The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 12. Lonely in Vientiane
We lay side by side in an upstairs opium den in Vientiane, on rush beach mats and wooden neck pillows that made you look straight up at the ceiling. A wizened coolie in a Hakka hat crouched between us in the half-darkness, replenishing our pipes or, in my case, rather irritably relighting it when it went out. If a movie script had read, INTERIOR. OPIUM DEN. LAOS. LATE SEVENTIES. NIGHT., this was the scene the set designer would have come up with, and we smokers were exactly the mix that the time and place would have required: an old French colonial planter called Monsieur Edouard, now dispossessed by the secret war that was raging away in the north, a brace of Air America pilots, a quartet of war correspondents, a Lebanese arms trader and his lady companion, and the reluctant war tourist who was myself. And Sam, my recumbent neighbour, who had kept up a soporific monologue ever since I had lain down beside him. The fumerie had a certain prickly nervousness about it because the Laotian authorities officially disapproved of opium, and we had been warned by an over-earnest correspondent that at any moment we might be required to find our way over the rooftops, down a ladder, into a side street. But Sam who lay beside me said don’t give it a second thought, it’s all bullshit. Who Sam was or is, I’ll never know. My guess would be, he was some kind of English remittance man who had come East to find his soul and, after five years of kicking around the war fronts of Cambodia and Vietnam and now Laos, was still searching for it. That at least was what his amiable stream-of-consciousness seemed to be telling me.
I hadn’t smoked opium before and haven’t afterwards, but ever since that night I have cherished the irresponsible belief that opium is one of those proscribed drugs with a dire reputation that, smoked by sensible people in sensible proportions, does you nothing but good. You stretch out on the rush mat, you feel apprehensive and a bit of a fool. It’s your first time. You take a puff under instruction, mess it up, the coolie shakes his head and you feel an even bigger fool. But once you’ve got the hang of it, which is about breathing in, long and slow, and at the right moment, your benign self takes over, you’re not drunk or silly or aggressive, and you’re not impelled by sudden sexual urges. You’re just the contented, free-associating fellow you always knew you were. And best of all, come morning, there’s no hangover, no remorse, no anguished coming-down, just a good night’s sleep behind you and welcome to the day. Or so Sam assured me when he discovered I was a novice, and so I have believed ever since.
Sam’s early life, I gathered from his meanderings, had run a pretty conventional course - nice English country house, boarding schools, Oxbridge, marriage, children: until the balloon went up. What or whose balloon, I never fathomed. Either Sam expected me to know, or he preferred I didn’t, and I wasn’t going to be so ill-mannered as to ask. It went up. And it must have been a pretty drastic balloon because Sam shook the dust of England from his feet that same day and, vowing never to return, went to ground in Paris, which he loved until he lost his heart to a French woman who refused him. So up went the balloon again.
Sam’s first thought is to join the Foreign Legion, but either they’re not recruiting that day or he sleeps late or goes to the wrong address, because by now I’m beginning to suspect that what’s easy for most of us isn’t necessarily easy for Sam. There’s a disconnect about him that makes you wary of assuming that one thing will follow naturally on another. So instead of the Foreign Legion, he signs up with a French-based South-east Asia news agency. They don’t pay your travel or expenses or anything like that, Sam explains, but if you happen to file anything faintly useful they pay you a pittance. And since Sam still has this little bit of his own, as he puts it, he reckons this is a pretty fair deal.
So for the last five years he has been trailing round the war zones, and here and there he’s got lucky and even earned himself a byline or two in the big French rags, either because he’s had a tip-off from one of the real journalists, or because he’s made the stuff up. He’s always rather fancied his chances at fiction, what with the life he’s led, and he’d like to make a thing of it: short stories, the novel, the whole bit. It’s just the loneliness that holds him back, he explains: the thought of sitting down at a desk in the jungle and bashing away for days on end, with no editor to chivvy you and no deadline.
But he’s getting there. And looking over his output recently, there’s absolutely no question in his mind that the stories he’s made up out of thin air for his French-based news agency are streets better than anything that’s strictly what you’d call fact-based. And come a day not too far off, he’s going to sit down at that desk in the jungle and, regardless of the loneliness involved and the absence of a deadline or an editor to chivvy him, he’s going to let rip, believe him. It’s just the loneliness that puts him off, he repeats, in case I haven’t got his point by now. It eats into him, especially in Vientiane where there’s nothing to do but smoke, get laid and listen to drunk Mexican Air America pilots boasting about their kills while they get a blow-job at the White Rose.
Then he tells me how he deals with this loneliness, which is no longer strictly related to his writing ambitions, he confesses, but embraces his entire lifestyle. What he misses most in the world is Paris. Ever since his great love turned him down and the balloon went up again, Paris has been a no-go area for him, and it always will be. He’ll never go back there, not after the girl, he couldn’t. Every street, every building, every bend in the river shouts of her, he explains earnestly in a rare, if somnolent, literary flourish. Or is he remembering a song by Maurice Chevalier? All the same, Paris is where his soul is. His heart too, he adds after due consideration. Hear me? I hear you, Sam.
So what he likes to do when he’s had a pipe or two, he goes on - deciding to admit me to his great secret because I’m by now his closest friend and the only person in the world who gives a fuck about him, as he adds in parenthesis - what he’s going to do just as soon as he feels the need on him, which could be any minute now that he’s got his head straight, he’s going to go down to the White Rose where they know him, and he’s going to slip Madame Lulu a twenty-dollar bill and have himself a three-minute phone call to the Café de Flore in Paris. And when the waiter at the Flore picks up the phone, he’s going to ask to speak to Mademoiselle Julie Delassus, which is a made-up name so far as he knows, not one he’s used before. Then he’s going to listen to them yelling for her all across the tables and out on to the boulevard: Mademoiselle Delassus … Mademoiselle Julie Delassus … au téléphone s’il vous plaît!
And while they call her name, over and over till it fades into the ether, or his time is up, whichever is the later, he’ll be listening to twenty dollars’ worth of Paris.