The shot pierced the fog and hit the young man’s right temple. Shehan fell forward. To his right, the Karnaphuli River flowed slowly, like a promise of the future. The sun tinted the few waves that stumbled among the smooth water with pearly reflections. One of the men, with a smoking revolver in his hand, turned to the other two.
- Did you search him?
The young man’s body was turned over, his jacket carefully opened. The smiling face of a young girl appeared on the main screen of Shehan’s phone.
- We’ll deal with his phone later.
- That’s a good thing done, said the man directly to his right.
- Get rid of the vermin in this country, said the last of the three men.
- What’s this?
On a pad of paper, a few lines could be read
« – Don’t forget me, I’ll win the war for you,
But the railroad is shaking, the cars are loaded
with forgotten grenades, and the moon is a white sun.
My blue shirt is soaked with sweat, are you thinking of me?
We hear shots fired through the mist,
The whistle of a rifle under the stars, the voice of a friend,
Wait for me. I will win the war for you.
And if death’s talons close on my chest,
Wait till the rain hides thee from enemy’s eyes
To come and bloom my grave with faded roses
And if I can’t win the war,
Know that I have twisted the neck of history so that you love me
In the silent night, in the hushed whispers,
I married the blue night of your memory
And if I don’t win the war
Because others than me have won it,
Wait for the rain to hide you from enemy eyes
And bent over the grass that covers my grave,
Think that the war cannot be won by angels,
And go away from my grave.
- Quite a poet.
One of the three men whistled. The one facing him lit a cigarette. The green water of the Karnaphuli roared in the evening. The current had picked up since the afternoon. The men grabbed the body, and rolled it downstream. They had made sure to find Shehan in a place where no one would see them carry out their crime. When the body was submerged in the river, they separated. The fog had descended on the river and the few restaurants across the riverbank turned on their lights. In the distance, the Shah Amanat Bridge was draped in gold. The night was cold for August, and soon covered the city and the banks of the Chittagong River with its heavy silence.
One month later.
The stoles are carefully folded. I advance cautiously. Chinese lanterns fly away and crash below on the Kaptai lake. The water seems to scorch. But maybe it’s the light from the restaurants further down the lake shore?
Is there a God watching over me? I will never be worthy of Tasnim, since I am a thief, since my best friend is dead, since I am a bum in the chaos of Chittagong.
The shopkeeper glares at me. I am not welcome in this neighborhood. A dog chews on a leftover newspaper in front of me. I kick it lightly out of habit. Then, I look at the sky. The fanush, lanterns of the party have replaced the stars.
The wind slaps my face. I am shivering, I am a little cold. The stole seller goes back and forth between a plastic bag and a little boy sitting on a metal chair. She ruffles the child’s hair. I am covered in sweat, lurking behind a wall and invisible.
Most of my friends have gone to admire the lanterns flying over Chittagong. Did Tasnim light a lantern? I hope she didn’t burn herself. My hands caress a crack in the red brick wall. Then I kneel down. I observe the comings and goings of the merchant. There are no customers. She blinks several times. I wait until the fatigue has completely overcome her.
I can’t concentrate. I close my eyes to stop my mind from wandering. But immediately, I see Tasnim’s laughing face. Then his smile is replaced by Shehan’s harder one. If he saw me stealing he would be ashamed of me. I open my eyes abruptly. The merchant has turned around. The child is sleeping.
I slip to the stall pushed by the west wind. I grab a first shawl, a dark blue one with silver borders, then at random, a pile of indistinct fabrics. On the point of returning discreetly, I hear a whistle. A lantern faces me. It falls on the fabrics. The merchant, alerted by the dull noise, turns around and sees me, the shawls in my arms, but the lantern threatens to set her merchandise on fire so she hesitates.
I move back a step. I stumble on the dog to which I gave a blow while the merchant shouts some insanities at me. I am astonished; I did not think that one could have so much energy to insult his neighbor. Especially at her respectable age. I think of my mother and her long speeches on morality and I run away, proud to belong to a decent family. The blue shawl falls on the stray dog and covers him. He starts to bark, then emerges from the shawl and starts running after me like an idiot.
I run into Chittagong illuminated by lanterns. I gasp, taking a moment to turn around. Nobody follows me anymore. The dog must have found a newspaper more interesting than my calves. I still have two stoles in my hand. I decide to offer one to Tasnim, the red one, and the other to my sister. A white van with dezincified headlights almost hits me and I lose one of the two stoles, the black one. It falls down in a mud puddle. Too bad for my sister. Motorcycles are a real nightmare in this city, here is one that honks at me, the passenger yells something at me and shows me her fist. I don’t answer. I have more important things to worry about than arguing with my neighbor. What will my father think when he sees me coming back with a silk shawl? He knows I don’t have a penny. I take off my shirt, and remain bare-chested on the sidewalk for a moment. A couple passes and looks at me with curiosity. Then I take the stole and wrap the fabric around my torso and tie it before putting my shirt back on. Perfect. My father will see nothing but fire. I trot on the way back. There is not a lantern in sight, the party is over.
A policeman makes the big steps on the avenue Jubilee. In front of the Golam Rosul mosque, a teenager smokes Indian cigarettes. I see the policeman walking towards the teenager, who is waving at me. I approach.
- We are looking for a thief. A very young thief, the policeman tells me.
I look at the teenager with contempt, to let the policeman know that he has a probable suspect. I ask him:
- And did you catch him?
- No, I don’t.
- I hope you find this wretch, I tell him. I continue to stare at the teenager.
He’s shaking all over. Perhaps he has cannabis on him.
- Did you light lanterns, the policeman asks? To change the subject and apologize for questioning us.
- I’m a student, I worked late, I answer morgue. I am studying law.
The policeman seems impressed. He is young, too. He stares at me, then beats the air with his right hand to indicate that he understands. A sign in front of us praises Pepsi cola in a mountainous setting… Austria probably.
- The right… Difficult… The policeman finally blows.
