NEAR FUTURE copyrights Frankie Perussault 2016

Chapter 2   Li-tchang acts as body guard to Greg

In the little bedroom with filtered light Greg was sound asleep. He had been stuck there for the last two days with a serious flu and high temperature. In such circumstances his strategy was to let his body do the job of repairs at its own rhythm. He had turned down all offers of medication that JM had suggested in the morning before leaving to his architects office in the low-town. He looked weird.

On the third day he ventured into the kitchen as he was getting hungry. He made himself some coffee and with no real desire grabbed a bar of cereals which was lying on the table. He was in his pajamas, had thrown the duvet of his bed over his shoulders and was still shivering. His temperature had gone down. He was not worried about his health. He would be up and going within a week and then, he would leave this house at all cost. Once back in his bed he thought in more details about what he had planned with his wife and son before he left. First he would have to find the solicitor who…

Someone was ringing the front door bell, it couldn't be Tara as she never rang. He hesitated then throwing his trench coat over his pajamas went to open the door.

- Hi, am I at the right address for JM Tournon? a middle aged lady said.
- Yes Madam, Greg replied looking silly.
- Can I come in?
- Hm… you know him, do you? he muttered.
- Yes, a bit!… I am his ex-wife.

 Chocked by surprise he managed to utter a few weird sounds and then said:

- Janine?!… don't you recognize me?… I'm Greg.
- Greg! the lady said opening her arms to hug him, Greg the adventurer! But what are you doing here, I thought you were in Laos in a forlorn village on the border with Yunnan…
- You're well informed! But no, as you see, I am staying at your ex-husband's and in bed with a horse's fever and a true blue European flu.
- JM had mentioned you were to come back. Come, go back to bed, don't get a chill, you look so pale.

Back in the little bedroom with filtered light and smug in his bed Greg with Janine on a chair next to him started talking about everything and nothing as if they had never been apart.

- But you're as skinny as a nail!
- You can say that, I'm bloody hungry and I long for the yummy rice dishes of my wife back in the village.
- Wait there, I'm going to prepare something warm for you. What have you eaten, you and JM, since you arrived?
- Nothing. Cereals for breakfast. I wonder how he can survive on that.
- Because his lordship eats the 'modern' way, you know. He eventually takes a white coffee like for a usual breakfast but otherwise stuffs his face with "vital bars" for the rest of the day.
- Vital bars?
- Ah! you don't know. We're now trying to cut ourselves off traditional food, we feed on vital bars, things that contain synthetic nutrients. You need two or three per day to stay fit. Gone all the meals, gone the hamburgers of our teenage years, she added sadly. Wait there, I'm going to get you a nice rice dish.

She grabbed her handbag and went out. Greg thought he might have eaten a vital bar as he did not feel hungry at all anymore. He felt the urge to see, touch and talk to his wife. She had cried so much when he left, so certain she was not going to see him ever again. The bell at the door rang. Grabbing his trench coat again and bare foot he went to open the door again. Janine came in carrying a large bag warm with yummy smelling food.

- You were fast, he said. But why do you ring the bell? don't you have a key?
- Keys don't exist any longer, didn't JM tell you?
- No, but Tara comes in without ringing the bell…
- Ah, don't talk to me about this girl! Since he's been with her he has completely changed. O.K., here you are, sit down and eat!

Greg was sitting in front of a big amount of white rice with two standard Chinese dishes to choose from. Without further ado he dug his spoon into this nourishing manna from heaven. He felt he could just cry.

- And you look as if you were going to a carnival with this old trench coat of yours. We'll have to start a decent dressing closet for you now, adequate to your status of the famous ethnologist come home!

As he was busy chewing his food and filling his stomach Greg did not reply, burst out laughing and nearly choked. The famous ethnologist! Nice girl, Janine, really!

