I suppose you can say it was a call for adventure in a way. And the guardian of the gate, like you find in fairy tales and legends, was the officer of the border police, camped behind the glass panel of the security booth of the airport. He had taken a while to positively identify me from my ID. So long in fact that I had started to guess the outcome might even be a negative identification.
That is to say in his defence -that, you see, is so typical of me, always taking the defence of people who absolutely don’t need to be defended- I looked nothing like the picture on the ID. It’d been taken 7 years ago and since I had done my best to become someone completely different.
First of all, all the cells in my body had been renewed in that time, all carefully crafted with a diet that excluded a large number of things, but mostly that excluded modern slavery, pain, misery, and child labour. So that was a good start you know.
Then I had clipped my two front teeth, which I had always thought were too large and childish. My colleagues had screamed in horror when I had walked into the office with blood gushing out of my mouth and the two mutilated slabs of enamel sticking out of the bloody mess like the twins in The Shining. Anyway yeah what I meant is that I looked pretty different for sure. I had no hair on my head and I’d stop having a gender altogether which was really nice but obviously confused the officer of the police border. I‘d not even gotten into the details, like for instance I’d started asking people to call me Friday because he didn’t look like he’d care that much, and quite frankly he even looked like that kind of remark could cause me some trouble. So I stood still and smiled and tried to look like the picture of me taken 7 years ago but somehow it didn’t feel good to try and be that person again. I think we both gave up at the same time.
My partners seemed to have had their lot of trouble with the other gate keepers. A fat police officer, looking equally as bored as he was looking suspicious, had asked Milk to explain in details the content of his trunk. If you’ve ever met Milk, even once, even in the dark with your eyes closed, you know that he’s the kind of person that carries a huge amount of very complicated and very broken stuff absolutely everywhere he goes. So that was not an easy business. ‘And that one is a kettle lead. That’s a bit of my belt. Ah… that’s… I can’t actually explain that one’, he was rambling almost playfully. I think he was enjoying himself, in a way. It was hard to tell.
Julie was happily chatting to the officer in charge of her identification, she was producing this joyous sound, like a fountain in the middle of a summer’s day, when everyone is having a nap and the heat lies on the ground of the village, she was telling him about our mission, because we were here on a mission after all. We were private investigators, I mean we still are, but yeah, and we’d been hired to research a case. Well. We’d not been technically hired, we just kind of showed up and took it upon ourselves to investigate the case. There wasn’t really a case either, now that I come to think of it. What I mean is that there wasn’t a murder, or a case of industrial spying, or a husband having an affair with another man, or anything really. But our plane was departing soon and we didn’t really have time to work these things through. The officer in charge of Julie’s positive identification (or negative of course but at this point we were all really hoping it would go towards this first option) had a hard time stopping her climbing over the glass-protected security booth.
By this point, everyone was pretty on edge. We have an expression for that in my language: to be on one’s teeth. It means to be ready for confrontation. My teeth had stopped bleeding, by the way, in case you were wondering.
The name of our agency was, I kid you not, Augen, Augen and Zahn, private eyes. It was quite ironic, as all of us had a pretty terrible eyesight. Plus Julie has a bad tooth.
That morning, one of us had rushed into the office, in a visible state of excitement:
– Grab your passports! We’re going to Berlin. There’s a flight in two hours, I got us tickets. I’ll fill you in on the way to the airport. This could be it, you know! The case that cracks them all! Where is your passport?
– I don’t need a passport, I’m French.
– What with the arrogance? Are you hungover?
– Wait a second! Is this a paying client?
– Is there any coffee left?
– Where is my hat? I can’t think without a hat!
– I’m not arrogant, I’m French, I’m trying to get better, ok?
– Who told you about this case? The coffee is in the book shelf, next to the gothic literature.
– Come on, hurry up! There will be coffee in Berlin.
So we went to Berlin and that’s how we started investigating a case with no victim, no perpetrator, and no coffee.
The clue started to gather around us even before we touched ground. On the plane, I lent my ear to a conversation that was occurring a couple of rows behind me. It was an early morning flight and everyone was very well behaved and business-like, which had quickly started to make Milk uncomfortable. The mere idea of people wearing clothes that fitted them was alienating enough, but the smell of the leather briefcases!
These two men were having a conversation. Or rather one was telling this story to the other:
When my grandparents met, they both owned a piano. My grandfather owned a grand piano, and my grandmother a standing piano. They had met at the Conservatoire National, where they were both studying. They were good. My grandmother was better, I think that’s because her imagination was wilder. She’d use that to play the piano and you could tell. Shortly after they met, it was the war, so life happened faster than they had planned, and then they were married and awaiting their first child. They had to move to a small flat, so they needed to decide which piano to keep. The grand piano sounded better, but they had limited space in the small flat that they rented. So they kept the upright piano. And they burnt the grand piano.
