Joe Strummer’s Left Leg

Garbageland

That must hurt like hell.

“Just do your job,” answered McCash.

Something like a foretaste of euthanasia was drifting about the room.

“Pain management is also part of my job,” pointed out the doctor.

His fists clenched on the examining table, McCash let the specialist inspect his dead eye. Bonnier was his name. The first one on the list in the Yellow Pages.

The doctor attached a little suction disc to the prosthesis before pulling it out. The odor had warned him and the sight of the empty socket confirmed his fears.

McCash didn’t move a muscle. This guy was the first in thirty years to see his stump. A rifle butt had put out his eye. Since this incident, McCash had experienced his right side as a blind spot, a place from where danger could spring at any time. To keep people from parking there, the Irishman had rigged himself out in a black leather eye patch and a graveyard face by way of mourning.

His right side obsessed him.

His right side made him aggressive.

His right side itched, as if his brain had been amputated. As if his identity had been reduced to a bit of leather.

The ophthalmologist’s face reflected the extent of the damages.

“Not a pretty sight,” he said, contracting his nostrils. “When did you last clean your prosthesis?”

“Never,” answered McCash.

“Weren’t you told that you should disinfect it every two years?”

“I must’ve been busy.”

“Oh? And you’ve had it since when?”

“78.”

“78? You mean you’ve worn the same prosthesis for more than a quarter century and you never had it cleaned?”

“You don’t clean a garbage can,” retorted McCash.

Bonnier pushed up his salt-and-pepper mustache.

“It’s not strictly speaking a garbage can, but an eye socket. Why did you never take care of it?”

“I told you: I had other things to do.”

“Well,” exclaimed the specialist, “if all patients were like you, most doctors would switch to the funeral home business!”

“Heh-heh-heh.”

Not feeling the least like laughing, McCash let the doctor scour out his empty socket. It really did hurt like hell.

“I don’t know what it is you do in life, Bonnier continued, “but aside from the fact that a prosthesis should be washed every other year, one’s also supposed to change it every five or six years or so… You’re doubly negligent, Monsieur McCash. Inevitably, your socket has become infected.”

“A fat lot of good that does me.”

“Are you always so pleasant?”

“Rarely in the presence of a doctor.”

“And yet we’re here to take care of you.”

“I just want to stop suffering.”

McCash gritted his teeth while the fellow pulled a rather revolting compress from his hole. This was hardly the one-eyed man’s first bout; their duration varied–five minutes for the most searing, ten hours for the longest. Then he’d coop himself up in his pain, shut the blinds tight as if other sharp demons could penetrate his skull, and come out of it dazed with fatigue, his neurons cracked, more unpleasant than ever.

Finally the specialist put the glass eye back into place.

It felt vaguely cool to Mc Cash.

“All right,” sighed Bonnier, “we took care of what was most urgent. I don’t have to tell you that you should change your prosthesis as soon as possible. I’ll write you a prescription for an appointment with the ocularist. He’ll take an impression of your stump for a new prosthesis. The operation is painless,” he added, as if that would change anything. “Get his contact information from my secretary when you leave… Now let’s go on to the other eye.”

He bent over the green iris of the Irishman, still tensed on the examining table, and soon straightened up again, his index finger poking around in his bushy mustache as if he were searching for a diagnosis there.

Bonnier didn’t beat around the bush: the illness was spreading, McCash had already lost three tenths of the nine he had left, he had to give up his contact lens, which by the way wasn’t worth keeping anymore (“Do you clean it once in a while?”) for a pair of glasses… Not little ones with burr walnut frames, the sort of understated chic of Parisian intellectuals, no: regular bottle glass, Duralex tempered with a number on the bottom!

“Keep going like you are,” concluded the ophthalmologist, “and you’ll end up blind…”

McCash shuddered but said nothing: he put his eye patch back on, scribbled the check, a bit of paper that he tossed onto the desk before vacating the premises without so much as a thanks and barely a goodbye. As for the secretary smiling blissfully at the waiting room, he barely threw her a look: she was as flat as a board and the way she held herself reminded him of a British soldier on guard duty.

