in english | François Bon, The new town (complete story)

la version anglaise de "Morsure (une grève)"


The New Town, in french Morsure (une grève), by François Bon, has been published in 2000 by © Allen & Goodwin - Sydney, translated by Patricia Clancy (many, many thanks). Complete short story (personal advice : use your "Send to Kindle" button, will be ok for digital use on your device). Other english resources on this web site.


- BITER
- THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY
- STEVE
- BITER
- THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE
- THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY
- ELVIS
- STEVE
- THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE
- THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY
- BITER
- THE CARETAKER’S WIFE
- ELVIS
- THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY
- THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE
- BITER
- STEVE
- THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE
- THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY
- BITER

 

BITER


I’ve never been cold.

That comes from living on the streets, from living on the streets for such a long time. I was maybe sixteen, and I already had the nickname Biter, like now.

In the old days, there were old streets way up there above the new town, the part of the town they rebuilt. They knocked down the old streets to build the blocks of flats.

I turned eighteen, then twenty. Now I’ll soon be twenty-three.

There’s not a lot to the new town : just the sea, and behind that the port. The town used to be spread out around it, but none of us ever knew. The war came and the town was bombed, except the old streets higher up. After that they rebuilt it with straight streets and straight buildings. And then they rebuilt here as well, blocks of flats where the old streets used to be.

I used to live in the old streets when I was a kid. We had this house here, and these rooms, and my mother and younger brother lived here, and when I was sixteen I left and went to the new town, only sometimes on a Sunday I’d come back to see them, my mother and my young brother. After a while they told me not to bother, they said they’d rather not see me. The old streets had been pulled down, they had a flat in the block—it almost smelt new at the time—now I don’t know where they’ve gone. I know that my brother liked the south, and my mother was sick. Then I came back up here to live.

I tell myself that it’ll be easier to find me if they want to get in touch. They only have to ask for me : I’ve had this nickname for ages now. BITER. They’ll ask for Biter. They’ve never come back ; they’ve never asked about me.

I’ve been living on the streets for so long now.

summary

 

THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY


The trucks are still there at the roundabout on the southern highway interchange.

I can count them from my window. Twenty in the first line, most likely more behind them, ones I can’t see. They’ve made a fire, out there in the fog. They’re burning planks, they’re burning wood. It’s an orange colour, with something darker above it.

And down there on the bridge over the river—it’s too far away but I know, that’s what they’re saying and I know—that there’s a whole lot more, and others at the northern tunnel. There are three ways to enter our town. The southern interchange, the bridge over the river and the tunnel at the end of the valley to the north. The trucks have blocked the three routes, and the town’s closed off.

This morning there was nothing above the refinery. From my window I can see the sea, and in front of the sea, the grey cubes and tanks and pipes of the refinery. There are these three chimneys above it with orange flame coming out of them, a little orange flame, but it’s there in the daytime and there at night too, and this morning there was no flame. The trains aren’t coming out of the refinery any more. The trucks have blocked off the trains as well. It’s starting to get cold in the town. It’s getting cold in our building too, and it’s evening now and even colder.

Down there the truck people have made fires. We can’t light fires in our buildings.

summary

 

STEVE


If the roads are closed off, you can’t drive anywhere.

I’ve got some petrol, about a third of a tank full, so I could get in my car and go. The petrol stations closed the day before yesterday, the third day since the trucks arrived. They say that the refinery itself has shut down today. No heating in the buildings, and they’ve said that maybe there won’t be any lighting tonight. We live in the new town and we depend on the refinery for everything.

From the buildings higher up, you come down to what’s called the embankment or the promenade. It’s the boulevard that goes around the shoreline, and in summer the people who swim there. We hardly ever swim, and in any case we don’t go there. At the end of the embankment there’s this road that goes down to the sea. And almost overhanging the rocks, there’s the place they call The Escape. It’s a bar, like another home to us. You can only get to it by car. That’s the big advantage of having a car.

You can’t go anywhere much in the car, so I’ve parked it here, just in front of the stairs, and I turn on the radio. It’s a cassette radio. The guys bring cassettes, we sit in the car. I let them have the driver’s side, and I sit beside them and look after the radio. With the windows open you can hear it nice and loud because of the extra speakers, so there can be quite a lot of you, but there’s only one car and what I say goes around here.

Why is everyone so edgy this evening ? They have to walk up from town since the buses have stopped too. They’ve done their shopping on foot. You can see them carrying their bulging white plastic bags. That really makes me laugh : the supermarket isn’t getting deliveries any more, so they stock up with anything they can still buy. Seems there’s no more milk in the supermarket.

‘So what ?’ I tell them. ‘If there’s no more milk, we’ll drink beer !’

A car’s great when you need to be alone. You wind up the windows, park in front of the view, and then you can think.

summary

 

BITER


It’s mine, it’s my place.

I found it by myself, like the way you create the place where you’re going to live. In the beginning I slept in the car park, but that didn’t work very well as they close at nine o’clock at night and don’t open again until six in the morning. So you had to arrive early and leave again before they did their first rounds. I used to leave my sleeping bag down the back of the car park. The great thing about the place is the temperature. Below the second underground level, the temperature stays the same, summer and winter.

I even painted my name in big letters on the wall : Biter. That way, everyone who knows me realizes this is my place.

