When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
At a certain point in my life, my services entailed crossing the little bridge across the Seine (for the Pont Neuf was not yet built at that time) at a certain hour several times a week, and I was usually recognized and greeted by tradesmen or other simple folk, but most conspicuously and most regularly by a very pretty grocer’s wife whose shop bore a sign with two angels, and who, every time I passed over those five or six months, bowed low and watched me walking on as far as she could. Her behaviour caught my eye; I returned her gaze and thanked her kindly. Riding from Fontainebleau to Paris late that winter, I came to the little bridge again and she stepped outside her shop’s door and hailed me as I rode by: ‘Sir, your servant!’ I returned her greeting and looking back from time to time I saw she had leaned far forward to watch me for as long as possible. I had a manservant and a postillion behind me, whom I intended to send back to Fontainebleau with letters to certain ladies that evening. At my command, the manservant dismounted and went to the young woman to tell her my name and that I had noticed her habit of seeing and greeting me; should she wish to make my acquaintance, I would pay her a visit wherever she chose.
She responded to the manservant: He could not have brought her a more welcome message, and she would come anywhere I suggested.
As we rode on I asked the manservant whether he knew of any place where I might come together with the woman. He answered that he would take her to a certain procuress; being a very concerned and conscientious man, however, this servant, Wilhelm from Courtral, added: As the plague was showing its face here and there, and had killed not only common and dirty folk, but also a doctor and a canon, he would advise me to take along mattresses, blankets, and linen from my own house. I accepted his suggestion and he promised to prepare a good bed for me. Before dismounting, I told him to take along a decent basin, a small bottle of sweet-smelling essence, and some pastries and apples; he was also to make sure the room was well heated, for it was so cold that my feet had frozen in their stirrups and the sky was full of snowflakes.
That evening I went along and found a very beautiful woman of about twenty years sitting on the bed and enduring a zealous lecture from the procuress, whose head and bent back were swaddled in a black cloak. The door was ajar and large fresh logs blazed loudly in the fireplace; they did not hear me coming and I stood outside the doorway for a moment. The young woman gazed calmly at the flames, large-eyed. With a single motion of her head, she had shifted miles away from the repulsive hag. As she did so, strands of her dark, heavy hair had spilled out from beneath her small night cap and now fell, curling into natural ringlets, across her chemise between shoulder and chest. She was also wearing a short petticoat made of green woollen fabric and had clogs on her feet. At that moment, I must have made some noise that gave me away, for she cast her head around and turned to me a face lent an almost wild expression by the extreme tension of her features, were it not for the radiant devotion flowing from her wide eyes and flickering from her unspeaking mouth like an invisible flame. I liked her extraordinarily well; quicker than a thought, the hag was out of the room and I was with my paramour. As I attempted to extract a few liberties in the first intoxication of this surprising possession, she eluded me with an indescribably lively vigour both in her eyes and in her enigmatic voice. The next instant, however, I felt myself in her embrace, and she was clinging even closer with her forthright and inexhaustible eyes than with her lips and arms; then it was once again as though she wanted to speak, but her lips could form no words as they fluttered with kisses, her trembling throat allowed no clearer sound than a fractured sob.
I had spent a large part of that day riding on frosty country roads, followed by a most annoying and intense appearance in the king’s antechamber, upon which I had first drunk and then fenced hard with my zweihänder to tame my bad mood, and so I was overcome, amidst this delightful and mysterious adventure, embraced by soft arms, and bestrewn with perfumed hair, by such sudden fatigue and nigh stupefaction that I no longer remembered even how I had come to be in that room, indeed for a moment confused the person whose heart beat so close to mine with quite a different woman from earlier days, whereupon I instantly fell fast asleep.
When I awoke it was still the dead of night but I felt straight away that my paramour was no longer by my side. I raised my head and saw by the weak light of the collapsing embers that she was standing at the window. She had cracked open one shutter and was spying through the gap. Then she turned around, noticed that I was awake, and called out (I see her now, running the palm of her left hand up her cheek and throwing her hair back over her shoulder): ‘It’s not day yet, not for a long time!’ Now I saw full well how tall and beautiful she was, and I could scarcely await the moment she would return to me with a few long, calm steps of her beautiful feet, the reddish glimmer rising to her ankles. First, though, she went to the fireplace, bent down to the ground, took the last heavy log not yet on the fire in her radiant bare arms, and threw it on the embers. Then she turned, her face glinting with flames and glee, grabbed an apple from the table in passing and was at my side, her limbs still touched by the fresh whiff of the fire and then instantly dissolved and shaken from within by stronger flames, her right hand gripping me, her left at once offering up to my mouth the cool, bitten fruit and her cheeks, lips, and eyes. The last log on the fire burned stronger than all the others. Casting sparks, it sucked up the flame and made it blaze powerfully once again, the fire’s light washing over us like a wave breaking on the wall and lifting our entangled shadows abruptly before they sank anew. Over and over the strong wood crackled, nourishing new flames from within which leapt up and chased off the heavy darkness with gushes and trusses of bright red. All at once, though, the flame subsided and a cold draught pushed at the window shutter quietly as a hand, baring the sallow unwanted dawn.
We sat up and knew that day had come. What was out there, though, was nothing like a day. It bore no resemblance to the world’s awakening. What was out there did not look like a street. There was no single thing to be made out: it was a colourless, characterless tangle of ageless writhing larvae. From somewhere, far away as though from the depths of memory, a church clock struck, and clammy air that belonged to no hour came streaming in, so cold that we pressed our bodies together with a shudder. She leaned back and fastened her eyes on my face with all her might; her throat trembling, something rose within her and spilled to the edge of her lips. No word became of it, no sigh, and no kiss, but some unborn thing resembling all three. The day grew lighter from moment to moment, and the manifold expressions on her trembling face grew ever more meaningful. All at once, shuffling steps and voices came so close outside the window that she ducked and turned her face to the wall. It was two men passing. For an instant the light of a small lantern one of them was carrying shone in; the other was pushing a cart with a wheel that grated and groaned. Once they had passed I got up, closed the shutter, and lit a candle. Half an apple was still there; we ate it together and then I asked whether I might not see her again, for I was not leaving until Sunday. This had been a Thursday night.
She answered that she no doubt yearned more fervently than I, but meeting again was impossible unless I stayed all of Sunday, because she could only see me again on the Sunday night.
At first, various hindrances came to my mind and I listed a number of difficulties, to which she responded not with words but with a prompting look that was exceedingly painful as her face grew almost uncannily hard and dark. At that I promised of course to stay through Sunday, and added that I would report once again to that place on Sunday evening. Hearing this, she looked at me firmly and said, with a rough and broken tone in her voice: ‘I know all too well that I have come to a house of shame for your sake, but I did so of my own free will because I wanted to be with you, because I would have agreed to any condition. Now, though, I would feel like the lowest harlot if I were to come here a second time. I did it for your sake, because for me you are the man you are, because you’re Bassompierre, because you’re the one person in the world who makes this house honourable through your presence!’ She said ‘house’, but for a moment it was as though she were uttering a more contemptible word; as she spoke the word she cast such a glance at those four walls, that bed, the blanket slipped onto the floor, a look so powerful that the burst of light shooting from her eyes made all those ugly, common things seem to flinch and edge away from her, as though the pitiful room really had grown larger for an instant.
Then she added in an indescribably gentle and solemn tone: ‘May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to another apart from my husband and you, and if I ever yearn for another in all the world!’ Leaning forward with her half-open lips alive with her breath, she seemed to expect some kind of answer, some declaration of belief on my part, only she did not read what she wanted in my face, for her tense, searching eyes darkened, her lashes opened and closed, and all at once she was at the window with her back to me, her brow pressed with all her force to the shutter, her whole body so shaken by soundless but horridly intense weeping that the words died on my lips and I did not dare touch her. At last I cradled one of her hands, which were dangling as if lifeless, and, using the most urgent words that the moment inspired, was finally able to pacify her to such a point that she turned her tearstained face back to me, until suddenly a smile breaking out of her eyes and around her lips drained away all traces of her crying in an instant and flooded her whole face with light. As she began to speak once more, she started a most delightful game, playing endlessly with the following phrase: ‘You want to see me again? Then I’ll have you come to my aunt’s house!’ She spoke the first half ten times over, now with sweet intimacy, now with a childish pretence of mistrust. And then she at first whispered the second part into my ear as if it were the greatest secret, then said it with a shrug and pursed lips like the most normal arrangement in the world, casting it over her shoulder and at last repeated it, clutching me, laughing into my face, and embracing me. She described the house to me in detail, the way one gives a child directions the first time it is to cross the street to the bakery alone. Then she sat upright, grew earnest – the full force of her blazing eyes fastening upon me with such strength that it was as if they could draw even a dead creature to them – and continued: ‘I will await you from ten until midnight and later too and on and on, and the front door will always be open. First you’ll find a narrow passageway; don’t linger there, for that is where my aunt’s door is. Then you’ll come across a staircase that leads you to the first floor, and there I shall be!’ And closing her eyes as though dizzy, she threw back her head, spread out her arms, and embraced me, before slipping straight out of my arms and into her clothes, unfamiliar and earnest, and out of the room; for now full daylight had come.
I went about my appointments, sent a few of my people ahead with my things, and by the evening of the next day I felt such great impatience that soon after the evening bells I took my servant Wilhelm, whom I had instructed not to bring a light, and crossed the little bridge so as to at least see my paramour in her shop or the adjacent home and to give her a sign of my presence if need be, though I had no hope of anything more than exchanging a few words with her.
So as not to attract attention, I stayed on the bridge and sent my servant ahead to reconnoitre. He stayed away for some time and had on his return the downcast and brooding look with which I was familiar whenever he was unable to carry out my orders. ‘The shop is locked up,’ he said, ‘and no one seems to be inside. There is no one to be seen or heard in the rooms facing the road. The only way into the yard is over a high wall with a big dog growling behind it. One of the front rooms is lit up, though, and you can see in through a gap in the shutters, but unfortunately it’s empty.’
Discontented, I was about to turn back, when I did take one more slow stroll past the house, and my assiduous servant once again put his eye to the gap, through which a dim light shone, and whispered to me that, though there was no sign of the woman, her husband was now in the room. Curious to see the grocer, whom I could not remember ever spying in his shop, and whom I imagined in turn as a shapeless fat man and a thin, fragile dotard, I went to the window and was most astounded to see an unusually tall and well-built man walking around the well-appointed panelled room, a man a good head taller than me who, when he turned around, showed a very handsome and deeply earnest face, with a brown beard containing few silver threads and with a strangely lofty brow, so high that his temples enclosed a larger space than I had ever seen on a person before. Though he was all alone in the room his gaze wandered, his lips moving, and as he interrupted his pacing here and there he seemed to be holding an imaginary conversation: At one point he moved his arm as though to dismiss a contradiction with semi-indulgent superiority. Every one of his gestures was of great nonchalance and almost contemptuous pride, and as he paced alone I could not help but remember the image of a very noble prisoner I had guarded during his imprisonment in a chamber at Château de Blois while I was in the service of the king. This similarity seemed to grow even greater when the man raised his right hand and looked down at his curled fingers attentively, indeed, most sternly.
For it was with almost the same gesture that I had seen that noble prisoner looking at a ring he wore on the index finger of his right hand and would never part with. The man in the room then went to the table, moved the water basin towards the candle, and brought his hands into the circle of light, his fingers outstretched; he seemed to be inspecting his fingernails. Then he blew out the light and left the room, leaving me standing outside not without a dull, angry jealousy, as my yearning for his wife grew perpetually, nourished like a raging fire by everything I came across, and so was tortuously heightened by this unexpected sight, as it was by every snowflake now blown by a cold wind, each catching on my eyebrows and cheeks and melting.
I spent the next day in the most useless manner, had no concentration for any of my business, bought a horse I did not even like, attended the Duke of Nemours after dinner, and spent some time there with games and the most ridiculous, repulsive conversations. There was no other subject than the plague now spreading more and more around the city, and all the noblemen could speak of nothing but such stories of the hasty burial of corpses, of the straw that was to be burned in the rooms of the dead to consume the toxic fumes, and so on. The most ridiculous, however, appeared to be the Canon of Chandieu, who, although just as rotund and healthy as ever, could not refrain from peering constantly at his fingernails for signs of the suspicious blue taint with which the disease tends to announce itself.
All this nonsense disgusted me; I left early and retired to bed, but I could not find sleep, dressed again impatiently with the intention to go and see my paramour come what may, even if I had to force my way in with my men. I went to the window to wake my men, but the icy night air brought me to my senses, and I realized that was a sure-fire way to ruin everything. Still in my clothes, I collapsed onto my bed and at last fell asleep.
