Francois

Around the world there are various enclaves of desperation. Where desperate conditions force choices on those who live there and desperate strangers seek to take advantage of that. Well, I say ‘desperate’ strangers but perhaps that’s too generous a judgement, perhaps cruel or manipulative or malicious would be better words – from the outside it’s hard to judge. And any ‘decent’ person tends to try to find grounds for moral ambiguity or understanding when it comes to things which seem wholly undeserving of it. Anyway, Morocco was far from being a hub of that exploitation but there were traces of it, same as there are in plenty of places and that’s what prompted me to write this…

The ones who wanted François to be a dream were easier. He could lead them down the easy, dusty streets where the touts, shop keepers and chancers eagerly sold background to that fantasy. Happy to ignore what they knew of François and those he walked with for a few more notes and a soft story of non-existent romance.

The ones who wanted nightmares asked for more. Their weight of expectation forcing him to pay attention as he alone fed them the stories they demanded. A matter of dark alleys and grim faces. Never his truth, though he could tell that tragically enough, but a clean version of it. A tale just sorry enough to elicit sympathy but never so serious as to crush them. Because once crushed they lost interest. After all, it was their holiday, not his life that they’d travelled for.

There were two types to seek the darkness. The first dishonest, the second cruel. Though both presented themselves with the same awkward small talk and nervous, fishing enquiries. Middle aged men for the most part. Some older, rarely younger. While the other filing ranks of bemused tourists would pass by with curt, even nervous nods and mumbled dismissals they would pause with half smiles. Eager to sink into conversation, not through boredom or vague desires to know where they were but with a true purpose. Their questions would delve deeper into him. Always polite, always restrained but also advancing beyond the boundaries of simple conversation. Beyond natural human small talk and into the mild interrogation of unspoken expectation. And they’d go on, slowly running out of things to ask until he stepped in to save them. A drink? Help finding a hotel? A tour of the town? He seldom let them flail for long, the routine was far too familiar to offer surprise now. Invariably they’d say yes, François knew his audience too well to make mistakes in his targets. He knew enough to play the game of codewords and subtle gestures. The illusory charade of seduction, finely played to indulge the illusions of truth and leave his marks, his ‘suitors’, comfortably numb to the reality of their actions even as they undertook them.

Of the ones who wanted nightmares he hated the dishonest most. They were the ones who feigned concern, abusing the language of love that François had long ago judged as false. They promised his salvation, a new life made immense by potential. Their gift to him, earnestly given on the understanding that benign benefactors were never refused in their pawing advances and carefully designed moments of acted passion. A lie, of course. François’ novelty would wear thin, holidays would end, his tragedy would fade from the idyllic to the human and they would beat hasty retreats to the impenetrable citadels of Paris and Berlin, Madrid and London. There to revel in ever preserved memories of small, vital moments spent with a poisonous love in the dusty sun and streets of another land. Once he’d believed them, a mistake he’d never repeat. Instead he did business. Enough misery to fulfil them, never enough for them to know anything.

The cruel ones were easier. No false promises, no beautiful lies. All they desired was enough vulnerability to claim power, enough sorrow to know he had no escape. Nothing new for François, life had long ago taught him a role to play in that. He had perfected it in fact, over the two decades of his life. That type only had one face, one form, that of the first to use him. A German who’d needed no sham, no lie of power. He had simply towered over head, claiming the right of force. None could do that to François now, grown and hardened, they needed him to sell them control with tales of surrender and loss. That was the only difference though, a small evolution beneath the same consuming gaze. He could hate that one form easily enough. Pour bitterness and loathing on to it. A meaningless generation of bile, the act could have no revenge, it had been committed too many times.

Another bus load approached. François checked his reflection in the wing mirror of a parked moped. Ageing, quickly. But still someone’s dream, or nightmare.

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