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The Old Chinese Shop (Part 1)

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1

Once upon a time there was a boy who liked war. Of course, he liked war because he didn’t really know war. He was too young to be a soldier, and lived with his parents, grandmother, and cat in a beautiful house with garden and pool in a very quiet country. The war this boy liked was video games. A war in which points are lost, but not an arm or a leg, much less life.

Milred, our boy, loved this war. This is what is called a born winner. He wanted to be first in everything, and he almost always got it, which filled his father with pride. At school, he was the best at Mathematics and French, and so was Physical Education. He belonged to the basketball club and, according to the coach, was the team’s engine despite his short stature. When the games were missing, the team felt fragile and discouraged, ready to accept any defeat. When Milred was present, he was always the captain.

Milred had already tried all the video games. He had tested street fighting, soccer games, and jungle tiger hunting. However, I only liked war games. Not that I liked everyone. Electric-sword duels bored him quickly, and prehistoric club fights made him laugh. The only ones that never tired him were the war games with bombs and bullets, napalm and grenades, mines and rockets.

His favorite weapon was aviation. He could go into the night flying a fighter. The mother, worried about her son’s health, often came to send him to bed. Milred protested, but always obeyed. He was a respectful boy. It was. Until you started playing Fighting Night, which an uncle had given you for Christmas. This game made him disobey everyone.

Whenever his mother asked him to lie down, Milred pretended to obey. Once in bed, he waited until the house was in deep silence. Then he would get up again and turn on the television. No sound. The thud of the device reminded him of the pressurized cabin of the fighter jets. Lying on the fluffy wool rug, his soft fingers strumming the console, he felt like a hero. Their mission was to strike a cross-marked target in the heart of a sleeping city.

A city on alert, with all the lights off, where it was necessary to fly at very low altitude because of the radar. A serious city, savagely defended by the incessant firing of air defense. Milred glided through the obstacles, trying to discourage the remote-controlled missiles that chased him. He dropped the bombs always on top of the target and always at the last minute. He was entitled to two failed attempts per game, on condition that he hit the third; otherwise it would not return unscathed. In fact, I wouldn’t even return.

It was only a month ago with this game, but it had already reached level 5. At this level, the player has less time, the buildings are taller and closer, the target is only known at the last second, and the artillery fire anti-aircraft is unstoppable. Until now, he had never returned to his base unscathed and never won a mission. He got it that night at exactly 3:25 in the morning, as the alarm clock indicated. Milred almost shouted with joy.

At that time, still in the shock of emotion, he saw a rare indication appearing on the screen at the conclusion of such games. The text began with “Bravo! You Won!” So far so good. “You are the best, the strongest, the champion!” It was also normal. Strange were the little letters at the bottom of the screen, which kept flashing, “If you feel brave enough to reach a higher level of play, go to the old Chinese shop.” Milred turned everything off and lay on the bed. He had a hard time falling asleep, as the indication continued to appear on the walls of his room, even after the boy had closed his eyelids.

  

  2

  

Milred knew the old Chinese shop very well, as did all the children in the neighborhood, and did not believe that the clue of the game referred to the store he knew. This one was so old-fashioned and the games were so modern … But, having no classes, decided to go see what was going on. He said at home that he had to go to town to make a purchase and left.

The shop was really owned by a very old Chinese gentleman who sold candy, just candy. He was a real Chinese, with a long braid and a little round hat on his head. She always had her hands clasped over her chest and greeted people by bending over and over without speaking. He served the customers himself, sticking his long fingers in the glass nozzles that filled the counter. He was friendly and constantly smiling. At least, it seemed so.

Behind the shop door hung a softly ringing bell whenever a customer came in or out. Nothing mysterious, therefore. Milred knew the store very well because he loved chocolates almost as much as he loved war games. When he got close to the store, he took a few turns before entering. I wanted to see if anything was different, but the store was the same. The windows were still dirty, covered with fly caganites and advertising decals.

Above the door, in letters that resembled the illumination of a parchment, was an inscription: SWEET AND CANDY. Nothing that had to do with video games. When the boy finally decided to come in, he was moved by the resemblance between the store decor and the video game settings, which are also exotic and seem to belong to another time. It was as if this time the game had gone out of screen boundaries and into everyday life. Watching this game was a pleasure Milred could not dispense with.

