A Short Story
by Laksiri Fernando
( May 9, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) That was my first visit to Paris or to Europe and I was rather excited to be there. France was an intellectual and a cultural attraction to me from my university days and that was the very reason for my excitement. The year was 1984 and if I need to get the exact month, I may have to go through my old passport. I had been to Canada via Moscow in 1974, exactly a decade ago, for my first postgraduate studies, but Canada or the place I was living was rather a dull place compared to Paris, or Europe in general. Perhaps I could not taste the North American life properly because of my heavy involvement in studies and I also didn’t have the economic means at least to stay in a hotel. Perhaps these things happen in hotels and not elsewhere.
To make the long story short, I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport somewhere around 3 pm that day and from there I had to take the train to Garde Lyon in the first place. I had no clue at all where the UNESCO is, and those days we didn’t have the luxury of knowing things through the Internet. In contrast, a few minutes ago I could exactly locate the Hotel Mondial where I was staying, through Google, and familiarize myself with the surroundings to relate this story as if I could remember everything. I was visiting UNESCO.
My instructions were to go to Garde Lyon and inquire and book accommodation. I had one day left for my work at UNESCO. Compared to my first trip abroad in 1974, I was not so uncomfortable in my finances thanks to the open economy that Sri Lanka launched in 1977. Garde Lyon is the main railways station in France like the Central in London and it connects not only all the railway lines in the country but also much of Europe. But the trains could not be seen very much on the ground, because most of them were located underground. That time I didn’t know all these details but what I saw was a huge human beehive. I was not even aware how I came on to the ground floor from underground where my train was stopped. Perhaps I was just following other people just by instinct. People were moving quite briskly back and forth; most of them with bag and baggage like me. It was with difficulty that I could locate the information centre. It was again extremely crowded with several queues leading to the main counter.
But at the counter it was easy and I was assisted extremely well and that is where I first came to know this rather curious hotel called Hotel Mondial where I happen to stay several times thereafter, irrespective of the ‘murder I encountered.’ I would recommend anyone to stay at this hotel, if they happen to visit Paris or UNESCO. It is quite near the UNESCO and good for the purse, and more than that you may come up with some interesting experiences. At the counter, this time it was a man, and perhaps he had a very realistic view of my purse when recommending this ‘Three Star’ hotel for me. I had only to pay a deposit of 20 Franks, and the hotel was booked then and there through telephone. And I understand that there are no ‘two or one’ star hotels anywhere in the world. It was like an Inn in a sense, except that this was located right in the middle of the metropolitan Paris. Inns are basically country abodes, perhaps with similar ambiance and ‘star grading.’ Here, even Eiffel Tower could be seen from your window, if you get a front side room.
I was given very good instructions to get the underground train and to get down at Saint Suje station. When I came out of the station, of course with some difficulty, there was this Mondial in front of my nose. Later I came to know that Mondial means ‘the world’ in French. I crossed the road and entered the hotel and I was given Room 22 on the second floor. At the front desk, there was an old woman or a lady for my disappointment. Obviously, I preferred to see a young one there. The hotel had only four floors and each floor had only four tiny rooms with a common bathroom. Inside the room there was a tiny wash basin, water dripping slowly, if you wish to wash your face. But for my expectations at that time, the conditions were excellent. I was rather amused by the water bed. Only when I sat on the bed that I realized it was slowly moving beneath my buttocks. It was not a bad sensation at all and I was looking forward to some more excitement.
It was early summer I suppose and I could manage with a light jacket. The time was around 7 pm now but sunny and I immediately went out to buy something to eat and that was not that difficult. Just a few blocks away from the hotel were few food outlets. Perhaps what I bought was a lamb sandwich made from French pan. They call bread ‘Pan’ as we call it. I remember coming back to my room with a heavy head, drowsy and rather sleepy. The jet lag was undoubtedly overtaking me. I don’t think I ate my sandwich. Neither could I change my cloths. With only the jacket and the shoes off, my whole soul went into a deep sleep.
Colombo to Paris was a long trip and it was nonstop by Singapore Airlines at that time. It was a long trip of around 12 hours and 7 pm in Paris was around 2 O’clock in the following morning in Colombo. I don’t think I had any dreams, sweet or otherwise. It was just a strong sleep. Perhaps my body was floating on the water bed and it was soothing to overcome my body aches.
