I’ve got to back up my data and reimage this machine.
How could you possibly say I am not a Rastafarian?!
I’ve got to back up my data and reimage this machine.
How could you possibly say I am not a Rastafarian?!
It started to drizzle, greasing the road as she crossed into the Hastings Valley near the Burrawan Rest Area. She was looking for somewhere quiet, for space to make some hard decisions. She wasn’t sure this was the right place. Like half the people she grew up with, Dana moved away after high school. Some returned. Not Dana. She could reel back a few hundred kilometres of Pacific Highway easy enough, but not decades of emotional separation. Flashbacks of sparkling days filled with school friends and netball, teen surf life, first loves and purity, only served to contrast her adolescence from the odyssey she’d been on ever since.
She glanced at the rear-vision, flicked her auburn-dyed hair, and looked away from the crow’s feet framing her tired brown eyes. The Burrawan trickled behind her as tallowwood, blackbutt, and flooded gum forest gave way to dilating patches of cleared land approaching Port Macquarie. Her visits were so infrequent that a decade after its construction, the broad circular overpass where the Pacific Highway crosses the Oxley near the Billabong Koala Park, still seemed improbable.
Koalas, around here, come right up to your house. From the koala’s perspective you’re on common ground. Humans are incidental. Through summer the sound of koalas mating is nightmarish. They wake you at all hours fornicating like demons outside the window. A koala will saunter across the road, sometimes purposefully and other times languidly, and hold-up a line of Christmas holiday traffic along Kennedy or Pacific Drive. To Dana it was a badge of honour growing up where this was the dominant native mammal.
She’d packed the tent, portable gas cooker, a full esky and a borrowed surfboard. Being the Easter long weekend any hope of a campsite near the beach had passed. The parks were full. She considered driving through to Point Plomer, in her teens a camping playground away from parents. Probably still was. No, that would be taking the nostalgia trip too far. There were a couple of old friends she could call on. It wasn’t like she was without offers. She normally stayed with her auntie Lorraine, but it was a last minute decision and she couldn’t just land on people. A two-person tent offered more space to think than any three or five bedroom brick dwelling anyway.
‘Jordan’s Boating and Holiday Park’ popped up at the edge of the map on an online search. Jordan’s Boatshed? She’d pictured herself waking to the music of waves crashing, paddling out under a rising sun with sleep in her eyes. Jordan’s was up-river on the Hastings’s salty reaches, away from the town’s action and away from the beach, yet Dana thought she couldn’t have picked a better spot. She could barely remember how to get there, just which direction to head, so she allowed herself to be guided by GPS, only to arrive with the realisation that she knew the way all along. She rolled into Jordan’s in pale afternoon light, darkness hastened by a brewing sky. The drizzle was thickening as she slid open the glass door of the boatshed and hopped in.
“G’day, I called about a camp site.”
The man behind the counter looked familiar. So did the woman on a picnic chair at the back of the shed with a frazzle-furred pooch by her side. Locals glimpsed or dealt with decades ago.
“Yes, I’ve got vacancies.”
He’d said it over the phone too, but he sounded less convincing now. Was it her appearance? He was salt of the earth Port Macquarie, a slender middle-aged man, soft spoken but steady, with the sapience of a fisherman and the deference of the small businessperson, a man in tune with the river, the tides, meteorology, and the tourist trade.
“You sure you want to set up a tent now?”
They both looked out through the glass sliding door at rain beginning to make rivulets across the bonnet of her car. For a moment Dana contemplated a call to her aunt.
“I’m pretty quick putting up my tent so I’ll be okay. I’ll dry off.”
He looked down at his register, unconvinced. “Two nights?”
“Two nights for now, maybe three, depending.
“Ok, site 12 up the top. That’ll be seventy dollars. Here’s your amenities key…”
At the back of the boatshed the woman with the curly-haired lap-dog spoke up. “You’re not making her put a tent up in this weather are you, Dale?”
He looked up from the register at Dana, with the slightest hint of a frown, taking a second to size her up before turning to the woman.
“She asked if we’ve got a vacancy and we’ve got a vacancy. I’m not going to tell her we don’t.”
“It’s gunna be pourin’ out there soon. She’ll get drenched. Put her in a cabin.”
A hint of distant thunder punctuated the lady’s instruction.
“It’s Easter,” he replied. The subtext: premium prices and high demand.
“Well, have you filled the cabins?”
A late call could come from a desperate tourist, ill-prepared, double-booked, or unhappy at their first choice of accommodation. Dale could ask top dollar for his cabins. Night though, would soon swallow Good Friday.
Dale looked down at his register and puffed his cheeks as he weighed up the options.
“The park cabins are $130…”
“Don’t charge her full price,” more thunder.
With rain now pattering steadily on the tin roof of the boatshed, Dana accepted the hopelessness of her tent. “Full price is okay, really. I’ll take the cabin tonight, and when the weather clears I’ll put up my tent tomorrow.”
“Tell you what,” said Dale. “I’ve got an old cabin up near the back road. It’s further from the amenities and the telly’s playing up. I’ll split you the difference.”
“Deal. Thank you.”
“Alright, that’ll be eighty dollars for tonight. This key’s for the cabin, this one’s for the amenities block.”
Settling in was a matter of dumping her bags, a stand-up inspection, and sitting on the bed. She slipped on a windcheater and took a walk, posting wet photos on Instagram of the cabin, the fishing boats, and the river rolling past greyly under a marbled sky. The tension of Sydney, and the apprehension she’d felt on the drive up, began to wash away.
Breakfast was chicken sausage and salad wraps with hommus and mango chutney, not in the cabin, but by the riverside on her butane burner, with the sunrise blasting holes through the clouds, and Hawaiian coffee from the thermos she’d filled back in Bondi.
She dusted off the surfboard and gave it a once over before sticking it back in the car with her faded beach towel and old wetsuit, then idled out onto the road. The water looked murky at Town Beach, and offshore a sharp line of muddy river outflow clashed with blue sea. The river did this after heavy rain. Beyond North Shore, Point Plomer disappeared in the hazy distance at the end of that long unbroken curve of white sand. She steered off Pacific Drive and descended toward the ocean on Tuppenny Road, which wound through Banksia scrub and opened out onto Flynn’s Beach, where she found Easter holidaymakers ignoring a ‘beach closed’ sign. She wandered up to the surf shop for surfboard wax.
“Dana? Dana Baker?”
A face can fade from memory or become unrecognisable with age. A voice on the other hand is indelible.
Mick Huckleton was Dana’s crush when she was fifteen and her first lover by the time she was sixteen. Back then a lithe, suntanned, fun-loving surfer with long blonde hair and habitually bare torso, Huckie had been a dream-boat. He was older, out of high school, and owned a Mitsubishi station-wagon. By seventeen, Dana worked out she was just another notch on his leg-rope.
Huckie had lived by the seasons as a young man. The nor’easter in summer favoured the surf at Lighthouse and northern Shelley Beach, and the sou’wester in winter favoured Town Beach, Flynn’s, and Southern Shelley’s. Tourist girls were available in the warmer months, and there was always a local girl to snuggle up to in winter. The ‘tourist chicks’ had surely dried up for Huckie in recent years, Dana surmised. Which category did she fall into now, being autumn and all?
Middle-aged Huckie had not fattened like most, but the torso had atrophied. He had the wrinkles and dappled complexion of someone who’d spent too much time in the sun, or on the booze and smokes. Hair had sprouted on his chest and shoulders, and like his thinning head of hair, was wiry and grey. He looked fifteen years older than her, though he was only four.
“Wow. You haven’t changed a bit,” he said, looking her up and down.
“Wow!” Why the fuck did I come in here, she thought. “Thanks, you’re looking pretty fit yourself.”
“How long you here for?”
“Just for the weekend. Dropped in for some wax.”
“Still surfing, hey?”
“Trying to get back into it.”
“Wicked,” he said, a forty-seven year old still grasping for hip jargon.
“I can’t believe I bumped into you here.”
