One Sunday morning presents a women’s life-world in full. The festive atmosphere of a day of rest and vacation is nothing but the description of a fateful life-cycle that seems to captures these women - its victims. With a rich and passionate symphonic thrust, Némirovsky draws two generations of women caught by love: the mother, who had her share of disappointment and now seeks only peace, and the daughter, who now, it appears, sees the path of disappointment and heart break unfolding in front of her. This cycle is like a mythic tale of the fate of women, condemned to live in the shadows of spoiled and disloyal men who chase after empty thrills, giving birth to their children and waiting for the husbands return in the living room while they play with their mistresses. The beauty and melancholy of this wonderful story, as well as the voices of the characters, which echo so many men and women, and the illuminated world Némirovsky creates with her writing, make this story into a masterpiece.
In Rue Las Cases it was as quiet as during the height of summer, and every open window was screened by a yellow blind. The fine weather had returned: it was the first Sunday of spring, a warm and restless day that took people out of their houses and out of the city. The sky glowed with a gentle radiance. The birds in Place Sainte-Clotilde chirped lazily, while the raucous screeching of cars leaving for the country echoed in the peaceful streets. The only cloud in the sky was a delicately curled white shell that floated upward for a moment, then melted into the ether. People raised their heads with surprise and anticipation; they sniffed the air and smiled.
Agnes half-closed the shutters: the sun was hot and the roses would open too quickly and die. Nanette ran in and stood hopping from one foot to the other.
“May I go out, Mama? It’s such nice weather.”
Mass was almost over. The children were already coming down the street in their bright sleeveless dresses, holding their prayer books in their white-gloved hands and clustering around a little girl who had just taken her first communion. Her round cheeks were pink and shining under her veil. A procession of bare legs, all pink and gold, as downy as the skin of a peach, sparkled in the sunshine. The bells were still ringing, slowly and sadly as if to say, “Off you go, good people, we are sorry not to be able to keep you any longer. We have sheltered you for as long as we could, but now we have to give you back to the world and to your everyday lives. Time to go. Mass is over.”
The bells fell silent. The smell of hot bread filled the street, wafting up from the open bakery; you could see the freshly washed floor gleaming and the narrow mirrors on the walls glinting faintly in the shadows. Then everyone had gone home.
Agnes said, “Nanette, go and see if Papa is ready, and tell Nadine that lunch is on the table.”
Guillaume came in, radiating the scent of lavender water and good cigars, which always made Agnes feel slightly nauseated. He seemed even more high-spirited, healthy, and plump than usual.
As soon as they had sat down, he announced, “I’ll be going out after lunch. When you’ve been suffocating in Paris all week, it’s the least… Are you really not tempted?”
“I don’t want to leave the little one.”
Nanette was sitting opposite him, and Guillaume smiled at her and tweaked her hair. The previous night she had had a temperature, but it had been so slight that her fresh complexion showed no sign of pallor.
“She’s not really ill. She has a good appetite.”
“Oh, I’m not worried, thank God,” said Agnes. “I’ll let her go out until four o’clock. Where are you going?”
Guillaume’s face visibly clouded over. “I… oh, I don’t know yet… You always want to organize things in advance… Somewhere around Fontainebleau or Chartres, I’ll see, wherever I end up. So? Will you come with me?”
“I’d love to see the look on his face if I agreed,” thought Agnes. The set smile on her lips annoyed her husband. But she answered, as she always did, “I’ve got things to do at home.”
She thought, “Who is it this time?”
Guillaume’s mistresses: her jealousy, her anxiety, the sleepless nights, were now in the long-distant past. He was tall and overweight, going bald, his whole body solidly balanced, his head firmly planted on a thick, strong neck. He was forty-five, the age at which men are at their most powerful, dominant, and self-confident, the blood coursing thickly through their veins. When he laughed he thrust his jaw forward to reveal a row of nearly perfect white teeth.
