the man with the funny hat : a poem


he was called Fernando. my grieving buddy extraordinaire.
we met down the road from where my flat used to be, on a tiny cobbled street squeezed between a tiny park, a big new church and a ring-road, on the northern edge of Paris.
i was sitting at the local cyber-cafe which looked more like India than Paris and felt so familiar after 18 months of living in Goa.
i noticed his violin first.
‘do you play?’
‘yes, i’m a musician. from Argentina’
‘what do you play?’
‘i love Piazzola’
we spent the next 30 days together, day and night.
Fernando’s mother had died some months back. cancer.
my mother had been gone for 30 days. cancer.
we were both 32 years old. we both had birthdays in the early days of September: this one would be the first without our mothers.
so we left the cybercafe, and went for a long winding walk through Paris, up leafy streets towards the crest of Montmartre and down elegant steps that smelled of urine towards the pigeon-grey pulsating centre.
here and there we stopped, and Fernando played a tango on his violin.
sometimes people stopped and smiled, and kissed. Or waited.
once or twice people said ‘non, non monsieur, vous ne pouvez pas jouer ici’. you cannot play here, sir. move along.
the day became dusk and then a deep late summer night.
outside St Lazare station i stopped.
‘Fernando, come. i want to play.’

the city had recently installed pianos in all the major train stations, and anyone could play. during the day, it was a busy place. flamboyant performers gave way to nondescript men who played Chopin like angels and suburban blondes who sang like Aretha Franklin; some of the station’s drunk and homeless hovered around the piano all day long, singing or shouting when the fancy took them; police officers on their rounds unconsciously shed the stiffness around their shoulders and slowed down ; people gathered, filmed, texted, flirted, smiled, shed tears.

the station was empty now.
i sat on the stool, and began to play a melody i had composed on the piano in the Goa house where my mother and i had just spent the past 18 months together.
Fernando listened.
‘it’s beautiful. but so sad. i need a drink.’
we were alone with the summer night and the sleeping trains, so delicate in their unfurled stillness, and the grief that wanted to wash us away second by second.
when we left the station Fernando’s arm was around my back.
his 33rd birthday came a couple of weeks later, and the voice of his mother was bone-numbing silent. then it was my turn.

in the noisy white light of Roissy airport on a grey September far-too-early morning, Fernando and i embraced and said goodbye.

i dedicate this poem to you, Fernando, and our mad nighttime rambles through Paris, the tangos you played for the moon and the streets and the dead, by the glow of a streetlamp.


(thank you, Allef Vinicius & Xander Ashwell for the photographs)


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