The Winner Stands Alone : Chapter X by Paulo Coelho

Even if he’d had his swimming things with him, he would have found it difficult to get anywhere near the sea shore. The big hotels had, it seems, acquired the rights to great swathes of beach which they had filled with their chairs, logos, waiters and bodyguards, who, at every entry point, demanded the guest’s room key or some other form of identification. Other areas were occupied by huge white marquees, where some production company, brewery or cosmetics firm was launching its latest product at a so-called ‘lunch’. People here were dressed normally, if by ‘normal’ you mean a baseball cap, bright shirt and light-coloured trousers for men, and jewellery, loose top, bermudas and low-heeled shoes for women.

Dark glasses were de rigueur for both sexes, and there was little bare flesh on show because members of the Superclass were too old for that now, and any such display would be considered ridiculous or, rather, pathetic.

Igor noticed one other thing: the mobile phone. The most important item of clothing.

It was essential to be receiving a constant stream of messages or calls, to be prepared to interrupt any conversation in order to answer a call that was not in the least urgent, to stand keying in endless texts via an SMS. They had all forgotten that these initials mean Short Message Service and instead used the key pad as if it were a typewriter. It was slow, awkward and could cause serious damage to the thumb, but what did it matter? At that very moment, not only in Cannes, but in the whole world, the ether was being filled with messages like ‘Good morning, my love, I woke up thinking about you and I’m so glad to have you in my life’, ‘I’ll be home in ten minutes, please have my lunch ready and check that my clothes were sent to the laundry’, or ‘The party here is a real drag, but I haven’t got anywhere else to go, where are you?’ Things that take five minutes to be written down and only ten seconds to be spoken, but that’s the way the world is. Igor knows all about this because he has earned hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the fact that the phone is no longer simply a method of communicating with others, but a thread of hope, a way of believing that you’re not alone, a way of showing others how important you are.

And it was leading the world into a state of utter madness. For a mere 5 euros a month, via an ingenious system created in London, a call centre would send you a standard message every three minutes. When you know you’re going to be talking to someone you want to impress, you just have to dial a particular number to activate the system. The phone rings, you pick it up, open the message, read it quickly and say ‘Oh, that can wait’ (of course it can: it was written to order). This way, the person you’re talking to feels important, and things move along more quickly because he realises he’s in the presence of a very busy person. Three minutes later, the conversation is interrupted by another message, the pressure mounts, and the user of the service can decide whether it’s worth turning off his phone for a quarter of an hour or lying and saying that he really must take this call, and so rid himself of a disagreeable companion.

There is only one situation in which all mobile phones must be turned off. Not at formal suppers, in the middle of a play, during the key moment in a film or while an opera singer is attempting the most difficult of arias; we’ve all heard someone’s mobile phone go off in such circumstances. No, the only time when people are genuinely concerned that their phone might prove dangerous is when they get on a plane and hear the usual lie: ‘All mobile phones must be switched off during the flight because they might interfere with the on-board systems.’ We all believe this and do as the flight attendants ask.

Igor knew when this myth had been created: for years now, airlines had been doing their best to convince passengers to use the phones attached to their seat. These cost ten dollars a minute and use the same transmission system as mobile phones. The strategy didn’t work, but the myth lingered on; they had simply forgotten to remove the warning from the list of dos and don’ts that the flight attendant has to read out before take-off. What no one knew was that on every flight, there were always at least two or three passengers who forgot to turn their phones off, and besides, laptops access the Internet using exactly the same system as mobiles. And no plane anywhere in the world has yet fallen out of the sky because of that.

Now they were trying to modify the warning without alarming the passengers too much and without dropping the price. You could use your mobile phone as long as it was one you could put into flight mode. Such phones cost four times as much. No one has ever explained what ‘flight mode’ is, but if people choose to be taken in like this, that’s their problem.

He keeps walking. He’s troubled by the last look the girl had given him before she died, but prefers not to think about it.

More bodyguards, more dark glasses, more bikinis on the beach, more light-coloured clothes and jewellery attending ‘lunches’, more people hurrying along as if they had something very important to do that morning, more photographers on every corner attempting the impossible task of snapping something unusual, more magazines and free newspapers about what’s happening at the Festival, more people handing out flyers to the poor mortals who haven’t been invited to lunch in one of the white marquees, flyers advertising restaurants on the top of the hill, far from everything, where little is heard of what goes on in Boulevard de la Croisette, up there where models rent apartments for the duration of the Festival, hoping they’ll be summoned to an audition that will change their lives for ever.

All so unsurprising. All so predictable. If he were to go into one of those marquees now, no one would dare ask for his identification because it’s still early and the promoters will be afraid that no one will come. In half an hour’s time, though, depending on how things go, the security guards will be given express orders to let in only pretty, unaccompanied girls.

Why not try it out?

He follows his impulse; after all, he’s on a mission. He goes down some steps, which lead not to the beach, but to a large white marquee with plastic windows, air-conditioning and white chairs and tables, largely empty. One of the security guards asks if he has an invitation, and he says that he does. He pretends to search his pockets. A receptionist dressed in red asks if she can help.

He offers her his business card, bearing the logo of his phone company and his name, Igor Vassilovich, President. He’s sure his name is on the list, he says, but he must have left his invitation at the hotel; he’s been at a series of meetings and forgot to bring it with him. The receptionist welcomes him and invites him in; she has learned to judge men and women by the way they dress, and ‘President’ means the same thing worldwide. Besides, he’s the President of a Russian company! And everyone knows how rich Russians like to show off their wealth. There was no need to check the list.

Igor enters, heads straight for the bar – it’s a very well equipped marquee; there’s even a dance floor – and orders a pineapple juice because it suits the atmosphere and, more importantly, because the drink, decorated with a tiny, blue Japanese umbrella, comes complete with a black straw.

He sits down at one of the many empty tables. Among the few people present is a man in his fifties, with hennaed mahogany brown hair, fake tan and a body honed in one of those gyms that promise eternal youth. He’s wearing a torn T-shirt and is sitting with two other men, who are both dressed in impeccable designer suits. The two men turn to face Igor, and he immediately turns his head slightly, but continues to study them from behind his dark glasses. The men in suits try to work out who this new arrival is, then lose interest.

Igor’s interest, however, increases.

The man does not even have a mobile phone on the table, although his two assistants are constantly fielding calls.

Given that this badly dressed, arrogant fellow has been let into the marquee; given that he has his mobile phone turned off; given that the waiter keeps coming up to him and asking if he wants anything; given that he doesn’t even deign to respond, but merely waves him away, he is obviously someone very important.

Igor takes a fifty-euro note out of his pocket and gives it to the waiter who has just started laying the table.

‘Who’s the gentleman in the faded blue T-shirt?’ he asks, glancing in the direction of the other table.

‘Javits Wild. He’s a very important man.’

Excellent. After someone as insignificant as the girl at the beach, a figure like Javits Wild would be ideal – not famous, but important. One of the people who decides who should be in the spotlight and who feels no need to take much care over his own appearance because he knows exactly who he is. He’s in charge of pulling the strings, and the puppets feel themselves to be the most privileged and envied people on the planet, until one day, for whatever reason, the puppeteer decides to cut the strings, and the puppets fall down, lifeless and powerless.

He’s clearly a member of the Superclass, which means that he has false friends and many enemies.

‘One other question. Would it be acceptable to destroy a universe in the name of a greater love?’

The waiter laughs.

‘Are you God or just gay?’

‘Neither, but thank you for your answer.’

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