It’s because I used to leave at six in the morning that I came across the service entrance, an iron door that’s hidden from above because of the slope. There’s a ramp where they bring down the rubbish bins. There’s one of those iron rods with a pneumatic jack that closes the door automatically, but no key. You only have to pull and it opens. Behind the door there’s a passage with two empty rooms at the end. One leads down from the offices—that one’s locked—and the other’s for the rubbish bins, but it has another room off it, also made of bare concrete. They wouldn’t bother with paint or signs down here. There are water and gas pipes, the beginning of the electric wiring network and a transformer. There’s a humming noise, but it’s not too bad, and it’s a bit warm. So this is where I’ve been sleeping since then. I come and go whenever I like. And there’s a small basement window, but without bars, just a fairly narrow opening under the ceiling, looking on to the place where they keep their machines. There’s a yellow machine they use to clean the aisles with a brush underneath and a kind of steam jet for the floor tiles. There are machines with little rubber castors used to carry pallets of wine or fruit juice, or frozen food or whatever they need. I get into the machine room through this gap in the ceiling. Once I’m in, there’s only a curtain of thick rubber strips between me and the supermarket. It’s not patrolled. In front are the locked and bolted iron curtains and the shopping mall. It’s the shopping mall that’s patrolled. The first time I got in, I even took some grog and had a ball. The second time, I ate there and stashed away the papers. Afterwards, I thought it was a bit chancy, so I only take what I need, take everything back to the transformer room and eat there with no worries. Something extra on Sundays. And no one has ever suspected a thing.

It’s my place and I’m careful. No one else should know about it.

‘Hey Biter, where do you live ?’ my mates ask me.

‘Down there under the supermarket,’ I reply vaguely.

If they come with me, I go to the car park, where I left my sleeping bag.

You don’t give out an address like the transformer room, not to anyone. It’s my territory, my patch. If anyone got the idea they wanted to want to share it with me, they’d have Biter to contend with.

summary

 

THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE


I moved in two years ago. I should be used to it.

In the beginning, of course, I didn’t suspect anything. How could I ? I’d arrived there with my husband and daughter. We’d installed the furniture and repapered the walls. It wasn’t very far to my husband’s work by car, as he works at the refinery, and my daughter could take a bus straight to her high school. There are two high schools in the new town, which they call North High and South High—South High more for boys’ technical courses, and North High more for girls’ occupations, with a nursing school next to it, which is what my daughter wanted to do.

I heard about it in the shopping mall in front of the supermarket. When people start to become acquainted, naturally they talk to each other. ‘Are you new around here ? Where do you live ?’ That sort of thing. But not more than that, because the people in the flats are generally discreet. It was in the bakery, and people who work in bakeries are always curious. I pointed to our stairway, the second last on the left.

‘Over there is it ? Where those young men hang around with their car, near the seat ?’ That’s the first thing she wanted to know : whether the young people bothered us.

‘They’re polite,’ I said. ‘If they’re a bit noisy, it’s because they’re young. The woman in the bakery said that not everyone felt like that, specially in summer when the windows were open. It was February then, since it was exactly a year ago. I replied that we’d see when summer came. The woman said, ‘It’s true that you’ve got a nice view. You can see the whole town and even the sea.’

A nice outlook, yes, that’s what had made us choose this place to come to. On one hand there was the price, which wasn’t so dear, and on the other, from the kitchen you could see the sun set over the sea, and between us and the sea, the whole of the new town with its straight streets and yellow buildings.

You normally have to buy fresh bread every day, and when I went down to the bakery usually at about half past nine, the rush hour was over and the woman behind the counter had more time.

‘But you’re not on the third floor, are you ?’

Yes, I was on the third floor (there are six, with a lift).

‘You don’t know then ?’

What didn’t I know ?

‘What’s it matter . . , you’ll find out. If you’re happy there. After all, it’s been empty for a long time.’

She didn’t want to say any more and I didn’t insist. I thought to myself, ‘There’s still the caretaker and the postman. I’ll find out easily enough.’

summary

 

THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY


It’s evening, the sun has already set over there below us. You can’t see anything now beyond the black rocks of the jetty. Nothing but an expanse of dark, leaden grey. In the sky, also grey, a horizontal break, mauve with purple edges.

The town has come to a standstill, the streets are empty, without any cars, and there’s an unusual silence, which means that the siren of a police car speeding past can be heard for miles around. The sky puts on its show, and every evening at that time I just like to stand and watch it.

Just before sunset the birds go mad : the town birds that live in the scrawny trees in the square or over there along the avenue, and the sea birds, the white birds that send cries of distress down the shopping streets when the weather’s wet, and come right up here to our rubbish bins when it’s really windy. And when the sky sinks into night, the birds fall silent.

There was an accident this morning at the southern interchange. It seems that the trucks were letting a few cars through in single file, and a van that had been refused entry forced its way in. They said on the radio, and then on television, that a truck driver was run over. The van was turned over on to its roof and set alight. The police had to get the driver out.

I was on my balcony. I could hear the sirens, I saw the flashing blue lights on their cars and from behind the other window—the bedroom window—beyond the factory buildings, there was this yellow column surrounded by black smoke, and then I could see how the black smoke had gathered in the sky above the southern interchange.

An hour after that, the heating and electricity were cut off.

It’s cold now. The windows in the flats are dark. Nothing behind them to light up the kitchen curtains—all the kitchens have curtains—the way they usually do. Some people have already lit candles. Now, as evening has fallen, you can see them.

summary

 

ELVIS


You carry the noise around inside your head, and when the noise stops, you don’t know where you are. Doors have opened that you can’t close again. Your inner resources have gone. You’re lost.

Sometimes I go to my parents’ place. My father’s home this evening, so I won’t go. They’re on the fourth floor and I still have my key.

My mother’s the only one who knows.

My father threw me out eight months ago now. I saw him again once. It was at the bus stop. He looked at me but didn’t say anything. So I didn’t say anything either. It’s not the right time yet.

My mother says : ‘He’s waiting for you to say you’re sorry.”

And I say : ‘He’s the one who should say sorry first.’

