The bulging bulk of a black Colossus, clothed resplendently in white, is sprawled across two seats in our Paris suburban train, dreaming of fruit straight from the tree. He gazes balefully across the aisle at his Sunday best wife sitting with their two designer daughters, their features animated by female chatter. If he closes his eyes, he can almost hear the village women back in Mali sitting under the mango trees of his childhood, jaw-jawing over the griot’s tune while waiting for the ripe fruit to fall.
A barrel of a man in the full force of his early fifties, the Colossus is of the sort you see dissuading shoplifters in swish shopping centres. No shades or dark suit for him today however, the Colossus has swapped his work garb for an in-fashion sports outfit bought to match those sported by his females. Not a son in sight.
Rooted firmly into the pads of fat that glisten like slivers of mango across his shoulders is a massive neck. It rises thickly from nape to crown, such that not a solitary inch of the polished bullet that is his cranium overlaps the line of his backbone. Here is the sort of man off which other men bounce.
The womenfolk are laughing at him. More of a mock than a taunt, it must be said.
“Papa! Give it to me; let me do it for you!”
This is the voice of his eight-year-old lamb in Nike clothing, her fingers itching to ease her papa’s iPhone pain.
“No! He has to learn how to do it for himself,” says the mother, “or he’ll never get the hang of it”.
That’s easy enough for her to say, she’s a good ten years younger than her man and chirrupy proud when people take her for the third sister. She adopts a barely contained straight face as she catches the doleful eye of the Colossus across the aisle, then splutters with mirth at a quip from one of her daughters.
The next stop, Bourg la Reine, is a busy one. The train pulls away from the platform bearing twice the number of lungs as it did before, and the same quantity of air is now being shared amongst them.
Uh oh. This is all we needed. Recycling her quota of air – notwithstanding harrumphs to the contrary from a pair of mutton-dressed-up-as-lamb, see how I swivel my bum, Bourg la Reineuses – is a bag lady.
For those of us already in this RER train the arrival of these newcomers is an unwelcome intrusion. We had grown accustomed to each other’s presence before this halt; including the grubby-looking man with timeless eyes and plaited hair sitting in a corner seat, opposite a student. We were sufficiently spread out across the length of the carriage to be unbothered by splayed legs or fetid breath. Now we must hunch up and relinquish our elbow room. Notice, however, how none of the strangers dares occupy the space around the Colossus. Except, that is, for one.
Behind her, the bag lady trails a granny trolley. Perforated sides and a transparent flap across its top lend it an air of plastic mac cheapness. It holds what appears to be a brindle blanket made of matted material. A faint reek of something unmentionable emanates from the woman and hangs in the air like a cloud of blowflies. Her hair is lank and black but her face is as smooth and rosy as a nun’s and her eyes have the enchanted stare of someone who has recently been conversing with angels. A black Colossus is not a thing of wonder in her world. She perches down opposite him. His eyes widen.
Well now, here’s a surprise – the bag lady’s brindle blanket just barked! It takes the Colossus by surprise, that’s for sure; he shoots up from the slouched position and is now orb-eyed and alert. Different woof, woof! Blimey, she’s got two of them stuffed in her granny trolley. She peels back the transparent top to reveal a pair of pink noses and four button eyes camouflaged this way and that by tufts of cottony hair. The bag lady, you see, travels with an eight-legged brindle blanket. The Colossus rolls his eyes and looks away in disbelief, returning to the iPhone problem. Yet something about this woman troubles him; they don’t have spirits in France, do they? She has the Hunter’s smile.
The bag lady extracts one dog from the trolley and places it on her lap. It snarls at the Colossus, emitting a suppressed sound as if it were grinding sand in its gullet. The bag lady stuffs the dog back in the trolley and extracts the other one. It looks up at her and bares its teeth ingratiatingly. Both canines possess the strong, lithe body of the poodle, close-clad with coils of coarse hair typical of water-dogs. Their faces, however, betray the pert-eyed lineage of the Yorkshire terrier, complete with silky fronds of the kind that fawning ladies yearn to adorn with silk bows. These are yorkipoos, a cross-breed for which the word “yap” might have been invented.
The daughters are fascinated by the animals; they ply the bag lady with questions about them. The bag lady replies politely, her speech refined. Close your eyes and it is hard to associate the educated lilt with the unhealthy biological smell that is currently wafting through the carriage and wrinkling noses.