Without answering, I turn my back to them and continue my crossing of Chittagong. I pass in front of a kiosk still lit. I steal three chocolate bars. The seller is reading the Daily Star, he didn’t feel me approaching. I keep on trotting while biting into the first chocolate bar. I see a last lantern shining in the distance. Near the station, old beggars are holding hands while sleeping. One of them is on a low wall, the other lying on the ground. I throw the paper of my chocolate bar on the sidewalk, it is already dirty, one more paper, one more … Then, I stop for a moment to catch my breath in front of the polo field to the right of the Buddhist community center. A man with a beard trimmed in bevel crosses me, our glances collide.
- Don’t throw your papers away. There are garbage cans, » he moans.
He’s probably the imam of the Baitush Sharah mosque. I shrug. Who does he think he is? I roll my eyes. I feel like I’m being followed. But I have lost them all. There is only God and me left in this city. But a stole, a candy bar, it’s not much. I head for the beggars. A garland hanging on a tree threatens to come down. One of the beggars wakes up as I pass. I hesitate. There are some coins in his cap on the ground. I close my eyes and think of my father. I bend down to pick up the coins. Next to the cap, several pigeons are eating a piece of pizza. The beggar is not aware of having been robbed. I continue my way at a run, but the coins slow me down, they weigh on me like the hand of God and I stop. The chocolate bars made me want to vomit and I regurgitate on the sidewalk, in front of a business building. Then I start to cry. Music from a radio reaches my ears, the singer is singing in Hindi. I search my door and weigh the coins in the palm of my hand. An old lady is sitting in front of the Zaman Hotel. I walk past her quickly, stop, turn around, and stealthily slip the coins into her hand. Although I am still nauseous, I start to run, I almost run into a man coming out of the Sikdar candy store where I go every Thursday to shop for my mother. I run along Sheikh Mujib Avenue, and the light blinds me for the first time this evening. We live at the intersection of the avenue and Dewania Street. Arrived in front of the residence, the security guard looks at me with a dirty eye. I greeted him, climbed the four floors that lead to our four-room apartment without asking for anything else. It is my father who opens the door. He barely looks up from his cold cup of tea as he addresses me:
- My good-for-nothing son is finally home. God knows where he went again last night.
-You think I’m a bum?
- I never said that.
- You just said it.
- What are you doing wandering the streets so late? A neighbor told me you’re acting like a delinquent, leering at the stalls. You should work for a living. No, no… I don’t want that in my house, » he says.
My father closes his eyes and folds his newspaper. I look out the window. My mother is in the yard, hanging out the clothes.
- I leave.
My father looks up at me.
- You will be a thief wherever you go.
- I am not a thief.
- You steal, because you don’t have a clear conscience. I hear you talking at night. Is it Shehan’s death?
- That’s none of your business.
- You shouldn’t think about that anymore.
I grit my teeth. How can I not think about it. I had to join Shehan the night he died.
- I leave.
This time, he looks worried.
- This will not make him come back.
At random, I opted for Austria, for a few days, maybe several weeks, the time to forget Shehan. Maybe because of the mountains on the Pepsi Cola posters. My father thinks I’m going on vacation, we’re a wealthy family, but he didn’t help me, I had to search my sister Ayna’s room to find enough money to get a passport and a visa. Why Austria? Why not? It’s not as far away as the United States, it’s a land of musicians and entertainers like me, and no one will come looking for me there. I don’t know anyone around me who has ever been there. Besides, there is an air link with Dhaka every day. To prepare myself for the trip, I watch Bollywood films shot in Tyrol. I won’t go anywhere else but Austria.
Once the plane is on the tarmac, I take my luggage and go out to visit the city center. A dog follows me, his eye is red and his lips are falling off. The sun burns me. I walk like a fallen soldier on the Prater, it is the most famous avenue of Vienna, everyone knows it, even those who have just arrived.
I raise my eyes to the sky. A cloud scatters its whiteness on the pointed roof of a big building. It looks like one of the thousand churches in the capital of Austria, except that it is a shoe store. The owner must have thought that the excessiveness would attract tourists.
I see a bare foot behind the window. There is electricity in the air. I pass in front of a tavern. I can’t wait to find a place to stay. Cases of bad wine are piled up behind skips. An old woman with a dark scarf is looking for pieces of pizza on the side of the modern art museums.
I squeeze through the young tourists, without a ticket, running up the stairs of one of the museums. I stagger. I cross several rooms without looking around me. A white light blinds me. And then suddenly, before my eyes, a series of photographs. I recognize one of the houses. It is a shelter of Chittgong during the war of 1971. I caress the wall on which the frame is hanging. The security guard leaps from his seat. « Stop. » I stop. I go out.
Once in the street, I bumped into a young girl’s sign. It says « no nuclear » in English. She is pretty. She has short hair and a snakeskin headband. She takes me by the arm. Then, perhaps because she noticed that I smell, she runs away and I lose sight of her.
I walk in Vienna without really knowing where I am going. It’s summer and there are many tourists. They all seem to have a purpose. It makes me envious. I would like to follow each of them and know as much as a travel guide about Vienna.
I stop at a café, it’s getting late. I think about the blog that Shehan used to run. What am I doing in this city? I decide to go and rest at a table on the terrace. I order.
A big fly lands on the straw of my orange juice. The Landtmann Café fills up by fits and starts. Waves of tourists are pouring onto the fleecy benches. I look at my pants. I see the hole. I cross my legs, the right one hiding the opening in my jeans.
- The Querfeld family has run this café for forty years…
I remain forbidden in front of her beautiful face. She put a very pronounced lipstick. I tell myself that the case is won, and then I think of Tasnim that the death of Shehan and my departure left alone.
- These people are uneducated, the stranger remarks. I can’t stand people who make a spectacle of themselves. My name is Veronika.
She is about forty years old and points to a couple arguing three tables away. I try to forget the many times I have climbed on skips at the university of Chittagong to sing bawdy songs. I’m about to walk away, but she continues:
- I can’t believe Felix Salten was here, she says, wiping her lips. I stare for a moment at the lipstick staining the white napkin with the golden edging.
- Felix Salten?