“I own this surf shop,” he said with a sideways grin.
“Wow,” she said, unconvincingly.
“Oh come on, Dana. You knew that.”
“No, I didn’t. Well done,” she said, looking around in appraisal.
“Come on, Dayno. Everybody knows this is Huckie’s shop. You came in to see me, no need to pretend,” he said, with the knowing smile of a self-certified yogi.
She looked at him blankly. You haven’t changed a bit have you, you prick? You think I came in here chasing you like your imaginary sixteen-year-old ‘Dan-o’. I’m supposed to know this is your shop because you’re some sort of local legend now?
“No, I actually didn’t know this was your shop,” she reconfirmed with a grimacy smile.
“Hey, we should catch up,” he said, handing her a block of a coconut scented ‘Sex-Wax’ for her surfboard.
“I’d like that,” she lied.
“Meet you at Lighthouse at five.”
“How much is the wax?”
“Nah, my shout.”
She looked at the price on the shelf and jangled some change from her coin-purse, sliding it across the counter to him.
Andy and Dana were besties for a while in high school. That’s the way they summarised it for people. There had been a couple of fleeting ‘occurrences’ near the end of school and soon after, but never an ‘event’. She’d long ago put it down to a lapse or two out of the sexual exuberance of youth. Andy had dated Dana’s sister, Charli. It was unclear if that made him off bounds for her or her for him. Whichever, that’s the way it still was twenty-five years later, and it was probably why they remained close friends.
Women came in and out of Andy’s life, and if Dana’s friendship caused suspicion, there’d been little shown by his exes. She wasn’t sure if that was a relief or an insult. There had been a couple of sad women who failed to snare Andy but tried to eliminate her as a threat anyway. She’d propagated an exaggerated status for him once or twice to ward off unwelcome suitors too, and she sensed he knew it. He was as safe as a gay friend, with the benefit of being straight. As the years went by and his relationships became steadier, Dana gravitated to the periphery. Maybe that’s just what happens when besties live in different places.
He’d moved since last time Dana visited, downmarket to a worn out renter in a back-block above the industrial area. Over a late morning coffee with Andy and Paula, Dana gleaned that the rainwater tank business was weak. “Plenty of work,” Andy told her. “Too many in the game, all undercutting you.”
“Ever think about moving back to Port?” Paula asked.
“Not anymore. It’d feel weird, like the town had moved on but I was back in the past. Sydney people always moved up here to get out of the rat race. Now I know what they meant. Every day I squeeze on that lurching bus to a job that’s killing my soul, and think, ‘this is no life’. If I ever moved though, I’d go somewhere completely new.”
“I never used to feel that way but I reckon I could do with a change,” said Paula, as she watched out the front window of their paint-deprived rental, across the weedy lawn to where her five-year-old son, Marlon, played bikes with a neighbour’s kid in timid sunshine.
“I’m never leaving Port,” said Andy resolutely. “I was born in that hospital over the hill, my son was born there. Why would I leave? It’s perfect.”
It was a glimpse of the parochialism Dana found tedious in her home town compatriots, the essence of someone like Mick, and a reminder why she could never love someone like Andy. Andy moved to Sydney after high school too, worked at AMP, and might have had a different life. At around thirty he’d decided to come back, and by crikey he was determined to stick with it. Andy’s self-righteousness about living the simple life masked a sense of regression, but he’d indeed made a righteous choice, Dana knew.
A week out of high school, Dana walked into the Port Macquarie News with some photos of migrating whales she’d captured from different headlands. Editor Bob Carlisle asked if she could put together a few hundred words to go with them. She went home, dug out her old biology text book, and began her cadetship. Carlisle had been her mentor ever since.
When she moved to Sydney she wrote for The Herald on and off, worked as a barmaid, and did a diploma in TV production at a dubious private college, before getting a job as a researcher for the ABC’s Four Corners. Soon Dana was filling temporary vacancies for reporters all over Australia. She was in the right place at the right time when they urgently needed staff in the Middle East Bureau.
She pulled into the Breakwall carpark after dusk. Carlisle was at the back of his old Landcruiser going over his fishing rigs.
“Bring a rod up with you?”
No formalities. Dana knew instinctively, from the sandy puddles along the edge of the bitumen, to the clouded moonlight. The damp in the air was a fever. These were rare mulloway conditions.
“’ere, you can use this one.”
He handed her his spare rig. It was the nine foot Jarvis Walker solid tip rod and Alvey side-cast reel she‘d bought second-hand for his 50th birthday, over a decade and-a-half ago.
The tide was on the turn and they got their first hit within half an hour of casting. The rain-washed murk in the river was invisible to fishing tourists in the dark, but Dana and Carlisle could sense it. Carlisle landed the first two while Dana got re-acquainted with the Alvey. Then a twitch, she let it run, gave a precise tug, and she had one. It was a monster. Carlisle watched calmly from twenty metres up the breakwall, rolling a smoke one-handed, as excited holiday fishermen gave Dana advice on how to land it.
She heaved and reeled at the heavy old rod for eight minutes, her eyes chasing the line where it disappeared into the dim moonlight’s milky reflection on the river. A self-appointed fishing instructor with an inadequate landing net stumbled backwards on the rocks, as Dana swung the fish over his head and up flapping onto the breakwall, twenty-five kilos of angry mulloway putting a show on for the tourists.
When they’d bagged three each the run stopped. Carlisle moved closer to chat.
“I read what happened in Fallujah. Your Italian mate got killed.”
The river passed by majestically as she ruminated. “Well, he wasn’t my mate, but he died. The Irish aid worker didn’t deserve what she got, though.”
A few nibbles made the tips of their rods wiggle but not bend.
“You go over it again and again night and day,” Carlisle said, watching the river. “What if I’d done this, if only I’d said that, they might be alive. It never goes away. You can learn to live with it, no matter how much fault you find in yourself. Do your bit to fill the world with life. It’s the best honour you can pay to the dead.”
“You never told me about Vietnam.”
Another few million litres of Hastings River passed into the Pacific.
“They’re having trouble finding someone.”
Dana cocked an eyebrow at him. “All those journos let go by the metropolitans? Should be beating ’em off with a cricket bat for an editor’s job up the coast.”
“They got applicants, none suitable. They’re not paying enough, lousy pricks.”
Dana steered the conversation away.
“They’ve offered me an anchor role. 7:30.”
It saved Carlisle from telling her his job was hers if she wanted, he just had to say the word to the Board.
“Congratulations to you too.”
She puffed an inward sigh, looked at him wearily. “Thanks.”
Dana turned into Blair Street, North Bondi, just after 10:00 pm Sunday. She’d come back ahead of Easter traffic. Rollo the Russian Blue welcomed her home enthusiastically, perhaps relieved. The new flatmate tasked with feeding him had left the place smelling of rancid chicken.
Easter Monday, Rollo helped Dana with her spiel for the executive producers: the gravitas and professionalism she’d bring, the energy she’d throw into her new role, how she’d wanted an opportunity like this for so long…
She’d been passed over so many times she’d given up on it ages ago. Now she didn’t know.
Tuesday morning she bustled off the crowded bus and sidestepped through pedestrian traffic to the Ultimo headquarters. She coffeed up in the ground floor cafe before heading upstairs to her desk to prepare for a 10:00 am with her new bosses.
Working her way up the emails she landed on one that came in Sunday while she was driving back down the coast. No text, just a photo of a fish fillet too big for its barbecue plate, in a bright green back yard framed by greyed timber fence palings, with banana trees sprouting from a patch of red earth, and a koala sitting in a gumtree nearby.
Dana walked into her meeting twinkling.
I’m rewriting a story I wrote back in the ’90s and it’s interesting how things have changed. I had a few oblique comments back then about the influence the mass media, particularly television, had on people, and the orthodoxies in television journalism, lifestyle and entertainment. Whereas this was pretty topical back then, it’s so much less relevant now.
Now with social media, anybody can put content out there. This web site demonstrates it too.
