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"Aubervilliers - 44 boulevard Anatole France - 01-12-2006 - 6h28" by Panoramas is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

A Weekend in Aubervilliers

A Short Memoir of a Bad Weekend

4700 words

I’d seen the guy in the leather jacket out the corner of my eye. When he caught me up at the entrance to the Metro I absently moved out of his way as I felt for my ticket. I looked at my watch; in Paris, you can use a public transport ticket several times as long as it’s within an hour from your buying it. You flouted this law at your peril.

My business in a sidestreet bar near Barbès-Rochechouart Metro hadn’t taken very long. Nor had it been quite so law-abiding. I called in there, ordered an espresso at the counter and signalled to the barman that I was there on a different mission. He gave me an I-thought-so look and either got on the phone or signalled to somebody to fetch a guy called Beck. To this day I can barely remember what that bar looked like. Because of my lack of curiosity, I never knew what its connection was to Beck and his friends. Maybe the people who ran it were relatives or maybe they owed Beck, somehow – maybe Beck did them favours of some kind. I didn’t know, and I never would.

A friend had put me onto Beck as a source of weed, speed, coke and smack. I never used coke, unless it was given as a freebie. I didn’t really like it. I hated weed though, to the point of briefly turning into my parents whenever anybody else I knew used it: that stuff will fry what’s left of your brain. I preferred the everyday buzz of speed, and for special occasions the magic rush of heroin. I saw myself as a recreational user and not a junky. Lots of junkies see themselves like that for a while, and can feel superior to their junky friends – only for a while, though. The speed Beck got was outstanding – amphetamine sulphate, and the best I’d ever had that was not in old-school pill form. The quality of the smack I couldn’t claim to know well as I was at the early stages of it. I’d stopped feeling sick when I used it, and had begun to get taken along on its alarming, indescribable ride. Worryingly, I’d had my first mid-week taste of it, down to happenstance and some girl I barely knew but ran into with some to share and spare. I forget her name, just remember her skew-whiff disco-punk hair, wide eyes, a nostril gone scabby from a bad piercing, her hairy armpits, a never-quite-finished conversation about family and friendship and loyalty and politics and the amazing generosity of an act rooted in loneliness, I suppose. I began to think I could do it perhaps twice a week, if I was in funds.

Beck was in his late thirties and compact and muscular without quite sporting the look of an athlete. He had short hair and wore suit trousers and formal shirts and shiny shoes. He gave off the scent of some kind of cologne, some kind of spice, maybe. He smelt of grass once but other than that there was no hint that he used drugs. He was from Algeria, I gathered. He was formal, all handshakes and vous. He made it clear he wasn’t generally in the business of such low-volume work, but that he liked me. I wasn’t flattered by that for a second… or possibly I was. I got the impression he liked studying me. He asked me occasional questions about London, and about what I was doing in Paris and whether I liked it or not. An easy question but, in truth, I usually had no idea. Our conversation, such as it was, remained bland, neither of us ever learning much about the other. It often ended abruptly, one of us stating baldly that he had to go; a handshake, and that was that. 

There was music playing either in the bar or nearby, not loudly, and it was the melancholy instrumental Sylvia, by Dutch group Focus – ten years old by then at least, and not my kind of thing. It has never quite left my mind, and always reminds me of that evening.

Beck and I had hardly exchanged a word. He smiled when I said I’d been working all week and wanted to stay in my room and get wasted. I bought some smack, a mere gram, and three grams of speed, most of it not for me. It wasn’t a lot, but as soon as the guy in the leather jacket turned and stood in my way, one hand on my arm, the other holding his police ID, the amount was neither here nor there.

I tried it on a bit. I said I’d just picked it up off the ground or some other such stupid story, and was about to hand it in. I finished, “Can I go? My Metro ticket is about to run out.”

The cop sort of laughed. He said, “Ohhh.” He drew it out and made it rise and fall, very French, almost comic. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll give you a lift.”

After a search during which he pocketed my shopping from Beck and noted my lack of an ID card, he handcuffed me to one of the railings and went off to use the phone in the station office. He kept half an eye on me from its doorway, though after a token tug on the cuffs it was obvious that I was going nowhere. Passers-by rested amused glances on me. A few caught my eye and shook their heads. I couldn’t work out if it was in remonstrance or empathy. Some Arab boys jeered and hovered near, but got bored and passed on.

