It had to happen

By David Nutt (August 2003)



“I just cannot understand what made you do it. It is so irresponsible.” The words came thundering across the desk. He looked in the direction of the voice; all he saw were large blubbery lips moving in an aggressive manner. The face was hidden in haze, as if some protective mist purposely concealed it. Somewhere from a remote distance he again heard his supervisor strident voice.


“ You realize that for this “act of folly” you perpetrated this morning I am going to have to fire you. But first I demand to know why you did it? Jean, you have been with us over thirty years. We have never had a complaint about your work; in fact you have always been an excellent employee. Now this!”


Jean was not sure how to reply. He was disorientated and deeply concerned by the remark of being fired. Of course he knew why he had done it, but he doubted the man opposite him would understand. He had always been an outsider and mixed rarely with his fellow workers; consequently they knew very little about him. The term “ an act of folly” had a certain contemptuous attitude he found upsetting. The morning’s handiwork was the result of a lifetime’s soul searching and careful preparation. For the last several years Jean had been so absorbed in completing his project never giving a moment’s thought to what effect it might have on his job. Given his deplorable pecuniary position, the specter of being fired was serious. In an endeavor to reply to the question he started fumbling for words. Within seconds his supervisor held up his hand.


“Jean, stop. Leave my office and come back in an hour and explain what went on in your head.”


Jean left and hurried over to the nearby park. There, he found a quiet bench. He took out a cigarette to steady his nerves. The first puff had the desired calming effect. He threw back his head and inhaled. With satisfaction he watched the smoke as it slowly climbed into the great blue sky. “Yes”, he thought, “this urge to make a statement had, like a dormant volcano, existed for many years.”


As the second puff of smoke lazily started making its way to the heavens his mind started tracing all the events in his life that had brought about this “act of folly”. The day had started so well. He could still see the faces of astonishment as people stopped on their way to work.


Jean was born in the Pigalle area of Paris. His mother owned a two bed roomed apartment on rue Blanche at the top of a run down building. Barely out of the cradle, he learned she was a prostitute of local fame. Her name was Maria. She was a large woman with a strong personality, a fierce temper and a loud voice that dominated a bevy of beauties that looked up to her for protection. She was often called in to settle disputes between the various fractions of her microscopic world. The man she lived with, no doubt his father, (although this fact was never disclosed), was a drunkard known in all the local bistros. The early years of his life were filled with the noise of continual quarrelling between his mother and this friend. The noise stopped one night when his mother received a blow to the face. The next morning the friend had gone, never to be seen again. Years later he learnt his supposed father had gone to live in the south of France and died after an excessive bout of drinking.


Thinking back on his childhood Jean remembered sleeping in a variety of apartments on beds that varied from hard, to bouncy and to soft. He was often kissed, cuddled and looked after by his mother’s many lady friends. He lived in an extended family where the doors were always open to Maria’s boy. This included late night suppers in smoked filled bistros filled with local characters. Nursery school came as a shock, but at the same time he appreciated the regular hours and contact with other children his own age. He soon realized that the nursery school’s mistress was confused as to whom his mother really was. Countless different lady friends were assigned to take and fetch him from school creating quite a stir with their flamboyant clothes and over generous kisses. As these scenes were a regular daily occurrence he accepted them as part of his upbringing and was always surprised by questions and remarks from his little friends.


This period was short lived as Jean was soon allowed to go to school by himself. After all he was Maria’s boy and consequently well known in the district. Deep down he missed guessing who would be coming to collect him from school and seeing his friend’s friends. He found school tedious and it paled to the excitement of living in the streets, cafes and bistros of Pigalle. Jean quickly learnt he could earn easy money by running errands for people. This activity greatly amused his mother and she encouraged him in this endeavor. She thought it appropriate that a boy of twelve earn his keep. Her enthusiasm for her son’s job put her in constant conflict with the principal at the local school. The battle raged until he was fourteen, when, - under French law- school is no longer an obligation. Surrounded by his friends, Jean celebrated the occasion with dinner in a posh restaurant.


It was about this time when his mother started a relationship with a young man in his early twenties. Jean well remembered the day his mother introduced him to her new friend: Henri. He was a tall, angular young man, as thin as a matchstick. He had an open, gentle face with large sunken eyes that resembled small dark pools of still water hidden deep in some forest. Probably his most remarkable feature were his delicate hands with their long tapping figures. He was an artist who owned a stall on the Place du Tertre. He remembered that his mother seemed particularly protective of this young man.


One day Jean came home to find Henri had moved into the apartment with all his canvases. At first he was peeved; but as he got to know Henri they became good friends. Henri showed him how to mix colors and create artistic forms on blank sheets of canvas. He often accompanied Henri to the Place du Tertre and watched him paint. As their friendship developed Henri started to teach him to paint. Slowly the coordination of his eye and hand movement made comprehensible forms on the canvas. Henri was delighted and conveyed his progress to Jean’s mother. Even to this day he could see her smile and hear her saying, one artist in the house is enough.