Suddenly she turned her back to Greg, stepped away towards the back wall and started talking aloud as if on the phone: "yes darling, I won't be long, meet you at the hotel as planned, see you later". Back at the kitchen table and sitting in front of Greg she said:

- You think I'm going crazy, don't you! It was my husband. He is at the low-town and is worrying about me.
- I was told mobile phones did not exist any more…
- Sure, but you'll find now quite another way, a lot more sophisticated, called 'direct satcom', i.e. direct personal satellite communication.
- Well?…
- No, it isn't with a mobile phone but directly on your body inside your ear. It is still pretty expensive and you have it tattooed on your skin but it is very practical!
- More details perhaps?
- You go to any old pharmacist, they identify you by making a mark in your neck, quite discreet really, and they introduce a nano chip under your skin. With that you can communicate straight with any one who has been identified the same way.
- I don't get it!
- Alright, have a look in my neck, here at the back…

Greg stood up, with his mouth full, to examine Janine's back of the neck. And of course at that very moment JM crossed the front door in a whirlwind. He flopped on the sofa without a word.

- …are you o.k., you two? he asked mocking.
- And you, how are you? Janine retorted as she came to sit in the armchair in front of the sofa. Your job? your lovers?
- Very well thank you. The town planning project for Nancy on the same model as CHX has been slowed down. I even wonder if I'll ever see the end of it. The building of their low-town is taking ages, they keep finding so-called archeological remains. We are in 2045 now, it's about time to forget about the gallic Romans or I don't know what archaic tribe of the deep past! But tell me what is bringing you here?
- My husband is negotiating a contract…
- Ah yes of course, your dear hubby business superman! Say hello to him on my behalf. Which hotel are you at?
- At the St Maur-pit hotel. I must go actually. He's expecting me. You know that Karine hasn't heard from you since her third baby was born. You are her father, I remind you, and the baby's grand-father.

Grabbing her bag and closing her coat Janine left waving goodbye to the two men she still loved dearly. Three good old friends and three destinies wide apart from one another, she thought as she was waiting for the lift on the landing.

- Have you seen Tara? JM asked straight away to Greg who was finishing his rice.
- No, he muttered shaking his head.

As he really did not wish to talk about her he went on:

- So if I get it right you're still working full time. Aren't you retired?
- Retirement does not exist any more, well, at least not the way you knew it, when you had to work so many years and suddenly stop everything at a given age. It's all different and much better. Besides, the word "retirement" never meant that you had to stop work at a venerable age. You remember when we used to talk about the retired people as a bunch of old leeches!
- Yes indeed, without paying too much attention to it in fact. When we were young we couldn't care less about getting old. That was for others, not for us, we would never get old! Today my friend, we're old! So if I understand, you're a grandfather now?
- The idea of retirement changed completely when they started the system of 'going on retreat'. It is up to you, your decision at any time in your life, to get out of the circle of active people. You don't go to work for a salary anymore. You make up your mind to do something else with your life, such as build a house, work in your garden full time, study Chinese at university, or mind your kids. Up to you now.
- And how do you live? with what?
- This is the great leap. The minute you decide to 'go on retreat', you get from the nation a minimum monthly pay to survive which is of 750 euros at the moment.
- And you can survive with that?
- Yes, because it is your choice. You have decided to do something else in full knowledge and you have organized your life differently. Like me, for instance, I chose to 'go on retreat' after my divorce. I wanted to see where I was in my life. My architect's office was boring me, I was depressed.

And  then, at that precise moment of JM's speech, without ringing entered Tara. She was beaming, wore utterly extravagant clothes and carried a wicker basket filled with provisions of all sorts. JM remained petrified on the sofa. Greg did not moved an eye lid still sitting at the kitchen table in front of his empty bowl.

- Were you talking about me?
- Oh no, Greg answered unfazed. No, your darling here was giving me a conference on the various ways of 'going on retreat', like some go making love…

Tara turned to him abruptly and went to place her basket on the kitchen table. JM having recovered pretended to be unfazed too.

- How did you get back?
- With my bike.
- Try another story… your bike is padlocked to a tree somewhere in the area of Poinçonnet.
- Was… was padlocked. I saw it and I came with it.

Greg whose nose was running started coughing badly. Without any apologies he ran to his bedroom and went to bed. He will have to leave this house as soon as possible. He will have to find this solicitor. A few more days in bed and I'll go, he thought to himself as he was hearing the other two quarreling loudly. He dropped into a deep sleep but not for long. When he opened his eyes again, he could hear laughter and copulating noises in the next room. This Tara did not induce a sense of confidence in him. He was going to watch not to leave his hands close to her reach. He would leave them deep in his pockets or cross his arms over his chest when she was near. And he swore he will make sure she did not come too near. Then he fell asleep.

