The sun's first rays ignite the most burnt-out sprawling estate on French soil. Thirty years since it came into this world, no guarantee of origin, no label, no vintage.
Round here, the rats wear Teflon boiler suits. Cockroaches breakdance on gobs of spit. Pitbulls snort lines of coke before mauling kids' heads. The concrete's got herpes waiting to be dirt-blasted, the barbed wire's got Aids, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a joke doing the rounds on the down-low.
Not far from a sandpit crammed with syringes and a basketball court with no net, two skinny 15-year-olds in sports garm, fists wrapped tight as concrete in bandages, Everlast tag, are boxing in the open air. Straight lefts, direct to the face, no contact.
A quick spurt of breath, out through the nostrils, with each counter-attack. They shadow box for a while, then pause. Trickles of sweat on their faces now, red from the rise in Celsius of organic machines. Teddy is blond, his face speckled with small scars making like he's fought off a battalion of sharp nails, his eyes brown as lumps of skunk. Lying on his back, mouth open, he recovers.
Samir puts in a few stretches. His body's a reed, supple as the Kama Sutra, under the hood a glimpse of his skinhead, curls shaved off. Olive-shaped face. The look in his eye as fizzy as a Selecto Cola, the official drink of all the bredrin. Teddy and Samir are seeds who sprang up in the dead end of the endz. Brothers in concrete, they know all about injustice and vice, they're skilled in the art of dodgy stuff. But they'd never desert this zone, their area, their endz, not for all the gold in the world, they defend it with every breath, every thought, every word. The endz is the foundation of who they are, they'd rather die than leave. This estate is the most notorious in all the Hexagon, the most mythical, and they can feel the respect. Teddy reties his shoelace - there's a hole on the big toe of his big cat trainers, Creps falling apart, stitched back up in places, they've still got a way to go before being incinerated on the rubbish dump.
"Isn't Lies here yet?" he shoots, ghetto drawling. "It's eight o'clock already, let's go find him, he's probably still snoring. Up on the seventh floor of Garib's tower block innit man, you know Karim's brother, the one who plays American football, place where Youssef had that mash-up on his 'ped when the Wise Kings from the BAC made a big deal coming down here with the mayor and those journalists."
"That's . . . Sabrina's block," says Samir skipping, arms down by his sides.
"You're sprung over Sabrina, man," Teddy comes back at him, aiming the hooks straight for his boxing partner's solar plexus.
Running but no rush, the boxers dodge between the alleyways. No two tower blocks are ever next door. Tom Thumb still hasn't retraced his steps after being abandoned in this maze of knots. First, cross the car park flourishing with engines subsidised by gear from Afghanistan, Morocco and Columbia, as well as round-the-clock factory shifts. Bypass the reprieved shopping centre and the underground mosque below block X, rammed to the rafters with faith that doesn't conform to French norms, not Catholic enough. Flank a stretch of graffiti as long as the Great Wall of China, tagged "Yaze". On the fresco, rinsed-out faces of those who died in battle, victims of gang warfare. The endz has been seduced by gratuitous violence, the rowdy boys merked each other, brothers kill one another, little sisters get roasted, friends guts each other, neighbours slit each other's throats, humanity takes the strain. The cemetery has become second home to the living and the dead, open 24/7, it never empties.
Destination arrived at. Panting, furred tongues, sweating profusely, they catch their breath before calling out. But their shouts don't even rupture the hymen of the windows. Lies's tower block sprang up on such fertile ground it could head-butt Lady Eiffel. Massive, entrenched, shoe size at least 500m2. Satellite dishes clink in their hundreds at the slightest gust of wind, and Bled TV tops the audience ratings. There's washing hanging from the windows up high, but nothing from the ground floor to the third, not even a sock. It'd get jacked straight off, by a telescopic rod with a fish-hook. In the endz, you strike anything that catches your eye, some are pros at fishing for big boys, kidnapping and hostages, no racial discrimination so long as there's dough.
"Samir, we go on like this we'll get shot at, let's climb up."
"You're crazy man, it's up on the seventh floor, and the lift's fucked off on holiday . . ."