We have new commentaries and criticisms, new ‘problems’, perceived or otherwise, created by this completely re-written “mass” media landscape. Where we might have bemoaned a concentration of thought and influence, and the vacuousness and narrowness of journalism, lifestyle and entertainment then, what have we got from democratising the means of content production?
Have you been to Adelaide before?
Me neither. I met a woman from Adelaide in ’88, you probably weren’t even born then, and I’ve been meaning to go there ever since. Like Brazil I guess.
You wanted to go to Adelaide because of this woman?
No. The Australian Grand Prix was raced in Adelaide then. That’s what we talked about, the lady and me. The Grand Prix moved to Melbourne. Maybe that’s why I haven’t ended up going to Adelaide yet.
And the Grand Prix is what you find interesting about Brazil?
I have a neighbour from Brazil. I know her husband ok, he’s a… I was going to say a politician but a councilor is more accurate. Councilors are politicians obviously, but they’re a distinct type. Anyway, I’ve hardly had anything to do with her, though
I think I’ll have a carrot for breakfast. What do you think about that?
No, a carrot is more of a summer breakfast isn’t it.
I feel like porridge today instead.
She’d been a journalist more than half her life. A week out of high school she walked into The Albury-Wadonga Border Mail with a handful of photos of Black Springs Creek at the start of a dry spell. A photo of a dried sheep carcass in the middle of the barren creek bed, with the Albury Cemetery in the distance, made it onto the front page. Editor Bob Carlisle asked if she could put a couple of hundred words together to go with the photos. She went home, dug out her old geography text book and began two years of reporting on what would become the drought of the early ’90s. Carlisle had been her mentor ever since.
Then there was a move to Sydney, where she reported for The Herald another two years, while in the evenings she did a diploma in TV production at a dubious private college. In her early twenties she went to
Tell me about them.
Maybe I will.
She looked around the plane. I just happen to have a few hours. You’ve time for plenty of detail.
He looked back out the window as though gathering his thoughts, but fell into the meditative distance once again, somewhere toward the scraggy backbone of the country.
When he finally returned to his food tray she continued.
Gerome was pretty impressed by the donation you extracted from Liliane Bettencourt.
I didn’t extract anything. I’m bewildered. I think she chose to give me the donation as some sort of gesture, I think because I’m American, I don’t know.
It’ll be put to good use, that’s all that matters
The flight steward came past, filling their coffees.
Madame Montagne and Lilly were out spraying the plants again when I left. Checking to see if you were there again in the morning I’m sure.
Oh? I’m sorry to disappoint them.
She frowned at him sideways and caught his eyes.
Not sorry to disappoint me? she said, holding his gaze.
This story is dedicated to the journalists and humanitarian aid workers who have died in conflict, giving their lives for a cause.
Felicity stepped back from the gurney where she’d pieced together a shattered metacarpal and ulna, bellowing prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medication at the nurses, and binning another pair of gloves as the patient trundled away. The next patient was brought crying, blood thickening his hair. “Irja sayidati, min qibal allah.” Oh god, please madam. It was the baker from the corner. She looked over the wounds across the upper half of his body, shone her light in his pupils. Most of the trauma was on the inside. Her neighbours would struggle to buy bread tomorrow.
Hasna al-Jumaili and her two small children had been searching the corridors at Rojawa Hospital after the Ansar al-Sunnar bombing, when the doctor took them aside, offered them water, and phoned around. Hasna endured a sleepless night and another agonising day before the doctor found her husband, a policeman, at nearby Sardam Hospital. He’d survived the bombing, only to be gunned down at a check-point months later. Now Hasna brought Khalil and Jasmeen to say goodbye to Doctor Beauvoir, who’d taken special care of the family ever since.
It was the last consultation of the day. Sitting down, the doctor smiled at the children before removing her hijab, so the children saw her golden hair for the first time. For Doctor Felicity Beauvoir this long war was coming to an end at that very moment. She looked at Jasmeen, whose bright brown eyes shone back. She knew that for this five-year-old, her seven-year-old brother, and their twenty-six-year-old mother, the war wasn’t over.
“How is your arm now?” said Felicity, taking Jasmeen’s arm and examining the spot where she’d delivered a vaccination the last time she’d seen her.
“Innah ‘afdal alan.” It’s better now.
“Thank you for the gift.”
“It’s just small, to say thank you for looking after us,” said Hasna, who’d taken meticulous care preparing orange flavoured basboussa sweets.
“I’m sad to go. Doctor Faraj is a good man. He’ll do a great job taking care of you now,” Felicity said, spreading eye contact among all three of them affectionately, as much to absorb as to reassure. Felicity wanted to burn this image into her. She’d dedicated the four most intense years of her life to the health and wellbeing, indeed the survival of Iraq and its people. The spectacle of these two healthy children and their strong and determined mother was desperately needed reaffirmation. In this long and senseless war there’d been children and mothers for whom her years of training and experience, and the best available resources, had only deepened the sense of helplessness.
Felicity caught Khalil eyeing the basboussa from the opposite end of her desk. Turning her attention with theatrical keenness to the carefully arranged tray of sweets she said, “Wow. These look incredible. Shall we have some?”
She held the plate out for Khalil, who looked for Hasna’s nod before reaching for the one he’d picked out. The three ladies each picked one too, and together they sat and savoured the aromatic sweet.
Memories of things that happened three years earlier came to the surface whenever Felicity saw Hasna and her children. During her time in Iraq there’d been other events as horrific as the suicide bombing that brought them together. It was different though, because at the time, Felicity had just found out that she was pregnant. Hasna and her little family made her think how things might have been. Today was her last day at the NGO’s Erbil clinic, and Felicity was especially prone to rumination.
She’d left her apartment in the city’s Araban quarter early, heading out into waking streets on her bike. Pedalling toward the ancient Hewler citadel with the swelling nostalgia of someone looking for the last time at the place they presently called home, she marvelled that people were actually stirring within its stone walls and buildings, some of them prehistoric. Straddling the mesa at the centre of modern Erbil, the citadel could be seen from just about anywhere. During her time in the Middle-East Felicity had indulged her interest in the ancient world, visiting many sites, but living amid humanity’s oldest continually inhabited settlement was profound.
Construction cranes and communications towers punctuated the surrounding Erbil cityscape optimistically, while down at ground level, parks and gardens dominated by water fountains were a particular preoccupation of the city planners.
She passed the Hewler Governate building with its muraled concrete bomb barriers. Up ahead at the foot of the citadel was a mosaic depicting Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian King Darius III at the battle of ‘Arbela’, a practically recent event in the sweep of Erbil history. Just beyond that, around the bend she could see the dome of the Salih Dhabak Mosque, a modest yellow-brick structure she’d thought reminiscent of modern suburban churches in Europe. Felicity soaked it all in one last time.
At the junction before Sultan Muthafar’s Shrine she swung down Barzani Namir Road in the direction of the Erbil International Hotel where she normally began the day with a swim. She waved to Faris, her computer guy, as she passed his store.
The Erbil International Hotel was notorious for its belligerent staff, but she could blend in with foreign patrons and it had a fine swimming pool that was generally empty early in the mornings. She lapped powerfully for twenty minutes and then cooled down at a gentler pace, relishing the gentle resistance of fluid crystal against her free-flowing limbs. Coming to a graceful halt she bobbed serenely for a minute enveloped in that elemental embrace, before climbing out invigorated.
Towelling water from her honey coloured hair, olive skin, and her ocean blue one-piece, Felicity wrapped herself before reaching into her backpack for her iPhone. Her boss, Gerome, had given it to her on his recent visit to Erbil. A former investment banker, after a ‘road to Damascus’ moment, Gerome had turned his considerable wealth and talent to humanitarian endeavours (and subsequently found himself on a literal road to Damascus). The iPhone had recently been named TIME magazine’s invention of the year, he’d told her excitedly. Tech savvy in the manner of a CEO who wanted to be known as tech savvy, he’d enthused with her about the online games, the handy navigation tool, and the quality of the camera and music. Felicity knew that it was really about the applications he’d installed to locate her in the event of emergency.
