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French cafe sketch


The Deserter



NIEZYWSKI IS EXCITED about something, I can tell. I meet him outside the company by the flag square. That’s normally the terrain of a living god, the colonel, but today the Pole has some unexplained confidence. He walked right across those holy grounds when he spotted me. Like me, he’s still in mufti. He carries a small rucksack on his shoulder and looks perfectly radiant, a soldier of high morale, I’d say.

    “Obsine, old mate! Great to see you. Going out? On y vas, let’s get a drink. I’ll tell you something – you’re really wasting your time here, mon pote!

    That’s what he said, the little prophet.

    I’d never really rubbed elbows with this Pole. Not that I’ve anything against him. On the contrary, we’ve things in common. We’re both in the same platoon of the same infantry company and both just kids; at eighteen, the youngest in the régiment. Together at the crummy bottom of the food chain, in other words. But the Poles like to stick with their clique; they learn French slowly if at all, drowning homesickness in chewing the fat with friends from Polska. Same as with any group: the Brits, the Russians, the French or the Madagascans – a bunch of schoolyard gangs of grown-ups in this madhouse called the French Foreign Legion.

    Niezywski and I have returned early from leave. The kid probably hasn’t found any Polish company at the barracks yet. Anyone dumb enough not to desert would return in the evening, or by the latest tomorrow morning, for the roll call. I, too, have left my pack at a hotel. After all, it’s the last chance to wear your own clothes, the last evening without having some psycho yell at you just for the hell of it, and there’s always the pipe dream of finding some lass in a bistro downtown. In short, it’s the last night of an extended leave, full of paradisiacal opportunities. The Pole might as well recount all of his stories.

    Nothing seems to have changed while we’ve been away. Crumbling clouds roll over the garrison’s terracotta roofs: the white walls and sandstone company plaques look neat, the parade square clean as always. The jail boys are on the job. The can needs inmates, even when the rest of the establishment goes silent. Someone has to maintain the grounds, pick up any cigarette butts the sentinels scatter. They’re at it as we walk to the main gate, squatting in their boots without laces, pruning the perfectly cut hedges and shivering with cold, those connoisseurs of misery. The sycamore trees lining the square have shed all their leaves, just as people shed dignity here, their whitewashed trunks mottled and sickly.

    The sergeant eyes us and our leave permissions from under his black képi. The priority in his small world is to send legionnaires back to their company to iron their uniforms and shine their insignia a little more: the outfits are never impeccable, the pleats never as sharp as the sergeant wants and the bits of regalia and ribbons never quite as they should be. With this Portuguese asshole, you need to do at least a couple of demi-tours before those pearly gates spring open. But today the officers are not at the barracks. That calms down the non-coms, just like snakes coil on a warm rock. Besides, Niezywski and I are both in civvies now. Gutted, the sarge lets us through with a listless remark about how shitty we look. One wrong move and we’ll end up in his prison gang!

    Once out on Rue Vincent Faïta, we head towards the city center, stopping at the first grocery to buy drinks, which we down right there on the street after scanning around for MPs. Wiping beer from his lips, Niezywski tells me how this is going to be the most important day of his life.

   He’s just come back from Poland. He’s somehow managed to get a new passport to replace the one the legion has confiscated. It’s their trick to keep soldiers attached to the unit they must love, but the morons have cards up their sleeves, too. I’ve also gotten a new one from my embassy in Paris, and taped it to the underside of a shelf in my locker, just in case.

    “So, tell me what’s happened,” I ask. “What sparked you up like that?”

    “Let’s get a drink first.”

    “We just did.”

  “Shut up Obsine. Let’s go to La Crème. I’ll tell you everything.”

   We walk to my hotel first. It’s a pissy, old run-down establishment near the station. You can get in conveniently, right from the train, or catch one just as easily when you decide enough is enough. I pack my stuff that’s lying around the shabby room into a rucksack, while Niezywski sits on the bed and babbles something about a town in Germany, something about a river and a bridge that looks so fine there… I get a glass from the toilet and pour the kid a pastis, adding a dash of lukewarm tap water. Drinking what’s left straight from the bottle, I raise a toast. For the most important day in his life!

