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LA BELLE SUISSE
by DODIE LA MIROUNETTE
and JACK DEY
If you have a price, the devil has a cheque book
– Author Unknown
A small, battered brown case, grasped in a weathered hand, protected Philippe de la Calle’s meagre worldly belongings. As he stepped from the crowded train, pondering the rising apartment towers and the lavish streets of his once boyhood home, he considered he hadn’t been back here in almost thirty years. Now the memories sealed in the timeless corridors of his mind collided heavily with the opulence that flaunted itself in the unrecognisable streets where poverty once gripped his hand and kept his family prisoner. Somewhere in his tangled thoughts, wooden shanty housing leaned together in a mass for communal support, and if one stick was removed then the whole town would collapse; so it had been with the simple community structure of poor families living and relying on each other to survive.
A storm of wealthy, influential invaders had seen the potential of the small seaside hamlet as a tax haven and playground for the rich and famous. With the casual stroke of a pen on a blank cheque book stub, life had changed drastically for the poor, stealing the land from under their feet in a desperate greedy grab and displacing families who had depended on it to survive for centuries. Philippe gawked around at the ordered lavish streets bordered by sandstone buildings, groomed with gold leaf architecture and emblazoned with impish statues. Walk paths of rich, intricately cut Italian stone meandered lazily between millionaires’ villas, diverting here and there through an ornate and expensively decorated park. Fountains splashed and gurgled on every profligate street corner. Where once there was thirst, now water seemed to bubble up from under every manicured rock.
An incredulous sweeping gaze at the tidy harbour, protected from the Mediterranean’s boisterous moods by heavy rock barriers, abruptly halted Philippe in mid glare. In a time gone by, a great and proud natural granite seawall had protected the village from the ocean’s wrath. Now it stood impotent and tamed as a backdrop to a fester of towering apartments. The sea in front of the buildings, reclaimed and pushed back, today accommodated meandering streets and a circus of harbourfront villas. Beyond the reaching luxury, a fleet of magnificent private floating palaces lay at anchor, neatly moored in million dollar pens. Polished and watched over by zealous crews, the palaces lay idle until their millionaire masters were ready for another lavish fling to impress the latest sports or movie stars, showing off their abundant wealth in another partying sea jaunt going nowhere. Philippe swivelled on his feet and slowly completed a 360 degree scan. All about him, trillions of euro lay buried in a hoard of personal greed while the people he lived and worked among died in droves from lack of a daily meal, clean drinking water or a few euros of antibiotic medicines.
A petite, well dressed young woman drew Philippe back to earth. “Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle,” he apologised and stepped aside so she could navigate around his disbelieving frame. With a large group of chattering, awestruck tourists approaching from behind and cameras catching images from every direction, Philippe’s train of thought dissolved and he began to follow the young woman along the path lest he be swept up by the wave of envious humanity.
It took some time to orient himself in the unfamiliar streets, but as his thin and tall, fifty-year-old frame came to an abrupt stop in front of an opulent structure, the bitter memories came flooding back. Intending to step from the ordered kerb and cross an immaculate street to face his nemesis, a red and black Bugatti-Veyron sports car blared its horn in warning and then quickly slipped away in an expensive plume of racing formulae fuel. Philippe stared after the vivacious vehicle, realising he’d just missed being run over by 1.1 million euro. Checking for further fast moving indulgent drivers, he quickly scampered across the street before a yellow Lamborghini driven by a sports model blonde approached and roared past in a flash of vibrating noise.
Safely across the roadway of spoilt disdain, Philippe stood silently, contemplating the extravagant building threatening to engulf him in a tsunami of past regret and shame that had divided his family and destroyed the people he loved. Philippe’s father, the village leader, had colluded with the wealthy invaders and engaged with them in a despicable bid to defraud his people. Ancestral land and homes had disappeared in a sanctioned and swift, vacuous grab with little recompense. And for his efforts, Philippe’s father was rewarded with a small fortune by poor people’s standards. Seeing the need for a rich man’s playhouse, Philippe’s father had invested all he had in a gambling den for the wealthy and now after thirty years, he was one of the wealthiest men among the wealthy.
As a young man, Philippe had sensed the rising tide of affluent evil gripping at his bones, stifling the overwhelming desire to make a difference in a lopsided world, ignoring the cries of the suffering and filling his mind instead with the rich man’s disease. But no longer able to survive an audience with his conscience, Philippe, along with his mother, had left his father and brother to live their lives of indulgent riches. Now, as a fifty-year-old missionary and after working in abject poverty in some of the poorest hot spots of the world, it had been nearly three decades since he’d seen his wealthy and elderly father and the place he once called home. Philippe took a last glance at the opulent casino, patted down his ragged clothing and started to climb the hill to his father’s house bulging out onto a nearby hillside. As he approached the sprawling driveway, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter that had started him on his latest pilgrimage and began to read again.