“Which one of them told him, ‘You look like a wolf or a wild animal when you smile’?” wondered Agnes. “He must have been incredibly flattered. He never used to laugh like that.”
She remembered how he used to weep in her arms every time a love affair ended, gulping as if he were trying to inhale his tears. Poor Guillaume…
“Well, I…” said Nadine.
She started each sentence like that. It was impossible to detect a single word or a single idea in anything she thought or said that did not relate to herself, her clothes, her friends, the ladders in her stockings, her pocket money, her own pleasure. She was… triumphant. Her skin had the pale, velvety brightness of jasmine and of camellias, and you could see the blood beating just beneath the surface: it rose girlishly in her cheeks, swelling her lips so that it looked as though a pink, heady wine was about to gush from them. Her green eyes sparkled.
“She’s twenty,” thought Agnes, trying, as so often, to keep her eyes closed and not to be wounded by her daughter’s almost overwhelming beauty, the peals of laughter, the egoism, the fervor, the diamondlike hardness. “She’s twenty years old; it’s not her fault… Life will tame her, soften her, make her grow up.”
“Mama, can I take your red scarf? I won’t lose it. And, Mama, may I come back late?”
“And where are you going?”
“Mama, you know perfectly well! To Chantal Aumont’s house in Saint-Cloud. Arlette is coming to fetch me. Can I come home late? After eight o’clock, anyway? You won’t be angry? Then I won’t have to go through Saint-Cloud at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening.”
“She’s quite right,” said Guillaume.
Lunch was nearly over. Mariette was serving the meal quickly. Sunday… As soon as the washing-up was done, she, too, would be going out.
They ate orange-flavored crêpes; Agnes had helped Mariette make the batter. “Delicious,” said Guillaume appreciatively.
The clattering of dishes could be heard through the open windows: it was only a faint sound from the dark ground-floor flat where two spinsters lived in the gloom, but it was louder and livelier in the house across the way, where there was a table laid for twelve with the place settings gleaming on the neat folds of the damask tablecloth and a basket of white roses for a first communion decorating the center.
“I’m going to get ready, Mama. I don’t want any coffee.”
Guillaume swallowed his quickly and silently. Mariette began to clear the table.
“What a hurry they’re in,” thought Agnes, as her thin, skillful hands deftly folded Nanette’s napkin. “Only I…”
She was the only one for whom this wonderful Sunday held no attraction.
“I never imagined she’d become so stay-at-home and dull,” thought Guillaume as he looked at her. He took a deep inward breath and, proudly conscious of the sense of vigor that surged through his body, felt his chest expand with the fine weather. “I’m in rather good shape, holding up surprisingly well,” he thought, as his mind turned to all the reasons (the political crisis, money worries, the taxes he owed, Germaine—who cramped his style, devil take her) why he could justifiably feel as miserable and depressed as anyone else. But on the contrary! “I’ve always been the same. A ray of sunshine, the prospect of a Sunday away from Paris, a nice bottle of wine, freedom, a pretty woman at my side—and I’m twenty again! I’m alive,” he congratulated himself, looking at his wife with veiled hostility; her cold beauty and the tense, mocking line of her lips irritated him. He said aloud, “Of course, I’ll telephone you if I spend the night in Chartres. In any case, I’ll be back tomorrow morning, and I’ll drop in at home before I go to the office.”
Agnes thought, with a strange, weary detachment, “One day, after a lavish lunch, just as he’s kissing the woman he’s with, the car he’s driving will crash into a tree. I’ll get a phone call from Senlis or Auxerre. Will you suffer?” she demanded curiously of the mute, invisible image of herself waiting in the shadows. But the image, silent and indifferent, did not reply, and the powerful silhouette of Guillaume came between it and her.
“See you soon, darling.” “See you soon, dear.” Then Guillaume was gone.
“Shall I lay tea in the parlor, madame?” asked Mariette.