The cop came back and muttered, “Sorry about that.” He unlocked the cuff from the railing but left it on my wrist. He had a sudden brisk manner and a board and a form. He scribbled and ticked, asked me if I was on holiday, and then for my name and address. He looked puzzled for a second, but it didn’t engage him for long.

“Do people often run away?” I asked him. He looked puzzled again. “You know, if you don’t handcuff them?” I didn’t know the French word for handcuff – I used the word for chain.

“No.” He had to think about it. “Not often.” He let out an extraordinarily pleasant little laugh, which stuck in my mind and later led me to imagine him both as an entertaining father and a good bloke to go for a drink with. “And I can usually catch them.”

He’d have caught me, for sure. I couldn’t run; bad foot – long story – and bad diet, and he looked like a rugby player. They belonged to a species that seemed to me to defy physics by being built the way they were and yet able to move so fast without an engine. He could probably run like the clappers despite smoking forty Gitanes a day and having a beer habit. I said anyway, “I wouldn’t have run.”

A car turned up and stopped across the busy road, eliciting beeps and toots from other drivers. The cop took my arm and led me across and handed me over to two uniformed cops who looked not much older than me. They affected not to notice or acknowledge me. The detective shook their hands, handed over the form and the stuff and nudged me to get me to raise my hand. For a second I thought he wanted to shake mine too but he simply removed the cuff, and seemingly without a key. I looked impressed and he let out a little laugh of triumph, the hint of a prestigidateur’s ah-ha.

“English?” One of the uniforms shuffled impatiently through what he had been given. “Passport?” My man shook his head. Only then did they look at me. One of them scowled and said, “Get in the fucking car, will you.” I did, and was driven off. 

A pissed-off silence descended. After we’d been under way a few minutes, I said, “Where are we going?”

“Aubervilliers.” The passenger turned a little. 

“What’s there?”

The driver laughed and said, “It’s where we dump all the time-wasters.”

I watched Friday evening postcard Paris go by, those lit-up shops and bars and the entrances to apartment blocks, perfect people meeting and greeting and waving and kissing and laughing and living life and loving it. It disappeared from my sight as we turned back to the genuine Paris article of dull, dark housing and people hunched and headed home laden with bags and burdens. I half-listened as my companions got talking about their weekends and their colleagues, I think. There was also a thing one of them had bought – I think – routinely ridiculed by the other – “You didn’t.” – though he also seemed envious. I couldn’t quite make out what it actually was. This bugged me for a while, but I couldn’t very well ask.

“You speak French?” one of them checked as we pulled up outside one of those tall Paris doorways. “None of them here speak English,” he informed me. 

“I get by,” I told him.

In fact, the desk officer, who was about forty, and was Tunisian in origin, I later learned, asked me if I wanted him to speak English. He sounded unenthusiastic, so I said no. He seemed relieved, and grinned at me. He scanned the form, looked up and tutted briefly, filled in a few more details then got me to make a statement of the bare facts. He asked me who I’d bought the drugs from and I said some guy in a bar and he wrote that down. He asked which bar and I said some bar in some street near Barbès that I couldn’t remember and he wrote that down too. It was a script he had written a thousand times, I guessed. He held up the wraps, sorry, shameful-looking things, and asked if they were mine. I said they were and he wrote that down, the exact number of wraps and their contents, as confirmed by me. He signed it and stamped it and that meant I’d been formally charged. Did I understand that? If I did, I had to sign it, too. I was going to ask, as it was well established they were mine, could I have them back? Even as I thought it the humour in it wore off. 

He ran me through the next part of the procedure, which was that I’d be fast-tracked into court probably first thing Monday and, as long as I was sticking to my story, I’d be fined a sum I calculated at about fifty pounds or so. Not a fortune exactly, but still alarmingly impossible. As it was past office hours he’d not be able to arrange it for sure till the next day, a Saturday. He could call me or I could call him. I lost him a little in this part but understood that I was about to be let go home. That was until he asked me where my passport was. He seemed a little annoyed with himself at not having checked before. He couldn’t let me go till he’d verified my ID.

“After all,” he said, reasonably. “You could be anybody.”

