Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Eric Rugara
The year was 1919. I had just come to Paris. The war had been won. The good guys had won – supposedly good guys. I was disgusted. Disgusted with war, with self and with everything. I had no desire for the things I used to be interested in. The war had seen to that. That dirty war. Courage, honour, country… what were these values? Of what worth were they? These values had sent me to the war. And the war, in its dirty way, had destroyed me. And it had done something worse than destroy me. I liked to look at the women in the streets of Paris. The women were gorgeous, their accents, their freedom… Most of them, of course, were not Parisians. Everyone was coming to Paris – especially Americans. Paris was filled with expatriates. Everywhere you looked you saw compatriots. All speaking an atrocious French – especially the ladies. But I could not go after the ladies now. The war had seen to that. That dirty war.
One evening I was seated at the Place de Contrescarpe, drinking. I was seated at the counter and I was chatting with the night bartender, Louis.
“Louis, why is life so goddam terrible?”
“I do not know, Monsieur. I just live it.”
“What is this monsieur business, Louis. You are my buddy, you know that. Call me Jake.”
“Alright, Monsieur Jake. Do you want anything else?”
“Just some water please. I don’t want to get tight to quick.”
I was pacing myself. I wanted to get drunk very slowly. But very surely. I had to get drunk. I had it bad tonight. I was remembering stuff I did not want to remember. That dirty war. I remembered the women and the children… I had not wanted to do it, but it was orders… and they were suspected informers. I will never forget the cries of the children and the tears on their mother’s faces… Aaah, but I am supposed to be drinking. Quit thinking about that dirty war, Jake. Drink. Drink now and drink smoothly and well.
I looked up. At the doorway stood the most beautiful woman I had seen in a long time. Her hair was cut short the way the girls in New York were doing it at the time. She had on a nice dress. Very nice. I had always been a big fan of nice dresses. She came in slowly, like a feline. What a woman. Her curves rippled as she moved, undulating like the waves of the sea. She came and sat next to me. She did not look at me. That got me. The way she stared straight ahead, not looking at me, as if I was really a fly on the wall. That got me. Her eyes were dark, her skin was flawless, her lips were pale, pink and unpainted. I had always been a big fan of dangerous women. I had never had one. But I had always wanted one. I could tell this one was a Femme Fatale for sure. Not looking at me, she spoke to Louis.
“Louis, the usual.”
“Aah, Lady Ashley. I did not see you. Coming right up.”
“So you are a Lady,” I said.
She took ten seconds before she turned her head to look at me. Her eyes were diamonds. She stared at me.
“Jake. Jake Barnes.” I smiled. “And I already know you are Lady Ashley.”
She did not smile. Her drink came and she drank, not looking at me. I tried to think of something to say.
“I was in the war.”
“Everybody was in the war.” She still did not look at me.
“I was a nurse.”
I smiled. “The nurses were pretty popular with us soldiers.”
She smiled for the first time and I thought it was like the sun coming out at dawn. “Yes. Yes we were.” She turned her head to look at me. Her eyes were gleaming.
“Where were you?”
“On the Italian Front.”
“Really. I say, that’s something. Aren’t you an American? You sound American.”
“I am. I couldn’t get in the American army. Too blind or something. Was in the Italian Front. Ambulance.”
“Oh so you were like me?”
We sat there just smiling, sort of feeling good. I was not thinking of the war as that dirty war now.
“What do you think of the war?” she asked, her eyes not leaving my eyes.
“It could have been avoided.”
“I think so too.” She looked away. Her eyes became distant, her voice low and haunted. “Sometimes I get dreams.”
“I get them too.”
“The women and the children…”
“I know. That was the worst part. That is always the worst part about any war.”
“I say, I like you Jake Barnes.”
“You are British, aren’t you? Are you really a Lady?”
“Yes to both questions. But soon I won’t be a Lady.”
“I am divorcing my husband. The title is his. He’s a duke.”
“That’s swell. Not about the duke… That you are divorcing him.”
She smiled. I smiled. The tension rippled under the surface of our smiles. Our eyes danced, a metaphysical kiss that you have to have gone through to understand. Sparks crackled in the space between our eyes.
“Oh, so you think it is swell, Monsieur Jake Barnes.”
“Yes. I think it is swell news. The swellest news I have gotten in a long time.”
She smiled. “I like you, Monsieur Jake Barnes.”
“I like you, Lady Ashley,” I said.
“So we like each other. How about that. It’s a nice night. We are both drinking and we both like each other. I wonder where it will all lead.”
And now I remembered why I had been keeping away from women. That dirty war. She noticed it.
“Wrong? What do you mean? Nothing is wrong.”
“I know something is wrong. You suddenly became very uneasy.”
I lifted my drink and necked it. I looked at her. I looked away.
“The war did something to me. Something bad.”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Think about it. I got uneasy when you talked about something.”
“Oh. You mean that? Surely not that.”
“Certainly that. I am sorry.”
She took in a gulp of her drink.
“I am glad you told me. It would have been bad to… you know. It would have been bad to find out that way.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It would have been pretty bad.”
“Goodnight Monsieur Jake Barnes.”
“You are leaving?”
“I am sorry, but you can’t possibly expect me to…”
“Yeah. I know. Who wants a Eunuch, right?”
“Goodnight her Ladyship.”
What a dreary night. What a dirty war. I drunk for a long time. I staggered back to my room, tighter than a fish in a tank filled with tequila. Poor old Jake. Poor old Jake Barnes. Poor old Monsieur Jake Barnes. The great man. The fisherman. The hunter. The sportsman. The bullfight aficionado. He couldn’t satisfy a woman. Poor old Jake Barnes. And he wasn’t even a duke. Poor old Jake Barnes. I went to my room and slept.
I was woken up by a knock on the door. A soft knock. I always liked people who knocked softly on the door. Most of them were usually women – that is why I liked them. I had a terrible hangover. I got up. I was still in last night’s clothes. I strode to the door, opened it.
“Good morning, Monsieur Jake Barnes.”
“Good morning, Lady Ashley.”
“Call me Brett.”
“That’s what all my friends call me. I forgot to tell you my name.”
She was smiling.
“Why are you here?” I said.
“Won’t you let me in?”
“Well come on in, Brett,” I said. I also smiled. I don’t know why I was smiling.
We walked into the room, the Lady and the Eunuch.
“Well,” she began. “I couldn’t get you out of my head. Even knowing what I know now. I still couldn’t.”
“What will we do about it?” I said.
“There is always a way where there is a will,” she said.
“I still get feelings you know?” I said.
“Only you can’t satisfy them.”
“But there are many ways.”
She got out a cigarette. “Smoke?”
She gave me one and took out another from her purse. I found a lighter and lit her up then I lit mine. We sat there smoking. Suddenly it didn’t seem like too much of a problem. We sat there smoking and we felt good. I began to smile. “What are you smiling about?” said Brett. But she was also smiling.
The two characters are Jake Barnes and Lady Ashley Brett from “The sun also rises”, the 1920s classic by the American Author, Ernest Hemingway (the famous Hemingway’s restaurants were named after him). Jake Barnes and Lady Ashley Brett are actually in love in the story, but Jake had an injury during World War 2 which prevents him from consummating a relationship with a woman. This is my rendition of how they met. You will note I have kept as much as possible to Hemingway’s style and his iceberg principle of fiction. Using dialogue, I am able to give the reader a glimpse into the emotions of the characters – showing rather than telling. Mr. Hemingway got the title of his novel from the book of Ecclesiastes; for the same reason, I have found the title for this story from the same chapter in the book of Ecclesiastes: “All streams run to the sea but the sea is not full.”