I let the rest of their conversation melt into the background noise of wings, wind, engines and safety instructions, and started daydreaming about this young couple of pianists, dramatically watching a grand piano burn on a beach, or the bank of a river, making the silent promise to protect each other. The heat would make the ivory teeth of the keyboard split and explode, the strings would break in a chaotic sonata. I’ve always been a romantic, and for that reason I am a better friend than I am a lover.
The story took me back to the previous week, where drunk and exhilarated I had, with a friend of mine, bought a grand piano, after having had the discussion that a corner of a room in his house missed something alive. And because sitting on the plane, drifting from one corner of the sky to the other, made it so easy for my mind to wander, it brought me to something that same friend had said, previous to the drunken grand piano purchase:
I always wanted a dog with strong jaws. I always had this idea, in my head, this image of a set of teeth, prominent and white, walking ahead of me on the street. And then when I adopted the dog, I got a red leash, somehow red is a colour that had always been forbidden to me by my dad.
I thought about the leash, and I thought about the red, the colour of blood, of filiation, the colour of his mother who is a communist and with whom his father had broken up even before my friend was born. I thought of our mothers to us all, crazy, abandoned, absent. My mood had radically dropped, I think it was the adrenaline comedown. Part of what I had learnt recently was not to get too upset about these wild mood swings, understand they had to do with tiredness, chemical reactions in my body, hunger. So I closed my eyes and let my mind wander some more. Still in the background, on the banks of an imaginary river, the grand piano was burning in its chaotic sonata, the couple were now fierce and forward looking, like a propaganda poster of the communist party. They held with a red leash a dog which smiled at the burning piano, and the piano was smiling back at it.
We had left the UK under the rain and in Berlin it was the summer. We had packed too much ill-fitting coats, jumpers that held the scent of long-gone loved ones, we had packed notebooks, which Julie made herself because she thought we were making a better job at taking notes on handmade objects. She was right of course. We had cables, and electronic devices that had been tortured and whose uses had been forgotten. We had gluten-free bread and vegan sausages, and soon we purchased alcoholic beverages, because we had kind of deserved a treat after all this excitement.
We had a work methodology that borrowed from a number of sources: intersectionalism, cultural anthropology, structuralism, linguistics, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, William S Burrough’s cut up methods, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington’s paintings and collages, Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My life in the Bush of Ghost, Whitley Strieber’s The Key, which Milk read over and over again until he gave me his copy of it in a gesture that I understood as sharing a patrimonial legacy, an important piece of information regarding who he was and how he’d built himself.
We had started off as a band, music had its importance because it talked to parts of ourselves we had no access to otherwise. We’d been through high and low, together and separately. We’d met at a time where our lives had been governed by fears for so many years, we had forgotten that there had been a point where they had not been laced with this proteimorphous poison. We bonded over shared sights of things that were no longer there, or things that weren’t there yet. Over time, music revealed itself to be a tool, that like clumsy children we were waving about, aiming to grasp something larger but that we could not yet define. There was a sense of irony in everything we did, as if we were conscious that it was all a magnificent joke, and that the more we’d look into it, the less serious it would reveal itself.
But looking at us, you could not really take us seriously anyway. We looked like triplets and often wore the same shirts, pretended to curious people that we looked like that because our mum had dressed us. We had a trunk full of disguises, and costumes, and bits of fabric, in place of a wardrobe, and if you woke up late one day and the others had already chosen what they wanted to wear, then you might end up wearing a curtain, so you might just as well pretend you were a greek goddess for a day.
Some might say that the success of our Private Investigation venture is largely due to good -or bad- luck. As it happens, we do let the clues come to us, because the moment we start consciously looking for them, they withdraw from our sight. Clues are shy, but they’re also intensely proud things. They like to show off, but they scare easily.
The next clue presented itself to us as an enigma. The key to the flat we had rented fitted the hole, yet its teeth refused to sink into the mechanism and open the lock. Here we were, standing in front of the door, sleepy, drunk, excited and unable to reach the night, to let ourselves go, to abandon ourselves to a state of unconsciousness.-
– What will we do?
– Where will we stay?
– What do you want me to do about this (that was the landlord)? How can we move forward?
– We don’t want to move forward, we want to move indoors.
– I’m hungry.
– I need to use the toilet.
– We’re running out of beer.
– The prosecco is warm.