Gerome had been in Erbil for meetings concerning the transfer of their operation to a local NGO, and to discuss her team’s redeployment. Plans had firmed up in recent days with the escalating fracas in Georgia. Opening her email, Felicity responded to her mother first.
Felicity went into aid work straight out of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, much to the dismay of her Gaullist father who’d expected her to become a plastic surgeon and live in the apartment he bought her on Rue de Lancry until she married a banker or a politician, but with the blessing of her bohemian mother, who’d pictured her moving to the country and becoming a GP, tending cows and farm dogs as much as to rustic artists and vintners.
Blanche Beauvoir was thrilled at the news that her elegant, accomplished, free-thinking and spirited surgeon-daughter would be returning to Paris. Felicity had been in Iraq saving children, repairing sanitation, and virtually single-handedly turning back the tide of destruction and corruption wrought by George W. Bush and his over-bearing, blundering cohort. This much Blanche had shared with her colleagues at the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femme. Felicity’s presence in Paris would be an opportunity for the mesdames to hear first-hand accounts from the frontline in the struggle for global peace and justice. It would also silence that prattling Celeste Gonard, who interrupted Blanche’s reports during the monthly meeting of le Fédération’s Paris chapter, whenever they touched on the detail of Felicity’s emails.
Felicity didn’t know this precise context, but she knew her mother well enough to recognise the tone, which suggested the email was attended by some such significance. Ouimaman, I’ll be in Paris in a couple of days, Felicity confirmed. Oui maman, I would love to come to your dinner party on Saturday, she wrote, but sadly she’d be leaving again before her mother’s meeting next Tuesday.
Felicity turned to an email from the NGO’s Central Asia research team entitled “South Ossetia Briefing”. Among the lines and lines of information on that email, one short phrase in the ‘Cc’ field jumped out: “alan.steiger@…”. Felicity scanned the email and the attached documents without luck to find out Alan’s involvement. She suppressed the impulse to phone Gerome and fish for clues. It was still too early in Paris at any rate. She put her phone away and pondered while she finished towelling off.
She pedalled up to the Qaysari Bazaar for some final souvenirs for her parents and for Madame Montagne, her elderly neighbour in Paris. When she first came to Erbil, Felicity would willingly get lost in the arcades, alleys and shops of the bazaar. Now, as in many pockets of Erbil, she had to circumnavigate construction works, where a colossal shopping mall was being built to the south of the bazaar, and another water-fountain filled parkland was being created at its centre. The noise and dust of heavy machinery did nothing to dampen the activity of the labyrinthine bazaar, into which she wandered.
Textiles, dried figs and apricots, dates and raisins, honeys and cheeses, shoes, the aroma of spiced and sugared sweets and breads, kebabs and tikka, tea-rooms with walls covered in framed photographs of heroes and patriarchs stretching back 100 years, and Kurdish music from within. Furniture stores, Chinese made clothes, toy stores and fresh fruit, Turkish made clothes, jewellery both handmade on site and imported, make-up both traditional and imported, walnuts, in some places beneath spectacular ancient domed ceilings and in other places beneath corrugated iron, where shoppers and sellers milled about like bees in a hive. Rich and fragrant spices in piles of oranges and yellows, browns and greens. Kurdish fabrics inlaid or embroidered with with gold fibres, household cleaning products, carpets and antiques, nuts roasting, gaudy clocks and watches, stationery and currency, stall holders and customers communicating in both Kurdish and Arabic, in the same conversation. Pomegranate seeds, guitars and drums, and cushions on which to sit and play them.
At a stall where a vendor enticed buyers to his syrupy sweets with cries of “kaka kaka”, Felicity heard an email ping into her backpack like some arrow fired from Paris with a message tied around it. She reached in for the iPhone, a message from Gerome, her eyes went to the ‘Cc’ field. She and the rest of the Erbil crew were to convene upon Istanbul early next week to begin stock-piling a new operation before freighting it and themselves to Georgia. Alan Steiger, named chef de mission, was already on his way to Tbilisi to make political and administrative arrangements. Like some arrow fired from across the sea it struck.
Her mind drifted to a Doha hotel room three years earlier, where she’d sat by the window looking gloomily across the skyline. Alan was packed and their few days of imagined bliss over. She’d wanted to tell him his marriage was doomed, Elizabeth didn’t love him, and was probably goading him leave her, sad fool that he was. She’d wanted to say she’d fly with him to New York, go with him to Juba, take him back to Erbil. She’d wanted to say stay with her, in that hotel room. Instead she rose, crossed the room and held him close to all that she’d given him, and kissed him tenderly.
Kaka, kaka, said the sweets vendor tentatively, to the woman who appeared lost.
A late July heat haze was already settling over Erbil as she left the Qaysari Bazaar. She headed back in the direction of Araban to meet Doctor Faraj at the Directorate of Health.
The Directorate was located a few streets from the NGO’s clinic in a nondescript three-storey office building typical of regional administrations throughout the world. Felicity could have been walking into a provincial medical bureaucracy anywhere, if it weren’t for the two-and-a-half metre tall muraled concrete bomb shields surrounding it, the checkpoint she had to navigate, and the guards in peshmerga camouflage brandishing AK47s at every doorway. In some places they outnumbered staff. She crossed the short foyer and signed for a visitor pass at the reception desk, where she was greeted with a familiar smile. “Doctor Beauvoir, Doctor Faraj is expecting you”.
Summoned by the building’s PA system, Doctor Faraj appeared at a corner of the foyer from an entryway framed by office issue ficus and fatigues. “Doctor Beauvoir, thanks for coming.”
She followed him down the corridor to a small room which he’d claimed as his office for the day. He apologised that he’d found two chairs but no desk. Faraj, a refugee in the 90s, had studied in the UK before returning to his native Kurdistan after the fall of the Baathist regime. Thus displaced from his family’s traditional patrons, he was so far unable to find a place in the Kurdish establishment, but found instead a place in local civil society. Felicity calculated his age at a couple of years younger than herself, in his early 30s, but he looked ten years older, with an emerging pot-belly, receding hairline, grey bags behind his spectacles, and a frown creased permanently above them. To Faraj, taking charge of the NGO’s clinic was the greatest opportunity of his life. He’d been at the clinic the past month practicing medicine with the NGO. However, transforming it into a local practice run by a citizen required endless documents to be lodged with the Directorate of Health.
“Here are the maintenance agreements and warranty for the ECG machines, the X-ray, two sterilisation units,” Felicity explained, taking several folders from her backpack. “An inventory of the pharmacy.” Faraj nodded as they both looked at the documents passing from her backpack across his lap and into his satchel.
“I’ll be around tomorrow in case you need me. You have my email and my number,” she said. A moment’s pause, and they both smiled.
“Thank you,” he said. “Your patients are in good hands.”
“I know.” She looked around the freshly painted empty room, a vessel to be filled, nothing but potential, like Faraj himself. Peshmerga fatigues, sub-machine guns, and bomb-shields suffocating government buildings were a pall over the transaction taking place.
Felicity stepped over to a window where above the concrete barriers she could see the citadel in the distance. Seven thousand years of civilisations coming and passing. Is this what she was witnessing? Had she truly been here at a moment of such transition?
“What’s the prognosis, do you think, of this troop surge, and the US election?” she asked, looking now at the deep blue sky beyond the citadel, into which she was already beginning to disappear.
“Even if Obama does win he’ll have to continue Bush’s troop surge. The other choice is a vacuum,” said Doctor Faraj distractedly, still seated, perusing documents on his lap. “As much as I hate to admit it, we need the Americans to stay.”
They looked at each other a moment, thoughtfully, and he joined her at the window. “Thank you for everything, Doctor Beauvoir. Whatever happens from now, some of it’s in our hands, and some of it is not.”
He shook her hand as she left to begin her last day caring for patients who tomorrow were his to care for.
