What is Genghis Khan doing on Little Eva's bed? Find out here ...


Talking it over with Genghis Khan, Heather Reyes


When Eva first learned about wars and things, she thought she'd better start going to church - just in case. If you prayed hard enough, you were supposed to get your own way - apparently. Like 'no more wars'. If that was the case, it seemed a pity that not enough people in the past had bothered.

          To one side of the chapel of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Jesus pointed to a sort of Valentine's card on his chest - a big red heart with different length sun-rays coming out of it. But he didn't look particularly pleased about getting the card. A bit sad, really. On the opposite side, a lady in blue and white smiled down sweetly at the snake she'd trodden on and the candles around her were crying themselves away. Between the two, above the altar, yellowy white and hanging heavily from the nails was the awful body. The vermillion droplets painted on it, so red and so many, made her think of nosebleeds, and then of a procession of footballers across old snow. But the red shirts of the footballers burst into machine-gun fire, and then turned back to blood as soldiers died in the snow. And all the suffering people began pouring out of the wound in Christ's side. No wonder the other Jesus didn't look too impressed with the Valentine's card: there wasn't really much love about at all, to judge from what was coming out of His side.

          If you waited in the quiet of the empty church, waited, and watched the great wound under the ribs, Time ran backwards and you saw nearly two thousand years of tortured, suffering people trailing out of it like a ragged column of damaged ants. And if you waited and waited, in the end you'd see Him stagger out of His own side, stumbling under the great cross - only it would be little, all the people very little, seen from a long way off so the particularities of their wounds and sadnesses were reduced by Time and not so upsetting, like turning the telescope round and looking through the wrong end to push everything far, far into the miniscule distance. But, even at that remove, she could see them stretching out their tiny arms to her.

          Then a sudden close-up. People dragging themselves out of the mud - like in that film she'd seen - torn, rotting, showing a piece of cheekbone, the bloodied knob of a shoulder-joint, red trickling from what was once a mouth and from the nose-spaces. They crawled towards her, dragging themselves forward for her to heal and mend and soothe, and to have her tell them it didn't really happen, that History was only a bad dream that all the world had dreamt at the same time.

          She started with the soldiers, working the shreds of flesh back onto the faces like a sculptor pressing globs of clay on to build up a head, sucking out the bullets like mammoth bee-stings, and sending them all home to their wives and mothers and children whose black clothes she took off, dressing them instead for a celebration and putting flowers everywhere.

          It took a lot of time and concentration to do all that. They couldn't make out why she'd turned so quiet and strange at home. They suspected it was something to do with this going to church business. And it was exhausting work, too, persuading Herod not to kill all those babies, calming Genghis Khan down, and trying to convince Hitler, 'Look, you're not going to win, you know.' It meant hours and hours in your own room, growing paler and paler - except beneath the eyes.

         She began to develop her own theory that the thugs of History were really all the same person reborn at different times. Well, they all seemed to have moustaches. Obviously thought they were 'real men' - or suspected they weren't and were trying to ... Anyway, whichever one you were trying to reason with, it felt like the same as all the others - except Genghis Khan's clothes were more interesting. If they were all the same person, then she could just choose one manifestation and try talking it over with him - all the dead babies, the Jews ... everything. She'd choose Genghis, of course; more interesting to look at if that picture in the encyclopaedia was anything to go by. Better than just a Charlie Chaplin in uniform.

          She had him sitting there for hours, cross-legged on her bed, while she paced up and down the pink fluffy carpet, and him having to take his furs off because of the central heating so that all his gold chains and stuff hung on his ever-so-hairy chest and his purple and orange baggy trousers clashed with the pink bedspread.

          'Don't you understand? People are going to hate you for ever. History will ...'

          And sometimes, try as she might to keep him Genghis, his flying moustachios would shrink and he'd become jerky, beady-eyed little Hitler.

          'How could you ...?!'

          Once she made him - yes, Adolph himself - sit there while she read the whole of Anne Frank's Diary to him, even though it took until two in the morning and she dozed off during Maths the next day. She'd begun to believe she was getting somewhere with him - them - though you couldn't be sure, of course. But anything was worth a try.

          Sometimes she looked around the class and wondered if anyone else was talking to Genghis Khan or any of them, and whether she could ask for help with mending the soldiers. Even if she managed one a day for the rest of her life, she'd never get through a fraction of those poppy petals falling from the roof of the Albert Hall. And that was just for a couple of wars. But she realised there wasn't much chance, not in that class, anyway. You only had to listen to them talk.

          The thing she found most difficult to understand was how, after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the other big ideas clever Miss Wheatcroft went on about, there could still be people killed for their colour, their religion, or what they did with words. So many hurt bodies. Each of us living on a hill of hurt bodies. Let alone minds. But that was to come ...