When he woke up late the next morning there was no one in the apartment. He took a long shower, got dressed and made himself some breakfast. He would find that solicitor at all cost today. The small light above the provision elevator was blinking. He went and opened the cupboard door for it and dragged a cardboard box out with his name on it. He opened it with distrust:a red woolen pullover, a fine comfortable looking jacket with instructions. No message, but he guessed it came from Janine. Thus dressed in the fashion of 2045 he went out and started walking towards the railway station.

- Have you got an appointment, sir?
- No, but I must see Mr Leblanc, I've arrived from Asia and I…
- Ah but, sir, if you haven't got an appointment, it is impossible. I can give you one for about in ten days time, let's say, on a Friday afternoon.
- No, don't worry, I'm just going to sit in the waiting room…

The solicitor's secretary was applying the rules blindly, he thought, nothing has changed. He, the famous ethnologist according to Janine, was too anti conformist. He would never come round to it. His urge to run and take the next boomerang to Asia nagged him again. The other solicitor's clients who did have an appointment, stared at him surreptitiously and looked away as soon as he tried to make eye contact with them. In the end he decided to take the appointment suggested by the secretary, for about in ten days time.

He was about to go home to JM's apartment when he realized that, despite Janine's remark, he could not enter without a key. And moreover as he did not wish to find himself alone with Tara, he walked in the direction of the café on the main square. Then remembering he did not have a cent in his pocket, he branched off towards Lafayette square and walked down the Americans avenue. He remembered that at the end of that avenue near Deols there used to be a friendly Chinese restaurant. When he came to it, he saw that not only the restaurant was still there thirty years later, but that a complete China town was spreading on half of Deols. What a godsend! He might just be able to meet people to chat with.

With his red pullover and his green comfortable jacket he thought he was going to pass as a local. He was downright astonished when an Asian man came up to him and talked to him in a Yunnan dialect.

- Is that you Greg?
- Yes, he replied in that same dialect without showing his astonishment.
- Twahnou, your son, asked me to protect you.
- What? Greg said, not too sure he had understood.
- I am Li-tchang, I worked with Twahnou in the mine not far from your place.
- Ah! pleased to meet you, her replied in French, but how come you're here in CHX?
- The son of yours told me a lot about this city in France and when he said you were going to do some business, I come too to protect you.
- But protect me from what?
- Twahnou said to me that funny things are going on here and you are getting old.
- Oh great! thank you so much!

They entered a restaurant and went right to the back to the bar counter. Everyone spoke the language of south Yunnan too fast for Greg to catch the conversation. He asked if there were Laotians of his region around. Someone at the other end of the bar waved to him discretely. Well, well, he thought, you do learn something everyday.
Greg stayed there chatting casually all day. He learned that his wife had gone back to the village and was staying with their eldest daughter and her in-laws. She had cried a lot after he'd left, they said, without wanting to show it, but everyone in the village knew that she had very much wanted to travel with him. When he was ready to leave, Li-tchang followed him.

- You're wearing a red pullover and a green jacket.
- Yes! and brown trekking shoes! he said cheerfully.
- Very dangerous. Why did you choose these clothes?
- It's a present from… he replied realizing at once that the cardboard box to his name he found in the provision lift was not from Janine but from Tara.
- Very very dangerous, Li-tchang insisted. Come, you have to change.

Dragging him into an Asian fabric shop, Li-tchang chose European clothes looking Laotian. They were discreet enough not to raise suspicion, he hammered, but could still be easily identified by the little gang of the bar that had now adopted him.

- Where do you live? Li-tchang asked.
- Care of an old childhood buddy downtown.
- I'm going with you.

No contesting possible. They took a bubble-bus and Li-tchang walked with Greg right up to the front door of the apartment. When the door opened and JM said "here you are!", he disappeared like a ghost.

JM did not notice the new costume, reckoning Greg had probably brought all this stuff in his backpack. He then directly started talking about his work at his town planning office. Greg cut him off and said:

- I have an appointment at the solicitor's in ten days time. Meanwhile can I squat here at your place?
- At the solicitor's? what for?
- My mother died. She committed suicide. She was over eighty. And my brother who was living with her, committed suicide a few days later. I have come to sort out her inheritance. That's why I am here, JM.