She looks contemptuous.
- He’s a great Viennese writer.
- It’s been a long time since I read… I hasten to allege.
- It’s incredible. He’s really famous.
I uncross my legs. She runs a hand through her hair:
- How long have you been in Vienna?
- For a few days. I’m looking for a job. If you have any ideas…
A couple of violinists began to play their bows behind our table.
- What are you saying, » she asked me.
- I say I’ve been here a few days.
- Try the Grand Ferdinand.
- I beg your pardon?
- The hotel. They employ extras like you.
- Do you believe in God? I ask him, to make conversation.
- God, uh, and you?
- I don’t know anymore.
I frown and order a glass of gin and a pretzel.
- Kaffee ? the waiter asks us.
- Yes please.
I turn back to the pretty stranger:
- I’m actually writing a book about thankless jobs. I’m trying to immerse myself in the reality of one of these jobs. I am a writer.
I bite my lip. I wonder how long I have before she realizes I’m leading her on.
- You’re a writer? What do you write?
- I’ve always liked to defend others. The fight for social justice is my greatest passion. I write social novels.
My father is right. I am a good-for-nothing, a thief… And now a liar.
She smiles and laughs.
I see myself five months earlier, smoking hookah on Shehan’s roof terrace. He was reading a book by Kazi Nazrul Islam, the great Bengali poet, railing against flies. I was bored. The night fell like a threat and the stars seemed pretentious. It was as if God had amused himself by lighting wicks of sky to make the wax of heaven flow over the most unfortunate of his creations. Shehan. How lucky he was! He was engaged to Tasnim, the prettiest girl in Chittagong, and was one of the most prominent journalists in the country. Just when I thought that success would never come knocking at my door, as if he had seen through my jealousy, Shehan said to me:
- Prince, my friend, I am taking risks. All these awards, these blog posts… I’m taking a risk writing what I write.
I didn’t answer. Shehan’s mother, Syeda, used to bring us roshogollah, a kind of doughnut dipped in curdled milk, from time to time. I looked at her watch. It was broken.
Suddenly, Shehan had put the book on the floor near a vase. Withered rose petals littered the damp earth near it. It had rained a few hours earlier.
- It must be fascinating, » Veronika said to me.
- What uh…
- Writing social novels.
She smiled. Shehan was defending freedom of expression on a blog, Azadiya. I had given up my studies…
- Are you dreaming?
The stranger, whose name was Veronika, sipped her martini rosso slowly, like an actress.
- I was a famous blogger in Bangladesh, I continued.
- Is that why you are here? Because you are threatened in your country?
- I really took a big risk.
I closed my eyes as Veronika continued to suck the red liquid from her martini. I saw it all again, our escapade in the little white house 10km from Chittagong, the walks with Tasnim along the Maynati river, Shehan’s burning eyes, the red sky. Red… No, the sky should have been a sparkling blue. But my closed eyelids had washed away the blue color. I had the haunting impression of having lived most of my life under a blazing sky.
- And you, what do you work in, I asked him, looking falsely interested.
I crossed my legs. Had she seen the hole?
- It doesn’t matter.
- Did she?
At the time, she had warned me: « You must watch over Shehan. He is in danger ». So I had tried to cut the bridges. Gradually, as the sun fades on the horizon over the ocean, I had let our friendship drown. That evening, full of remorse, I had wanted to see him again. Two bullets in the head. I should have gone to Syeda, offered her condolences…
- You have a girlfriend, » Veronika asked.
- No, I don’t.
- But you’re a good boy in every respect, she judged.
I had been in love with Tasnim. We never spoke, but I watched every picture posted on social networks. I would pass by his house like a ghost at night to breathe in the scent of his life.
To go to Austria, I had to steal my sister’s money while she was sleeping under the mosquito net and go to Burichang to get a black market passport.
- Do you have family here? Could it be that she finds me to her liking? I bit my lip.
- I have a sister in Bangladesh.
- You must be close to her.
- Big brothers are always very protective in our house.
When she found out about the theft, Ayna slapped me, but I didn’t give her the money back.
- Don’t you miss your family?
My family has disowned me, they think I’m useless. At least my father thinks so.
- We Bengalis are very family oriented. I phone them every day.
I felt the pulse of shame under his skin. No, my family would not exist until I proved myself, in Vienna or anywhere else in the world.
I don’t know where to sleep tonight. I pass the Steinhof church with its large golden crosses and its characteristic water-green roofs. A beggar suddenly stands up. I realize that he was not begging, no, he seemed to be waiting for someone. The evening fell violently, I did not notice that it was so dark, an almost purple darkness. The streetlights came on as the fake beggar addressed me:
- Young man you don’t look so good.
I raise my eyes to the sky, big drops start to fall. I think of Shehan whom I betrayed one day of monsoon and I close my eyes. I have a feeling that this old man is my revenge, that he is coming to avenge my friend who died as a hero.
- Young man? Can you hear me?
I hear him, and I nod. He takes me by the arm and explains that he is the sexton of the Steinhof church. Every evening he comes to polish the magnificent organ, which is only turned on twice a year. He has a small room, which he can rent to me against some services in the church.
The room is freezing. I am surprised to find a reproduction of a Modigliani nude on the wall, neither an Austrian painting nor a religious one. This man is very strange, but this bed looks like any other bed and I fall asleep like an angel in the holy place.
Around midnight, the sexton drums on my door. I am startled. Will I end my life like this, murdered by a demon disguised as an officiant in a beautiful church? But when I open the door, he doesn’t say a word and hands me a pair of velvet pajamas. I accept it as an omen.
The next day, I wake up sweating. I have a place to live, but still no job. I’ll have to rack my brains. I have breakfast with Krystof, the sexton. He tells me about his native Hungary. He spreads marmalade on the cereal bread as if he wanted to cut off heads. I am always a little suspicious of him.
- You know, kid, I met Radnoti’s daughter once. She even liked me.
Big crumbs fall on the orange tablecloth.
- Radnoti, I stammer.
- One of the greats.
- The greatest?