         As she walked to church early on Easter morning - grey, dank, and not at all hopeful, crows circling the still bare tree-tops - she wondered if many people got muddled up between Renaissance and Resurrection, like Nancy Goodrich always did ('always' meaning twice, really). Renaissance was a nicer word. Prettier clothes went with it - rich-coloured velvets, pearls, ruffs, embroidery, gold thread. Resurrection didn't have much more than grubby old sheet-things draped around the people (if the pictures in her Bible were anything to go by). There'd probably be old blood-stains or something, too. And all that dust in the creases. In Religious Instruction, Mrs Legg had talked about the rebirth of Nature and Hope in the Spring and how it was no coincidence that Easter came at this time of year. Eva thought of asking about Australia, where it was autumn now, then remembered that Christians hadn't started down there so it probably didn't count.

          She also wondered why you didn't use Renaissance about Nature, only boring old 'rebirth'. Of course, Renaissance was supposed to be all painting and old books and stuff like that (as well as the fancy clothes). But it was such a lovely word, Eva decided to start a fashion for using it about the bulbs coming up again so miraculously, and pink bursting from dead-looking apple-tree twigs ... or any other time you'd usually want the word 'rebirth'.

         By this time, her way to church was taking her past the park with the playground where she'd fallen off the slide when she was seven. But it had gone now. So had the old green-slatted roundabout with the huge, red-painted knob in the middle that was too hot to hold onto in the summer and so hand-hurtingly cold in the winter. The park was being remodelled, being brought up to date, and having the drainage done, too. There were still several big concrete pipes that hadn't been used.

          Then somebody moved in the bushes. Eva looked around, feeling suddenly alone and visible in the grey morning. No-one else was out walking so early. If it was a murderer, she'd have to try one of her Genghis-type conversations on him, persuade him he'd be a lot happier - and so would everyone else - if ...

          From the bushes there emerged a rather elderly woman in an old-fashioned green coat. Her hands were clasped across her stomach and a cream plastic handbag hung from her right forearm. The grass was muddy and her heels, though not so very high, kept sinking in, making the woman's walk look clumsy and uncertain.

          She reached one of the concrete pipes, stopped, and looked around as if checking she was alone. A crow flew over slowly, as crows do, making a sound like a laugh in slow motion. Eva kept very still. The woman manoeuvred herself onto her knees at the entrance to the pipe, then disappeared inside. Perhaps she was looking for something she'd lost. But how did she know it was in the pipe? She couldn't have dropped it there herself. Women like that didn't go in pipes.

          Eva went closer so she could see right in. The woman was on her side, making struggling movements with her arms and legs every now and then. And slowly, very slowly, she was edging her way through the pipe. From time to time she seemed to be looking at her watch.

          Eva wondered if she should call an ambulance.

          Then the woman was through. She struggled stiffly to her feet and pulled something brown out of her handbag, which she had kept hold of all the time. Unfolding it, she spread the brown thing on the ground, got down on her knees again, then awkwardly manoeuvred herself right down and onto her back.

          It was then that the awful crying started - a comedian taking off a baby, but also a man on fire.

          Remembering the broken glass that was often all over the playground, Eva ran to bind the old woman's wounds. This was a real woman, real wounds, so it would probably be easier than what she was used to. She only wished she had more than one handkerchief with her.

          The woman looked more and more a tortoise on its back, limbs working like a tipped-over clockwork toy. Her face was puckered, her old but lipsticked mouth open wide, and there was a white bulge of flesh between the tops of her old-fashioned stockings and the crotch of her pink knickers.

          Eva stood beside her now, looking down. The red mouth snapped shut. The eyes opened, disbelieving, then afraid, and only after the years and years of the five seconds for which they looked at each other in silence did the woman's face dissolve into something like embarrassment.

          'Are you all right?' Eva made herself say. The woman eased herself up to a sitting position and reached for the cream handbag (now smeared with mud) that she'd put on the ground beside her when she went down onto her back. 'I thought you'd hurt yourself. There's often broken glass. Sorry if I made you jump.'

          'It's all right,' said the woman, struggling ungracefully to her feet. 'You didn't really spoil it. I'd done the main part already.'

          'Main part of what?'

          'The treatment. I read about it in an old magazine at the dentist's and thought it might help. "Re-living the birth process" they called it. I've had my eye on these pipes for ages. And it had to be ten to eight - that's the time I was born.'

          'On Easter Day?'

          'No ... October.'

          'It doesn't matter about the date, then? - just the time.'

          'I'm not sure now you mention it. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps that's why I don't feel different - well, not very.'

          'You don't feel better?'

          'It might be too soon to tell. These deep things take their time.'

          Eva thought of all the hours she'd spent mending soldiers. She scanned the woman's body quickly. It must be internal injuries, then.

          'What is it that's wrong with you?'