I spent that Sunday in a similar fashion until the evening, reaching the designated street far too early but forcing myself to walk up and down a side road until the clock struck ten. Then I immediately found the house and the door she had described, the door was open too, and behind it the passage and the staircase. At the top of stairs, however, the second door was locked, though a thin strip of light shone beneath it. She was inside, then, perhaps listening at the door, as I was outside it. I scratched at the door with my nails and then heard footsteps inside: they sounded like the hesitant, uncertain steps of bare feet. I stood unbreathing for a moment and then began to knock; yet I heard a man’s voice asking who was there. I pressed myself into the shadow of the doorpost and made not a sound; the door remained closed and I descended the stairs one by one in the greatest silence, crept along the passage into the open air, and paced a few streets, glowing with impatience, my temples pulsing and my teeth clenched. Finally I was drawn back to the house, though I did not yet want to enter; I felt, I knew, she would get rid of the man, she must manage it and I’d be able to join her shortly. The road was narrow; on the other side were no houses but the wall of a monastery garden. I pressed myself to it and sought to guess the window from across the street. In one, an open window on the top floor, a light flared and settled again, like the glow of a flame. Now I thought I saw it all before me: she had put a large log on the fire like last time, like last time she was standing in the middle of the room, her limbs glinting from the flame, or sitting on the bed, listening and waiting. From the door, I would see her and the shadow of her neck, her shoulders, rising and falling transparent on the wall. I was instantly in the passage, on the stairs; the door was no longer locked now; ajar, it let the swaying light through obliquely. As I reached out a hand to open it I thought I heard several people’s footsteps and voices. I refused to believe it, though; I took it for my blood pulsing in my temples, at my throat, and for the blazing of the fire inside. The fire had blazed loudly last time too. I had already gripped the door handle when I was forced to admit there were people in there, several people. But it was no matter to me now, for I felt that she was inside too, and as soon as I opened the door I would see her, grasp her, be it from the hands of other men, pull her to me with one arm, even if I had to use my sword, my dagger to carve out space for her and me from a jumble of screaming bodies! The only thing that seemed utterly unbearable was waiting any longer.
I pushed the door open and saw: a few people burning bed straw in the middle of the empty room, entirely lit up by the flames, scraped walls, their plaster covering the floor, and against one wall a table on which lay two naked bodies, one very tall with its head covered, the other smaller, stretched out along the wall, and alongside it the black shadow of subtle shapes, rising and falling again.
I stumbled back down the stairs and came upon two gravediggers outside the house. One held his small lantern to my face and asked what I was looking for, while the other pushed his groaning, grating cart to the front door. I pulled out my dagger to keep them away, and made my way home. I immediately drank three or four large glasses of heavy wine, and after taking my rest I set off for Lorraine the next day.
Upon my return, all my efforts to find out anything about the woman were in vain. I even went to the shop with its two angels; but the people now running it did not know who had had it before them.
Based on M. de Bassompierre, Journal de ma vie, Cologne, 1663 and Goethe, Conversations of German Refugees.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
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.
This time she’s building a city. The first city after eleven islands in a row, now gathered together in the soft red folder which, when her father goes out for a coffee in the evenings and she finds herself alone, she takes out of the drawer beside her bed, before pulling out one of the maps and descending somewhere into it. Here she comes to a chocolate shop, full of fragrance and cocoa powder. Here she comes to a lounge living room with a giant television, and she quickly darts to the front door before they catch her and think she’s a burglar. Sometimes she finds herself in the middle of a street, among the cars and motorbikes.
On the map, you’ll find anything you could possibly think of. For children, a school encircled with a garden of apple trees. For youngsters, a small university churning out teachers, doctors, engineers, and architects. For the sick, a hospital. For those who want to work, factories, surrounded by fields, with space for them to expand further as more work arrives. For sports lovers, a football field, with small courts around it for volleyball, basketball, and tennis. Then a church and some shops. A bakery. A carpenter’s workshop. Grocery stores. Roads and bridges. Ports with boats coming in to dock. Customs offices, post offices. A police station. Farms and animals. An airport, a bus station. And above all, lots of houses. Small ones for those who live alone. Apartments for those who don’t want to or cannot spend too much. And big houses for the well-off, with large families where the mom and dad were graced with a fruitful and rewarding life.
Whenever she’d finish a city or an island, she would lift it in the air, and the heavier the paper turned with the blue ink of the felt pen, the more satisfied she would become with its stable structure. And sometimes, if the size of the city so required, she would turn the paper over and build another city right underneath it. An underground city, full of drainage canals, water pipes, electricity and telephone cables, and one or two lines for the metro. Then she would place the paper in front of the bulb of the pink lampshade, and the strong light would reveal the city underneath. You could even catch a glimpse of the mice racing along the tunnels. Or the cars passing through huddled streets and chimneys spurting out gray smoke. She’d then give the city a name, place it in the soft red folder, and start thinking about another one. One map after another, she would continue to perfect her cities and islands, enriching the life of the residents. If in her first attempts she used to place, say, a disco opposite a church (because it was the only space left for it), now she would join the disco to the football field, and make that area a recreation center away from the houses. That way, if the football was kicked out of the ground, it wouldn’t break a neighbor’s window but hit only the wall of the disco, which hardly has any windows to break. Or else, where before she’d placed a cemetery next to the homes, now she would take the cemeteries somewhere they can’t be seen. That way, if a young girl who had lost her mother happened to look out the window during a sleepless night, she wouldn’t see her mother’s name engraved upon the stone.
The creation of a city or island usually began with an outer circle. The periphery, generally rounded, which she would then begin to fill. Tonight, however, she begins with a small bar, where many people gather every evening, their breath fast steaming the windows. Lots of people, especially students, who each evening order one of the special drinks prepared for them by Livia, a dark-skinned girl from Porto Alegre, who had somehow ended up there from Brazil. What’s special about the drinks is that they are as unpredictable as a bulb going out in the middle of the night. All you order is the number of drinks you want: one drink, say, if you happen to be alone. Or four, if you’re in the company of three others. But what’s in the drink is entirely up to Livia. That’s the fun of it. She prepares the mixture herself, whatever occurs to her at that moment. The only thing you can specify is whether or not you want her to light it. If you’re scared of fire, well, then you tell her not to light it at all. Otherwise, you could end up with a glass looking like an apostle’s head at Pentecost, and before drinking up you’d have to wait for the flame to die down and go out. Unless of course you’re the adventurous type and you down it all while it’s still burning, or even ask Livia to light it in your mouth. But if you’re that courageous, and you lower your head a second before the flame goes out, then you might end up burning the roof of your mouth—or as Livia calls it, il cielo dela boca. And everyone gulps down these drinks that don’t cost much because they’re small and the place is not for the wealthy. Everyone except a bald man sporting a few days’ beard, leaning on the corner of the wooden counter, watching Livia in wonder at how she keeps coming out with new colors, new flavors, always a new spectacle. But how does she manage to remember them all? How is it that she doesn’t confuse them? How is it that she never spills a drop, and never lets a bottle slip from her hands? How do the colors always end up matching? And how does she make every single drink taste so wonderful?
And as she completes another little masterpiece, the bald man at the counter sets off an applause which soon spreads to the toilet in the inner corner, and when the applause reaches its loudest, he hides his shyness away in the pockets of his jeans—which once were blue—and shouts out with a throaty voice: “Brava, Livia!” By now, Livia’s used to him. She knows she won’t go over to him and ask if he’d like a drink too. He orders his from the young man who collects, washes, and drops the glasses. Black coffee.
In front of Livia’s bar, she’s now building a small fountain to adorn the little opening in the street. In the middle of the fountain, she places a statue of a girl with large eyes, wearing a fur coat with small pockets in which she hides the palms of her hands. The water of the fountain spurts out of the five buttons of her coat, down into a giant saucer. And whenever the door of Livia’s bar opens, the girl with large eyes hears the racket inside and welcomes the heat that slips out.
And from the saucer, she can see them slurping their little drinks. Sometimes they down a drink and immediately follow it with a spoonful of another drink. As if they were taking a syrup or medicine. Often she’ll see someone grimacing, until it all passes and their lips leave their stretch of disgust and meet again in a smile. Then a good laugh and everyone starts clapping. And the bald man shouts out, “Brava, Livia!”
She truly adores the bald man. But when he realizes it’s late, throws the checkered beret on his head and the scarf around his neck and leaves, in his eyes she notices the sadness of an entire week. She continues to watch him as he walks down to the end of the street. He then crosses a tiny square with a large tower in the middle—from which you can see the roofs of the entire city—and enters a narrow street, then walks till he reaches a large block of buildings, full of small apartments. He makes his way up and opens the door. As he takes off his coat and scarf and rests them on the chair by the telephone in the corridor, he opens the door of his daughter’s room to see if she’s asleep.
And as usual, he finds her sleeping with the light on. He slowly takes the piece of paper from her hand, with half a city built and the other half planned, he kisses her on the forehead, and puts out the light under the pink lampshade.
“Business savvy just doesn’t run in the blood,” my mum often says – in which there lies a veiled criticism of me, and a hint of regret. But no such regret existed until after I turned ten years old, because up until then I was known to be quite the businessman.
My family ran a shoe shop, but to have some kid addressing the customers – with lines like “you look great in this pair”; “it’s real leather”; “I’ll make it a bit cheaper, just for you”; “gosh, I really can’t go any lower than that” – would hardly have come across as very authentic, or persuasive. But one year, my mum came up with an idea. You can go to the footbridge, she said, and sell laces and insoles. People are bound to buy them if they see a kid like you. The innocent face of a child is one of life’s ways of tricking us into having the courage to carry on living – this was something I only came to understand much later.
The market had eight buildings in all, named ‘Loyalty’, ‘Filiality’, ‘Benevolence’, ‘Love’, ‘Trust’, ‘Justice’, ‘Harmony’, and ‘Peace’. We lived between Love and Trust. There was a footbridge from Love to Trust, and another to Benevolence. I preferred the footbridge between Love and Trust, because it was longer. The far end was in Ximending, and on the bridge itself there were peddlers selling everything: selling ice cream, selling children’s clothing, selling baked seed cakes, selling Wacoal brand underwear, selling goldfish, turtles – I even saw someone selling water monks (a kind of blue crab). The police sometimes came to harass the peddlers, but there were just too many routes down from the footbridge – the peddlers often bundled up their stuff and nipped off to the toilet before returning. Never mind the fact that the police usually came slowly along, as though they thought the peddlers were all suffering from gout and incapable of running away.
Early that morning my aunt took me up onto the footbridge, gave me a rice ball, and left. I tied the laces in pairs on the footbridge railings, and as soon as the wind picked up they fluttered to and fro. I sat on the little stool my aunt had brought with her, and started lining up the insoles in pair of lefts and rights. I put the ‘noisy skins’ at the very front, because they were the most expensive – one pair cost thirty bucks. My mum said the insoles we called noisy skins were made from pigskin – they had a pungent kind of aroma. If you layered several of them together, they produced this shuai-shuai-shuai noise when you walked around – hence the name. Wow – the skin of a dead pig could still make noise!
Ha, I sure did love selling insoles on the footbridge.
Opposite mine was the stall of a man with greasy hair, a jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and paratrooper boots that were neither zipped nor laced up. Paratrooper boots are those tall boots with lots of lace holes – doing up all the laces on boots so tall was the fiddliest thing in the world. Eventually someone had invented a zip that could replace the laces. I heard this was a dream come true for all the soldiers in Taiwan – from then on, every squaddie could get out of bed in the morning much more quickly. Back then we had at least ten squaddies coming in every day to buy zips for paratrooper boots. Maybe, I thought, I could get my mum to give me some paratrooper boot zips to sell tomorrow – sales would surely be good.
This man had drawn an arc on the ground in chalk, spread out a black cloth, and put out all the things he was selling according to their type. At first I didn’t know what kind of thing he was selling: there were playing cards, linked rings, strange notebooks… My aunt said he was a magic trick salesman. Wow – a guy selling magic tricks! My stall was opposite a guy selling magic tricks!
“Actually no – I am a magician.” This was how he introduced himself. I once asked where his goods were sold wholesale, and he said, “all of this magic is real.” He looked at me with those eyes of his – so skewed they could look in different directions, like a lizard – and I shivered.
The magician didn’t wear a tailcoat like the magicians on TV, and he didn’t have a top hat either. Every day he just wore that woolen jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and filthy paratrooper boots. Next time, I thought, I’d recommend him some liquid boot polish – one wipe of that and they’d be gleaming. His face was perhaps a little squareish, perhaps a little longish. Neither tall nor short, he looked like the kind of person who’d forgotten what laughter was. Once the magician entered a crowd, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else – that was the kind of inconspicuous magician he was. Nothing, that is, apart from that pair of eyes, and that pair of zipless paratrooper boots.
The magician put on a show about once an hour. I was so lucky, sitting opposite him selling insoles. The magic he did most often involved dice, playing cards, linked rings – tricks of that sort. Thinking of it now, they all seem so ordinary – so ordinary there were no real grounds for calling him a magician. But back then they were nothing short of miraculous, as far as I was concerned. It felt just the same as it did later when I saw Vivian Leigh for the first time. This was why I hankered after those magic tricks, in just the same way as I’d always wanted to raise a sparrow.
There was one trick he did with six dice. Surrounded by a large audience, he loaded the dice one by one into the little box with a casual manner. Once he had shut this little box, one shake – and the magician revealed the smile he only ever seemed to reveal when performing – and when he opened the box they had turned to six, six, six, six, six, and six.
It seemed like the number was at the discretion of the magician. He could ask for the birthday of a member of the crowd who was enjoying the spectacle, for instance – then, as though it were nothing, while continuing to speak – produce the digits of the date on which they were born. Sometimes one shake would be all it took, while at other times he’d only stop after shaking it so many times it made me dizzy, but whenever he opened the box the numbers were spot on every time.