- He is a poet. The profession of the gods.
Nincsen apám, se anyám,
se istenem, se hazám,
se bölcsőm, se szemfedőm,
se csókom, se szeretőm.
Harmadnapja nem eszek,
se sokat, se keveset.
It means « I have neither father nor mother, neither God nor country, neither cradle nor lies, neither kiss nor lover. I haven’t eaten for three days, that’s a lot, and that’s not much. »
The music of the Hungarian lulled me. He tells me about this girl with curly hair that he knew in Budapest. I imagine the massive body of the sexton, carrying the frail daughter of the poet to the fortress of Visegrad in the north of the Hungarian capital. I close my eyes. He continues to speak, but I no longer hear him. I am no longer in Bangladesh or Vienna, I am on a Hungarian sailboat on Lake Balaton, the largest in his country, with a poetess who recites verses to me as I pull the white sail towards me. She laughs and her face takes on the features of Veronika. I open my eyes. The sexton has stopped talking. He stares at me.
- You know Radnoti… He looks like you. I met him once at a dinner the Hungarian army gave in honor of the country’s writers. Did you ever think of being an author? You have the right face.
I shrug my shoulders. I wonder what kind of muscles and teeth you need to be a writer invited to a Hungarian army ball, and I bite into a piece of bun. Outside, the rain is falling and we can hear the raindrops on the roof of the church.
After helping him to clean the chairs of the service and to polish the big organ, I sneak out of the Steinhof church.
The light is intense. My eyes are burned with lime. I walk with difficulty. It is too hot for a normal human being like me. Near a kiosk, I wait until the salesman has his eyes fixed on the tight dress of a teenager, and I slip a chocolate bar into my pocket. I walk away, then retrace my steps. I honestly buy a copy of « Ecrivains magazine » in English.
I still have a few hours before I meet Veronika again, so I walk along the Danube under the full August sun while reading my magazine. Ice cream vendors are yelling at me. I wish they would shut up so I could stop my thoughts. A clean-shaven man passes me on an electric scooter. The walls are full of brightly colored graffiti. The same names of graffiti artists are often seen.
I remember one evening when Shehan and I climbed on a bridge over a metro train in Dhaka. We wrote slogans in Bengali against the ruling party. Shehan almost fell, and I reached out and pulled him to me from the top of the bridge.
Tell me God, I once saved my friend’s life. Perhaps you can take my feat as a mitigating factor for my treachery? For sure, I killed him, I killed my best friend by not keeping our appointment.
I arrived at the meeting point. Veronika doesn’t stay long, she excuses herself because she has a family dinner. I start to wonder if she has any doubts about me. Does she know that I am a liar? I clench my right fist until it hurts. The evening starts to fall. I go back for a while to sit on the banks of the Danube to watch families having fun in the water in the cool of the night. The sky turns a syrupy pink. I chew my chewing gum with an empty eye and, taken by a sudden flash of genius, I call the hotel Veronika told me about. A few hours later, I have a new job.
The water is 23 degrees. I stroke the turquoise of the pool, making sure no one notices me. A girl with a towel on her head passes me. I can see all of Vienna from the roof of the Grand Ferdinand Hotel. The forest can be seen behind a cloud of buildings. I sigh as I step aside to let two fat ladies in canary bathrobes pass.
- Can you hold my daughter for a moment?
Veronika charms me with a wide smile. I glance at the little one who, in any case, is wisely busy playing with a plastic ball next to her mother’s deckchair. She dives into the hotel pool. I take a few drops on my nose. No matter the babysitting and the splashes, I get paid at the end of the week.
The carmine red Vuitton bag of my conquest is wide open. I see a wallet and reach for it when its owner grabs my wrist.
- Thief, » she shouts, seeming to return as quickly as she went diving.
- I wanted to see the author of your book, I lie.
She takes a step back, and seems convinced by my aplomb.
- It’s me.
- You think a mother can’t write a bestseller?
I have no desire to argue with the writer, I’m done for the day, but I guess that’s the price I pay for trying to commit one of the deadly sins. « Thou shalt not steal, » I think to myself and to God. « And when your children are hungry, you let them die, so don’t come and lecture me, infernal deity, » I say to myself, staring at the turquoise water of the hotel’s rooftop pool.
- Take a look.
- She hands me the paperback and I weigh it like a mango. I smile shyly, she leans in and kisses me. My breathing stops. Then she takes her daughter by the hand, and leaves without me really catching my breath.
So after a night’s sleep on the church’s icy bed, I told Veronika the news yesterday: I’m in love with her. She still thinks I’m a writer, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not. These last few days have been trying, but the meetings I’ve had have convinced me that I can revolutionize literature. Besides, I find that being a writer is the closest thing to being a journalist, only less dangerous, and I have always admired journalists. Shehan would be proud of this ink-stained lie.
While waiting to write anything, and to be invited to some army ball like Radnoti, I rub my hands: I finally found a job. I am a pool man in one of the most beautiful art deco buildings in Vienna, which has been transformed into a hotel. It is not a tiring job, I have a net, I collect flies and cigarette butts in the turquoise water. I am paid by the week, under the table and I meet famous women writers.
The evening is about to fall and this time I have an appointment with Veronika at the sausage stand on the Albertinaplatz. I would have liked to suggest to Veronika a more sophisticated place, like the rooftop swimming pool of my hotel, but I can’t help it, my new conquest likes sausage with mustard.
As I run down the stairs to say goodbye to my new employers, a sound of breaking glass startles me on the second floor. I see Veronika coming out of a room numbered 226. I look furtively at all points of the compass and slip into the room she just left. The mini-bar is still full. Mazette, I say to myself, you have the ardor of a young first, a writer, that’s breadcrumbs for you, you could be an actor, or a policeman!
I slip the bottle of frozen champagne into my leather jacket and I leave the hotel, skimming the walls like a bird of prey in the tall grass. Veronika is beautiful, she has borrowed a dress from her sister by Women by Chloe, the color is indevinable but draws towards the salmon, and I convulse myself by holding the warmed bottle against my chest. Veronika has a wide smile.
