What had started as a light rain was becoming a pour. Drops hit Camille's cap harder and harder, drenching his shoulders in a freezing cascade. He would have welcomed this, the cleansing power of rain, that would hold off Paris's stench for a while. But not now, hurrying as he was in streets he didn't know too well.
His jacket was folded tight around his hand, trying to stop the blood flow. He gritted his teeth as his stick hit a wall and the end of it poked harshly under his sternum, effectively cutting off his breath.
Slow down. Think. Where are you?
Not too far from home, for all he could tell with the rain; he could hear the farrier he'd passed this morning, going to work.
And now I may be losing that job and MY BLOODY HAND if I don't hurry
He breathed deep, trying to contain his panic.
Someone - man or woman, he couldn't tell - walked into him, their umbrella poking his forehead, walking fast and without a word of excuse. She - woman - hailed an omnibus behind his back.
He knew where he was.
Okay, hurry, now.
Doctor Alphonse Allibert was wrapping his appointment with Mrs Julien - an old bat who came to his surgery almost every day for various imaginary ailments - when a big crash erupted from his waiting room. Jumping to his feet, with only a passing eye for his patient, now pressing both hands over her heart, he opened the door, ready for anything. Times were not making things easy and calm in these parts of the city.
He let down his hands he’d raised in fists, however, when he recognized the beanpole of a man that had fallen against a chair as he'd entered, losing his cap and stick. Lucky for him, the room had been empty.
"Dessaigne. Again ?"
"Again." One hand felt for the cap and immediately pushed the headgear low over his mousy hair and face when it found it. The other hand was hidden under a folded tight, crumpled worker jacket. The man's grey-blue shirt was stained with blood in various places. "This time, it's worse."
"We'll see about that." Allibert picked up the stick and helped the man stand up. He called. "Mrs Julien! We were finished, I think."
"My heart! This ruckus… You should take my -"
"You're fine, Mrs Julien. Remember the name of the colleague I gave you? Go see him if you need anything."
The old lady walked past them, mumbling under her breath.
"I think she said you'll hear more from her."
The suddenly laconic doctor gave a push to his patient, guiding him to his surgery.
Allibert pushed Camille to sit on a chair next to a table.
"Show me your hand."
Camille unfolded his jacket, wincing in pain when the pressure applied changed and blood flew again in his fingers. The doctor let out a sigh.
"This isn't a job for you."
Allibert cleaned the wound, sending shivers of pain and disgust along Camille's spine every time some water or a cloth was too harsh against the deep cut.
"It's all I can get, now that the school's closed,” he let out through his teeth, "I need the money."
"It's bleeding a lot, still.” Camille felt the doctor get close, inspecting the cut.
“But it doesn't look that bad. I need to sew it. Hold that hand up." The doctor laid the injured hand on a cloth, then got up, looking for something in various drawers he was opening and closing quite too strongly.
He kept talking.
"You're educated. You got skills. I'm sure there's places where they'd need an interpreter. Especially now ."
"I'm unemployed because of now. And you need to be able to read reports, too."
Allibert came back, and laid something that produced a metallic sound over the wooden table, then something that made a dull thud, like a thick glass or a bottle. He sighed.
"You won't be able to read anything anymore if you continue with this job, you know that."
Camille straightened. Alphonse may be his friend, but a doctor couldn’t know what he was going through. He himself couldn’t, just a couple of years prior.
"My priority is having a roof over my head and enough food to keep me going. Culture is going to have to wait.”
“You’re losing more than culture with your fingers, my friend.”
“I know.” Camille swallowed, all bravado gone. “I know…”
“Heh. It’s just a cut. A deep one, but you won’t lose this finger. Promise. Now drink some of this.” He produced that dull sound again, right in front of Camille.
He grabbed the small, square bottle, opening and sniffing it. He had a slight recoil.
“What is this?”
“Isn’t it a little too much?”
“I’m running low on many things. This is all I have left. It’s this, or some eau-de-vie , and I know that this at least contains some pain reliever.”
Camille shrugged, and took a big gulp from the bottle. It didn’t taste good. At all.
They stayed silent as the doctor did his job. While the laudanum didn’t have any effects at first, making the few first minutes extremely painful, Camille felt light and slightly off by the end, his hand no longer painful nor a worry.
“I’ll take you home.” The doctor wrapped Camille’s hand in a bandaged, carefully tightened. “I don’t have any patients left today.”
“Today? What with la Julien ? you said you wouldn’t hear from her anymore. It sounded definitive”
It had felt weird to Camille earlier, but now it didn’t really affect him. He was merely making conversation, the laudanum continuing effects detaching him from much of what this implied.
“Yes, well. Since we’re talking about it.” Alphonse got up, and glasses clinked. He came back to place yet another drink in Camille’s good hand - one that smelled a lot better.
“Cheers, my friend.” Alphonse clinked his glass against Camille’s, but his voice was extremely somber. “To my drafting.”
Camille stood motionless on his chair, his hand halfway to his mouth. His slow, drugged brain had suddenly emptied. He wasn’t as detached as he’d thought.
He stood up clumsily.
“No. No, you can’t.”
“You think I have the choice...”
“You’re… How will I manage without you? You’re my only friend, here. And you help. How…”
Camille kept shaking his head, enough to make himself dizzy. But he couldn’t help it.
“You’ll probably manage far better than I will. I’m sent to the front. In a field hospital, if I’m lucky, but you know what they say about it.”
“No. Please, don’t… I can’t do this alone.”
“You will. And believe me, thank God or luck or whatever to be spared this fucked up nonsense. There are things, you better be blind rather than be forced to see.”
Camille heard Alphonse gulp down his cognac in one go, and sniff. He didn’t want his friend to leave, he didn’t want his friend to be killed in this horrendous war, but this, this was too much.
“You’re not blind. You didn’t lose a finger working in an ammunition factory to pay your rent. Tell me how I live better.”
“If I lose only a finger I’d declare myself safe and sound and happy.”
Camille held his head high.
“You could lose your sight.”
“If I don’t go when they ask me, I would be a deserter, and be executed when they catch me. If I lose my sight, I’ll live and go home.”
“You don’t know how it is.”
“And you will never know how it is there. That makes us even in our ignorance.”
Camille lowered his head. There was no issue to this discussion.
Maybe it was the drug, or the alcohol, or maybe he was actually able to think. But what good would it do to antagonize his only friend just before he left? Even if he was being an arse.
They were both being unfair to each other. They were both bitter.
Camille walked towards his friend and found his arm, that he patted awkwardly.
“I don’t want to go, Camille. I don’t. I’m afraid.”