“No, I’ll do it. You can go as soon as you’ve tidied the kitchen.”
“Thank you, madame,” said the girl, blushing fiercely as if she were near a blazing fire.
“Thank you, madame,” she repeated, with a dreamy expression that made Agnes shrug her shoulders mockingly.
Agnes stroked Nanette’s smooth, black hair, as the little girl first hid in the folds of her dress and then poked her head out giggling.
“We’ll be perfectly happy, just the two of us, sweetheart.”
Meanwhile, in her room, Nadine was quickly changing her clothes, powdering her neck, her bare arms, and the curve of her breast where, unseen in the car, Rémi had placed his dry, passionate lips, caressing her with quick, burning kisses. Half past two… Arlette still had not arrived. “With Arlette here, Mama won’t suspect anything.” The rendezvous was at three.
“To think that Mama doesn’t notice anything. And she was young once…” she thought, trying in vain to imagine her mother’s youth, her engagement and her early married life.
“She must always have been like this. Everything calm, orderly, wearing those white lawn collars. ‘Guillaume, don’t spoil my roses.’ Whereas I…”
She shivered, gently biting her lips as she looked at herself in the mirror. Nothing gave her more pleasure than her body, her eyes, her face, and the shape of her young, white neck as straight as a column. “It’s wonderful to be twenty,” she thought fervently. “Do all young women feel as I do, do they relish their happiness, their energy, the fire in their blood? Do they feel these things as fiercely and deeply as I do? For a woman, being twenty in 1934 is … is incredible,” she told herself.
She summoned up disjointed memories of nights on a campsite, coming back at dawn in Rémi’s car (and there were her parents thinking she was on an innocent trip with her friends on the Île Saint-Louis, watching the sun rise over the Seine), skiing, swimming, the pure air and cold water on her body, Rémi digging his nails into her neck, gently pulling back her short hair. “And my parents are blind to it all! I suppose in their day… I can imagine my mother at my age, at her first ball, her eyes modestly lowered. Rémi… I’m in love,” she told her reflection, smiling into the mirror. “But I must be careful of him—he’s so good-looking and so sure of himself. He’s been spoiled by women, by flattery. He must like making people suffer. But then, we’ll see who’ll be the strongest,” she muttered, as she nervously clenched her fists, feeling her love pounding in her heart, making her long to take part in this game of cruelty and passion.
She laughed out loud. And her laugh rang out so clearly and arrogantly in the silence that she stopped to listen, as if enchanted by the beauty of a rare and perfect musical instrument.
“There are times when I think I’m in love with myself more than anything else,” she thought, as she put on her green necklace, every bead of which glimmered and reflected the sun. Her smooth, firm skin had the brilliant glow of young animals, flowers, or a blossom in May, a glossiness that was fleeting but completely perfect. “I shall never be as beautiful again.”
She sprayed perfume on her face and shoulders, deliberately wasting it; today anything sparkling and extravagant suited her! “I’d love a bright red dress and gypsy jewelry.” She thought of her mother’s tender, weary voice: “Moderation in all things, Nadine!”
“The old!” she thought contemptuously.
In the street Arlette’s car had stopped outside the house. Nadine grabbed her bag and, cramming her beret on her head as she ran, shouted “Good-bye, Mama,” and disappeared.
“I want you to have a little rest on the settee, Nanette. You slept so badly last night. I’ll sit next to you and do some work,” said Agnes. “Then you can go out with mademoiselle.”
Nanette rolled her pink smock in her fingers for a while, rubbed her face against the cushions as she turned over and over, yawned, and went to sleep. She was five and, like Agnes, had the pale, fresh complexion of someone fair-haired, yet had black hair and dark eyes.