So I wait too, and anyway, he knows how to find me.

Because we’re often there on the concrete seat at the end of the lane that goes to the square with the kids’ playground, where Steve’s car is—that’s been his nickname since he was little—and his music. I don’t go there all the time, but we say hello and sometimes I stop. Steve knows where I live. (Steve’s the one who first gave me the name everyone here knows me by : Elvis). I even have a bag of my stuff in the boot of his car. He said, ‘I’ll look after it for you.’

If my father wants to talk to me, he talks to Steve and Steve comes and tells me. My mother knows about it and that’s why I told her, ‘If he wants to talk to me, he knows where to find me.’ My father hasn’t made up his mind to talk to me yet.

It’s cold this evening. I went round to see Steve. He was in his car, but the windows were up. When Steve winds up the windows, it’s no use trying to speak to him. After all, his car’s his castle, and as he’s got two kids on the fifth floor, he can sometimes take a break on his own.

So I went up again, but the light wasn’t working either. There’s a service light there and I’ve plugged a powerboard into the light so I can connect my radio. Only the motor wasn’t going either. It’s the sound of the motor that’s missing, and I couldn’t get used to it. I sat down on the stairs, right at the top, on my step.

I call it “my” step because no one comes up here without a special reason. The tiled stairs stop at the sixth floor, the one above Steve. After that it’s just concrete. There’s a little window for the guys who have to get out on the roof to fix leaks or antennas, and there’s the lift motor.

You can’t walk upright. There’s not enough room. You can’t stretch your arms either, but you don’t need to stretch your arms all the time.

The day after my father threw me out, I waited till my mother had gone out. I went down to the fourth floor, got my mattress, my radio and three bits and pieces (my photos and my sports medals, and that’s the stuff I put in the bag in the boot of Steve’s car). I’ve got the mattress and the radio here, and that’s enough.

In the morning, I can tell when my mother goes to the supermarket and the bakery, when the lift leaves from the fourth floor. I go down, have something to eat, and my mother always leaves some coffee. I leave my dirty things, and I have a shower when I feel like it. Sometimes she leaves a fifty franc note on the table. In the afternoon, if it’s fine, I go to the seat in the square. She comes and sits down beside me, and like me she looks down at the town and its straight rebuilt streets. My mother was born when the town was still an old town with its different quarters and curved streets, and when there was nothing here but fields and open country.

She looks straight in front of her. I turn and look at her. She doesn’t. She looks straight ahead, and her first words are always about the sea : how the sea looks today. Perhaps she thinks that if she doesn’t look at me, she’s not going against what my father said. ‘And I forbid you to speak to him,’ he said to her, in front of me, when I was leaving. It’s the last thing I heard from my father.

‘Your little hovel,’ my mother says.

I know that one afternoon when I was in Steve’s car she came up to see it. If you don’t need to stand up, it’s not uncomfortable. And I can see a bit of sky out of the little window. I can hear the motor : first the release of the relay mechanism, the sound of the cables rising, the brake, the doors opening, and then the pneumatic closing of the doors, weaker or louder depending on the floor.

Then I know what floor the lift is on, and if anyone gets in or out, and so I know who’s on the stairs at that particular time.

And this evening the motor’s cold, like the stairs, and silent.

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STEVE


Because life goes by so quickly.

You’re eighteen, you’re nineteen, you go out and you rage, you’re in love. Not that I regret all that, the raging and what followed ( I had my first car, not like the one I’ve got now, but then those late nights in each other’s arms, putting off parting and her going up to her parents’ flat, where she was still living, for one more moment). No, I don’t regret any of that.

It was serious, for her, for me, for both of us.

Yet you can’t help thinking : it went so quickly.

The thing is we’re no longer two. There’s the tiny bundle in white nappies you’re holding in your arms and her following with a bag, coming out of the maternity hospital, and from then on no more raging or going out (although we did sometimes leave the baby with her parents for an evening ; we did manage to go out).

Anyway, since I was working and since I still do—I have temporary work on metal construction sites—and there are naturally payments that come from the work sites, we get by like anyone else. I changed cars, and when the second child arrived we got the flat here, high above the town. It’s knowing you’ve got fresh air, her parents used to say, and then she says that she never gets tired of seeing the sea from really high up, from the sixth floor, and that there are never two evenings the same. She likes to watch and look at things. Me, I like to get in my car and think. ‘Steve and his car,’ my mates always say.

Think of everything that has gone by so quickly : you’re about twenty-two, and life sometimes seems to weigh more heavily than you do.

 

THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE


Well, I didn’t ask the caretaker, I asked his wife, who also works as caretaker.

They live at the end of the other block. He looks after the rubbish bins and the paths, the outside cleaning. She does the stairs and entrances. She’s at home in the afternoons. It seems she reads the cards for people for whatever money they like to give her, and she tells their future to those who want to believe in it.

I haven’t asked her to read the cards for me.

She was down below cleaning our entrance and the letter boxes with the trolley on castors that she uses to carry around her brooms and cleaning things to whatever staircase she’s in. (She cleans the windows too, but not as often.)

‘Tell me about the people who were on the third floor before me.’

‘Oh, it was empty for a long time.’

She didn’t want to talk, and I don’t like people hiding things from me.

I asked the postman.

‘Was it empty for long before I arrived ?’

‘A few weeks, two months I think. It’s a moving population here, you know. They come and they go. We didn’t know the people before you very well because they only stayed, oh, scarcely four months. You can ask me about the people before them. They were there since the flats went up, like me.

Then, on the following Monday, I asked the caretaker’s wife again while she was mopping the entrance.

“The people before me, they hardly stayed four months. Didn’t they like it here ?’

