Short Fiction ~ Dragan Todorovic
—For Raymond Queneau
The morning flight to Paris is always full. It carries us—the working class of the new world, people like me, who fly in, do the job, get lost. I recognised about half of the passengers. With few I exchanged hellos.
When we landed at CDG it was as if the plane had been cut in two. Business people: purposefulness in their stride. Those arriving for pleasure: slow in everything, slow to get up, slow to take their bags from the overhead. They dragged their feet through the exit tunnel, into the building, then they started reading signs… I understand that: unsure what would be important in the end, tourists cram memories into their every move. But I had things to do and knew the airport. Straight on the series of travelators, turn right at the end, the middle door opens fastest, left by the giant flight table—careful there through the flocks of confused travellers—right into the leather recliner area, down the escalator, left through the revolving doors—no need to make the arch inside them, just go straight!—get into the corralled zone leading to the border checks.
Everyone slows in this, last stage. For security reasons, these areas are under stronger lights, and passengers start to wipe their eyes as if waking up, as if their whole flight has been just a dream, and their reality is this huge, depressing space sliced into thin passages by the blue crowd-control tapes. Then they hesitate, as people do with uniforms around them. Have you noticed that? I bet the uniforms don’t have to be filled with people. Just hang the uniforms around and they slow down, they want to enter the right lane, they don’t want to anger the Gatekeepers. I guess this part is somehow too close to the final border checks, the ones where you hold your soul in your teeth before Saint Peter. And it’s here that we who know always overtake everyone else, without pushing, without elbowing anyone. We’ve been checked and rechecked before. We’ll pass.
The area leading to the glass booths was unusually empty, so I hurried through the labyrinth. The couple ahead—until then holding well—stopped suddenly halfway down and I passed by.
In the left lane, reserved for crews and VIPs, three men and a woman were dealing with someone in a wheelchair. They stood in front of a side door. One of the men was a civilian, and he bent over the wheelchair to help with something. The woman was smiling at something he had said. Black uniforms. They looked like they knew each other. Banter.
Ahead, pretty black hostesses dressed in peach jackets and tight black trousers were waiting for the flood of arrivals that would start later. Whoever had chosen them will be in trouble soon. They are too beautiful and a feminist will catch that. Mark my words. Someone will be cancelled here.
As I approached, I saw a young policewoman entering a booth, just starting her shift, and I hurried into her lane. A slow, undecided woman from another flight (dark bags under eyes; an overnight from another continent) made a half-hearted move in the same direction, but I was faster. The policewoman was kind and there was something mild in her oh-so-relaxed-you-don’t-understand-she’s-checking-your-narrative-plus-your-passport chat. She asked me where in Canada did I live, I live in England now, and when I lived in Canada where did I live, in Toronto, is it pretty, it is beautiful you should visit, thank you, sir, thank you, welcome to France, have a great day, and you too.
Airports are confusing, man. All of them. Airfarts. Those small signs tell you nothing because they have to talk to everyone. Look at the people in all those corridors. Like zombies, right? The living dead of the dead ends! Actually, not a bad title for a song. I mean, you arrive, your brain is not working, because you’ve just been engaged in something unnatural, like flying, man, like fucking birds and who ever thought birds were smart? Once my plane was late and I had to play an hour after I landed. I couldn’t hold the rhythm, I couldn’t hit the note. Your whole body is not working properly.
And when everyone starts pulling out their fucking handbags,… I’m sure there are dead people in some of them. Are you sure it’s your handbag, and not your body bag? And then everyone drags their asses by the crew and cuts a grin and Thank you for flying with us and Thank you and enjoy… What’s with the fucking enjoy these days? Why is everyone, like, Enjoy? We are arriving in Paris and we hope you’ve enjoyed flying with us. No, I haven’t. I enjoy sex, I enjoy winning a hand, I enjoy when my music sells well, and I enjoy a line with my friends, but sitting for hours in a can with my knees up to my chin and the silent morning farts and the smell of someone socks underneath the seat? No. I enjoy when someone’s combing my pubic hair… No? So then fuck off with your enjoy, okay?
And then you drag your ass through those corridors and god forbid you lost sight of the people ahead of you because I’m sure you’d get lost and remain there, roaming, till the end of your days. Roaming. Roaming Rovers. Roaming Range Rovers. Ha.