          'They tell me it was the Blitz - being cuddled by a dead mother for a day before they dug me out. They say I've never been quite right in the head because of that. But it's difficult for me to know. I mean, what are other people like in the head? I was only three at the time.' She bent down with an effort, picked up the sheet of brown paper, refolded it and pushed it back into her handbag. 'Didn't want to get my coat dirty,' she said, brushing the skeleton of a last-year's leaf from her sleeve. 'I'll go back now.' But she stood still, looking at the pipe.

          After a few moments, Eva thought she'd better remind her about going back, and take the opportunity of using her word, too. She said, 'I hope you feel better ... for your Renaissance ... when you get back.'

          'Oh - yes - back. Thank you.'

          Eva was disappointed. The woman didn't bat an eyelid at the word 'Renaissance'. Never mind. She could try it on someone else - it just seemed such a perfect opportunity.

          The woman turned and began to walk away, crookedly, over the oozy grass. There was laughter from the pond: the ducks had woken up.

          'So,' thought Eva, 'it's worse than I thought. It's minds as well as bodies. I'm going to give Genghis a real piece of my mind tonight.' She sighed wearily and dragged herself on towards the church.

         After the service she knelt there, as usual, looking at the three of them - Jesus of the Valentine, His snake-squashing mummy, and big dead Jesus. A tiny woman in a green coat crawled out from under His ribs, catching her handbag on the edge of the wound.

          'I could do with a bit of help,' Eva said. 'It's a bit much expecting me to do it all. I don't mind having a go at things I can see, but I'm not a psychiatrist.'

          Jesus stretched, looking surprised to see the Valentine's card in his hand, turned it over curiously, shrugged, and tossed it over His shoulder. Mary said 'Stay!' firmly, to the snake - thought better of it, removed her white veil, popped the half-dead creature in it, tied it up and kicked it into the corner.

          Eva stood up.

          'We thought you'd never ask,' said Jesus.

          'OK, let's get going,' said Mary.

          Eva paused and looked hopefully towards the crucifix.

          'Not a chance,' said Mary. 'Dead as a door-nail. He can be a reminder, anyway.'

          Eva couldn't help wishing their clothes were a bit more striking and their faces less plastery-looking. Would they cut any ice with Genghis Khan?

         A passing bag-lady saw a girl and two statues walk out of the church. Eva noticed her and called out, 'Don't worry. Everything'll be all right soon. There's going to be a Renaissance!'

          The bag-lady paused, broke into a cackling laugh and continued towards the litter-bin she'd spotted on the next lamp-post.

Talking it over with Genghis Khan by Heather Reyes is published by Oxygen Books on 8 October 2015, £8.99/ e-book

'From buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette is somehow more stylish because you're doing it in Paris.' Stephen Clarke on all things Parisian in city-lit Paris.

Author Stephen Clarke

Paris is not entirely unique. You can sit in cafés, wear designer clothes and even have sex in lots of other towns.

It just feels unique, as if everything you do, from buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette, is somehow more stylish because you’re doing it in Paris. Certainly Parisians act as if they’re unique — not as a community but each individual one of them. It is the city of moi. As they walk down the street they’re thinking, look at moi. Even when they’re kissing a friend on the cheeks, they’re saying it – moi, moi.

And the obsession driving each moi is its lifestyle. Parisians have elevated lifestyle to an art ― no, more than an art, it is (as only the French can say properly) a raison d’être. In summer, they close off a whole chunk of the road running along the right bank of the Seine — the city’s main throughway — to create Paris Plages, a chain of imported beaches, riverside cafés, performance spaces, even pétanque pitches. Block a main inner-city artery so that people can play pétanque? Not many capitals would do that.

Similarly, the new Vélib scheme ― cheap bike rental — was instantly adopted by Parisians as a chance to glide about the city looking stylish, as well as being a great new chat-up opportunity. “Bonjour, you have rented a Vélib? So have I, what a coincidence. Destiny has obviously decided that we must sleep together.”

Admittedly, this love of lifestyle does have its downside. As soon as the Vélibs were introduced, you saw impatient Parisians jostling around, trying to push in front of each other to get a bike. Because waiting is not part of their lifestyle. The person in front is preventing moi from being where moi really wants to be.

So when a chic Parisian office worker barged in front of me to get his Vélib, I knew that he wasn’t just being bad-mannered. No, he had an urgent appointment with himself and his lifestyle. It was probably imperative for him to go and sit outside a café before shutting himself away in the office. If he waited for me to fiddle around selecting my bike, he’d miss the chance to watch that new secretary walk past in her tight skirt. One of these mornings she is sure to notice him, and then who knows what will happen.

