It began with him following me. Then, I decided to follow him instead. Street after street. Bridge after bridge. We were at it for hours. At times he would lead, at times I would lead. The trick was to catch up when the lights changed and he crossed the road before me. Waiting on the sidewalk, I had to seize on a break in the flow of traffic in order to resume my pursuit.
But at some point, which I could not predict or anticipate, he would stop to tie a shoelace, or take a picture with his phone, and I would have to saunter past him, pretending like nothing was the matter. I assumed that he used the move as an opportunity to let me overtake him and then he could resume tailing me. And so, our game of tag shimmied on through Paris.
He had been after me for days. I was not imagining this. I am not a paranoiac. I do not suspect people of stalking me for no reason. Still, despite there being a justification for detailing my movements and whereabouts, I have no desire to be gawked at like a beast in a pen. If he wants to watch me, I will watch him.
Of course, I did not know with certainty that he understood what was going on. Did he know? I had reversed the roles, he was my target now. While trying to gauge if he was aware of what was happening, I also found myself battling with the words to a song I could not remember, fragments of which had been knocking about my head for days. The goose drank wine, I think. The monkey choked. Then something, something, heaven and a rowboat. I replayed versions of it but none seemed to fit. My auntie told her I kissed a soldier, that’s it, it was coming back to me.
I noticed him on Tuesday, I think, and things came to a head on Sunday. Maybe it happened because I don’t have anything to do on Sundays. My days off from work are a void, there are no plans, no commitments, no lunch, no brunch, no stroll with a somebody. I yawned. I tapped my fingers. I counted the cans on the shelf in the kitchen and arranged the bottles in the fridge according to size. Outside work, I don’t socialise because I don’t know anybody in Paris. I don’t mix.
The place I work for disposes of medication that has expired. All sorts of stuff, from aspirin or paracetamol, to opioids and hormones. Some of these substances could throw people and ecosystems out of whack if not dealt with in conformity with laws and regulations. This is where the trouble began.
My cousin had an idea. She runs a pharmacy in the town where I was born, in a country that I have not called home in years. She told me: “Pharma fakes the dates on the medicine. Most of it you can still use for years after the date on the box”. She claimed that this practice aims to generate profit and it was damaging the environment for no other reason than amassing wealth for bigwigs. She pressed me: “Nobody needs that sort of money.” I saw her point in the end.
The plan was to funnel some of the meds from my work to her. She would then sell it at a fraction of the price to those in need. It would help people. The intention was to help people.
And because of my activities, it seems, I had ended up on his radar. Now he had been shadowing me for days. They, whoever they are – the police, somebody tasked by the government to protect healthcare in France, or companies dealing in pharmaceuticals – needed evidence to prove I was doing what I was doing. And I guess he was the guy to get the proof.
He reminded me of Emmanuel Macron. But an Emmanuel Macron in his thirties with more bounce and determination and less satisfaction and swagger. He had eyes the colour of skies in the countryside and a smile that stretches for a mile.
It began, as I said, on Tuesday. I saw him at the deli on 54 Rue Volta, while getting breakfast on my way to work. He caught my eye and seemed to smile without moving his lips. It was more a look implying a smile. A hint, which seemed to anticipate a conversation or at least an overture to small-talk.
I thought: “Is he flirting? In the morning? Who has the strength to flirt in the morning?” But something told me he wasn’t looking for a fling.
I realised: “He was here yesterday, too.” And when I saw him then, I remember thinking: “I saw this guy here yesterday, at the table by the door, not at the counter where he’s sitting now.” No, he was not flirting, he was looking at the bag. My bag, of course, where I carried the pills.
Then it hit me: “Okay, they might be onto me. And they have sent a guy to watch me. He conducts these stakeouts when I get breakfast, maybe he follows me to work.” It made sense. I left the deli in a hurry, clutching my sandwich. Then, behind me, I heard footsteps mirroring mine.
He was not there on Wednesday and it made me relax. I talked to Eli, the man who owns the café, and asked “Have you noticed the guy who’s been in here having breakfast this week? Everyone takes their food to go and he sits here like he has no place to be in the morning.” Eli hadn’t noticed anyone: “Sometimes people don’t take their breakfast to go” he suggested with a shrug, but his comment put me on edge. Was he in on it too?
I thought of all the times I had seen Eli from the window of my apartment, idling on the sidewalk, smoking and talking on the phone. He had one of those phones that open with a flip. Phones no one uses these days. Why would someone who makes sandwiches for a living receive what seemed to be a procession of calls, day after day? I doubt there are many pickle and pastrami related queries and emergencies.
By Thursday the detective still hadn’t shown up at the deli. I assumed I was in the clear. But returning home from work in the evening, I glimpsed him standing in the stairwell on Passage du Pont aux Biches.
It rolled on from there. Friday, I saw him at the Métro entrance of Arts et Métiers, reading a newspaper. I passed him and headed into the station, holding my breath. I heard the scrunching of a newspaper being thrown in the trash and the echo of steps clicking along the tiles of the platform, at the same pace and rhythm as mine.
On Saturday, I could not stop thinking about him. His eyes, that smile which was a look and not a smile, his posture when eating, his posture when reading, the sound of his steps in step with mine. I peeked through the curtains. The deli was closed, so he would not be able to watch me from there. I did expect, though, to see him standing on the corner, under a streetlight, wearing a fedora like in the movies.
Then came the day when I arranged and stacked those cans and bottles at my house. The place was a dump, teeming with junk. I had to get out and decided to drop off a haul of meds at my accomplice’s place. I was meant to do the handover on Monday, but I could not stand the sight of my walls.