McCash wasn’t going to make an appointment. He wasn’t going to change anything. Not the prosthesis, and even less the contact. He’d rather rot on the vine than take care of himself. Why take care of himself?! To live naked, without an eye patch, with glasses like TV screens slapped onto his mug?

McCash walked home, his heart like a lead weight in free fall to the bottom of a well. The virtues of the abyss.


Career Opportunities

It’s not because one despises the times one lives in that one appreciates solitude. McCash lived alone on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking the Brest harbor, buried in his brain. At fifty-one, he no longer had a first name or a wife. Angélique had checked out, like everything else. Through many transfers, McCash had lost track of his friends, all those old comrades of lost illusions, the IRA had officially disarmed, his colleagues pissed him off, his last mistress had texted him that she was marrying somebody else and Joe Strummer had just died, leaving him an orphan of a time which, like his ex-wife, just kept checking out.

And yet, in his own way, McCash had stature. Women went wild over his handsome tough guy face, his arms that were too big to leave them so badly loved, his vicious Apache smile when he’d scalp a couple of words of love from them at the bottom of the grand canyon; add to that a slow, rolling gait, the energy of a fallen titan and large hands that were surprisingly gentle, and they threw themselves at his feet, calling him a divine bastard.

That hadn’t kept Angélique from leaving. Fifteen years already. With the first guy to show up, a dentist, a guy that pulled teeth, or a salesman, well anyway, she’d left him for a man who’d promised her a future. His own wasn’t very bright.

Like his eye.

Like the Brest harbor that, through the window of his apartment, stretched away into the fog.

McCash lit a cigarette, no better than the others. Lower down, you could see the commercial port, its cranes unemployed and its dock workers going to consummate their divorce with society in bars where beer was still under two euros. Here you could finish yourself off on the cheap. The advantage of living in the provinces.

McCash had landed in Brest as at the end of an improbable flight toward the sea, an impossible Far West. There had been Paris, Créteil, then Rennes, and now Finistère, land’s end in the extreme western corner of Brittany. For him this boiled down to the rue de Siam, the Recouvrance neighborhood and a few friendly beers with Bloas, the painter, a rare survivor of his nighttime pub crawls. The Crozon-Morgat peninsula was barely an hour away by car. Mc Cash had gone there once but had never set foot there again–all that beauty gave him the blues.

Sitting on his living room sofa, the Irishman was contemplating the black mouth of the .38 lying on the table, among the reefer butts and jumble of condoms. Soon he’d be blind: a few months, the specialist had said… He who’d never made decisions unless his back was to the wall found himself backed against it once again, a prisoner of his extermination policy.

Of pleasure as mode of survival, all he’d kept in the end was nihilism: a little pressure on the trigger, an effort, the last, and there would be no trace of him. What would he leave behind? A woman who’d left him, a world of car salesmen, white-collar criminals whose worst risk was a suspended sentence, political careers at the disposal of the reactionary counteroffensive, a heap of forgotten women, his old rock albums…

The sea breeze was pushing against the apartment’s sticky windows. Mc Cash grasped his service revolver, loaded, and without thinking any further pointed it against his dead eye. Everything came flooding back and caught in his throat: ’78, Belfast, the concert in support of the victims of Bloody Sunday when the British army had fired at the demonstrators, The Clash setting fire to his youth, McCash who saw to spreading it to administrative buildings, Strummer massacring the boards, his left leg furiously beating the floor as if to awaken the earth and the men on it, the brawls after White Riot, the intervention of the occupation army, the mad races in the streets, the smoky pub where he’d taken refuge, his heart pounding, the redhead with golden eyes who’d drawn him there, two or three contacts he recognized in the impenetrable crowd, laughter to cut down fear, and the evening going on, a couple of whiskeys to the health of good old Joe, “his friend his brother,” the rock soul of a time when utopia didn’t boil down to surviving the next ecological and health disaster, as many beers drunk to the health of republican Ireland, then suddenly the doors slamming, soldiers surrounding the place, astonishment, fright, shouts, glasses breaking, some trying to flee, some resisting, some who like him throw themselves into the melee, blows, a fair-haired boy in a helmet stretched out at his feet, him with bloody fists beginning a strategic retreat toward the exit and, out of nowhere, the rifle butt crushing his retina and leaving him stunned, the arch of his eyebrow fractured, his eye attached only to bloody tears… The operation, the trial, his expulsion from the country after Lord Mountbatten’s assassination, his arrival in France, law studies to defend other political refugees, Bobby Sands’s death throes under the impassible eye of old lady Thatcher, and then that PhD student with glacier blue eyes that stabbed right through him, Angélique, for whom he’d do anything, starting with going into the police force…

