Rumour holds that Thibault Fernandes wears the whiskers of some long-extinct beast—a sabre-tooth perhaps—for when seen in the right light, at the right angle, the man’s moustache gives off a sheen that goes some way beyond the grasp of our era.
It is a glow that blinds one to the intent in the man’s eyes, the slickness that drips off his lips, and if I am to believe what I hear from the land-pushers on South Parade, then it is in the light bounced off of Mr. Fernandes’s upper lip that one sees past and future, conflated into a mass of silver-grey, expanding so wide that soon the present itself ceases to exist, and in a matter of Time, so shall you.
They are a fearful bunch—the land-pushers. The oldest of them is young enough to be Fernandes’s grandson, and yet I need not tell you how their feet itched, their eyes darted east and west, their voices trailed off like a train leaving a station, all at the mere mention of the name: Fernandes. See how coolly I speak it, how I roll the ‘r’ and draw out the closing hiss—Ferrrnandesssss. Easy, no? But see again, there aren’t many others who will say it out loud—not on South Parade, nor anywhere else. I ask why, and again they start with the old tales of how Thibault Fernandes can send a knife through a man with a flick of his lip, how he is more fearsome in his absence than he ever was in his heyday, how he has not spent a day in jail because no cop will go near him in daylight, and none can find him at night. These are the cowering words of the land-pushers—if they seem familiar it is because the selfsame words have been sounded out for generations now. Yes, even as the man purports to have changed, the words spoken in his regard remain the same. Thibault Fernandes still holds the same unwritten right over all estates south of the Cantonment. His name is still uttered in the tenor reserved for God in the voice of sinners. Here, at the old haunt on 5th and Indigo (a room of spent forces, if I’m being polite), the man himself is thin and withered, but the moustache—the moustache remains luxuriant.
He is at the plebian end of the bar. This is where the single men generally crouch and leer, but I suspect they have moved somewhere else tonight. Thibault Fernandes has made it a habit to occupy places with more than his size—just as well, since he is, by no standards, a tall man (five-foot-four, in the morning). There was a time when he could have been described as stocky, but in more recent years, the meat has thinned around his shoulders. Now his jacket is held up by bones, but held up nonetheless. As I approach, his fingers tighten around his scotch-glass as I imagine they once tightened around the throats of smaller thieves. He is reformed now: do not ask me yet what that means for I can only write things as I know them myself. He is reformed with a pinch of salt, at least.
Thibault Fernandes points a finger at the seat beside him—
“You are Siva.”
“I am, sir. We spoke on the phone...”
“Good,” he pauses and strokes the famous moustache. “It is good that you are here.”
I am here to write the man’s memoirs, you know—not a task I will finish today, but one that I hope to begin. I have been a ghost-writer for close to five years now. Let us say that is a job I have grown into. Certainly there were early failures, but I am past them now—yes, long, long past them. In fact, the Boss has put my success down to the fact that I learned early the traits of a terrible book. “That is half the art,” he says. I am unclear what the other half is, but it seems that I know it better than most.
“You know, you have come well recommended,” says Fernandes.
“Have I, sir?”
“Kanti said I would not be satisfied with anyone else.” Kanti is a play on the Boss’s last name: Kanitkar. It is only men of a certain age and nuance that address him thus.
“Did he say that? I hope I prove him right, then.”
“Well, you have come on time. That is the most important part done, is it not?!” Thibault Fernandes guffaws and the room looks up like there has been a gunshot.
Over the years I have picked up a few important things about my craft. Perhaps most important is this: as much as research gives this illusion, one can never fully know the shoes one steps into. I say this now because I have never been more aware of it—I can never fully know Thibault Fernandes. The newspaper entries, the snippets ripped from police blotters, the testimonials of the men with whom he has fraternised and terrorised, all of these make up the bare edges of a jigsaw, large chunks of which can only be filled in by the man himself. Whether he will fill them willingly is another question. Remember, his is a life lived under a curtain—one of iron or something similarly opaque—and I am not yet sure how much he will reveal, how far he will let me in. But it is important that I do not hope for too much—“Hands away from the fire,” the Boss always reminds me. It is not so much the heat, he says, but the scald to come.
Even in the pale light, the moustache shines silver.
“I have wanted to do this for a long time, Siva. But you know, something or the other comes up and I forget. Then I get some time to think, and I remember again.”
I need not tell you how their feet itched, their eyes darted east and west, their voices trailed off like a train leaving a station, all at the mere mention of the name: Fernandes.