After saying goodbye to Hasna al-Jumaili and her two kids with hugs and exchange of email addresses, Felicity sat down to return a call from Paris.
“Gerome, c’est Felicity. You called?”
“Ah, Felicity, thanks for phoning back. I just wanted to touch base and make sure you’re okay with the new mission. ”
“Thanks Gerome. I think we’re all excited at the prospect.”
“Très bien.” Gerome paused, as if considering how to continue. “This is not like 2005, you know. We’re not abandoning them, scampering back to Amman to save our skins and leave the Iraqis to their fate. We’re handing it back to them.”
“I fear this thing will escalate before it’s through, and there’ll be more bloodshed. But it’s okay, Gerome, I’m ready to move on.”
“I’m relieved.” Gerome hesitated again before continuing. “You know, he asked for you.”
There was a heavy pause.
“As I said, Gerome, I’m ready to move on.”
The taxi turned into Allée des Deux Trianons, Versailles, at precisely 7:30, fitting into a long line of cars offloading passengers in turn at the Grand Trianon. The line of cars moved ahead slowly as more than one limousine lingered at the disembarkation point for its celebrity occupants to make an ‘entry’ before the Grand Trianon’s peristyle.
“Come on, let’s walk,” said Felicity as their taxi inched along. “We can take a shortcut through Marie Antoinette’s Estate.”
“Is that allowed?” said Alan, frowning unsure.
“Excellente idée” said Gerome, already handing a large note to the taxi driver.
They climbed out of the taxi, and when it u-turned conspicuously out of the queue Felicity had already thrown her Christian Louboutins over and was now climbing the fence. “We can cut through the gardens,” she said.
“Here, give me a boost,” said Gerome to a bewildered Alan, who nonetheless leaned down and linked his hands to offer his boss a lift.
Now that the precedent was set, after a moment’s thought occupants of several other vehicles began disembarking right there on the long gravel drive amid playful conversation and laughter. A few followed Felicity’s lead and climbed over the fence to enjoy an early evening walk through the garden, but most preferred to walk along the tree-lined drive up to the Grand Trianon.
Two thirds of a moon cast just enough light to navigate the garden path. They crossed a small bridge and passed a domed marble structure that Alan thought captured the moonlight magically.
“Le Temple de l’Amour,” Gerome commented.
They stopped briefly and looked up at it before they continued on. The path wound alongside what appeared a narrow pond of water-lilies, eventually coming upon a more grand structure, lit up to magnificent effect.
“Le Petit Trianon,” said Gerome.
“Built for Madame de Pompadour,” explained Felicity, “…Louis XV’s favourite squeeze.”
The gardens from here were more formal and lit all the way up to the Grand Trianon. Felicity and her two gentlemen led a few small groups along a broad gravel avenue, past flowerbeds and wide ornamental pools, and past the ‘French’ Pavilion. Mirthful conversation mingled across groups of strangers, adding a sense of festival to the whole event.
They reached the Grand Trianon with at least a dozen cars still waiting to disgorge their dazzling occupants.
Walking straight past the peristyle across which all the fabulous attendees were making their splendid entrances, they made their way instead directly to the Garden Room where a jazz quartet entertained guests spilling out down the steps and into the garden where trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvre were circulating.
“Gerome you sly bastard,” somebody called out. Gerome turned to greet the man with an enormous smile and amid a lot of back-slapping, hand-shaking and “Ça va?” and “Ça va! Ça va bien!”, Gerome introduced Felicity and Alan to Frederic Oudea, Deputy Chief Financial Officer at Société Générale. The schmoozing was underway in earnest. In fact Gerome seemed to know half the well-heeled charismatics at the party, industrialists and politicians, movie stars and recording industry execs. The representatives of various NGOs and charities circulated, like classy whores in a first class brothel or hyenas round a slaughtering pen Alan couldn’t make up his mind.
Doctor Beauvoir seemed to take to it naturally, slipping easily into jovial banter with complete strangers, many of them well-known identities and some of them simply oozing status and wealth. Noticing that Alan was less than comfortable in this environment she drew him into conversation more than once, and proved so adept at this that Alan could almost have believed himself a natural raconteur.
Pretty soon guests were asked to make their way into the Cotelle Gallery, where almost its entire fifty metre length was consumed by a row of four great dining tables, each resplendent in full formal setting beneath the famous Montcenis chandeliers. A small platform with a rostrum had been placed to one side midway along the Gallery, just high enough so that all guests could see the speaker. Places were labelled and Gerome, Felicity and Alan found themselves seated directly to the right of the rostrum amid Liliane Bettencourt with her chaperon, eighteen year old grandson Jean-Victor Bettencourt-Meyers, and the year’s pop princess, Jenifer Bartoli.
While other guests began taking their seats Madame Bettencourt, resplendent in majestic Givenchi dress and Cartier jewellery, remained standing, grandson diligently at her elbow, in steady conversation with Gerome and two other dignitaries.
“André sends his regards, Gérome. He always said how thankful he was to have you and Lionel over at Parnibas. He appreciated your expert service and your excellent advice.”
“I‘m sure Gérome feels very fortunate for the association with Monsieur Bettencourt and L’Oreal too, Liliane. The bankers do alright for themselves with our money, and you certainly have plenty of it for them to do alright with,” said Jeaneé Plantin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General and Mistress of Ceremonies for this evening’s event, raising a few chuckles from everyone except Gerome.
“Ouch, that stings,” said Gerome. “See the level of respect I get Berglind?” he implored OECD Deputy Secretary-General, Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir. “I don’t recall UNESCO ever complaining about the bank’s support, or L’Oreal’s for that matter,” he added with a nod at Madame Bettencourt.
“I feel it too, Gérome,” said Ásgeirsdóttir smirking. “Sometimes it seems keeping the world’s finances in order is a thankless task. We can at least take consolation in the knowledge it’s a Buddhist virtue, personal sacrifice for the benefit of others without seeking recognition.”
“The fastest way to universal transcendental enlightenment is more bankers in the world, I always say, self-sacrificing breed that they are,” quipped Plantin.
“Twenty years running this NGO and you still think of me as nothing other than a banker Jeaneé.”
“Oh ‘Romie, don’t be so sensitive. You know I’m only teasing, mon cherie.”
“Try as we might, we can never outrun our past. I should know, I have more past than just about anyone,” said Madame Bettencourt. Gerome, Plantin and Ásgeirsdóttir were lost for words. “It would be nice if people would let us move on. Instead, as the years go by all we seem to do is accumulate more of a past,” she added, pensively. “How is Lionél nowadays?”
Gerome looked at Liliane Bettencourt a moment bewildered. “Lionél Rochefort passed away, sadly. He was a great man, a great boss.”
“Mon dieu, such terrible news. How did it happen? When?”
“Let me see… September ’93 it was. Almost eleven years ago now,” explained Gerome sombrely.
When entrees arrived it was Plantin’s cue to take the rostrum, and Ásgeirsdóttir was able to gently suggest they take their seats.
Though humanitarian aid was not core business for UNESCO, Gerome owed his prominent position this evening to the intervention of Liliane Bettencourt, who was attending both as a major sponsor and as representative of the Alliance Internationale des Femmes. On accepting UNESCO’s invitation to this gala event, eighty-one year old Bettencourt requested the guest list so she could indicate her preferred seating arrangements. ‘Preferred’ actually meant who she would have at her table. She was both relieved and heartened to find Gerome’s name on the guest list, somebody with whom she could be comfortable, whose past association with her ailing husband provided warm reminiscences of happier times, and with whom she’d shared many an event like this one in days past.
