On the Way to the French Capital
The stone houses painted white or gray or brown with small yards attached to them gave way to fields of tall grass as the 10:35 RER D train from Combs-la-Villa-Quincy station sped toward the French capital. On board, Sylvere had an entire row of seats to himself at that late hour of the morning. Rush hour was over. He was the lone occupant of his car with the exception of an elderly couple sitting at the front next to the door leading to the adjoining car.
Sylvere sat motionless in his seat next to the window, looking out at the passing fields while still grasping his mobile phone in one hand. He noticed the large swathes of brown grass swallowing up the green. The thought occurred to him that none of the five contacts referred to him by his friend, Pinto, had shown promise. All of them were supposed to have expertise in transporting people from Congo to France. Of the four men Pinto had identified, the first man never answered the phone when Sylvere had called on three separate occasions the previous day, Wednesday, and on Tuesday. Each time Sylvere had called he had heard only an incessant ringing on the other end of the line.
The second man whom Sylvere had called did answer the phone, but the man, who was from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had said in Lingala he no longer accepted jobs. “You could say I’m retired now,” the man had added in French, laughing loudly into Sylvere’s ear. Then he hung up.
The third man also answered the phone, but he had said it was impossible to obtain the legal authorization necessary to bring a person from Congo to France in the current political climate. The fourth man, from whom Sylvere had just received a call a few minutes before, didn’t seem interested either.
“Pinto has the best sources in the Congolese community,” Sylvere said out loud in Kikongo. “If he can’t find someone, no one can.”
Sylvere looked up from his seat at that moment and saw Serge, an old acquaintance from the Congolese community, enter the car from the adjoining one. Wearing a green linen suit and, beneath the suit jacket, a large gold chain around his neck, Serge proceeded to sit with his back to Sylvere in the row directly across the aisle from the elderly couple. The thought occurred to Sylvere that Serge had changed seats after the train departed because he was looking for a more sympathetic audience for his stories. Serge, a highly insecure man, always seemed to be trying to make other people like him.
Sylvere didn’t want to talk with Serge, who showed no sign he was aware of Sylvere. A new idea occurred to Sylvere. The fifth contact and sole woman referred by Pinto was an assistant to another individual. When the woman had answered Sylvere’s call the day before, she had given the impression she was with someone while she was talking to Sylvere. He could recall clearly the words spoken by the woman.
“We are aware of the events surrounding the death of Mr. Ronald and the current situation of his daughter, Ms. Claudette,” the woman had stated in French. “We will call you back.”
“Who is this woman?” Sylvere asked out loud, again speaking in Kikongo. His glance fell on the phone still in his hand, which rested on the adjacent seat and grasped the phone so that its screen was visible. A news flash from Le Figaro, the largest newspaper in France, displayed on the screen to announce an attempted coup in Kinshasa led by senior army officers loyal to the country’s previous president, Joseph Kabila. The phone started vibrating at that moment, though, shifting from the screen displaying the news item to a screen indicating an incoming call. Josephine, Sylvere’s wife, was calling.
“Are you going to be home for dinner?” Josephine asked in Lingala, the primary language in Kinshasa, when Sylvere had answered. “Charles is staying with us tonight,” she continued. “By the way,” she added, “Jim received a job offer from a company in Switzerland a little while ago,” referring to their second youngest child and only son. Sylvere was silent. “Are you there?” Josephine asked.
“Yes,” Sylvere answered at last. He paused, thinking about the final piece of information from his wife. Then he said in French: “The connection is bad. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” He hung up. In fact, the connection was not bad. Sylvere looked out the window. Now a dreary landscape of warehouses, large trucks, and heavy machinery was visible. Sylvere closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat, breathing deeply through his nose and attempting to calm his nerves. But he was anxious, he admitted to himself. His homeland was entering into another crisis. His only son was moving away. He had to rescue Claudette quickly.
Suddenly, an image of his first child, Isabelle, who died at the age of four 45 years previously, entered his mind.
Sylvere forced his eyes open, an image of the back of the seat in front of him appearing before his eyes. He could feel the train slowing steadily. A voice in French came over the public-address system announcing the train’s arrival in Paris. Sylvere looked at his watch. It was 11:13. The train ride from Combs-la-Ville to Paris had taken 38 minutes. A thought occurred to him; he looked up toward the front of the car. Serge was gone.
But Sylvere already was visualizing the final leg of his journey, a walk from the train station at Châtelet–Les Halles to the offices of Le Carrefour on Rue Montmartre. The walk would be short, about half a mile in distance. He would have plenty of time, almost one hour. But something could go wrong, he thought, preventing him from reaching his destination. His heart started pounding in his chest again.
Through the window Sylvere saw the approach of the train into the massive shopping and transit center of Châtelet–Les Halles. When the train came to a halt next to a platform, Sylvere rose quickly from his seat, put his phone in the pocket of his red windbreaker, and rushed down the narrow staircase to the platform outside. His mind, at that moment, was in a state of turmoil.