When he was doing magic his eyes would sometimes gleam; he was still the magician in the woolen jacket with the collar turned up, in those grey trousers and filthy paratrooper boots – but in that instant his whole person was glowing, as though after taking in a breath of air he was then able to bring all the forces of light and gravity to bear on that little chalk circle in which he stood. As well as performing he was also selling tricks. The time came when I could no long resist the temptation to use money from the insole sales to buy one of the tricks. The first one I got was ‘the dice of mystery’.
After buying a trick from the magician he’d take you to one side and give you a blank piece of white paper along with the trick. “Take it home,” he said, “soak it in water and then dry it out – then you’ll be able to see the secret of the magic.” I spent half the night carefully soaking the paper, and then – having used my mum’s hairdryer to blow it dry – spent the rest of the night carefully studying. There were pictures on the paper as well as words – by the looks of it the magician had written and drawn them all by hand. So, that’s the way it is, I thought to myself as I read the words. That’s the way it is. At that moment I thought I understood all the most profound secrets of the magician – just like I thought I knew what love was when I was eleven-years-old and had a secret crush on a classmate.
I practiced furtively, in private. The first time I performed the dice trick in front of my big brother I was so nervous I repeatedly dropped the dice, with the result that before I’d even finished loading them into the box he had seen through the trick.
“You turn the dice face you want towards yourself, right?” he said with a look of disdain.
“Right.” I was devastated: he was right. Nothing could be more painful than to be rumbled before the magic had even happened – it was like having your whole life foretold before you’d even grown up. I felt a bitter hatred towards both fortune-tellers and those who revealed the secrets of other people’s magic. The key to the trick lay not in the dice themselves but in the box, which had a particular shape to it. You put the number you wanted against the side closest to you, and then it fell to the strength of your wrist to make them turn ninety degrees, so that side was now facing upwards. That’s all there was to it.
“You stole money – I’m telling mum,” my brother said. I had indeed ‘appropriated’ money from selling insoles, and once my brother had made this discovery, I had no option but to give the magic dice to him.
Damn, but that was one overpriced secret – no way was it worth sixty bucks! I’d gone to the trouble of tricking my mum for a whole week before I was able skim sixty bucks from the insole earnings.
But the funny thing was that even though I’d discovered there was no magic to it, whenever I saw the magician clap his hands and yell, I let go of all those thoughts of being deceived. Unable to control myself, I was lured in by the magician’s trickery again and again. Again and again I bought those tricks which – back then – seemed impossibly precious. Like the empty matchbox that could become a full matchbox; the picture book whose black outlines suddenly filled with colour; the ball-point pen that drew in as many colours as a rainbow; the mysteriously pliable copper coin… Every trick was the same: in the instant it was being performed by the magician, my desire to learn it for myself was irrepressible – but once I’d spent the money, bought it and taken it home, after soaking that paper in water and waiting for the words to emerge, the magic stopped being a mystery and became a con. It was only much later that I discovered the same reasoning applies to more or less everything.
With my lack of practice on top of that, those magic tricks were pretty much a disaster for me – I was always being laughed at by relatives or neighbours.
“You’ve been had, idiot child.” When my mum found out I’d stolen money to buy magic tricks, she gave me a slap around the head.
What was really hard to endure was the fact that Burble, from the tailor’s; the utility repairman from Justice block’s kid, Blowhard; and Ah Kai from the wonton noodle shop – all of them had bought the same tricks. I wasn’t the least bit angry about being cheated of money – I was confident I just needed a bit more practice – but the feeling that everyone seemed to have their hands on that secret paper was truly unbearable. Several times I was tempted to give the magician a piece of my mind, but I only ever dared vent my anger in my mother’s presence – irritating her to the point where she could stand it no longer, and turned around to give me another slap.
“You spent your stolen money on worthless trinkets, and still you have the cheek to complain?”
Interest in the magician eventually began to dwindle. This was inevitable – passers-by might browse his stall, but all the children in the area had already bought all the tricks. The children who had bought them tried at first to prevent their neighbours and classmates doing likewise by telling them it was all fake, but everyone bought them eventually. There are some things you have to try for yourself before you can know the feeling of being cheated, right?
The magician had also noticed this state of affairs, and he knew he had to create something new for these children to talk about. When I was at work one day, I saw him take a book out of a square valise, and when he opened it up, there was something tucked inside – something black, something that had been cut out of paper, something no larger than a grown-up’s little finger – and this something was a little person.
He put this little black man on the ground, and within the big circle surrounding his stall he used yellow chalk to draw another circle about the size of a fan, before closing his eyes and muttering an incantation. The little black man suddenly shook from side to side, and – as though he’d just woken up – rose to his feet. At first the passers-by were just hurrying past, but for some reason – as though they heard the little black man’s silent summons – they were unable to stop themselves turning back for a look, and once they discovered the little black man on the ground, their footsteps unconsciously slowed to a halt.
I truly did love selling insoles on the footbridge. The little black man leapt and danced in a bumbling sort of way, dashing this way and that in time with the magician’s singing, chanting voice. Although somewhat clumsy, his movements were very endearing – it was like he was reluctant to exert himself too much for fear of tearing himself apart. Paper was not made for sudden movements, after all. I began to fret on behalf of the little black man – if he were to take part in gym class he would surely find himself in mortal peril.
I gradually worked out that the scope of the little black man’s activity was limited to the confines of that yellow circle – he could only be within that circle. Were anyone to try and touch the little black man, the magician would stop their hand with a loud and threatening cry, saying, “those who touch him will suffer misfortune, but those who watch him dance will have good luck.” And the little black man didn’t look like he wanted to be touched – if anyone came near he would scuttle back to the magician’s heel.
Once everyone had been drawn in by the little black man, the magician would begin his routine. The tricks were the same old thing: the mysterious dice; the matchbox that produced matches; the picture book that coloured itself in with a riffle of its pages; the pencil that produced rainbow colours with each stroke; the copper coin you could squeeze between a thumb and forefinger… For some reason the things that hadn’t been selling well before were now being snapped up, and the crowd began to appreciate the magician’s tricks once more. And then, one by one, he’d take each customer to one side, and one by one give them the blank piece of paper. I had seen all these white pieces of paper – could recite them from memory – but for some stupid reason I still somehow ended up buying another set of magic dice.
At this point the little black man always knew he belonged within the chalk circle. What with his having no eyes, I guessed the little black man couldn’t actually see it. That little black man who couldn’t see, slowly pacing around that little yellow circle, looked as though he had something on his mind.
The magician’s little black man began to grow famous on the footbridge. Now it was not just the children from the market, but all the children from our primary school who came to the footbridge; the worker crowd on their way to Chongqing South Street; the peddlers from Ximending – even the military police from over the road, and the girls from the hairdressers – they all made the trip to the footbridge to see the magician’s little black man. The little black man was still a little shy – he danced that little black man dance of his in a slightly clumsy way, and then bent his paper back to bow, waving his paper arms in greeting to the crowd. I was completely entranced by him – every day I looked forward to seeing the little black man’s dance so much I sometimes forgot to sell any insoles or laces. The laces tied to the railings, fluttering about in the wind – when I picture it, even now, I’m struck by the beauty of the sight.
Once I had bought all of the magician’s tricks we gradually got to know one another. When he bought fried dumplings he’d sometimes give me a few, and sometimes when my mum brought back buttered pastries from gran’s hometown in Dajia, I’d share them with him. When he was eating, the magician’s eyes would occasionally look in different directions, as though he was afraid of missing out on anything that might be going on in the world.
Sometimes when he needed to go to the toilet he’d call me over to keep an eye on his stall. “As long as I don’t find anything missing, that’ll do fine. Don’t try to sell anything – whatever you do, don’t try to sell anything. Oh, and you mustn’t touch the little black man.”
I was more than happy to oblige, and it was a simple job. Sitting in the magician’s chair, it was like I was the magician. Sitting there, at last I had a chance to get close to the little black man. And then I clapped my hands like the magician, and sung a strange, muttering song, and chanted an incomprehensible incantation. The little black man shakily rose to his feet, like he had heard something summoning him, and began to dance around the chalk circle.
He did no such thing, of course. The little black man continued sitting quietly on top of the magic matchbox.
The size of the matchbox was just right to be the little black man’s chair, as though it was specially meant to serve that purpose. When the magician wasn’t making him dance, the little black man would sometimes sit on the matchbox with just the same posture as a fully-grown person, one leg crossed over the other with one foot in the air. Sometimes his back would bend slightly with the wind, making him look like he was deep in contemplation. What kind of things did the little black man think about? Were there certain anxieties that only a little black man could have? Was there, somewhere out there, a school where only little black people could go to study? What lessons would they teach at such a school? Would the little black people also have to memorize their nine times table? Did the school for little black people have music class (and if not, how was it that the little black man could dance?) Being made from such flimsy paper, how could the little black man possibly play dodgeball? I secretly worried on the little black man’s behalf, just the same way as my mum worried about me.
Regardless of whether I was minding the magician’s stall or sitting with my insoles opposite him, I was always watching the little black man, completely lost in thoughts like these.
There was one time when the magician went to the toilet, for a number two, it seemed like, because he had been gone for a long time. I was sitting in the chair, bored out my mind, and the little black man was sitting on his matchbox, looking like he was bored out of his mind too. Because I was so tired that day, and because the weather was a bit chilly and there weren’t many passers-by on the footbridge, I ended up dozing off. I guess I could only have been asleep for a very short time before I was woken up by rainwater. I looked up; rain was most definitely falling from an overcast sky. I wasn’t bothered about my insoles – I had to get the magician’s big umbrella open, and stick it into the umbrella stand next to the stall – but the umbrella was so big I couldn’t pull it open no matter what I did – my hands were too short. Just like that, it was bucketing down, and soon a stream of water had taken shape on the footbridge, flowing towards the drainage holes. It just so happened that on that day the little black man had not been sitting on his matchbox, but had been on the ground, leaning against the side of the bridge. He was quickly soaked through. By the time I realised, the little black man was plastered to the ground, hopelessly splayed like a piece of discarded trash. Indifferent to the soaking I was getting, I urgently cast the umbrella aside and tried to pick him up. But because the paper had got stuck to the cement of the footbridge, when I tugged on the little black man’s hand, it ripped right off. I started crying, tears plopping everywhere, wailing, “the little black man’s hand’s broken, the little black man’s dead, his hand’s broken!”
Auntie Ah Fen, who sold children’s clothes at the next stall along (although I called her auntie, she was probably only just a kid in junior middle school), having first hurried to sort out the umbrella over her own stall, raced over to help me pull open mine, before helplessly watching the little black man on the ground, at a complete loss. I kept crying and crying, crying so hard I nearly got a cramp. Only then did I see the magician return. With his two eyes facing in different directions, he began to gather up his goods.
“It’s raining, and you haven’t gone to sort out your own things,” he said. “If the insoles are all soaked you’ll catch hell from your mother.” I didn’t know whether or not he was angry; I stuttered, unable to get a sentence out intact. The little black man was dead, and his death had something to do with me. A hole had been poked through my heart, just like it was made out of paper.
When my mum ushered me out to go set up the stall the next day, I felt terrible. I didn’t want to go and be in the magician’s presence – but at the same time, I did, so I could find out for sure how the little black man was doing. Maybe it was just his hand that was broken, and he wasn’t dead. Couldn’t a little black man with a broken hand still dance? Still go to the little black people school?
When I arrived there that day, though the magician saw that I had come, he didn’t call out a greeting – “kiddo, have you eaten your fill today?” – like he used to. He just sat there in his chair, silent. I felt like I was a hopeless good-for-nothing. The cars beneath the footbridge were passing to and fro; the dust above the footbridge was drifting down onto my body; and there wasn’t a single passer-by who wasn’t happier than me.
At midday the magician bought a box of fried dumplings (not inviting me to eat any this time), and when he’d finished eating he wiped his mouth and opened his square valise. He took out the book and opened it, and there was a sheet of black paper and a pair of scissors tucked inside. The magician pulled them out, and set to work. In a jiffy, a little black man had been cut out. I slyly peered at the magician’s activity, and it made my heart beat as fast as a freshly wound clock.
The magician placed this new little black man on the ground, drew a fresh yellow chalk circle, and hummed his tune and called aloud at the same time. The new little black man was dancing, just the same as the little black man used to dance before – but with a little more dash, it seemed: he could twirl, now, too! Delighted, I yelled, “not dead – he’s not dead!” But once the words had come out of my mouth I felt they weren’t quite true. Could it be that this little black man was not the same one who had been plastered to the ground by yesterday’s rain – whose hand I had broken off? Could it be that he was just a new little black man, being used to replace the broken-handed little black man from before?
The magician looked at me through his right eye, a repressed smile playing around his mouth. With his left eye looking in another direction, he beckoned me over.
“Can you see any difference between this little black man and the one from yesterday?”
I shook my head. “He looks exactly the same,” I said, hesitantly. “Isn’t he? The little black man didn’t die, did he?”
With his eyes still facing in different directions, the magician said, “I don’t know either. Kiddo, you should know – there are some things in this world that no one can ever know. What we see before our eyes is not all that there is.”
“Why?” I asked.
The magician thought for a while, before replying in a hoarse voice. “Because sometimes the things you remember your whole life are not those things your eyes have seen.”