The Colossus, sad to report, is not winning the battle with the iPhone. His stubby fingers stab and poke but still he can’t get his number. His anxiety increases for he must talk to someone about his situation. The womenfolk are entitled to stay in France but the Colussus is sans papiers.
Taking a break from the graffiti-soiled ugliness flashing past outside the train, the bored eyes of strangers alight vaguely upon the Colossus and bring him into focus. So strange how trivial scenes attract and hold one’s attention. Soon the whole carriage has the Colossus and his discomfiture firmly in its sights.
A slowing of time settles over the scene, advancing in half-ticks like the second hand of a dying clock. The Colossus is nonplussed by what he is trying to suss. His brow furrows as he turns the phone upside down and round and around.
“Et puis merde!” he cusses. “How are you supposed to make a phone call with this damn thing?”
Time accelerates as he lobs the gadget across the aisle to his daughters then slows again as it paddles though the mud of shame that is sucking at the Colossus. Ha-ha-ha, he doesn’t know how to use a phone! His daughters are cleverer than he is. That old bag lady would make a better showing than this ton of lard.
Fortunately, it’s time for some Mali twinkles. Here they come, slipping silently from the man with plaits in his hair to the enraptured eyes of the bag lady, now bouncing beadily from dog to dog and on to wife and then from daughter to daughter and finally across the aisle to settle into Papa’s peepers. The massive shoulders of the Colossus begin to rock. Our man is under attack from a guffaw of gigantic proportions, abetted by the twinkles. As it erupts into the open air the infectious joy of a huge African laugh sends out a shock wave of good feeling that reverberates from passenger to passenger, massaging them for its duration with an ephemeral balm of fraternity, as when mangoes start to fall from the tree.
But the moment passes and the spell has broken. Time ratchets forward again at normal pace, snaring the humdrum of people’s lives. The smug and the glum alike turn elsewhere their bored attention.
The man with plaits in his hair observes the student take an e-book reader from his pocket.
“What will become your European stories,” he asks with eyes still a-twinkle, “when there is no more electricity and all the books have been burnt?”
“We shall have to write new ones!”
“I say learn them instead,” says the man, wagging a finger, “and tell them to your children.”
The student takes a sideways glance at the grey skin and blood-flecked eyes of the thin African sitting alongside him, as if noticing him for the first time.
“A story cannot survive unless it is written down,” he says.
“Young man, I fear you have much to learn,” chides the thin African through narrow lips. “Like the stone upon which it is engraved, a story written is trapped. It cannot breathe, whereas a story told is like the wind, you cannot stop it”.
“Next stop Chatelet” announces a recorded voice.
Thanks to his daughter the Colossus has made his call, the bag lady is settling the yorkipoos back into their mobile niche, and fresh mangoes from Mali await on the fruit stalls of the African market in the rue Dejeun, the only place that stocks them in Paris.
Chatelet. The world’s largest underground station. Above this labyrinth once stood the great wholesale food markets known as Les Halles, where mangoes were just one of the many comestibles passing through en route to Parisian bellies. Here three suburban and five metro lines converge and the majority of our carriage is preparing to leave the train. The bag lady is first out of the door; the Colossus and his coterie are close behind. They cross the platform and wait for their connections, the bag lady standing alone in the oasis of space afforded her by her aroma and the family further along the platform, out of nose-shot.
And so, dear reader, this snapshot of suburban banality, starring the unsung and the smelly, draws to a welcome close.
A pride of louts swaggers noisily into view and takes up a threatening stance around the bag lady. There are five of them, three with smartphones to their ears, two with hands in pockets.
“You stink” says one. They jostle the lady, who stumbles between the shoves.
“What you fucking got in there?”
A designer boot connects with the granny bag, sending it cart-wheeling over the edge of platform. It lands upside down between the rails, and lies there feebly yelping.
“Stay out of this,” the Colossus’s wife hisses but if he has heard her he pays no heed.
In the ten minutes he has known her the Colossus has grown fond of the bag lady. The disrespect shown by the louts towards an old person offends him to the core, far more than any racist remark might. In Mali, from whence he hails, if all the chairs are taken when an elder arrives everyone stands up and the best seat is freed for him. There then ensues a comical game of musical chairs designed to restore the pecking order. As a baobab tree gathers wisdom so its girth thickens. As any Malian will tell you, so it is with elders.
The Colossus is ashamed to see black faces amongst the thugs. How soon Africans become uncivilised in contact with whites! It brings out the buffalo in him. He will teach them some respect.
