Fifty-One


1. CLICK

Ksar Massa on the south coast of Morocco, 4:48 am – June 2007

Click. The shutter snaps the picture.

Hasni the photographer gestures at the fifty-or-so people gathered before him: they are free to go. Most are dressed in white djellabas bought for the occasion in a souk for tourists.

They did a lot of talking, drinking, laughing, and dancing.

They are tired but happy with the change of scenery. The sun has finally risen from beyond the desert mountains encircling their hotel. They have gotten into the habit of ending their yearly seminars with an all-nighter before flying back to Paris, and this one is no exception.

The return flight to CDG airport is bound to pass in a flash as fatigue washes over the wearied revelers. Soon, too soon, they will land, and resume work the next day, fulfilling their assignment as best they can.

In consultant-speak, one doesn’t work, one is on assignment. Consultants don’t have managers, they have collaborators. They set up office at the client’s and don’t see much of each other during the year.

Hence, this late June convention is a great opportunity for them to get together or meet for the first time. It’s a recipe for success: magnificent vistas of the Counter-Atlas and the Atlantic, fishermen’s villages, endless sandy beaches, fun and games, swimming, all in a lively atmosphere with actual work reduced to a minimum.

A man with white-blond hair stands out in the group photo. He is also wearing a djellaba, only his is black. The satisfaction that show through his reserved smile signals he is enjoying the moment.

He and his business partners have recruited over a hundred consultants since founding the firm less than five years ago. They work with major banks and have built a solid reputation as Banking process transformation experts  – a profession that sounds foreign to most people.

Soon after he had created it, he sold his first firm for a substantial sum thanks to the Internet bubble – enough to keep him free from want for a few years. As it turns out, he has never lacked for life’s necessities.

He sails back to his room for a short night. There – he empties his pockets, pulls out a key, a card holder, and a small piece of rolled-up paper. He smiles: the group leaders had written something akin to a prophecy on each paper roll, the kind one finds in fortune cookies. The one he picked at dinner earlier reads: “Get ready for a life-changing encounter”. The game concocted by the group leaders entails stating your “future” out loud; when a young trainee drew the same prophecy and read it aloud to the other dinner guests, the banter flew thick and fast.

He will be home soon, back in the beautiful apartment he recently moved into with his wife and four children. He can’t wait to be reunited with them again.

For the past few years, reality kept pace with his dreams– and more. He sees it as a just reward for all his hard work, with just a bit of luck thrown in for good measure.

He is friendly and warm, compassionate even. People like him. Aware of his success, he doesn’t brag about it. Still, he can’t help feeling somewhat invincible now, after years of low self-esteem.

To be totally honest, there is a hint of false modesty in his attitude that can be a bit grating at times, especially since he seems to have trouble understanding other people’s problems.

He knows he is privileged, and he would simply like to keep it that way.

***

She wasn’t in the picture. She has been waiting for him; there he is, at last. He looks tired. His lightly tanned skin contrasts with his fair hair. He tells her about his seminar, especially the best parts. She goes over what she did while he was away, throwing in a few anecdotes. She had helped him choose an outfit for the offbeat skit session before he left. As it turns out, the Alsatian headdress he borrowed from his mother was a big hit. She is happy for him. It is a shame she couldn’t be there to see it – it must have been great fun.

She can’t help brooding over the fact that she stayed in Paris while he was abroad enjoying himself. Okay, it’s not that bad, but she could have done with a change of scene. She loves him, they live a comfortable life. In fact, they have more than they need. More than she has ever asked for. She even feels guilty about it sometimes– she wasn’t raised in such abundance. It’s as if she were living his life rather than her own. She longs for them to share a closer bond.

He thinks she is fulfilled. After all, don’t they have four beautiful children, whom she raises with infinite love and care? She takes great pleasure in dressing them as she dreams for them. She likes fabrics, cuts, colors, patterns. A few years back, she would spend hours designing clothes. She was talented– but it’s a thing of the past now. She misses it.

And yet she gets to travel a lot, she goes on holidays, she throws parties, she buys things… what is there for her to complain about? He, for one, can’t see why she would. He knows her life hasn’t always been easy. She suffered a loss in her youth that left her with a gaping void. He thinks their marriage and children have helped her move on, but he is mistaken. She can’t move on.

She senses his annoyance at her sudden bouts of melancholy, her long phone conversations with her friends Lorelei and Joy, or her afternoons with Smith’s mother Kate. Smith and their second son Antonin are friends. He would probably like to see her take control of her life and be more active, but her unease runs deeper than that. She expects more from him, she needs him to encourage her, boost her, and above all help her feel more confident about herself. But, instead of “pushing her out there”, he insists on protecting her.