Honestly, I didn’t understand what the magician meant at all. But this was the first time he’d spoken to me like this – like he was talking to me as a grown-up, like there was something about me of which he approved.
When I got home and told my brother about the little black man, and about what the magician had said to me, he was angry. I didn’t understand why. He said he was going to tell mum, and she wouldn’t let me go sell insoles on the footbridge anymore, because the magician was going to trick me into running away with him.
That night I dreamt of the little black man. He took me to a forest (not that I even knew what a forest was back then – the furthest away I’d ever been was New Park) and we sang songs together, and played hide-and-seek. Deep within the forest I saw a bright patch, and the little black man said I couldn’t go there. I asked why, and he said it was too dark. But it was quite clearly brighter over there, I said, and he said there were some places that you might think are bright, but are actually dark.
I was not tricked into running away with the magician, and my brother didn’t tell my mum about what had happened with the little black man. One by one, the days continued to pass by. As I got to know the magician better and better, I pleaded with him in private time after time to tell me the secret of the little black man. It was only when I mentioned this to him that he turned serious.
“Kiddo, I’m telling you – all my magic is fake. Only the little black man is real. And because it’s real, there’s nothing I can tell you. Because it’s real, it’s not like the other magic – there’s no secret to tell.”
I didn’t believe it. I was sure the magician wasn’t telling me the truth – he was hiding something. I could tell by looking in his eyes – just like my mum said she could tell when I was lying by looking in my eyes.
“Don’t trick me,” I said. “Don’t think you can trick me just because I’m a kid.”
As the beginning of the new school year grew closer each day, my mum announced that once school started I wouldn’t be selling from the stall any more. This was depressing news. Again and again, I fought with her for some chance to carry on during the term, even if it was only on holidays. But whatever I said, she wouldn’t budge – I suspected my big brother had told her my secret.
I talked this over with the magician. “If you don’t teach me it’ll be too late – I’m starting school soon,” I said woefully. “If you don’t teach me you’ll regret it – if you die all of a sudden there’ll be no one who knows the magic of the little black man.” I don’t know when I turned into such a smooth-talker – maybe that business savvy my mum mentioned could run in the blood after all.
The magician just laughed, one eye looking at some far-off place, the other seeming to look straight into my soul.
One evening when I was packing up the stall at eight, the magician, having put away the little black man and his magic tricks, beckoned me towards him. I followed him without the slightest hesitation, my heart pounding. He kept going straight ahead, right across the footbridge and along to the furthest corner of the market, where there was a door. This door, I knew, led out onto the roof – a place where the grown-ups said we weren’t allowed to go. With one twist of his hand, the magician opened the lock, and gestured for me to head on up.
It was the first time I had been on the roof of the market, and I was entranced by the view.
The buildings of Taipei were of a completely different height back then. From the footbridge we could see the holiday fireworks over Tamsui river, and when the weather was good we could even see the hills of Yangmingshan. The Taipei of those times still resembled a basin: even if you stood in the bottom of the basin, in some place without much elevation, you could still see to the basin’s edge, and everything within it. In that moment I stood there on the roof with the magician, the glimmering lanterns of Ximending on one side, the Presidential Office Building lit up on the other. The magician pointed off to the side, to a corner beneath a neon sign.
“This is where I live,” he said. “But the day will come when I will leave this place.” The corner in which the magician lived was covered by a rain shield for the neon sign’s generator. Along with a jumble of plastic bags and a disheveled sleeping bag, it looked like there were also a surprising number of books heaped around the place.
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere is fine.”
“I want to be a magician too.”
“Being a magician wouldn’t suit you. Because magicians have many secrets, and people with many secrets do not have happy lives.”
“Forget about it. It’s not something you can understand. And magicians can’t stay in the same place for too long. Kiddo, you’ve always wanted to learn the magic of the little black man, right?”
“Right!” I nodded my head as hard as I could. Could it really be that the magician was prepared to teach me? My heart thudded so hard it felt like it was trying to escape.
“It can’t be learned. Because the little black man is real – and since it’s real, it can’t be learned.”
This old line again. “Then give him to me, okay? If it’s magic, you can teach me, and if it’s real, you can just give the little black man to me – how about that?”
“When I was young I thought that if you caught a butterfly and mounted it as a specimen, you possessed a butterfly. It was only much later that I realised a butterfly specimen is not a butterfly. Only when I understood this clearly was I able to do real magic, like the little black man – because I could take something out of my imagination, out of my head, and turn it into something everyone can see. All I did was influence the world you can all see – just the same as when someone makes a movie.”
I angled my head to one side. Next to us, the enormous neon sign for Hey Song Sarsaparilla was producing a humming noise. I didn’t understand what the magician was saying; his eyes gleamed blue in the blue neon light, green in the green neon light. I thought about what he had said; what he called ‘real’ magic left me feeling deeply confused.
“So is there any way I could do it? Do something like making the little black man dance?”
“Kiddo, there’s no way I can tell you if there’s any way. But we’re two of a kind, you and me. I’m going to give you something, and you can use it however you see fit.”
Having finished speaking, the magician extended his right hand, as if about to reveal something. He held his palm before my eyes for maybe as long as half a minute. I couldn’t help but look at all the calluses, all the complicated, criss-crossing ridges of his palm. The magician slowly bent his index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and inserted them into his left eye. My own eyeballs ached at the sight. The magician’s eye socket seemed to be very soft – his fingers quickly extended inside – and with a light twist, the magician plucked out his left eye, and placed it on the palm of his right hand. The eyeball he’d dug out didn’t bleed, didn’t tear – it was like a perfect, newborn, opalescent star.
In Montmartre, on the fourth floor of number 75b Rue Orchampt, there once lived a fine fellow named Dutilleul who had the remarkable gift of being able to pass through walls with perfect ease. He wore a pince-nez and a small black goatee and he worked as a level-three clerk in the Registration Ministry. In winter he would take the bus to work, and come summer he would walk, wearing his bowler hat.
Dutilleul discovered his power shortly after he turned forty-two. One evening, the electricity went out briefly while he was standing in the entrance hall of his small bachelor apartment. He groped around for a moment in the dark, and when the power came back on, he found himself standing on his fourth floor landing. Since the door to his apartment was locked from the inside, this gave him pause for thought. Despite the objections of his common sense, he decided to return home in the same way he left—by passing through the wall. This strange ability seemed to have no bearing on any of his aspirations, and he could not help feeling rather vexed about it. The following day was Saturday, and since he worked a five-day week, he sought out the local doctor and presented his case to him. The doctor satisfied himself that Dutilleul was telling the truth, and upon examining him he discovered that the problem was caused by a helicoidal hardening of the strangular membrane of the thyroid gland. He prescribed intensive overwork and told him to take two doses a year of tetravalent pirette powder containing a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormone.
Dutilleul took one dose, then put the medicine in the back of a drawer and forgot about it. As for intensive overwork, his activity as a civil servant followed fixed practices which did not lend themselves to any excess. He spent his free time reading the newspaper and working on his stamp collection; these activities did not require him to expend an unreasonable amount of energy either. After a year then, he still retained the ability to pass through walls, but he never used it intentionally; he had little interest in adventures and he stubbornly resisted the impulses of his imagination. The idea never even occurred to him to enter his apartment any other way than by the door, and that after having duly opened it using the lock.
He might have lived out his life in his peaceable habits and never been tempted to put his gifts to the test if an extraordinary event had not suddenly disrupted his existence. Monsieur Mouron, the associate office director, left to take another position and was replaced by one Monsieur Lécuyer, who spoke in short, clipped sentences and wore a toothbrush mustache. From the very first day, the new associate office director was highly displeased to see that Dutilleul wore a pince-nez on a chain and a black goatee, and he made a great show of treating him as an obsolete nuisance or a slightly grubby antique.
Far more serious however, was his plan to introduce far-reaching reforms in the office; they seemed specially designed to disturb the peace of his subordinate. For twenty years, Dutilleul had begun all his letters with the following phrase: “In reference to your esteemed correspondence of the 12th of the present month, and furthermore in reference to our previous exchange of letters, I have the honor of writing to inform you that…” Monsieur Lécuyer replaced this with a turn of phrase that had a more American ring to it: “In response to your letter of the 12th, I inform you that…” Dutilleul could not adapt to these epistolary fashions. He couldn’t help himself; he reverted to the traditional formula with a mechanical obstinacy that earned him the growing enmity of the associate director.
He began to find the atmosphere at the Ministry of Registration oppressive. He felt apprehensive on his way to work in the morning, and at night in his bed he often lay awake turning things over in his mind for a full fifteen minutes before he could fall asleep.
Monsieur Lécuyer was disgusted by this willful backwardness which was threatening the success of his reforms, so he had Dutilleul’s desk moved to a small dim closet next to his office. It was only accessible by a low narrow door which opened onto the corridor and still bore the inscription “RUBBISH” in capital letters. Dutilleul accepted this unprecedented humiliation with resignation, but at home, whenever he would read in the newspaper about some gory incident, he found himself daydreaming, imagining Monsieur Lécuyer as the victim.
One day, the associate director burst into his closet brandishing a letter and bellowing, “Rewrite this stinking letter! You will rewrite this appalling piece of drivel which is dishonoring my department!”
Dutilleul tried to protest, but Monsieur Lécuyer, in a thunderous voice, called him a hidebound cockroach and as he left, he took the letter he had in his hand, crumpled it up into a ball, and threw it in his face. Dutilleul was modest but proud. He sat alone in his closet, steaming, when suddenly he had an inspiration. He rose from his chair and entered the wall which separated his office from that of the associate director. He was careful to move only partway through the wall, so that just his head emerged on the other side. Monsieur Lécuyer was seated at his work table, his ever-twitching pen shifting a comma in the text an employee had submitted to him for approval. Hearing a quiet cough in his office, he looked up, and discovered to his unspeakable alarm the head (just the head) of Dutilleul stuck to the wall like a hunting trophy. What’s more, the head was alive. It looked over its pince-nez glasses at him with deepest hatred. And then it began to speak:
“Monsieur,” it said, “you are a hoodlum, a boor, and a spoiled brat.”
Gaping with horror, Monsieur Lécuyer couldn’t take his eyes off this apparition. At last, tearing himself out of his chair, he leapt into the corridor and raced to the closet. Dutilleul sat in his usual place, pen in hand, looking perfectly peaceful and industrious. The associate director stared at him for a long moment, mumbled a few words, and went back to his office. No sooner had he sat down then the head reappeared on the wall.
“Monsieur, you are a hoodlum, a boor, and a spoiled brat.”
In the course of a single day, the dreaded head reappeared on the wall twenty-three times, and it kept up the same pace over the following days. Dutilleul became rather good at this game, and he no longer contented himself with shouting abuse at the associate director. He uttered veiled threats; for example, he would cackle demoniacally and wail in a sepulchral voice:
“The Lone Wolf’s on the prowl! Beware! (laughter) No one’s safe—he’s everywhere! (laughter)”
Whenever he heard this, the poor associate director grew a little paler and made a choking noise; his hair stood straight up on his head and the cold sweat of terror trickled down his back. He lost a pound that first day. As the week wore on, you could practically see him melting away. He took to eating his soup with a fork and greeting policemen with a smart military salute. At the beginning of the second week, an ambulance came to his residence and took him away to a sanitarium.
Now that Dutilleul was free of Monsieur Lécuyer’s tyranny, he could return to his cherished phrases: “In reference to your esteemed correspondence of the 27th of the present month…” And yet, he was unsatisfied somehow. There was an unmet demand inside him, a new, urgent need, which was none other than the need to walk through walls.
He could certainly indulge this need easily, at home for example, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. But a man possessed of brilliant gifts cannot satisfy himself for long by exercising them on a mediocre subject. Walking through walls cannot really serve as an end in itself. Rather, it is the first step in an adventure, which calls for continuation, development, and, in short, a payoff. Dutilleul understood this fully. He felt within him a need for expansion, a growing desire to fulfill and surpass himself, and a certain bittersweet pull which was something like the call of the other side of the wall. Unfortunately, what he lacked was a goal. He sought inspiration by reading the newspaper. He paid special attention to the sports and politics sections, as these seemed to be honorable activities, but in the end, he realized that they really didn’t offer any opportunities for people who could walk through walls. That’s when he settled on the police blotter, which turned out to be most suggestive.
Dutilleul’s first burglary took place in an important financial institution on the Right Bank. He passed through a dozen walls and partitions and let himself into various vaults, where he filled his pockets with banknotes. As he left, he signed his work in red chalk, using the alias “The Lone Wolf”, underlined with a distinctive flourish which made it onto the front page of all the newspapers the following morning. Within a week, the name The Lone Wolf had gained extraordinary celebrity. Public sympathy was unreservedly behind this prestigious burglar who so thoroughly flouted the police. Every night he distinguished himself with some new exploit; sometimes his target was a bank, other times a jewelry store or some wealthy individual. From Paris to the provinces, there wasn’t a woman who, in her daydreams, didn’t nourish a fervent desire to belong to the fearsome Lone Wolf, body and soul. After the theft of the famous Burdigala Diamond and the break in at the Crédit Municipal the same week, this enthusiasm reached a fever pitch. The Interior Minister was forced to resign, and he brought the Minister of Registration down with him. Nonetheless, Dutilleul, now one of the richest men in Paris, remained perfectly punctual at work; there was talk of awarding him the national medal for service to education. Every morning at the Ministry of Registration, he took great pleasure listening to his colleagues discuss his exploits of the night before. “That Lone Wolf,” they would say, “a great man, Superman, a genius!” Dutilleul blushed with embarrassment to hear such praise, and he beamed with friendship and gratitude from behind his pince-nez on its chain.
