Read The Winner Stands Alone Online

Authors: Paulo Coelho

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #working

The Winner Stands Alone (10 page)

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Time passed, and the question became less important, until the night they attended a gala
suppercumcharity auction at one of the most expensive restaurants in Milan. They were both
there for differ- ent reasons: Igor in order to firm up the details of a contract with an
Italian firm, and Ewa in order to attend the Fashion Week, where she intended to make a
few purchases for her Moscow shop.

And what had happened in the middle of Siberia was repeated in one of the most
sophisticated cities in the world. This time, a friend of theirs, rather the worse for
wear, sat down at their table uninvited and started joking and making inappropriate
remarks. Ewa saw Igors hand grip the handle of his knife more tightly. As tactfully and
politely as possible, she asked the friend to go away. By then, she had already drunk
several glasses of Asti Spumante, as the Italians refer to what used to be called
champagne because the use of the word champagne was banned under the so-called Protected
Designation of Origin. Champagne simply means a white wine made using a particular bacte-
ria which, when rigorously controlled, begins to generate gases inside the bottle as the
wine ages over a period of at least fifteen months. The name refers to the region where
its produced. Spumante is exactly the same thing, but European law doesnt allow it to be
known by the French name, since the vineyards are in Italy and not in the Cham- pagne
region of France.

They started talking about champagne and about the laws govern- ing names, while she tried
to drive from her head the question she had tried to suppress and which was now returning
in full force. While they were talking, she kept drinking, until there came a moment when
she could hold back no longer.

What does it matter if someone gets a little drunk and comes over to talk to us?

When he answered, Igors voice had changed.

Because we so rarely travel together. Besides, you know what I think about the world we
live in: that were being suffocated by lies, encouraged to put our faith in science rather
than in spiritual values and to feed our souls with the things society tells us are
important, when, in reality, were slowly dying because we know whats going on around us,
that were being forced to do things we never planned to do, and yet even so, are incapable
of giving it all up and devoting our days and nights to true happiness, to family, nature,
love. And why is that? Because we feel obliged to finish what we started, so that we can
achieve the financial stability we need in order to enjoy the rest of our lives devoting
ourselves to each other because were responsible people. I know you sometimes think I work too much, but its not true. Im building our
future and soon well be free to dream and to live out our dreams.

Financial stability was hardly something they lacked. They had no debts and they could
have got up from that table there and then with just their credit cards and simply left
behind them the world Igor ap- parently hated and start all over again, and never have to
worry about money. She had often spoken to him about this, and Igor always said the same
thing: It wont be much longer. Besides, this wasnt the moment to discuss their future as a
couple.

God thought of everything, he went on. We are together be- cause he decided we should be.
You may not fully appreciate your im- portance in my life, but without you, I would never
have got where I am today. He placed us side by side and lent me his power to defend you
whenever necessary. He taught me that everything is part of a plan, and I must respect
that plan down to the last detail. If hadnt done so, I would either be dead in Kabul or
living in poverty in Moscow.

And it was then that the Spumante or champagne revealed what it was capable of, regardless
of what it was called.

What happened to that beggar in Siberia? she asked.

Igor didnt at first know what she was talking about. Ewa reminded him of what had happened
in the restaurant there.

Id like to know what you did. I saved him. She gave a sigh of relief. I saved him from a
filthy, hopeless life in those freezing winters, with his body being slowly destroyed by booze. I let his soul depart toward the light
because the moment he came into that restaurant to destroy our happiness, I knew that his
spirit was inhabited by the Evil One.

Ewa felt her heart begin to pound. She didnt need him to say out- right: I killed him. It
was clear that he had.

Without you I dont exist. Anything and anyone who tries to sepa- rate us or to destroy the
little time we have together at this particular moment of our lives gets the treatment
they deserve.

Meaning perhaps that they deserved to be killed? Could such a thing have happened before
without her noticing? She drank and drank some more, and Igor began to relax again. Since
he never opened his heart to anyone else, he loved their conversations.

We speak the same language, he went on. We see the world in the same way. We complete each
other with a perfection that is granted only to those who put love above all else. As I
said, without you I dont exist.

Look at the Superclass around us. They think theyre so impor- tant, so socially aware,
because theyre willing to pay a fortune for some useless item at a charity auction or to
attend a supper organized to raise funds to help the homeless in Rwanda or to save the
pandas in China. Pandas and the homeless are all one to them. They feel spe- cial,
superior to the average person, because theyre doing something useful. Have they ever
fought in a war? No. They create wars, but they dont fight in them. If the war turns out
well, they get all the credit. If not, others get the blame. Theyre in love with
themselves.

My love, Id like to ask you something else . . .

At that point, a presenter climbed onto the stage and thanked ev- eryone for being there
that night. The money raised would go toward buying medicine for refugee camps in Africa.

What he doesnt say, Igor went on, as if he hadnt heard her, is that only ten percent of
the total amount raised will reach its destina- tion. The rest will be used to pay for
this event, for the cost of this supper, for the publicity and the organizers, in short,
for the people who had the brilliant idea in the first place, and all at an exorbitant
price. They use poverty as a way to get even richer.

So why are we here?

Because we need to be. Its part of my work. I have no intention of saving Rwanda or
sending medicine to refugees, but at least I know that I dont. The other guests here
tonight are using their money to wash their consciences and their souls clean of guilt.
When the geno- cide was going on in Rwanda, I financed a small army of friends, who
prevented more than two thousand deaths. Did you know that?

No, you never told me. I didnt need to. You know that I care about other people.

The auction began with a small Louis Vuitton travel bag. It sold for ten times its retail
price. Igor watched the auction impassively, while she drank another glass of Spumante and
wondered whether she should or shouldnt ask that question.