‘People . . . It wasn’t people. It was a woman on her own. At least we thought she was on her own..’

I brought the subject up again to the woman in the bakery.

On the third floor the flats are all the same : the one on the right is for a family with three children (but I don’t know them . . . just enough to say hello to), the one opposite is more for single people, only a lounge and bedroom. Before me there was a woman on her own too.

‘So you know. You’ve found out,’ the woman in the bakery replied.

But as I didn’t know, what she said didn’t get me any further.

summary

 

THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY


The children are playing now.

The cooking’s done, they’ve eaten, I’ve cleaned up. Their father was there, and then he said, ‘I’m going out.’ That’s what he always says, ‘I’m going out.’

He doesn’t seem to understand how nice it can be at that time of the evening when they get into their pyjamas and you put them down for the night. By the time he gets back, the light in their bedroom will be out. Sometimes he goes into their room, sometimes he doesn’t bother. He comes to bed too, but I can’t sleep. In the dark, I turned over against the wall on the other side.

I sometimes used to ask him, ‘But where have you been ? Who did you go with ?’ And invariably got the reply, ‘I was in the car. Some friends came around.’

Now I don’t bother to ask.

And I could see the car from the balcony, parked in the usual spot, and there was the outline of a dark shape behind the window. He says it does him good. I asked him once, ‘What’s the use of us being together ?’

Another time I said, ‘But if you’re like that at twenty-five, what will you be like at thirty or forty ?’

‘Don’t hassle me,’ is what he said.

I don’t hassle him. I’m here, I do the best I can. I have to get the children up, take them to school, and then go to work. There’s more money when he’s working on a site, but that’s not always available. Sometimes he’s away for two months if there’s a factory to be built, the framework of a warehouse or a big building. He comes back on a Friday night and leaves again to see his mates. We’re together on Sunday, then he leaves very early on Monday morning with his car all ready to go the night before, cleaned and vacuumed as though it was dirty.

There’s where I work. Our town doesn’t have an airport, so to take the plane you have to use our agency. I make out the airline tickets for the long journeys. The children stay on after school until I pick them up. I have Wednesday afternoon off.

He says, ‘It’s gone by too fast.’

Isn’t it up to us to keep up with it ?

Sometimes I say to him, ‘What do want from me, if you’d rather be away ?’

He doesn’t understand.

summary

 

BITER


Take what you do during the day.

The thing is to do a lot. If you don’t do enough, you feel down.

The ones who feel down don’t last much longer out there. You gotta be tough to last. You gotta grow inside, be strong.

The name helps, too : Biter. They don’t give you any trouble, even though you’re only just twenty.

I’ve tried the other ways of living. There’s living in a flat and what you have to do to pay for it. Not for me. Being cooped up inside, and every day the same. Then you’d have to find a job.

You look. You find things, you meet the people. They’re ready to take you, because you look a decent sort of guy. Then come the questions,

‘And what were you doing at the same time last year ? And what did you do during the summer ? And what sort of work ? Where, how, what, why, when, for how long, and why did you leave and why this, why that ?’

They don’t say no. They say something dumb like, “We’ll call you.’

It worked well in the beginning. They always asked me—to be a barman in summer, to help with camps, since we’re near the sea. But now, well, people go further away for holidays. There’s no one here any more in summer. Cars with foreign number plates pass by, roof racks piled high, or towing semi-trailers. They drive slowly, slowing down along the beach, going even slower past the hotels. Sometimes they park and eat there at lunch time, facing the sea, watching a cargo boat or an oil tanker being pulled slowly into dock by its tug, while another one waits further out to sea. That’s about all the tourism there is.

Us streets kids, we know all about it, we notice what’s going on. Your eyesight’s keener when you’re on the streets.

Living in the supermarket, I’ve got my own territory. Where the cars slow down. That’s where I stick my little notice close up to their faces. I change it often to give them a bit of variety. Sometimes my notice says just “Hello. Me again !” And the following day, “Hello. I’m still here !” Then the day after that, “Just to say hello to you.”

Sometimes I try the trick of giving them a series of notices (a guy from Montpellier taught me that one). The first : “Hello. Ten francs please.” That gives them a bit of a shock, then I whip out the second notice hidden under the first : “Hello. Five francs please.” The window usually stays up. They’re electronic windows with buttons, which means they have to move at least their little finger. If the window comes down, I’m right : the other hand will scrabble in pockets for change. And besides, cars often have coins hanging around in them. You must have confidence. I’ve got confidence—I bring out my third notice : “Hello. Two francs please.” Then immediately, notice number four : “Only one little franc ?”, with a big question mark. That’s generally when they give in and lower the window, and then they give a bit more than a one franc coin. It would irritate them to do what my notice asks, and that’s why you have to whip the last one out quickly. One problem : you can’t do the four-notice trick at the same spot every day.

When winter comes there’s more to do, and that’s what get you through. In the morning there’s breakfast, free, at the Salvation Army. It’s best to arrive when they open, at seven o’clock Then you can stay for a while and have a talk. You have to leave around nine. In the city centre there’s the Shopping Mall : three arcades with shops in the shape of a star. It’s modern, well maintained. A good spot is in the doorways.

If you bring out your notices, the security guards arrive in no time.

‘Begging is prohibited,’ they say.

I reply, ‘It’s not begging. It’s sharing.’

We call the security guard Albert. (I don’t know what his name is, and anyhow, even if they change guards from time to time, we always call him Albert now). But he’s not too keen on us making jokes if he’s not sure of what we mean.

It’s at the entrances to the shops that you get hot air coming up from the grating. You can stay for a while between the double doors, between the mat with “Welcome” written on it and the hot air vents. When we stay too long, Albert tell us to move on. Then we go to another entrance.