One day this sympathetic atmosphere boosted his confidence so much that he thought he would not be able to keep his secret any longer. As his colleagues stood together around a newspaper reading about the burglary at the Bank of France, he studied them shyly, then announced in a modest voice, “As it so happens, I’m the Lone Wolf.” Dutilleul’s confession was greeted with loud and long laughter, and it earned him the derisive nickname “The Lone Wolf”. At night when it was time to leave work, he was the butt of endless jokes from his colleagues, and life lost some of its luster for him.
A few days later, the Lone Wolf got picked up by the night patrol in a jewelry shop on Rue de la Paix. He had affixed his signature to the sales counter and was singing a drinking song while smashing various display windows using a solid gold antique goblet. It would have been easy for him to slip into a wall and escape the night patrol, but in all likelihood he wanted to be arrested, probably with the sole intent of getting even with his colleagues; their disbelief was mortifying.
Indeed, his colleagues were most surprised the next day when the newspapers published Dutilleul’s photograph on the front page. They bitterly regretted underestimating their brilliant comrade and they all saluted him by growing little goatees. A few of them were so carried away with remorse and admiration that they tried to get their hands on the wallets or heirloom watches of their friends and acquaintances.
Now you may well think that letting himself get picked up by the police to astonish a few colleagues shows a great recklessness unworthy of such an exceptional man. But although this act appears willful, his volition had very little to do with the decision. Dutilleul believed that by giving up his freedom, he was giving in to a prideful desire for revenge. In reality, though, he was simply sliding down the slope of his destiny. When a man is able to walk through walls, one can’t really speak of a career until he’s tried prison at least once.
When Dutilleul was taken inside the La Santé prison, he felt as though fate had smiled upon him. The thickness of the walls was a veritable treat for him. The very first morning after he was imprisoned, the astonished guards discovered that the prisoner had driven a nail into his cell wall, and from it he had hung a gold pocket watch belonging to the prison warden. He could not or would not reveal how this object had come into his possession. The watch was restored to its rightful owner, but the next day it was found again on the Lone Wolf’s nightstand, along with the first volume of The Three Musketeers which he had borrowed from the warden’s private library. The prison personnel were under great pressure. Moreover, the guards complained of receiving mysterious kicks in the behind which seemed to come from nowhere; it seemed that the walls didn’t just have ears anymore, but feet as well. The Lone Wolf had been in jail for one week when the warden found the following letter on his desk upon entering his office in the morning:
“Dear Monsieur the Warden,
In reference to our exchange of the 17th of the present month, and furthermore in reference to your general instructions of May the 15th preceding, I have the honor of informing you that I have just completed reading the second volume of The Three Musketeers and that I expect to escape tonight between 11:25 and 11:35 p.m.
Most respectfully yours,
The Lone Wolf.”
Despite being under close surveillance that night, Dutilleul escaped at 11:30. When the news hit the streets the following morning, it was greeted everywhere with great enthusiasm. Nonetheless, once Dutilleul had carried out a fresh burglary which raised his popularity to new heights, he didn’t seem very concerned about hiding, and he roamed freely through Montmartre taking no precautions at all. Three days after his escape he was arrested in Rue Caulaincourt at the Café du Rêve a little before noon, as he was enjoying a glass of white wine and lemon with friends.
Dutilleul was taken back to the La Santé Prison and triple locked in a dingy solitary cell; he escaped from it that same evening and spent the night at the warden’s apartment, in the guest room. The following morning around nine o’clock, he rang for the maid to bring him his breakfast. The guards were summoned, and they seized him where he sat in bed, putting up no resistance. The warden was outraged; he posted a guard at the door of Dutilleul’s cell and placed him on bread and water. Around noon, the prisoner went off to have lunch at a restaurant near the prison, and when he finished his coffee, he phoned the warden.
“Hello! Monsieur the Warden, I hate to bother you, but just now when I went out, I neglected to bring along your wallet, and now here I am at the restaurant and I’ve come up short. Would you be so good as to send someone along to settle the bill?”
The warden showed up in person immediately and lost his temper, shouting threats and insults at Dutilleul. Dutilleul’s pride was wounded; he escaped the following night, never to return.
This time he took a few precautions. He shaved off his black goatee and traded his pince-nez on its chain for a pair of horn rimmed glasses. A billed cap and a checked suit with golf trousers completed his transformation. He settled into a small apartment in Avenue Junot; he had moved some of his furniture there along with his most prized possessions long before his first arrest.
He began to grow tired of his newfound fame, and ever since his stay at La Santé Prison, he had become rather blasé about the pleasure of walking through walls. Even the thickest and most imposing walls now seemed to him nothing more than simple folding screens, and he dreamed of plunging into the heart of some massive pyramid. So while he developed his plan for a trip to Egypt, he was leading the most peaceable of lives, dividing his time between his stamp collection, the movies, and long walks through Montmartre. Clean shaven now, and wearing his horn rimmed glasses, his metamorphosis was so complete that he could pass by his best friends without being recognized. Only the painter Gen Paul, who would never fail to notice any sudden change in the countenance of a longtime neighbor, finally unraveled his true identity. One morning he found himself nose to nose with Dutilleul on the corner of the Rue de l’Abreuvoir, and he blurted out in his rough slang:
“Hey daddy-o, I dig the new drape and sky piece! You’re togged to the bricks! With threads like that you must be stachin’ so you don’t get tapped by the fuzz.” Which means, more or less, “I see that you have adopted an elegant disguise so as to escape the attention of the police detectives.”
“Ah,” murmured Dutilleul, “you’ve recognized me!” This made him uneasy and he decided to move up his departure for Egypt. On the very same afternoon he fell in love with a blonde beauty whom he met in Rue Lepic twice in the space of fifteen minutes. He immediately forgot about his stamp collection and Egypt and the pyramids. As for the blonde, she looked at him with great interest. Nothing captures the imagination of young women today like a pair of golf pants and horn rimmed glasses. That movie producer look sets them dreaming about cocktail parties and Hollywood nights.
Unfortunately, Dutilleul learned from Gen Paul that this beauty was married to a violently jealous man; moreover, he led a rough and tumble existence on the streets of Paris and spent his nights on the town. Every night he would abandon his wife from ten at night to four in the morning, but before he would leave, he always made sure to double lock her in her room and padlock the shutters. During the day he kept a close eye on her; sometimes he would even follow her through the streets of Montmartre.
“Hey, I see you’re still chasin’ that skirt. Take it slow, daddy-o. That chick is fine dinner, but her main on the hitch gets evil if he focuses some cat tryin’ to score his barbecue.”
But Gen Paul’s warning only inflamed Dutilleul’s passion further. The next day he saw the young woman in Rue Tholozé. He boldly followed her into a dairy, and while she was waiting in line, he told her that he loved her respectfully and that he knew about everything—the cruel husband, the locked door and the shutters—but that he would be in her bedroom that very night. The blonde blushed; the milk bottle trembled in her hand and her eyes grew moist with tenderness. She gave a muffled sigh. “Alas Monsieur, that is impossible.”
The evening of that glorious day around ten o’clock found Dutilleul standing like a sentry in Rue Norvins, watching an imposing garden wall; he could only see the weather vane and the chimney of the small house which sat behind it. A door in the wall opened, and a man stepped out. He carefully locked the door behind him and walked off towards Avenue Junot. Dutilleul waited until he was out of sight, until he was all the way down at the bend in the street at the foot of the hill, and then he counted to ten. Then he rushed forward and strode like an athlete into the wall, running straight through the obstacles until he penetrated the bedroom of the lovely recluse. She greeted him ecstatically and they made love late into the night.
Unfortunately, the next day Dutilleul had a terrible headache. He was certainly not going to let something so trivial make him miss his rendezvous. Nonetheless, since he discovered some tablets scattered at the bottom of a drawer, he took one in the morning and one in the afternoon. By evening his headache was tolerable, and in his intense excitement he forgot about it altogether. The young woman was waiting for him, full of impatience aroused by her memories of the previous night; that night they made love until three o’clock in the morning. When he left, Dutilleul passed through the walls of the house and felt an unusual rubbing sensation against his hips and shoulders. He didn’t think it merited much attention, though. In fact, it was only when he entered the garden wall that he felt a definite resistance. He felt as though he were moving through some gel like substance that was still fluid but was growing thicker; it became firmer the more he struggled. Once he was entirely embedded in the thickness of the wall he realized that he was no longer moving forward. Terrified, he remembered the two tablets that he had taken that day. He had thought they were aspirin tablets, but in fact they contained the tetravalent pirette powder that the doctor had prescribed the year before. The effect of the medication combined with intensive exertion produced quite a sudden reaction.
Dutilleul was immobilized inside the wall. He is there to this very day, imprisoned in the stone. When people go walking down the Rue Norvins late at night after the bustle of Paris has died down, they hear a muffled voice which seems to come from beyond the grave; they think it’s the sound of the wind whistling through the streets of Montmartre. It’s Lone Wolf Dutilleul lamenting the end of his glorious career and mourning his all too brief love affair. Sometimes on winter nights the painter Gen Paul takes down his guitar and heads down to the lonely, echoing Rue Norvins to console the poor prisoner with a song. Its notes take flight from his numb fingers and penetrate to the heart of the stone like drops of moonlight.
*Translation Copyright 2006 © Karen Rishkin, All rights reserved.
“Where are your parents’ clothes?” Marga asks.
She crosses her arms and waits for me to answer. She knows that I don’t know and that I need her to ask another question. On the other side of the window, my parents are running naked around the back garden.
“It’s almost six, Javier,” Marga says. “What happens when Charley gets back from the supermarket with the children and they see their grandparents making fools of themselves?”
“Who’s Charley?” I ask.
I think I know who Charley is, he’s the big-new-man in my neurotic-ex-wife’s life, but I want her to say it to my face.
“They’re going to be mortified by their grandparents, that’s what’s going to happen.”
“They’re sick, Marga.”
She sighs. I count down from ten to keep myself patient and calm, to give Marga the time she needs. I say:
“You wanted the children to see their grandparents. You wanted me to bring my parents here because you thought that here, three hundred kilometers from my house, would be a good place to spend the vacation.”
“You said that they were better.”
Behind Marga, my father is spraying my mother with the hose. When he waters my mother’s breasts, my mother grabs her breasts. When he waters her ass, my mother grabs her ass.
“You know how they get when you take them out of their environment,” I say. “And the fresh air…”
Is my mother grabbing the parts that my father waters or is my father watering the parts that she grabs?
“Oho. So in addition to inviting you to spend a few days with your children, whom you haven’t seen for three months by the way, I have to guess how excited your parents are going to be?”
My mother runs to pick up Marga’s poodle and holds it up above her head as she spins around. I try to keep my eyes on Marga so she won’t turn to look at them.
“I want to leave all this madness behind, Javier.”
This madness, I think.
“And if that means you don’t see the children so much… I can’t keep exposing them to this.”
“They’re only naked, Marga.”
She walks to the front of the house. I follow her. Behind me, the poodle continues to spin around in the air. Before going outside, Marga fixes her hair and dress in the reflection from the glass in the front door. “Charley” is tall, strong and tough-looking. He looks like the guy from the News at Twelve after a bout of bodybuilding. My four year old daughter and my six year old son are wrapped around his arms like a pair of water wings. Charley gently sets them down, lowering his enormous gorilla torso to the earth, so he can be free to kiss Marga. Then he approaches me and for a moment I worry that he won’t be friendly. But he offers me his hand with a smile.
“Javier, this is Charley,” Marga says.
The children bounce into me, hugging my legs. I squeeze Charley’s hand hard, it feels as though he’s shaking my entire body up and down. The children let go.
“What do you think of the house, Javi?” says Charley, looking up behind me, as though they’d rented a castle.
Javi, I think. This madness, I think.
The poodle arrives, whining quietly with its tail between its legs. Marga picks him up and as he licks her face she wrinkles her nose and coos:
Charly regards them with his head tilted to one side, maybe he’s just trying to understand. Then she turns to him abruptly and asks:
“Where are the kids?”
“They’ll be out back,” Charley says. “In the garden.”
“But I don’t want them to see their grandparents like that.”
The three of us turn to look for them but they’re nowhere to be seen.
“See, Javier? This is exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid,” Marga says walking away. “Kids!” She looks at me. “Fucking hell…”
She walks around the house to the back garden. Charley and I exchange looks and go to follow her.
“How was the road?” Charley asks, miming a steering wheel going back and forth with one hand and changing gears with the other. His movements convey both excitement and stupidity.
“I don’t drive.”
He bends down to pick up some toys from the path and puts them to one side. Now he’s frowning. I’m scared to get to the garden and find my children and parents together. No, what I’m afraid of is Marga finding them together and the huge recriminatory scene that will follow. But Marga is standing alone in the middle of the garden, waiting for us with her hands balled up on her hips. We follow her into the house. We’re both her humble followers; it’s something I have in common with Charley, a relationship of sorts. Did he really enjoy the road during the journey?