An artist danced to a soundtrack provided by Marilyn Monroe and simultaneously painted a
picture. The bids for the finished work of art were sky-highthe price of a small apartment
in Moscow.

Another glass of wine. Another item sold. For an equally absurd price.

She drank so much that night that she had to be carried back to the hotel. Before he put
her into bed and before she fell asleep, she finally got up the courage to ask:

And what if I were to leave you? Drink less next time. Answer me. That could never happen.
Our marriage is perfect. Common sense returned, but she knew she had an excuse now and so pretended to be drunker than she was. Yes, but what if I did? Id make you come back,
and Im good at getting what I want, even if that means destroying whole worlds. And what if I met another man? He looked at
her without rancor, almost benevolently. Even if you slept with every man on Earth, my
love would still survive.

And since then, what had
seemed a blessing began to turn into a nightmare. She was married to a monster, an
assassin. What was that story about financing an army of mercenaries to intervene in a
tribal war? How many other men had he killed to keep them from troubling their marital
peace? She could blame the war, the traumas he had suffered, the hard times he had been
through, but many other men had endured the same experiences, without emerging from them convinced that they were
the instrument of Divine Justice, carrying out some Grand Plan.

Im not jealous, Igor used to say whenever he or she set off on a business trip, because
you know how much I love you, and I know how much you love me. Nothing will ever happen to
destabilize our marriage.

She was more convinced than ever that this was not love. It was something sick and morbid,
which she would either have to accept and live the rest of her life a prisoner to fear, or
else free herself as soon as possible, at the first opportunity.

Several opportunities arose, but the most insistent, the most per- sistent was the very
last man with whom she would have imagined building a real relationship: the couturier who
was dazzling the fash- ion world, growing ever more famous, and receiving a vast amount of
money from his own country so that the world would understand that the nomadic tribes had
solid moral values that were completely at odds with the reign of terror imposed by a
religious minority. He was a man who, increasingly, had the world at his feet.

Whenever they met at fashion shows, he would drop whatever other commitments he had,
cancel lunches and suppers, just so that they could spend some time together in peace,
locked in a hotel room, often without even making love. They would watch television, eat,
drink (although he never touched a drop of alcohol), go for walks in parks, visit
bookshops, talk to strangers, speak very little of the past, never of the future, and a
great deal about the present.

She resisted for as long as she could, and, although she was never in love with him, when
he proposed that she leave everything and move to London, she accepted at once. It was the
only possible way out of her private hell.

Another message appears on her
phone. It cant be; they havent been in touch for two years.

Were nearly there. Remember, we havent got much time.

The limousine has to maneuver its way toward the entrance of the Hotel Martinez. On both
sides, behind the metal barriers erected by the police, people of all ages spend the whole
day hoping to get a close-up look at some celebrity. They take photos with their digital
cameras, tell their friends whom theyve seen, and send messages over the Internet to the
virtual communities they belong to. They would feel the long wait was justified for that
one moment of glory: catching a glimpse of an actress, an actor, or even a TV presenter!

Although its only thanks to them that the celebrity industry keeps going, they are kept at
a safe distance; strategically positioned body- guards ask anyone going into the hotel for
proof that they are stay- ing there or meeting someone. Then you either have to get out
the magnetic card that serves as your room key or else be turned away in full view of the
public. If youre having a business meeting or have been invited for a drink at the bar,
they give your name to the security people and, with everyone watching, wait to see if
what you say is true or false. The bodyguard uses his radio to call reception, and you
wait there for what seems like an eternity, and then, finally, after that very public
humiliation, youre allowed in. Those who arrive in limousines, of course, are treated
quite differently.

The two doors of the Maybach are opened, one by the chauffeur and the other by the hotel
porter. The cameras turn on Ewa and start to shoot; even though no one knows who she is,
if shes staying at the Martinez and has arrived in a fancy car, she must be important.
Perhaps shes the mistress of the man shes with, and if she is and hes having an
extramarital affair, theres always a chance they can send the photos to some scandal rag.
Or perhaps the beautiful blonde is a famous foreign celebrity as yet unknown in France.
Later, theyll find her name in the so-called people magazines and be glad that they were
once only four or five yards from her.

Hamid looks at the small crowd pressed up against the metal barri- ers. He has never
understood this phenomenon, having been brought up in a place where such things simply
dont happen. Once he asked a friend why there was so much interest in celebrities.

Dont assume theyre all fans, said his friend. Since time imme- morial, men have believed
that being close to something unattainable and mysterious can bring blessings. Thats why
people make pilgrim- ages to visit gurus and sacred places.

But Cannes?!

It can be anywhere they might catch a distant glimpse of some elusive celebrity. For the
adoring crowd, a wave from a celebrity is like being scattered with ambrosia dust or manna
from heaven.

Its the same everywhere. Take, for example, those massive pop concerts that seem more like
religious meetings, or the way people are willing to wait outside some sell-out
performance at a theater just to see the Superclass entering and leaving. Take the crowds
who go to foot- ball stadiums to watch a bunch of men chasing after a ball. Celebrities
are idols, icons if you like, after all, they do resemble the paintings you see in
churches and can become cult images in the bedrooms of ado- lescents or housewives, and
even in the offices of industrial magnates, who, despite their own enormous wealth, envy
their celebrity.

Theres just one difference: in this case, the public is the supreme judge, and while they
may applaud today, tomorrow theyll be equally happy to read some scandalous revelation
about their idol in a gossip magazine. Then they can say: Poor thing. Im so glad Im not
like him. They may adore their idol today, but tomorrow theyll stone and crucify him
without a twinge of conscience.

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