Winner nzric Short Story Contest 92: Pre-Written Character (Chloé)
I didn't like the pre-written character to begin with but once I got the idea of the story I began to really have an understanding for her. This is one of those ideas that I'd like to explore further at some stage - feels like I've just started to scratch the surface of Chloe's story.
nzric - Joie de vivre
The bullet train pulled into Voie 24 of the Gare de Lyon with the soft metallic echo of new engine brakes. A dim red digital reading flashed discreetly in the corner of my glasses and I took off the tortiseshell frames, folding them into my attache before the annoyingly conscientious commuter guide could zip its electronic way to my vision.
The train was seven minutes late. Not unusual, especially when one considered the winds and rain battering the Bourgogne. I stood to the side with a crush of other commuters as the doors slid open, the rustle of suitcases and damp umbrellas against overcoats as another few hundred passengers made their way into the industrious chaos of the busiest station in Paris.
A tall, bespectacled gent in a tan trenchcoat stood in front of me but he took a short step to the side and gestured for me to enter the carriage first. I smiled and gave him a small nod as I passed, skimming my wristphone over the ticket validator strip at the wall. You seldom see old-fashioned manners in Paris anymore and I for one appreciated these simple gestures more than he could know. I have chosen an age of around the late-thirties for the last forty years, any younger and my striking features and chestnut hair draw too much attention of the unwanted kind.
The Paris-Lyon bullet has that faint pine smell of public transport cleaner, innocuous but ever present. Four years previously I had made the same journey next to a taut, middle-aged American who had chattered constantly for the whole journey. One of his pearls of wisdom was that the green stripes against the grey-blue background on the seats was a “spitting image” of the Rhode Island State tartan, and consequently I have not been able to take the trip since without thinking of the Pawtucket Red Sox and snail salad. C’est la vie.
I took my seat, taking off my damp black overcoat and folding it onto my attache case on the seat facing me. One most often has an excess of space on the Paris-Lyon leg of the trip so I made myself comfortable, although my starched suit itched constantly. The latest fashion off the Milan catwalk was Post-Gender clothing so legions of suave European woman were spending thousands to wear loose-fitting double-Windsored silk ties or, my current choice, a cherry pinstripe suit over a finely embroidered waistcoat and low-cut blouse. It pays to blend into the crowd, especially for these annual Council jaunts. There are rumours and conspiracy theories about our kind. It is mostly dispelled as fairy tale but it helps not to draw attention to ones-self, especially when approaching Lyon.
The sudden pelting of rain on the window startled me as the train pulled from the cover of the station, the noise dulled by the thick, triple-glazed windows. I was so immersed in watching the rain that I did not initially notice the bespectacled man take the seat at my elbow. I looked over and he gave me a smile and nod - clearly, I thought, his intentions had not been so noble after all. I ignored him and remained gazing out the window, willing him to take the message and leave. No luck.
“They say it will rain until Tuesday,” he said in a thick Parisian accent. His voice was rich and weathered and at any other time I would be tempted to enter into conversation to hear the range of his “pitch and timbre”. As they say.
“hmm” I said, politely ignoring.
“At times like these,” he continued, “when embarking on a journey with an apparent stranger, it is polite to start with an unobtrusive topic.” He switched to English, “The rain in Spain...”
I could not help smirking but refused to be drawn into the conversation.
“The Lady smiles,” he said to nobody in particular, “but is not drawn into easy conversation with strangers. She doesn’t know what she is missing. Conversation, shared experience, stories are the stuff of existence. They fill one with joy, open new doors to experience. How did we use to say Chloe? The stuff of joie de vivre?”
The words hit me like a thousand bricks. No. A thousand sparks shooting out from my stomach, through to my fingertips, up and out from my scalp. The firework sparks blinded my vision for an instant, then the colours returned richer and clearer.
I still looked out the window but I was rigid, my eyes lost focus, only able to see the dull pattern of rain lashing the glass outside. I froze, waiting for him to continue but he was silent, eyes drilling a hole into the back of my turned head. His voice, weathered with age but so familiar. Of course.
Joie de vivre. Thirst for life. My philosophy for, how long? Did I still live the philosophy? More than likely, which would make it eighty years if I still believed in the journey that he and I first spun together in the Lyon catacombs. Cheraul. Who saved my life, who gave me the knowledge to give myself life.
“Cheraul?” I said, not turning. Of course it was him. I knew it in my soul.