While they seem so happy on the outside, she sometimes wonders how much he really loves her. Whenever she says, “I love you”, he tells her he loves her too. But he is never the one to say it first.

***

He asks her about her weekend, about her job, about the kids, about her mother. He is happy to take her in his arms. Last night is receding into a distant memory. Locked eyes. Intertwined laughter. Inhibitions loosened by alcohol.

He looks at her. He loves her. He would like her to be happier. He makes a joke or two. She smiles. He can’t see that he might just be hindering her, unwittingly, simply by being who he is. He never really thought about it. As far as he is concerned, he is making the effort of “putting himself in her shoes”.

A phrase that sounds like a promise, albeit one that’s hard to keep.

***

A few hours earlier, in Agadir. The seminar host is at his wits’ end. His team failed to check that all the consultants had actually boarded the departure bus, and now one of the most brilliant consultants, Clara, is nowhere to be found. He calls the photographer, who is still at the hotel packing his gear, and asks him to have a look around and make sure everyone is gone. Where is she? he wonders with mounting anxiety.

The photographer hangs up. As he raises his phone to take a selfie, a young woman’s face appears onscreen. She nestles against his shoulder and draws her lips close to his. She was about to be promoted from senior to manager, but she doesn’t care anymore. While he captured her beaming face earlier, in the darkroom, she unrolled her fortune-telling paper. It read: “Lightning never strikes twice”. They saw it as a sign.

Whereas the seminar was nothing more than a break to most of their colleagues, it upended their lives. Click. That’s it. The lens has laid them on reel for good.


2. DOUBLE-CLICK

Paris, 4:48 am, a morning like any other – September 2017

It’s early. Way too early.

Awakened against his will by the incongruous and untimely contraction of the muscles in his back immediately followed by an even more crippling cramp in his third toe, he has no choice but to get upGroggy and barely awake, he slips out of bed as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Aure, lying in blissful slumber next to him.

In the long corridor that leads to the kitchen, he drags his sleepy feet along the bow window overlooking the galvanized roofs of the ‘Musée d’Orsay’. He walks to the sink, opens a drawer, rummages for a foilstrip. The Sinemet[1] tablet wrapped inside has the same effect on him as Inca gold on Spanish conquistadors. Catching his unkempt reflection in the anodized aluminum, he pops out a blue tablet and swallows it at once.

He knows it will be at least an hour before the drug takes effect. With feet like lead, he shuffles to the living room and falls into the chair in front of his computer. Keen to resume typing his text, he enters his password. Next comes the double-click, a simple gesture that has become an automatic reflex for billionsof his fellow earthlings – but not for him. Having to press and release the mouse button twice in rapid succession brings him back to his new condition: no matter how hard he tries to control his index finger, it seems to live a life of its own. After many failed attempts, he somehow manages to tap an acceptable “double-click” that is immediately rewarded with a window opening onto the vast world.

***

Maousse’s wake-up call is harsh too. As with every morning, the desk light came on without warning. Yesterday it woke him at 6:10, today at 4:53, and tomorrow… who knows?

He should have slept longer; his eyes are bloodshot, and his face is drawn from lack of sleep. The part of his brain governing his writing skills seems to be the only one in working order, as it guides his numb fingers over the keyboard.

“He should really go back to bed, he’s in no condition to write.”

The letters change into words as they progress along the page. Tentative at first, they gain confidence, gradually steadying their sporadic pace, and soon get so bold that they start anticipating Double-Click’s imagination.

The way Double-Click’s hand goes from being stiff to agile in the few minutes after waking never fails to startle Maousse. How is that possible?

***

Double-Click has done enough work on his blog for the morning. As he ends his session, a stream of photos fills the lock screen. He smiles when the group photo taken in Ksar Massa pops up. He looked good with his blond hair and black djellaba.

His name was Ludwig back then.

An encounter changed his life


3. FALSE LEADS

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Double-Click dropped his racket on his last serve– but his gesture did not precede an ecstatic bow before an enthralled French Open audience wildly applauding a hard-won five-set victory over Rafael Nadal. No. He dropped his racket because a sharp bolt of pain shot through his right shoulder.

He had to do something about it this time.

Until then, Double-Click had simply waited for the pain to “go away.” But he knew the time had come for him to see a doctor.

He couldn’t figure out why the lengthy physiotherapy sessions he had somehow managed to fit into his busy schedule did not alleviate the pain and stiffness in his shoulder.

So, Double-Click went to see all sorts of “specialists.” He first consulted Dr. Wang, a Burmese acupuncturist whose office was in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, far from his homeland’s dictatorships. The man’s needles proved to be as painful as they were ineffective.

