The Myth of the Eternal Return, The Ex Files: new stories about old flames, Quartet 1998

 Jean-Baptiste is back. He arrived the other night at around midnight, with a bag of duty-free whisky and a carton of French cigarettes. Jean-Baptiste never arrives during the day. He prefers to materialise out of darkness, in a dark cloud of diesel fumes, missed or barely-made connections and dramatic time-zone shifts. The night of Jean-Baptiste means whisky, and his arrival amongst us must be viewed through the turbulent medium of the amber spirit. His account of the journey, and of himself,  kept us up half the night. The next morning I was bleary with sleeplessness and the black negative of absent alcohol, and the incense of his trademark cigarettes hung in the air. The smell of those cigarettes doesn’t leave until Jean-Baptiste does, and I had no idea when that might be. One never does.

 He’s a friend of my wife, Dawn. I take no responsibility for him. I am almost certain that years ago Dawn was one of his many starry-eyed lovers. She’s still sufficiently in thrall to his lugubrious charm to let him stay with us whenever he wants. She fusses over him and makes him breakfast. Jean-Baptiste sits silently at the kitchen table and smokes. He said all he meant to say the night before. You can hear each studious puff as he raises the thick cigarette to his fleshy red lips and ingests the fragrant smoke, a wisp of which climbs up the rugged cliffs of his jagged profile and into his heavy-lidded olive-coloured eyes, making him squint in an attitude of patiently-borne pain. Then he contemplatively exhales. Dawn pours his coffee. By eight o’clock in the morning a film-noir atmosphere has taken over. Although Jean-Baptiste never initiates a conversation, and gives only cryptic, mumbled replies to my attempts to draw him out, he seems to consider himself my friend, and that it is natural for friends to sit together in silence. Dawn sees him as a model guest. He has a knack of knowing just when to insert himself into the sublunar world to offer to chop a minimum quota of vegetables, without getting inextricably ensnared in the full programme of domestic chores.

 He is here to see a woman. Jean-Baptiste always comes to see a woman when he comes, and a different one each time, relations with whom are invariably in a state of acute and perilous crisis. The telephone starts ringing as soon as he arrives, and if I pick it up I find myself dealing with a distraught-sounding female who needs to talk to Jean-Baptiste immediately. Jean-Baptiste’s art lies in both causing these crises and seeming to manage and resolve them. A master of the telephone, he is soon on the receiver whispering soothing words, with his purring r’s and his mysterious foreign manner, and arranging to meet. Then Jean-Baptiste is gone. If he’s not expecting to be back for supper he’s careful to call and say so. But if I pick up the telephone when he calls for this purpose he always asks for Dawn and tells her. It adds to the air of intrigue that surrounds his activities. Actually, I think he doesn’t like talking to men for any reason. He doesn’t know what he wants from them.

 What amazes me about Jean-Baptiste is that he’s able to attract limitless sympathy from every woman he meets. This is because by the time women meet him they have heard about his latest personal crisis, from Dawn or someone else.

Jean-Baptiste is seen as some sort of injured creature, in whose necessary recovery everyone wants to get involved. I think it’s his air of soldiering in though gravely wounded which attracts women. Before he arrives, Dawn will say, “Jean-Baptiste has just called. He’s in a terrible state. I told him he should come and stay with us for a few days.”

 Now he is here to see an Irish girl called Lucy. Two nights after he arrived, when I came home from work, I found this Lucy lying on the sofa wrapped in a blanket, a surprisingly plain-looking girl with thick dark hair. She was sobbing quietly. I took one look at her and then looked for Jean-Baptiste, in the hope that he might vouchsafe an explanation. He was in the kitchen preparing a meal, as if he weren’t aware of her existence. It was strange enough that Jean-Baptiste was cooking dinner.

“ Did you meet Lucy?” Jean-Baptiste said, with a sly smile.

 I said, “I didn’t exactly meet her, no. Is that who that is lying on the sofa looking like she’s dying of consumption?”

 Jean-Baptiste assumed a sweetly worried look, but said nothing. I then heard Lucy calling out for Jean-Baptiste, in a pleading, moaning tone that was deeply embarrassing to hear.


 “What’s wrong with her?” I said.

 “She’s not feeling well. I’m looking after her.” So why does he have to do it my house, I thought.

 Jean-Baptiste didn’t go to her. He just ignored her and began slicing bread with a bread knife.

 “Jean-Baptiste! Please!”

 He sawed away violently at the loaf, cutting it into crude, thick, untidy slices. I think he liked the sound of the moaning, and liked the fact that I was hearing it too. It was too much for me, so I sought refuge away from it. But because Jean-Baptiste had taken over two rooms for this personal drama, the kitchen and the living room, I retreated to the bedroom, closed the door and lay down, and waited for Dawn to come back. He was her friend: she could deal with him.