“I couldn’t.” I knew what he meant, but I took the words differently; I felt like a failure. A year before I’d had a steady job, a girlfriend, and friends that weren’t skanky drug fiends. I had… things, my stuff, a small record collection, books, had lived in a flat near the centre of London – with my mum, okay, but still it was warm and safe and she was out a lot and anyway indulged me a lot – and now here I was with the hint of a heroin habit in a muggy police station on the edge of Paris with the cabbage reek of stale bodies, about to get myself a record for possession. It was too stupid of me and now – no, I couldn’t be anybody: I was stuck with being myself, and I hated it. I stopped myself from saying, “I’m nobody.” It was too dramatic. I didn’t quite burst into tears, but hid my face in my hands in anticipation of them, rescuing the pathos with a fake sigh.

The cop patted my shoulder and bade me sit on the dirty plastic seats bolted to the wall opposite, like those in the Metro. He made some phone calls. I couldn’t make out a word. I realised he’d been speaking slowly for my benefit.

Two uniformed cops brought in a sullen bloke in his forties trapped in a denim jacket three sizes too small for him. He sported an old-fashioned teddy-boy quiff. He swore roundly at them and they laughed, sat him next to me and removed his handcuffs. He or his clothes or both were in sore need of a wash. I didn’t catch his eye. He muttered, swore to himself and then again at the cops as they lingered, chatting, bursting into barking laughter that they carried with them to the exit.

“What are you looking at?” he was soon demanding. I thought, oh wow, here we go: prison violence, and I’m only here five minutes. But he was talking to the desk cop, who was peering at him. “I’m pissed off with all this shit,” he said to me after a courteous nudge. I got some of his story in dribs and drabs as he answered the desk cop’s questions and gave me asides and footnotes: it was a tale involving his wife’s ridiculous brother and the promise of some sort of building work done to pay back a loan, but the work had not been done right or something and he’d gone to sort it out. Then his wife’s brother’s friends had got involved, or something, plus the guy for whom the work was done – or something – and there’d been an altercation – or some such fucking thing I’d already lost interest in – and they’d ganged up to blame it all on him. It had ended in a demand for an outrageous sum of money I couldn’t make out – it was his widened eyes each time the sum was mentioned that wouldn’t let the conversation continue until I’d nodded. Punches had been thrown, a window smashed and a tin of undercoat dumped, thrown or splashed. Even his wife had joined in, though on whose side I couldn’t work out. He kept punctuating the conversation with, “You’re allowed a drink, though?” and then making it the focus of the whole conversation. “But – no,” he’d interrupt the desk cop to say. “Hold on. Tell me. Are you, or are you not, allowed a drink?” 

He made sure to include me in the conversation – very kind of him. The nudges got more urgent and frequent and harder. I needed the light relief. I agreed that you were allowed a drink. Both men at some point winked at me, made what-can-you-do gestures. After the signing of his declaration, the sullen bloke walked out, a slip of paper in his hand, almost cheerful.

“Gone out for a drink?” I called over. “What do you think?”

It was Friday night. Arresting officers had put an end to other guys’ drunken nights out. Some had been fighting over things they couldn’t remember by the time they got to Aubervilliers. One had been arrested for something he’d done ages before – years before, he claimed, with an air of indignant legitimacy – only because a cop had spotted him. One had been bashing his wife. He was sorry, for bashing her or marrying her, I couldn’t make out. The desk cop dealt with them all and occasionally sent me a signal to tell me that he was seeing what could be done with me. He made a finger-in-the-air gesture and picked up his phone, spoke into it, nodded, his grave look towards me turned up into a smile but he often puffed out his cheeks in that French gesture of annoyance. It was all a bit of a mime-show.

A detective came at last and called my name. He brought me into a small, scruffy interrogation room and told me to sit. He spoke mainly in English. He said the procedure was to send an officer to my address to get my ID. Did I know of any reason why that couldn’t be done? It seemed like a strange question but I knew what he was getting at. Before I could answer, he said, “Well, first off, it’s Friday night. We’re busy.” He raised a thumb towards the reception area. “Wasting our time with… idiots.” He gave me a frank look, letting me feel free to include myself. “So it’s unlikely we’ll have a man to spare. Any other reason?”

I’d acted a little puzzled when he asked me the first time but now confirmed, “It’s a squat.”