  

He pushed open the shop door and entered. He knew immediately that he had not been mistaken. As soon as she had closed the door and heard the discreet ringing of the doorbell, she came across shelves full of video games. I had never seen so many. They were carefully placed on metal shelves, and the fluorescent lights of the store highlighted the colors of the boxes. The dusty wooden shelves were gone. Surprised, Milred addressed the store owner:

– Good morning, Mr. Chow-Low! Don’t you sell candy anymore?

The Chinese smiled or pretended, and the boy saw that he too had changed. She had cut her long braid and changed her clothes. He no longer had a hat and was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. It seemed to have rejuvenated twenty years.

“I haven’t seen chocolates in a long time, young man.”

He spoke without an accent, and neither leaned mechanically nor had his hands placed in front of his chest. He was a vulgar merchant in everything.

– Long time? Marveled Milred, who had been there last week buying treats.

But it was no good, because the contents of the shelves were extraordinary. The Chinese man was sensitive to the boy’s admiration and said, using the most modern selling techniques:

– See at ease. If you need any information, have it.

The store owner went to a computer and Milred felt like messing with everything. However, he remembered the concrete reason that had made him go there.

“Thanks a lot, Mr. Chow-Low, but today I’m coming for Level 6 Fighting Night. I won the game and said I should come to your store.”

– Ah, Fighting Night! You have won a very tough game. Now you want Fighting Night II. Very well, I’ll pick you up.

 He left the computer and went to the back of the store. Despite its different appearance, it kept the same floor. As he walked, he said:

– This game is a very special product. Since it’s not like the others, I can’t expose it the same way.

It disappeared briefly and returned shortly after:

– Hey him! You will see that you are not disappointed.

– Thank you, Mr. Chow-Low. How much is it?

– Is nothing. You won the game, you deserve this reward.

Milred muttered a thank you and set off. Only the door was gone. Rather, it had been replaced by a sliding glass door.

– I do not understand. When I entered a little while ago…

“I forgot to give you a sack,” the man said, without showing that he heard Milred’s objections.

He put the game in a brightly colored plastic bag and said again:

– You’ll see you’re not disappointed. See you later. It is giving news.

The young man, continuing to thank him for murmuring, went out for the ride with the new treasure in hand. He walked to the end of the street and, before turning around, couldn’t resist looking back. The store had been renamed VIDEO GAMES, and the owner gently waved his hand as he lit a cigarette, no doubt American.

Milred wasted no time on unanswered questions. Mr. Chow-Low had given him a new game, Fighting Night II, and the only thing he wanted was to start playing as soon as he could. He started running home but, unwilling to arouse suspicion, slowed down as he approached the corner. He could not immediately start playing because first he had to go through the lower levels of the game again. By the time he reached level 6, however, the game forced him to wait for the night before he could start. On the screen was written MISSION LEVEL 6, IMPERATIVE WAITING NIGHT. IMPOSSIBLE DAY MISSION. What could he do? Be patient, of course, and play other games before you start this one. Until her mother told her to lie down. Then, in the utter silence of the house, Milred rose and set out to begin his adventure.

  

Once the initial code was entered, the level 6 game played in the same way as the level 5 game until the first firing of the anti-aircraft artillery and until the first remote-controlled rocket. Suddenly, everything intensified: the gunshots became more brutal, quick and unexpected, and the carpet beneath Milred’s body began to shake with each outburst.

– Is now! Smiled Milred, who kept pushing the buttons on the console, either to sneak out of a deadly shot, diving or climbing the plane, or to drop his bombs on the enemy.

The boy missed the first target. It appeared so suddenly, masked by the night fog, that the plane had already swerved when the button was pressed. A civilian property was hit by mistake. A building that burned down before it disappeared completely. Though it was all so fast, Milred thought he had seen a woman with her son through the flames, her hair bristling with the blast of the blast… or the fear of death. Saw or seemed to see. “What is this?” thought. He wanted to stop, but the plane wouldn’t let him. The boy began to sweat. It wasn’t hot, but he was sweating. He dropped the commands to wipe his forehead briefly. This time the missile hit him in the rear. He felt a burn on his toes. He turned instinctively and saw a huge hole in the bedroom wall.

– Leave it! Advance and concentrate.

  

Then, without even a gesture, the second missile hit him. Not only did it hit the plane but it blew up the television. Milred felt the cold night air on his face. When he opened his eyes again, which he had instinctively closed, he saw that he was in mid-air, clinging to a parachute. Not knowing why or how, it descended slowly toward the earth, shrouded in fog and darkness. The plane’s security system had ejected it and Milred could see his house floating in the sky. The house where the mother, the father, the grandmother and the cat were supposed to be, which was eventually pulverized. Milred continued to descend, and for the first time since he had started playing the wars he was afraid.

