The Passion, page 2
Thanks to my mother’s efforts and the rusty scholarliness of our priest I learned to read in my own language, Latin and English and I learned arithmetic, the rudiments of first aid and because the priest also supplemented his meagre income by betting and gambling I learned every card game and a few tricks. I never told my mother that the priest had a hollow Bible with a pack of cards inside. Sometimes he took it to our service by mistake and then the reading was always from the first chapter of Genesis. The villagers thought he loved the creation story. He was a good man but lukewarm. I would have preferred a burning Jesuit, perhaps then I might have found the extasy I need to believe.
I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.
We fished together and he pointed out the girls he wanted and asked me to do it for him. I never did. I came to women late like my father.
When I left, Mother didn’t cry. It was Claude who cried. She gave me her little Bible, the one that she had kept for so many years, and I promised her I would read it.
The cook saw my hesitation and poked me with a skewer. ‘New to it, lad? Don’t be afraid. These girls I know are clean as a whistle and wide as the fields of France.’ I got ready, washing myself all over with carbolic soap.
Bonaparte, the Corsican. Born in 1769, a Leo.
Short, pale, moody, with an eye to the future and a singular ability to concentrate. In 1789 revolution opened a closed world and for a time the meanest street boy had more on his side than any aristocrat. For a young Lieutenant skilled in artillery, the chances were kind and in a few years General Bonaparte was turning Italy into the fields of France.
‘What is luck’, he said, ‘but the ability to exploit accidents?’ He believed he was the centre of the world and for a long time there was nothing to change him from this belief. Not even John Bull. He was in love with himself and France joined in. It was a romance. Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life. Only a drama will do and while the fireworks last the sky is a different colour. He became an Emperor. He called the Pope from the Holy City to crown him but at the last second he took the crown in his own hands and placed it on his own head. He divorced the only person who understood him, the only person he ever really loved, because she couldn’t give him a child. That was the only part of the romance he couldn’t manage by himself.
He is repulsive and fascinating by turns.
What would you do if you were an Emperor? Would soldiers become numbers? Would battles become diagrams? Would intellectuals become a threat? Would you end your days on an island where the food is salty and the company bland?
He was the most powerful man in the world and he couldn’t beat Joséphine at billiards.
I’m telling you stories. Trust me.
The brothel was run by a giantess from Sweden. Her hair was yellow like dandelions and like a living rug it covered her knees. Her arms were bare, the dress she wore had the sleeves pushed up and fastened with a pair of garters. Around her neck on a leather thong she kept a flat-faced wooden doll. She saw me staring at it and drawing my head close forced me to sniff it. It smelled of musk and strange flowers.
‘From Martinique, like Bonaparte’s Joséphine.’
I smiled and said, ‘Vive notre dame de victoires,’ but the giantess laughed and said that Joséphine would never be crowned in Westminster as Bonaparte had promised. The cook told her sharply to mind her words, but she had no fear of him and led us to a cold stone room furnished with pallet beds and a long table stacked with jars of red wine. I had expected red velvet the way the priest had described these seats of temporary pleasure, but there was no softness here, nothing to disguise our business. When the women came in they were older than I had imagined, not at all like the pictures in the priest’s book of sinful things. Not snake-like, Eve-like with breasts like apples, but round and resigned, hair thrown into hasty bundles or draped around their shoulders. My companions brayed and whistled and shoved the wine down their throats straight from the jars. I wanted a cup of water but didn’t know how to ask.
The cook moved first, slapping a woman on the rump and making some joke about her corset. He still wore his fat-stained boots. The others started to pair off leaving me with a patient black-toothed woman who had ten rings on one finger.
‘I’ve just joined up,’ I told her, hoping she’d realise that I didn’t know what to do.
She pinched my cheek. ‘That’s what they all say, they think it must be cheaper first time. Hard work I call it, like teaching billiards without a cue.’ She looked over at the cook, who was squatting on one of the pallets trying to get his cock out. His woman knelt in front of him, her arms folded. Suddenly he slapped her across the face and the snap killed the talk for a moment.
‘Help me, you bitch, put your hand in, can’t you, or are you afraid of eels?’
I saw her lip curl and the red mark on her cheek glowed despite her rough skin. She didn’t answer, just poked her hand into his trousers and brought it out like a ferret by the neck.
‘In your mouth.’
I was thinking about porridge.
‘Fine man your friend,’ said my woman.
I wanted to go to him and ram his face in the blanket until he had no breath left. Then he came with a great bellow and flopped backwards on his elbows. His woman got up and very deliberately spat in the bowl on the floor, then rinsed her mouth with wine and spat that out too. She was noisy and the cook heard and asked her what she was doing throwing his sperm to the sewers of France.
‘What else would I do with it?’
He came towards her with his fist raised but it never fell. My woman stepped forward and coshed him on the back of the head with a wine jar. She held her companion for a moment and kissed her swiftly on the forehead.
She would never do that to me.
I told her I had a headache and went to sit outside.
We carried our leader home taking turns in fours to bear him like a coffin on our shoulders, face down in case he vomited. In the morning he swaggered over to the officers and boasted how he’d made the bitch swallow him whole and how her cheeks had filled out like a rat’s when she took him.