Pop star Jenifer found herself within the most élite circle of this exclusive event on account of young Jean-Victor Bettencourt-Meyers being a fan. Reviewing the guest list with her personal assistant, coming across the name ‘Jenifer’, Madame Bettencourt had remarked “Jenifer who?” Her PA tried very hard to explain why it was just ‘Jenifer’ to no avail. “Who on earth has the name ‘just Jenifer’?” When her PA remarked that her grandson Jean-Victor was listening to Jenifer all the time, Liliane hatched the plan to have him accompany her and surprise him by having the beautiful young songstress seated right beside him. It had to be said, among all the dazzling beauties and starlets circulating so far this evening, the lad’s eyes appeared compulsively drawn to the singer, who in a vintage Bulgari dress and with Prada accessories cut an improbably unique and striking figure upon this sea of glamour. As he and his grandmother took their seats his heart indeed skipped a few beats as it became clear he was to be seated beside Jenifer, who’d been making introductions with Alan and Felicity.
“Madame Bettencourt, let me introduce Mister Alan Steiger, our chef de mission in Iraq, and Docteur Felicity Beauvoir, who will be flying out to our Iraq mission tomorrow to take up a position as surgeon.”
Madame Bettencourt nodded her assent and smiled.
“Oh,” said Jenifer. “You work in Iraq?”
“And you must be?” said Madame Bettencourt, feigning ignorance.
“Jenifer,” said Jean-Victor.
“Oh this is Jenifer? You have a beautiful voice ma chère,” said Madame Bettencourt, who couldn’t actually recall hearing the pop music that came from this dark-eyed nubile, merely the genre. “My grandson Jean-Victor listens to you all the time.”
“I have your CD,” said the teenager, smiling ear to ear.
“Oh. That’s wonderful,” replied the young pop star. “You’ll have to let me sign it for you.”
The boy’s face went ashen. “I don’t have it with me,” he said, as though a great travesty had occurred. “I… I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“I have a new one coming out in a couple of months so how about if I send you a signed copy?”
“Oh, really? That would be wonderful,” said Jean-Victor utterly smitten.
“Docteur Beauvoir?” said Madame Bettencourt, considering. “Any relation to…?”
“Yes, he’s my father,” replied Felicity.
“Oh. I see,” said Madame Bettencourt, forcing a smile. Felicity smiled back.
“And I am very pleased to meet you,” said Gerome reaching across and shaking Jenifer’s hand before taking his seat opposite Liliane Bettencourt at the end of the table. “We’re very thankful for your support.”
“I’m very proud to be involved.”
“Oh,” said Madame Bettencourt, caught off-guard. “You’ve made a contribution to Gerome’s charity?”
“In such a troubled world I think his NGO does very important work. I’m just honoured that you’re personally aware of my donation, Monsieur Trembleau.”
“Very commendable of you ma chère,” said Madame Bettencourt, providing a polished performance of disguising her irritation.
Gerome could barely conceal his glee as he leaned back in his chair introducing Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir to Jenifer, Alan and Felicity. This was turning out better than he could have imagined. All he had to do now was publish an article in Le Figaro commending the young star for her generous contribution. Liliane Bettencourt could never allow herself to be outdone by this week’s celebrity nymphette, and the donation would be quadrupled.
“Well this year with your generous support we’ll be helping these two provide food, shelter and medical care to the terrorised women and children of Iraq,” Gerome told Jenifer, tilting his head toward Felicity and Alan.
Conversation halted as Jeaneé Plantin got the evening’s formalities underway.
“Mesdames et monsieurs,” she said, taking the rostrum. “On behalf of UNESCO Social and Human Sciences I welcome you to this evening’s charity gala event as part of our International Symposium on Gender, Peace and Conflict.” She paused to allow her intrusion into the hum of conversation to settle over the gallery, beaming theatrically at no one in particular, an orator of phenomenal technique as Gerome recalled.
“Firstly I would like to thank Madame Noëlle Lenoir, Minister for European Affairs, and Mr Osman Topčagić, Director of the European Integrations Directorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina for joining us here tonight. I’d also like to acknowledge Christine Albanel, President of the Museum and Domain of the Palace of Versailles, and thank you and your staff for preparing this marvellous venue.
“How lucky we are on such a beautiful evening,” she continued after a moment, smiling directly at a random few faces at the tables around her. “…to be here at this magnificent place. It’s one of the best things about working at UNESCO, the role we play in the recognition and preservation of the cultural and natural wonders that constitute our World Heritage list. But of course we have no more claim over them than anyone else, they represent a common heritage, they belong to all humanity and indeed in many ways, particularly those natural wonders, they transcend even humanity. As a Frenchwoman though, I reserve the right to claim Versailles as especially mine.”
She swayed backward ever so slightly before leaning forward as though she were Maria Callas taking a breath before launching into a new verse.
“Civilisation,” she declared, “…is a term we don’t use much anymore outside the ancient history classroom. Historically its usage was tied to the inverse concept of the ‘primitive’, and thankfully we no longer look at the magnificent achievements of our own cultures,” she said, allowing herself a moment to look across the Cotelle Gallery and absorb it, “…and use them to define the uncivilised, the ‘primitive’, to identify the lesser human beings, the social and cultural ‘untermunchen’.” She paused again momentarily to allow her use of the term to sink in.
“So we moved beyond the term ‘civilisation’ to demonstrate we don’t see ourselves as exceptional, or more accurately that we don’t see others as unexceptional.”
“I favour bringing back the term civilisation as a means of introducing a new counter-concept, de-civilisation. Yes, easy to forget that ‘civilisation’ is not essentially a noun.” She looked over at the party at the head of the table to her left. “Perhaps no-one here will have a more intimate appreciation of what I mean by de-civilisation than our Sarajevan visitor, Mr Topčagić [Topcagic’s own story of Bosnian war.]
“Three hundred years ago an ailing Louis XIV was visited here at the Grand Trianon by his five year old grandson. The Sun King told young Louis XV to keep France in peace for ‘it is the ruin of peoples!’
“Of course, Louis XIV’s conclusion was no semi-divine flash of brilliance. Actually it’s a pretty ordinary thing to say. Like me you probably know numerous people who say much the same thing all the time. I’d even dare to suggest most of you here tonight are in agreement with the Sun King. Yet peace is so often mislaid and this universal lesson about conflict all but forgotten.
“How is it that despite an indelible connection to our past and all the historical examples that are well remembered, successive generations forget the universal detriment brought by conflict? It’s because the lesson is not about peace or conflict, it’s about the ethno-centric assumption of exceptionalism. One thing that UNESCO’s World Heritage List demonstrates is that all peoples and all lands of the world are exceptional.
“Sadly, much of the work of UN agencies and their partners is in damage control – dealing with the consequences of conflict, most often, overwhelmingly in fact, the consequences upon women and children.
“Uniquely among UN agencies, the natural role I’ve come to realise for UNESCO to play is instead to develop, encourage and exploit civilising influences as a force for prevention. Women, it would seem, have a unique stake in this. Firstly, as I mentioned, we’re a disproportionate representation among recipients of humanitarian aid, the victims of conflict if you like and all of its ghastliness including sexual violence, displacement and insecurity, but women also represent an increasing proportion of active players in conflict, as in much of the world women are taking an increasing role in the military. Women are taking part in irregular offensive action too. You’ll find women among the FARQ guerrilla fighters in Colombia, and among suicide bombers in the Middle-East.
“In nations across the world, and yes this includes the developed world, women are only just starting to become players among the political elite from whence the genesis of conflict inevitably comes. We’ve new powers of influence women have seldom known before. The questions is – are we really going to be a civilising influence, a force for peace? I’d like to think so, not because of any assumptions about the innate pacific qualities of womanhood, simply because the gender balance is the biggest change in the dynamics of conflict since classical times.
“Despite rhetorical if accurate assertions that men are responsible for more acts of violence, it doesn’t logically follow that empowered women are any less likely to deliver conflict. It is a comforting thought though, an idea we’ve been trying to imagine ways to employ in the cause of peace since at least 2400 years ago when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata.”
She paused as a few sniggers echoed around the gallery. Smirking, she continued. “What it does guarantee however is that we have a seat at the table as conflict is being played out and perhaps more importantly during peace-building.