   “That’s it, Obsine. You know what, I’m going to desert. Fuck the legion. Enough of this bullshit! No more scrubbing toilets! I’m off!”

    He tells me how everything has come together now. He’s going to get his life back. He’s been to Germany and Poland. His girlfriend is pregnant – she’s waiting for him in Frankfurt. He’s got a job laid on there. Nothing big, just work at some warehouse, but anything is better than this legion crap, and the salary is better anyway. Sounds like a brilliant new start, I admit.

    I’ve no idea why Niezywski joined the forces in the first place. We never talk about our backgrounds, never ask questions. It’s not one of those legion’s many and ridiculous traditions. It just comes naturally. In a place like this, your past loses its meaning. You become a number, a pair of legs and hands attached to an organic toilet brush. Maybe Niezywski is like me – maybe he’s been struck with a boyish need for adventure, or perhaps his family has also disintegrated, like mine did, opening up a window for some self-destructive madness. Or maybe he’s like most East Europeans who come to seek employment and meals and a chance to get French citizenship after five years of servitude. Whatever his motives, I bet he hasn’t joined for plain soldiering. That’s for the Brits. At any rate, his circumstances call the shots now. He’s going to be a father, and that’s something.

   But, until now, the kid had made all the wrong moves. When you look at it, what’s life if nothing but a bad joke, a long trail of errors you’re unable to erase once you’re rotting underground? Ending up in a place like this at seventeen was just another blunder. Of course your pubertal brain takes all those stupid stories, spiced with glory and adventures, for real. Why not? Here’s where men are made, and that’s a fact! You crave the admiration and awe that people never show when you walk by as your ordinary self, a sniveling little dickhead. Then you make your move, and before you realize, you’re trapped like a rat. The kid had come to his senses, though. He’d figured out he could still correct everything. But the predictive value of a gross, artless mug follows a man everywhere. It’s like your family class or skin color. You don’t shake it off; it sits on you like a curse, takes a shit on you when it wants to. You’ve been covered in diarrhea of misfortune since birth.

    I check out of the hotel. La Crème is across the street, another foul establishment, the kind of lair that sustains the local pubic lice population. Even tonight, there’s a chance to meet other legionnaires, drunk, aggressive and oozing with their crass nonsense. I suggest we check what’s on Boulevard Victor Hugo instead...

    We walk past the ancient Roman slaughterhouse, its grotesque stone structure stained black and white with traffic pollution and pigeon shit. Out on the esplanade the sun is going down on the park and the plane trees, and beams of light cut through the trunks and the silhouettes of people floating down the pathways. It must be the end of some holiday for the civilians, too – another beginning of another period of insipid banality for them, too.

    I want to go to Le Napoleon, my favorite hangout because a girl once talked nicely to me there, but it’s too crowded to be comfortable. The Pole deserves to quit France without being pushed around, I say. So, we get into a bistro two doors down the street. It’s a cheap French joint, a sleazy place where students come to source marijuana and old pimps pester the barman, trying to get a free drink for some old, shady services. Not many customers tonight, like most nights probably, thus perfect for us: a table in the corner, mirrors around. The Pole slumps down on the imitation leather couch, as if he’d just arrived home from a thousand-mile journey. A happy man!

    I get us draught beers and fake absinthe shots. “All right, once more. For your new life… Santé!

    Niezywski drinks the pint with greedy gulps, and lets out a massive, rotten burp, his button-nose capped with foam that makes him look like a fat clown.

    Say what you say, but if you’re a major idiot, the legion is a great place to hide away, so you can’t contaminate the world with your stupidity or cause more harm to yourself. They’ll feed you and let you stay for as many years as you want, as long as you’re ready to put up with the daily absurdities. Even if you’re just ordinary jerks, like us, it may serve as a wake-up call and set you on the right path. It’s not a bad idea to try it for a year, two, or three. Why not even for the five that you signed for? The Pole has made barely eight months now. If he wants to fuck off, it’s his business. Never mind the contract – the legion doesn’t honor their share of the deal anyway. For all that grandiloquent swagger about honneur et fidelite, and the recruiters’ promises about becoming an elite soldier, you’ll end up a cleaning lady. And in the legion, there’s always plenty of household labor in store for you. Corvée, as the French say.