Brief deliberation, then they begin the ascent. Walls redone with Fatcaps, the tags spelled out in a language that would make the Larousse dictionary's hair fall out. The first landing's easy. The light's shy but doing its best, giving out just enough so they don't trip over the various obstacles: a disembowelled rubbish bag, contaminated syringes, the remains of a scooter, an NFA immigrant - no papers - under a sleeping bag. If the second floor doesn't put the spring back in their step, the handrail rammed into concrete helps, easing each stride. The third make the stitch in their sides worse, the cramps slapping an embargo on the statutory oxygen intake for muscle mass. By the fourth floor, their faces are starting to show the strain: not easy catching your breath when you're inhaling the stench of cat piss, mixed with the bitterness of phlegm. Teddy and Samir egg each other on, no letting up. Each of the 19 steps climbed is a victory shared. On the seventh floor, backs wedged against a spray-canned wall:
France fucks us
Without ever saying I love you
So how come, when she's got the curse,
I'm the one who's bleeding?
Their tongues hang out, drops of sweat hit the floor.
"Can't believe you want to go out with Sabrina, man, when there's another nine floors to go . . . better forget it," jibes Teddy.
"You're only saying that coz you're out of shape, man . . ."
His pride bruised, Teddy gets into his starting blocks on the first step of the eighth floor:
"You saying I'm not ripped? Wanna bet? Come on, knock out a sprint to the top, then we'll see who's out of shape."
He looks determined, holds out his hand:
Samir sniggers, stares at Teddy's open hand. His fingers are bandaged, tight as sardines.
"Don't do bets, against my religion innit, why don't you use your hand to knock on the door . . . ?"
"Why don't you use yours to wank off . . . ?" says Teddy, miming the five-knuckle shuffle.
Teddy squints through the spyhole on Lies's door. He looks uneasy. Wipes his forehead on the back of his sleeve, then turns to Samir who's staying well back.
"What am I gonna say to him?" he whispers.
"Dunno, that we're the GIGN and he's got to release the hostages."
Samir chuckles into his bum fluff, then sees the dark look Teddy's giving him and comes over serious again:
"Well . . . we've got this jogging to do innit . . ."
Teddy kicks the front door that's out of colour through wear and tear, but no result. He puts his ear to the door, listens . . . Dead calm.
"He's not there, fuck I'm thirsty, for real, we'll have to skyjack a 'copter to get me back down, I'm beat . . ."
The leaping octaves of their conversation draw the neighbour from along the landing out of his den, a bald old man, wrinkled all over, suitcases under his eyes heavy as all the gold plundered in Africa. A zigzag nose has turned the geography of his features upside-down, a belly with a double chin protrudes over the top of his pyjamas: an ogre in a fairytale-free zone.
"So what are you two plotting?"
His deep voice resonates like in an echo-chamber.
"We're the boxers, we're looking for Lies . . ."
The ogre's sky-blue eyes bulge.
"You're boxers, you're pulling my leg here?"
"Nah, we're training over the holiday. We're going to box in Marseille in ten days' time . . ."
"Which category?" he fires, pointing at Samir.
The old man gives an overweight belly-laugh: Samir's off-the-cuff answer creases him up.
"Boxer for sure, but what weight?"
"Dunno, depends what I eat . . . We're not pros, man, we've only been training a month . . ."
Suspicious, Teddy keeps his distance, ready to splurt.
"We'll soon fix that, don't move, I'll be right back . . ."
And the ogre disappears into his den.
"What you talking to him for, man, for all we know he's a paedophile innit, wants to stick it deeper in our orifices, come on, let's jet," Teddy whispers edgily.
"He couldn't give a fuck about your arse-hole, man, he's old, he's not even all there, just wants to talk, that's all."
Less than a minute later, the ogre is back, carrying a pair of aluminium bathroom scales.
"Go on, hop on . . ."
Samir unloads his weight on the scales. The old man slips on the bifocals hanging round his neck.
"55 kilos, featherweight," he declares.
He invites Teddy to weigh in as well, but the latter refuses shaking his head, takes a step back so he's beyond the speaker's reach.
"Scare you, do I?" asks the neighbour, taking off his Indian cobra eyes.
"I'm not scared . . ."
Just then a young man appears on the landing, breaking up the chat. He trust-knuckles Teddy and Samir, shakes the ogre's fleshy paw. The two pugilists feel relieved. Twenty-three years old, 1 metre 80, his emaciated face is carved in the image of a desert prince. Cinnamon flecks in his dark complexion. His Persian stare gazes straight into the pupils, his energy's compact. Not a strand out of place on his pale chestnut haircut, crowned with old-skool Ray-Bans.
He's got presence, wears a short-sleeved white shirt, and he didn't get those arms from lace-making, got butcher's biceps. His back carves a V, his strong neck would dent the guillotine's blade. Under the beige of his trousers, his slender legs are sculpted in coshes. A small Sony bag in his left hand, he gets his keys out of his trouser pocket and spins them on his index finger.