They had said it was impossible, ‘they’ being Rosalind Franklin, the discoverer of DNA herself, when I broke into her home in 1961 to demand an explanation or at least an acknowledgement of what I saw in the mirror. The ‘possible’ is that frayed telomeres begin to break within our cells, corrupting the DNA. Skin loses its elasticity, cell mutation starts to overcome the immune system, the organs, the lymph nodes. Normal ageing, which is the companion and curse of all species. And ‘impossible’ is a change in the chemical composition of the enterochromaffin cells that then start to create and spread mutated seratonin, re-tying the telomeres, repairing the damaged skin and giving new life to ageing organs.
Rosalind Franklin had said it was impossible. She had told me I was insane as I stood in her doorway with a knife, begging her to watch the skin of my hand knit together as the endorphins surged through my system and I reversed the path of ageing itself. Maybe I really was insane at the time. I had become lost on the journey without Cheraul and it took years, decades to find my way back on the path to the Council. To realise my condition was a blessing, not a curse.
And now he was back. In an old man’s guise. I was used to looking past the ravages of time to see the individual underneath, but he had always been so full of life. It was he who initiated me into the philosophy of joie de vivre, constant craving for life for those of us who were born to life without age as long as our lives were rich. But now he had not reversed for how long? Thirty? forty years?
“Joie de vivre” I whispered silently. A tear crossed my cheek, an insignificant measure against the rivulets on the pane outside.
“Chloe...?” he said plaintively.
I was only twenty when we first met. Me a fiery graduate student, full of indignation and spirit. He was the young, handsome tutor with piercing eyes and a dark mane of hair who led the marches through the streets of Lyon, one hand holding a placard and the other always wielding a yellowed Gitane cigarette with a flourish. A few hundred artists and poets crying shame at the might of the Third Reich, cheering as de Gaulle backed Britain in ordering the Nazi force to retreat from Poland. We were worse than naive, but while months crept on and reality crept in and the troops pushed through the Somme and onto Paris in 1940 we were only more convinced our cause was righteous. And as our government fled from Paris with the tail between their legs and the Nazis marched days later under the Arc de Triomphe we were still true and righteous because now our heroes were Cheraul and his heartful slogans, and Jean Moulin with his spirit and sacrifice.
My cries for justice were met in 1941 by a bullet through my heart at the Parc de la Tete d’Or in Lyon. Cheraul took me in his arms, breaking from the protest to carry me into a dusty alleyway and stroking my hair, saying how much like him I was as I writhed on the chill cobblestones, my flesh knitting together again as the pain and fear and exhilaration surged through me. And over time, as we continued our struggle from the dark tunnels of Lyon and threw our unlikely band of stragglers against the might of the German army it was Cheraul where I drew my strength. Dear Cheraul, whose body could surge back to life and youth from the barrel of an SS pistol or from our passion as we clung to each other in hope and lust and, lastly - after the French police joined us civilians in unison to chase out the last of the Germans from street to street with bottles and stones - lastly, with triumph.
My skin felt as if it were alive with electricity, my scalp burning keenly as the hormones raced through my system, invigorating my cells. I took my gaze from the window and turned to meet his eyes directly.
“How dare you.”
He was choosing to be around eighty, liver spots appearing on his balding pate and jagged wrinkles cutting intricate patterns through his face. Despite this his eyes were ageless, clear and infinite, but he turned them away under the intensity of my glare.
“You disappear without a trace,” I continued, “without even a note. And then, after seventy years... you...” my voice trailed off. I knew that approach was useless. He had never told me his true age - a thousand would not surprise me - but I had learned early on that seventy years to him was insignificant.
“I thought I was protecting you...” he started.
“Protecting?!” I choked. “I joined the Resistance. For you. I took bullets. For you. Tore you from barbed wire under machine gun fire. And you wanted to protect me?!”
“Those times were different Chloe, we had to fight. Hitler forced the whole world to fight.”
“And you think I wouldn’t have continued to fight, to go to the ends of the world for you?”
“That is exactly why I left. Algeria was struggling...”
“Algeria was a farce,” I spat, trying to keep my tone level in the low drone of the train cabin. “They freed themselves from France after the war and then what? The mullahs took over. And de Gaulle rode back to Paris on his white horse but he betrayed us, set himself up as some dictator...”
“...Algeria was not your fight,” he continued. “Your fight was for the streets of Paris and Lyon, to claim back your birthright. Which we did.”
“So Algeria was not my fight but it was yours? Is that what you do? Take your youth, your rush from the wars and struggles of others?”
“It’s what I...did” he stumbled.
I was filled with anger, the seventy year betrayal flooding back. But something in his deep eyes stopped me. He had changed over the years. Cheraul, the changeless rock in the storm, had changed. We both knew that our condition was a blessing, but without constant excitement, constant stimulation, we were cursed to age rapidly.