My co-conspirator lives on Rue de la Lune. He runs a company that imports and exports sundries for cleaning, sanitation and so on. He also happened to be from the town where my cousin has her pharmacy and where I was born. The routine was: I bring the stuff, he makes sure it reaches the pharmacy. He gets a cut, I get a cut, my cousin gets a cut. And everybody can afford to treat themselves once in a while.
After making the drop, I popped into a café on the corner of Rue de la Lune, the one by the playground. And as I took a sip of coffee, there he was. Macron’s doppelgänger, Mister Sleuth, sitting on a bench.
Why was he there, in the playground, moments after I had made the drop? Either it was a monster of a coincidence or it was not a coincidence at all. While I do not tend to imagine things out of the blue and believe in the benefit of doubt, I had no intention of falling into a trap as an act of goodwill. Our eyes met and he smiled, this time it was a smile and not a look implying a smile. The game was on.
I would not move until he moved, and I did not expect him to sit there like a fool and blow his cover. He would have to move, and when he did I would follow. I would do it for the pleasure of putting him in his place. Do not follow me. I do not like to be watched.
As I anticipated, he left the playground and headed to the Strasbourg-Saint Denis station. I walked with him, at a distance, of course.
In the Métro, he got into a carriage and I got into another, making sure to keep an eye on him through the window connecting the two cars of the train. It did not seem like he had noticed me. The train rattled on beneath Paris.
We got off at Les Halles, that mall in the shape of a pyramid digging into the ground. It’s the sort of place where you can buy clothes and food and drugs, and probably guns if you find the person who is in charge of that sort of thing. We snaked our way out of the belly of the station.
On the corner of Rue Berger and Rue des Prouvaires, he entered a building. After he disappeared beyond its gates, I snuck over to check the labels on the intercom. It was offices and businesses, nothing to keep him there for hours, not on a Sunday.
There was a bench where I could wait. A dumpster obscured part of it. I sat on the end which the dumpster concealed and watched the door. He could not leave without my noticing.
I had seen a documentary in which a squid avoided being eaten by a shark by reversing the dynamic of their relationship. The shark kept coming at the squid as it hid in kelp, among shells and even fleeing onto land for a moment. But when it returned to its spot in the water the shark returned too. In the end, the squid did what it could to survive. It latched onto the shark’s back, held on with its suckers and rode the beast until it lost interest in the game and the squid swam off.
As I waited, I thought about what he might be doing inside the building. I thought about what the hell I was doing huddling behind a dumpster. Was he watching me from some window? Why did I care?
When you are looking to prove something, you are always looking for what is not there, what might not exist – a weapon, a body, a motive. Can he prove that I have the pills? Can I prove he is tailing me?
He came out and my heart skipped a beat. It was almost evening, the streetlights buzzed into action. I moved in as he headed towards the Seine.
I followed him to the edge of the river where he had dinner at a place overlooking the Left Bank. He sat on the terrace, ordering the duck and potatoes with a beer. I sat in a corner inside and had a crêpe with caramel and flakes of salt with a glass of cider. The excitement of the chase was getting to me and I decided to pop a pill to settle my nerves, one of those that I hoard for profit.
After he had paid and bantered for a bit with the waiter he left. I did the same. Now, I don’t know if it was the thrill of it all, or the pill and cider, but I stumbled on a kickbike lying on the ground and it made a hell of a noise. He turned and saw me. I froze. I think he winked. No, I know he winked. There was a glint in his eye which seemed to taunt: “Tag, you’re it”. And off we went. Bridge after bridge. Street after street. Shoelaces and photos and traffic rhythmed the flow of our play.
He was it, across the bridge. I was it, along Quai Conti. And I cannot recall who was it across a square where there were no lights, only shadows, the ground crunching with macadam. I imagined someone observing this farce from above, looking at it like on a map, watching two points as they circled back to the Île de la Cité. It was a muddle of glances and gestures, of hands and feet. It went on for hours. Night-time came.
Our steps clapped along the pavements of Paris to the beat of raindrops that came and went…three six nine the goose drank wine… the line broke, the monkey got choked… and they all went to heaven in a rowboat… clap pat, clap pat… clap slap! clap your hand, pat it on your partner’s hand. slap! … take the pats of your palms and slap your thighs and watch the fun materialize as you sing this… something… song…
Who was it? Who was shark, who was squid? What were the rest of those words? Then, he vanished. I looked around. The city and its sky brimming with stars whorled around my head. Where did he go? “He must have taken the stairs”, I mumbled. Those that lead from the street to the Seine.
The river had been swelling for days. It had made a habit of overflowing, ripping trees from the ground and sending them floating downstream, flooding promenades, bridges and parks along its banks.
I skipped down the steps. He was hurrying towards a bridge in the distance. But there was no promenade, as such, between where I stood and where he was heading. The only thing connecting the stairs and the bridge was a rampart the width of a catwalk. He balanced along it as the water rose.
“Hey!” I called. My voice shot through the air. He turned to look at me, his eyes projecting excitement, or was it fear? A fear that I had cornered him, blown his cover. By degrees, the water was submerging the rampart on which he stood. He would not be able to make it to the bridge, not a chance. A ferry carrying tourists made the river surge, pushing its waters against the walls of the banks. And with a splash, he went in.
I exhaled. The excitement cooled. And there were no sounds. This one time, I got to win. All I wanted was to go home and sleep. But as I climbed the stairs towards the Quai des Orfèvres, I heard those steps. The sound of movement clicking and echoing off the banks, bouncing off the river’s surface. I guess the water did not take him after all. There was no need to turn and look. I could feel him walking after me.
Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer based in Paris. Her work has appeared in The London Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Review 31, 3:AM, The Literary Encyclopedia and others.