Agnes sat down quietly next to her. The house was sleeping silently. Outside, the smell of coffee hung in the air. The room was flooded with a soft, warm, yellow light. Agnes heard Mariette carefully close the kitchen door and walk through the flat; she listened to her footsteps fading away down the back stairs. She sighed: a strange, melancholy happiness and a delicious feeling of peace overcame her. Silence fell over the empty rooms, and she knew that nobody would disturb her until evening; not a single footstep, nor any unknown voice would find its way into the house, her refuge. The street was empty and quiet. There was only an invisible woman playing the piano, hidden behind her closed shutters. Then all was quiet. At that very moment Mariette, clutching her Sunday imitation pigskin bag in her large, bare hands, was hurrying to the station where her lover was waiting for her, and Guillaume, in the woods at Compiègne, was saying to the fat, blonde woman sitting next to him, “It’s easy to blame me, I’m not really a bad husband, but my wife…” Nadine was in Arlette’s little green car, driving past the gates of the Luxembourg gardens. The chestnut trees were in flower. Children ran around in little sleeveless knitted tops. Arlette was thinking bitterly that nobody was waiting for her; nobody loved her. Her friends put up with her because of her precious green car and, behind their horn-rimmed glasses, her round eyes made mothers trust her. Lucky Nadine!
A sharp wind was blowing; the water from the fountains sprayed out sideways, covering passersby with spray. The saplings in Place Sainte-Clotilde swayed gently.
“It’s so peaceful,” thought Agnes.
She smiled; neither her husband nor her elder daughter had ever seen this rare, slow, confident smile on her lips.
She got up and quietly went to change the water for the roses; carefully she cut their stems; they were gradually coming into flower, although their petals seemed to be opening reluctantly, fearfully, as if with some kind of divine modesty.
“How lovely it is here,” she thought.
Her house was a refuge, a warm enclosed shell sealed against the noise outside. When, in the wintry dusk, she walked along the Rue Las Cases, an island of shadows, and saw the stone sculpture of the smiling woman above the door, that sweet, familiar face decorated with narrow, carved ribbons, she felt oddly relaxed and peaceful, floating in waves of happiness and calm. Her house… how she loved the delicious silence, the slight, furtive creaking of the furniture, the delicate inlaid tables shining palely in the gloom. She sat down; although she normally held herself so erect, now she curled up in an armchair.
“Guillaume says I like objects more than human beings… That may be true.”
Objects enfolded her in a gentle, wordless spell. The copper and tortoiseshell clock ticked slowly and peacefully in the silence.
The familiar musical clinking of a silver cup gleaming in the shadows responded to her every movement, her every sigh, as if it were her friend.
“Where do we find happiness? We pursue it, search for it, kill ourselves trying to find it, and all the time it’s just here,” she said to herself. “It comes just when we’ve stopped expecting anything, stopped hoping, stopped being afraid. Of course, there is the children’s health …” and she bent automatically to kiss Nanette’s forehead. “Fresh as a flower, thank God. It would be such a relief not to hope for anything anymore. How I’ve changed,” she thought, remembering the past, her insane love for Guillaume, that little hidden square in Passy where she used to wait for him on spring evenings. She thought of his family, her hateful mother-in-law, the noise his sisters made in their miserable, gloomy parlor. “Ah, I can never have enough silence!” She smiled, whispering as if the Agnes of an earlier time were sitting next to her, listening incredulously, her dark plaits framing her pale young face. “Yes, aren’t you surprised? I’ve changed, haven’t I?”
She shook her head. In her memory every day in the past was rainy and sad, every effort was in vain, and every word that was uttered was either cruel or full of lies.
“Ah, how can one regret being in love? But, luckily, Nadine is not like me. Today’s young girls are so cold, so unemotional. Nadine is a child, but even later on she’ll never love or suffer as I did. So much the better, thank God, so much the better. And by the look of things Nanette will be like her sister.”