After a noticeable minute of silence JM said:

- My sympathy to you, mate. I apologize, I am too egoistic. I didn't know… 
- The solicitor in CHX had a hard time finding me to let me know I had to come back to sort out her inheritance.
- How long since you hadn't seen her, your mother?
- As you know I have always been the black sheep of the family, the son who did not fit. Yes, I hadn't seen her for a long time. Even before I left for Asia, we didn't see each other anymore.
- I remember.
- The only place where I was happy was at my grandmother's, my father's mother, in the family house…
- You often took me there when we were kids. I've kept good memories of it too.

They kept quiet for a while. Greg was feeling very tired. His flu was starting to grow into bronchitis and he coughed a lot. He went for the bedrooms. JM stopped him.

- Tara will not be here for a few days. She told me she had to visit some friends of her own group. She said the knife that glowed was definitely a means of communicating with her.

Greg who had his back to JM gestured vaguely, did not reply and crossed the door of the bedrooms area. He closed it firmly as if to say 'amen' to his old friend. He slept heavily until the middle of the following day.

Days were following days. Greg had made the decision to stay in bed until his flu was completely gone. He was fully recovered on the day of his appointment. He got dressed with the clothes Li-tchang had made him to wear. When he came out of the solicitor's office, Li-tchang approached him in Victor Hugo street.

- So?
- So… what? Greg replied.
- What did he say?

As Greg was not answering, Li-tchang went on:

- Your son calls me every day. He wants to know.

His son called Li-tchang every day. And not him. He thought Antwahn might be more Asian than European after all, he felt more comfortable with his Chinese pal from the mine than with his own father, this 'farang', this foreigner with a long nose. He nearly sat down on the ground, here, there and then, to cry all the tears of his body, but he walked on with long strides without answering Li-tchang. As they came near JM's block of flats, he had an idea:

- You know what? Come up with me and I'll introduce you to my old childhood buddy. You know, we went to school together and I'd like you to meet him.
- Why not, Li-tchang replied without enthusiasm.

When he rang the bell no one replied. JM had shown him the way for the hermetic closure and had uploaded his finger prints. He pressed one of his fingers on a plaque next to the bell and the front door opened. He invited Li-tchang to sit down on the sofa and looked for two beers in the fridge.

- So, you met my boy at the mine, is that it? But you never came round to our house though. In any case I don't remember ever meeting you before.
- No, I was married then and I didn't hang around after work. A hard job at the mine. Your son was very kind to me. He learned to speak the south Yunnan language from me.
- Yes, Twahnou has always been gifted for languages. He can speak four of them now! Let's call him right now.

Grabbing the phone handset that was lying on the coffee table he pressed the number that Antwahn had called from when he first arrived, without paying attention to the time lag. He left a message to call him back urgently. JM and Tara turned up a few minutes later laughing out loud.

- Meet Li-tchang, a friend of my son's…
- Pleased to meet you!
- Pleased to meet you! Tara said stretching her arm for a welcoming handshake.

Li-tchang kept his arms along his body and bowed a couple of times not showing any kind of feeling. Ah ha! Greg thought, he knows. Bringing two more beers and one chair, JM and Tara joined the conversation of small talk about the weather this current month of March finishing off. The phone rang. As JM was about to take it, Greg was faster and was heard talking rapidly in the Lao tongue. He then handed the phone to Li-tchang.

Greg could not quite understand what they were saying but he had to admit that they were indeed good friends. When Li-tchang hung up, he stood up, bowed once, apologized for the disturbance and said he was leaving. Greg escorted him all the way down saying they would meet again the next day at China town in Deols.

- How about going to the food trucks for dinner! Tara said when he came back up. I have an idea you are not so keen on vital bars, she added to Greg.
- No, not really. I wonder how you can live without eating proper food. Your stomach and your guts must be shrinking full blast!
- Quite right, my dear friend, quite right! That way we save on toilet paper, JM said in a laugh.
- There are food trucks in CHX really? where?
- At the food halls. You know how it works, do you?
- I am well travelled, Greg replied mocking.
- Alright let's go, Tara concluded. I'll have a Lao dish. What will you have?
- You mean there's a food truck with Lao cuisine?
- Well yes, what do you think, we are not in a forlorn village of Asia here.