Jean took another long drag on his cigarette and let the smoke drift across his face to the sky beyond. Those were happy days, full of light and promise. His life had taken on a meaningful purpose. He remembered feeling elated, full of energy and impatient to walk towards his destiny.


Two years later tragedy struck. Henri was diagnosed with AIDS. Eighteen months later, after a heart wrenching period of pain and suffering, Henri died. Jean’s mother, diagnosed with the same disease, was buried one year after him. John life collapsed, he was seventeen. Gone was the protection of Maria; gone was his future with Henri. He closed the door of their apartment and wept.


In disgust Jean throw his cigarette on the ground and stamped on it hard with his left foot.


After his mother’s death, he spent the next few months hidden away in their apartment, occasionally doing a few errands to keep some food on the table. For a time his mother’s old friends rallied around him casting looks of pity; their emotional outbursts made him cringe. He was lost, disoriented, and fearful for the future. He recalled that during this period he found a certain consolation in watching the trains moving in and out of Pigalle’s metro station. He remembered reminiscing about the passengers represented the continuous flow of man’s evolution from birth to old age, from joy to sorrow, from riches to poverty and vise versa: the kaleidoscope was incessant and changed hourly. This spectacle, in some peculiar way, gave him a certain assurance that may be he could get lost in the multitude and be carried with the tide.


As tragedy had dealt him a vicious blow, a kinder piece of luck came his way. It was early one morning, while sitting in Pigalle’s metro station waiting for the trains to bare the heavy mornings crowds, when he saw Olivier, the poster hanger man, fall from his ladder. He had often watched, with a certain fascination, Olivier hanging his large posters on the advertising boards in the station. On a few occasions they had sat together and shared a cigarette. As Olivier was one year from retirement consequently his conversation was always peppered with fishing, sleeping and eating.


He shouted up the platform. “ Olivier are you alright? ” Instead of words he heard a grunt.


He walked up the platform to see what had happened. Oliver lay there complaining about a strained ankle.


“What a stupid thing to do. I once did the same thing years ago and it cost me two months salary. Today, I just got started. Shit. Have you got a fag?”


Jean bent down and could see the ankle was already swollen. He handed him a cigarette while looking up at half finished poster.


“Olivier, if you tell me what to do I will finish hanging the posters.”


“That’s not a bad idea, I will give you a part of my pay, but do you think you can hang them straight? It requires a bit of experience?”


That morning, under the guidance of Olivier, all sixteen huge advertising posters were perfectly positioned in their appropriate place on the walls of Pigalle’s metro station. Jean became Olivier’s assistant and a year later took over his route, consisting of sixteen stations. He recalled the pleasure of that first morning: hanging the giant images under Olivier’s direction. One great poster was divided into six sections and required careful handling so that all the steams joined correctly and no crinkles showed on the paper. Jean even to this day, never tired of unfolding each section and making sure the whole poster fitted exacted in it predetermined space. The very act of unfolding each large section of paper and discovering its secret always held a bewitching impression. What he loved the most were the images the posters displayed. In one morning’s work he could be swept from a sun drenched desert island into a historic battle advertising a forthcoming film. Over time he developed a certain empathy with certain of these gigantic posters. He could feel the heat of the sun on the sun drenched beach scene, or the glacial northern winds as he drove a team of huskies south over a white barren land. He remembered, with a smile, the time he was charging across a battlefield in some crusaders’ cause only to be confronted with the Paris metro coming straight at him. These were days when his world opened up to horizons he never knew existed. He found himself lost in a world of images. Although he had never been to the country, nor had he ever touched sand soaked by the early morning tide, or climbed a majestic mountain; all these pleasures were now brought to him by this emotional involvement with his beloved posters.


Wallowing in his memories he lit another cigarette and let a couple of smoke rings drift in the air.


He soon started collecting the posters he most admired. His mother’s apartment slowly turned into a world of contrasting images. The only concession he made was the interior of the bath; otherwise every wall, every door and their handles, all the furniture, the inside of cupboards, the ceilings, and the floors were covered with images and letters from his poster collection. The effect was surprising, disturbing, and discordant. It was his fantasy world. He loved it.