He moved his hand close to mine on the armrest. “What have you seen?” he asked. It was the tired old query we had used in the Resistance before sharing our latest stories in the tunnels, the question bursting with implication.
“I... left France before de Gaulle returned,” I started. “de Gaulle, Berlin... Europe was closing in on itself just as America was opening up with JFK, Martin Luthor King Jr.” The memory was as vivid as ever, me a nervous Parisian in the wide expanse of the US, swept up in the emotion of the moment as I stood with hundreds of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial. And as the crowd cheered to ‘I have a dream’, I had felt the firework spark release from my core to replenish my cells and bring back my youth.
I shook my head. The experience had soured. The promise of a new world caved from under me as our heroes were, one by one, gunned down and America tore itself at the seams. Vietnam, which I wanted so much to be passionate about but which was not my war. I searched through the Summer of Love for experience, threw myself into the drugs and the sex and the music but while I saw the people around me overcome with their own brand of youthful naivety, all I felt was nihilism. I watched as the young hippies moved out of Haight-Ashbury and the drug dealers moved in, and then I myself moved on.
“It didn’t last,” I said simply. “I went back into myself. I forgot about the world.”
Worse, I shunned the world. For the next twenty years I found the exhilaration I needed to survive through nature, and the only thing I knew I could rely on was my own body. I had a brief, ten year fling with Jim Holloway as we toured Colorado. Jim broke new ground in bouldering for the challenge, defying gravity as he carved new paths up sheer slopes. I did it because I knew if I fell and broke my body on the rocks I would only come back younger and stronger than before. I felt the same as I moved to Hawaii in the 1980s, the grainy television coverage fresh in my mind of Julie Moss stumbling and crawling across the finish-line at Ironman Kona as her body shut down. Mere humans pushing themselves far beyond the limits and nearly dying in the process. Just for the experience.
“But that path still wasn’t enough was it?” Cheraul replied.
“No.” That was as empty as the slogans I had shouted for a war I never really understood.
“Why did you make me do it on my own?”
“That is what all of us have had to do,” he said. “If I had dragged you to Algeria you would have never discovered yourself. You would have become as empty and jaded as I am now.”
I had to admit he was right. Twenty years of self-absorbtion ended in the same emptiness I had felt back when I heard Martin Luthor King Jr had been gunned down outside a cheap motel. That hero who symbolised everything I had travelled to America to find.
Cheraul took my hand. I let him.
“But then you found the spark again,” he continued, looking at my youthful features.
“Tienanmen Square,” I said and he nodded, knowingly.
Of course. The Berlin Wall fell the same year, and the Soviet Union, the macabre corruption of the ideals we had shouted on the streets of Lyon, dissolved to nothing in front of our eyes. But it was too immense, too dispersed to fully register. What had cut through to the core of my soul, ignited the spark and set me on the path to youth again was the simple image of a tiny figure, shopping bags in his hands, defying the tanks and the faceless fist of the Chinese army. That man was not one who took life from being near death, but he was willing to risk it all. And that saved me.
“So where do you get it now?” he asked.
“Simple things,” I replied. “It takes less now. Smaller things. People who enrich me in some way, new conversations, new places. I travel.”
“That is how you should do it,” he agreed. “That can keep you going for hundreds of years.”
“And what happens after that?” We both looked down at our hands at the same time, mine smooth and pink, his hand deeply lined and mottled.
“I can’t tell you. I started to choose the wrong path. That is why I left. If you had followed the journey with me you would have craved the intensity like an addict. You would have burned yourself out decades ago.”
“So, what? You have given up?” I retorted, but the challenge was met by a tiny nod of affirmation.
“I am going to petition the Council to accept my decision. I will start the process to record my knowledge in the Archives before I pass on.”
Reflexively, I squeezed his hand. For a moment I forgot the years I had blamed and cursed him for leaving me. I searched his face for a trace of the old Cheraul I had given myself to so long ago. As he gazed back I could see the love in his eyes and, as I watched, the lines around his brows started to smooth out, his skin flushed in a healthy sheen.
But he pulled back, taking his hand from mine and once again leaving the space between us. Two feet and seventy years.
“No,” he said, “that is not why I came back. You would become my addiction. I can’t ask that.”
And I could see he was right. And that was the difference between us, something that I could never fully understand because he had saved me from that addiction to intensity that burned the life out of him.
“Don’t ask me to forgive you.” I said softly, taking his hand again.
“I would never ask that. But you understand.” His weathered face looked longingly at me.
“I do Cheraul. I do. And I will give my support to the Council for your decision.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I know that is much more than I should ask of you.”
And we sat together, holding hands, motionless for the rest of the journey.
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