This is a short story that I have written – set in the early twentieth century in Paris it follows the tale of two brothers who come across an unlikely package.
Lost in transit
Henri skipped as he so often did, with someone else’s belongings, off a departing train and out of the station.
He always ran west down Rue de Lyon and then north towards Bastille before hammering on the large wooden door that led to his bed, a few floors up on Rue des Tournelles.
In his arms, as he entered the front door that led to the rooms he shared with his older brother Jacob, was a large brown cardboard suitcase. The kind of luggage you’d only normally use to deposit clothes at the pawn shop when you knew you hadn’t a hope of ever getting them back. Or alternatively the kind that you would use to move expensive items around unsuspectingly at busy railway stations.
“What have you got there?” barked Jacob, his lip quivering and his deep brown eyes stopping Henri in his tracks.
“A suitcase, you idiot,” replied a still breathless Henri. “A suitcase full of wonderful things. A suitcase full of our wildest riches.”
“The same as the last one? The same as the one before that?”
“Where did you go this time?” Jacob enquired, his pride dented once again.
While he was always anxious for his brother and didn’t want him stealing, he also knew that whether he ate tonight, and most nights, depended on the contents of the suitcases that Henri brought home.
“Gare de Lyon.”
“Why so close to the room Henri?”
“Gare du Nord is too far to walk, as is Saint-Lazare. Plus, I like sitting in Le Train Bleu while I wait for the moment.”
“Ah. I suppose you had a hand or two of cards while you were there too?” replied Jacob.
Disgruntled at this judgement from his brother, Henri snapped “just be grateful Jacob. A hand of cards or nothing, someone has to feed us, and more often than not it is me.”
As with all outlaws, and men of great virtue, Jacob and Henri came from tragedy. Their mother was abandoned by their father after she fell pregnant with Henri. Then she died weeks before Henri’s thirteenth birthday.
After this Jacob cared for his younger sibling, and though only a boy of fifteen years himself, worked tirelessly to provide.
While Jacob worked Henri adventured and, despite not being bad in his heart, his actions were enough bring him to the attention of the Prefecture of Police of Paris on too many occasions for comfort. As time went on the gap in their years seemed to grow from just two, to ten or more. A quiet life was all that Jacob wanted.
Henri justified his misdemeanours as the revelry of the young, but as he hit his twenties, he realised that opportunity was passing him by. His desire to strike out on his own had led him to push and push the boundaries of what was common theft for the sake of the stomach, to brutal robbing of the innocent to line the pockets and soak the liver.
Over time he swapped picking pockets for mugging in alleyways, and then he went from mugging and using his fists, to holding a knife at those who objected.
He knew how his mother died and this made his continuing criminal actions all the more strange. She was torn from hip to breast by a desperate savage of a man using a carving knife to frighten potential victims into giving up their coins and their crust. He knew he shouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.
Henri had gone out again leaving his brother alone in their rooms. The suitcase sat by the unlit fireplace as Jacob stewed coffee over the gas stove. Black beetles climbed the walls around him, with the odd suicidal bug just missing the burnt pan. When it was damp they would scuttle in and out of the cracks in the wallpaper making flecks of dirty white fall to the floor. You couldn’t leave vegetables on the side for more than a few minutes before they were being made a feast of by the unholy creatures.
Misery was day to day but Jacob could never bring himself to steal his way out of it. He was subjugated by circumstance and fearful that reaching for more would only lead to him crashing down and being lower than where he was now.
While he worried about Henri, not knowing the half of what he was up to and choosing not to ask kept him sane. He just made sure that he scraped enough money together for four or five good meals a week, wine on top some nights, and at the weekends he crossed the river to waste hours in the Jardin de Luxembourg. He knew that wandering the 4th while not working would only mean he ran into debtors or old friends keen to spend an hour or two in the brassiere, which he could not afford.
When Jacob did have a couple of centimes to spare, he would spend them on hitching on the back of one of the boats that took Americans up and down the Seine. He would smuggle on a bottle under his trench coat and stand inconspicuously whenever anyone of riches came his way. The bounce of the rickety wooden boats beneath his feet made him feel more at one with the city around him than he ever did tramping the streets, finding work and wondering if ever total destitution would come and take him.
Boats to Jacob were the possibility of escape that he didn’t ever dare take because he knew that without him Henri could end up in prison, or worse. So many nights he dreamt of sailing past the city wall and north to Rouen, where he knew that country air and freedom from the degradation that haunted him would allow him to be free.
“Brother!” Henri cried.
Jacob jumped as the voice rattled off the walls and the beetles scattered as the front door slammed shut behind his stealthy sibling.
“Must you? Every time? Must you?”
“Must I what, my wonderful big brother, my great protector?” Henri had by this time come up behind Jacob, who was still stirring his coffee.
He threw down a bloodied slab of meat and then, more gently, placed half a baguette next to it.
“What is this?”
“It’s supper. Come on my brother, you’ve barely eaten for days and you’re still using those worn beans for your brew. Tell me you’re not even a little grateful?”
Jacob tried his best to look offended, but hunger was getting the best of him. “You know I just worry,” he said, “I will cook it. But I won’t enjoy it.”
“While you toil away in the cellars that are the torment to so many devilishly poor souls in this grand city of ours, the dirty waters dripping through the cracks in the pavements above and plop, plop, plopping on your head, I am out finding us food to eat.”
Henri laughed and threw himself in the only chair in the room. Jacob scowled at the stove and reached for the box of matches to light the other hob.
The disappointment of Henri
Still unopened the suitcase caused little intrigue until the next morning. Stuffed with meat and bread and soaked in cheap wine and draft beer Jacob and Henri rose unaccustomedly late to see that the sun was already ripe above the rooftops.
Jacob clambered for his clothes and ran out the door without stopping to enquire as to what Henri had planned for his day. Henri on the other hand turned to face the wall so that the sun didn’t exacerbate the pain in his head.
When he finally decided to face the day, he stumbled to the gas stove to heat up what was left of his brother’s coffee from the previous night. While sieving the remains of the few drowned black beetles that had managed to crawl through the miniscule crack in the pan lid, he gave the still dormant suitcase a kick of frustration. As it hit the wall the loose lock on the top gave way and it swung open a crack before propping itself up against the wall in one last futile attempt to keep its secrets.
Henri poured his stale coffee and sat down on the floor facing the suitcase. He lifted it to see again what it weighed, after all, he thought, running through the streets wasn’t the place to judge what kind of riches he had found. His let his mind swim for just a second into a river of jewels, of franc notes and of all that he could buy with them.
Bringing it around to face him he lifted the lid and saw that it was full of paper.
“Shit!” Henri shouted at no one.
He slammed the suitcase shut, threw it against the chair and wept.