The universe he had created was so personal and became so ingrained on his personality that it formed a protection. He carried it with him like a tortoise does its shell. He remembered with shame the choice he made between following his wife and child to the country, or staying in the apartment. The choice was never really a reality; without his posters he had no life. He could still see the image on the face of his future wife as she stepped into his apartment for the first time. She, like him, had lived a chaotic childhood of uncertainty and difficulties. Once in the apartment she simply stood there in a state of admiration. She had said she immediately felt secure, as though the world was at her feet. Within two weeks they were married, and a year later a baby girl arrived. Two years later his wife forgot the magic of apartment in desperation to move to the country for their daughter’s sake. This incessant demand resulted in an ultimatum: “Either we move, or I will leave you”. As the years passed Jean lost all contact with them; it never occurred to him to wonder why. In the early years of their separation his wife and their child would come for the occasional visit. They had very little to talk about and he was only mildly interested in seeing his daughter. Eventually there was talk of another man; he wished her luck. He felt that he had invited her into his world and that for a precious period she had been enchanted. The needs of their child had, no doubt, shattered her dreams. At that moment he realized his mother would never have taken his requirements into consideration. She believe everybody should live as they thought fit.


He felt the cigarette butt starting to burn his fingers. As he let it drop the words “act of folly” came tripping across the park like some vulture waiting to feed off the carcass.


It started with a flash of inspiration. Once the seed was sown it grew in leaps and bounds. It engulfed him, submerged him to such a point of excitement that he had difficulty in collecting his thoughts. Intensive planning was paramount to flawless execution. The project concerned the Pigalle metro station. He intended to replace the sixteen advertising posters with a series of collages depicting his life and thoughts. The material he would use would be the thousands of posters he had collected over the years. This was the “act of folly”. For him it was the story of his life. He recalled thinking that he thought he had something to offer. He saw his life in a series of distinct periods. Before starting on the implementation he planned with care each series of collages.


The first two posters would represent his birth, the awakening to his surroundings, his mother’s life and her the lady friends, and the misery of having a drunken father.


The next two would be the passing of the school years with his job as a messenger boy. This he thought would give him the possibility to introduce the various characters that made up his world.


The following four collages would form the period of life with Henri, the introduction to painting, the world of colors, shapes and forms, all to disappear in the tragedy and suffering of AIDS, followed by the meaning of solitude.


He then reached the period of when he became a poster hanger. In this section he would have four gigantic posters showing images and words from the advertising world with its constantly changing tastes and fashions. This he remembered was a particularly difficult section, as he wanted to show a mélange of images and words that drew the beholders into the poster and at the same time shamed them for their gullibility.


Two panels would be devoted to human relationships: admiration, love and deception. This simple statement summed up, he thought, his brief period of marriage. The last two panels would represent an extrapolation from his brain of all the images that had influenced and affected his life. He wanted these images to represent his experience and thoughts about his existence.


As he thought back on his “act of folly” he realized that without a well thought out plan he would never have been able to complete the project. The execution of these posters took six years to complete. The task was Herculean, is required reviewing thousands of posters dating back thirty years, cutting out a battalion of images, positioning them carefully, and then gluing them into place. Once finished each huge posters needed to be cut up into six squares. Finally everything was ready.


He recalled that it took him a week to decide on the time and day he would hang the posters in Pigalle’s metro station. Early Monday morning the 1st of June, it would be his fiftieth birthday. He remembered arriving at the metro station just as the gates were opening. As he stepped up to the first panel he heard the station guardian shout across the platform.


“Jean, what happened, did you fall out of bed?”


“No, just a busy day.” He replied.


It took him just over two hours to complete the task. He wanted the posters to be perfect. At last, exhausted, he sat on a bench to admire his work. The result was surprising, original, and completely unexpected. As people entered the station they just stopped and stood in front of the posters. He saw arms being touched followed by the words come and see this one. Within half an hour the platforms were full of people just standing and staring as though some miracle was being performed before their eyes. He left to go and collect the day’s posters from the depot. Instead picking up the posters he found himself in the supervisor’s office.


He looked at his watch. It was time to go back and give his explanation to his supervisor.


As he knocked on the door he decided that the only explanation he could give was four simple words-this is my story. He heard his supervisor put down the phone and shout. “Come In.”


As he entered the office his supervisor rose from behind his desk to greet him.


“Ah! Jean, they have temporarily closed Pigalle’s station, the crowds were unmanageable. In one hour’s time we have a meeting there with the Minister of Culture.”



- The End -





short stories
An Unusual Request
Bewitched and be wildered
A cry from the heart
Fate played a devilish hand
Frustration with a capital F
A roll of the dice
Living in the shadow of death
A lesson well learnt
The wedding
A pleasant ride, a pleasant talk
Sweet revenge
Drum beat, heartbeat
Skin deep
They came, they left no trace
The window cleaner
A delayed meeting
Hold on tight
In the name of my parents
Strange events
Sequel to Frustration with a capital F
A strange and beautiful love affair
The doll's dilemma, a chage of style
The poster hanger - It had to happen
They had nothing in common
A misplaced letter
Life's mysteries
An ode to cheese
The marshes
Waiting in vain
Day follows day
Sounds of the future
The dream of flight

writing in Paris, copyright 2005