And so on and so forth, and the enigma wasn’t getting anywhere near being solved, but that night was being consumed and we still had nowhere to go.
We ended up reaching the flat by a complicated system of ladders and hidden trap doors, which made us feel like magicians. The kind of magicians that do rubbish card tricks in gloomy pubs, or disarrayed theaters of seaside leisure towns. The kind that wear worn out cloaks and broken hats. We were given an offering of greasy vegetables on a chipped plate to appease our foul mood. To be completely honest, I think I was the only one to be in such a foul mood. I was well tipsy, and I was really enjoying myself.
I’d recently had my heart broken, trampled by a number of people of diverse genders. ‘I sometimes forget that you are human’ Milk had told me once. I felt very human though. I felt like I was standing with my chest open, at the mercy of all and of all elements, with my little red heart bleeding, carrying the bite marks of the various lovers I had let in. The pattern was always the same, I started to be tired of it. After a few weeks, or a few days, what had originally felt like a real connexion, revealed itself to be like trying to fit together pieces of different puzzles. ‘But it’s still a puzzle, it shouldn’t fit, shouldn’t it?’ I kept asking, mostly to myself, when no one could hear, and I’d try to turn the piece around, over and over again, and it just wouldn’t fit, and I’d have to throw it far away from me, and secretly shed tears, and sing to myself to appease my sore heart. I’d pretend it’s fine, even though it obviously wasn’t.
In my language, we have an expression for this: it’s called having an artichoke heart. A petal to each. A petal to each.
Eventually, we all fell asleep. We were not really good at sleeping, but we managed.
“The truth will be revealed in 23 seconds”
The loud whisper in my ear woke me up. There was no one around, yet I had heard the phrase as clearly as I could hear Julie make coffee in the kitchen. I wrote it down. I was sure this information was going to prove useful at some point, if considered from the right point of view.
Investigation was all about learning to look at the clues from the right angle. Clues were a mere map, which revealed an underlying territory. This territory, difficult to apprehend and comprehend, the truth, which had been promised to me in my sleep by a disincarnated voice.
“Everybody’s got a lot of eyes.” Milk says.
- I said everybody’s got a lot of ‘I’s.”
By this time, we were walking down a street, holding 80c beers that were warming up at the contact of our hands. Best drink those fast. We were not used to the warm weather.
“ This guy I knew had two dogs. One of them only had his left eye, and the other only had his right eye, and the two dogs always walked side by side.” Julie said.
“Hang on! I was told yesterday… about this one eyed cat, whose owner also had one eye. And the cat would always perch itself on its owner’s shoulder, as if they were both trying to compensate for their defect.”
We looked at each other, d’un air entendu, when we notice that Milk was basically standing absolutely frozen on the pavement, pointing to something that we so far had failed to notice. In the window of the shop in front of which we were standing, two posters were looking at us with a multitude of cut up eyes, illuminati signs. The shop, which sells records, was called OYE.
Things were starting to shape up.
We kept walking, slightly shaken by the fact that the clues were gathering so quickly around us. Dentist cabinets adorned with neon teeth, followed street paintings of opened and solitary eyes. By the end of the street, we decided to shake the feeling that we were not only observed, but also preyed on by carnivorous yet desincarnated beings. We had no idea at this point that Berlin was not a town, but a gigantic mouth, which was going to eat us completely, chew us down from persons into smaller building blocks, elements of psyche, tiny archetypes, break us into particles that it would then digest and recompose into similar, but not identical versions of our selves. I mean, we were in Berlin, for real. But things were not as straightforward as you might have thought. That’s all. Don’t lose your patience. You’ve come all this way.
We decided to take a break. We reached the park, which felt like we reached the lungs of the city, and were finally able to breath. Things had gotten too intense, too fast. We were all too worried to let ourselves caught up into passions that we couldn’t handle. Years, decades, of constant heartbreak, had taught us that if things were coming to us too easily, that if we got our hands on the things that we truly desired, something was probably going to go really, really wrong.
I’m not going to into details about what had happened. It would at least three other novels, hundreds of paintings, hours and hours of heartbreaking songs and hectolitres of tears to get through that. I know it, because that’s exactly what it took us to get over the ways life had treated us. And so, when at this point in our lives, we naturally drifted towards each other again, we could start conversations seemingly out of nowhere, follow threads of thoughts that we had left unattended for months and months on end. We didn’t need to explain ourselves much to understand what we were on about.
It was like a large tapestry, like they have in mythological tales. It was done and undone, over the course of conversations, nights out, nights in, long email exchanges.
