The Man with Two Heads
January 21, 2010
Elisabeth had no sooner discovered the internet than she entered the realms of internet dating.
Having made three unsuccessful forays into marriage she had more-or-less given up on finding the elusive Mr Right until she answered a flashing icon on her screen. And a whole new world opened up.
At first she had thought her lack of suitable soulmate was down to the extra padding around her middle. In true French fashion, Zab can tell your weight to the gram from fifty paces. As she nibbles a biscuit she can tell you exactly when and where it will manifest itself on her frame.
In her quest for a partner she embarked on the Boiled Egg and White Cheese Diet until constipation stopped her in her tracks. The Cabbage Soup Diet followed and gave me cause to discreetly lower the car window on several occasions.
In a final bid to fit into a pair of miniscule white jeans for her 50th birthday party, Elisabeth went on a “detox”. On her list of things to avoid was only one item: food.
Sure enough, the weight was sloughed off her in great slabs as if she was a giant kebab being shaved down to size. She whittled her way into those jeans and for one brief shining moment her body was svelte, but to the consternation of all her friends, her face was sagging and sallow. All we wanted was to get a square meal into her.
We had known her as a smooth-skinned, buxom woman with a big heart and raucous laugh. She was shriveling up before our eyes. Whenever we met for a coffee, I would buy us a croissant each. She would make a show of refusing it but then would eat it in small torn off sections, each one a battle of its own.
The drastic weight loss had caused all sorts of health problems and after a stern talking to her from her (handsome) doctor, Elisabeth set off on a new track: Tarot cards, astrology and a number of charlatans who’s palms she crossed with paper.
She was looking for the perfect man. Where was he? They all had different opinions but were unanimous in one thing; he was just around the corner.
In the mean time, she restarted a liaison she had recently congratulated herself on giving up with a smug married man who fixed her plumbing. I must confess to wanting to throw a brick through his windshield every time I see him driving through the village. I don’t believe that she got anything positive out of these tristes. Funny that ‘triste” in French means “sad”. This is how she was left feeling by this man. I thought things were looking up when she told me she had joined an internet dating site.
This revolutionized her life and very soon she was in almost constant contact with a pilot based in Nice. He was around the same age as her and flew private charter jets for the gliteratti who flit in and out of Nice and Monaco.
I asked if she had met him yet and before she could answer, her telephone chirped the arrival of a text message. She showed it to me: Proof of Life.
“Desole Ma Cherie. J’etais dans une Briefing”.
I have an immediate and visceral distrust of any French-speaker who peppers their language with throwaway English jargon.
“Does he speak English?” I ask, jolting her out of her reverie.
“No, just a few technical terms like ‘we have lift off’”.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this related more to rockets than Lear jets.
They agreed to meet a few days later for lunch which he insisted should take place at Elisabeth’s house.
She scrubbed and cleaned her house from top to bottom and squeezed herself into her white jeans. I thought of her on the day in question with a knot in my stomach and hoped she would be alright.
She came round for supper that night and seemed more-or-less ok with the way the meeting had gone. She had lied about her age but then so had he and they laughed about the fact that they had both lopped off the same number of years.
This left me feeling like a disapproving aunt. I wondered what was so funny about both of them unearthing fundamental untruths within minutes of meeting? How could anything that followed contain a shred of credibility?
“He wasn’t bad looking,” she said, in answer to my unasked question.
“He had this mustache though. You know, like Freddie Mercury.”
“And he was dressed all in white, with a crease ironed down the front of his trousers.”
“He spent five minutes hanging his blazer on the back of his chair, getting it just right.”
“A perfectionist?” I asked, because it was more polite than yelling “O.C.D!”
“Then he was very upset because he sat on a cushion that had one of Minnie’s hairs on it. He really was very angry.”
“When I walked into the kitchen I heard Minnie whimper as if he had kicked her but he wouldn’t do that would he?”
“No-one would kick a little old dog like Minnie?”
I didn’t answer. Just looked at her with all the question marks circling around her head, trying to make sense of this man, this meeting.
“How did the rest of the day go?” I asked.
“There was just this one other thing that was a little bit embarrassing but after he explained it as being so part of his pilot makeup, I understood it better.”
“What did he do?” I asked, almost not wanting to know.
“Nothing much. I shouldn’t really complain. It’s just that he does this hand thing.”
“He has very exaggerated hand movements.”
“We were driving into the village and had to stop where the workmen are fixing the bridge.”