    For reasons which I fail to comprehend, and which have never been explained to us, every morning, afternoon and evening, the yard, officers’ mess, rooms, corridors, sinks, bathrooms, stores and every imaginable corner and object have to be washed. The corvée never ends: there’s trash to be picked up ad infinitum, un-flushed toilets flooding with feces, booths riddled with porn magazines that have their pages glued together, urinals blocked with vomit and cigarette butts. But, even things that appear to be perfectly neat have to be cleaned over and over again. Weapons, for one thing, need to shine. We scrub the rifles so often that they’ve lost their protective coating, gathering a fine layer of rust in a matter of hours when it rains. Uniforms are kept spotless – it’s very important to look good, and you have to be able to see your stupid grin in the reflection on your boots, even in the terrain. Shiny boots are everything. Without them, you can’t practice for parades and chant the traditional, flamboyant marching songs.

   This probably isn’t what Niezywski signed up for. So, what’s a name on a sheet of paper when you look through it and see a woman pregnant with your child? No question about bringing them over to France, when the legion won’t allow you even to have a bicycle... So, he should just take his rucksack and run. But what’s the idea of coming back here anyway, when he’d already made it to Poland?

    “Well, I just came to pick up my stuff. For a souvenir…” he answers, with a hint of embarrassment.

    I can’t believe what I’m hearing. But Niezywski bends down to search through his backpack. He displays his képi, shining white and wrapped in a plastic bag. Inside the képi are his parade dress epaulets, green and red, emanating the legion’s glory. There’s the division badge and regimental insignia and other trinkets we proudly carry. That’s another thing with the military, they’re good at creating these mystical items, bestowed with powers of past heroes. They look good on you, and come in handy when you finally retire, or fuck off, like the Pole is about to do, as you can build a small altar in your squalid rental apartment and display all these relics along with photos of yourself in uniform; a shrine of pride and machismo for the visitors to marvel. In legion’s parlance, we call this junk kili-kili. It’s the sound it makes when it dangles on your chest.

    I say, “Tell me you’re not serious… You traveled all the way back here, a day before your leave permit expires, for this trash? Are you an idiot?”

   “Who’s an idiot?” the Pole shoots back indignantly. “Tomorrow you’ll run corvée compagnie, after you’ve finished corvée quartier, then you’ll be the popote at the non-coms’ club or washing dishes in the foyer, while I’m drinking beer on a train to freedom. But damn, I just wish I’d have had time to get some medals.”

    That’s one thing he’s bitter about. I’ve just received my défence nationale, or the ‘chocolate medal.’ You get it automatically, after ten months of service. It’s an emotional ceremony – adult men almost shed a tear when the colonel attaches that shiny coin to their chest. But the Pole is two months short, and has to depart without this trophy.

    He gets us another round. Outside, the night has crept upon the city; some French lads walk into the bistro with their girls, noisy, drunk, happy. It’s got to be some carnival weekend. But ten months, is that all? Come to think of it, I’m almost envious of Niezywski, as I realize I’ve got four years left of cleaning crappers and standing in line.

    “So, what’s your plan for getting yourself out of here?” I ask. “You going to catch a train? The MPs patrol the station, and you look like a legionnaire. Your hair hasn’t grown that long yet.”

    “Don’t worry, pal. I’ll get the last train. I’ll be in Italy by morning!”