“Kids!” Marga shouts up the staircase, she’s furious but she’s containing herself, maybe because Charley doesn’t know her well enough yet. She turns around and sits on a kitchen stool. “We need a drink, don’t you think?”
Charley gets a bottle of soda out of the refrigerator and pours three glasses. Marga takes a couple of sips and stares out into the garden for a moment.
“This is wrong,” she gets up. “This is very wrong. They could be doing anything,” now she does look at me.
“Let’s have another look,” I say, but she’s already going out into the back garden.
She comes back a few moments later.
“They’re not there,” she says. “My God, Javier, they’re not there.”
“Yes they are, Marga. They have to be around here somewhere.”
Charley goes out the front door, crosses the front garden and follows the car tracks leading out to the road. Marga goes upstairs and calls them from the top floor. I go outside and walk around the house. I pass the open garage, which is full of toys and plastic buckets and spades. I see the kids’ inflatable dolphin through the foliage of a pair of trees, dangling from a branch, lynched with a string taken from one of my parents’ sweatpants. Marga appears in one of the windows and our gazes meet for a second. Is she just looking for the kids or my parents too? I go into the house through the kitchen door. Charley comes in through the main door at the same time and reports from the living room:
“They’re not out in front.”
His face isn’t friendly any more. Now he has a couple of lines across his forehead and his movements are exaggerated, as though Marga were controlling him: shifting rapidly from rest to an active state, he bends down under the table, looks behind a wardrobe and peers under the stairs, as though the only way to find the children is to take them by surprise. I’m forced to follow him around and I can’t concentrate on my own search.
“They’re not outside,” Marga says. “The car, Charley, the car.”
I wait for an instruction for me but none is forthcoming. Charley goes outside once more and Marga goes back up to the bedrooms. I follow her. She goes into the one apparently being occupied by Simon, so I look in Lina’s room. Then we swap rooms and look again. I hear her swearing when I’m under Simon’s bed.
“Fucking, fucking hell,” she says, so I assume that it’s not because she found the children. Maybe she’s found my parents?
We search the bathroom together and then the attic after the main bedroom. Marga opens the closets and pushes aside some of the clothes hanging from the hangers. It’s quite bare and very tidy. It’s a summer house, I say to myself, but then I think back to my wife and children’s real home, the house that used to be my house, and I realize that this was how things were in this family; everything was always bare and tidy. You never had to push clothes aside to find something. Charley comes back into the house, we meet in the living room.
“They’re not in the car,” he says to my wife.
“This is your parents’ fault,” Marga says.
She pushes one of my shoulders furiously from behind.
“It’s your fucking fault. Where the hell are my children?” she shouts and runs out into the garden again.
She calls out on one side of the house and then the other.
“What’s behind the hedges?” I ask Charley.
He looks at me and then back to my wife, who’s still shouting.
“Does anyone live behind the hedges, are there any neighbors?” I ask.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. There are some huts. Lots of them. The houses are very big.”
His equivocation is perfectly reasonable but I can’t help but think that he’s the stupidest man I’ve ever met in my life.
“I’m going out to the front,” Marga says, pushing between us. “Simon!”
“Dad!” I shout walking behind Marga. “Mom!”
Marga is a few meters ahead of me when she stops suddenly and picks something up from the ground. It’s kind of blue and she holds it from one end as though it were a dead animal. It’s Lina’s sweater. She turns to look at me. She’s about to say something, she’s going to swear hard at me again, but then she sees more clothing and walks toward it. I sense Charley’s hulking shadow looming up behind me. Marga picks up Lina’s fuchsia t-shirt and then some sneakers and then Simon’s shirt.
There’s more in the path, but Marga stops suddenly and turns to us.
“Call the police, Charley. Call the police now.”
“Ladybug, don’t overreact…” Charley says.
Ladybug, I think.
“Call the police, Charley.”
Charley turns around and walks quickly back to the house. Marga picks up more clothing. I follow her. She picks up another item and stops in front of the final one. Simon’s swim shorts. They’re yellow and a little crumpled. Marga doesn’t do anything. Maybe she can’t bend down to pick up the shorts; maybe she doesn’t have the strength. She has her back to me and it looks as though her body is starting to tremble. I approach slowly, trying not to upset her. The swim shorts are very small. The size of one of my hands; four fingers in one leg, a thumb in the other.
“They’ll be here in a minute,” Charley says coming from the house. “They’re sending the patrol car.”
“You have no idea what I’m going to do to you and your family…” Marga says coming toward me.
I pick up the swim shorts and Marga jumps on top of me. I try to stay upright but I lose my balance in an attempt to protect my face from her slapping. Charley is immediately on the scene, trying to drag us apart. The police car stops at the door and blares its siren once. Two policemen get out quickly and hurry over to help Charley.
“My children are gone,” Marga says. “My children are gone,” she repeats and points at the shorts in my hand.
“Who is this man?” the policeman asks. “Are you the husband?” they ask Charley.
We try to explain. In spite of my first impression, Marga and Charley don’t seem to blame me. They just want the children.
“My children are lost with a pair of crazy people,” Marga says.
But the policemen are only interested in why we were fighting. Charley’s chest starts to swell and for a moment I’m worried that he’s going to attack the policemen. I let my hands fall to my side in resignation, just as Marga did with me a second ago, but all I achieve is to attract the second policeman’s eyes to the swaying shorts, which he stares at in alarm.
“What are you looking at?” Charley asks.
“What?” the policeman asks.
“He’s been staring at the shorts since he got out of the car. Could you please let someone know that two children have disappeared?”
“My children,” Marga says again. She stands in front of the policemen and says the words over and over again, maybe because she’s trying to get them to concentrate on what’s important. “My children, my children, my children.”
“When did you last see them?” The other policeman asks finally.
“They’re not in the house,” Marga says. “They took them.”
“Who took them, ma’am?”
I shake my head and try to interrupt but the other policeman steps forward.
“Do you mean there’s been a kidnapping?”
“They might be with their grandparents,” I say.
“They’re with two naked old people,” Marga says.
“Who do these clothes belong to, ma’am?”
“Are you telling me that both the children and the adults are naked?”
“Please,” Marga’s voice breaks.
For the first time, I wonder how dangerous it might be for your children to be wandering around naked with your parents.
“They might be hiding,” I say. “We can’t rule that out yet.”
“And who are you?” one policeman asks as his colleague radios the station.
“I’m her husband,” I say.
So now the policeman looks at Charley. Marga turns to face him again, I’m worried that she’s going to contradict me but she says:
“Please: my children, my children.”
The first policeman puts down the radio and comes over:
“Parents into the car, the gentleman,” he points at Charley, “will stay here in case they come home.”
We stand staring at him.
“Into the car, come on, we have to move quickly.”
“No way,” Marga says.
“Ma’am, please, we need to make sure that they’re not going out to the road.”
Charley pushes Marga toward the patrol car and I follow her. We get in and the car is already moving when I close the door. Charley is standing, staring at us, and I wonder whether he drove those three hundred exciting kilometers with my children sitting in the back. The patrol car backs into the field and we set off toward the road at top speed. Just then I turn back to look at the house. I see them, the four of them: behind Charley, beyond the front garden, my parents and my children, naked and soaking wet in front of the living room window. My mother is rubbing her breasts against the glass and Lina is imitating her, staring at her in fascination. They’re shouting with joy but no-one can hear them. Simon is copying them both with his ass cheeks. Someone grabs the shorts out of my hand and I hear Marga swear at the policeman. The radio makes a noise and they shout the words “adults and minors” twice, “kidnapping” once and “naked” three times down the line, while my ex-wife pounds on the back of the driver’s seat with her fists. So I say to myself Keep your mouth shut, don’t say a word, because I can see my father looking toward us: his old, sun-tanned body, his flaccid penis dangling between his legs. He gives a triumphant smile and appears to recognize me. He hugs my mother and my children, slowly, affectionately, without peeling anyone off the glass.
For many years, Bent had had his hair cut by Frank, in Frank’s Salon. From the age of 29, when he settled down in this part of the city, he had gone there, the last Friday every other month. Each visit took about an hour, although his head was easily cared for, and didn’t get more difficult to handle as time went by either, rather the opposite. Now Bent was almost 44 years old, and if he counted over, he would find that he had spent close to a hundred hours in Frank’s barber chair. Yet he couldn’t remember that they had ever talked about anything, apart from a few statements about the weather forecast when it turned out completely wrong, an important sports event, or a politician who had crossed the line in one direction or other. Not even his hair did they talk about much, because Frank knew how Bent wanted it, from the first Friday he entered the salon, almost fifteen years ago: Bent hung his jacket on the stand at the door, found his place in the chair, got jacked up a couple of notches, got the cape and the slightly stiff paper collar on, felt Frank’s soft fingers on his temples and let him begin, without either of them saying a word. Because Frank liked to work in silence, which Bent appreciated; maybe that’s why he always came back here in the end, because he didn’t have to chat and say things he’d regret, something about his job, for instance; because he didn’t have to answer questions about this and that and be called to account for things, and at the same time be able to watch himself in the old, dull mirror that was so civil to his face, and hear the rapid clicks of the scissors around his head, the quiet buzz of the electric razor on the nape of his neck and finally the laugh of the soft brush down his neck. This was the hairdresser’s language. This was the only, the lasting conversation of the salon: the dialect of the hair.
After all these years they knew little, or nothing, about each other. It was maybe for the best.
Bent lived alone, in two rooms and a kitchen, three floors above a convenience store that was open all day and night. Sometimes he went down there, at midnight when he couldn’t sleep, bought four doughnuts from the girl who usually worked there, Susie was her name, it said so on her name tag, and rented a video, with Mia Farrow. But it rarely helped. The films were neither sleep-inducing nor exciting enough. Instead he started putting on weight, slowly he swelled out and most of his clothes got tight around him. Bent was a porter at the National Hospital. He had never been away from work.
Standing by his living room window, he could look down at the hair salon. Often Frank stayed there until late in the evening. He swept the hair off the floor and carried it into the backroom, he washed the combs in blue water, rinsed the razors, sorted the old weeklies that everyone had read long ago, or wrote small signs that he would hang on the door the next day: Seniors half price. Sometimes Frank would just sit in the chair for hours, inactive, almost like he was asleep. Then Bent didn’t want to watch anymore. He went to the kitchen and sat there instead, drinking coffee. But he’d really like to see Frank cutting his own hair.
Frank was a lean and careful man in his mid-fifties. He had taken over the salon from his father, a one-time Oslo champion of his craft, who retired while still on top and died just three weeks later. But the prize cup still stood in a glass case next to the mirrors. And the son, Frank, had held his ground all these years, while new salons, with names like Hairport, Agaton Sax and Spaghetti, popped up on every street corner and virtually invaded this part of town. But Frank had survived, thanks to a small, but loyal circle of customers, which mainly consisted of middle-aged men with few demands about the ingenuity of their hair-dos. These were men who limited themselves to saying, if they said anything at all, the usual, short at the ears, or maybe they, when the summer holidays were approaching, on a good day would dare form a whole sentence: I think we’ll do it extra thoroughly this time, Frank. Then Frank said, with his slightly offended, but at the same time haughty voice, which few people quite managed to get used to, but which they accepted anyway, since they would rather avoid going anywhere else with their delicate forelocks and receding hairlines: I know, I know. Please take a seat. After all, the whole of their common language could be expressed in one word, trim, the verb of their lives.
So the years had passed and so it went, no sudden turns, no disasters, no rejoicing. There were a few speed bumps in life and time was a blue comb full of hairs every morning. They got older, but hardly noticed it themselves. They chose their mirrors with care, they chose Frank’s mirror. The only changes they felt were the changes in the city they lived in. They could wake up to a new snack bar anytime, and before they went to bed there was yet another advertising sign shining its green, staccato letters above the tram stop, not to mention the new hairdressers’ with the modern names, moving in where there had previously been a grocery shop, an ironmongery and a draper’s. It confused them, they lay awake and homeless, even in their dreams, but they could also feel a sudden jolt of happiness, like a laughter in their heads, at these changes, because it suddenly struck them, and with great force, that they themselves were the only fixed point in their lives.
And when the alarm clocks ring they get up at once, they’ve been sleeping enough as it is, and maybe they’ll rinse their combs of hairs, because it happens that some of them comb their hair in their sleep.
They never saw each other, except in the door of Frank’s Salon.
It was the last Friday of November, in Frank’s month. Everything was wet and yellow, and any time now the rain could turn to snow. Bent was on his way home, walking in the broad, shiny high street that leads from the centre of town to his neighbourhood. It had been a tiring day at work, not more than usual as regards trips to the fridge, but one of the new ones, a young student, was sick in the corridor, straight into the wall, and collapsed in tears. They were wheeling a child. Bent was fed up with all these subs coming and going, this wasn’t the way it should be, it wasn’t right. But he didn’t tell him off, he tried to comfort him instead and said it gets easier, sooner or later. And he himself had once bent over and vomited. It takes time getting used to the number tag around the white foot of a child.