In magisterial tones, the ogre interrupts the carousel of keys:
"Tell you what, young man, you could let your little brother know it's not such a good idea leaving his friends hanging about. Ten minutes they've been waiting for their jog . . ."
Teddy and Samir burst out laughing:
"Nah, we're not waiting for his little brother: it's him, Lies, he's our trainer."
Lies sketches a smile like an albatross gliding in the sky.
"My mistake," the ogre mumbles, visibly shaken, "put it down to old age . . . I'm Jeannot, by the way."
He gives Lies a friendly slap on the shoulder, his hand wide as a holy book. On the estate, everyone touches each other, feels each other up, fingers each other. Pinch a cheek, punch a floating rib in jest, impose a crutch, wallop that arse even if it means leaving a bruise as your tag, all tokens of affection. Language has its limits, can't ever pack a real punch. Nothing subtle about it, physical shyness means love gets expressed brutally in the endz.
"I didn't think I'd ever seen a kid coming out of your parents' place. You must be light welterweight."
Lies pretends to mull this over, before responding quietly:
"One up . . . welterweight, and I live here on my own, like a grown-up."
Jeannot the ogre shrugs and coughs revoltingly before starting up again. Brought up to respect their elders, Lies, Teddy and Samir listen to him, even though they've got other fish to fry.
"Well obviously . . . I've been stuck in this tower since day one. How about that for an accolade? There was a time everyone knew each other, but there's no trust any more, you go away, I'll burgle you. So, I don't go on holiday any more . . . To top it all I'm allergic to dog hair, or I'd have a Rottweiler, at least they know how to talk to unwelcome visitors. So how long have you been my neighbour, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Three months. I lived in the sniper's tower before that."
"Ah!! Yes, I see . . ."
Housing estates are mapped out like battlefields: towers, roads, alleys, squares, all renamed by events in the news. Violets Street became Street of the Five Virgins after a bunch of girls got mown down by a hit-and-run driver. Circus Square turned into Premature Square: a pregnant woman was stabbed there by her husband, and the baby came into this world on the pavement. Beavers Tower changed to Ben Omar Tower, after loneliness and despair drove a suicide victim to throw himself off the top of his tower block. It's all the rage now, some kids won't think twice about defenestration if it means their tag gets immortalised in the main entrance.
Lies has just turned his key in the lock, hoping to bring the conversation to a polite end, but Jeannot's on a roll:
"I'm a big fan of the noble art. Even used to box myself, but it's so long ago I've forgotten the basics, I only had one fight, it marked me for the rest of my days though."
Jeannot pressed down on his conk with his pudgy thumb. Teddy and Samir grin wide as bananas when he does that to his face. Click, the key has opened the door of the two-room apartment. Lies wants to throw in the towel without offending Jeannot, he can feel his neighbour's loneliness and doesn't need a tax break to volunteer:
"Come and see us, we train from Mondays to Fridays at the Jerboa Gym from 6pm till 7.30. On the 10th August, the lads are entering their first competition, down south."
"Don't think I can make it, mornings are one thing, but evenings no chance, I'm on guard duty in the hut."
He turns to Teddy now:
"It's very important to know your weight . . . Right, time to tidy these scales away . . ."
Apparatus in one hand, he starts heading back in, but Lies calls out:
"Does it work?"
"It doesn't lie . . ."
"Can I borrow it? The one down at the club's given up the ghost." Jeannot places it religiously in Lies's hands, the two men are face to face now: the same height, the tenderness in their eyes is matched. For a moment they recognise each other, like animals.
"Which category did you box in, Sir?"
"Middleweight, the queen of categories to my mind, young man."
Jeannot suddenly raises his head and sniffs the air around him.
"Can you smell something?" he asks theatrically.
The men take a deep breath to detect any- thing suspicious. Aside from the stench of piss and shit, of dead rats, gobs of spit, damp, dustbin bags whiffing like charnel houses: walou, nothing.
Jeannot smiles, jabbering loudly to feel less self-conscious:
"It's my apple tart, and I love that gorgeous perfume. Got to get back before it burns."
His belly gurgling and rumbling away, the ogre has run off to check on his Golden Delicious pâtisserie.
From "Viscéral" by Rachid Djaïdani (Éditions du Seuil), translated exclusively for the NS by Sarah Adams
"Just Like Tomorrow" by Faïza Guène, also translated by Sarah Adams, is published by Chatto & Windus