The Colossus’s wife tugs at his sleeve.
“Look out, they’re doing stop and search!”
Sure enough, a police patrol in padded uniforms and square chins has appeared and is working its way along the platform towards the Colossus.
“Police Nationale. Your papers, please.”
“My name is Keita.”
“Whatever. Do you have proof of identity?”
“I am from the land of Sunjata.”
“Cut the talk. Show us your papers.”
This is not looking good for the Colossus. He grew up with the verbal and the French police want the tangible. If they have seen names like Keita, Konaté and Kouyaté they have no inkling of their significance. The Colossus, on the other hand, knows their meaning. He believes in prophesies and charms but they don’t seem to work here like they do in Africa. In Europe the demons speak through television screens and wield their power through policemen. What the Colossus would need right now is a hunter to help him out.
“I am who I am. That is my identity.”
The Colossus looks to the only dark face in the brigade, a black boy here to make up the quota.
“What country are you from, you?”
But the boy is French, born in the neuf trois, the roughest suburb to the North-East of Paris where no mango trees grow. To him Africa is the land of snakes and bumpkins, of invasive aunts and decrepit uncles afraid to be caught without papers instead of taking what was theirs by right and teaching the beurs and the blancs respect.
“Man, learn some respect.”
Respect! The Colossus can hardly believe his ears. What does this kid know about respect?
Respect! thinks the thug in uniform. What do you bush monkeys know about respect?
Two worlds joined by the heritage of their skin but separated by the colour of their experience.
“Show us your work permit or your passport. Any form of ID.”
The Colossus draws himself up to his full height, eyes wide and bloodshot, carotids pulsing threateningly along the flanks of his neck.
It takes the whole brigade to wrestle him to the ground. His white clothes are soiled, a trickle of blood runs from one temple, he is buffalo mad and rampaging. They cannot hold him. The open doors of another train beckon, he stampedes towards it.
“Stand back!” yells the brigadier chief, drawing his taser gun.
The Colossus is down, legs twitching, half in the train and half out. His women are screaming, pleading. They try to pull him to his feet but his legs give way, they are like jelly, he cannot stand. The Colossus drags himself across the floor by the strength of his arms alone, his legs hampering his progress like sleeping pythons. He attempts to pull himself upright with the help of a chromed metal pole standing sturdy in the middle of the carriage. Hand over hand, he’s nearly up but the pole, strong as it is, slips through his fingers. The Colossus sinks back to the floor and bows his head.
A pair of yorkipoos appear joyfully between a forest of legs, tugging at either end of a wooden stick. Legs part to let them by. They drop the stick, a flimsy-looking affair, at the colussus’s feet and nudge it forward with their noses. The stick emits a carrion-like smell, perhaps that’s what attracted the dogs? The unpleasant aroma clears the mist of shame swirling in the Colossus’s mind. Can this be happening? The dogs have brought him a baobab branch. As soon as he feels its spongy touch he knows he will walk again. The stick buckles but holds firm just as Sunjata’s did so long ago. It has taken everyone by surprise; the Colossus is up and running, the police on his tail.
Now he has the bag lady surrounded by louts in his sights. He is gathering momentum, his head is down like a bull buffalo, they have not seen him charging yet; he has them by surprise. Thugs one, two and three go flying, the Colossus picks up the fourth and throws him at the fifth. They scatter and then regroup. So now the Colossus has one pinned up against a wall, chastising him as any African adult would a wayward child but now the police are all around him, batons drawn, landing blows, quelling resistance, enforcing the rule of law. The yorkipoos’ baobab stick skids across to the edge of the platform; the dogs themselves are nowhere to be seen.
Air is wafting from the dark mouth of the tunnel, pushed by a distant approaching train.
And now the lights in the station flicker and silence drops upon the scene. It is as if the sounds of the busy station are holding their breath. Quiet enough to hear whimpers coming from the track. The police have slammed the Colossus to the ground, his women are aghast, the thugs have evaporated …
…but the bag lady is spinning like a ballerina, arms above her head. Round and round she goes. Faster and faster.
On an RER platform at Chatelet station, amidst the ghostly feet of the departed food markets.
Now she is gone.
She was here and now she’s not.
The only one who has noticed anything is a man with plaits in his hair. He is sitting watching, on a bench beneath an indicator panel. The lights of which should be on but which are not.
Now the scene unfreezes, the police brigade march the Colossus away, followed by the distraught women.