She smiled: it was strange to think that these smooth, chubby, pink cheeks and unformed features would turn into a woman’s face. She put out a hand to stroke the fine black hair. “These are the only moments when my soul is at peace,” she thought, remembering a childhood friend who used to say, “My soul is at peace,” as she half-closed her eyes and lit a cigarette. But Agnes did not smoke. And it was not that she liked to dream, more that she preferred to sit and occupy herself with some humdrum but specific task: she would sew or knit, stifle her thoughts, and force herself to stay calm and silent as she tidied books away or, one at a time, carefully washed and dried the Bohemian glassware, the tall, thin antique glasses with gold rims that they used for champagne. “Yes, at twenty happiness seemed different to me, rather terrible and overwhelming, yet one’s desires become easier to achieve once they have largely run their course,” she thought, as she picked up her sewing basket, with its piece of needlework, some silk thread, her thimble, and her little gold scissors. “What more does a woman need who is not in love with love?”
“Let me out here, Arlette, will you?” Nadine asked. It was three o’clock. “I’ll walk for a bit,” she said to herself. “I don’t want to get there first.”
Arlette did as she asked. Nadine jumped out of the car. “Thank you, chérie.”
Arlette drove off. Nadine walked up the Rue de l’Odéon, forcing herself to slow down and suppress the excitement spreading through her body. “I like being out in the street,” she thought, happily looking around at everything. “I’m stifled at home. They can’t understand that I’m young, I’m twenty years old, I can’t stop myself singing, dancing, laughing, shouting. It’s because I’m full of joy.” The breeze, fanning her legs through the thin material of her dress, was delicious. She felt light, ethereal, floating: and just then it seemed to her that nothing could tether her to the ground. “There are times when I could easily fly away,” she thought, buoyed up with hope. The world was so beautiful, so kind! The glare of the midday sun had softened and was turning into a pale, gentle glow; on every street corner women were holding out bunches of daffodils, offering them for sale to passersby. Families were happily sitting outside the cafés, drinking fruit juice as they clustered around a little girl fresh from communion, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining. Soldiers strolled slowly along, blocking the pavement, walking beside women dressed in black with large, red, bare hands. “Beautiful,” said a boy walking past, blowing a kiss to Nadine as he eyed her. She laughed.
Sometimes love itself, even the image of Rémi, disappeared. There remained simply a feeling of exultation and a feverish, piercing happiness, both of which were almost agonizingly unbearable.
“Love? Does Rémi love me?” she asked herself suddenly, as she reached the little bistro where he was due to meet her. “What do I feel? We’re mostly just friends, but what good is that? Friendship and trust are all right for old people. Even tenderness is not for us. Love, well, that’s something else.” She remembered the sharp pain that tender words and kisses sometimes seemed to conceal. She went inside.
The café was empty. The sun was shining. A clock on the wall ticked. The small inside room where she sat down smelled of wine and the dank air from the cellar.
He was not there. She felt her heart tighten slowly in her chest. “I know it’s quarter past three, but surely he would have waited for me?”
She ordered a drink.
Each time the door opened, each time a man’s shadow appeared, her heart beat faster and she was filled with happiness; each time it was a stranger who came in, gave her a distracted look, and went to sit down in the shadows. She clasped and unclasped her hands nervously under the table.
“But where can he be? Why doesn’t he come?” Then she lowered her head and continued to wait.