“What is important is that you came to us finally. It is never too late to start, sir.”
“Ah, you say that, but do you mean it?” he grabs me by the wrist as if he is afraid I might run away from him. There is some distance in his eyes that I can’t quite fathom. He is looking through me. In a second, I feel his grip relax. “I am old now, you know. My days have slowed down.”
“Many days left in you, I hope.”
“Ah, no, no, not many. Not many at all. More rum!”
He seems to have spoken into air, but this is not the case. Somewhere, some ears have heard him, and there is the slow drag of feet in the aisle behind the counter. The barkeep’s silhouette comes creeping into light. He is old; I would give him as many years as this place itself, perhaps even more. His eyes are magnified, large and bulbous, behind his spectacles. Hyperopic, I believe—longsighted. Those eyes are the kind that wake up tired.
Thibault Fernandes lets his glass fill up to a third before waving his hand. “Ice,” he mutters. His cheeks glow red against his sullen skin—a genetic inflection from a partial Vietnamese lineage.
“I am glad we have got the chance to talk so early on, Mr. Fernandes. It will really help me.”
“You have questions for me, yes?”
“Well, yes and no. You see, in this kind of project it is crucial that your voice comes through in all its particularity. It is not just the cover that must be stamped with your name, sir. Even to a close friend who has known you all your life, it should not seem that it is me who is writing. It is you.”
“Just as well. I expect many close friends to be reading this.”
“And when they read, sir, they will imagine you saying the things out loud that have been written on paper. They will say the words to themselves in your voice.”
“Is that how one reads then?” he scoffs. I imagine there is always some degree of condescension in his voice, for he cannot help but be surrounded by the sir-ring, fawning kind.
“Well, er... yes, sir. So although I do have many questions for you, I will leave those for a time when I know you better, Mr. Fernandes. Now I am concerned with something else. You have a way of talking, a way of communicating, yes? I want to learn that, so I may talk in the same way.”
“Ha! Well, if it is talk that you want, then I have enough for many books, Siva.” He takes a deep swig of rum. “Many books. More books than you can write.”
I do not doubt him on this. Even from my shallow research, I have gathered that Thibault Fernandes is a many-sided individual. He is not, as the papers would suggest, all of one thing, or another. One old lady in the Railway tenements calls him a Saint in the clearest and most certain voice. She would be out on the streets, she says, if it were not for Thibault Fernandes. In the early days of the man’s Reformation, he spread a few million across the city’s charities for destitute women. All anonymous, of course—I only know through good connections. I suspect this is more because of his fortune’s dubious origins, but maybe I am wrong. Maybe he does not want the credit. Maybe he would not know what to do with the credit.
“Are you a drinking man, Siva?”
“I am, sir. But not when I’m on the job. I find it...”
“Siva, it is now your job,” he interrupts, “to be company to a drinking man.”
Our barkeep emerges on cue, carrying an ice bucket. “Put this down,” Fernandes says to him, “and fix my friend a drink.”
“Sir, I would appreciate...”
“Company, Siva! That is all.”
“Well... if you insist, sir...”
“And this ‘sir’ business must stop. I cannot talk freely if you continue this ‘sir’ business.”
“I will stop it, then.”
For some time we are silent—sizing each other up, one could say. He must think badly of me for refusing a drink. I do not blame him. But I also sense that this world has been too kind to him of late—our small argument has brought life into his eyes, as if he has been woken up from a long sleep. He has heard a ‘No’ in a sea of ‘Yes’ and this has exhilarated him. But at the same time, I am not sure if it has helped his constitution. A look of discomfort has come to Thibault Fernandes’s face, as he eases himself away from the counter and stumbles towards the back of the room. His stride is wayward, but his body is held firm. He tilts his head and again the light catches his lip and again there is that unreal glint. I watch him stagger into the darker recesses; slowly he moves from vision. When I turn back, there is a dark concoction in front of me. The barkeep stands over it, baring his teeth with a grandfatherly pride.
“Pardon me, sir” his voice seems to creak like the rest of him, “An old house favourite. It is said to be good for the penmanship.”
“Is that right, now?”
“I understand it to be true, sir. Though I do not write myself.”
“Well, if it helps...”
I take a sip. It is bitter to taste. As it goes down it leaves an itch near the back of my throat. I try to reach the place with my tongue, but it is far back. Another sip. The itch widens, and I can almost taste what it is made of. But the taste is not consistent. The itch burns in different shades. One second it is something. The next I am something else.