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Le Fabuleux Destin d'Enjolras Poulain

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It is June 3, 1973, 9.17pm. It is 27'C, the humidity is 49% and the atmospheric pressure is 999 micrometers. The air is warm and hazy and the residents of Paris are enjoying the balmy summer evening.

Hannah Dupont and Carmel Maximilien eat macarons at their favourite cafe. In seventeen minutes Hannah will break up with Carmel and reveal she is moving to England.

At the same time Jean Cadeux drops his cone of strawberry ice cream onto the pavement, when he is startled by a particularly aggressive bee. The ice cream is left to melt into the paving stones on the quiet street.

And at this same moment, a persistent sperm belonging to Raphael Poulain, with one X chromosome and one Y, pushes its way into an egg of his wife, Amandine.

Nine and a half months later, Amandine gives birth to a golden-haired son, Enjolras.

*

Amandine Poulain is 31 years old. Amandine is a teacher and a nervous woman. Amandine likes making lists and tying bows onto birthday presents. Amandine dislikes sudden loud noises and people who bend back the spines of books.

Amandine decides that Enjolras is too delicate to go to school, and so she teaches him at home. Her husband Raphael supports this decision, as long as his toolshed is left alone.

Raphael Poulain is 37 years old. Raphael is a carpenter. Raphael likes polishing cutlery until it gleams and sweeping up the curly wood shavings from the floor of his workshop. Raphael dislikes people who ridicule children and badly sanded wood that leaves him with splinters.

As a child, Enjolras Poulain is quiet and withdrawn. He learns to be quiet for his mother, and neat for his father. At eleven years old, Enjolras likes skipping stones in the canal near his house and learning about the history of his beloved Paris. Enjolras dislikes people who pat his cheeks and putting his bare feet on cold tiles.

 On June 6, 1984, tragedy strikes the Poulain family. Amandine and Enjolras visit Notre Dame to pray for a little brother or sister for Enjolras. As they leave the church, a statue falls from the roof and hits Amandine. She is killed instantly.

Raphael Poulain is devastated. He takes early retirement, and spends most of his time constructing a shrine for Amandine in the garden they once shared. He barely notices when Enjolras becomes even more withdrawn and quiet.

Enjolras moves into his own apartment at the age of 21, and takes a job as a waiter at a local cafe, the Cafe Musain. He has several disappointing relationships, and decides to treat love as something that is not for him.

*

As an adult, Enjolras Poulain likes cracking the top of crème brûlée with a spoon, going on long train journeys, and feeling the cobblestones under his feet when he walks. Enjolras dislikes biting into hidden peppercorns, customers who do not say thank you, and people who ask if he has a "special someone."

When Enjolras is 23 years old, his life changes forever. But it doesn't change because of a promotion, or a new partner, or an unexpected inheritance.

Enjolras's life changes on August 31, 1997, when the TV presenter announces that Lady Diana Spencer has been killed in a car crash.

While never having been a fan of the monarchy, he has always felt an affinity with England's favourite divorcee, perhaps because he thinks she knows what it is to be lonely while surrounded by people. Enjolras is startled enough that he drops his Metro pass, which falls between two floorboards in his kitchen. When he kneels down to get it back, Enjolras discovers a loose board and a cigar box hidden under years of dust.

The cigar box is full of memories - a marble, a wind-up toy car, postcards from all over the world, tickets, photos, smooth rocks, and a small journal. Enjolras knows he shouldn't read it, but the date on the front is from nearly 50 years ago, and he's always loved learning things.

The journal is full of cramped writing, disjointed. It talks of a young boy who was scared of his cruel father, a boy whose only friend is his aunt, who sends him postcards from the exotic locations she visits with her husband. Then the writing gets clearer, the fear seeping from the pages lessens - the boy writes that his father has been given a new job, one that requires he move overseas. The boy says that his aunt is coming home, and that he will live with her. He is safe.

Enjolras sits on the floor of his kitchen and weeps that people have to feel that sort of pain. He smiles, knowing that the little boy was saved. Enjolras is angry that he cannot do more, to help other people like that little boy.  And then he has a revelation.

Enjolras can help people like that little boy.  He can bring a little sunshine into other peoples' lives, make them just a little better, instead of sitting in his apartment feeling lonely. He makes a decision.

If Enjolras can track down the owner of the cigar box, and return it to him, and see that his life is made better for having it back, then Enjolras will spend the rest of his life trying to make strangers happy.

*

A ticket stub in the cigar box is from October 21, 1956. Enjolras's neighbour, the surly and rude greengrocer Claquesous, has lived in the building for years. He may know who used to live in Enjolras's apartment.

Marc Claquesous the greengrocer is 47 years old. Claquesous likes putting his slippers on at the end of the day, and bullying his slow assistant, Lucien. Claquesous dislikes cherry stones, and losing his keys.

When questioned about the apartment, Claquesous brushes off the question and directs Enjolras to ask someone else: "I am busy!" yells Claquesous, shaking a meaty fist at Enjolras. "Everyone around me is useless, I am surrounded by vegetables!" He gestures to Lucien, as well as the potatoes. Enjolras is furious.