In the afternoon I go to the Refuge. The guys are decent. (I say guys, but really the only guy there is the night watchman. Apart from him, it’s mainly girls). There’s a washing machine and I do my laundry once a week. There’s the shower, and I do that every day. And there’s hot coffee. You have to leave at five. I go to the end of the pedestrian street, but there are too many of us to put your hand out. You give it a go for twenty minutes then let a mate take over. Up to three is okay, but it’s not worth it with more than that.

Next stop, the Soup Kitchen. It’s an association, a place with a table, seats and a meal. Then I walk back up here. It’s a hard climb, specially if it’s raining, but that’s where I live, high up here. Living in the supermarket’s an advantage that I wouldn’t share with anyone.

There are no more cars in town, because of the truck blockades and the three highways being jammed. And people have turned nasty. Some days you’d think the world’s gone crazy. When they’ve got their own worries, they’re not going to bother about ours. So what did I do all today ? Stood there at the bus stop staring at a garage and a chemist shop. Didn’t get a penny.

I left home at sixteen. I’ve covered a fair bit of the country. You can still see a lot, hitch-hiking with a sleeping bag. You can take your time, stay in villages, go to the islands in Brittany, because people are nice and it’s easy to find somewhere to stay in houses that aren’t lived in any more. I’ve been to all the big cities, even Paris, but I won’t go back there. Too hard to stay clean in Paris. So, you come back here where you were born. You’ve been a long time on the road, you know where to find places to sleep, you know where to get something to eat. And so you make a life for yourself where you live, a life that you wouldn’t have imagined living there before.

Sometimes I go and see my family. I go in the bus. It’s in the country, not far away. They don’t ask me any questions but they wouldn’t like me to stay either. My sister’s kids are in town—they’re grown up now—and they see me sometimes in the distance. One of the three—the youngest one—waves when he passes by on his motorbike but doesn’t slow down. It’s not an easy life. You’re always on your guard with the friendships you make, both you and the other person. Good places are hard to come by on the street. All the same, here in the new town, everyone in the area knows who Biter is.

When evening falls, I like to come to the end of the blocks of flats, where there’s the kids’ playground and this wooden seat overlooking the town, where you can see the sea and the refinery. And tonight, you can even see the yellow fires with the thick black smoke from the three truck drivers’ blockades.

They must have got some pallets : there’s a lot of heavy smoke.

I like looking at the sea.

summary

 

THE CARETAKER’S WIFE


Before we came here, my husband and I, we used to work in Paris. Well, close by.

Cement scenery. Same work, grey shapes, geometrical lines. And those skies in the evening when the whole town looked like cut-out shapes. In the end you feel you can’t breathe. We saw the advertisement and I said to my husband, ‘At least we’ll be near the sea.’ (My husband likes fishing.)

We came here six years ago. Comfortable living conditions, pleasant work. People keep to themselves more. My husband’s grandmother is from these parts, not far from here. That gave us a lead-in to the conversation, a reason to be here really.

Very polite people, no damage and less abuse, but they don’t go as far as asking us up to their place for a drink. I haven’t gone back to work at my original profession, which is reading the cards and telling the customer what you can : the person’s there in front of you, she’s concentrating, attentive (I can say she, because pretty well all my clients are women). You’ve heard her voice and when it trembles ; you’ve seen her eyes and when they go dreamy. You say the words that go with what trembles and dreams.

It passes the time, and someone’s listening.

Someone who’ll listen—that’s what people miss, mostly. Once you leave home, that’s it : loud noise everywhere, bus engines, and in every shop, even the post office, there’s the radio or music, Foxy FM, TripleY or Golden Oldies Radio, we even have Radio Concrete playing anything that goes boom boom in your ears.

So I’m the one they come and tell their stories to, and when I read the cards and say the right words, that calms them down. Today, the third day since the trucks blocked the bypass, you get the feeling that even the air has changed, and no one has come.

I don’t ask for money. If they want to leave me a gift, they do so. There’s a salad bowl near the front door and I usually find a note in it. I don’t say thanks, I don’t even look, I want to give the impression that people don’t have to pay for this work, which is mainly listening,.

You see a fair few people come and go in six years.

In the past, they used to eat, sleep and raise their children here. Of a morning they’d go to their offices in the port or the factory. Now they stay there. There are parts of the town where the houses seem to go to sleep in the daytime ; here, you can see the men on their balconies. Where would they go ?

And then there are those who hang around. I see them too as they approach and look at my rubbish bins, or go down there to the square, towards the seat. You hear them talking, offering to sell a computer, a cassette player, walkmans or nice bomber jackets, cartons of liquor, at prices well below normal. Some of them have small vans parked in the street. I’d like to know what’s inside the vans.

As a caretaker, the reputation of what you’re taking care of is important to you, so we don’t like these sorts of illegal deals.

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ELVIS


People don’t know how much room there is under the roof in a building.

To get into my place, there’s a wooden door locked with a chain and padlock, but the pin that holds the chain is loose. All you have to do is take it out and put it back again. Right behind it is the motor and the electrical relay, with holes for the cables.

Naturally there’s a bit of noise, and it smells of oil, but in fact it goes right down through the building, so there’s some room left. Now I’ve got a mattress, I brought up my bedside table too, a sleeping bag and my radio, some bits and pieces and a light globe with an extension cord plugged into the motor box. Plus an armchair, from downstairs.

It’s there so that the guys who come to do repairs can have some light. They’re saying, on the stairs, that they’re cold tonight in the flats, because there’s no more heating. I’ve got no worries about that.

But they have windows with reflections of the sea and the port, the beacon at the end of the jetty that you can see so much clearer tonight as there’s no more light in the town. I don’t see anything.