Inexorably, the clock struck every quarter of an hour. Staring at its hands, she waited without moving a muscle, as if complete silence, complete stillness, would somehow slow the passing of time. Three thirty. Three forty-five. That was nothing, one side or the other of the half hour made little difference, even when it was three forty, but if you said, “twenty to four, quarter to four,” then you were lost, everything was ruined, gone forever. He wasn’t coming, he was laughing at her! Who was he with at that very moment? To whom was he saying, “That Nadine Padouan? I’ve really got her!” She felt sharp, bitter little tears prick her eyes. No, no, not that! Four o’clock. Her lips were trembling. She opened her bag and blew on her powder puff, the powder enveloping her in a stifling, perfumed cloud; as she looked in the little mirror she noticed that her face was quivering and distorted as if underwater. “No, I’m not going to cry,” she thought, savagely clenching her teeth together. With shaking hands she took out her lipstick and outlined her lips, then powdered the satin-smooth, bluish hollow under her eyes where, one day, the first wrinkle would appear. “Why has he done this? Did he just want a kiss one evening, is that all?” For a moment she felt despairing and worthless. All the painful memories that are part of even a happy and secure childhood flooded into her mind: the undeserved slap her father had given her when she was twelve; the unfair teacher; those little English girls who, so long ago, had laughed at her and said, “We won’t play with you. We don’t play with kids.”
“It hurts. I never knew it could hurt so much.”
She gave up watching the clock but stayed where she was, quite still. Where could she go? She felt safe here and comfortable. How many other women had waited, swallowing their tears as she did, unthinkingly stroking the old imitation leather banquette, warm and soft as an animal’s coat? Then, all at once, she felt proud and strong again. What did any of it matter? “I’m in agony, I’m unhappy.” Oh, what fine new words these were: love, unhappiness, desire. She rolled them silently on her lips.
“I want him to love me. I’m young and beautiful. He will love me, and if he doesn’t, others will,” she muttered as she nervously clenched her hands, her nails as shining and sharp as claws.
Five o’clock… The dim little room suddenly shone like a furnace. The sun had moved around. It lit up the golden liqueur in her glass and the telephone booth opposite her.
“A phone call?” she thought feverishly. “Maybe he’s ill?”
“Oh, come on,” she said, with a furious shrug. She had spoken out loud; she shivered. “What’s the matter with me?” She imagined him lying bleeding, dead in the road; he drove like a madman…
“Supposing I telephoned? No!” she murmured, acknowledging for the first time how weak and downcast she felt.
At the same time, deep down, a mysterious voice seemed to be whispering: “Look. Listen. Remember. You’ll never forget today. You’ll grow old. But at the instant of your death you’ll see that door opening, banging in the sunshine. You’ll hear the clock chiming the quarters and the noise in the street.”
She stood up and went into the telephone booth, which smelled of dust and chalk; the walls were covered with scribbles. She looked for a long time at a drawing of a woman in the corner. At last she dialed Jasmin 10-32.
“Hello,” said a woman’s voice, a voice she did not recognize.
“Is this Monsieur Rémi Alquier’s apartment?” she asked, and she was struck by the sound of her words: her voice shook.
“Yes, who is it?”
Nadine said nothing; she could clearly hear a soft, lazy laugh and a voice calling out, “Rémi, there’s a young girl asking for you… What? Monsieur Alquier isn’t in, mademoiselle.”
Slowly, Nadine hung up and went outside. It was six o’clock, and the brightness of the May sunshine had faded; a sad, pale dusk had taken over. The smell of plants and freshly watered flowers rose from the Luxembourg gardens. Nadine walked aimlessly down one street, then down another. She whistled quietly as she walked. The first lights were coming on in the houses, and although the streets were not yet dark, the first gas lamps were being lit: their flickering light shone through her tears.
In Rue Las Cases Agnes had put Nanette to bed; half-asleep, she was still talking quietly to herself, shyly confiding in her toys and the shadows in the room. As soon as she heard Agnes, however, she cautiously stopped.
“Already,” Agnes thought.
She went into the parlor. She walked across it without turning on the lights and leaned by the window. It was getting dark. She sighed. The spring day concealed a latent bitterness that seemed to emerge as evening came, just as sweet-smelling peaches can leave a sour taste in the mouth. Where was Guillaume? “He probably won’t come back tonight. So much the better,” she said to herself, as she thought of her cool, empty bed. She touched the cold window. How many times had she waited like this for Guillaume? Evening after evening, listening to the clock ticking in the silence and the creaking of the lift as it slowly went up, up, past her door, and then back down. Evening after evening, at first in despair, then with resignation, then with a heavy and deadly indifference. And now? Sadly, she shrugged her shoulders.
