They were not representative of the sights he had been seeing, but they were there, and they would do.
“Tu veux un petit sac?” The old man sighed from behind the counter, eroded from having repeated the same question over and over again, like a sample in a hip-hop instrumental.
“No, merci” smiled the man, and walked out of the bureau de tabac, past the Romanian beggar lady, through the herd of hysterical school children, across the cobble stone square, and into the serenity of the cathedral courtyard. The distant clock tower reported an orderly nine, perfect, perfect. Behind the cathedral, the courtyard was always deserted.
The man found a dry patch on the shallow wall, and brushed away the debris, just enough for his slim body to drop peacefully into its newfound, but rather robust haven. He removed his jacket, and laid it by his bag.
An elderly priest coughed elegantly, and glided through the slanting side door, past the man, and into the holiness beyond.
“Bonjour” smiled the man.
For a moment, he waited without moving, perhaps for the priest to re-appear. He lifted his eyes towards the gargoyles above the concrete pillar on the side of the vestige, where a monster was blowing an immutable raspberry at him. He squinted admiringly, and exhaled deeply, as if that were a mark of discipline, a transition, bringing him back to more serious matters.
The first postcard was a picture of the bridge. The sky was artificially blue, and the river looked more like the computerized pool in a recent batch of ecchymosed aquarium advertisements he had seen plastered on the sides of hard discount supermarkets. He wanted to laugh, because this one would be for his professor, instead he hiccupped.
A stray cat observed him as he opened his bag, and pulled an ornate pen case from the front pocket.
Vous avez le bonjour de Majid. N’attendez pas trop longtemps pour récupérer votre kebab. C’est bientôt la fin des promos !
The weather is disgusting, the people are awful, the girls are obscene, Balzac is rotting fluently.
I trust I will return to a highly educated fish. Again, many thanks.
Setting the card down beside the bag, and the jacket, and the cat, he paused. Perhaps the old scholar would not laugh; after all, he was a Methodist, a non-practising Methodist at that, with an acute taste for scotch and irony; he would laugh. The cat sniffed delicately at the jacket, as if it had discovered a patch of untouched territory. Angus dedicated an instant’s meditation to his fish, probably happily gyrating in the centre of Félicien’s kitchen table.
The second postcard was an engraving of the cathedral steps. It felt good to be about to write this postcard from the cathedral courtyard. Of course, one would have to have visited the cathedral in order to recognise the authenticity of the replica, but the symbol was buoyant enough to make the experience worthwhile. He stared vacantly down at the stiff card which was resting on his tattered trousers. This one would be for his girlfriend. He did not pick the card up, but continued to decipher the lines on the engraving.
In order to trim the image down to a postcard format, the bottom steps had been cut, leaving only the top five ridges in the centre of the card, giving way to the heavy iron door. Glancing up, he noticed that several elements had evolved since the artist, probably an educated plebeian, had abidingly sat on the same wall as the one on which the young man now sat in order to finalize his configuration. There seemed to have been two short pillars on either side of the door, and a trough to the right side of the steps, for the horses, of course, and then that had been removed, because we no longer travel by horseback.
Pleased with his analysis, and a little stiff from sitting in the same folded position, he stretched out his legs, and reached towards the cat, which backed away cautiously. The card fell in a straight line, and landed on his shoe. Dusting it off a little, the man picked it up, and decided that the other cards could wait. He rose to his feet accordingly, laid the cards in between the pages of a hardback he had been carrying around, set the pen casually in its coffin, and grabbed his jacket in a series of breathy yanks. The cat darted up the steps.
The rest of the day was a dreamy ambulatory from one landmark to another. At some point he would have to go to the train station. His professor had insisted he meet his incredible sister, an impeccable blonde who had published as many books on social science as she had smoked cigarettes in the course of her enthusiastic life; an equation solved by a quaint tar ball which would probably abrogate her days, cause Félicien much distress, and put an end to a concluding analytical path in the direction of the light.
Angus was definitely not hungry, and not particularly in the mood for making acquaintances. He hovered through the racks of newspapers and magazines, and resolved to buy a bottle of chilled mineral water.
“Tu veux un petit sac?” The nymph whinged from behind the counter; perforated by metal accessories that brought her pre-teen countenance to a scene of torture.
