I remember sitting in a French rural cafe two years ago - when I got talking to a man, aged in his late fifties; he looked like a veteran from past wars. His eyes had a disturbing hunger and his skin wrinkled, weathered by the aeons of time. ‘We are magic from the heavens,’ he told me while puffing on a Camel cigarette, ‘and clocks are ticking, though they're meaningless to me.’
I felt somewhat perturbed by his words, thinking he’d had a bit too much Cognac, however I put aside my concerns and waited for him to continue.
‘I’m brave and as quick as a fox.’
‘Are you really?’ I answered.
‘Oui!’ he replied, while his discoloured tongue popped out like a slug. Then a waiter brought him an espresso. ‘Son! Were you in the army?’ he asked in broken stern English, before glancing at my combat trousers.
I hesitated. ‘Erm...yes!’ I thought he was going to punch me in the face, so I avoided eye contact momentarily.
‘Don’t drop your head. Look at me,’ he said.
I took a deep gulp and glanced with a fixed look.
‘Where were you based?’ he said.
‘Oh! Somewhere near Cambridge. But that was years ago.’
‘Fellow military man huh...Interesting.’ The man tapped his tobacco-stained forefinger on the table and tongue lashed more sentences.
‘If you expire at 18 or 80, from a century gone by, it still means nothing. You go where you’re told. You accept your fate. You do the generals’ bidding, for life’s hard. There’ll be blood on your hands. There’ll be heartache and pain. Your bones may break and your muscles will tear. The scorpions will sting you. The anacondas will bite at your legs. Yet if you're lucky, and have the wits of a tiger, then probably you will not die! These were the things I’ve learnt during the rough times in the jungles and on the swirling sands of the deserts.’ His poetic lecture was followed by a helpful grin. It took me a few moments to digest his words, but I figured they’d good judgment within them.
‘That’s fascinating,’ I said, with my heart beating fast.
The man removed a scrap of paper and put it into my left hand: it was scrawled in French. I had no idea what it meant - so the man obliged with translation. ‘If ever you’re in trouble. Then like a fellow comrade - I’ll silence them.’
‘How?’ I asked.
He made a whistle and his eyes glazed over. I took a deep gulp, and realised this man was probably a killer. I gathered my nerve, nodded, and my hands were shaking. Subsequently I made my excuses, thanked him for his time and concern and wandered to the local abbey while the bells above chimed like two lonely lovers in their tower of echoes.
Perhaps it was best I didn’t talk with that man anymore. Something about him made me think he’d killed all sorts of men. However, I had no idea what army or unit he’d fought for. Was it the French Army? The French Special Forces? The French Foreign Legion? Or perhaps some mercenary unit from Africa, as the tattoo on his left arm had a snake and a gun entwined together and the word “Warrior” above it. Perhaps one good thing did come from our meeting. Them contact details. If ever I was in trouble I only had to call him. Unfortunately though, and to my shame, I lost his note during a trip around Paris, so I would not be able to use his services. However, maybe I'll bump into him in the future - in some quaint village in northern France.