“Jean and Lulu?” I asked
“Yes. Well they waved us forward and he did this thing signaling with both hands as if asking if we could proceed. Lulu stared at us because he had already said we could, for crying out loud, and then he did this double thumbs up and a big wink.”
“Lulu and Jean were very amused and I slunk down into my seat. I asked him why he did that and he said it was just so part of his pilot makeup from communicating with those men on the runway who wave little ping pong bats around. I suppose it makes some sense.”
I would have thought that technology would have overtaken the thumbs-up as a means of communicating at international airports but maybe I am wrong. My father, who was a respected fighter pilot, never felt the need to wave and wink at men at work.
My thoughts were interrupted by another chirruping. Elisabeth’s face clouded over and she said,
“That is him canceling our dinner tonight.”
“She sighed and handed me her telephone.”
“Desole ma cherie. Depart Nice pour New York ce soir, Tokyo demain. On peut manger demain soir?”
“I don’t know how he does it!” she said admiratively.
“Imagine! New York tonight, Tokyo tomorrow morning and still he is making time to meet me for dinner tomorrow night!”
“He doesn’t.” I said.
“He doesn’t what?” she asked, losing track.
“He doesn’t fly to New York and Tokyo and back to Nice in a little bitty aircraft and be back in time to take you out to dinner.”
Elisabeth looked at me as if I just didn’t understand and reached for her telephone again to show me the message.
“I know what he said.” I said.
“It is just that it can’t be true.”
“How do you know?” she said defensively.
“Elementary. Elementary geography and vague knowledge of flying regulations not allowing pilots to work non-stop for 36 hours.”
I felt bad about pointing this out but of course the man turned out to be a complete liar working as a butcher with his wife in a small village not far from here.
He was soon forgotten. A new man was found. He had a small farm where he kept goats and made cheese for sale on the markets. He was a bit rough around the edges apparently but Elisabeth seemed happy enough. One day she suggested I come to the farm for the day with my daughter who was just walking and my big tummy which contained my youngest.
It sounded like a good idea. I fancied the idea of an expedition on this lovely spring day and time with Amelie before a mewling newborn appeared. I pictured frolicking kid goats and a carefully prepared picnic with fresh goats cheese and hunks of the olive bread I had bought.
Off we set. I suffer from car sickness on small windy roads at the best of times but being pregnant made it all the worse. We climbed and swung around curves, Elisabeth talking excitedly about Michel, her new man, and gesticulating sometimes with both hands. When we arrived I was not disappointed.
The farm was at the top of a hill with a magnificent view. There were two houses, solidly traditional bastides having a standoff with a field between them. Amelie immediately toddled off to see the kid goats. Elisabeth called her back in a strangely hushed voice.
“Quoi?” I asked
“It is just that the neighbour is a very unfriendly man she said. A real bastard. Michel doesn’t want us to be outside at all – we have to either be in the goat shed or in the house.”
I scooped up my reluctant daughter and walked towards the goat shed.
“Don’t mind Michel,” she said,
“He is a bit shy and can sound gruff but he is really a sweetie underneath.”
As our eyes adjusted to the dark and our nostrils were accosted by the unkempt smell of the shed we heard the low bleats of a goat giving birth.
A burley man in a thick woolen pullover had just delivered one and a twin followed suite. He must have heard us come in but didn’t turn around. He plonked the newborns in the pen next to their mother and proceeded to tug at afterbirth. I sympathized for her in my pregnant state and couldn’t bear the pathetic bleating for her babies. She hadn’t even been allowed to nuzzle them or clean them.
Elisabeth tapped him on the shoulder and he spun round.
“This is my friend I told you about,” she said waving in my direction
He stepped forward a put out his hand
“Gerard”, he said.
I had no alternative but to shake hands, placenta and all.
He did not seem to notice and asked Elisabeth if lunch was ready.
“Yes, I have it in the car.”
“Get on with it then. You’re late and you know it makes me angry when I am hungry.”
This was beginning to feel like a very bad idea.
“And walk around the back. You know the score.”
Elisabeth led us on a long loop to avoid the house on the right. The front door was very heavy and ancient. It had a brass knocker made in the shape of a hand – I have seen them before in this region and have been told it has some religious meaning but here it looked downright creepy.
The house was so dark it took a minute to adjust to the gloom. It was like stepping into a coldroom and the house smelled of old smoke. Every wall was draped with soot-laden cobwebs and in the middle of the room stood a solid table already set for lunch.