Your father is not well and the doctors suggest he has only weeks or possibly months to live. I am not sure why he requested to see you and Mother one last time before he dies, but you owe it to him for giving you life to at least make some kind of effort and fulfil his dying request. I still can’t forgive you for walking away from the family when Father invested his complete fortune in the casino and it looked like we would be poor again; but as you will see, Father is exuberantly wealthy now and I only hope he has kept his promise to cut you out of his will. Just so you know, it is my intention to contest any favours he has set aside for you in his last testament, and I can afford the best legal team possible. Personally, I couldn’t care if you don’t come, but Father asks every day after you and I urge you, for his sake, to make a concession in your selfish lifestyle and fulfil a dying man’s request.
Once again, I remind you I am the firstborn son and I am entitled to every bit of Father’s substantial estate, simply because I stayed and supported him in his decisions and I will see to it you receive nothing from this incredible self-made man.
As agreeable as ever, your older brother, Robert.
Philippe folded the tattered letter and placed it reverently back in his threadbare shirt pocket. From the moment he’d received the news of his father, it had taken him nearly a month to travel across some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth, calling on favours with grateful people to help him traverse across continents just so he could reach his ailing father’s side. But now he wasn’t sure his foolhardy journey had all been for naught and whether he was too late to fulfil his father’s dying wish. After the nerve-racking trek, he stood in the sun tiredly blinking down a lavish driveway and into the haughty eyes of extreme opulence. He paused for long moments, considering the final few metres of his sojourn and what lay in wait for his arrival. With a quick prayer for strength, he pushed his feet on toward the enormous front doors, staring at a plethora of closed-circuit cameras watching him, watching them. Philippe lifted his hand to knock but before his knuckles made contact with the expensive paintwork, one half of the massive doors opened and a maid met his eyes with a disdainful frown.
“Eh, vous là-bas, le vagabond, get away from the door before I have security run you off!”
“If you please, Mademoiselle, I am Philippe de la Calle and I have come to see my father, Henri Rousseau!”
The maid’s eyes suddenly clouded with fright. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, I did not know! Your father told us to expect an unusual person in the form of a fils prodigue.”
Philippe smiled at the quavering maid. “Oui, Mademoiselle, I guess my attire does suggest the presence of a prodigal son.”
The front door soon gave way into a mammoth echoing amphitheatre with full length windows traversing two storeys above to the ground floor below, and giving an unhindered view of the impressive harbour and the millionaire’s paradise perched at the foot of the mountain. Gold staircases led to ornate balconies far above Philippe’s head, while each unintentional sound amplified and distorted in the clinical ambience of splendid white marble floors and ceilings.
A booming voice originating from one of the opulent staircases overpowered Philippe’s awestruck gaze and he turned to meet the unmistakable owner. “So, you have disowned my name as well as my family, Philippe de la Calle! Why are you known as Philippe of the Streets?”
Philippe’s shocked countenance stole the ability to respond to the spritely elderly gentleman walking effortlessly down a flight of stairs to greet him. “I… it is an identity with the people I live and work among, Father. The poor of the world!” Philippe’s voice echoed around the palatial surrounds as his incredulous eyes asked a silent question of the apparently healthy older man.
“Arr, the poor of the world,” the disgruntled voice resonated, pursuing Philippe’s dialogue in a fading game of chase. “People who refuse to take advantage of the wealth the world offers.”
“No, Father, you have it wrong. These are people who have no opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of the world, when you consider that one percent of the world’s population controls fifty percent of its wealth.”
“Statistics, Philippe, that mean nothing. You grew up with the poverty of this place and look at me now. I have power, recognition and everything I could ever want.”
“But are you happy, Father?”
“ARE THE POOR HAPPY, PHILIPPE?!” the booming voice reverberated again, bouncing forcefully off the clinical walls and shocking the younger man.
“They are among some of the happiest people I have met, especially when they know our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” Philippe’s words were a little more subdued, showing respect to the man he called father and hadn’t seen in years.
“You always were a simpleton child, filled with the superstitions of religion. But there is no religion except wealth and fortune. Look what it can do for you!” the elder man swept his arm around the opulent surrounds.
“And what of your impending death, Father?” Philippe whispered with concern.
“I will not die, Philippe. You can see how healthy I am and I have many beautiful young women around to keep me young.”
“Everyone dies, Father, and yet we are eternal beings. Our spirit is alive for ever. You may be rich now, but what awaits you without Jesus is eternal agony and poverty.”
“Huh! More of your confounded brainwashed idealism, Philippe! Robert told me I was wasting my time trying to make you see reason. The only thing that exists is now and today. And today, I am a king!”
A ruthless, calculating stare settled in the old man’s eyes as he bored into his wayward son. “Here is my challenge to you, Philippe de la Calle. Stay with me and in my home for six months and I will show you the power money wields and the truth of its idealism… instead of your toothless God.”
Released: 14 March 2017
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