Enjolras likes Lucien. He is kind, even to the fruits and vegetables he delivers for Claquesous. Enjolras likes seeing Lucien cradle each mushroom carefully as he packs them away.

Lucien Moreau is 31 years old. Lucien likes peeling the outer leaves from lettuces, and the sound of rain on the windows. Lucien dislikes Claquesous, and people who stare at his empty sleeve where an arm should be.

Enjolras decides to ask the apartment building's concierge, Madame Fantine, if she knows who the old tenant might be.

When he knocks on the door, Enjolras is almost overcome by a waft of flowery perfume and a hint of citrus. Mme. Fantine is happy to see him, though they barely speak.

"Oh! The handsome one from 3B! Come in, come in. I'll get you a port."

Enjolras is swept inside, despite his quiet protestations, and finds himself seated at an impossibly small dining table, sipping politely from a crystal glass.

Mme. Fantine Tholomyes is 62 years old. Fantine likes black and white films, and the smell of frying fish. Fantine dislikes men who yell from car windows, and tenants who are always late with their rent.

Fantine smiles at Enjolras, prompting him to start talking. "Madame Tholomyes-"

"Oh, my dear, call me Fantine."

"Ah, right. Well, Fantine, do you happen to know who lived here in the 1950s? Who lived in my apartment in 1956?"

"No, child I've only been here since 1964. I'm sure there's a list of old tenants, though. Let's see..."

She stands as she continues to speak, pulling folders and notebooks from a cabinet on the far side of the room. "Though, I'm surprised you didn't know when I arrived, it's still quite the topic of conversation around here. Especially with that nasty Claquesous, and the dear old ladies up on the fifth floor."

Enjolras doesn't have the heart to tell her that he rarely speaks to the other tenants. Fantine is still talking.

"Oh, it was such a scandal. Broken hearts always are. I was married, you see. Felix. He went overseas to save money for us. I stayed here, with my parents. He wrote to me every week, ah, such sweet letters! He came home, and we bought a little house on the coast, and we were happy."

She smiles, her eyes unfocused as she thinks back 30 years. Enjolras smiles back, imagining Fantine as a young woman, waiting for letters, living on the shore, smiling at a tall man who smiles back at her.

Fantine sits back at the table, leafing through her armful of books.

"But then, one day, a woman arrived at the door. She was Felix's lover, she said, and she'd come to fight for him. They'd met when he worked in Egypt. I was too shocked to say anything. She left, and he went with her. He left me the house, but I couldn't bear to stay there. Too many memories. I sold the house, came to live here, and here I stayed. I never saw him again. Then years later, a letter came in the post. He'd died in a crash."

Fantine lowers her head and wipes away a tear as she finishes her story. Enjolras pretends not to see. She lifts her head again, smiles dimly at him, and hands over a register. The edges are worn, and look like they've been chewed by mice.

"Here you are, my dear. It's been kept poorly, terrible writing, but here: Monsieur Jaime Barohel and son Dominique, apartment 3B. Did you need anything else? Another glass, perhaps?"

Enjolras smiles at her. "No, Madame, this is perfect. Thank you!"

*

There are three Dominique Barohels in the Paris directory. The first is a young man, flirtatious and sweet, but was clearly not alive in 1956. The second is actually a Dominique, and while she's perfectly lovely, she's also too young. The third is being taken away in a coffin as Enjolras arrives at his building. Enjolras despairs.

As he walks through the Metro station to get home, he sees another young man, hair a tangle of dark curls, kneeling in front of the photo booth, pulling something from under it. Enjolras does not know it, but this young man is Grantaire Quincampoix.

Grantaire Quincampoix is 26 years old. He has many jobs. Grantaire likes people with unusual laughs, and the smell of bread baking. Grantaire dislikes people whose smiles don't reach their eyes, and people who don't dress up for costume parties.

Where Enjolras lacked playmates as a child, Grantaire had too many. His childhood was filled with bullies and sadness. As a teenager he learns to see the beauty in the everyday,  to distract from the bleak monotony of his life.

Enjolras knows none of this. All he sees is a young man kneeling on a filthy floor. He is half tempted to approach him, ask what he is doing, but suddenly the dark-haired man is up and running. His eyes are on another man who is leaving the station. He calls out, but he is not heard. Enjolras ends up following him, unsure why. The chase turns into a complicated game of cat and mouse, although this time there are two cats, and neither the mouse nor the second cat know what's actually going on. They run, but Enjolras loses them both when the first man gets into a car and disappears, and the dark-haired man hops onto a scooter and follows him.

The dark-haired man has taken off too quickly, however, and one of the bags strapped onto his bike falls on the road. Enjolras races to pick it up, and sees that the only thing inside is an album. He goes home, lugging the bag, and feeling like nothing has gone right today.

*

Enjolras climbs up the stairs slowly. The door on his left opens, and he hears a harsh whisper.

"It's Bahorel." The man from 2A is staring out of his door. Enjolras jumps.

"Sorry?"

"The man you are looking for. It's Bahorel, not Barohel. Come in, man from 3B. You need some mulled wine." The man leaves the door open, and walks back inside his flat. Enjolras can do nothing but follow.