The plates were a jolly yellow with sunflowers and I thought at least he had something cheery in the place and had made an effort. The only source of light was a bare, dust-covered lightbulb dangling above the table. Two deepset, very high windows on one wall filtered in a trickle of light through their stiff grey lace curtains.
“I set the table for us last night before I left – what do you think of the plates I bought?” asked Elisabeth.
My usually outgoing toddler was clamped to me like a limpet and I didn’t blame her. All I wanted to do was leave.
I put a bottle of red wine on the table along with the olive bread. Elisabeth unpacked plastic containers with all sorts of delicacies in them but I had completely lost my appetite and set off to wash my hands. The place wanted me to stand under a hot shower for ten minutes, never mind wash my hands. There was no hot water as apparently the house had never really been modernized.
“I thought he was called Michel,” I said, as I helped Elisabeth make a salad.
“He is” she answered.
“Why did he say he was called Gerard when I met him?”
“Oh, well, he uses both sometimes. What is the difference? Gerard? Michel? People change their names all the time.”
The front door creaked open and he walked right in without wiping his boots. The fresh goat pellets joined their older compatriots on the floor. He sat at the table, smeared the last of the blood from his hands onto his pullover and said:
“Are we going to eat or what?”
Elisabeth seemed nervous and Amelie cowered next to me, eventually clambering onto my non-existent lap with the bump that was her sister.
I kept thinking of the myriad of germs leaping from his hands to his food and the colony of them breeding in his blood-smeared knitwear.
There was no way I was going to touch the goats cheese or allow Amelie to . Salmonella central.
“Have you told her?” Gerard/Michel nodded rudely in my direction.
Elisabeth cleared her throat.
“Michel is a bit of a musician,” she said glancing sideways at him for encouragement.
“He writes and sings his own stuff. We were wondering if Dan could get him some studio time somewhere?” she looked at me pleadingly.
My husband, Dan, has worked as a professional musician for years, primarily in London, but has some contacts here too. This was the seam that was being mined.
Gerard Michel got up and smeared the crumbs of goats cheese against his jeans. He put on a cassette tape. Something I hadn’t seen for years.
At first I thought it was on at the wrong speed. A low warbling tone was emitted but gradually I became accustomed to the tuneless drone and was able to pick out the lyrics. It was the story of a man in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. Gerard listened throughout with his fists clenched and tears in his eyes.
He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and Amelie reached up to whisper in my ear,
“Why has that man got two heads?”
I looked at him and saw what she meant. He had a huge pulsating growth just below his hair line. We only glimpsed it for a moment before his grey hair flopped back over it.
I dutifully said I would speak to Dan and thanked him for his hospitality. I had a baby knocking on my bladder and was not brave enough to venture into his bathroom. Elisabeth could see this and soon we were on our way back.
“He is a fugitive from justice.” I said.
“If he is not running away from the police now, he certainly has been in the past.”
She did not respond at first and seemed unusually concentrated on her driving.
“It wasn’t his fault,” she said.
“It is just that he is a very kind person.”
I had a vision of the new little goats all but flung away from their mother and the bullying edge to his voice.
“He was in Italy and gave some hitchhikers a lift.”
“They asked him to stop outside a government building for five minutes and he did.”
“Because that is the kind of guy he is?” I asked.
“Well, one of them got out as a man was walking down the steps. He ran up to him and shot him in the head then ran back to the car.”
“Gerard, I mean Michel, had no option but to drive away with them as fast as he could.”
“They were all arrested and the other two lied and said he had planned the operation.”
“Liars!” I said.
“He spent ten years in prison in Italy until one day a sympathetic guard helped him escape. He came here and found this abandoned farmhouse and bought some goats.”
“Except the owners of the house came back?” I added, thinking of our instructions to give the other house a wide berth.
“Yes!”she said, so glad I understood.
“That poor guy does have some bad luck” I said.
“Yes he does,” she nodded in agreement.
Several weeks later Gerard/Michel was shot in the ass by his infuriated neighbour. The neighbour claimed poor eye sight and mistaking his identity for that of a (very large) wild boar. He was given 3 months in prison and Elisabeth said word had it he had sworn to kill her new man when he came out.
I think you should dump him, I said.
“That is what Eric says” she said forlornly.
“Eric has been such a friend. He cooked me a wonderful dinner after the pilot thing. I am seeing him this evening too, to thank him for looking after Minnie.”
I think of kindly Eric who dotes on Elisabeth. Recently divorced and staggeringly normal for someone in her entourage.
I smile to myself.
Hope at last.