    Okay, then. Everything is perfect. He goes on singing a legion song, J’ai rendez-vous avec celle que j’adore… Jeanine, je reviendrai…

    Looking at this stubby, button-nosed Pole, I can’t help thinking it’s best for everyone if he deserts. He’s not exactly the kind of material that would last long in here. As for me, I’m skinny, left-handed, and wear eyeglasses, but I’ve gotten used to the violence by now. I fight back when I need to: fists, boots, metal rack from the locker, whatever it takes to settle the score. Usually, I too get beat up anyway, but Niezywski is softer than I am – I wonder what it would do to him if he stayed any longer, when you’re taught day in day out that all this shit is entirely normal, that this is the way life works, and how everything gets sorted out.

    In the evening musters, during basic training when we spoke even less French than we do now, whenever the count inevitably got stuck at someone who’d forgotten the numbers, it was customary for our raving insane, six-feet-five German drill corporal to step in. With the men all lined up in the corridor, he’d count us by punching everyone in the chest with full force. Blam. “Un..!” Blam, “Deux..!” Blam, “Trois!” Blam, blam, blam, all the way, until “Quarante-cinq, fin de séction!” If someone lost rhythm during parade drills, or let his head droop in a class, the German would be right there to smack him on the ear and decimate the eardrum. The maniac was a sadist, and a medic, which made it all the more perverse. His favorite forced “treatment” for blisters after a march was to inject them with alcohol, just to elicit howls of pain. Once, he found a chocolate bar in a locker of this hapless English guy, another who should have never joined in the first place, and the German had us all stand in line while he paraded the chap and his candy bar in front of everybody, asking us if we were allowed to bring back food from the canteen, before proceeding to punch and kick the shit out of the Brit – or piss, in fact, since the man wetted himself right there. So, that was our drill corporal. After the basic, no matter which unit you ended up in, there were more psychos waiting to teach you the legion’s way. In our company, we had Corporal Cox. He was the worst of the English breed: vindictive, alcoholic, violent, malign. Since he hated everyone Polish, and anyone smaller than him, he was always scanning around with his squinted swine eyes, especially for Niezywski.

    I so hoped I could have somehow understood the man Cox had perhaps been before his joining  the legion, just to ease the panic I felt when I realized I’d possibly come across a human being that had nothing, absolutely nothing good in him. Yet, in a way, he was like everyone else, incarcerated and cantankerous.

   Things got worse when we got out to field exercises. That’s when you have to do without alcohol and live in greater cold and misery. Bellowing and roaring, like some crazed walruses on a beach, everyone just wanted to get back to the barracks. The barracks were heaven compared to the terrain because, you see, once a week, if they made it past the circus of ironing and re-ironing their uniforms, the men could strut down the street like a king to the nearest bar, to imbibe the cheapest wine and feel up African prostitutes. Never mind the massive hangovers and gonorrhea. That’s as close to nirvana as they could conceive. Anyone who’d joined because he actually wanted to be a soldier was ridiculed and mocked. They made perfect candidates for corvée chiottes, if nothing else. That’ll teach you how to fight when you’re trying to unblock the urinals whilst upstairs the cunts keep flushing and everything is overflowing with rancid piss. These were the precious life lessons the legion had to offer. And because of Cox, Niezywski wouldn’t miss a thing.

   “Look, this is something I didn’t want to leave behind, either,” says the Pole, and shows me a pocket knife. He’d gotten drunk by now. We were doing our fourth round of absinthe and ales.

    “Put that away,” I say. “Not good playing with knives in a bar.” 

   “Don’t be a jerk. It’s just a keepsake. And a good knife. Look!” Niezywski snaps open the Opinel and hands it to me, not understanding I have the same – a Christmas present from the platoon which everyone got. Niezywski’s blade is blackened from campfires. I can hardly make out the 1e CIE, S/1, 24.12.1992, etched on it. True, a good knife. Just needs some sharpening.

   “It’s getting late,” I say, returning the blade. “Don’t you have a train to catch?”

    “Will get the first in the morning. Let’s have another.”

    “Whatever suits you.”

    He must know that when he’s missing from the roll call, they’ll alert the gendarmerie, and every border crossing will have his name before mid-day. But what’s that for a drunken mind? Sauced enough, you feel you’ll tackle any menace. Your brain is teeming with great ideas and solutions. Niezywski now looks like he is mulling over something. He pauses for a long while, sinks into some solitary war room in his head, where inebriate battle plans are drawn. Then, after yet another round of liquor, the worst one, he unveils his scheme.