‘What happened to your head?’
‘Fell over on the way back,’ he said, looking at me.
He went out whoring most nights but I never went with him again. Apart from Domino and Patrick, the de-frocked priest with the eagle eye, I hardly spoke to anyone. I spent my time learning how to stuff a chicken and slow down the cooking process. I was waiting for Bonaparte.
At last, on a hot morning when the sea left salt craters in between the dock stones, he came. He came with his Generals Murat and Bernadotte. He came with his new Admiral of the Fleet. He came with his wife, whose grace made the roughest in the camp polish his boots twice. But I saw no one but him. For years, my mentor, the priest who had supported the Revolution, told me that Bonaparte was perhaps the Son of God come again. I learned his battles and campaigns instead of history and geography. I have lain with the priest on an old and impossibly folded map of the world looking at the places he had gone and watching the frontiers of France push slowly out. The priest carried a drawing of Bonaparte next to his drawing of the Blessed Virgin and I grew up with both, unknown to my mother, who remained a monarchist and who still prayed for the soul of Marie Antoinette.
I was only five when the Revolution turned Paris into a free man’s city and France into the scourge of Europe. Our village was not very far down the Seine, but we might have been living on the moon. No one really knew what was happening except that King and Queen were imprisoned. We relied on gossip, but the priest crept back and forth relying on his cloth to save him from the cannon or the knife. The village was divided. Most felt King and Queen are right though King and Queen had no care for us, except as revenue and scenery. But these are my words, taught to me by a clever man who was no respec
The priest said we were living in the last days, that the Revolution would bring forth a new Messiah and the millennium on earth. He never went as far as that in church. He told me. Not the others. Not Claude with his pails, not Jacques in the dark with his sweetheart, not my mother with her prayers. He took me on his knees, holding me against the black cloth that smelled of age and hay, and told me not to be afraid of rumours in our village that everyone in Paris was either starving or dead. ‘Christ said he came not to bring peace but a sword, Henri, remember that.’
As I grew older and the turbulent times settled into something like calm, Bonaparte began to make a name for himself. We called him our Emperor long before he had taken that title to himself. And on our way home from the makeshift church in the dusk in winter, the priest looked towards the track that led away and held my arm too tight. ‘He’ll call you,’ he whispered, ‘like God called Samuel and you’ll go.’
We were not training on the day he came. He caught us out, probably on purpose, and when the first exhausted messenger galloped into the camp warning us that Bonaparte was travelling non-stop and would arrive before noon we were sprawled in our shirt-sleeves drinking coffee and playing dice. The officers were wild with fear and began organising their men as though the English themselves had landed. There was no reception prepared for him, his specially designed bivouac housed a pair of cannon and the cook was blind drunk.
‘You.’ I was seized by a Captain I did not recognise. ‘Do something about the birds. Never mind your uniform, you’ll be busy while we’re on parade.’
So this was it, no glory for me, just a pile of dead birds.
In my rage I filled up the largest fish-kettle I could and poured cold water all over the cook. He didn’t stir.
An hour later, when the birds were staggered on the spits to cook in their turn, the Captain came back very agitated and told me that Bonaparte wanted to inspect the kitchens. It was always a feature of his to interest himself in every detail of his army, but this was inconvenient.
‘Get that man out of here,’ ordered the Captain as he left. The cook weighed around 200 lbs, I was scarcely 120. I tried raising his upper body and dragging him, but I could only manage a helpless shuffle.
If I had been a prophet and this cook the heathen agent of a false god I could have prayed to the Lord and had a host of angels move him. As it was, Domino came to my aid with some talk about Egypt.
I knew about Egypt because Bonaparte had been there. His Egyptian campaign, doomed but brave, where he had remained immune from the plague and the fever and ridden miles in the dust without a drop of water.
‘How could he,’ the priest had said, ‘if he isn’t protected by God?’
It was Domino’s plan to raise the cook the way the Egyptians raised their obelisks, with a fulcrum, in our case an oar. We levered the oar under his back, then dug a pit at his feet.
‘Now,’ said Domino. ‘All our weight on the end of the oar and he’ll go up.’
It was Lazarus being raised from the dead.
We got him standing and I wedged the oar beneath his belt to stop him falling over.
‘What do we do now, Domino?’
While we stood on either side of this mound of flesh, the tent flap parted and the Captain strode in, very proper. Colour drained from his face as though someone had pulled a plug in his throat. He opened his mouth and his moustache moved but that was all.
Pushing past him was Bonaparte.
He walked twice round our exhibit and asked who he was.
‘The cook, Sir. A little bit drunk, Sir. These men were removing him.’
I was desperate to get to the spit where one of the chickens was already burning, but Domino stepped in front of me and, speaking in a rough language he later told me was Bonaparte’s Corsican dialect, he somehow explained what had happened and how we had done our best on the lines of his Egyptian campaign. When Domino had done, Bonaparte came towards me and pinched my ear so that it was swollen for days.