“Where did that smelly bitch go?” asks the black boy in uniform.
Walking some paces behind, a man with a twinkle in his eye and plaits in his hair smiles a knowing smile.
So, dear reader, here we are. If one day you should sit beneath an indicator panel on a platform at the biggest underground station in the world, spare a thought for the bag lady. And when the wind begins to snatch at your hair as your train approaches, listen for the whimpers of the yorkipoos. For you are a magician.
Yes, magician indeed you are, and the wind is your wand. Did you pooh pooh the existence the yorkipoos? No you did not. You are the story inside the story if you listen to the wind. And puff! You are the sirocco inside the tornado; the Chinook within the typhoon.
Now here you are head down, struggling home against a howling north wind. Your ears are red and tingling, your nose is dripping, the crackle of a log fire and a tot of whisky your waiting reward …
A wave of your wand and a young woman is lazing lightly dressed, her lips pink and slightly parted, her nose in a book, on a beach of fine white sand along a lagoon of shallow turquoise, upon which, unseen by her, a fish-hunter’s pirogue advances, knifing through the waters. The lightest of breezes wafts across the reader’s languid body, raising the soft down on her forearms and lifting a corner of her page. It whispers something in her ear.
“Shhh…. Zephyrus is my name. Out of the west I come, bearing Cupid’s story on my sweet breath as a gift to she who will listen…”
Another wave of your wand and we find ourselves being tossed around in a salad bowl with a pair of ragged Africans on their way to the airport, one fat, one thin, where they are being taken to be expelled back to Mali.
“I went to Paris to buy mangoes,” chuckles the fat one, “and I end up in a salad bowl!”
It is good he sees the funny side of it.
The thin man with plaits in his hair grins. “It is indeed a strange name they give to their police vans, these French. I shall put it in my story.”
“And they gave us money!”
“You could not make it up!”
‘Financial aid to help illegal immigrants return to their countries’ is what the government calls it. A bribe, in other words.
“Who are you, my friend?” the Colossus asks, his mood returning to gloom. “I am so sad to leave my family behind, I fear I shall never see them again.” His white clothes are grey now, the colour of his friend’s skin. “I am lost. I had an iPhone but now I do not know who I am.”
A damp draught enters the van through a leaking window; they do not use their best vehicles for this run.
“Live your story Keita, for that is your name. I am listening. Fear not, for you will return. Your story is like the wind, Keita, it cannot be stopped.”
We are still on French soil but it is as if the breath of Mali is mingling with the Paris air, and the Colossus can already hear the chatter of the village women and the clucking of the hens.
“I do not understand. Again I ask, who are you?”
The van draws to a halt, interrupting the Africans’ conversation. The rear door is opened roughly and a bag thrown inside.
“Take your stinking belongings back home with you!”
The door slams shut again and is locked, more noisily than is necessary.
The Colossus is treading water in the confusion in his mind. The bag, he sees, has wheels. It has perforated sides and a transparent flap across its top and from it emanates a faint biological smell.
“What witchcraft is this?” he yells wide eyed, backing away from the man with plaits in his hair.
“Of what are you afraid, Keita?”
“What? There are dead dogs in there!”
From iPhone to eye-popping terror the distance is not great when the fear of black magic worms its way into the mind of a man en route to Mali.
“Would you like to hear a story, Keita?”
“Huh? Get away from me!”
“Ten boys were sitting under a mango tree, waiting for the first fruit to fall. Nine boys squabbled and boasted that they would catch the first fruit. They kept looking at the tree, ready to rush.”
“I’m going mad,” wails the Colossus.
“The tenth boy had withered legs. He could only get around by digging his fingernails into the earth and dragging himself along. But although he was the weakest he was also the wisest.”
The Colossus is listening while keeping a weather eye out for rotting yorkipoos.
“So Keita, how did the cripple know where the first fruit would fall?”
The Colossus looks blankly at the grey-skinned man.
“Just who are you?”
“Is it not obvious?”
“Then I will tell you. I am your griot.”
“Do not interrupt the story for it is important. A story half-told is like a boy with withered legs.”
“Go on then. I must be dreaming.”
“A good sign if it is true!”
The griot presses his hands together, all ten fingers pointing upwards and then parts them again. He scoops imaginary water from an imaginary bowl and bathes the plaits on his head, then takes another scoop, which he lets trickle down his face. Refreshed, he continues with his story.