Psychoanalysts have argued that the interplay created between the mother’s and the infant’s voice is significant in the development of the ego. The maternal voice has been seen as an acoustic container that surrounds and treasures the child. Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu (for our story’s purpose, let me rename him Didier
Anzyeux, just indulge me, will you? ) suggested that this ‘envelope of sounds’
contains the emerging ego of the infant like a skin, becoming a replacement for the womb. The ‘semiotic’ stage of development -as philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva framed it- is an ‘emotional field, tied to the instincts, that dwells in the fissures and prosody of the voice, rather than in the denotative meanings of words.
We talked about our mothers. We talked about our fathers. We talked about learnt habits that, even years after claiming financial independance from our families, moving out of their homes, moving out of their expectations, we would find within ourselves internalised fears, ways of speaking, ideas of what is normal and what isn’t, what is success and what isn’t, that were inherited from our parents. We talked about realising that these fears and expectations were the last strands of parental authority over us, and that freeing ourselves from them.
We walked past a group of punks, who were sat on the floor making a painting and drinking the same cheap beer that had been fueling our rants since the beginning of our Berlin adventures. They cheered and we cheered back, which was immediately followed on our behalf by incertitudes.
“Did they just cheer us because they recognised us as their own?” asked Julie, unsure.
“Yeah… yeah, I think so.”
The park was easy to find, because it was a very sunny day, and the trees were creating a lot of deep dark green shadows over parts of the city. Like a big lung, it was full of life, a breeze was blowing through our hair (of which I had none, remember, but Milk and Julie had cute little bobs/fringes with funny colours), down our tops, creating melodies on the open mouths of the beer bottles.
Over and over, we talked about the fact that we felt we couldn’t belong. We had always felt similar in that, that we were walking about in the world, feeling like at any point the curtain would fall, and reveal cameras and an audience. The joke would prove to be at our expense. It felt like if we stopped observing in our mind this possible turn of event, if somehow we made the mistake of relaxing, of enjoying ourselves too much, we’d get caught at it.
When the music started, I recognised it immediately of course. It was the Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway, there was no proof
And nor a motive why.
It was days of perfect skies, perfect heat. The perfection of walking down the night streets, without fear, without a jacket. Unafraid of being queer, of having a limp, or of having odd accents. We were sitting down at a table, at the terrace of a tiki bar, drinking cheap beer, and cherry cocktails. We had our crayons out and were filling our notebooks. Perhaps we were a little bit incoherent, perhaps we were a little bit hungover. We had been sold bad drugs the night before, not that we were trying to find excuses for ourselves.
The doubt came to us slowly, like a shark circling us in dark waters. We could feel it, with the strength of our intuition -there is something in the water- but not quite yet see it. Creatures from the Pleistocene, moving in ways not quite from our world. Was this real? Was this our life? This absence of guilt, this absence of worry, this absence of rush.
Sometimes, we would wake up, and one of us would say ‘I had a dream that I died in a car accident. It was really horrible and really long, I couldn’t wake up, I couldn’t stop the situation from happening.’
‘Really?’, would answer the other two ‘I had a dream like that too. I could feel the tears running down my face and woke up to my own wailing.’
Was this at all real? Perhaps we had been in a car accident, but not quite died, and we were in suspended animation, and this was our life now. Completely dreamt up, conjured by large quantities of morphine, poured down our veins by tired nurses. Perhaps life had never been real to start with. Grief, sorrow, heartbreak, fatigue, at this moment, felt like old emotions, that we remembered, but could no longer feel with the strength that they had had previously. Just old demons that had no more power over us.
Perhaps we had just started to accept that we were able to take the sweet stuff without feeling bad about it. Without infecting it consciously with fear, just in case something went wrong and caught us off guard. Without the constant expectation that it would make our teeth rot and decay. Who knows?
Julie and Milk were getting married, in something short of two months time. I was to be the witness, which was well suited to my profession. But this time, I would not be a silent witness, hidden in the shadows, behind the garbage truck, as invisible as possible.
We’d wear peacock feathers, bright fabrics, we’d wear our best clothes, and feel cheerful about it. There would be pictures and videos, and I would have to admit to the fact that that I had been there, in this very space, at this very moment, and that I had witnessed something.
Before that, we’d all done our best to be invisible. We’d walked in a single line, so as not to indicate how many of us there were. We’d erase all traces behind us, delete all browser histories, shred all pieces of evidence, set the houses on fire.
Here comes the tide
Here comes the tide
To wash away
All trace of whatever it was we made
We’d make songs about the fact that we did not wish for people to be able to locate us. They were not clues, they were an artform in themselves.
We were private eyes. We were very good at not leaving a trace.