The next day, I found a restaurant on the Danube. I am alone there. I take a spicy carrot between my fingers, put it in my mouth. The night glitters on the Danube. The restaurant where I am has set up a table for me a little apart, I have a view of a huge tower, some of whose offices are still lit up. The small blue flowers decorate my plate of caramelized pork. I languidly cut a slice of meat when a noise pulls me from my chewing. A waitress has dropped a spoon from her tray in front of me. I am about to pick it up, but she signals that she will take it. Our eyes meet. She has a bun gathered on the back of her neck. Tasnim never tied her hair up.
The waitress smiles at me. The sky is completely black, stars start to appear despite the lights of the buildings. The air is fresh, not like in Dhaka where every step makes you suffocate. The air in Dhaka is unbreathable, a bit like an impossible love that would leave you breathless. The stars in Vienna seem farther away than those I saw in the Bengali countryside. But there were also buildings. Not skyscrapers, but a few pink or purple buildings in front of the Saghardam pond.
The memorial of one of the greatest Bengali poets is located a few meters from the pond. I had accompanied Tasnim there on a rusty white bicycle. She was wearing a yellow tunic and earrings… Or maybe she wasn’t. We had talked as usual about Shehan. He was waiting for us in front of a garland that hung on the memorial. The three of us had walked home through the World War II cemetery. The ghosts had avoided us that day
I put another carrot dipped in honey sauce to my mouth. The waitress has disappeared, a short, stocky man is serving the tables in front of me. Is Shehan’s ghost sitting at a table in the restaurant? The table in front of me is free. The napkins have been folded in the shape of a lotus. Eternity of life… That’s what the lotus symbolizes. That’s what I remember when I try to take Tasnim’s hand in front of the Saghardam pond and she rejects me. I have all eternity to seduce her. But I am wrong. Eternity is only a dream made by a handful of religious people. Shehan’s death is the proof.
I lower my eyes to my plate. I have finished eating. I get up, pay my bill with my week’s pay and leave the restaurant, waving at the waitress in the bun. With my hands crossed behind my back and a heavy heart, I slip along the walls that frame the Danube. I set out for a night walk. The bars and restaurants installed on the barges still illuminate the numerous graffiti. My eyes stop on a bird, a kind of pigeon drawn with big lines. « The dean bird should bring serenity to every house in Bangladesh, » Shehan used to tell us repeatedly when he wasn’t writing a pamphlet.
Where is Shehan now? Could it be that he left me some of his courage when he died? I sigh. On the other side of the Danube, a group of teenagers have put a small radio on the ground and are awkwardly trying to dance. A bicycle passes me wildly on my right. I approach the river, caught by the reflections of the lights on the water. The gold springs up on the black of the waves and draws the outline. Where has the dusty green-gray of the river from earlier gone? I stand silently, motionless in front of the Danube, right next to a bar whose sign Tel Aviv beach seems to promise the existence of a beach.
I close my eyes. My father walks beside me. We are on the beach of Cox’s bazar. A woman is bathing with an infant. The veil of her black sari floats in the gray water. The clouds form disjointed, dense clusters above the dark palm trees. The sand is hot and burns the soles of my bare feet. I can hardly hear my father’s voice because the wind is so strong. It is probably evening, the sky is starting to turn red. The water is tinged with pink reflections. The woman in the black sari comes out of the water, wringing out her long hair, her child pressed against her right breast. Her husband joins her and takes her by the waist.
My father tells me about our family, about the importance of being honest in this world. I nod and agree with everything he says, as long as he lets me dream about Tasnim. I look up at the entrance of the bar. A couple walks towards me laughing. The Danube is a golden necklace on which the night springs. If only I could steal it, my fortune would be made. I set off again under the benevolent eye of the business buildings.
So you’re not a writer, » sighed Veronika, handing me a poem by Radnoti that I had copied from the sexton’s book.
- Why do you say that?
- This poem is all over the internet. So you’re not a writer.
- Not exactly.
- She asked with an intonation that left no doubt – it was contempt.
- I loved to write when I was in college.
How adorable, » she said mockingly.
We were walking along the Danube Canal. I had called Veronika six times on the way home from the restaurant the day before. She had finally answered, and we were walking towards the Motto am Fluss restaurant. It was already late, and the lights were dimming. The fog had descended without warning on the banks of the Danube. A man in a hurry jostled me. I looked up at Veronika. Her face was closed.
- Actually, I’ve always admired people who write, » I confided. I thought she would appreciate my sincerity and decided to play it safe. That’s why I lied. I wanted to impress you.
- Impress me? But why?
- I just…
- And why a writer? You could have chosen anything more plausible.
- My best friend was a writer. He was known for it in my country. In fact he was a journalist. He wrote to… To give a voice to those who have none.
I thought he would have known what to say in my place.
- I don’t understand.
- Shehan always encouraged me to write… I think I wanted to honor him. With this lie.
- That doesn’t justify telling anything.
We were now under one of the big bridges crossing the river. Smoke was billowing down from the metal gates of the bridge. My eyes stung.
- All this smoke, I noticed, is there a fire on the Danube?
- It’s just the fog. The Danube is not on fire, no. She smiled. The fog is dense tonight. It happens sometimes in Vienna.
- I thought that…
In front of me large clouds of smoke floated in the twilight. Suddenly the smoke dispersed. I opened my eyes, closed them and opened them again on an even thicker fog. The shape of the clouds had taken the face of Shehan.
- Your best friend… He lives in Bangladesh?
- He is dead.
Shehan looked at me through the smoke, he had become the smoke. He had become a ghost made of fog and was floating under the bridge near the Danube. I opened my mouth but not a sound came out. I was trembling with all my limbs. Veronika did not seem to notice. My answer seemed to have aroused her curiosity:
- How did he die? Her more compassionate tone made me hope that she would forgive me. But instead of taking her hand or apologizing, I stammered:
- Veronika, you have to go home. It’s not safe here…
- I beg your pardon? Who are you to tell me what to do?