And as for lighting a candle—no way, with the insulation in my garret. So, what’ll I do ? Just wait way up here on the stairs, listening to them talking ? All of them except my father, (my father’s at our place and won’t be going out), because on a night when nothing is normal—no heating in the building, no light in the town and no cars on the roads, only the big yellow fire where the trucks are a bit further away just on the interchange—no one stays inside, they roam around the floors, talking to neighbours.

Where we live—I mean our building—is called Arthur Martin. We say we’re in Arthur Martin, because there’s this neon sign on top of our block of flats. In the daytime the lights are transparent, you don’t see them, you can hardly see the black iron framework with the cables that hold it to the four corners of the walls. It’s at night that you can see it in the distance when you’re travelling on the southern interchange. The sign’s meant to be seen by people passing by.

In the old days, we lived in places that had names. Now, even if the street has a name and numbers, the place we live in has the name of a sign on the roof. If you can see it, you don’t live here. We always say : ‘I live in Arthur Martin. You know, the building way up on the hill, near the southern interchange.’

And this evening, we still live in Arthur Martin, but as there’s no electricity, no one can see the sign on the roof. Our name’s gone out.

A while ago I heard some noise coming from the sixth floor. I went back into the motor room. It was my mother who left me some hot food in a camping tin, a bit of bread and some dessert in the white plastic box. When I know that my father isn’t there, and I go down to take a shower, I bring back the boxes and put them in the sink. I went down, took the box, the tin and the bread, ate a bit here on the last step under the window, now quite dark, but I don’t like eating in public (even if there’s no one here to see me, the stairs are still public) and there’s no way I could eat it in the dark, since the light globe, as well as the lift, wasn’t working.

Usually at night, with the Arthur Martin sign and the windows, my place looks blue. I get the reflections ; I live in a blue house that flickers on and off. But not tonight.

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THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY


I had to put the children to bed in the dark.

They asked where their father was. I told them that he’d be back, that he’d be home very soon. It was cold. I put an extra blanket on each of them. They had a story, not a very long one, with a boat that was coming back to port. They like boat stories, because they can see the boats from their balcony.

I didn’t want to leave a candle near their bed, but eating by candlelight had been fun for them, like Christmas time. So I got the torch, left it switched on by the bunk beds and told them that it would stay on all night.

The little one said that it made shadows and the shadows frightened him. So I lit up the wardrobe and the corners, and explained what the shadows were. When the chair and toys were pushed out of the way and the wardrobe was closed, there were no more nasty shadows.

I went back into the living room. They talked for a while, then fell asleep. People were talking on the stairs ; I opened the door and listened ; it was further down. We’re on the sixth floor. I think it’s the lady on the second, the one who often looks at people passing by when they walk down instead of waiting for the lift.

The town is quite dark. Out to sea, the only point of light is a waiting oil tanker, lit up from stem to stern, with its cranes and cabin block. The light from the beacon turns slowly—three short flashes and one long one—and tonight you’d think it was right up close, that you could almost touch it. On the interchange, the truck drivers have put up strings of lights, like the ones you see for festivals, with green, red and yellow bulbs. They’ve probably got a petrol generator. In the middle you can see their fire flickering, a moving spot in the night.

Now there’s no one talking any more. It took me a moment to realize that the Arthur Martin sign on the roof wasn’t working either, because there was no light shining on the balcony.

I decided to go downstairs : if he’s in the car, we’ll have it out.

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THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE


I found out from the young woman who lives on the sixth floor. One time when she was coming down with her two children and we had a word.

‘Horrible things,’ she said to me, ‘aren’t you frightened ?’

I was rather sorry for that young woman, seeing her bringing up her two youngsters alone. And then I learned that there was a father, and that the father did in fact live there. Even that it was the same young fellow who spent his time down below cleaning his car or fiddling around fitting new accessories in the engine. One Sunday I saw them set off together, all four of them.

So I went back to see the caretaker’s wife. I pretended that I knew all about it.

‘Why didn’t anyone tell me what happened in my flat ?’

She said that the people here don’t talk about those who just pass through. There’d be too much. Anyway, they weren’t buildings where people stayed all their lives, and besides, there was nothing left when a story like that was all over.

‘The walls here don’t have any memories,’ she said. She even added, ‘It’s cement, nothing but cement. They all take their private dramas away with them from their various floors and little boxes.

Then I suppose I didn’t speak in the right tone of voice when I said, ‘Was it as horrible as all that ?’

And the caretaker’s wife knew then that she had to tell me everything, which she did. She didn’t go into details or make too much of it. She’s sensitive, the caretaker’s wife, a very understanding person.

‘First of all, it was horrible for my husband. Because my husband’s the one who discovered it all,’ she began.

And so in the end I found out everything.

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BITER


I went to see the trucks before it got dark.

Two rows bumper-to-bumper all down each side of the highway. There was just enough room in the middle of the road for one slowly moving car. They left it clear for ambulances or the police. Apart from them, by the third day no one else was asking to get through. You could walk around there like in a pedestrian mall.

Some trucks were shut and barricaded, with curtains drawn ; with others it was open house, the truck driver welcoming his mates in for a chat ; there was a radio playing the news and a coffee pot on the dashboard. They even have television in their trucks. There were refrigerated semi-trailers left there locked up, with the engine still going. I always wonder what all those trucks can be carrying. With some, it’s easy to tell. But with most of them, you haven’t got a clue.

And then there’s the truckies who were down at the end between the two tight lines of trucks formed in a circle . They were wearing warm clothes, hood or caps on, and had their hands in their pockets. There were camping tables set up with glasses of wine and hot soup. I don’t know if other countries have strikes like these that we seem to have so often.