And then you stumble upon the passport control. And it’s like in the war movies, no man’s land and obstacles and barbed wire… In the beginning they must have had barbed wire in the place of those tapes, but it was impractical because there was too much blood when the night flights arrived, ha! And you walk slowly through the labyrinth because there must be snipers on the side, you know, all those peachy babes on the side, you think they’re not trained assassins? Just try doing something, they would be like zook, zook, zook and you’d be chopped to pieces with their manicured hands.
You walk slowly, and you hope they’ll give you a cube of cheese in the end. I mean, just look at these spaces: huge, and nothing ever happens there between the babes eying you and the cops on the other end, everyone is just milling about and if there were no those tapes people would be spinning in circles. Never.
This time, okay, this time when I was going through there, something was happening. There were some cops in black uniforms, one of them was a woman, a serious babe if you need to know, papal balconies, and one guy was in civilian clothes, and they had a krimos in a wheelchair. He looked older, about 25, shaved head, sport suit, sneakers. Brownie. An Algerian, like. He looked like a krimos, right, you know those faces. And they had a single thick plastic tie around his wrists, black. One of those they use for fixing cables. These things are bloody brilliant, they look like nothing, but have you ever tried cutting one? And the krimos said something in English, like he was calling a lawyer, but get this, he said, I’m calling your lawyer! And the policewoman started laughing. Fantastic tits. In uniform. Man. Yeah, the krimos was calling their lawyer. How funny is that? And I’m thinking, man, you so fucking stupid you must be thinking that plastic tie is for flossing. They were probably expelling him from the country. To some shithole where he’d come from. I hope they gave him some vaseline.
The line was slow, and my high heels were killing me. I mean, you know how I have high heels even in a toilet, but perhaps all those women flying in tennis shoes are not that crazy. Anywho, they had in that section only women working, directing people, kind of. I mean, they created more problems than they solved. I’m not saying that men would do better, but these ladies were just not that good. This one that covered my section kept letting some people from the side to enter the line ahead of us. I couldn’t believe it. You should have seen her: all important in her uniform, and a nail missing. I’m not joking. And not any nail: the left thumb. Haha. Yes, I know. Anywho, I was, like, Babes, isn’t it time for your break? I mean, woman, leave just for five minutes, so I can finish with my passport and get lost from here. You know? One of those. I hate women who hate other women. In the end, I couldn’t resist, I said to her, How come all these people are parachuting in all the time? Who are they? And, what a bitch!, she didn’t even respond. She pretended she didn’t hear me, and just moved away from me. Like, there was a crowd over there that needed her help. Of course not. Nobody in this world needs her help. And then there was this older man, and she just let him ahead of me. Can you imagine the bitch! And he, I mean, his hair had already reached that stage when no decent creative director in any salon would take him on, and only juniors have to do him, or his head gets kicked out down the street towards the Turkish barber whose wife works in the local bank and had arranged the loan for him to open the shop so he would spend less time on porn.
Anywho, when I finally came to the booth, and there was this really good looking French policeman inside… I mean he was so good looking I was kind of hoping there would be a problem with my passport and he would have to arrest me and interrogate me in the back room… Aha! Hahaha, and, listen, just at that moment yelling started. Someone yelling, behind me. That’s a huge space, you know these areas in big airports, they could park two planes inside the passport control. Yes, just as I was giving the guy my passport, and he touched my fingers, he did, aha, he said, Merci, Mademoiselle, and smiled, and touched my hand. Yes, Mademoiselle from now on. Anywho, there was this noise, and it was so loud that he heard it inside his booth, behind the glass. He stood up to see over my shoulder, I turned around, everyone turned around. Well, that’s Paris, you know, with all the terrorist attacks it’s no wonder everyone’s on the edge.
Apparently, there was someone they were getting ready to deport—that’s what the handsome guy explained to me later. What I saw was someone in a wheelchair and a few people around him. Actually, I saw them with a corner of my eye when I was approaching through all those tapes, yes, you know…horrible, of course. That is so inhumane. To make us run around those tapes... as if that helps anything. I mean, like, a terrorist with a suicide vest would get so tired from running through the tapes that, what, he would faint before exploding himself?… Maybe, if he was in high heels… Ahahaha!... Where was I? Ah, yes: I had seen the guy in the wheelchair when I was approaching. There were two or three men around him and a woman in a black uniform. She looked very sexy in that, very popular with guys...Aha—handsome anyway, but in that outfit…I’m buying one for Halloween. Anywho. I couldn’t see the guy in the chair well. Mid-twenties. Shaved head. Tracksuit. Brownish, kind of pretty. An Indian, probably. I had thought he was some poor disabled young man, but what was puzzling was his clothing: people in wheelchairs rarely wear tracksuits. They had been quiet when I was passing by—I was a few metres away, true, but there was no commotion of any kind. Actually, I remember thinking how nice it was—I thought they were helping him—how professional they all were: quiet, composed, efficient. Everyone doing their job, helping this poor man get where he needed to be.