“To know where the first fruit would fall the boy with withered legs looked in all directions except at the mango tree. He scrambled to the north and then to the east, each time stopping to sniff the air. Then he moved to the south and then the west, then started again. The earth beneath his nails grew thick.”
The griot pauses for breath, raising a hand to quell the question hovering on the Colossus’s lips.
“Well, Keita, I see you have not heard this story before. Remember to tell it to your children when next you see them, so its legs may grow strong again.”
The police van is pulling off the motorway, the airport is not far.
“Go on,” says the Colossus, “there is not much time.”
“Oh, time we have. Time is timeless for it never ends. I thought you said you were dreaming.”
“I want to know the end of the story!”
“Ah yes, that is the way with stories.”
“So, nine fit boys are staring at the mango tree and one crippled boy is not, yet that boy will be first to catch a fruit.”
“It is such a riddle, griot, I cannot fathom it.”
“Shut the fuck up back there!” shouts the van driver but a griot’s story is like the wind, it cannot be stopped.
“Each time the cripple circled the mango tree the other boys laughed. ‘Sit still cripple!’ they taunted, ‘find a spot under the tree and take your chance.’ But still he circled, sniffing the air as he went, forever looking away into the distance.”
“I can’t see the point,” says the Colossus, “he should be watching the mangoes; not that he has any chance of getting there first.”
“What he sought was advice from the other great trees of Africa. To the north there was a marula, its fruit a cocktail that enticed the wild animals and made them drunk, to the south was a lofty toddy palm. To the east he peered into the many boughs of a mighty acacia, and to the west stood a sacred shea. Whichever way he turned he saw friendly souls, be they womanly balanzan or cottony kapok or any of the other sentinel voices who were happy to talk to him: the neem, the lannea and the grape tree.”
The Colossus’s eyes glaze over. He knows all those trees.
“But it was a tubby baobab that spoke to him first, for he had been there the longest. ‘Oh blood boy of Sunjata, look at my leaves. See them shimmer with the story, for the wind he comes. His voice is dry but I have water enough in my trunk to quench any thirst,’ he said.”
The Colossus finds the story soothing, it calms the pain of separation and the fear of decomposing yorkipoos abates.
“Go on, griot.”
“Do you still not see? The first sentinel to shake its leaves is the one that heralds the arrival of the wind. As soon as he saw the baobab’s canopy move like unruly hair the crippled boy stopped his fingernail scratching circles. ‘Look at the cripple’ cried the other boys, ‘he’s done for’. Their jeers would be short-lived, for the boy now knows from which direction the rising wind will strike and shake the mango’s laden boughs.”
“Ha, very clever,” the Colossus clicks his tongue, “the answer is easy once you know it.”
“The wind was refreshed by the baobab. It raised a puff of dust from the village path as it came, a hen clucked as it scurried away but no-one noticed the wind until it parted the mango leaves and caressed the first ripe mango. ‘Tis you that the wind has chosen’ chorused the other mangoes, ‘you are the one, it is you that must drop,’ they said. So the first mango, full and ripe, severed its stalk and fell coyly into the cripple’s upturned palm.”
The police van has come to a halt on the ramp in front of the departure hall. The African must leave, the escorts are coming.
“Take your bag, Keita, do not be afraid.”
“It’s a trolley not a bag. You take it, griot.”
“I cannot, mon, for this is your story and this is your bag.”
The Colossus is trapped. With his mind in Mali, the bag is bewitched. With his body in France, the bag must be opened.
“It is an omen. A gift from the Hunter. Open it, see what’s inside, for you cannot leave it here,” says the griot, “whatever it is I will put it in the story and tell it to the wind.”
“The Hunter? But the bag belonged to an old woman!”
“He has many faces.”
“Dead dogs, that’s what’s inside. Or worse, bewitched!”
The Colossus hasn’t noticed it before but now he see the trolley has a wooden frame which, when he touches it, has a spongy feel.
“I don’t like this, it’s more sorcery. They don’t have baobab wood in France and I don’t want to see what’s inside.”
Yet he must.
Like the bag lady before him, he peels back the transparent top to reveal what’s within. A sweet smell invests his nostrils, the Colossus peeps in then jumps back in dismay.
“Time to go! Get yourself ready in there!” growls the driver as he hammers on the side of the van.
“Well now, what was in the bag?” asks the griot, with a Malian twinkle in his eye. He wants to know the end of the story.
The Colossus wipes the sweat from his brow and slumps back into his uncomfortable salad bowl seat.