“It’s a squat.” He said it with a hint of delighted eureka, grinned and made an imaginary racquet strike in the air. “Good boy.”

The French hated squatting, and, it followed, squatters. It didn’t have the air of righteous activism it had in the UK, and even the baddest people saw it as an attack on citizens’ liberty to have as many properties as they wanted and to keep them as unoccupied as they wanted. You know how in almost every French film you see the bourgeois Parisian family nearly always has a fucking country house standing damp and empty, just waiting for them to drive there in their chugging 2CV and open it up for the remainder of the gentle drama to take place there? That’s no coincidence. Property, and the right to have it as it suits, is a primary right in France. You mess with that at your peril. 

The place I lived in was a ruinous block in Ivry. It had been scheduled for demolition years before but for various reasons I wasn’t interested in this hadn’t happened. It was very basic. The scammed electricity often cut out and was restored by mysterious means and, despite the building’s outwardly sturdy appearance, damp and mould were everywhere and there was always at least one person in the building, at any given time, undergoing all-night coughing fits. The windows were patched with cardboard and canvas, with blankets and a fucking mohair jumper that had belonged to some legendary punkette who’d either robbed a bank and gone to jail, died, married a Luxembourg prince or found fame and fortune in the Corps de Ballet – it was turquoise-and-black striped and matted horribly and for some reason the sight of it always, somewhat irrationally, annoyed me. There was nowhere to cook unless you blagged somebody’s camping stove, and people ‘borrowed’ your stuff all the time. 

Most of the other people there were okay – like people anywhere, really. I’d been invited there by a guy I’d worked with, briefly. I dismissed his initial invitation politely, luckily, because, in a cataclysmic day or two not long after, I lost my barman job – the owner’s dodgy cousin or cousin’s girlfriend had pissed off with all the equally dodgy owner’s undeclared money, leaving the bar functionally bankrupt – and the cupboard of a flat that went with it. I managed to track my squatting friend down by sheer luck, wandering around Ivry in the hope of seeing him. I’d been there a month and genuinely wasn’t planning on staying long. Not that I had any, really, but I never left valuables there. I’d left my passport there this night of all nights because a friend had warned me not to take anything valuable to the kinds of Belleville bars where I bought smack, which was ridiculous when I thought about it. People who sold class-A drugs didn’t want their customers getting robbed.

“Our officers don’t like going in to squats,” the detective said. 

I knew that. One reason was that it was illegal for them to recognise a squat as somebody’s address, or some such nonsense, so they could in theory fall foul of some kind of legal trickery known to clever lawyers. Most of them didn’t give a toss about that, I assumed. The main reason was that squatters got mouthy and violent when the establishment sauntered by and looked in and the coppers could do without it on a Friday night, having been dealing with violent, mouthy losers all night long. It was as simple as that. As we talked this out, I realised that my chances of getting out of Aubervilliers in the near future were looking remote.

“Can’t you… sort of make an exception?” I asked.

“Hmm – what, just, sort of… let you go, sort of thing?” The detective smiled, and beamed, and pointed at me as if I’d come up with a great idea. He was messing with me. He made a show of shaking his head, feigned shock and said, “But what would people say?” The smile vanished from his face, daring me to laugh.

“Could I go there with an officer?” I asked. I cringed even as I said it. My name would be dog-brown forever if I did that, needless to say. At the back of my mind was the idea that I ought to get out of there anyway, away from the perniciously dangerous company of losers and junkies. It was a bit late for that, though.

“Well, as I said…” The detective was referring me to his previous answer, about manpower and idiots. We got up, and he held the door open for me. We went back to the admissions area. For a moment, just from how we were orientated, I thought he was going to walk me to the door, tell me to piss off home and not be so stupid. That might have happened in a police programme like The Sweeney, if the Squad had had its dinner and was in a good mood. It didn’t happen. Back I was, on the bench. A dishevelled, chubby yuppy type with thunderously lowered brows and furiously bitten nails in raw pink fingertips reluctantly made some room for me. 