After that, Double-Click made an appointment with a fluid specialist (cold as ice, but very pretty) who manipulated him to not much avail. He was even introduced to Didi Jen Ghié from The Adventures of Tintin: the Blue Lotus: “It’s very simple: I’ll cut off your head! Then you will know the truth!” A radical offer which he chose to turn down.

Finally, Double-Click’s general practitionersent him to a neurologist at Saint-Louis Hospital, who failed to detect anything suspicious on the scan. An overjoyed Double-Click was given the all-clear.

But his euphoria was short-lived, as the accumulation of medical clues soon revealed his pathology.

A revelation that came as a shock.

4.  THE REVELATION

Double-Click tried posting an ad in the Classifieds: Looking for a charitable soul willing to deliver bad news to a happy man from a happy family. A month passed. No calls, no e-mails, no text messages. Nothing. Not even a request for information. Who is the usual bearer of bad news? Most of the time, some sympathetic stranger (doctor, nurse, police officer) is commissioned to inform the still-blissfully unaware recipient that the party’s over.

But in Double-Click’s case, both diagnosis and announcement remained almost exclusively within the family circle. In her capacity as an experienced practitioner, Double-Click’s cardiologist sister Irina spotted the early signs of a veiled pathology that every other specialist had failed to see; but she did not feel emotionally strong enough to share her hypothetical conclusions with Double-Click himself. In a reassuring tone, she suggested that he consult her husband Pat, also a cardiologist at Bichat Hospital. After a few specific questions and a spot of writing, the latter soon aligned his diagnosis with that of his sister.

But, like her, he was in no hurry to hit Double-Click with the bad news without being a hundred percent sure of his appraisal. He recommended his brother-in-law to an eminent neurologist at the Salpêtrière Hospital, who came to the same conclusion as his fellow practitioners and who kept equally quiet about it, preferring to refer Double-Click to yet another confirmatory examination.

Instinct or mere deduction led Double-Click to realize that things were not turning out quite as he had expected. Indeed, if his ailment had been benign, Irina would have reassured him long ago. Still, he was far from imagining that his was the same disease that had made his maternal grandfather’s old days a misery, for he thought this condition only affected the elderly.

When the consultation was over, the eminent Salpêtrière neurologist laid a hand on Double-Click’s shoulder for what seemed to be a very long time before seeing him out. This friendly and unusual gesture – especially from a stranger – was like a foreboding of things to come.

When Irina called her brother to wish him a happy birthday in the days that preceded a dreaded appointment with yet another specialist, his nerves were frayed from waiting. He told her that all he wanted for his birthday was “to know the truth.” 

Well, she couldn’t just spill the beans on the phone like that (and she didn’t feel she should anyway, as his sister), but she asked Pat to call him back the very next day. Which he did.

After hastily and rather sheepishly wishing him a happy birthday, Pat took a deep breath… and told Double-Click that he was suffering from “Parkinson’s syndrome. 

The news surprised Double-Click more than it worried him, since he didn’t really know what Parkinson’s entailed. Still, something in Pat’s voice didn’t augur well. His emotions stifled by his manners and innate modesty, Double-Click simply thanked Pat for letting him know and put the phone down.

A surge of dizzying anxiety that seemed to stem from a bad dream seized him to the point that he had to make sure he, Double-Click, really was that guy who had just hung the phone up. Yes, there was no doubt about it, he had indeed been the recipient of the call.

He suddenly felt as lonely as an astronaut on a space mission would upon seeing his capsule take off again without him, leaving him stranded in a celestial setting. He hurried back to his study and googled the word “Parkinson’s” for the very first time in his life.

As it turns out, the Internet is quite an unsparingly precise source of information on every major disease affecting the human race.

A mere fifteen minutes after entering the word in the world-famous search bar, he had already skimmed through the many blunt descriptions of the disease’s symptoms and general evolution. And now, in the silence of his study, Double-Click hears a noise. The familiar sound rises unannounced from the nearby church and fills the country air, echoing around the elegant country house. The bell that rings low and at regular intervals was traditionally known to cast a meditative spell on all living souls. It called for silence as it tolled the death knell.

“They say Parkinson’s takes its toll…” he breathes in a desperate attempt to make light of the situation.

But a chill runs down his spine – as if the death bell tolled just for him.

His hopes – a tad ambitious – of everlasting life on earth vanish at that very moment.

He immediately seeks shelter in the nearby Saint-Augustin church. The vast and silent nave seems the best place to put things into perspective and ask the Creator a few questions.

There, he enters into negotiations about his life expectancy on Earth, making sure to add to his prayer that he knows how insignificant his request may sound compared to the promise of eternal life.



[1]Medicine developed by MSDFrance