Bent was waiting for the green light now, at the crossing next to the tram stop. He wanted to get to the other side. He wanted to find shelter. The rain turned to sleet, heavy against his shoulders and arms. Then he was surprised to see that he cast a shadow, a clear shadow slanting into the street. He turned around and was blinded by the big, white light from Spaghetti, the newest of the hair salons in the area. And suddenly Bent changed his mind, he went there instead, to Spaghetti. Afterwards he couldn’t explain why he had done it. He just did it. He guided his steps somewhere new. He could have resorted to one of those truthful lies, that it had been a tiring day at work, that he was out of balance, at least not quite composed, for who can in all honesty get used to a number tag fastened to the right foot of a child and the cold draught when a memory like that is sealed? But that wasn’t why Bent now could see that water dripped from his jacket, that it poured down on the tiled floor which looked like a giant chessboard, that a puddle spread around his shoes during the few seconds he had been standing inside the salon. There he was, a man from the sleet, in the glare of Spaghetti. The smells were different, saturated, filled with an alien heaviness, like on a voyage, almost. Bent brushed his hand quickly across his forehead and looked around. There were both women and men here, sitting in no particular order on common chairs, in front of tall mirrors he couldn’t recognise. He heard music, a monotonous, pounding rhythm, which made him think of the generator in the hospital basement and sleepless nights. It was like he suddenly woke up. He couldn’t stay here. He had to get out again, he had to run away, this was a mistake, he was on his way somewhere else, he had to leave. The light changed out there, Bent saw the green light behind grey stripes of sleet, like a sick flame at the bottom of a dead TV screen after the film, for instance with Mia Farrow, was long finished. He was going now. He was on his way already. Then a young man, a boy, really, in chequered trousers, like the floor almost, came over to him.
– Hi, what’s your name?
– Bent, said Bent.
– You’ve got an appointment?
– No. Sorry. I’m going now. Sorry.
The boy took measure of him, slowly, looked at the puddle around his shoes for a long time, and stopped at his hairline, with a smile.
– We could manage to squeeze you in after all, Bent. Lots of cancellations, you know. The weather. Nasty weather to be out in. No?
– I can wait till another day. I’m sorry.
The boy took his arm.
– No reason to apologise. Just take a seat, please. It’ll be all right.
The boy helped him off with his jacket, and Bent was placed in a chair, a completely normal chair, in front of the mirror that he could barely stand making eye contact with. On each side of him sat ladies, or girls actually, school girls, so scandalously young, getting their hair ready for the weekend. This doesn’t look like a hair salon, Bent thought, this looks like a theatre, backstage. Hair got extended, hair got burnt, hair got dyed, everything was done to hair except cutting it. Bent clasped his hands and closed his eyes, and an old fear erupted inside him, like he’d felt it the first day in the city, it was in June, when he got off the train at Østbanen station, after travelling for two days, and stood there, alone, on the platform, in another world, with a brown suitcase, everything he owned, and the huge weight of expectations in his other hand, the shadow he couldn’t escape; not to mention his first shift, when he had got himself a summer job at the National Hospital, he stood gasping on all fours outside the cold room, the piss in his pants, the shit, the sick, and the laughter in the cafeteria afterwards, he won’t last long, they said, a week, tops. But Bent lasted the longest of them all. He came to the city to study at the Banking Academy, but remained at the hospital instead, in the depths, in the catacombs and the cool room. Bent was the substitute who stayed. He lived in a central bedsit, sold the textbooks in a second-hand shop and had a short way to work. Later he moved to the flat above the convenience store and started getting his hair cut at Frank’s. He never went back home.
The boy put a black cape around Bent, placed himself behind him and raised Bent’s head, just barely.
– Is it a long time since you went to the hairdresser’s?
– No, I cut…
The boy interrupted him.
– To the hairdresser’s, I mean. Is it a long time since you went to the hairdresser’s?
– Two months. How come?
– Nothing, really. I just wondered, you know. How do you want it, Bent?
Now there was no way back. Now it had begun already. He looked at himself in the mirror. He had become fatter than he thought. He had to stop watching the Mia Farrow films.
– Ordinary, repeated the hairdresser. Ordinary?
The other hairdressers looked over at them, the customers too, the school girls, were they laughing? No, Bent couldn’t see the girls laughing, they just glanced at them before they met their own eyes again and talked to each other with the mirrors as middlemen.
– Yes, said Bent. Like I wear it now, just a little shorter, maybe.
This much he had never said to Frank, and this sudden thought of Frank made him anxious, almost shocked. Frank waited in his salon now, had already begun checking his watch, because it was past four thirty, while Bent was sitting here, under strange hands. What am I doing? he thought. What have I done. The boy’s fingers pressed at his temples.
– I’m afraid we’ll have to keep the head a little still. So I can work undisturbed.
The boy remained standing behind him, lost in thought, apparently, while he let a finger glide through Bent’s wet hair.
– That does sound extremely boring, he finally said. Ordinary, I mean.
And then Bent said something he would never have believed himself capable of saying:
– Do whatever you like.
The boy raised his hand and pointed in the air as if he at first couldn’t quite understand what he had heard. Then he smiled and clicked his fingers loudly.
– This you won’t regret, Bent!
The boy pressed his ears inwards and scrutinised him thoroughly.
– Do you want to keep the muttonchops or not?
Bent glanced at the mirror. That was where they did the talking.
– The muttonchops?
– The sideburns, Bent. Do you want to keep the sideburns or not?
The boy let go of his ears again. He probably still thought he hadn’t heard him right.
– Do whatever you like, repeated Bent.
It didn’t take as long as at Frank’s, but he had to pay twice as much. The boy even gave him his business card, he’d like a follow-up, as he put it, and a shampoo sample. When Bent came out it felt almost like having a new head. The light changed to red. The sleet continued. He grabbed a taxi at the next intersection and drove straight home. He had to tie his laces when they passed Frank’s Salon. He couldn’t bear being seen now. Fortunately, the driver didn’t say anything, but he looked at him in the mirror once in a while. Bent paid and hurried into the convenience store, put milk, bread and half a chicken in the basket and carried it to the counter.
Susie stared at him while ringing up the sale.
– You look really cool, she said.
Bent scratched his forehead.
– You think so?
– I wouldn’t have said it otherwise, would I?
– No. Maybe not.
Susie gave him the bag of groceries, and stared openly at him once more, not in his eyes, but a little higher.
– Maybe? I said I think you look cool. Much cooler than before.
– Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Bent went to the door. Then Susie called after him. He turned towards her. She suddenly said nothing. Bent got nervous.
– What is it?
– The films. You forgot to hand them back.
– I’ll bring them.
Susie took a toffee from the bowl on the counter and put it in her mouth.
– Not that it bothers me. No one else asks for them anyway. But it does get expensive.
– Don’t worry about that.
– I don’t worry at all. Are they funny?
Bent shrugged his shoulders.
– You won’t fall asleep, at least.
– Sounds incredibly exciting.
And for the second time that day Bent said something he wouldn’t have believed he was able to say.
– We can watch them together some evening. If you want to, I mean.
Susie leant against the counter and sucked the toffee slowly. He could hear it all the way to where he was standing.
– Well, why not? As long as they’re not boring.
Bent got himself over to his entrance, no mail, just a leaflet with Christmas offers from the butcher’s. He took the elevator to the third floor. A neighbour struggled to push something into the rubbish chute. She glanced at him, made way and continued what she was doing. Something smelled rotten there, fish, or maybe a tin of cat food. Bent let himself in, put the grocery bag in the kitchen and went to the bathroom. There he remained standing, for a long time, in the semi-darkness, in front of the mirror. The pipes rustled, the guts of the block, the rumblings of Friday. His face seemed smaller, narrower. Now I have to lose weight, he thought. The rest of my body is out of proportion to my face. No more doughnuts at night. He put his hand on his head, smooth, it felt like that, all smooth. He smelled his fingers, it reminded him of something he couldn’t quite remember, a present he never unpacked, fruit maybe. He washed his hands and put the small bottle of shampoo in the medicine cabinet.
Then he tiptoed through the flat, switched off the light and peeped between the curtains. He couldn’t see anyone down there, in Frank’s Salon. The window was dark. No hand-written poster hung on the door, with discounts for the seniors of the area. Bent got restless. He ate the chicken cold, had to pull off the stiff, tough skin and throw it away. Things like that would lie around and stink if you didn’t pay attention, the bones too, the thin chicken bones, the breast bone. The mustard jar was empty, he rinsed it in boiling water and scraped off the label. He watched the evening news, but couldn’t remember what he had seen, not even what the weather would be like, or who the weather presenter was. The videos were stacked up next to the TV. He sorted them so that the film he liked best, or thought she, Susie from the store, would like best, if they had the same taste, lay on top, in case she took him at his word and came. He went to the bathroom again, pressed his ears to his head, then his face looked even thinner. Much cooler than before, she said. He drew the comb through his hair, backwards, it felt heavy, like pushing your hand with fingers spread through water. He checked the comb afterwards, in brighter light. He couldn’t see anything. Then he ambled to the kitchen and made coffee. The work rota hung on the fridge, he was on the morning shift tomorrow at eight. Bent didn’t mind taking the weekend shifts that the subs did everything they could to avoid, even if it meant some extra pay for them. Weekends were nice, weekends were usually peaceful for some reason, as if Death only worked from Monday to Friday, as if Death had office hours and a wage agreement. The Angels’ Shift, they called the weekends. He put the hairdresser’s business card in the basket with all the fliers and leaflets and took the kettle off the cooker.
Then the phone rang.
He dropped the kettle and ran to the living room. No one rang here. He waited. It kept ringing. He grabbed the receiver.
– Bent? Are you ill?
It was Frank.
Bent had to sit down. He changed his grip on the receiver and drew his breath as quiet as he could.
– Ill? No, I’m not ill.
Now he’d said it. Now that lie was unusable already.
– You didn’t come, said Frank.
– Got held up at work. Had to do an extra shift.
– I waited for a long time, Bent.
– Sorry. Really. I should’ve let you know.
– Why don’t you come now instead?
– Now? What do you mean?
– That you can come now. I’m here.
Bent stretched towards the window, as far as the cord reached, and looked out. There was a blue light in Frank’s Salon. He could see Frank sitting in the barber chair in the middle with his back to the window and a cordless phone to his ear. He wore the white jacket with all the combs and a gleaming pair of scissors in the breast pocket. He made a sudden move, and the chair swivelled slowly. Bent let go of the curtains and pulled himself back. He could hear Frank laughing quietly.
– I didn’t think you were home, he said. It’s so dark in your flat.
– I haven’t got around to turning on the lights yet.
It got completely quiet again.
– Are you coming?
– Can’t I come next month instead? Friday next month, maybe.
Bent heard Frank’s heavy breathing and something crashing to the floor. He didn’t dare check what it was.
– Next month? December?
– Yes. The last Friday in December. Is that possible?
Frank laughed again, a strange laugh, as if something was stuck in his throat.
– That’s not possible, I’m afraid.
– Why not?
– Why not? Why can’t you come now? I’m here.
– I’m exhausted.
– Are you sure you’re not ill?
– I’m just exhausted. Work. We had a dead child today. Two children.
Bent heard himself say this. He slumped onto the chair. For the third time today, he thought, his own words had taken him by surprise. Two things he didn’t think he would ever say and one thing he shouldn’t have said. He wanted to go back on it. He wanted to retract it. Only the substitutes talked about the dead.
– I’m tired, he repeated. This weather.
– You can come tomorrow.
– Saturday? But you’re closed.
– I’ll be open for you.
Bent collapsed on the chair.
– I’m working tomorrow too. Double shift.
– You don’t say. Is it that busy these days?
– I don’t know when I’ll be home. It’s always busy.
Frank was quiet for a long time.
– I’ll be here anyway, he finally said. Just to let you know.
Frank hung up. Bent remained in the chair with the receiver in his hand, then he carefully put it back in place, as if afraid of waking someone up. He didn’t dare go to the window. He didn’t dare turn on the light. He went to the bathroom instead, undressed and showered, washed his hair, not with the new shampoo, which he left in the cupboard, but with the old soap he’d used for ages, he scrubbed his scalp, hard, as hard as he could, he shivered under the thin, uneven stream of water, which had become too small for his body, like a projector that can’t illuminate the whole person, just certain parts at a time, the hands, the belly, the shoulders, the knees. He saw the water dragging stripes of hair in a black circle down the drain.
Later, Bent tried to watch the film at the bottom of the stack, but he couldn’t follow the action. There were too many characters and he didn’t understand who did what and why they did it. He gave up after fifteen minutes, checked that the hotplate was off, that the door was locked, and went to bed. He couldn’t sleep. He knew it. The sheet slid under him. The strange smell from his own head was even stronger now, as if it had spread all over his body when he showered. It was like lying somewhere else, in another bed, in a hotel room where someone had just got up and left his fat shadow like a hollow in the mattress. The sounds from the street were distinct: shouting, music, engines, something smashed, a bottle or a window. Then everything went silent, almost, it never got completely silent.
And Bent woke up with a start. It had rung. It rang again. He rushed to the phone. It was past midnight. He stretched out his hand. It didn’t stop ringing. He took it.
– Bent Samuelsen? said a voice, a man.
It wasn’t Frank, it was someone else, a strange voice. Just someone calling the wrong number, Bent thought, drunken gibberish. But it couldn’t be a mistake, someone had just said his name, his full name. Someone was dead now, his father, probably his father, and someone was ringing Bent to tell him, the vicar, the district sheriff, a neighbour, doubtless the neighbour in the white villa behind the boathouses, where they used to play on the beach.
– Yes, said Bent, almost impatient. Yes?