“So what evidence is there to be optimistic that the increasing influence of women is going to be a force for civilisation, or more accurately, against de-civilisation, when for example in so much of the world women remain powerless? Well, that’s what I expect to find out through the course of this week. The implication of an increasing influence of women on conflict and peace is a theme among many of the speakers and papers being presented at this symposium. Of course it’s not the only theme.
“Already at this symposium we’ve heard Dr Eugenia Date-Bah explain both the importance and opportunity that exists in the appropriate employment of women in post-conflict reconstruction and the effect it has on the sustainability of peace building and nation building.
“Those of us lucky enough to have been at UNESCO House this morning to hear Betty Reardon speak will be utterly persuaded of the role gender can play in non-violent conflict resolution, and how important equity in education is in achieving that.
“Looking ahead at the programme for the rest of this week I am overwhelmed with anticipation. Thank you, each and every one of you for coming to make our symposium a success.
“I will wrap up now, not because I don’t have a lot to say on the subject but because while I watch you all savouring your entrées I see my own getting cold over there.” She garnered a few chuckles, particularly among those who knew she could talk the leg off an iron stove.
“After dinner we’ll have an opportunity to circulate a while before I introduce Minister Lenoir who has some interesting news about European intergovernmental initiatives, and Mr Topčagić who will share some experiences of the Balkan wars, Europe’s last major conflict. Please, enjoy the evening.”
Gerome stood amid the clapping, kissed Plantin on the cheek as she returned to their table before sliding her chair beneath her as she took her seat at the head of the table between himself and Madame Bettencourt. When applause subsided and guests turned to the extravagant meal being laid out before them an orchestra of conversation quickly engulfed the Cotelle Gallery. For Plantin’s benefit Gerome made introductions again.
“I understand your father’s Algerian,” said Madame Plantin to Jenifer.
“Oui,” said Jenifer. “My complicated heritage has been one preoccupation of the media, but my Algerian father is often the topic of conversation.”
“It’s something you have in common with Docteur Beauvoir here,” said Gerome.
“Your father’s Algerian too?”
“My grandmother. My grandfather was a Lieutenant in le Legion, he came home from North Africa in ’55 with an Algerian bride and a young son.”
“A Legionnaire?!” Madame Bettencourt reconfirmed with glowing admiration, being of that last generation to have known the French Empire and the rugged national symbolism of le Legion. “Soon after he was elected to the National Assembly my husband sat on the commission for overseas territories. In 1955 the Legionnaires in Algeria were a major point of discussion in our household,” Then her smile turned into a frown as a memory had her aghast. “So your grandfather was not among that rabble involved in the Officer’s Putsch in 1961?”
“No,” said Felicity with a laugh. “He was back home in Valbonne growing fruit by then,”
Reassured, Bettencourt smiled and nodded assent.
“Growing fruit in the Cote d’Azur? Sounds like an idyllic vocation for a retired soldier,” Plantin commented.
“How romantic,” agreed Jenifer.
Conversation over dinner covered the backgrounds of everyone except Liliane Bettencourt, Gerome and Jeaneé Plantin, from Jean-Victor’s planned university studies and Jenifer’s forthcoming second album, to Felicity’s work in the South Pacific and Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir’s yearning for snowfall. It finally settled upon Alan’s mission in Iraq and comparisons with those earlier conflicts like the Algerian war.
“How rudimentary humanitarian efforts were back then, and how challenging it must have been,” commented Ásgeirsdóttir.
“Well, most of what we need to do is rudimentary stuff – clean water and food, clothing, shelter and basic medical care,” said Alan, who’d reluctantly been drawn into conversation. “We may be better resourced nowadays but bureaucratisation has added its own difficulties, we’ve added layers of inefficiency that simply weren’t there before. How much less of my day would be consumed by administration around politics and accountability, and how much more of our time would have been spent delivering humanitarian aid if we’d been doing this for instance in Algeria in the ‘50s?”
This gave the party something to ponder over the haute cuisine and superior wine being lavishly served them.
As meals were coming to an end several guests started moving around and visiting acquaintances, and all around the Cotelle Gallery parties began to form. Gerome, Plantin, Bettencourt, Ásgeirsdóttir and Jenifer were soon very occupied, so that Felicity, Alan and Jean-Victor were left to form their own little party in the recess of a window overlooking a geometric garden toward the Grand Canal, in between Jean Cotelle II’s Vue de l’Orangerie et du château à partir de la pièce d’eau des Suisses and his Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe-Salle basse. Felicity’s two gentleman companions were reserved to say the least. Jean-Victor forced a comment on the nearby painting of l’Orangerie.
“It’s very nice,” he said inanely.
“Yes it is,” agreed Alan, stepping over to take a closer look at its surface, imagining that yes, that is what a 17th century oil painting looks like close up.
“The garden looks exactly the same today,” said Jean-Victor.
Felicity smiled as the two men looked on awkwardly at the painting, as though imagining they were making the impression of consumedly appraising an exquisite masterpiece but in fact using the gesture to avoid conversation with anyone else in the crowd.
“It’s an interesting idea isn’t it, art imitating life and then life being artificially held still so that it conforms thereafter to the art,” said Felicity.
Both men nodded and said hmmm… as though considering her appraisal in depth.
“His work hangs all around the gallery,” Jean-Victor said stiffly.
“How much would paintings like that be worth do you think?” Alan pondered, feigning interest.
“I don’t know,” said Jean-Victor, who hadn’t yet developed the knowledge of art acquisition that he would no doubt one day need. “All together they must be worth a couple of million euros,” he surmised, gesturing at the paintings hanging the length of the Cotelle Gallery.
As Felicity followed her disinterested companions’ eyes around the gallery she couldn’t help observing that was approximately the value of her own father’s work presently on display. She nudged Jean-Victor with an elbow. “See Pierre Cabot over there,” she said, lowering her voice and nodding discretely toward the veteran action movie star. Her two companions leaned closer to hear.
“Yeah,” said Jean-Victor attentively.
“Three facelifts,” she whispered.
The boy’s eyes widened, and Alan’s no less, as they both glanced compulsively toward the star.
“Helene Cardinale over by the rostrum,” she continued, pointing out the former fashion model and now department store figurehead. “Frequent flyer kilometres on the liposuction table.”
“Nooo?!” said Jean-Victor in amazement.
“Yes,” said Felicity nodding. Alan blinked in astonishment. “My father’s a cosmetic surgeon,” she explained.
“Aha.” Felicity nodded discretely toward various celebrities and other identities around the gallery. “Breast enhancement… nose-job… botox… tattoo removal… breast enhancement and botox… facelift… lipo’… breast reduction,” she rattled off.
Alan frowned at the last one “Really?”
Henri Beauvoir grew up the eldest son of a Southern orchardist and bee-keeper, the former Lieutenant of the Foreign Legion. His Algerian mother moved to her Lieutenant’s native Provence at a time when Algeria was still considered part of the French mainland. In the decade after France’s North-African territory gained independence in 1962, Samira Beauvoir became increasingly culturally isolated. Intensely proud of her heritage, she’d often find cause to declare so in her dealings with the townsfolk of Valbonne where they’d settled. While appreciated by her husband and many leading community figures, among Valbonne’s more parochial inhabitants, who took the view that Algeria was a land of towel-heads and turncoats, she was often the butt of racial slur. This perhaps contributed to a sense of restlessness in the young Henri.
His father’s orchards and apiaries delivered the family an adequate if somewhat hardworking existence, but Henri’s ambitions were not quite so modest. By his late teens he was making the daily and nightly commute downhill to the resort towns of the Cote d’Azur where he worked in the cafes and hotels. A determined worker with an outstanding eye to detail, he soon found himself working in the most exclusive hotels serving Europe’s most affluent, for whom the Cote d’Azur was a favoured playground. With his mother’s dark eyes and brown skin, his father’s lean muscular frame, and his own unique intensity and highly developed sense of self-possession, Henri found popularity among the region’s transitory patrician inhabitants who saw him as another exotic Mediterranean attraction, and he was often invited to parties as a curiosity, a touch of local flavour. Many of them returned year to year including a family from Normandy who possessed a villa in Antibes, a berth in the local marina, and a wild blonde blue-eyed daughter named Blanche who represented Henri’s own idea of the exotic.