‘You see, Captain,’ he said, ‘this is what makes my army invincible, the ingenuity and determination of even the humblest soldier.’ The Captain smiled weakly, then Bonaparte turned to me. ‘You’ll see great things and you’ll eat your dinner off an Englishman’s plate before long. Captain, see to it that this boy waits on me personally. There will be no weak links in my army, I want my attendants to be as reliable as my Generals. Domino, we are riding this afternoon.’
I wrote to my friend the priest straight away. This was more perfect than any ordinary miracle. I had been chosen. I didn’t foresee that the cook would become my sworn enemy. By nightfall most of the camp had heard the story and had embroidered it, so that we had buried the cook in a trench, beaten him unconscious, or most bizarre of all, that Domino had worked a spell on him.
‘If only I knew how,’ he said. ‘We could have saved ourselves the digging.’
The cook, who sobered up with a thumping head and in a worse temper than usual, couldn’t step outside without some soldier winking and poking at him. Finally he came to where I sat with my little Bible and grabbed me close by the collar.
‘You think you’re safe because Bonaparte wants you. You’re safe now, but there are years ahead.’
He pushed me back against the onion sacks and spat in my face. It was a long time before we met again because the Captain had him transferred to the stores outside Boulogne.
‘Forget him,’ said Domino when we watched him leave on the back of a cart.
It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment. During the days that Bonaparte stayed in Boulogne there was a feeling of urgency and privilege. He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives. The thought of fighting excited us. No one wants to be killed but the hardship, the long hours, the cold, the orders were things we would have endured anyway on the farms or in the towns. We were not free men. He made sense out of dullness.
The ridiculous flat-bottomed barges built in their hundreds took on the certainty of galleons. When we put out to sea, practising for that treacherous twenty-mile crossing, we no longer made jokes about shrimping nets or how these tubs would better serve washerwomen. While he stood on the shore shouting orders we put our faces to the wind and let our hearts go out to him.
The barges were designed to carry sixty men and it was reckoned that 20,000 of us would be lost on the way over or picked off by the English before we landed. Bonaparte thought them good odds, he was used to losing that number in battle. None of us worried about being one of the 20,000. We hadn’t joined up to worry.
According to his plan, if the French navy could hold the Channel for just six hours, he could land his army and England would be his. It seemed absurdly easy. Nelson himself couldn’t outwit us in six hours. We laughed at the English and most of us had plans for our visit there. I particularly wanted to visit the Tower of London because the priest had told me it was full of orphans; bastards of aristocratic descent whose parents were too ashamed to keep them at home. We’re not like that in France, we welcome our children.
Domino told me that we were rumoured to be digging a tunnel ready to pop up like moles in the Kentish fields. ‘It took us an hour to dig a foot pit for your friend.’
Other stories concerned a balloon landing, a man-firing cannon and a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament just as Guy Fawkes had nearly done. The balloon landing was the one the English were taking the most seriously and, to prevent us, they built t
All folly, but I think if Bonaparte had asked us to strap on wings and fly to St James’s Palace we would have set off as confidently as a child lets loose a kite.
Without him, during nights and days when affairs of state took him back to Paris, our nights and days were different only in the amount of light they let in. For myself, with no one to love, a hedgehog spirit seemed best and I hid my heart in the leaves.
I have a way with priests, so it came as no surprise that along with Domino, my friend should be Patrick, the de-frocked priest with the eagle eye, imported from Ireland.
In 1799, when Napoleon was still vying for power, General Hoche, a schoolboys’ hero and onetime lover of Madame Bonaparte, had landed in Ireland and almost succeeded in defeating John Bull outright. During his stay he heard a story about a certain disgraced priest whose right eye was just like yours or mine, but whose left eye could put the best telescope to shame. Indeed he had been forced out of the church for squinting at young girls from the bell tower. What priest doesn’t? But in Patrick’s case, thanks to the miraculous properties of his eye, no bosom was safe. A girl might be undressing two villages away, but if the evening was clear and her shutters were back she might just as well have gone to the priest and lain her underclothes at his feet.
Hoche, a man of the world, was sceptical of old wives’ tales, but soon found that the women were wiser than he. Though Patrick at first denied the charge and the men laughed and said women and their fantasies, the women looked at the earth and said they knew when they were being watched. The Bishop had taken them seriously, not because he believed the talk about Patrick’s eye, but preferring the smooth shapes of his choirboys he found the affair exceedingly repulsive.
A priest should have better things to do than look at women.
Hoche, caught in this web of hearsay, took Patrick drinking till the man could hardly stand, then half-walked, half-carried him to a hillock that afforded a clear view across the valley for some miles. They sat together and, while Patrick dozed, Hoche pulled out a red flag and waved it for a couple of minutes. Then nudging Patrick awake he commented, as one would, on the splendid evening and the beautiful scenery. Out of courtesy to his host Patrick forced himself to follow the sweep of Hoche’s arm, muttering something about the Irish having been blessed with their portion of paradise on earth. Then he propped himself forward, screwed up one eye, and in a voice as hushed and holy as the Bishop’s at communion said, ‘Would you look at that now?’
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