Shehan was staring at me from the top of the bridge now. A police car passed by and the flashing light dispersed the image of the ghost for a moment.
- I beg you. Get out of here.
I prayed that the lights of a bus or a streetcar would erase the image of my friend’s face from my field of vision again.
- Prince? Are you all right?
I didn’t answer. I could hardly breathe now.
-Can you hear me? I think I’ll go home, yes, » she said. You’re strange tonight. We’ll talk again some other time. Maybe we will.
I did not manage to hold her back. My gaze remained fixed on the fog. My tears rolled down my cheeks once Veronika had become one with the fog. The fog was still stinging my eyes. I didn’t know if I was crying for my resounding failure tonight or if it was the fog that made my tears flow.
Suddenly it seemed as if the cloud before my eyes was smiling. A weight was lifted from my chest. What if Shehan had shown up not to take revenge but to talk to me? I sat down at the edge of the Danube. At the moment I had this revelation, the streetlights lit up on top of the bridge. The ghost of Shehan disappeared at once.
- You wanted to tell me that I had nothing to do with it, didn’t you? » I said loudly, raising my head and looking at the top of the bridge.
- That I shouldn’t feel guilty, that I didn’t kill you?
Then I lowered my eyes to the river, and my tears flowed.
I run out of breath, the sexton at my back. The Jubilee Tower stares down at us from its five floors. I almost skid. Then I climb each step, sweating and holding my breath.
- Come down, Krystof tells me from below.
I won’t come down because Veronika has discovered my trick, because I have no other solution than to throw myself into the void in front of the whole city of Vienna, which unfolds before my eyes like a bird. I climb four by four the steps. Once at the top, I contemplate Vienna. But it is not the city that unfolds in front of the tower, but a handful of hospital patients on their way out, attracted by the noise. They all tell me to get down. One of them pretends to rush into the building, but I see Krystof waving to him and going up alone. He soon joined me and sat down beside me.
- You know God forbids this kind of thing?
I shrug, my eyes fixed on the white horizon of the buildings that extend the Ottakring forest as far as the eye can see.
- That girl has turned your head.
- She doesn’t believe me.
- What do you mean?
- She doesn’t believe I’m really a writer.
- But you’re not. You clean swimming pools.
The atrocity of my situation strikes me again like thunder. But Krystof’s reassuring voice changed my mind. I finally don’t feel like jumping into the void anymore. I turn to him, my eyes misty with tears:
- I can’t give up.
- I know.
- I will write. For real.
- Maybe that’s the wisest thing to do. For now, come down from the tower.
I hug her and start crying in her arms. The moon has surreptitiously crept over us. I wipe my eyes and get up. Vienna is glittering on the horizon. Krystof follows me painfully like a bear. We walk side by side along the path to the Pönningerweg bus stop. Finally, Krystof stops in front of a beer sign.
- I have to take the patients home. Can you walk back to the church alone?
- Don’t worry.
I split through the field. The trees sway in the evening. The wind howls. The grass is high. Near the kindergarten there is a copper tunnel. I sit for a moment on a swing and contemplate the wheat fields and the falling evening. Suddenly, a shadow emerges from the row of beech trees in front of me. The outline of a deer appears at the edge of the wood. I jump down from the swing and start running towards the forest. The sky is a deep blue. Once in the Ottakring wood, I look for the deer. But he disappeared. To my right, a lightning bolt strikes a cherry tree. Smoke fills my eyes. When I open them again, the cherry tree is still there. « I’ll write something myself, » I yell. The wind is blowing harder. It starts to rain. I see golden letters detaching from the earth and dancing in front of my eyes. I jumped forward to touch them and found myself on the ground. Then I begin to scratch the earth to write a poem. Write anything, anywhere, as long as I write something. A shadow brushes against me. The deer is behind me. I get up and lean against a walnut tree. I tear off some of the tree’s bark to make a stylus but I scratch myself. Paper, I need paper. I tear off leaves from trees, from walnut, poplar, common beech, from all the trees in the woods that I can find, then I set off again in the rain. Lightnings fall from all sides. I shout incomprehensible words to the forest. I punch a tree. « Sanity for insanity, let’s take what is nobler! » I shout, quoting Omar Khayyam. The deer catches up with me. It starts running beside me. I caress it but my hand only touches drops of rain.
Finally, I arrive at the church am Fridhof. There is no one there. The church is empty. The purple and blue stained glass windows shine on my way. I enter the building with the golden roof. I don’t go to my room, I kneel on the floor in front of the altar. There, I throw my tree leaves on the statue of Christ.
- Here is God, I come to atone for my lies.
I am soaked to the bone.
- Here is God, here are leaves, now give me the inspiration I’m going to fix my mistakes.
A sound of a door makes me jump. But no one is there. I go to the candles and extinguish all the candles. Then I lie on my back in the church, staring at the ceiling and the angels. I don’t write anything, I contemplate the scenes of Christ’s life above my sweaty forehead.
- Come on God, you can do better. Give me the inspiration I need.
I fetch a book from my room, tear out the pages and start writing like hell in the margins. A stream of drool drips from my lips. I write most of the night in front of the altar. The sacristan is still not back.
I write in the half-light. There are almost no candles left to light the church. Anyway, I turned off the lights. I am sitting in the nave, the sheets of book scattered before me. I burn some of them when I feel like it with the candles. I write frantically until I blacken all the sheets. And when I run out of paper, I write on the hangings of the altar. A statuette of the Virgin Mary falls on the floor. I sign myself. Then I faint. When I wake up, I am sure I have written a masterpiece. I contemplate the disparate pile of leaves all around me. I grab one in a half-consciousness, but there are only scribbles on it. Crazy with anguish, I grab a second leaf, then a third. There are only incomprehensible scribbles. I collapse again on the ground, stunned by this new failure. Suddenly the door opens on the fly. A large shadow appears in the doorway. I leap to my feet. The deer has found me. The animal approaches me slowly and I squint. I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing anymore.
- Prince? My child, what’s the matter with you, » the sexton asks me.
For several weeks, I have not left my room in the church. The hours go by in a religious cold without me wanting to set foot outside.