The street was empty, and a bluish mist seemed to float over everything, as if a fine shower of ash had begun to fall gently from the overcast sky. The golden star of a streetlamp lit up the shadows, and the towers of Sainte-Clotilde looked as if they were retreating and melting into the distance. A little car full of flowers, returning from the country, went past; there was just enough light to see bunches of daffodils tied onto the headlights. Concierges sat outside on their wicker chairs, hands folded loosely in their laps, not talking. Shutters were being closed at every window, and only the faint pink light of a lamp could be glimpsed through the slats.
“In the old days,” remembered Agnes, “when I was Nadine’s age, I was already spending long hours waiting in vain for Guillaume.” She shut her eyes, trying to see him as he had been then, or at least how he had seemed to her then. Had he been so handsome? So charming? My God, he had certainly been thinner than he was now, his face leaner and more expressive, with a beautiful mouth. His kisses… she let out a sad, bitter little laugh.
“How I loved him… the idiot I was… stupid idiot… He didn’t say anything loving to me. He just used to kiss me, kiss me until my heart melted with sweetness and pain. For eighteen months he never once said, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I want to marry you’… I always had to be there, at his feet. ‘At my disposal,’ he would say. And, fool that I was, I found pleasure in it. I was at that age when even defeat is intoxicating. And I would think, ‘He will love me. I will be his wife. If I give him enough devotion and love, he will love me.'”
All of a sudden she had an extraordinarily precise vision of a spring evening long ago. But not a fine, mild one like this evening; it was one of those rainy, cold Parisian springs when heavy, icy showers started at dawn, streaming through the leafy trees. The chestnut trees now in blossom, the long day and the warm air seemed like a cruel joke. She was sitting on a bench in an empty square, waiting for him; the soaking box hedges gave off a bitter smell; the raindrops falling on the pond slowly, sadly marked the minutes drifting inexorably by. Cold tears ran down her cheeks. He wasn’t coming. A woman had sat down next to her and looked at her without speaking, hunching her back against the rain and tightly pinching her lips together, as if thinking, “Here’s another one.”
She bowed her head a little, resting it on her arms as she used to do in the old days. A deep sadness overcame her.
“What is the matter with me? I am happy really; I feel very calm and peaceful. What’s the good of remembering things? It will only make me resentful and so pointlessly angry, my God!”
And a picture came into her mind of her riding in a taxi along the dark, wet avenues of the Bois de Boulogne; it was as if she could once again taste and smell the pure, cold air coming in through the open window, as Guillaume gently and cruelly felt her naked breast, as if he were squeezing the juice from a fruit. All those quarrels, reconciliations, bitter tears, lies, bad behavior, and then that rush of sweet happiness when he touched her hand, laughing, as he said, “Are you angry? I like making you suffer a bit.”
“That’s all gone, it will never happen again,” she said aloud despairingly. And all at once, she was aware of tears pouring down her face. “I want to suffer again.”
“To suffer, to despair, to long for someone! I have no one in the world left to wait for! I’m old. I hate this house,” she thought feverishly, “and this peace and calm! But what about the children? Oh yes, the illusion of motherhood is the strongest and yet the most futile. Of course I love them; they’re all I have in the world. But that’s not enough. I want to rediscover those lost years, the suffering of the past. But at my age love would be unpleasant. I’d like to be twenty! Lucky Nadine! She’s in Saint-Cloud, probably playing golf! She doesn’t have to worry about love! Lucky Nadine!”
She started. She had not heard the door open, nor Nadine’s footsteps on the carpet. Wiping her eyes, she said abruptly, “Don’t put the light on.”
Without replying, Nadine came to sit next to her. It was dark now. Neither of them looked at each other. After a while Agnes asked: “Did you have a nice time, sweetheart?”