And behind that, a big electric generator running on petrol for their strings of coloured lights and their loud-speaker, because as well as that they were playing

music. The fire was there, not far away, with a big pile of old pallets. No shortage of those in the factories near the southern interchange—there are old pallets lying around everywhere. Huge deep yellow flames where three men were grilling sausages, and the cartons of sausages were still wrapped in transparent plastic. They must have come from the refrigerated semi-trailers.

I listened to what these men were saying. They said they were going to stay on strike, and that a town without electricity and heating wouldn’t hold out for long, and that the time would come when people would have to listen to them.

But they didn’t talk to me. And when one said to me, ‘Hey you, are you looking for something ?’, I went back up to Arthur Martin. Even if Arthur Martin, on that particular evening, was nothing more than a high white patch stretched out under a sky that had already turned mauve, and the supermarket and shopping mall beside it nothing but concrete over a completely empty parking lot. The bitumen was smooth and shining, and already black because it had rained late in the afternoon.

That’s when I decided to go and sit on the seat in the square.

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STEVE


It’s not much good having a car but no petrol left to drive anywhere. Even if I still had half a tank and a pretty full can in the boot. But you don’t know how long those guys’ strikes can last. If it’s like the trains, it could go on without anyone knowing why.

And what use would it be to drive, if you wanted to go into town ? The interchange, the bridge and the road are blocked off and you can’t go anywhere.

I nearly went back upstairs. I thought it would be the same old thing up there : the kids still up and a frosty reception.

‘Where’ve you been ? What were you doing ?’

So I stayed on a bit longer. I turned on the radio. I’d wound the window up : no one disturbs me when my windows are up. When I leave the door open, that’s when friends come around.

I caught sight of Elvis. He’s called Elvis because of his hair. These days that hairstyle with the quiff in front isn’t fashionable any more. Elvis is like everyone else (by everyone I mean, well . . ., us), very short on the sides and a bit longer on top. We’re well known in the shopping mall. The barber’s called Mickey and specialises in that cut for thirty-five francs, provided it’s in the morning when there aren’t many people around. He could easily do it cheaper : they’re styles that have to be cut more often than when curly hair was in fashion.

Elvis is a strange kind of guy who’s made his home even higher up than the floors in our building. He took me there once. You open the door of the lift motor, a big blue cast-iron thing that groans and clatters when the lift is going, and behind it is a long but not very high space just under the roof, where he’s made a home for himself with his radio, just under a small window where you can see the moon, the end of the Arthur Martin sign and a tiny bit of sky. He didn’t tell me why he made his home there. He just said, ‘I like to be independent.’

I offered him my cellar.

‘I never go into my cellar, and my wife and children even less often. If it’s independence you want, it would be perfect and a lot more comfortable.’ I even added, ‘You can have it for as long as you like.’

He didn’t want it.

I saw him in the rear vision mirror as he was coming out of the building, but the widows were up so he passed by without giving any hint that he’d seen me in the car. That’s what my friends do. He walked towards the square, where the children’s playground is, where you can see the whole town and the sea. Then I sounded the horn—just once, briefly—he turned round, I opened my window and he came back.

‘How about walking there ?’ I suggested. ‘I can’t drive (I wasn’t very keen on the people in the building knowing that I still had half a tank and the can), but you can get to The Escape on foot. It would take, oh . . . , half and hour ? We’ll have a drink and then come back,’ I said to Elvis.

Our town was rebuilt on a hillside above the sea. You have to make detours in the car, but if you’re walking you can take short cuts. I like The Escape because it’s a bar built right over the sea. I joke about it with the proprietor, “Hey, you could fish from the window.’ There’s a pinball machine and a billiard table, and best of all, they don’t hassle you while you’re there.

Elvis asked me whether I was sure it was open. I said that if it was closed we’d come back—at least we’d have done something and got a bit of fresh air—and that the proprietor of The Escape wasn’t the type to shut up shop, he’d more likely bring out some kerosene lamps and Chinese lanterns for atmosphere, and that we’d be sure to find people there.

We saw the guy who asks for money at the red light. I know he sleeps somewhere behind the supermarket, a guy younger than me. I know because in the early days, down there in town, we were at school together. That goes back a long way.’

‘What does he do in the square ?’ I asked Elvis. ‘I don’t like those guys who hang about in the streets.

‘You worried about your car ?’

I said that up till now no one had dared touch my car, and that anyhow it was parked right under the windows of the flats and they’d hardly start doing it tonight. And even if someone did lay a finger on it, I’d know right away who, and where to look.

‘I think he’s called Biter,’ Elvis said. ‘Somebody told me that, I don’t know when.’

‘That’s a lot of help,’ I replied.

‘Well, let’s go,’ Elvis said. ‘I can’t stay up there in the dark.’

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THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN WHO LIVES ALONE


When I found out, I told myself to be sensible. And the first night I slept as I usually did. That even reassured me a bit : it’s easier when you have an explanation rather than a mystery.

It’s the second night, because I heard a baby crying. Perhaps it came from much higher up (you hear a lot of what’s happening on the other floors through the pipes ; you don’t understand the voices, but the mood comes through), perhaps it came from that young woman on the sixth floor who’s alone with her two children (there is a husband, it seems, but he’s rarely at home).

Well, that made me have a dream. In the dream, the baby was crying here in my place. I got up, put on the light, looked everywhere, in the kitchen, in the cupboards, everywhere in the bedroom and bathroom, and even on the shelves in the passage. And then the noise stopped. I went back to bed, I couldn’t go to sleep again.

The following night I woke my husband. And on Sunday when my daughter came, I told my daughter. I couldn’t sleep any more. Now the dream comes every night. It’s been going on for two years. Now my husband’s left and my daughter doesn’t come any more. They told me to see a doctor, and the doctor gave me pills. I don’t like pills : you sleep just as badly, and uncomfortably, and during the day you feel weird, you go around with a woolly head.

