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Global stories, local voices

|| The eyes of Bayon

Ep. 3/3 - The static journey

Loïc Barrière

By Loïc Barrière

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

Photo credit : Jean-Baptise Phou
Translated from French

I'd like to share my plans with Charlotte but I guess you don't just waltz into the life of a mother with a tube in your mouth and an IV in your arm.

I'm suffocating. 
I can hear the caregivers talking to each other. The doctor is harassing the Paris hospital to get me transferred. A nurse invites herself into the conversation. " They took away our best ventilators. It's so disgusting. And it's our patients who are not being treated!" From what I understand, I'm not entitled to transfer to Paris because I'm not sick enough. 
Another nurse speaks to me softly. I can't see her face because her nose and mouth are masked, i can't even see her eyes because her glasses steam up, but I’m touched by the profound softness of her voice. 

I no longer have the energy to look at Facebook. Still, seeing the pictures of flowers and cats scrolling by would do me good. 
I am drowning. 
What day is it? What time is it? The caregivers are taking turns passing my sister or her husband to me. Vientiane says, "Your boss called to know how you’re doing.” 
She calls me so often that she doesn't know what to tell me. She tries not to let it show, but I feel that she refrains from crying, screaming her despair and rage. The caregiver has picked up the phone. I hear her saying nice things about me. Brave, kind. She adds: "We are appalled, miss! This is not normal! He is young! The director of the hospital called in person, but Paris still won't take him in."

Although my mind is foggy, I make good resolutions, as if it’s the New Year. Some people want to eat less, quit smoking. For me, if I make it through, I'll drink some fine wine. A friend of mine made me taste sulphite-free wines from small producers he knew personally. He said, "You'll see, it won't make you sick." Nothing ever had tasted so good. I will have champagne too, a good Ruinard to celebrate my return. 
Why this delirium about wine? My mind goes where it wants, I don't control it. 
I'll buy coffee beans and a machine to grind it. I'll try to find a butcher and I'll eat fine meat: Aubrac, Salers, Angus. Life is short, so I might as well enjoy the good things!

And then, I’ll sign up for dance classes at the Maison du Cambodge. Monkey dance, Peacock dance, here I come! Every other weekend, I will go to the provinces. Saint-Malo, Houlgate, Dinard, Dinand (I always get them mixed up), La Rochelle, Biarritz. And Marseille! 
I’m 38 years old and I have never been to Marseille yet. 

I will immerse myself in the classics. Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Racine! I want to improve, to elevate myself, to discover beauty. I'd like to share my plans with Charlotte but I guess you don't just waltz back into a mother's life with a pipe in your mouth and an IV in your arm. If my mind could meet hers without going through the phone, the subway, the Internet... 

I get intoxicated by my longings. 
If only I could breathe. 

There is someone who will love me when I get out of here. A woman who may not be the most beautiful, nor the youngest, but who loves to laugh, eat, drink, make love, who loves life. (Reminder to self: sign up on Tinder.)

Surrealistic vision. A nurse wrapped in a garbage bag. She explains to me that the long-awaited new gowns won't arrive for a couple of days. 

Air, please, I need air! 
I have never had so many desires, so many projects. I've spent my life waiting. I rarely decided anything.
I'll run away from the fools, the lecturers, the egocentrics. My best friends will be people I don't know yet. 
I will stop useless debates. 
I will go into the unknown. 
I will give books to Vientiane’s children.
To my sister, I will send trees.

I will leave my job that has never interested me. 

If I could talk, I would tell the caregivers and nurses that I love them, that they are for me the quintessence of humanity.
When her three children were born, Vientiane told me that she'd been deeply moved by all the care she and her babies received from midwives, childcare workers, nurses. 
I had never spent a night in the hospital before. All these people look after me as if I was the most important person in the world. They are not afraid of me, they never show that I could contaminate them. Yet I know they are lacking in everything. Their masks are distributed sparingly. They barely sleep. Some have to live apart from their loved ones for fear of infecting them. They do their work with a conscience that moves me. I am too tired, otherwise I would applaud them every night at eight o'clock, too. 
I love you and if I could, I would kiss you.

I’ll read Rabelais. And then Casanova too. I’ll tackle James Joyce and Proust, Virginia Woolf and Malcolm Lowry, authors known for being challenging to read. 
I will never bitch again. 
I will be thankful for life. 

I will take my father to Cambodia. I’ll pay him a five-star hotel.
I’ll take in a dog, a cat. I’ll learn music. 
I will ask my father to tell me about his youth. 

My finger’s on the call button. I wave to the nurse to turn the machine, full blast. I need oxygen! She gives me an apologetic look. 

Is Charlotte still traveling as much now that she has a child? Before she left for Cambodia, she told me about her own way of traveling. She called it static travel. After exploring a site, she would return to the place that had impressed her the most, preferably in the early morning or at the end of the day, when there were fewer visitors. Then she would sit down. And she would gaze, breathe. She would soak up the place as if in osmosis with the elements. She wouldn't take any photos or notes, she turned off her phone. She was content to observe, to be in the present. 