“Yes, thank you, Mama,” said Nadine. “What time is it?”
“Almost seven, I think.”
“You’ve come back earlier than you thought,” Agnes said absentmindedly.
Nadine did not answer, wordlessly tinkling the thin gold bracelets on her bare arms.
“How quiet she is,” Agnes thought, slightly surprised. She said aloud, “What is it, sweetheart? Are you tired?”
“You must go to bed early. Now go and wash, we’re going to eat in five minutes. Don’t make a noise in the hall. Nanette is asleep.”
As she spoke the telephone started ringing. Nadine suddenly looked up. Mariette appeared. “It’s for Miss Nadine.”
Nadine left the room, her heart pounding, conscious of her mother’s eyes on her. She silently closed the door of the little office where the telephone was kept.
“Nadine? It’s me, Rémi… Oh, we are angry, are we? Look, forgive me… don’t be horrid … well, I’m saying sorry! There, there,” he said, as if coaxing a restive animal. “Be kind to me, my sweet… What could I do? She was an old flame, I was being charitable. Ah, Nadine, you can’t think the sweet nothings you give me are enough? Do you? Well, do you?” he repeated, and she heard the sweet, voluptuous sound of his laugh through his tightly closed lips. “You must forgive me. It’s true I don’t dislike kissing you when you’re cross, when your green eyes are blazing. I can see them now. They’re smoldering, aren’t they? How about tomorrow? Do you want to meet tomorrow at the same time? What? I swear I won’t stand you up… What? You’re not free? What a joke! Tomorrow? Same place, same time. I’ve said, I swear… Tomorrow?” he said again.
Nadine said, “Tomorrow.”
He laughed. “There’s a good girl,” he said in English. “Good little girlie. Bye-bye.”
Nadine ran into the parlor. Her mother had not moved.
“What are you doing, Mama?” she cried, and her voice, her burst of laughter, made Agnes feel bitter and troubled, almost envious. “It’s dark in here!”
She put all the lights on. Her eyes, still wet with tears, were sparkling; a dark flush had spread over her cheeks. Humming to herself, she went up to the mirror and tidied her hair, smiling at her face, which was now alight with happiness, and at her quivering, parted lips.
“Well, you’re happy all of a sudden,” Agnes said. She tried to laugh, but only a sad, grating little sound escaped her. She thought, “I’ve been blind! The girl’s in love! Ah, she has too much freedom, I’m too weak, that’s what worries me.” But she recognized the bitterness, the suffering in her heart. She greeted it like an old friend. “My God, I’m jealous!”
“Who was that on the telephone? You know perfectly well that your father doesn’t like telephone calls from people we don’t know, or these mysterious meetings.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Mama,” Nadine said, as she looked at her mother with bright, innocent eyes that made it impossible to read the secret thoughts within them: Mother, the eternal enemy, pathetic in her old age, understanding nothing, seeing nothing, withdrawing into her shell, her only aim to stop youth from being alive! “I really don’t understand. It was only that the tennis match which should have happened on Saturday has been postponed until tomorrow. That’s all.”
“That’s all, is it!” Agnes said, and she was struck by how dry and harsh her own voice sounded.
She looked at Nadine. “I’m mad. It must have been my remembering the past. She’s still only a child.” For a moment she had a vision of a young girl with long black hair sitting in a desolate square in the mist and rain; she looked at her sadly and then banished her forever from her mind.
Gently she touched Nadine’s arm. “Come along,” she said.
Nadine stifled a sardonic laugh. “Will I be as… gullible, when I’m her age? And as placid? Lucky Mother,” she thought with gentle scorn. “It must be wonderful to be so naive and to have such an untroubled heart.”
*This story was published in: Dimanche and Other Stories, Vintage Books, 2010.
*Translation copyright © 2010 by Persephone Books
*Image: Niina Vatanen