The mood had developed into a cold war apparently. Once in the street and in the spring sundown atmosphere, under the glow worms of the bubbles lights above, the mood turned to a bedlam. Greg remained vigilant. The Laotian food truck was kept by the same guy who had greeted him back at the Chinese bar. He pretended not to know him and the other one did the same. They ate on a small table in front of the food truck, with their fingers, with sticks or with a spoon, in the style of the fast-food of old, in the midst of families and couples who were queuing up for their favorite dish.

A couple of days later as he found himself alone with JM, Greg said:

- Can you promise that, whatever happens, you will not repeat what I'm going to tell you?
- I swear! JM declared standing up with ceremony and putting his right hand flat across his chest at shoulder level.
- Come on, it's serious, tell me you won't ever mention it to Tara.
- But what have you got against Tara?
- I'll explain another time. Meanwhile swear that you will not pass onto her what I'm going to say, Greg insisted.
- Righto, tell me now.
- I have to go to Bordeaux. My mother had properties in the area and I have to sell them to share with my nephews. I have an appointment for next week. I'm taking Li-tchang with me.
- Is that your secret? But listen, is your wife so very jealous for you to hang around with a body guard all the time?

The perfect alibi, thought Greg straight away. His wife was jealous, therefore he had to have Li-tchang with him all the time.

- How are you traveling to Bordeaux? JM went on.
- Good question… that's where I need your help.
- First of all you report yourself officially as residing in France now and you ask to 'go on retreat' in order to sort out your mother's inheritance. Then you rent a bubble or else you take the train.   
- For a reason I'll explain another time I don't want anyone to know I'm going to Bordeaux. So I have an idea. Tell me what you think of it. As Janine said your daughter has had no news from you since she had her baby, how about going to see her first and I'll leave to Bordeaux from there. Where does Karine live?
- Mmm… rather twisted for a plan! But yes, let's do that, JM replied. Karine… it's her first childbirth, not her last, and she lives in Strasbourg.
- Janine was saying her third one, I thought.
- Sure, it's their third child, her and her husband, but now women don't have to carry and deliver their babies themselves. The first two were made in an incubator. She only wanted to experience being pregnant for real and have a childbirth the old ways…
- Surrogate mothers already existed before I left, Greg added.
- Yes but here it's an incubator, a thing that replaces a woman's womb. You have an ovule meet a spermatozoid in a tube and the formed embryo is placed in an incubator to develop. At the end of nine months you collect your baby all clear and clean!
- Ah ok! admitted Greg who had heard of it but had not quite believed it.

They agreed to leave on the following Saturday before Tara's return. Meanwhile Greg dropped in Chinatown to announce this to Li-tchang who gave him an engaging smile.

- By the way what did you do with the red and green clothes I had the other day? Greg asked him.
- All burnt.
- But why?
- These clothes are made of fibers that emit alpha rays.
- wait there, we're in a sci-fi story?! Greg laughter.
- We the Chinese as you know, we love to copy everything we find. We tried to copy these clothes because they really are great. The jacket can be used as a parachute in a bubble accident. But we found they emit alpha rays. So we burn them.
- Alpha rays come out of our brain normally, don't they?
- Correct. These clothes have a brain. They send all sorts of information on whoever wears them, Li-tchang explained.
- …send info to whom? where?
- We didn't find that. That's where it becomes dangerous. Your son is working at it.
- Antwahn?
- Yes, that's why he told me to protect you. You must avoid anything red and green.

Greg did not reply but remembered that the wrapping paper of Tara's present was indeed red and green. He left Chinatown in a hurry asking Li-tchang to be in front of his building around 9 o'clock this coming Saturday. He had to talk to JM.

When he entered the flat, Tara was there sitting on the sofa next to JM in an amorous posture. She reads my thoughts, no joke, he thought. He hid his feelings with difficulty and took a detour.

- I'm hungry! he said joyfully. In Asia we eat a lot of vegetables. I miss them. By the way, that garden upstairs under the greenhouses, who looks after it?
- You do! JM retorted.
- Come on, I mean it.
- No one looks after it really. Tara tried it but didn't really manage, didn't you Tara?
- I haven't got a clue about gardening, it's not my thing, she replied.
- What's your thing then? Greg retorted with sourness.