And then they started pushing his chair towards the boarding gate, and he started yelling. They were deporting him. Who knows, he probably had done something. They don’t expel people for nothing, right? I know, I agree, it’s never easy to listen to someone yelling for help…Aha. That’s what he was yelling, Help me, they are taking me away, don’t let them, help, help, help… Well, nobody was quite cool with that, but I think everyone was thinking the same as I was: He’d done something. Something. It’s never without something.
The tied man—every time I want to write shackled, or chained instead of tied, but he had a plastic tie on his wrists… Should I say TM? ™? As in Tied Men, as in the trademark of the contemporary European airports: people who are removed, cancelled, driven in wheelchairs, hands not shackled, no ball & chain, kindly exiled, moved quietly through the colon 767. Civilised extraction.
And, suddenly, this case stopped being civilised. They pushed the chair and he started making noise. Unpleasant noise, disturbing noise.
Perhaps it is time I formed my opinion on this issue. It is not as transparent as it seems. I, for one, think that the freedom of movement as a concept is pretty much passé. Has it ever been healthy and right? One goes where one can, where there are no tigers, dinosaurs, acid, storms, lava, SS, floods, cannibals, firestorms. Where one is wanted, or at least tolerated. That is not freedom. One doesn’t have it. One has never had it—the complete freedom of movement. That concept implies that we travel where we want, that it is the destination drawing us like a magnet, and that this force, coming from the target, this consciousness of the reward waiting in the end, is what gives us the power to reach the higher levels of being. This concept completely denies something that has been historically obvious: we run away from something much more often than we aim for something. Often, what we try to avoid defines us more precisely, in a more meaningful way, than our ideas and wishes and principles. We don’t like the sound of this, we are afraid that this approach would imply cowardice. Terribly old-fashioned, this approach. Knights charging ahead on white horses under red flags. No: covering, shaking, hungry refugees trying to remain invisible to the guardian dogs barking madly along the border. That is the twenty-first century I see.
From that perspective, why should one make a fuss about the place they will live in? Why yell and scream and resist when being deported? Isn’t one habitat equally safe or dangerous as the other? What mathematics of chance can one use to prove that for him it would be better to remain here, and not be taken there?
This man: he had tried here, in Paris; it didn’t work, he was unwanted; or he had killed. Perhaps he was a Raskolnikov, killed an old woman living alone on Montparnasse, or had stolen some trinket from a store in Quartier Latin, and—voila!—a black tie and a plane. To where? To where we are not.
That black tie around his wrists disturbed me, I must admit. I wish I hadn’t seen it. The ultimate insult of the black tie. It is not the ugly sight of steel around his wrists, not shackles, not chains, no cuffs, it doesn’t look like police work, does not look official. It leaves the impression of a jovial incident, almost a prank. Who uses such ties? Handymen. People who fix things. Transporters. Gardeners. The Police is not the Force, but your friendly help. Soon, we should be able to buy subscription to their service. A person whose hands are tied with such plastic looks like someone who could break free at any moment, only if they wanted to. Light approach. They are tied not to be forced into anything, but to be organised, because black ties organise, as we all know.
A very complex question indeed. I should take a stand in this. Perhaps in September, when I’m on sabbatical. I shall write an essay on this, it should help me clarify my mind. There is that funding I could apply for. Recently, they have started to open more about borders and migrations and such. Peer-reviewed, it has to be a peer-reviewed essay.
There. I am looking forward to hearing all about your conference in Prague. The rumours are the conflict between Myrna and Alice was spectacular. Write soon.
—Paris, early November 2019
Dragan Todorovic is the author of a dozen books of non-fiction, poetry and fiction. His novel Diary of Interrupted Days was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Amazon First Novel Award and other prizes. The Book of Revenge, his memoir, won The Nereus Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Sound art project In My Language I am Smart, commissioned by CBC Radio One and Deep Wireless Festival, was published on a CD in 2012. His works have often been anthologised.
He teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and is mostly interested in liminal forms of expression.