It is the city’s addiction to the moi-first lifestyle that has attracted writers to Paris for so many centuries. The average writer is, after all, even more egocentric than a Parisian. What’s more, Paris is the true home of the intellectual, a place where you can talk total arty-farty twaddle and, as long as you are passionate about it (and preferably squinting through a haze of cigarette smoke), people will actually take you seriously.

Fortunately, though, there have been plenty of brilliant writers either visiting Paris or living here, and the book you’re now holding is full of anything but twaddle, except perhaps for the samples of my own writing.

And what strikes me about reading Balzac, Flaubert, Orwell or de Beauvoir on Paris is how little the city changes. Superficially, yes ― Balzac’s heroes didn’t have to battle their way onto a metro during a travel strike — but deep down things are always the same. There are still foreigners getting mistreated in swanky kitchens exactly as George Orwell was. You can still trip over Americans like Hemingway sitting with their litre of wine on the river bank. Even some of the streets in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris are almost unchanged, and the darker ones can certainly smell pretty medieval on a Sunday morning before the cleaners come round.

My own first visit to Paris was inspired by a book ― Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), a novel about the often unappetizing things that went on in the city’s food market at Les Halles. Being too hard up to buy a decent guidebook, I marched off in search of the market using only the free Galeries Lafayette map they give you at the railway station, and was disappointed to discover that the glass-framed market halls had been knocked down and replaced by a hideous shopping mall about twenty years earlier.

However, as I wandered away, deep in literary mourning, I stumbled into the rue Montorgeuil and was confronted with bloody hunks of horsemeat, skinned rabbits, live lobsters and heaps of pungent mushrooms with the soil still clinging to their roots. A boulangère had set up a stall in front of her shop and was gleefully handling money and bread while sneezing into her palm with a disregard for hygiene that would have brought out the bacteria police back home. I was in Zola’s novel.

These days, people moan that the area around the rue Montorgeuil has gone posh — there is now, for example, a trendy Japanese restaurant that does mango sushi. Merde alors. But Zola would recognize the epicureanism of a street where every other business is dedicated to food. And you can still buy a baguette that has been fondled by a baker’s dubious fingers. Mango sushi, OK, but polythene bags for baguettes? Non merci!

The area of Paris where I now live has many timeless qualities to it. It’s the Butte aux Cailles. A picturesque name, I thought when I first moved in ― Quail Hill. But no, a friend explained that quail was an old word for prostitute. Apparently the hill used to be a prime cruising zone. And in a modern way, it still is. There’s a small gang of ladies who go round sticking massage ads on trees and lampposts. Hand-written, too. None of your new-fangled colour printing technology for these quails.

I often see people filling water bottles outside the Butte aux Cailles swimming pool. There is a spring beneath the hill, and a fountain where you can collect the water, free of charge. These days it is checked for purity, of course, but even so, it is a part of daily life that must go back hundred of years.

Nearby is the small local bookshop, which advertises an in-house “public writer”. No, not a resident author who will lecture you on the problems of the omniscient narrator — this is a person who writes your letters for you if you can’t spell too well yourself. What century are we in again?

And the wonderful thing is that none of this is done for tourists or because the state or UNESCO has provided a grant to ensure that future generations will always be able to witness ancient French folk customs. It is simply unchanging, everyday Paris.

There is, however, one quaint folk custom that is state-subsidized. Every year, generally in winter, the French government workers go on strike, and the nearby Place d’Italie comes alive with balloons, revolutionary songs and the fragrant odour of merguez sausages being cremated on barbecues. The atmosphere is usually very festive, with old friends meeting up and comparing banners. Last year, I went and interviewed some of them for a French TV programme, and the protesters were in a hearty mood despite the rain. I met a group of strikers from a suburb of Paris who were sitting out a shower in a café.

“How many times have you been on strike?” I asked one man.

He had a think and replied, “this year?”

Next I found a chanting Parisian social-security worker and interrupted him to ask about his all-time favourite strike or protest march. He consulted his colleagues and they decided that “it was last year, when we went to Brussels.” Yes, these demonstrations are such an integral part of their lifestyle that they even go on striking holidays.

So if you come to Paris hoping to visit some of the places mentioned in this book, and your trip is disrupted by a transport strike or protest marches, don’t be disheartened. It’s just one example of Paris imposing its lifestyle on you. All you can do is adopt the strategy I used with the Vélib queue-jumper – accept that c’est la vie and give a resigned Parisian shrug.

You don’t know how it’s done? It’s very simple. You put on a facial expression that says “what do I care, we’re all mere grains of sand in the infinite desert of the cosmos,” you imagine that a pair of overweight parrots has settled on your shoulders, and then try to lift them six inches higher without tipping them off. Get practising before you visit Paris – it’s a key exercise in all the city’s yoga classes, so you’ll have some catching up to do.

A Year in the Merde author Stephen Clarke's introduction from city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on all things Parisian, £9.99, paperback, Oxygen Books