Enjolras knows of all of his neighbours, but sees most of them rarely.  The man from 2A has brittle bones, and never leaves his rooms. The corners and edges of all his furniture are cushioned, bound with pillows or tape, so as to lessen the chance of injury.

There is a video camera facing out of the window towards a nearby clock tower, linked to the television - Enjolras turns with an enquiring look towards the man from 2A, who shrugs. "I can't replace batteries or wind clocks easily, and digital clocks are ugly. This is easier." He puts two glasses down on his table and gestures for Enjolras to sit down. Enjolras hesitates. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't get your name?"

The man from 2A gestures again for Enjolras to sit down. "The man you're looking for is Dominique Bahorel. I'm Raymond Feuilly. You're Enjolras Poulain, and it's rude to ignore a drink when it is offered. Sit!"

Enjolras sits.

Raymond Feuilly is 71 years old. Feuilly likes being called by his surname only, and re-painting Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir to test his (considerable) skills. Feuilly dislikes creaky stairs, and people who try and make him "see the world".

"Now, you need to find your Bahorel. But what is it going to prove to you?" Feuilly looks stern.

Enjolras sighs, and sips his wine carefully. "I just want to see if he is happy. I like to see people happy. He seems to have had such a sad childhood, and I want to see it get better. I like to help people."

Feuilly might be rolling his eyes. It's hard to tell, under the shadow of the strange furry hat he wears. "Making people happy. Everyone wants to make people happy. How about making ourselves happy? What about then?"

Enjolras is quiet. He hasn't quite thought that far ahead.

"Ah, young man from 3B, you find this Bahorel. See if it makes him happy. But think about it. Think about making yourself happy too. Now, what is in the bag?"

The bag the young man dropped is still under Enjolras's arm. He opens it again and puts the book on the table. "Someone... someone dropped it. Outside East Station."

Feuilly leans over as Enjolras opens the album. They both gasp.

The book is full of paintings and drawings, each page absolutely stunning, with discarded photos from photo booths as the focal point of each piece. Enjolras turns each page almost reverently - he can't look away. Some of the pieces are happy - these photos are of people with smiling faces, and the backgrounds match that happiness - lots of bright colours, thick lines, splashes of colour and hidden surprise sketches. There are some pieces where it is clear the imagination of the artist has taken over. These original photos are dull, just passport photos that have been discarded. These photos have backgrounds of dragons, volcanoes, the depths of the ocean. Then there are photos where only half of the original remains: these are Enjolras's favourites. The artist has tried to recreate the missing parts of the photos, and they are so lifelike that the edges of the photo blend seamlessly into the paint.

The young man must get this back. There's no question of that. But there's no name on the album, nor in the bag. Enjolras will think of a solution.

But he'll find Dominique Bahorel first.

*

On Tuesdays Dominique Bahorel walks to the local market and buys a chicken. He'll roast it for dinner with potatoes, and take time to pull out the wishbone and break it with his pinkie fingers.

Dominique Bahorel is 50 years old. Dominique is a doctor. Dominique likes roast chicken and giving younger patients a lollipop at the end of appointments. Dominique dislikes people who talk during movies and holes in his socks.

Today is Tuesday. Dominique has his normal day off, and he will spend it at the markets, then enjoying roast chicken.

But today Dominique will not get to the market. He'll only get as far as the end of his street, where the payphone is ringing. He steps inside the booth expecting a prank call. Instead, the caller hangs up and he finds an old cigar box.

Dominique Bahorel is usually very difficult to surprise. Today is an exception.

*

Enjolras sits in a bar nervously sipping white wine. He can see the road from his stool, and he is watching Dominique Bahorel very closely. The man is shocked, then smiling, and suddenly he is wiping away tears and walking straight for the bar where Enjolras is sitting, and feeling suddenly nervous - this was not part of the plan.

Dominique Bahorel takes the stool next to Enjolras and orders a cognac with shaking hands. The cigar box is in his pocket. He drains the glass, then seems to notice his surroundings and turns to speak to Enjolras.

"You won't believe what I just found. Out there, in the phone booth of all places, I found something I thought I lost many years ago." He pauses, but doesn't seem to expect an answer. Enjolras is too nervous to give one.

"It makes me think back to a life I left behind, oh, a long time ago. My aunt, she brought me up, and I was always happy. But there's always room for regrets, no?" He orders another drink. His hands are still shaking.

"My father, he made me afraid. My aunt took me away, but still I was afraid. I had a wife once, and a daughter. But I was scared that I'd turn into my father. They left. You know, I think I have a grandchild now? My wife died, they told me that, but my daughter has a little boy of her own."

Enjolras is so nervous. He's almost stopped breathing, his hands are clenched into fists, his heart is beating wildly. He needs the other man to keep talking.

Dominique Bahorel finishes his drink. "That's it. I'm going to find her again. And my grandson. Do I look old enough to be a grandpa?" He laughs, and there's a new shine in his eyes. He stands up, and claps Enjolras on the shoulder as he leaves.

"I'm going to find them again, just you see young man!"

Dominique Bahorel leaves, and Enjolras Poulain can breathe again.