  

  3

  

And she had reason to be afraid, for she knew nothing of the world she was entering now. The world on the other side of the screen. Not the one where the bombs are triggered by the simple pressure of a nervous or negligent finger on a keyboard, but the one where the bombs actually land, causing destruction. For a long time nothing could unveil. The low clouds that hung over the earth, the very clouds that had made their mission so difficult, masked the landscape and served as a buffer. When he finally came out of the clouds, he bent his legs instinctively because he felt he was close to the ground. He was so close he could see the details of the world that would soon be his own. Before him stood a city whose buildings he knew well. Some burned and the black smoke from the fires disappeared into the sky.

  

At his feet was a vast empty land, strewn with miscellaneous buildings, with metal-roofed tents, low, fragile tents, as repugnant as pustules on a face. Between the tents were alleys full of filth. And everywhere, on the threshold of houses that once had doors, with their feet in the mud or on heaps of rubble, were people: men, women, and children. Immobile and dumb, looking at the sky, waited for Milred to come down.

Milred realized he was going to land in the slums of the suburbs, and panic washed over him. Everything about him refused to enter that hostile world, although he could not refuse. As much as it pulled on the ropes of the parachute, the wind did not blow away from it. When he landed, the crowd surrounded him silently, so slowly that they looked like statues. Milred noticed mostly the children and their undead eyes. Empty eyes without love or hate. Eyes fixed on him and wide.

  

The boy wanted to stand, but didn’t even have time to sketch the gesture. He felt up in the air and saw the blade of a knife cut the straps of the parachute. The arms never left him. It advanced without the feet touching the ground. I couldn’t walk anyway. The circle had turned into a column of people following him, but soon the strange procession stopped. Before them was a city in ruins. Milred was abruptly dropped and almost fell. The population made a half circle and his accusing look forced the boy to defend himself:

– I didn’t do this! That was just a game!

  

In the nearest building, Milred recognized the one where he had seen his wife and child. Only this was not a game. He tried unsuccessfully to convince them of their innocence, but their faces remained impassive.

They did not understand the meaning of their words. The boy felt that something terrible was imminent, that this kind of gathering of people would not last forever. He heard an alarm siren and saw the nervousness that shook the crowd, ready to disperse. A dozen military jeeps were approaching. The soldiers would surely come for him, set him free, save him. It would be taken hostage, of course, but it was preferable. The soldiers took him and took him.

  

He began to share the horror of their daily life for so many days and nights that he lost count. He followed them from hiding to hiding, from shelter to shelter, under clouds of dust and howling shells. At times, rocket shots would poke them into holes as deep and dark as graves. At other times, they were forced to leave the jeeps and walk for hours in the scorching sun or on a freezing night. Milred no longer felt his feet. They were too swollen to belong to her body. I could no longer lift them. And yet I continued to lift them because I had to walk.

He had the feeling of living in a crazy world or of having gone crazy himself. He asked questions, but got no answers, because these men did not speak their language. They were not particularly bad, and they often gave him food and drink whenever he asked for gestures. But they were soldiers, they were warriors. They had a mission to do and they did it without hesitation.

When the wanderings came to an end, when this escape for no apparent reason ended, Milred thought it had come somewhere. To a side where he could finally rest, regain strength, know a little calm, however fragile.

  

He was in a real house now. It was no longer a shelter. The soldiers departed again, to those tormented places where the wage forced them to go. Here Milred was safe, but could not escape either. They would know where to find it. It was a real house, but unlike any house she had ever known.

The facade was buried in a cliff and had two windows and a door surrounded by a lime frame. The rest of the house extended into the mountain under the rock. Despite the dirt and damp walls, Milred knew she was in a real home because a family lived there. A family like yours, with a father, mother, a daughter, a cat, and a very old grandmother.

They did not look at the boy with malice: although they did not ignore the war, it was too far away to be hostile to him. As was his guest, they offered to eat and drink and showed him where to sleep: a straw mattress in a dark corner. Everything here was dark, by the way. But this was not the time to ask questions. It was time to rest and sleep without fear. He drank curdled milk, which he found delicious, ate bread dipped in a vegetable broth, lay down and slept. He slept like he had never thought to sleep. (Continued…) Jacques Venuleth The Boutique of Vieux Chinois Paris, Hachette Jeunesse, 2003 (Translation and Adaptation)

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