    “You know what, I’ll go to l’Élysée.”

    Perfect. The kid should be preparing his escape, but now he wants to spend the night in a rotten disco. What’s worse, this one is near the Garrigues, the somber, rocky plateau that our regiment uses for exercises, for the endless, pointless marching and sleeping in the thorn-bushes, while being doused by the cold Mediterranean rains. L’Élysée is the hell-hole at the edge of that desert, marking the border of civilization, like a guard post where junkies, whores and intoxicated legionnaires collide.

    I almost understand Niezywski. Maybe he wants to end his brief time in the forces by revisiting all of his experiences, leaving victoriously, like a boss. Hell, he might as well try, since the first train will depart at five, half an hour before our roll call.

    “Fine, I’ll join you,” I say. “Drink up. Let’s get a taxi.” I’m fool enough to think, despite not knowing the Pole at all, that I’m his wingman now, that it’s my duty to look after the besotted combatant until he has boarded his ride to freedom.

    “Let’s get different cars,” Niezywski says.

    “Why, I’ll go to l’Escale, too.”

    “Sorry, but I need to stop somewhere.”

    “And why can’t I stop there, too?”

   “I don’t want you in my taxi,” Niezywski insists. “That’s just the way it is.”

    It is then that I get a premonition of what the kid is up to. These guys from the east, they’re fatalistic, unpredictable and mad. I know I can’t talk him out of whatever great idea he’s come up with; to make him realize that he still has a chance to leave the country; that what he needs now is a room at the station hotel and a few hours of sleep. Who would ever listen to you? As long as you’re a nobody and poor, your opinions will only serve to cause hostility, everyone wanting to just shut your damn mouth. That’s the world. Besides, when a disaster of epic proportions is on its way, it’s written in the stars; try to intervene and you’ll only get yourself mangled up.

    In the end, it’s none of my business.

    I look at the Pole. I look at the unfinished ale in front of me, which suddenly feels like the one concrete thing in this world, like an anchor keeping my ship from drifting to the rocks.

    “Whatever suits you, bro. Go wherever you like.”

   That sets Niezywski in motion. He finishes his beer, leaves eighty francs on the table, picks up his rucksack and shakes my hand with determination.

    “Bonne chance, Obsine! La Légion s’en va!”

    I watch him exit the bistro. I see him through the glass wall, standing by the curb, waving for a taxi. A brown Mercedes pulls over. Niezywski steps in without looking back, the cab takes off and the Pole disappears forever.

    This is very unusual, I’ve got to say. I don’t understand a thing anymore. I stare at my beer. I glance at the sparse clientele, young people like Niezywski and me, loud, carefree kids, probably students from the nearby university. I’d like to approach them, but once you’re stuck alone with a drink under your nose, you look even more sordid than you normally do. And what for? What would I say? That some poor bastard’s dreams are going to be destroyed tonight? That it’s not a sin to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just a regular curse?

   It’s past midnight when I walk back towards the barracks. The streets are empty, there’s a deadly cold chill in the air. Shop windows have switched off their lights; I can see my own ghost walking beside me under the skeleton trees, with the whole city pitch-black and silent, scared even to breathe, everyone and everything waiting to plug their ears from the distant screams.

*  *  *

The lights are turned on at five, as the yells of the duty sergeant penetrate the legionnaires’ late-morning nightmares. “Réveil compagnie!” An old tradition; hundreds of nameless sergeants have hollered the same, before disappearing into their graves.

   Nobody seems to be missing: Poudecul, Murdoch, Conzaka, the two new Romanians. Everyone has returned from their vacation. The room stinks of sweat, shit, intestinal gases and bitter alcohol fumes. There’s hungover cursing, kicking of lockers, hairy legs staggering, farts, the sergeant’s aggressive yelling echoing through the building. Soon the corporals’ howls will join him in one rabid choir of madmen... I get up, walk to the window to let in fresh air. It’s still dark and cold outside – a perfect night for murders and suicide.