In the Bayon, where the temple towers have four faces turned towards each of the four cardinal points, she touched the stone with her eyes, her fingers, her nose, her ears. One hour, two hours. Time no longer mattered. She told me that she experienced communion with the beings who had shaped this place. A leap through time. A spiritual journey. Tourists would arrive, alone or in small groups, and then disappear like shadows suddenly chased away by clouds. She remained in place. When she finally stood up and said goodbye to the Bayon, the temple was still present within her. When she returned to Paris, all she had to do was focus, and she would recall the harmony of those immense faces. Absorbed by the spiritual, she was able to transport herself to the places she loved, through thought. Charlotte assured me I would be able to do it too, if I really wanted to. As she spoke to me, I was enveloped by the sympathetic smile of the faces with their half-closed eyes. It felt like a dream where I was pushing a door open.

My hearing is much more acute now that I am confined in this hospital that is so quiet. When I look up, I see divers pushing plastic-covered men on stretchers or in wheelchairs. If my family saw me, with the pipes and the machines with their flickering numbers, they would shudder with horror. But I can't see myself. I'm somewhere else. I'm traveling the world. Soon I will be at the foot of the Bayon. 

In the corridor, the doctor does not hide his anger. The hospital in Paris doesn’t want to receive me now because my condition is considered too serious! A few days ago, I was not ill enough. The doctor explodes. "It's not the virus that kills! It's mismanagement! It's the lack of foresight! It's a shame.” Then, further away (but I still heard him), he seems to be talking about me: "This man has no connections in high places. Every day I hear that patients from other hospitals have been allocated the right respirators because someone made a phone call. I can't take it anymore! I'm sick of it! I didn't sign up for this!” 

The very gentle nurse, the one whose eyes I can't see, told me that I would be plunged into an artificial coma. 
For how long? I couldn't ask the question. 
My sister was warned. We are waiting for her to call me before I fall asleep. 

Vientiane's voice. Behind her reassuring words and encouragement, piercing anguish. She tells me that she loves me. The situation must be critical if she dares say such a thing. In the family, we are modest. We never say those things to each other. Her "I love you" sounds like a goodbye. 

A warm sensation spreads through my arm, my chest. The word "coma" reminds me of a man who was asleep on a bed for years, the object of a battle between his loved ones, some of whom wanted to unplug him, others who wanted to stop him from dying. Am I going to become a sleeping body too, just a body, with a mind gone wandering into an uncertain world? Before I fall asleep, I try and crack a joke. I ask the nurse if she has seen Hibernatus. But my voice sounds weird. I think my thoughts are no longer able to turn into words. She shakes her head, without telling me that only groans came out of my mouth. I hope that when I wake up, the world will be fixed.
Everything is blurry. I close my eyes. The voices fade away. I feel sick, want to throw up. My life has gone by too fast.

My eyes are closed but I feel like I can still see through my eyelids. My mind drifts along the hospital corridors, visits the other rooms and then leaves through an open window. The city is empty. Things are not comparable, but I think of Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge had completely emptied of its inhabitants in 1975. I don't know what product they injected in me — I'm high! As if I’m watching Google Earth, here I am in an area covered with grass and trees near the hospital. The tulips are in bloom and I must be the only one who knows it. Rabbits are frolicking in the grass. 
Voices whispering near me bring me back to the room. 

Time no longer exists. Even though I know I'm asleep, I feel like I'm alternating between wakefulness and sleep. I dream, and then I have nightmares.

The voices talk about me. There are too many medical terms, I don't understand anything. 
I can smell perfumes that belong to the nurses and caregivers. I can smell the meals they serve in the other rooms around, the coffee they give out in the morning. I can smell ether, I can smell death. 
My sister's voice on the phone. The voice of a nurse who speaks to her in a compassionate tone. "If he wakes up, the after-effects will be severe. He will never have the same life again.”

I go on with my journey. Bedrooms, tulips, rabbits. My drone does not fly very far. I wish I could have operated it till it reached the Latin Quarter. Rue Mouffetard. That’s where she lives with her husband and her child. Like everyone in France, Charlotte is stuck at home. Confined. What a strange word. I picture her looking out the window, slightly worried, before she resumes typing on her keyboard. Oh Charlotte, I wished I could have seen you one more time. 

A flat voice. The voice of the nurse who was so kind to me. 
"In an hour. I'm sorry. You’ll only be able to stay five minutes." 

Then a caregiver. 
"His sister will come. Someone is taking care of the father, he fainted in the hallway.”

I feel her shadow over me. This time, Vientiane's emotion is too overwhelming. She no longer hides her grief. She is overflowing with love and sadness.

"You're going to join Mom. Give her a hug and tell her that we miss her. The children will grow up without you, but you will always be there with us, always with us. You'll always be my little brother."

My brother-in-law's quavering voice is covered by my sister's weeping.  

I remember the small wooden statue of the Bayon in my room. Charlotte's gift.

I travel, from apartment to house, I fly over mountains and oceans.

A door. I push it open. Under a cloudless sky, I discover temples with walls overgrown by vegetation. 

The Bayon rises before me. I climb a few steps, alone. I contemplate the faces looking north, south, east and west. 

I touch the stone. I sit down at the foot of one of the four-faced-towers. 
The wind kisses my face. 
Softness. 
The faces seem to gently close their eyes.

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About the author

Loïc Barrière
Loïc Barrière
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Loïc Barrière published five novels, among which Rizières sous la lune (Vents d'Ailleurs, 2016), Le roman d'Abd-el-Kader (Les Points sur les I, 2016) and Le Choeur des enfants khmers (Seuil, 2008). He is also a journalist at Radio Orient where he hosts literary and political programs.