Friday 26 February 2021

The Wisdom

 by Chris Viner

Irish coffee 

The view was of a long stretch of canted road, narrowly framed by mute eggshell cafes and stores, meandering all the way down to where the metro staircase of Pigalle boulevard sank into darkness.

            The district was busyish. Tourists and hustlers formed a mutation of ongoing human traffic, and in the distance the sky seeming to leer above us, closer than usual, pale and unsettling.

            Our hangovers had not quite dissipated, although it was clear that Ivor’s was worse than mine.

            A skinny waitress with a long nose and big brown eyes approached and asked us in French what we would like to order.

            “Well I know what it is I don’t want,” Ivor groaned. “I don’t want any fucking food. Just coffee. An Irish coffee. A strong one.”

            The waitress stood for a moment staring at him.

            “Don’t stand there like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Une Alonger… there you go. Is that French good enough for you? Hm? Avec le whisky. Does it really make a difference to you people whether I speak English or French, really?”

            The waitress continued to stare at Ivor with a blank face, she seemed, not exactly offended, but more confused than anything, as though she were trying to comprehend the meaning of what he’d just said, before walking back inside the café with a careless stride to fetch the order.

            Ivor fumbled pathetically with a lighter, before igniting his flattened cigarette. I watched the smoke tumble around his dry, miserable face, his skin tough like a tyre’s, his eyes hard as bulletproof glass. It was a sight I was used to by now after living with him for some months: his depressed sag, wheezing at his tobacco, glaring out bitterly into the distilled, intricate sharpness of the atmosphere.

            I said, “you don’t have to be like that you know.”

            Ivor shrugged, and snarled, and drew a long, sinister drag from his cigarette.

            I’ve often wondered why I was friends with Ivor. Our history was complicated. We’d been in a band together at one time, releasing two mildly successful records on the indie music scene, before disappearing off the radar. One minute people—strangers—were interested in us, the next, they were not. All of that imagination, all of that day dreaming of how things might be in that world, and then boom, after a flash of luck, it’s gone like an obscure memory off into the distance, until you hardly believe it was you in that past welter of music and decadence. I’d gone back, quite happily to my day job, as a waiter, before moving to Paris. But Ivor had been scarred; he’d hesitated in his next move; he’d seemed stagnant; frozen. The transition had been messy, almost rueful in his innate stubbornness. After moving in with his mother in Brighton, he drank heavily, then began using drugs again, only this time without the music to legitimize it. His mother soon grew tired of an unemployed drug addict living in her spare room, and had asked him to go to rehab, even offering to pay for it herself, or leave.

            When I received the call from Ivor, I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time, it had been a year in fact. The conversation was brief, but it left a mark, a thump in the midnight air as I tried to sleep, thinking about his situation. I had the thought, the terrible thought, that he might die if I don’t do something, and that I’d have inadvertently killed him for not acting when I should have. Quite honestly, it wasn’t the idea of his death that troubled me, but rather the guilt I’d carry at having been a tentative cause of it, which finally moved me to call him back the next morning and invite him to stay at my small apartment in Paris, on the condition that he worked at the restaurant as a dishwasher, and that he remained drug free—with the exception of alcohol and cigarettes, of course; and the odd blot of Baudelairian hashish. But his happiness, his contentment with life, was a burden that weighed so heavily, malingered around his bitter coil so sorely, that the stink of his misery, hung around his neck like a foul sack of garlic, for any poor bugger to imbibe and unwillingly absorb.

            The waitress came back and put two coffees in front of us. Ivor slouched, and bowed his head forward. I knew him well enough now, to realize that this odd, slightly petulant motion of the neck and shoulders was an indication, in his own strange way, of an apology.

            He said, “merci.”

            The waitress said nothing.


We both had the day off, and Ivor wanted to walk to Montmartre. I often went along with his choosings, failing to voice a request on days like this, because, well, I felt sorry for him. No, it was more than that; it was complicated, perhaps even a complex on my part. I knew my guilt for his condition was irrational. I didn’t even think he deserved the responsibility I felt toward him, but still it was there, gnawing at me like a seed of depression, a sickness. It plagued me and it plagued him too in a way—he hated being pitied—but I saw no exit in which to free myself of the responsibility, at least not without the cost of severe remorse settling in, and so I—we—stuck it out, with hardly the glimmer of a future ahead of us to which we could look forward.   

