Dancho Popov, a prisoner of war from the Salonika front, now finds himself in Marseilles
The man had introduced himself as Antoine Fraticelli. Dancho had not understood much else at first – only that he’d been chosen for his strong body, his open face and his assertion. In the first month, he had been put to work in many places from dusty liquor warehouses to building sites. All the time Antoine had taken an interest in his progress. He would whisk him from one job to another, with no more explanation than a convincing flash of his gold teeth. As he would throw himself into every task Antoine set him, so he had moved from a shared caravan on the outskirts of Marseilles to lodgings in Le Panier, the old port district. He had become used to daily direction. And Antoine had become his Virgil conducting him through the seven circles of Hell.
He only allowed himself to think of such things when he lay beside Veronique, knowing that today would be a day of rest and lovemaking. Normally he would be up before dawn, scouting out work, with his growing bag of carpentry tools. Antoine was now a good friend with so many connections. He was the man who’d taken him from the camp so he could get lost in Marseilles. “Beaucoup de travaille, mon ami!”
And Marseilles was France and Istanbul and the Wild West all rolled up in a colourful carpet. His first walk around the old harbour, then up to the Place de Lenche, into le Quartier Reservé. What’s this place reserved for? Antoine had laughed and led him into the Rue de la Bouterie. “Hold on to your trousers!”
Oh the sheer excitement of being alive! Women from every corner of the world had jostled him with a thrilling familiarity. He had followed Antoine’s lead, laughingly setting his shoulders, trying out his burgeoning French. “Mais Mesdemoiselles, Ne me touchez! Je suis marié!” And he recognised gypsies when he saw them. But these were a cut above the ragged folk who hung around Vryankolak flea market. Sharp suited men in cream fedora hats – Antoine had told him what the hats were called and he had bought one for himself the next day – they strutted among the women, they flashed gold ringed fingers and gold toothed grimaces. There had been music blaring out from dark doors, crammed with the heaving backs of sailors. The music would never cease to lift his heart and feet in riotous syncopation.
Marseilles was an open city – a city in which, it seemed, no one could starve. Down in the Docks he saw how a man could live off fruit and vegetables scattered from the crates dropped on the cobbles by the Italian dockers. Antoine pointed out furtive groups of ragged men gathered round wine barrels, armed with spikes and tubes. Down the shoreline, he saw men and women sleeping in the open. Shipping news flew like seagulls through the town so that every foreign ship was met at the quayside by compatriots hoping for a free feast from the cooks and galley crew, as they got rid of the excess supplies.
But Dancho would not live like a tramp. That first night in Le Panier, Antoine had introduced him to Veronique in a bar in the Rue Forbin. They had drunk a kind of French mastika called Pernod and red wine. And when a trumpet brayed a long note to introduce a locomotive drive of banjo and drums, Dancho had invited Veronique to dance. Four years he hadn’t put his arms round a woman’s waist, to feel her bottom jiggle beneath his grasp, sending pleasant waves from his waist to his head.
Veronique had known the score. Antoine had introduced him well. He understood too. Such a short time and he had learnt some of the morals of this extraordinary place. She had let him follow her back to her rooms above the steep stairs of the La Montée des Accoules. Two days later he’d carried his few possessions from a wagon on a construction site, knowing he now had a secure lodging in the heart Le Panier. The rules were simple. He asked no questions; just gave and received tenderness in the moments when both he and she rolled together, half exhausted by their separate daily labours.