 When I emerged, about two hours later, I found that Lucy was asleep on the sofa, that Jean-Baptiste had cooked a reasonably decent dinner, and that Dawn was with him in the kitchen, cleaning carrots at the sink.

 “I’m afraid Lucy isn’t at all well and won’t be joining us,” Jean-Baptiste announced, in a formal tone. The table was set for three.

 My dismay at the entire sticky business was suddenly and alarmingly eclipsed when I saw Dawn drawing the cork from a particularly good and precious bottle of red Bordeaux  that I had been saving for an occasion when Dawn and I wouldn’t have to share it with anybody else, least of all someone like Jean-Baptiste, who at this point I thought of as particularly undeserving of it. I vainly willed the digits of the year of its vintage to turn to something far less historic, but Jean-Baptiste had secured another one of his baffling triumphs.

 I wasn’t in the mood for a lengthy dinner with Jean-Baptiste, so I left him with Dawn after I had eaten, and retreated again, leaving half the bottle of Bordeaux to the two of them.

Later, when Dawn and I were alone, I said, “Who’s this Lucy and what the hell is wrong with her? What’s wrong with Jean-Baptiste, for that matter?” I didn’t mean to sound so angry; it came as a surprise to me to realise quite how angry I was.
“Poor Jean-Baptiste. She’s an old flame of his, or in this case a reheated soufflé. This has been going on, on and off, for some time. Jean-Baptiste has an ability, or a weakness, whatever you want to call it, to find women when they’re at their weakest and most alone, and then pounce. It’s usually just after they’ve split up with or been abandoned by someone else. He talks in that gentle way and women just fall for it. They feel so grateful for his dubious attention that they let him get away with murder. He’ll leave her in a few days and go back to Paris. You wait and see. It’s what he always does.”

I wondered if she knew this from personal experience.

“I thought you liked him,” I said.

“I guess I do, but - It’s hard to explain.” She fell silent for a moment.

“ I mean, it’s like this.” She then told me about his first affair with Lucy, and how it had ended. “Jean-Baptiste comes into his own when his affairs are breaking up. He drags it all out to the bitter end, with endless final meetings, and lots of pleading and uncertainty and helplessness.”

“Like guerrilla warfare,” I suggested. “Wearing the enemy out, winning by attrition.”

 “Something like that.”

“He sounds like a sort of last-ditch Lothario.”

 “Maybe he is.” She said that Lucy was the sort of person who would occasionally go to church, not because she was particularly pious, but because it was what she was brought up with, and she found the familiar ritual therapeutic at times of need. After one of her scenes with Jean-Baptiste, she fled to a church where a ceremony of the Stations of the Cross was in progress. Jean-Baptiste ran after her, and followed her into the church, and found her kneeling there, weeping onto the back of the pew in front of her. When she looked up (a composition, I imagined, of tearful blue eyes and tumbling, thick black hair, wreathed in the upturned collar of a heavy coat in the church’s stony chill), Jean-Baptiste was standing silently beside her. They walked out arm in arm, with Lucy sniffling, and in the entrance she said she recognized one of his cigarette stubs in the holy water font.

 “She said people probably mistook them for a serenely married couple at their evening devotions,” Dawn said. “He left her for good the next day, that is, until now.”

 Jean-Baptiste hung around for another two days, and then announced that he would be leaving the next day. That night after we had eaten, and I was alone with him in the kitchen, he produced a bottle of very good champagne cognac which he said he wanted to give me before he left.

 “Open it. Let’s have a drink,” he said, putting it in front of me on the table, as if to trap me behind it. I rose from the chair and got two glasses and he sat across from me and we drank. I was, after all, his friend.

 “Excuse me,” he said after a minute. “ I have to make a telephone call.” This was irritating, and I put down the glass. He went into the next room and came back fifteen minutes later.

 “I was arranging to meet someone,” he said.

 He left the next day. After he had gone, we learned that Lucy had insisted on coming with him to the airport, and that there had been a scene of some sort in the departure lounge. Lucy telephoned in tears to ask if we knew Jean-Baptiste’s address in Paris. It was my bad luck to answer the phone. “Didn’t he give it to you?” I asked. Apparently he hadn’t. Dawn didn’t have it, and I certainly didn’t. I said that all we knew was that he had gone to Paris, where he had arranged to meet someone. It was a bit tactless to have said this. The heartbroken Lucy eventually hung up. Sometimes I’d rather handle a live ferret than an telephone receiver.

 Later, Dawn told me that Lucy had called international directory assistance, asking for every number in Paris belonging to people with Jean-Baptiste’s last name. She managed to reach a confused distant cousin who didn’t understand what Lucy was saying, but made it clear that Jean-Baptiste wasn’t there. Dawn invited her over for supper and she wept the whole time. The table was set for three. Jean-Baptiste had gone.