“No, ça va merci” said Angus, without moving his lips. And he walked out of the newsagent’s, past the tectonic dancers and their ghetto blaster, through the clusters of businessmen, across the platform, and into the clearness of the empty train. He chose a seat quickly, as if someone were watching, although no one was, and laid his bag down on the seat next door, in case someone attempted to break his soundlessness by sitting. The lights were still dimmed, making him suddenly drowsy, it felt good.
He slept for a while, at least half of the ride. When he awoke, the sunset was arrogant; a wet vault, a streak of luminous pink strung out under an ashy illusion. The train rattled cold air into the space between the window and the ferrous seat. Freedom; heating up his left eye, straying onto his fingers, blinding him partially. If he had, in the course of his rushed and demanding entity, been able to caress happiness, whatever that vague concept may have represented to him, this would have been that moment. He never wanted to forget it, or get off that unsure train. He pulled out his notebook crucially, and unleashed his pen. He wrote: visionary.
After that moment, the boy fancied Monsieur Dujardin, Félicien, in his living room, his legs closely crossed, his spectacles sitting independently on his stout nose; his eyes plunged into the subjective seriousness his television set detonated throughout the house. Never distracted, never unavailing; in constant dissection, as though the world had never dared to throw vulgarity in his face, or if it had ever done so (he would never know), a transcendent shield of cognizance emanated by the old man’s innocent concentration would have shrivelled the attack before it was ever voiced.
An individual who had been invisibly occupying one of the seats a few rows behind now stood, causing Angus to start as an opaque shadow suddenly towered forward in the cocky twilight. The train rocked wayward, slicing September fields down their middle. The crops had long since been harvested and a film of moisture warped the neat man-made aisles, echoing the murky celestial shapes that now stemmed from the pink vein. He closed his eyes once more as the train swerved gently to the right, and surrendered his face to the sunbeam. Clasping his closed notebook, he did not feel the need to jot down anything. Sadness rustled through the rows of empty seats, unnecessary, almost silent to the untamed will.
As planned, the train stopped, and a tall man came to fetch him. Expecting locals kissed locals restored. A tang of warm urine hung about the station walls. The middle-aged giant wafted a paralinguistic cigarette in the direction of the car; previously an antic greeting, now a forlorn habit; it was dark. They drove for about ten minutes, speaking sporadically, out of necessity. He said he taught teachers to become teachers, and fanned the smoke particles around the car respectfully; Angus stifled quietly.
The car came to an abrupt halt on a gravel driveway beside a lone farm house. Other cars had been scattered carelessly around the hedges. It felt good to step out onto the gravel and breathe the sweet country air. Perhaps travelling or maybe just the distraction of the evening had made him feel slightly hungry.
Introductions bloomed with kisses, interjections, and the handing out of refreshments. Everyone was drinking, and had known everyone else for as long as they could remember. A large blonde creature laughed sincerely, squeezing past the timid youth on her way to the door. Perhaps she was Félicien’s sister?
At dinner, Angus sat next to an anorexic psychologist. Her husband was submissively friendly, and accepting; asking many questions about the young man’s project. On the other side, the giant ate heartily, leaving the table regularly to smoke. A young girl sat to his immediate right, she was fragile in her posture, in her inkling sturdy; she quoted two poets whose names he had misspelled once in a debate with a haughty classmate. It suddenly occurred to him that he had not brushed his teeth since that morning. He readily accepted the generous pouring of wine into his glass without calculation.
In between courses, Angus sat in a white plastic chair on the patio while the smokers nearby entertained their fingers. The sharp-witted girl was hunched up on a chair opposite. She was funny. The two of them had been counting how many times ‘en fait’ had awkwardly been deposited in people’s conversations. It was an amusing way of feeling superior instead of feeling altogether bored or left-out. They had recorded twenty seven, with perhaps two or three of those being conscious exaggerations on the part of the jury, adding to their fits of quiet laughter. She was a little too pretty, and jaunty, put that on account of her age, but she knew a lot, and that made her compelling.
Promptly les invités were doting on dessert. Gorgeous! Comment fais-tu ? The host turned out to be the blonde lady after all. If Angus had seen her in another context, he would never have thought of associating this farcical character with such a refined persona as Félicien. He felt a little shame on Félicien’s part, or on his own part. He wondered if he would have introduced his own sister to an admiring student. In all cases, he felt better about being able to introduce his girlfriend to the old prof. That had always been an unpronounced worry. He planned to organise something on his return.