    Down at the desolate flag square, the company starts to assemble for the appel. Cox is our duty corporal. He stands with his arms akimbo, his pink face irate and pig eyes blood-shot with hostility. “Dépêchez-vous, putain!” he yells at the two legionnaires staggering over from the main gate. They’re still in mufti, on leave until the last bittersweet minute. Cox’s chin quivers in toxic agony; he’s been drinking every day of his leave, holed up in some whorehouse, and the malice is going to get worse when the withdrawal symptoms set in, all the Poles know that. He smashes his fist into the chests of the merry holiday-makers. The men stagger back, regain their balance, and scurry to join our ranks in straight lines under the harsh floodlights, first victims for the corvée compagnie, for daring to show up in their civilian rags.

    Cox starts to count our heads. When the duty sergeant descends to hear the numbers, he has to report five legionnaires missing. One of them is Niezywski.

   After the muster, we spread out for routine tasks: hundreds of meters of corridors are waiting to be cleansed, dozens of toilet seats to be sanitized. There’s an exercise coming up (in the Garrigues). With this in mind, quantities of equipment need to be checked and maintained. Conzaka, the young Peruvian, and I are assigned to the armory to help with weapons inventory – an easy start for the regimental life. I forget about Niezywski until the afternoon roll call, when the platoon commander comes to address us.

    Adjutant-Chef Proztak is one of those who still try to see the legion as a proper fighting force, rather than a parade unit. A Polish warrior! In the context of all things rotten, I consider myself lucky to serve in his platoon. What’s more, unlike most of the other NCOs, he doesn’t seem to hate me instinctively; instead, someone’s even claimed to have seen my name on the list for this year’s corporal course. How splendid it would be to strut around with stripes on the chest! The absolute power! Instead of having to clean nooks myself, I’d be the one assigning legionnaires to the chores, then get yelled at by the sergeants when the crappers or soldiers’ boots don’t shine as they should.

    It’s time for some solemn news. Proztak tells us how two legionnaires have gone missing from our platoon. Or, in fact, only one is missing; a German, well-liked private, whose desertion – or death, how would I know – comes as a surprise to everyone. The other legionnaire, Niezywski, is in police custody.

    The kid had asked the taxi to take him to the Garrigues. Then, in the middle of that dark plateau, at midnight, he’d slashed the driver’s throat. He then headed northeast, towards the Italian border, I guess, but didn’t get far before rolling the cab over in a ditch, still in the Garrigues, where the gendarmes picked him up, drunk as a fiddler and bleeding.

   I’d already seen men desert. Some had run off in the middle of the night, in their combat uniform, during a marching exercise in basic training, leaving behind just their webbing gear and a rifle in a sleeping bag under the stars, heading towards Spain in a desperate dash. I’d heard of more dramatic escapades, too, like of the Swedish legionnaire who was said to have stolen a tank and driven it through the regiment’s brick wall, never to be heard of again. The majority, the lazy ones, and those capable of planning, simply didn’t return from leave. But to return, and to return just to pick up some legion memorabilia and then murder a bystander, that was quite unusual, even by the legion’s twisted standards.

    I ask to see the commander in the afternoon. Proztak receives me in his office, visibly annoyed that his fellow countryman has fucked up like that. I tell him I saw Niezywski before he took off for his botched flight. I say what he’d said about the pregnant girl waiting in Germany. Should someone try to get a word out for her?

   “Little we can do about it,” says Proztak. He probably could, though, if he wanted to, but Niezywski has really screwed up, and when you screw up in the legion it becomes your business only.

    “Did he tell you he was planning to desert?”

    “No, sir,” I say. “Il m’a rien dit.

  “Well, he got what he wanted, now… A long leave, indeed!”

    Later on, I hear Niezywski was handed eight years in a civilian court. Nothing much to say about it. Eight’s not bad for murder, and, if I call spade a spade, the kid was their product anyway. Processed at the factory for callow bastards.

    And I still have those four to go.

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