I knew I’d be able to get the Metro home for most of the night. I’d have walked back to Ivry though gladly, even with my foggy idea of where Aubervilliers was. I didn’t see the detective again. More morose men were brought in, more fighting boys, more grumpy drunks and a guy who, for no reason, he kept telling the desk cop, legged it from a taxi without paying. I was bored by the whole circus by then, but something in this guy’s conversation was becoming clear to me: he didn’t have his ID card, either. It was mislaid, he said. They’d had workmen in, everything in chaos. “Go to my address,” he kept insisting. “Ask my wife.” He laughed. “But I tell you, she’s not been able to find it this past month. And she is like one of those fucking dogs in Sherlock Holmes.”

“Big-eared?” I might have said if I’d known him better. The desk cop too was amused: waggy-tailed, he was thinking, perhaps, soulful-eyed, wet-nosed?

“She can find anything,” he confirmed. “Anything.” Like me, he almost couldn’t believe he’d be kept in.

“I might be here for months,” he said. “I’d better get my work sent here.”

He was a translator and interpreter, from Arabic to French and back again. He said to the desk cop, “We can speak Arabic, you and I – no problem.”

“French will do fine.” The desk cop’s voice developed a hard edge. It seemed to me that he began reading from a book of regulations, something about the business of the Republic to be conducted in the language of the Republic, that language being French. 

It was a rotten job, processing fools all evening, having to be kind when he could have just shouted and bullied his charges, intimidated them into compliance. What a kind man, I thought. I’ve never forgotten him. I can see him now.


The rest of the weekend was more of a drag than an ordeal. I stayed in a dorm in a portakabin. It looked clean, though this was partly because it was more or less empty of anything that could gather dust. The downside was that all the dust had gravitated to the bedclothes and blankets, which weren’t quite noxious. I’d actually stayed in worse hostels. I remember breathing in some stale male smell on the pillow and grumbling to myself, then was immediately asleep. I woke from time-to-time and saw men come in and go out. Some swaggered in loudly, talking to everybody and nobody like old friends, while some tiptoed and hunched their shoulders comically. 

There was little to do but talk, so we talked, at first about the small crimes that had landed us there. I was told off by several of the older men: drugs were a stupid indulgence for a young man. They were right. One said, “I genuinely want to know – tell me. Why would a young man fill his waking mind with crazy dreams? Why would a young man do that? An old man, all his hopes and dreams gone – yes, maybe, but a young man? Why?”

I didn’t have a good answer. A black guy about my age agreed loudly with the inquisitor, but winked at me and promised we’d share a spliff when we got out. We joked about the lengthy sentences we’d draw, and how we might have to join the Foreign Legion. The men there hadn’t thought of the Foreign Legion for years, it was plain. I got the impression it wasn’t as legendary in France as it was in England. “There are no wars,” somebody observed. He nodded around the room, said, “This would be your life in the Legion, huh?”

The food was foul – of course. There was fibrous grey soup that tasted of salt. There was some sort of mincemeat that tasted, incredibly, of absolutely nothing, served with an unrecognisable vegetable that was more or less the same as the soup, but with a deep hint of forgotten orange. It was all cold – not just cold, but spectacularly cold. It had obviously been hot when it was cooked. There may have been better meals, but I don’t remember them, just that first one. I had a terrible habit of not eating for days, anyway; eating simply didn’t interest me, so the food was not that big a deal. We had no TV, though there were the remnants a shelf with a chain on which one had once been fixed. No radio, nor newspapers, of course, though one of the men said the custodians often brought some in. Again, I didn’t have the habit of any of them. I missed having a book. I usually never left home without one, but my mind had been fixed on being out for an hour or so, doing my business, and getting back. 

We each had a bed to lie on, so that was what we did, with conversation taken up at a lazy pace, abandoned and revived, sometimes an hour later. It was quiet by Sunday afternoon, most of the men gone. 

I was stuck with some stinky old man – a librarian, or bookseller, or both, in some distant life, who wasn’t even interesting enough to be able to answer the admittedly stupid questions I asked him about Beckett, Orwell in Paris, Joyce, Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Co. He just went on about stuff to do with his repairs and his rent and the criminally large repayments of some loan that had banjaxed his old age. His chatter filled me with a murderous rage that dragged me into a deep and oblivious silence to look inside my mind, find it wanting, and make a lot of promises to it that I swore I would keep in some vague future, when I got out of there.

Nick Sweeney’s work reflects his interest in Byzantium, bike racing and Eastern Europe. He lives on the UK coast. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be seen at http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com.