            We walked up the steep cobble hill, the coal lamps now coming on like sprites as the winter afternoons grew dark early, and I watched his shadow trudge ahead of me, a lost cause, admiring the odd piece of luminous swirling art in a shop window, always with a sad face; never turning to acknowledge me, but still, knowing I was there, shadowing his pathway. Yes, there was a parental aspect to the relationship, but also a fraternal one. But most interestingly of all, there was an absurdity to our bond. Where did it stem from in me? I wondered. This want to help this loser. How had it come to this? I didn’t know. All I knew is that it was real. As real as pavement, as real as sickness, as real as the longing heart pounding in the poor man’s futile chest.

            So he wasn’t talented enough to have sustained a career in the arts. So what. Hardly anyone is, and everyone’s making art nowadays. And if the talent is, or isn’t there, that seems to have no corresponding relation to one’s income stream via the arts. So, that wasn’t a reason to hold anybody’s hand. We were the lost generation, trying, and failing to pick up the pieces the sixties had left behind; that tiny resin of promise. Fruitless. What it had transformed into was pretence, idiocy, communal depression… and on a larger scale: anger, bombs, death.  

            There was a difference though, between him and I. I knew that he wouldn’t survive, and that I would. You see, I had no problem wheedling my way back into society. No problem with mortgage payments, anonymity, nobodyness right up until the no doubt boring sedentary death machine they’d place us all on at the end of this strange warp of thought and responsibility. Except, it didn’t have to be like that. Artists, if they pushed hard enough, really could change the world, with a sincerity that stuck. But what if that push had been lost, and at the same time the neglect of general society remained? I knew that he never could be those things; he couldn’t navigate life in the same way as a normal, middle of the road person. What did you do with a creature like that? What did the world do with creatures like that? Where did they end up? Washed up below a bridge on the surf somewhere, dissolving into sand. People incapable of finding pleasure in the ordinary, and yet too human, or simple, or something, for the extraordinary. The first world tragedies of our generation. The only thing I could do was at least try and help, even as I knew he was irreparable. And even as I knew that my reasons for helping were corrupt. I didn’t want him to disintegrate, because then it would make me feel horrible. What kind of a world is that? What kind of people—are we? Selfish even in our apparent philanthropy?


When we reached the square at the top of the hill, with the clowns in their out-dated, flamboyant overalls hustling for a euro in exchange for spontaneous cartoons and sketches, and the overpriced restaurants, he paused, with his hands in the pockets of his long grey coat, looking at the sky, absorbing it all as if he’d found a sudden, desperately temporary moment of tranquillity.

            “Look at that,” he said. “the stars over the hill. Nobody ever looks at things like that anymore, do they? We’re all so focused on our fucking phones, looking at the latest photo or the latest score. What have we become? I mean, really, what the fuck are we all doing these days? Is this it? This smorgasbord of digital commodity and distraction without substance?”

            I paused. I, also, for a moment, looked up at the stars. They did look impressive over the flat sandy coloured roofs canted down the hill below. The sky was almost a Chagall blue, a deep blue, and for a moment, I saw what he saw. The possibility of romance. Or, perhaps, not the possibility, but the music of a world been and gone; the music of a life never to come again in its purest form, but only to be remanufactured, again and again, by the new breed of globalized pageantry.

            “Come on,” I said, “let me get you something to eat. You need something to eat. You look like shit.”


We drank and we ate, in silence, looking out onto the square. The mime artists in their slow throes. The painters in their ostentatious displays of a now postmodern idea through replication and repetition. The pedestrians migrating through the curved square like curious parrots.

            When he drank, something again stirred inside of him. Some form of past glory, some precious bead of nearness, or possibility. He drank, and the stars seemed to glow iridescently, like a fountain of fiery sparks, and the sky seemed to turn deeper, as if it turned, with the stars, inside his soul. And as he searched, gazing, he felt that he’d almost for a moment found the source, which was reflected out of space as being within. It was always like this. And for that passage of time we’d spend together, the thing he was after, the promise of bohemia, or arcadia, or bliss, or paradise—or whatever aesthetic taste applies to the same utopia—seemed like it may not have been such a daft idea after all. Not such a bad focus. Perhaps the focus. Yes, it was true: the world seemed to spy-in on itself. To quite simply, open up, like a womb out into the world. I understood, then—in those passages of true wistful effervescence, of euphoric prospect—why it was Ivor refused to turn away. And why it was, that the deeper channels of myself, wanted to help. Of course, in the morning, the delusion would collapse onto the face of the earth like a glass of cold water in the face. But for a glimpse, a mist of a moment threading across the dark sinews of the turning earth, it was real. It was there. There for the taking, as if the promise may yet be absorbed whole.

About the author

Chris Viner is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Lemniscate (nominated for a Pushcart Award). His work appears in Colorado Review, and Woven Tale Press, among others. He holds degrees from Goldsmiths, University of London and St Anne's College, University of Oxford, where he was a recipient of the Pasby Prize for his writing.


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