Coming from the sea, a draft slammed the kitchen window. In a sort of compulsive momentum, the doorbell rang.

McCash cursed in his native language–nobody ever came into his cave–and got up with a renewed desire to raze the entire earth.

As the doorbell insisted, he literally tore off the front door, which shattered against the wall.

The mailman backed off; facing him was a one-eyed man, six foot two, bloodthirsty, a revolver in his hand.

“It’s… it’s for a certified letter,” he stammered.

With his stupid mug, he looked like Sardou, the singer.

*

McCash remembered her vaguely: her first name was Carole.

As for the rest, he remembered only a series of muddled nights, tumbles without love but not without joy, where adrenalin went back down as fast as it had climbed, their veins open to the four winds.

Carole was at the time a barmaid in one of the many bars of downtown Rennes: They’d meet after hours for bits of life torn from reality and forget each other amiably as soon as orgasm and dawn came. McCash was around forty then and was making a mess of his career as a cop with an application never challenged since his divorce. Their affair had lasted until they got tired of it: The barmaid in question had disappeared without leaving a trace other than that of her ass on the hoods of cars. Now, here ten years later, Carole was coming back in the form of a letter, the door of forgotten people, a certified letter without acknowledgement of receipt…

Why today? Why at this precise moment? Mc Cash had reread the letter, twice:

Hi lieutenant,

You probably don’t remember me: Rennes, Carole, the barmaid at the Chien Jaune. We slept together a few times, in ’97. And then we didn’t see each other again. That’s when I had a child, a girl, by you: Alice.

The little girl would have deserved a father like you but you weren’t ready for anything–your style, if I remember correctly… I told Alice you had died in an automobile accident shortly after she was born, when we had already separated. I’m sure you understand, you would have done the same thing in my place.

Only here’s the hitch: I’m sick. According to my cancer specialist, I have a few weeks. So this letter is a will. It doesn’t matter what you think of me: My absolute terror is for Alice… For now I’m getting by with a host family, but it’s a temporary situation, and the only solution would be a children’s home. I can’t stand the idea of abandoning her to that awful environment. You’re all Alice has left. She’s nine years old, and she takes after you. In her own way, she’s a rather exceptional little girl.

I’m entrusting her to you. Take care of her. There’s a letter at the office of Mr. Pinson, an attorney in Montauban, in which I state that you are her father, along with a file prepared for a DNA test. That analysis is all that’s neded to give you official custody.

Don’t abandon her. I beg you.

CAROLE

P.S.: Alice will be going into the sixth grade. She’s presently living with M. and Mme Plabennec, her host family, in Montfort-sur-Meu, a little town near Rennes. They aren’t very bright but they’re kind-hearted: I think she’s all right there for now… I’m enclosing a picture of her, taken last summer at Hoëdic…

The bitch.

McCash had refused to give Angélique, his own wife, children, on the pretext that he didn’t want any, but that wasn’t so he’d get just anybody pregnant simply because they’d slept together! And even if he went with just anybody, Carole had gone ahead and gotten him pregnant behind his back: she’d gotten him thoroughly, totally, absolutely pregnant!

McCash crumpled the letter, crushed it between his overly large hands, twisted it as hard as he could and chucked the rag into the trash.

The revolver’s black mouth had vanished from his mind but anger and confusion were making him reel. Do that to him, the man who was rotting on the vine!

Terminally ill, Carole was asking him for help, him, the most one-eyed of lovers, improbability personified, to save her daughter…

“Hers!” he muttered, more dead than alive.