“Social Science” he repeated absently, “en fait”.
Guests left one by one, good, perfect. A hungry dog feasted on the crumbs below the table. The blonde lady stood in the centre of the room, clasping her hands in a trance, repeating her satisfaction. They appropriated rooms to a few guests who had come from afar, just as he had. Angus would take the loft; refait à neuf, you’ll see.
‘En fait’ was staying too, in another room. She was Félicien’s niece, and she had driven all the way from Paris for the occasion. He thought she had mentioned a supermarket, but that was definitely unrelated to her job, because that seemed quite illogical.
The night was heavy, a little dank. The witty girl must be dreaming on the ground floor. Perhaps she was wearing pyjamas or perhaps nothing at all; now that was a thought! He rested on his back without undoing the bed covers. He thought of his goldfish, and then of his girlfriend. He remembered the excitement of helping her choose between cod and halibut in the grotty supermarket behind the university. She had chosen steak. She was too pretty then as well, and witty; decidedly. However now she was his girlfriend; which meant that whatever wit may have impressed or even frenzied him at the beginning was now touching, but predictable, and when it was spontaneous, its randomness made it uncalled for. An ethylated weariness draped his body, and carried him forward.
Farmhouses at dusk always inhabit eeriness. The guests snuggle down in warm quilts, softened by sleep, and outside, a white mist laces the vines and spiders’ webs. Cool rays of life arouse an unknown world, edging through twigs, licking the lush side of aging leaves. The ground glistens, it needs no witness. A worm writhes on the hard earth, where it is plagued by a thrush; bleeding, one half of the fleshy subsistence will burrow down, and remain. An eager shadow strikes the wet chimney, screaming beauty; too intolerable for the roles they audition for, and soliloquize, the roles they now abscond by drawing out a flowerbed, and soiling their hands in the life they ephemerally bring forth. A cockerel crows grossly.
He had slept well. He was not sure how long he had rested on the tough mattress. Still in-between his clothes, for a few moments, he dozed in that in-between world, somewhere in-between the conscious imperatives that awaited him, and the honesty of sleep. The taste of wine coated his teeth, a remnant of his whereabouts. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. There was a door at the far end of the loft; he had not noticed it in his mellow tiredness the night before. A sudden shiver alerted him of a drop in temperature, so he pulled the quilt out from under his legs, and arranged it as a cape. He had no idea of the time; it could be anything between dusk and breakfast; he had slept enough. Tiptoeing cautiously, curiosity carried him to the bolted door, which he unlocked. It was a trap-door, leading to an outside set of concrete steps, those leaning back into the yard.
A puff of misty air brushed past the young adventurer standing in the doorway. It was earlier than he had made out. The guileful sky nudged him softly, because the indefinite countryside had only just dressed for breakfast, and wished to share this privileged instant with the lone pupil. And he felt privileged. It was too cold to feel at ease, and that disposition was a necessity in the art of discovery, he knew that, it felt good. He wore plastic flip flops. The quilt fitted the upper part of his body, leaving no gaps for drafts. He looked quite ghastly tiptoeing down the concrete steps into the yard.
Once, Félicien had begun a class with a remark on the necessity to rise early. Angus had paid close attention, not because it was his weakness (he had, in fact, always been an early bird), but because of the uselessness of the comment. The man had stood before the tutorial, his spectacles staring intently down on the five earnest men, his eyes wandering off into the neon lights above, and he had described France in the morning:
“You don’t know what it is to wake up in pitch darkness; even in the small towns here you have street lamps. If you do not wake up at four o’ clock in the morning, in a forgotten petit lieu-dit, and feel the cold, at least once in your lives, and feel what it is to be alone, and small, but powerful, lucky, redeemed; you have not lived.”
The old man always shook his head calmly when he addressed the group. The young men mocked him affectionately, but registered his every word. He had been huge; both in his poetry, and in his discourse; so pure in his quest that politics had not ventured into his tattered office. He would die leaving a mountain of seeds; and they would be admired, and suffocated by weeds, and fall onto the rocky ground; too tough to plough, and some seed would fall into the good soil, and the name on the office door would change.