He regretted his question as she sat up, turned towards him and smiled with that ugly rictus she had sometimes when laughing. Greg took another detour.

- Incidentally you have brought your bike back but JM's bike might still be padlocked at a tree in the area of Poinçonnet. What about fetching it?
- Good idea, Tara started, pulled JM's hand. Let's go!

The three of them went out, took a bubble bus to Poinçonnet and walked until they found the tree where JM's bike was padlocked. For the trip back if JM used his bike, Tara was left with Greg going on foot taking a bubble bus back.

- No, just a sec Greg, you take the bike and I walk back with Tara, JM said.
- It's OK darling, Tara replied, you know your bike, you'll get there before we do. See you later!

Greg put his hands deep into his pockets and walked with long strides towards the bubble bus stop followed by Tara. Once in the round and transparent bus he changed place not to be next to her. Then he had an idea and came back near her.

- Did you enjoy the Lao rice dish you had the other day at the food truck?
- Oh yes I loved it.
- I know someone in Chinatown who could prepare some for you anytime, are you interested?
- Of course yes, Tara replied putting her arm into Greg's who still had his hands deep in his pockets.
- Let go, please Tara, my wife is terribly jealous, she sent a body-guard to check on me, I don't fancy having troubles… If you're really interested I'll ask someone to deliver Lao dishes to you whenever you like.
- Alright, she said pulling her arm out.

When they came up to the block of flats JM was already waiting. Greg said he was sorry not to go up with them, he had an important errand to do. At Chinatown he went straight to the end of the bar where he knew he could find Samlan who thanked him for this order of a Lao dish to be delivered to JM's apartment daily. He then looked for Li-tchang, found him at home in a typically Chinese lane in Deols.

- Tara must absolutely NOT be at JM's on Saturday morning. The best would be if she was not there on Friday night.
- Have you got a plan? Li-tchang asked.
- Vaguely. I asked Samlan to deliver a Lao dish to her every day. She would have to come and get it here on Friday and…
- No worries, we'll take care of her, don't worry! Li-tchang replied with a smile.

They drank tea and alcohol, ate and laughed for a long while. Then Greg left throwing "see you on Saturday 9am" to his body-guard.

Early on Saturday morning Greg had put everything he owned back in his backpack. JM lent him €750 that he would get back when he'd receive his allowance to 'make retreat'. The bubble was waiting in front of the building. JM double checked that he had the tickets for the bubble to travel on the flux to Strasbourg. He ate a vital bar and offered one to Greg who took it reluctantly. They were about to get out.

- Aren't you leaving a message on the wall for Tara?
- Yes, sure, wait, answered JM who had been surprised and cross that Tara had not spent the night with him.

It was 9am. Sitting in the bubble downstairs with the sliding door open they were waiting for Li-tchang.

- Your Chinaman is not on time, JM said with irony. Let's go without him.
- No, no, he's coming, I know.
- Wouldn't you rather travel alone? without anyone checking on you?

Luckily Greg didn't have to reply as Li-tchang was coming round the building, running. The traffic for bubble buses was very slow this morning. He bowed a few times apologizing and came to sit next to Greg. The bubble flew off to place itself on the city flux until they came to the intercity junction. Once on the right track it started speeding and the three men relaxed.

- From CHX to Strasbourg we'll come through Chaumont. It was a small provincial town with no scope when you left in 2013. Now since they built their low-town it has become an attractive place and many people come to settle there. People don't feel secure in very large cities anymore and they leave, JM explained.

As the other two did not reply, he went on.

- And in any case, even without a low-town, Chaumont is the main hub for bubble traffic for all the north-east part of France and to Germany. Here, have a look!

As he was showing a map on the bubble screen JM pointed to the line of the flux from CHX with its intercontinental airport, to Strasbourg, the federal capital, as well as towards Luxembourg and Cologne, or even Maastricht and Amsterdam.

- The other States of the federation have low-towns too, do they? asked absently Greg who was thinking of something else.
- Yes, that's right, but France started it all. I am one of the town planners who actively worked on it. We are at the moment working on a low-town for Hungary.

Li-tchang was dozing. Greg pretended to take an interest in the landscape. JM remained quiet until their arrived.


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