Marc (31, electrician) and Philippe (29, hairdresser), brothers, Chinese-Cambodian refugees, French citizens, agreed they wanted the mini-motorcycle on offer at the summer carnival at the Tuileries Garden. All they had to do was break a taut white cord, narrow as fishing line, by shooting it with a BB gun. They knew that the cord had been lightly frayed by the stallholder (Rémi, 39) in order to imply that some people had been able to hit it but had given up the effort. When Rémi handed Marc a loaded rifle, he had no idea of the calculations that had been made (price of a new mini-motorcycle, likely number of full rounds required, cost of those rounds in both money and time) nor of the schedule that had been laid out so that one of the brothers was at the shooting stall at some point in every single day until the cord snapped.

Most people just had a short try, enjoying aiming and firing and aiming and firing only until they felt the diminishing returns of the moment, but for Marc and Philippe it was not a question of trying. There was only ever deciding, planning, and doing. You could say that they enjoyed aiming and firing, in that they didn’t wish to be elsewhere, but any excitement or insecurity would have blurred their focus. Their concentration gave them tunnel vision, made them deaf. When they felt it weaken, they left.

For four evenings Rémi made his usual noises of commiseration when one brother or the other, stretching and smiling, handed the rifle back. They knew that Rémi was happy rather than sympathetic, but they played along. Very small men, always ready for a joke, never pouting in any of the French ways despite their fluency, they were accustomed to being underestimated. On the fifth evening, Rémi remained jovial when Philippe arrived and set to work. On the eighth, seeing Marc approach before Marc saw him, he dropped his head and swore at his shoes. After closing time he applied a light coat of glue to reinforce the tenderest section of cord. (Marc and Philippe had included this likelihood in their calculations.)

Ten evenings in, neither brother appeared.


Ten evenings in, neither brother appeared


Marc had in fact been on his way to the carnival when he got the call from Philippe that their mother had run out of the house and no one could find her. He turned his van around, just as Philippe had dropped everything to join the search; just as all the siblings had.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Madame Le had been offended this time, but both brothers suspected a sister. There were three older sisters and one older brother in the Le family. All of them, like Marc and Philippe, had chosen conventional French names for themselves, and none of the six children was doing what Madame Le had imagined they would, or thought they should. She had saved their lives walking them out of Phnom Penh, out of Cambodia, out of harm’s way, but Catherine had married and had two children with a Chinese-Frenchman, a sushi chef, and was now in love with an Arab. Christophe had married a Hongkongese and was separated from her and their baby. Danielle was very happily conjoined to a butcher, and was pregnant, but the butcher was white, if very nice. Marianne was wondering if her Vietnamese-French husband was faithful. Neither of the youngest boys was showing any signs of finding a wife.

Marc and Philippe’s money was on Catherine being the culprit. She needed to keep her mouth shut, like they did. Respect didn’t mean doing what their mother wanted, but in keeping secrets from her. Madame Le had no idea that Marc was in love with a Canadian divorcée with twins, nor that Philippe was stepping out with a very shy, very busty student from Brazil. When she asked them when they were going to find a girl to marry they dipped their heads and went on eating.


Neither of the youngest boys was showing any
signs of finding a wife


The butcher organized the search, which lasted until Madame Le called the oldest brother, Christophe, at 2:30 am, having made her point. If the service station attendant had been able to understand her more easily (her children usually spoke for her and her French was terrible) the call would have come earlier.

Rémi had been surprised to find himself disappointed that neither of the brothers showed up that night. The younger one had been to the stall the afternoon before, and the older one had taken the evening shift, and neither had appeared ready to give up. If they had, it would have meant that Rémi was good at his job, but it was so unusual to encounter someone, let alone two people, with such a clean sense of purpose, and he wanted to keep watching it in action. It didn’t look like a game when they played it, although it had to be, Rémi thought, because the prize was so silly. Even very short men like those two would look clownish on a motorcycle that small.

On the morning after the brothers didn’t appear, Rémi applied a new coat of glue, but only very lightly, very gently. He wasn’t trying to defy the brothers’ attempts this time but rather to thwart the efforts of other visitors until the brothers reappeared. He felt disloyal to the carnival family, but he wanted the single-minded pair to come back, and he wanted to watch them succeed.

Both Marc and Philippe found time to nap after work, and arrived at the carnival refreshed. They hadn’t arrived together since the first evening, and to Rémi it looked as if they knew that their efforts were about to be rewarded. After a full round each, Marc fired the shot that severed the cord, and whooped and jumped with unadulterated joy. Philippe laughed and nodded, accustomed to his older brother’s antics, uninterested in jumping himself. Rémi shook their hands with genuine enthusiasm, and the brothers rolled the bike along the rue de Rivoli and up the rue des Pyramides to where Marc had parked his company van, discussing the schedule for when Marc would delight his girlfriend’s boys with the prize, and when Philippe would entertain his young Brazilian. Rémi stared at the gaping hole in his display.



Photo by Lisa Walton

Alison Jean Lester is the author of the novels Lillian on Life and Yuki Means Happiness. Born to an American father and a British mother, she was educated in the US, the UK, China and Italy. She raised her own children in Japan and Singapore, and now lives in the UK.