– We’re disappointed in you.
– We’re disappointed in you, Bent.
– Who is this talking?
– We have a mutual friend. Short at the ears.
And Bent understood, it was one of Frank’s customers, it had to be one of Frank’s customers, someone he might have met on his way out or in, held the door open for, nodded to, said hello to, but never exchanged a word with. Bent struggled to the window, the Salon was dark, just the faint, blue light above the mirror, as in a big, empty aquarium.
– What do you want? whispered Bent.
– What do you want? That’s the question.
Suddenly Bent felt himself getting furious. He couldn’t stand still. Something rose inside him, an anger, a violent anger. That hadn’t happened for a long time. It felt good, almost. He could have smashed something.
– You woke me up! he shouted.
– You didn’t answer my question.
– And you didn’t answer mine! What do you want from me?
He heard breathing on the other end, somewhere else in the same city, in the same area, maybe on the same street. Something fell, a glass, a cup, something spilling.
– Are you scared now? the stranger asked.
– Scared? What do you mean?
A weak, thin laugh came first.
– Do you really think you look cool now? Huh? Cooler than us?
Bent didn’t answer. His feet were cold. There was a draught along the floor, from the entrance. A siren floated through the city, an ambulance, people beating each other to death around closing time, maybe. A dog barking in a flat above or below him.
– Bastard, said Bent. Bloody bastard!
He heard a click in the receiver, a whistling noise, as if the telephone grid had intercepted the siren and spread it in all directions. Then the voice returned.
– We must take care of Frank. That’s all I have to say. We must take care of Frank.
The connection broke off. Bent let go of the receiver, it barely reached the floor. He let it hang like that. He kicked it. The receiver hit the wall. Feeling agitated he went to the kitchen, I can’t sleep now, he thought, I can’t sleep now anyhow, he rummaged through the pantry, the fridge, but I managed to say it, bastard, bloody bastard, he could have used stronger words, he could have done so, words he had almost forgotten, he wasn’t tongue-tied if a swear word was needed. He spat in the sink. Then he finally found what he was looking for, in the back of the bread bin, a doughnut. He sat down at the kitchen table, ate it slowly. The doughnut was hard and dry. It didn’t matter. He ate it, and it dissolved in his mouth like thick dust. He drank a glass of water, it tasted like mustard, and went to bed.
And he lay there, alert and afraid, only now afraid, he felt it like a heavy sinker in his guts, the flip side of his agitation and rage: anxiety. He had broken out. He had betrayed them, this circle of silent men, which he had belonged to himself. Frank’s loyal customers. He had made them seem ridiculous, this Friday in November, and he had done it on a whim, without a plan, without a purpose, he had made fools of them. Bent tore at his duvet. He was burning. He pressed his face to the pillow. Then sleep came after all, he dreamt something about Susie, she waited for him while he rewound all the films, but the tapes never stopped winding, they slid around in the cassettes, he dreamt about the shells on the beach which they named after farm animals, cow, sheep, goat, the mussel was a cow, the cat was blue and he dreamt about the black eye of the drain sucking in hair and hide, sleep was a chain of visions rusted stuck to a new morning.
Bent woke up in a different light. Surprised, he got up, in a different light. He put on his dressing gown and went to the window, looked out: Winter. He would like to see it, the exact moment when sleet turned to snow, from grey to white, from heaviness to lightness. But he hadn’t even seen the rain become sleet, although he was standing in the middle of it and could feel the weight of wet coldness. Now he could see footprints leading along the pavement, from Frank’s Salon, crossing the street at the convenience store. Someone had already been there. Bent spun around. The receiver hang above the floor, still swaying a little, like a slow pendulum. It was seven thirty. He put the receiver in place, picked it up again at once. He had the dialling tone. He called the National Hospital and said he was sick, he couldn’t come, he was sick, in his stomach, further notice tomorrow, he was sick, contagious, probably contagious. He hung up quickly. He remained standing, as if waiting for them to call back immediately and expose him. Now he had done it. Now he couldn’t call and say he felt well already and double the lie with half a truth. Why couldn’t there be something called a white truth? It was his first time away from work. The dead would have to accept waiting a little longer today. The dead were in a minority. The dead didn’t have a say in the matter.
He put the coffee on and cut a slice of bread. He wasn’t hungry and left it lying. He swept the breadcrumbs off the table, put the knife in the drawer. The winter blinded him. The whiteness pressed itself inside everywhere, snow, eroded light, he went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Yes, he really had to lose weight, last night’s doughnut was the final one. His proportions were all wrong, he was a big Å with too small a circle over it, just a dot. He had to become an i, it was time to become an ordinary i that slept at night and didn’t eat doughnuts. He pulled his fingers through his hair. It wasn’t smooth now but dry, dry and stiff. He looked at his hands, specks of dust fell from them.
Then the bell rang. Someone rang at Bent Samuelsen’s door. That hadn’t happened for a long time, and then it was Jehova’s Witnesses. He rushed to the entrance, stopped. What if it was Susie? And him in a horrid robe and barefoot, hardly out of bed, on the first day of winter? That would be a sight. He couldn’t but open. Bent opened the door. It wasn’t Susie. It was Frank. Frank stood there with two full carrier bags from the convenience store, staring at him.
– Aren’t you going to ask me in?
Bent stepped aside and let him past. Frank put the bags on the floor, took off his shoes and coat and turned to him. Frank stared at Bent’s forehead with an almost imperceptible smile.
– You can be honest with me, Bent.
– Yes? What do you mean?
– Haven’t we known one another for a long time?
Bent didn’t answer. The door closed shut. Frank’s eyes were everywhere. Frank’s eyes were on him.
– Haven’t we? Known one another for a long time?
– Yes, said Bent.
– Fifteen years. Isn’t it fifteen years?
– I think so. Fifteen years.
Frank came closer. Frank could almost touch him.
– But you are sick. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?
– I’m not sick.
– I just called your work. They said you weren’t there. They said you were sick.
Bent felt cold and afraid, even more afraid.
– You called the hospital? Why did you call the hospital?
– I’m worried about you, Bent.
Frank lifted the bags and smiled again.
– I bought you something to nibble. Shall I put it in the kitchen?
Bent inhaled slowly.
– Yes. The kitchen. Please do.
Frank took a step backwards and stared at him again, shook his head for a long time, so that there could be no doubt.
– You really look unwell. That’s for sure.
– It’s nothing to be concerned about.
– And I thought you were just skiving off.
Frank laughed suddenly and loudly. Bent looked another way, agitated.
– I never skive off.
– Many people skive. Many people do.
Frank whistled a tune from an old TV series while going to the kitchen. There he put the milk and the spreads in the fridge, the bread in the bread bin and finally dropped a big paper bag on the table, smiling.
Bent stood in the doorway.
– Doughnuts, said Frank.
Bent said nothing.
– You like doughnuts, I’ve heard. Well?
Bent nodded. Frank took a doughnut out of the bag and gave it to him. It was all fresh and warm, but still it grew in his mouth, like a fungus. Bent swallowed and swallowed. Frank’s gaze was around him all the time. Frank’s eyes didn’t let go of him.
– Won’t you show me the rest of the flat?
They went back to the living room. Frank brushed his finger along the book shelf, looked at a photo of Bent’s parents, taken the day before he left home, picked up some weeklies that lay strewn on the floor by the TV.
– Can I take these ones, Bent?
– Sure you’ve read them?
– Yes. I’ve read them.
– Quite sure? I don’t want them if you’re not finished with them.
– I am finished with them. Please take them.
Frank put the weeklies in one of the empty bags.
– In the old days the Salon subscribed to Allers, Hjemmet and Aftenposten. Can’t do that anymore.
Frank sighed and went to the window, looking between the curtains.
– Nice view, he said. Fun to see my Salon from up here. From the top down.
Frank remained standing there, with his back to Bent, silent, like a thin shadow against all the whiteness. The curtains billowed slowly on both sides of him. I’m going now, thought Bent. I will go and leave him behind here, and I won’t come back until he’s gone.
Frank started talking, softly.
– Sometimes my father let me be with him in the salon. When I was a kid. When a haircut cost three kroner and everyone wanted Brylcreem and Cheseline. I sat on a stool in the corner and wasn’t allowed to say a word. Dad couldn’t bear being disturbed while working. But one day I fell asleep. I fell asleep and fell right off the stool. Dad jumped so that he cut half an earlobe off the customer. The blood flowed. My God, how much blood there was. But the customer did come back. The next month he was back in the chair and his ear had healed. Have you ever had any reason to complain about me, Bent?
– Have you ever been dissatisfied with the manner in which I carry out my work?
– Never. Never, Frank.
Frank turned to Bent, the whole of him stooped.
– I can’t handle it much longer now.
– What do you mean?
– The years don’t make us younger, exactly. Soon we will be pensioners all of us and get half price. I guess it’s time to call it quits while I’m on top.
– You don’t mean that? said Bent.
– Don’t I? I’ve got three chairs, but only ever use one of them. You might as well all come home to me and then I will cut your hair in the kitchen in turns.
– The pensioners can pay full price, said Bent. Like everyone else.
Suddenly Frank laughed and slapped himself on the forehead.
– Here I am, bothering you with my small problems. As if you didn’t have enough on your mind.
Bent got worried. Frank kept staring at him.
– How much do I owe you? asked Bent. For the groceries.
– Don’t worry about that now. I think you want to go to bed. Get well. Would you like me to make you some tea?
– That’s not necessary.
– All right. Just wondered.
– Thanks, mumbled Bent. Thanks a lot.
Frank went over to the TV and began putting the Mia Farrow videos in the empty carrier bag together with the weeklies. Bent was close to stopping him from doing it.
– I’ve paid for them, said Frank. It costs a fortune in hire if you just let them lie around like this, you know.
And Bent let him do it. He saw that Frank put the videos, one by one, in the bag and carried them to the entrance. There he put on his coat and shoes, and when he straightened himself, he stared at Bent again, gave him this look that loomed over him.
– Please come when it suits you. I’ll be there anyway.
Frank opened the door, hesitated, as if he was about to change his mind and return.
– That’s all I wanted to say, he said. Hope you feel better soon.
Frank left. Bent hurried to the window, and after a while he saw Frank enter the convenience store. When he emerged he had only the weeklies in his hand, he went diagonally across the street and let himself into the Salon. There he turned on the ceiling light, disappeared for a few minutes, probably to the backroom, then he was there again, in the white jacket, with his father’s gold badge on the lapel. He sat down in the barber chair, in the middle, swivelled it and sat staring up towards Bent’s window.
Bent let go of the curtains and backed away. He remained standing like this, immobile, until he felt cold. It had never seemed so quiet before, the snow was a silencer. He tiptoed to the kitchen, ate the doughnuts, as slowly as he could. But he couldn’t calm down. He tore up the business card from Spaghetti and threw it in the bin. He could already feel the rotten whiff of the chicken remains. He slammed shut the door of the cupboard and got terrified by his own noise. He had to go to the window. Down there, Frank sat staring up at him. Bent couldn’t endure it anymore. He got dressed, took the elevator down, the white light assaulted his eyes as he came out, he had to rest his face in his hands for a few seconds. Then he ran across the street and entered Frank’s Salon.
Frank straightened up, adjusted his jacket, smiled.
– I knew you’d come, he said.
– Yes. I came after all.
– You’re not cold, Bent?
– No, I feel better now. Shall we begin?
– There’s something I want to show you first.
Bent followed Frank to the backroom. A row of black bin bags, all of them full, stood lined up along the wall. And different dates were written on the sacks, all the way back to 1974, Bent saw.
– My life’s work, said Frank silently.
Bent didn’t quite understand what Frank meant. He felt like leaving.
– What is it?
– Well, I couldn’t just throw it away, could I?
Frank turned one of the bags over and emptied it on the floor. Hair. It was hair, a storm of hair whirling around before it slowly subsided.
– 1982, said Frank. Do you recognise yours?
He waded into the hairs, picked up a few wisps and inspected them.
– Here we have it, I think.
Frank looked over at Bent.
– You’ve become a little greyer since then. But otherwise you hold up well.
Frank laughed, clapped his hands and a cloud of hairs formed around him.
– Oh well, I guess we should get started.
They went back to the Salon again. Bent sat down in the middle chair. Frank jacked it up a couple of notches, put the cape on Bent and crammed the paper collar in place. Then he moved behind Bent, took the scissors out of the breast pocket, clicked them rapidly in the air, and remained standing like this, gleaming scissors in hand, as if absorbed in thoughts of something. Then he put the scissors in his pocket and fetched the electric razor. Bent closed his eyes and heard the buzz, close to his ear, quite close. He felt the tug at the nape of his neck, the blades that tore his skin slightly. Frank bent his head forwards, then he shoved the razor, slowly and steadily, through the hair, all the way to the forehead.
Bent opened his eyes wide and looked at himself in the mirror, in the old, dull mirror that erased more than it showed, and he could see his scalp, the thin, dented cranium came into view, the fragile, white membrane around what was him. Frank put his hand there, on his naked head, while the razor buzzed in his other hand.
Bent suddenly felt nauseous. He wriggled in the chair. He wanted to get up. But Frank held him down.
– Are we friends now? asked Frank.
*The story ״The Envious Hairdresser״ has been published with the support of NORLA, Norwegian Literature Abroad.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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