The sexton brought me Kürtõskalác, a baked Hungarian cake. He sat on my bed, but this time he didn’t talk about his memories of Hungary. He tried to get me to talk, but I have been stubbornly silent for days.
This morning I attended a mass. I was listening to the priest talk about our mission on earth, about the importance of helping our neighbor, when Veronika tried to call me. I didn’t pick up.
I started writing poetry again. I write about Veronika, but mostly about Tasnim. Maybe one day I’ll send one of my poems to Veronika to prove to her that I wasn’t completely lying. But the image of the young Viennese girl becomes more and more blurred as the days go by.
The sexton uses any pretext to come and keep me company, he thinks I am lonely. This morning Krystof brought a bouquet of white flowers, which looked like wisteria, in a small metal vase. He put it right in front of the only window in my room. He had his hands crossed behind his back, he remained silent and then went out to polish the organ.
For me, time passes quickly. I write poems, I read them again, I think of the hills of Chittagong. I think of the hiking trails that lead to places that are difficult to reach, to India or Burma. The sky is dotted with grease stains, or maybe my window is dirty? I get up to open it and the wind rushes through my papers. A poem falls to the floor, I pick it up. It’s a poem by Radnoti, not me, it’s called the forced march, the beginning says something like this: « You are crazy. But you fail, you get up and walk again. As if you had wings. The ditch attracts you, you are afraid to dive into it and if someone asked you why, perhaps you would turn around and answer that it is because another woman and a nobler death, a happier death, are waiting for you somewhere else.
I return to the main room of the church to watch the officiants say mass. The sacristan has forgiven me for my foolishness of last week. He has become a little more distant. I think he senses my departure. The phone rings again. It’s Veronika. I go out in front of the church, jostled by a child at heart, and I pick up.
- I’m sorry I spoke to you so harshly yesterday
- I understand. I was miserable all along.
She doesn’t answer.
- Promise me you’ll never date a writer. They are liars.
Veronika bursts out laughing.
- You mean a real writer?
-I may not be a writer, but I share this personality trait with them. Novels are nothing but honest lies
- True lies?
- In a way. An attempt to make reality lie with conviction, an illusion that lulls the reader into a realistic imagination.
- Do you want to meet again?
- I’m going back to Bangladesh
The next day, I set out for the hotel where I have to take my job. Once in front of the pool, I throw the net at the bottom of the water.
- You look good, » says a figure behind me. It’s the writer. I smile at her, and we both dive into the water.
- Does your contract include this kind of swimming?
- I don’t work here anymore
- Since when?
- Since this very moment.
- I see. You’ve been thinking about our conversation. You want to be a writer.
- I’ve started writing. Poetry.
- And the girl?
- She was just one more poem in the chaos of this city.
The writer didn’t hear me. She swims a little further, her head under water. Her blond hair floats like a sunbeam. I observe the corners of the pool. There are no flies in the pool. I realize that I’ve gotten the hang of my work with the net.
There are 48 fly-type insects in the pool. Midges, flies, and undetermined insects. I watch them for a long time in my net, while sliding it mechanically along the pool.
- Is the pool almost ready?
She looks at me with a sly smile, as if to remind me of our kiss a few days earlier. I think with all the intensity of which I was capable. This woman was definitely in love with me. She probably came here without her husband. My net is not glamorous – but my youthful beauty has pulled her out of the insipidness of her greasy mornings, into a dream of shared love. I think for a moment to Tasnim: forgive me for this time.
- The pool is ready.
- Have you removed all the scorpions?
- You can bathe without fear, I answer;
- Don’t be shy!
She approaches me and kisses me again. On the cheek this time. Then she lies down in a deckchair. She puts her sunglasses.
- I have to talk to you.
- You do?
- Are you writing a new novel?
- Yes. It takes place in Vienna. That’s one of the reasons I came here.
- Did you come alone?
- I came with my sister. She’s looking after Thuylla this morning. The weather is so nice. Don’t you ever swim? I don’t answer.
- Do you always write your novels?
- What a strange question
- And you would write for someone else… If that person… If that person was in total despair, invaded by the darkest ideas… I want to become a writer.
I threw myself at his feet
- Please tell me how to do it before I go back.
There are 49 fly-like insects in the pool, I am the 49th for this woman.
She burst out laughing
- You are unbelievable. I thought you were trying to seduce me for my person. You know, I’m not interested in young men. But you looked so sad when I saw you in that café. I thought that an adventure would give you back some joy. Now I understand. You are in love with someone else.
- In love?
- You don’t write. But you want to write. Is it for glory? For love? For the love of art? You must have your reasons. Beautiful as you are, I would simply lean towards love.
-Then tell me how to get there. I’ll make love to you. I’ll keep Thuylla all week. Anything you want.
His sonorous laughter broke out in the middle of the pool. I felt as if the turquoise water was shaking.
- There is no secret. You have to write.
- But wouldn’t you like to… Write a book for me? Oh, a little book, it wouldn’t take you too long. You write it, I’ll sign my name to it. Oh, of course, I would also make my corrections. The main character’s name would have to be Tasnim, for example.
- Come on. Tasnim, » she said. Is that her name? Is it for her that you are doing all this?
- I can tell you. Since you’re helping me. It’s for her that I want you to write me a book. Tasnim is the most beautiful girl in Chittagong
- Come on. I’ll take your word for it But I can’t do that.
She laughed again. My arms fell off. My plan was a total failure.
- But if you write something interesting, » she added, seeing my desperate look, « you’ll send it to me. I’ll read it and help you if I like it. She took a card out of her red bag. I saw again the wallet I had tried to steal a few days before and I looked down with a guilty look on my face. I took the card. She stood up, and dived into the pool.
I hesitate, I have my back to the church. A passerine flies over a poplar branch in the Ottakring forest. I rub my right temple. The sparrow describes arcs of circles. It is looking for prey. My phone in my right hand, I think of the doyel birds that live in the sugarcane forests near Dhaka in Manikgonj. My mouth is dry. I dial the number I have had in mind for days. The sexton is out, no one can hear me:
- I was wondering when you’d call me, a faint voice answers me at the end of the line. Are you in Germany?