He sank back into the sofa, ruminating his thoughts for a moment, black and hot like tar, crushing his lungs… Through the bay window of the living room, the Brest harbor was steaming with sea spray.

Furious, he got up and unfolded the envelope in the trash.

The letter was dated three months ago. The time for her to die… He noticed the photo inside the envelope. The crumpling and dampness of the coffee filter had partly spoiled it but you could see a kid in a swimming suit smiling at the camera, a medium shot, balancing on a rock…

*

“What’s gotten into you, McCash?”

“Nothing. I’m fed up.”

The police chief looked hard at the lieutenant’s only eye but, despite the nuggets of emerald prowling there, she saw only emptiness.

“Resigning so close to retirement ,” she added, “why it’s completely idiotic!”

“Better late than never.”

Tired of justifying himself, McCash smiled sleepily.

“Don’t make yourself dumber than you are,” protested his superior officer. “At least put in the four years you have left.”

“No time.”

“You’re in a hurry?”

“Yes.”

“That’s no reason for resigning like that,” the chief retorted irritably. “What about early retirement, have you thought about that?”

“It’s been ages since I’ve stopped thinking.”

“You’re wrong. It’s useful.”

“You really think so?”

The Irishman readjusted the eye patch crossing his face and wiped away the tear trickling from his prosthesis. A yellowish tear. The ophthalmologist’s scouring hadn’t changed much of anything…

“You’re really an old numbskull,” she said from behind her desk. “Just tell me what’s happening.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“It would do you good.”

“Not you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to save me.”

The woman gave a disillusioned grin.

“Things are that bad?”

“Worse,” mimicked McCash.

“Well,” she sighed, “I wouldn’t like to be you.”

“Me neither.”

She hated his smile.

In spite of his near-chronic nonchalance, the chief liked McCash. As stubborn as a mule but a fearsomely efficient policeman, if only he’d give up cannabis and rounds in the port bars where even the dock workers stopped talking when he came in… Debauched but darned attractive…

“Give it a rest, McCash. What’s going on? Is it a woman who’s turned your head?”

“Heh-heh-heh.”

“Well, what then?” she asked, irritated.

“Listen, I’m here to give you my letter of resignation, not to stretch out on a couch,” he said, gazing at her pretty freckles. “Unless you’d join me there…”

The Irishman had never succeeded in sleeping with his superior officer. In the end, it annoyed him. Her too.

“Check out,” she said.

McCash snickered, but in his mouth the epitaph tasted of earth.

Bios

Caryl Férey

Caryl Férey (b. 1967, Caen, France) fell in love with New Zealand while traveling the world in 1989. In 1994, he published his first novel Avec un ange sur les yeux. In 1995, he wrote and published his first crime novel Delicta Mortalia: péché mortel, in which Detective McCash appears for the first time–and the character continues his investigations in Plutôt Crever (Série Noire Gallimard, 2002) and La jambe gauche de Joe Strummer (Série Noire Gallimard, 2007). In 2008, Férey published Zulu, his first novel to be translated into English (Europa, 2010) and a huge success both in France and abroad. Being himself a great traveler, Férey’s novels Zulu and Utu take place all around the world: from New Zealand, where he lived for some time, to Morocco, through France and South Africa. His novels are also inspired by rock-and-roll, as shown in La Jambe gauche de Joe Strummer, referring to the co-founder of The Clash. With D’amour et dope fraîche he writes his own contribution to the famous French detective collection Le Poulpe. He has also written children books including Krotokus 1er Roi des Animaux (Pocket, 2010).

Madeleine Velguth

Madeleine Velguth was awarded the 1998 Florence Gould Foundation and French-American Foundation Translation Prize for Children of Clay, a translation of Raymond Queneau's Les enfants du limon (Sun & Moon Press). Her most recent work is Reborn in America, a translation of Eric Saugera's Renaître en Amérique? (University of Alabama Press, 2011).

La jambe gauche de Joe Strummer. Copyright (c) Editions Gallimard, 2007. English translation copyright (c) Madeleine Velguth, 2011.