What I remember was to hear suddenly an eerie scream.
It was repeated several times and it was frightening to the hilt. I was not sure where I was. Only slowly I came to my senses to realize that I was in this Hotel Mondial. Then I was not sure where the scream came from. First it appeared from the ceiling to mean the upper floor. Then I clearly heard two persons quarrelling, a man and a woman. Obviously, the scream came from the woman. It was also clear now that the scream and the quarrel came from the opposite room to mine.
‘Why should I bother?’
It was my next thought. There were so many noises, loud and gentle and then all seemed to disappear. I was feeling hungry and only now realized that I didn’t have my sandwich which was left on the only small table in the room. I was full and content after eating and had some water from the tap and slept again even without changing my clothes.
Again, I woke up when I heard the quarrel which increased gradually with noises like:
‘um um um oh oh oh.’
Perhaps the noises were different but that is how I remember them. Then came a great ‘thud,’ somebody undoubtedly hitting or slapping another. I also heard a breaking glass and I was sure that it was a tumbler perhaps hitting on the wall. Then it was a scream from the ‘deep throat’ with pain but not so noisy. Then I heard someone throttling another’s throat. Then the scream died down slowly.
Now I was certain that the man killed the woman. There was silence for a moment and then someone bang the door and dashed upstairs and not down stairs. By now I had overcome my sleep. I was sure that a terrible murder had happened. My conscience pricked. I went down stairs in almost a jiffy and there was a man sleeping on the front desk laying his head on the table. I said,
When he woke up I said,
‘Someone killed someone, please do something.’
He was rather annoyed and asked me ‘who, who’ and ‘where.’ I almost explained everything, perhaps too many details for him to doubt the case. I also indicated the room number. I also was doubtful now and perhaps was coming out of my sleep. Then he smiled and said,
‘Go, Go, Go and sleep. They honeymoon.’
I was rather puzzled. It took some time for me to understand what he said. I came to know him later as Gerard who was a Lebanese and one of the owners of the hotel. I couldn’t sleep that day thereafter. It was almost 3 am in the morning in Paris and perhaps around 10 O’clock in the late morning in Colombo. Obviously, I was ashamed of my mistake and panic. But it deeply puzzled me as to what was actually going on in that room.
I had an early breakfast in the hotel around 7.15. The booking was for ‘bread and breakfast’ and the breakfast was served in a small room in the basement. It was a typical French breakfast, completely different to an American or a British one. No ham, bacon or eggs, only two croissants with satchels of butter and jam. When I entered the room, there was a decent nice little girl to greet me,
She was obviously French and perhaps in her school going age. As I was not drinking tea or coffee, she served me with an orange juice as a special treat. I had this negative habit from my childhood of not drinking tea at all and avoided coffee, except for ice coffee occasionally. I have seen some Indians patronizing this hotel, but perhaps the Indian looking Sri Lankan was rather a rare sight for the hotel staff. I thought I was always treated special.
It was around ten in the morning I truly saw the ‘killer and the victim.’ I heard a little commotion in the room in question and when I opened my door there were few men and women hanging around the place. Then a couple emerged clad in wedding dresses; the bride in white gown and a veil and the groom in normal European dress. I was more puzzled.
If the couple had their honeymoon the previous night as the hotel keeper said, then perhaps the others must have come to check the ‘proof of virginity’ of the bride, following the Sri Lankan style! But then why did they clad in wedding dresses? When I came down to the front door on my way to UNESCO, I saw more people waiting for the couple. I in fact watched them leaving together for supposedly a wedding ceremony somewhere nearby; at a Church or a Registrar’s Office. I didn’t have a clue of the standard French custom.
Then if the wedding was on that day why did they have the honeymoon on the previous night was a further puzzlement. I was confused or rather amused. I was more amused of the way they had their honeymoon. Brought up in an Asian or a Sri Lankan culture, I thought or still believe that sex is one facet (or culmination) of love and the whole thing is a gentle process and not at all a violent one. But it appeared that some people think differently. But the question that lingers still in my mind is whether the difference is personal, cultural or even climatic?
While I was amused by the whole episode, it appeared that Gerard was more amused by me. Whenever he saw me, he had a peculiar smile in his face. As a Lebanese living in Paris, perhaps he understood the ‘two worlds,’ the East and the West and their different habits better.