higher.

He sit on the wooden bench screwed into the brown brick wall of the prison, hardly even lookin’ at us as he smoke. Real comfortable in this heat, in a jacket that’s fully buttoned, even the collar, the crease in his red trousers as sharp as if he just put them on. He got a few years on me, somewhere in his late thirties I figure, not too tall and real thick through the chest, with arms that bulge under his jacket. He got a tattoo on his bull-like neck; the sun and years have faded the writin’ to near the same blue of his collar.


Legio Patria Nostra
,’ it say, around a drawin’ of two guns and a thorned rose. The Legion is our Fatherland.

Puttin’ out his cigarette, he adjust his cap and look us up and down, as if noticin’ us for the first time. ‘
Le meilleur de La Santé
,’ he say, dry like. The crème de la crème of La Santé.


Comment avez-vous rejoint la Légion
?’ I ask, interested.

He glare at me with narrowed eyes. ‘
Merde
!’ he snap. ‘You never ever ask anyone in the Legion when and how he signed up.
Never
. Not even a man who may have joined before he was fully grown. Maybe because he had to get away from his village because all the girls, even the richest, the prettiest of them – ’ he make melon shapes with his hands – ‘fell madly in love with him. All of them, at the same time, makin’ his life a livin’ hell – “pick me, choose me” – until there was nothin’ to do but run away, as fast as he could, and join the Legion.


Non
,’ he continue, ‘you
never
ask anyone why they joined. Once you’re in the Legion, all your past is forgotten.’ He sweep his hands out wide, the buttons on his jacket shinin’ like gold. ‘Gone!’

We walk the hour or so it take to get to the Invalides. So many done left for the Front, that the cheerin’ crowds are gone, but trucks still roar past on Rue d’Assas, loaded down with tarpaulins, nettin’ and fat rolls of bobwire. The French flag everywhere, in the windows of apartments, hung from lamp posts and planted in the flower beds. Bright-coloured buntin’ – red, white and blue, same colours as the flag – is tied ’bout the iron balconies. It litter the street, just like it do after Mardi Gras. I push at a bit of buntin’ with my foot. Like after Mardi Gras, with the party already moved on, and just leftover itty bitties in the streets to show the way . . .

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
9.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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