The relationship was seasonal for a few years, an open secret, and did not continue at a distance whenever she returned home to Rouen. While the family discreetly accepted Henri as Blanche’s holiday play-thing, any suggestion that a courtship was occurring would have been quite absurd. Henri was the pleasant young local who took your breakfast orders or served you Long Island Iced Teas at le Martinez.
Henri understood all too well his social limitations and it rankled. What they often mistook for an endearing nonchalance was in fact a great big chip on his shoulder.
This all changed though in 1971 when Henri’s father concluded negotiations with the agency funded by both national and provincial governments for the acquisition of land for the establishment of the enterprise estate, Sophia Antipolis. Great tracts of land through the middle of this planned sprawling new technology park were occupied by the former Lieutenant Beauvoir’s prized orchards and apiaries. Monsieur Beauvoir retained small landholdings outside of Sophia Antipolis, but his compensation was of such proportion that any agriculture he undertook hereafter was essentially as a hobbyist.
Now almost twenty, first son Henri who’d been both smart and conscientious during his schooling, matriculated without difficulty and was dispatched to Paris to study medicine. Never again would Henri suffer the barbs of his mother’s race or his father’s income. Never again would he be subject to social stigma. Or so he thought.
Henri’s escape from the small town of his childhood coincided with Blanche outgrowing her own provincial beginnings. They ran into each other by chance at a café on Boulevard Saint Germain. Both liberated by the boundless opportunity that Paris represented, and somewhat assisted by the times, their once teenage urges for each other now re-ignited in an explosion of passion, the consequence of which was the arrival two years later in 1974 of a bounding baby Felicity. A marriage did occur, and it saw out the decade, but just as Henri reacted to his former modest social standing by becoming exceedingly conservative, Blanche reacted to her own staid Northern upbringing by submersing herself in Paris’s avant-garde fashion, art and music scene, finding her feet at precisely the punk rock era. Though finally if informally separated since 1984, they remained technically married right to this day, more as a result of oversight than of lingering attachment.
Henri’s determination was such that he was able to enter the competitive discipline of surgery, and he pursued the then still somewhat obscure but already lucrative specialisation of cosmetic surgery. Incredibly, right from his internship he found himself catering to the same class and sometimes even the same individuals he’d served cocktails and lunches to less than a decade before. The same remarkable work ethic and attention to detail he’d displayed back then guaranteed that Henri soon earned a reputation and eventually even an income to rival most of them. By 2004 Henri knew a good proportion of France’s, indeed Europe’s ruling classes more intimately than almost anyone, making him as well connected and deeply respected as anybody at UNESCO’s event tonight at Versailles. But Henri would never, could never be invited to an event such as this. His relationships with these people were intensely private. Not one of them would hope to see him at an event like this, knowing as he did their most intimate secrets.
“Watch out, here comes your grand-mère with Tummy-tuck,” said Felicity as Bettencourt bounded toward them with Jean-Pierre Gaumont, head of StudioCanal trailing.
“Jean-Victor, there’s someone I want you to meet,” said Liliane. “See, Jean-Pierre, isn’t he as handsome as I said.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Gaumont, reaching for the young man’s hand. “Your grand-mère tells me you have an interest in cinema.”
“Well I’m not sure I’ve yet met anyone who doesn’t,” said Jean-Victor, shaking the studio boss’s hand with a broad smile. Unable to control the urge he glanced down at Gaumont’s waistcoat, then burst into laughter.
“And you must be…” said Gaumont, releasing young Jean-Victor’s hand and turning to Felicity and Alan.
“Docteur Felicity Beauvoir.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Alan, taking Gaumont’s hand with a grin. “Alan. Alan Steiger.”
For the rest of the evening Alan, Felicity and Jean-Victor were inseparable buddies, sharing as they did a gentle comedic disdain for the pomp of the event. As they circumnavigated the gallery they garnered a few of their own discreet commentators. Whispers of “Bettencourt’s grandson” were followed by subtle alluring stares from glamorous lasses and one or two cougars. The singularly understated elegance of her olive-brown George Hameika dress and tiny pendant of simple Arabic design, her uniquely naturally tanned skin and the sun-bleached tips of her hair, at the end of winter no less, contrasted against both the lustre of her gold Christian Louboutins and the orangeness of some of the more radiant ladies, unassuming as it may have been, marked Felicity as quite astonishing all the same.
“His suit hangs off him like a potato sack and the trousers don’t match the jacket,” Liliane Bettencourt herself observed piteously of Alan. She imagined him the hard working school teacher of humble middle-American origins, scouring the racks at charity bazaars, carefully accumulating his wealth in food stamps until lifted from menial obscurity by a benevolent Gerome. She would make a point of taking him aside at some point in the evening and making her €5 million NGO pledge directly to Alan. Gerome would be enormously impressed and thankful for her altruism.
Fifteen minutes out of Buron on the road to South Ossetia, Eduard was on the phone to a colleague in Moscow when the military convoy took an unexpected right turn off the highway. At sight of the signpost his conversation halted. “Mamison,” he uttered.
The Ossetian Military Road dated back to Tsarist times and it crossed the Caucasus about 3000 metres above sea level at the treacherous Mamison Pass, which itself dated back to mythology.
“Mamison Pass is closed,” he told Garik, who glanced at him sideways before turning his attention back to the winding gravel road.
A few miles beyond the village of Verkhniy Zaramag the road terminated in a loop near a hamlet – a few shepherd’s huts surrounded by a complex of abandoned Soviet era commune farm buildings come military barracks. The men dismounted the broad cabins of the tank transporters and immediately set about un-hitching their tanks in a flurry of clanging and banging. One after another, and several at the same time, big diesel engines fired into life. Amid much yelling of directions the mighty destructive beasts clambered off their transporters and formed up in a column spearing toward a narrow valley where a clear stream twinkled in the mid-morning sun and steep mountainsides converged.
“You’re a fool, Captain. You can’t go into Georgia this way, you’ve directly disobeyed my orders, General Yudenich’s orders, and you’ve put the mission in jeopardy,” yelled Eduard, whipping himself into a frenzy. “I promise if it takes the last breath in my lungs I will see you court-martialled and stripped of your pension.”
The soldiers all overheard it and went about their business on tenterhooks, silently passing glances among themselves.
Garik took a small pack from the back of the UAZ before heading for his tank. It had been almost two hours since the target left Kutaisi. There was no time to waste on discussion with the bureaucrat. “Ambrolaui. Ambrolauri Eduard,” Garik requested calmly, cutting the SVR man off amid his ongoing protest. “Have they reached Ambrolauri?”
“I said they’ll call me when the target reaches Ambrolauri!” Eduard barked.
“Check now,” Garik calmly ordered, not breaking stride as he mounted the T-90 marked ‘K’. “NOW!” he growled from atop the turret, before looking each way along the column of tanks. He poked his head down into the turret and yelled out to his Gunner. “You ride with Sergeant Zharkov for now.”
Eduard looked around and realised apart from the drivers of the transporters he was the only man not on a tank. A Private landed on the ground beside him and ran toward the tank that had Eduard’s equipment tied onto it.
“Get up,” said Garik to Eduard. “And let’s get one thing clear – I don’t take orders from you ever, but while you are riding with this unit you will follow my orders directly, swiftly and without question or I will put a bullet through your skull.” He patted his sidearm then turned his stare into the mountains. “Let’s go,” he yelled.
The tanks moved off with Eduard still climbing aboard. As he went to climb through the hatch into the tank Garik pulled him back.
“You sit up here and contact your agents in Ambrolauri,” he said before dropping through the turret into the Commander’s seat and beginning to connect himself to his own communications equipment.
Eduard was incensed but he was in the hands of the insolent fuck for the time being. All in good time he would have the opportunity to put Garik in his place.