John Walsh: Tales of the City

'I could kill you with any of the objects on this table,' my new drinking companion told me
Click to follow

So there I was in Paris on Friday night, in a bar somewhere off St Germain des Pres, a bar called Birdland, across the road from another, equally un-French-sounding one called (unbelievably) the Bedford Arms, like the one in Balham, and I fell into conversation with this burly chap. He was friendly and American - no hang on, Canadian, because he pronounced "sound" and "around" like they were "soond" and "aroond" - and pushing retirement age, but clearly pretty fit still, with wide shoulders and not too pronounced a beer-gut, and he carried himself with a certain held-in authority, as if his matey-ness and smiling demeanour might at any point be wiped away by something stern and hard and considerably less sociable.

He introduced his three associates, likewise Canucks, all from Vancouver, four large, smiling good-old-boys, all of them radiating semi-benign, interest in what I did and what I thought about things. London, eh? The Independent, huh? Is that kinda left-wing? Kinda, I said. Kinda sceptical about everything our supposedly left-wing government does, without becoming right-wing in the process.

We drank more cognac. So (I asked), you guys work together? Instantly, they drew themselves back and, without actually saluting, held themselves more stiff and upright. "Sure we do," said the one called Jesse, "We work for the government."

You mean you're civil servants? (I asked.) Or diplomats? (Frankly, it was hard to imagine Ted, Mike, Dan and Jesse munching Ferrero Rochers and captivating their guests at embassy parties.) They looked at each other again. "We travel. We do a lot of work in transit," said the small dark one called Dan, guardedly. "We like to work with people," said the friendly Ted, but they seemed to shush him as if he'd said too much.

So we had some more cognac and the one called Jesse (bald head, vast arms, De Niro 'tache'n'beard) asked my feelings about French policemen and whether I thought British policemen should be armed too. Yes, I said, but only for already-perilous situations - perhaps not when they're just wandering the mean streets of Lewisham; that would only encourage a culture of firearms. For fully five minutes I got a stereo-sound earful from all four of them about the vital importance of Bearing Arms in a civilised society, and the need to protect civilians from swivel-eyed madmen spraying bullets across the street in broad daylight.

So naturellement, I brought up the Brazilian guy at Stockwell Tube and how the police/guns debate had gone a bit quiet after the innocent Mr Menenez was shot in the head eight times. Instead of becoming thoughtful at this, they went into paroxysms of self-justification.

"If you saw a cop shoot a felon who was aiming at gun at your child's head, would you think he'd done right or wrong?" demanded Ted. "It's hardly the same," I argued. "The Brazilian was only walking down the road, boarding a bus and heading for Tube. "If they shot him, and he was unarmed, then they was in receipt of a wrong order," said Jesse. "I wouldn't blame those officers." "Ah'da done it myself in a heartbeat," said Mike firmly. "Surely that's not the point," I said "If firearms hadn't be available, we wouldn't be standing here trying to establish whose fault it was, would we?"

So we talked and fenced, and as they got drunker, my God how they enjoyed talking about wasting people, and catching a bad guy, and blowing someone away without a second thought. I asked if they were cops or ex-cops. Ted conceded that they had been and Yes, he'd shot a few people, but his first thought, all through his career, had always been about making the community safe for the little ones to grown up in. Bit of a sentimental old sausage, Ted, with his weatherbeaten face, his neckerchief and his huge belt buckle.

I told him he should convey his fascinating thoughts in a proper article for the British papers. We swapped business cards. I discovered - at last -- they were a branch of the Mounties, members of an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, and that - Dan, the youngest and drunkest, finally confessed - they'd been extraditing an Algerian prisoner all the way to Paris. One of them had medical training, another was an Immigration official. "But why not to Algeria?" I asked. "Given his nationality?" There was silence. "Don't tell me your man is something to do with al-Qa'ida," I said laughingly, "and you're trying to send him a country where he can be legally tortured. Or, hang on a sec, do I mean where he can't be legally tortured, namely here?"

There have probably been more tactful enquiries in the history of human communication. My new Canadian pals seemed not to want to prolong any discussion of the human cargo they were delivering. Mike disappeared. Dan talked urgently to the ginger-haired dreamboat at the next table. Ted looked round the room with pursed lips. Only Jesse seemed disposed to talk further.

"Ah don't mind telling you, John," he said, putting his bald head very close to mine, "Ah been trained." "Trained?" I said, drunkenly (I'd been flooring cognacs for a while.) "As what? A singer? A chef? A piano tuner?" "In combat, John," he said, lazily, almost regretfully, "Ah could kill you right now with any one of six objects here on this table." We contemplated the friendly muddle of bottles and glasses before us. "But Jesse," I said, "Why on earth would you want to?"

It didn't occur to me until I was back in my hotel room that much of these charming Canadian men's enjoyable professional lives had been spent waiting for someone, somewhere, to give them the chance, give them permission, give them the order, to end someone's life, with no questions asked. All they needed was a kind person who would do them a favour and justify it, nice and legally ...