- In Austria.
- In Austria?
- In Vienna, the capital.
Tasnim sighs. There is a long silence, then she resumes:
- Why didn’t you call me earlier?
I can hear Tasnim breathe.
- Have you found a job? Your family is worried.
- I have an honest job.
- In a hotel.
- Are you thinking of staying in Austria?
- No. It was only a dream. I met a girl here. But she doesn’t like me. I have no luck with women.
- Did you tell her you care about her?
Darkness begins to take over the Ottakring forest. I walk at a frantic pace around the church.
- No. And I won’t.
- Aren’t you in love with her?
- I don’t know. I’m not so sure anymore.
- I see.
- Do you remember the poems the three of us used to write at night at Shehan’s?
- Yeah, it was… It was a moment out of time.
- I can still see Sheehan’s mother scolding us for not lighting enough lamps.
- I thought it was a beautiful terrace. I wonder how his mother is doing.
- You know… I wanted the girl I met to think I was a writer. All I do is take care of a pool on the roof of a big hotel in Vienna.
- You clean pools? For rich people?
- Yes. I remove flies and cigarette butts. And I get paid a few euros.
Tasnim starts laughing again.
- Why did you tell him you were a writer?
- I thought I loved him. You know… I loved him too… Shehan. Not like you of course but… I’m going crazy.
- And this girl?
- She doesn’t know I’m mad. I really thought I was in love with her.
- But you’re not?
- I just wanted someone to believe me.
- I don’t understand.
- I am not responsible for Shehan’s death.
- Is that why you called me?
His voice became harder, distant.
- I moved away from him… Because seeing you with him became too painful.
- I know. You are not responsible for anything. Prince, your father would like you to come home. He doesn’t say it, but he has his eyes on the ground from morning to night. And your mother has become a shadow of her former self.
- Do you want me to come home?
- If there is still something for you in Bangladesh, then yes.
- You know very well that there is still someone who cares for me in Bangladesh. Except my family.
Prince holds his breath.
- What about that girl?
- That was a bad dream. I gambled and lost. She found out I’m a liar. There’s nothing between us anymore.
- When you come back, maybe we can talk.
- I have some things to work out here again.
- You could really be a writer.
- Could I?
This time, it’s me who starts to laugh. A knot unties in my chest. The clouds dissipate in my mind at the thought of seeing Tasnim again one day.
I hang up and dial another number.
- I’m coming home.
- Of course you are! And I need you to explain to me what you’ve been doing in Germany for weeks. The whole family thinks you’re in America. I don’t dare mention your name in public.
- I just wanted to prove you wrong.
- That I’m wrong?
- I can be a good person.
- You are a good-for-nothing. But hurry back.
It’s completely dark now. I hear the distant sound of trees. My tears have dried, and I go back to my room in the church.
I am on the beach of Inani. 18 kilometers long, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Chittagong region. The wind has risen on the district. The beach is an extension of Cox’s bazar, the third longest beach in the world. It is the most touristic place in Bangladesh. I feel like I can see the face of an Arakan king floating in the water, the Burmese kings who ruled the Chittagong region before the Portuguese and then the British from the 9th century. When I was a schoolboy in uniform, I often heard my teachers talk about Shah Shuja’s love for this beach. He would have his military camps stationed there against all logic. Like him, I feel caught by the beauty of the place. A seagull flies over me. My eyes land on the thousand rocks of the beach. I think of the palanquins of Prince Shuja, immobilized on his whim in Cox’s bazar. There is always a beach called Dulahazara, « the thousand palanquins » in the vicinity. I promise myself to go and bathe there on a pilgrimage.
The sun raids the water. A young girl in a white dress with blue flowers plays with her little sister. The coral stones collect the evening light. My feet are in the waves, my eyes fixed on the clouds in front of me. Tasnim has not come. I remember the words of the sexton: « You have to try to find the horizon to be happy ». The bright light shines on the white shells scattered on the sand. I start to run towards the ocean, and I end up immersing my whole body in the water. I don’t swim very fast, but I move forward, farther and farther, while the night begins to fall and the ocean turns red. I laugh out loud without knowing why. There are small boats with orange pennants a little further. The clouds drop an opaque net on the ocean, as if they wanted to catch the swimmers.
I close my eyes under the water. I am still in Vienna, in the pool of the Grand Leopold Hotel, except that the water has turned dark and I no longer intend to seduce Veronika. I get my head out of the water and feel dizzy. I watch teenagers running on the beach. In front of me, the waiters of the imposing Royal Tulip hotel are busy on the terrace. I plank and watch the pool on the roof of the Royal. This is where I have been working for the past week. I guess I liked my Viennese experience during the interview. Maybe I exaggerated my duties in Vienna, since they didn’t hire me for the pool, but as a manager. However, the letter I wrote pretending to be my employer was excellently written. Satisfied with myself, I dipped my head in the ocean.
« You have to write, » I hear the writer laugh as I am fully immersed in the water. My face touches a school of seaweed. I see again the long blonde hair methodically waving on the back of her neck as she gives me this advice. I rise to the surface, but there is only the fragile evening light and me, the families have almost all deserted the beach.
The name Cox’s bazaar was given to the beach that extends Inani by an English captain, Hiram Cox. The beach commemorates his commitment to the integration of the Arakanese population into the Bengali population in the late 18th century. I see a small brown horse at the water’s edge, led by a rider in a white shirt. It is the first time I see a horse on the beach. It must come from Tekhnaf, a part of the beach devoured by mangrove, and more off-center.
I swim for another hour, my eyes splashed by the twilight. Then I get out of the water and perch on the moss-covered rocks to observe the last families swimming near me. Finally I head towards the hotel where I will take my shift. Suddenly, a silhouette stands out in the dim light. She walks awkwardly on the stones that litter the beach. I laugh without really knowing why. Approaching me, the apparition shakes her thick hair.
- Hello Tasnim.