So, I still hear it. I don’t fall asleep at first, then the moment I start to doze, that’s when the crying starts. How can I tell if it’s in my head, or if it’s in the walls ? So I get up, I walk, in the kitchen, in the passage, in the living room, in the bedroom. Sometimes I can’t bear it, I open my door and go and sit on the staircase outside.

I’ve learned lots of things about the building, staying there on the stairs at night. Things that I’ll never tell, to anyone.

I say to the caretaker’s wife, who’s become a friend, ‘What if this baby’s crying for justice, for rest ?’

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THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO WATCHES ON THE BALCONY


I could see that there was no light on in the car down below, and that he’d left. He’d obviously be away a while.

There comes a time when you say to yourself that it’s just too much, that you can’t take it any more, that you’ve come to the end of your tether. I went downstairs. I left the door of the flat half-open.

On the second floor I saw that lady who can’t stop looking at everyone who passes by. This time she was well and truly out on the landing. What was she doing ?

I asked her how she was. She told me that she felt anxious, that something wasn’t right, as if something serious was going to happen, that she felt it, and yet she couldn’t do anything, not knowing what was going to happen, how or to whom.

That obviously disturbed me, quite a lot actually.

I said a few reassuring things to her : that it was because of this truck-drivers’ strike, because of the dark, no electricity in the town or the flats, the cold, no heating in the middle of winter. I told her that I had put extra blankets on the children’s beds.

This lady isn’t well because of a tragedy that took place, on the stairs. Two years ago, a pregnant girl who lived on her own had the baby in her flat, without saying a word to anyone, and the next day the caretaker found cut-up remains in the rubbish bin. He’d been intrigued by the double bag, and the light weight, and the cats that had gathered around it. The flat stayed empty for two month, then this lady came, with her husband. Her nightmares began and a lot of us advised her to leave.

‘And what if I’m the one this child wants to contact ?’ she’d reply.

Her husband’s the one who left ; she stayed. She’s like that sometimes at night, sitting on the landing, because of the noise she hears in her head, and she says it’s the sound of that child crying.

I told her to go back inside, that everything was all right, then I went on downstairs.

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BITER


I stayed on the seat for quite a while. There was a big boat lit up out to sea. No shortage of electricity there. Did I maybe fall asleep ? I don’t really know. I don’t wear a watch, no need for one. It sometimes happens that I go to sleep, as I don’t sleep for long at a stretch, and even when I’m asleep I have to keep a look out. I doze off for a moment now and again during the day like that when I’m sitting on a seat, waiting around.

I got up, took a last look at the beacon, the boat, the town in total darkness. That’s what was so bizarre. Where you normally see the layout of the streets, the cars travelling and the houses going dark one by one, everything had disappeared into thick darkness.

Even the truckies’ coloured lights had disappeared. You could only see their fire, rising high in the night, down there at the southern interchange. No lights either in the Arthur Martin building.

It was when I was leaving the square. There was this car that was parked there already when I came a while ago, with a guy inside, but no one I hang out with or who’d say hello to me. Besides, no one approached me. Now the car was still parked, at the same spot, headlights and interior lights out, but with the engine running. That’s what surprised me the most, that engine running when all the service stations had been closed, out of gas, for three days.

So anyway, I went over to take a look.

You couldn’t see anything in the darkness—certainly not if there was a couple making out inside, and they’d have been a bit cold—but I couldn’t think of any other explanation. A couple keeping each other warm on the back seat of a car couldn’t care less whether there’s a truck strike or not.

So I went on my way again. But just when I turned around, I saw the pipe on the back. It was a pipe connected to the car’s exhaust, going up to the back door and wedged in the window. That’s when I realised what was going on.

A bit later I realised more : it was a hose from one of those car vacs that you plug into the cigarette lighter to clean the seats. They’re sold even in supermarkets.

Then I pulled the door handle on the driver’s side. It was locked from the inside. I didn’t have a clue what was in there. I thought it was this guy that I saw a while ago, but you don’t really think at times like these, do you ?

I banged on the window pane. No reply.

The engine was still running, and the pipe was well and truly stuck, I couldn’t get it off. So I picked up a stone from behind me (there are plenty of stones around here), and I chucked it at the window. I unlocked the door. There was a young woman inside (I’d seen her often in the supermarket, with her two children), she looked as though she’d passed out. I pulled her out on to the grass, I turned off the engine. Once she was stretched out on her back, I slapped her face, two fairly hard slaps. She opened her eyes, a bit of colour came into her face again. People arrived, from the flats. Several of them had come out because all that had made quite a bit of noise

‘Can you help me,’ I said, ‘we’ll have to phone for a doctor.’

But the young woman was already sitting up, and then she threw up.

‘You should thank me,’ I said.

But she didn’t. All she could say was, ‘The car window. What’ll Steve say ?’

That’s what she said, they were the first words she said.

What then ? I went back towards my parking lot. Perhaps I’ll go and see her tomorrow, with some flowers. I heard people say she lives on the sixth floor. ‘It’s the young woman from the sixth floor, the one with the two children.’ She doesn’t even know my name.

You don’t say your nickname to people like that : you give your real name (Jean-Paul, how would she know that my real name is Jean-Paul).

As I left, I saw them coming back. The guy she calls Steve, and another guy. I didn’t speak to them and they didn’t speak to me either. What he’d say about his car window was none of my business.

Yes, flowers. That’s what the young woman needs.

 

END


François Bon © Tiers Livre Éditeur, mentions légales
1ère mise en ligne et dernière modification le 22 septembre 2013
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