The old man shuffled into the smoky, dingy office of Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Dugarry, escorted and assisted by a youthful soldier with an empty sleeve pinned to the chest of his tunic. A window pane rattled from the concussion of the mighty artillery pieces lobbing high explosives into the German lines seven miles away. Dugarry waved his hand in the air, gesturing to the man to take a seat opposite him at the large, hardwood desk. The old man, walking with a cane, wore a set of dusty tails that had seen better days, white gloves and black shoes in desperate need of repair. His grey hair was thin but wild, unlike his moustache, which was full, manicured and dyed rusty brown. Dugarry studied the brush, wondering if it was false.
It took an eternity for the old man to take his seat, but when he did he occupied it as a king would a throne, his hand resting on the brass crown of the cane. The escorting soldier stood by his side until waved away by Dugarry, upon which he retreated to the door and stood to attention. Dugarry, shuffled papers on his desk like they were face-down playing cards until he picked up a scribbled note and attempted to decipher it. It was clear to anyone watching his facial expression that he could not read it. Dugarry opened a desk drawer and found a pair of brass-rimmed spectacles, perching them on his fat nose. Returning to the note, he scanned it and coughed.
“Please, call me Joseph”, said the old man.
“Very well, Joseph. What can I do for you? With respect, I can see you are too old to join the army.”
Monsieur Pujol eyed the officer with suspicion. “I am indeed too old to hold a rifle and throw grenades, but I am at your service, Sir. I want to make a contribution to the war, anything to make it end.”
Dugarry shrugged. “It says in your letter that you are a baker in Marseilles. I think our gallant men at the front appreciate the bread you provide them. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. ”
“I don’t see much marching going on”, muttered Pujol, sarcastically, "and I doubt if my bread gets beyond the officers' mess."
Dugarry sat upright as if he had taken affront. “There will come a time when we will be marching into Germany in victory. Until then, our soldiers still need feeding.”
“It’s not enough”, said Pujol. “I can do more, I can do both.”
“I am, was, a musician”, said Pujol wriggling on the leather chair.
Dugarry cracked a rare smile. “Aha! You want to raise the spirits of the men on two fronts. I think we can find a job for you in the field hospital or possibly the music hall. When is the next concert, Pierre?”
The escorting soldier broke his attention pose, took a scrap of paper out of his tunic pocket, unfolded it and inspected the text.
“Three weeks, Sir. The Marseilles Casino.”
“There we have it, Joseph. I will put in a request to the Théâtre aux Armées and the mayor to include you on the bill. What is it you play?”
Pujol, wiggled restlessly on his chair again and leant forward to stare Dugarry in the eye. “My arse, Sir.”
Dugarry was taken aback, visibly recoiling, while the one-armed soldier snorted as he attempted to muffle his laughter.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My arse. I don’t exactly play it as use it as a sound creator. I call it an anal rendition.”
“Are you mocking me, because if you are, it is both very bad taste and probably illegal to waste the army’s time at this moment of crisis”, said Dugarry, feeling somewhat annoyed.
“On the contrary, Sir. I have performed at the Moulin Rough in Paris in front of hundreds, and indeed royalty. Sigmund Freud was there too. My stage name was Le Pétomane. I was a flatulist, a professional farter. I am since retired.”
Dugarry was so flustered, he knocked over the small French flag perched on his desk. “I have never heard of you. Pierre, have you heard of Le Pétomane?”
Pierre nodded. “I have an uncle in Paris who wrote to me about this artist a few years ago and he sent me a programme. The act is real, Sir.”
Dugarry thought for a moment. “The act might be real, but how do I know you are Le Pétomane? And even if you are, maybe you have lost your talent. Your wind might be...broken.” His face betrayed an immediate sense of regret.
Pujol shrugged his shoulders. “You want me to audition?”
“That depends”, said Dugarry, “Do I need to open the doors and windows?”
Pujol shook his head. “Sir, you are not the first person to ask that question, but as you have not heard of me, I forgive you for such an ignorant inquiry. No, my act is purely audible.”
Pierre snorted again.
Duggary smiled. “I apologise, Monsieur Pujol. Perhaps you can give me a sample of your repertoire?”
Pujol looked pensive, chewed his dry tongue and then leant forward. He raised his body on the chair as if he were inhaling through his backside, his thighs lifting as if it were his chest expanding through filled lungs. “Let’s start with some instruments.” He relaxed and lowered very slightly, his face contorting around a rigid moustache. A trumpet-like noise cut through the silence.
Dugarry looked astonished. “I don’t know, a trumpet?”
Pujol shook his head. “No, a cornet, but you were close. Try this one.” His face took on a serious frown as he cast out a deeper-toned fart that lasted five seconds.
“Hmmm. Was that a tuba?”
“Very good”, said Pujol clapping. Pierre smacked his palm against his thigh as one-handed applause. “Would you like more?”
Dugarry waved his hands in the negative. “No, I think you still have your talent, or should I say, gift. I have some reservations, though, Monsieur Pujol.”
“Please, I am happy to help”, said Pujol, slumping deeper into his chair.
“Brass instruments, or wind instruments”, he chuckled to himself, “may have delighted the rich and famous in Paris, but we need to raise the spirits of exhausted, battle-scarred soldiers who may have only a few days of leave before they return to the trenches. I don’t think the French Horn or Tuba will cut it.”
Pujol nodded. “I quite agree. He wiggled again and lifted his trunk off the seat of the chair. An altogether different noise came out of his backside.
“Was that…a cow?” said Dugarry.
Pujol wasn’t finished. He let out a more gutteral sound.
“A pig!” Pierre slapped his thigh again in applause.
Another fart, this time, two-toned.
“A donkey!” laughed Dugarry, starting to write a letter to the mayor on Marseilles.
Pujol sat down, a little weary.
“How much..wind..have you got left in there?” enquired Dugarry. “I need to know how long you can perform for.”
Pujol started to rise from his chair, causing Pierre to rush to his assistance. Pujol felt Pierre’s strong arm tuck under his own and lift him upright.
“I can fart for as long as I can breathe”, he said, “ and I mean breathe through my arse. I can’t guarantee how long I can breathe through my mouth.”
“Astounding. Shall I request an hour on stage?” said Dugarry, looking at his draft letter.
Pujol shook his head. “Our soldiers have had enough hot air from their generals for the past three years, I think another hour is too much.”
Dugarry stopped scribbling. “How long do you want?”
“I can warm them up with a few farmyard impressions, then maybe another fifteen minutes. There is one piece I have always wanted to perform, but I need a few cannons. There should be some hanging around down there, we are using more modern artillery these days.”
“Fifteen minutes? Cannons? Which piece?”
Pujol shuffled forwards and grabbed the front of Dugarry’s desk for support. “The 1812 Overture. Good day, Lieutenant Colonel.”
Pujol turned and shuffled towards the door, using his cane to balance. As he passed Pierre, he stopped and farted the first of the overture's famous, climactic notes. Dugarry beat the table twice in lieu of the cannon fire.