Friday, 18 January 2013

Jean-Jacques Baptiste - Find the Lady

Socrates: Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Another day, another coach full of confused tourists walk up and down the main avenue of the Bazaar waving their telephones in the air, contorting their bodies through aerobic masterstrokes that would satisfy Olympic judges as they try to connect with a signal that has been mercilessly pommelled into the earth several miles previously. A few brave the searing heat outside and raise their devices toward the sun, as if begging for divine intervention from Ra. As has been the case for many centuries now, however, none is forthcoming. Only shadows are thrown down behind the men and women, powerful and dark, as substantial in their own way as the warm reflections they now tracked.

From within the cool shelter of his shop, Jean-Jacques scans the newcomers for signs of weakness. He is not a cruel man at heart, but like all men his nature is divided and at war with itself. He is fortunate enough to have at least devised a mechanism to cope with the dichotomy, the divided soul, and if he has temporarily escaped judgement then it is surely his role to judge others who would follow him.

The group of tourists begins to dissipate, drifting out into the enormity of the huge main hall, dissolving into the mass of humanity that rushes through the building until the group can no longer be distinguished as a single unit. So far Jean- Jacques has found no reason to move. He stands behind his counter as stock still as the many sculptures that are crammed into his emporium.

Something registers. Predatory senses kick in and he flicks across the eyes of those he can see through the large glassless window. There, at the back, he senses the increasing excitement of a solitary middle aged man, entirely average in appearance, who is pathetically failing to feign disinterest in the painting that Jean-Jacques has placed front and centre of his teasingly hap-hazard display. The price is insultingly low even for the most hackneyed copy, but this is not a copy. This is a portrait of his mistress painted by the great artist that you know (it matters not who take that to be), acquired by Jean-Jacques many years ago by means of which he is not proud, means that led him to be exiled here, in this place that is barely a place at all. He tenses, exhales. He is ready.

The tourist believes that he is going to leave this place with an item worth millions for which he has knowingly paid a pittance to the owner. Such avarice, such sin. As soon as his victim crosses the threshold, willingly and of their own volition, their punishment will begin.

The man breaks through the crowd and is level with the shop entrance. With no more than three lightening steps Jean-Jacques is at the window. Facing into the shop and with a sleight of hand worthy of a demonic contract he flips an arm behind his back for a fraction of a second and slides the painting to the right into a hidden groove which takes it through a curtain which itself conceals a slit cut in the wall between Jean-Jacques shop and the unit next door. The horribly printed cheap card copy of the painting which has been resting against the fully farmed canvass falls forward to take it's place.

This not his favourite part. Oh, he enjoys playing with "Can I help you Sir? Oh, the one in the window? Of course, just let me...Is something wrong Sir?...Sir?" but what follows is what sustains him even if he cannot always fully partake in the experience.

He remembers many years ago wandering the streets of his native Paris. The noise, the light, the sheer humanity round about him, and, of course, in amongst it all the chicanery, the hustlers, the fraudsters. Le Bonneteau, Three card Monte, Find the Lady, all descriptions of the same elegant theft, but to him it would always be The Three Losers. As a young man he had been haunted by the thought that he had divided himself each time he fell in love, follow the lady, now you see her now you don't, twice, three times, three souls desperately trying to find something they have been shown but was was never actually there, Les Trois Perdants.

Quite admirably concealing his embarrassment if not his disappointment, the tourist declines to look around the shop any further and leaves. He will almost certainly turn left, Old Tom's market next door is an eye catching cornucopia of decomposing cinema memorabilia. It is inconceivable that the old master painting will not leap out at the man as he passes. Jean-Jacques imagines the thought processes churning through the visitors mind - my god it was the next door window! - and waits for the rattle of Tom's door (almost perpetually locked whether occupied or not) and then the satisfying swoosh of the curtain as the original painting returns through the secret passage via Tom before he opens his door and another swift tap from Jean Jacques sends the copy through to next door.

He picks up the painting, along with a canvas bag containing a number of higher quality prints and briskly leaves his shop. He knows Tom will keep an eye on things once his part is played. He darts amongst the labyrinthine corridors of the bazaar distributing his copies to those who owe him a favour, or are taking bets on how many will be spotted and examined by the end of the day. Jean-Jacques has no interest in how the others amuse themselves, his card was marked a long time ago.

Jean-Jacques imagines the hot fury of being battered by the crowd as his mark chases the insubstantial treasure. It is in front of you, it is gone, don't give up now, she is in there somewhere, come on come on, one more, believe the evidence of your eyes. Your day becomes lost in a fever dream here, no here, no, keep searching. Frantic, you run from point to point, your goal in the window just ahead, there she is, no she's gone. You are chasing shadows, flickers in the flame, consumed. Time has abandoned you now, and before you can breathe the shutters are closing and you have nothing but loss to leave with as you join your fellow travellers, who are content with their acquisitions.

The Bazaar can become deserted as suddenly as over-run. Even if it is a mystery where so many of occupants retired to, or re-appeared from the next day, Jean-Jacques has no interest in investigating. In the still evening he wanders through the lanes, noting the presence of his many props in random shop windows. Traveller, he thinks, this was my gift to you. Your reward for hunting reflections instead of experiencing the sights and sounds around you. It is a kind cruelty if wisdom is imparted.

As he walks on he imagines he hears other footsteps beside his own, two sets, three. He knows that his own lesson is not complete, that this place is not done with him. One day he knows he will attempt to return to his shop and find that he cannot quite seem to reach it. The location will be blurred, the familiar shortcuts leading back on themselves, the signage unintelligible, the locks strange. He sees himself running from point to point, catching a glimpse of his window and door only to find other designs in their place when he arrives. Find the lady.

One day, perhaps, but not today at least.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness

Blindness and sight

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