Odile, or the Loneliness of Airports
(Excerpts from the novel)
I spot Paula from a distance. Noticing me, she stops at the door. Paula is Portuguese; she is the building’s concierge. We get along well: when I go away, I always leave her the spare keys. You never know what might happen. But that she would wait like that ... The wheels in my ears rattle even louder, the shards are melding together.
Six-thirty, the phone rings.
‘If you’re at home and not too busy, would you like to drop by for an apéritif?’
‘With pleasure, madame, I’ll be right over.’
I climb down six flights of winding stairs, and take the lift up three.
I lean against the balcony railing, smoking, occasionally turning my glass of whisky on ice, so that the ice cubes tinkle like bells. It is a very clear September evening: summer has ended, but autumn has yet to begin: a time when the sun- light no longer blinds, but still carves contours with a sharp blade; the time of year when the foliage is resting, but not yet inviting your eyes to colour it red or yellow. Exhaling, I tell myself: we personalise everything, so why not this glass of whisky, a farewell-to-summer apéritif?
‘Do you remember how we met?’ asks Odile. I take a sip.
A light wind barely, just barely, rustles the curtain.
‘Sebastien? But I’m quite sure you introduced me to him ... Madame Fournier?’ I draw back the curtain.
‘Never mind me, but you should be able to remember ...’ I step over the threshold.
‘You don’t have any flowers. Some of the neighbours have even planted shrubs on their balconies. Don’t you like flowers?’
‘Have you forgotten how old I am?’ I haven’t forgotten.
Odile sits with her bony shoulders pressed against the high back of the leather armchair. She’s always a little cold, so before going back out to smoke, I wrap her in a shawl.
‘Age and flowers?’
‘Flowers need to be cared for.’
‘Paula could do it.’
‘If you don’t care for plants yourself, it’s as if they aren’t your own. Don’t you think?’ I look at the ceiling, and it seems to me that the round plaster moulding is turning, like the wheel of time, which one would like to stop. Or roulette. Do you think you could win?
‘Pour me a little more,’ she says, finishing the last drop and holding out the empty glass. ‘And throw an ice cube in. Before Selma gets here.’
How do you get out of yourself, the way you leave home, drive out of the city, fly from one country to another? How to understand yourself, if you can’t look at yourself from the outside?
‘Why don’t you pour yourself some?’
Drawn from the evening like honey from a hive, the daylight streams in through the curtains.
It slowly goes out.
I refill my glass.
Wilted and dusty since July, still growing from seemingly bloodless veins, the wilted and dusty plane tree leaves are no harbingers of autumn. The true har- bingers of autumn are the shortening days, the nights that fall earlier.
It’s dark already.
Odile is ninety. The jubilee that I am looking back at was celebrated in the spring, in the posh restaurant in La Samaritaine, one of the grand shops of Paris. I try to imagine what she, her children, grandchildren and her close friends saw from the fifth floor; how the Pont Neuf, the sharp tip of the Île de la Cité, the buildings crammed together like boats in a harbour, and their lighthouse the Eiffel Tower, all looked like from above. The city, stretching out flat at eye level or seen from above, is the same, but how different! Just like life, the one you are living right now, and the one that you have already lived, that you turn back to look at from a distance. As though it is yours, but no longer yours.
They served oysters for starters. Black-suited waiters, in starched white shirts and aprons that seemed to crackle, even in the photographs. After the oysters, baked salmon. It looked dry, as if it might get stuck in your throat rather than melt in your mouth; for that price, it could have been better. And dessert? For dessert, everyone was brought a small chocolate pastry, so adorned with arches and lace that I could touch it. But it was too sweet, at least to my taste, so it was good that Eva and Henri did not skimp on the champagne.
Odile closes the album.
I close my eyes. The voices of tonight’s neighbours rise up to us from the banks of the Seine, and then are drowned out by the rumble of approaching bateaux-mouches full of hooting and shouting tourists. As the racket fades away: you come back from holidays and don’t realise how the routine pulls you back in. I’d like to sign up for salsa lessons, but it’s so expensive. Do you really think he loves me?
Then all over again.
What am I doing in this city? Odile rents me a little room.
I am sitting here in her flat, drinking whisky as we do every evening, and she asks me if I have a friend. Of course I have friends, why is she asking me that? Do you see that cupboard? I would like to move it to the other end of the apartment.
Odile’s apartment is actually two joined together to make one, like two apartments connected by a long corridor. It’s a big apartment, and she would get a good price if she sold it. One square metre in the centre of Paris is worth a lot, and the price goes up every year.
I turn to look at the cupboard. She’s right: I certainly couldn’t move it myself. I ask Guillaume to come over.
I remember how we moved that Louis XV-style armoire, how we lifted it on to a carpet, and then pushed it down the long corridor along the parquet floor.
Guillaume was in a hurry to get to a rendez-vous. We had barely put it in its new place when he bolted out of the door, with his money in his hand, while I spent an eternity carrying tablecloths, napkins, china, crystal and silver (what didn’t she have in that cupboard?) from one end of the apartment to the other. Odile explained what she had inherited, and what she had bought and where, com- plaining that she had accumulated too many things, and sometimes marvelling: I’d forgotten I still had this tablecloth; look, here’s my childhood spoon; the other day, out of the blue I remembered it, I searched everywhere, and it turns out it was hiding here. People and objects become attached. Even if you don’t disturb them and they no longer serve anyone, it’s hard to part with objects. To be honest, much of what’s in this armoire should be sold, given away, or just thrown out. Reaching up and bending down isn’t for me anymore; one day you’ll come over, and we’ll go through it all.
That evening she gave me two of Michel’s silk ties; although I’ve never worn them, I still have them. He was crazy about ties: do you see how many there are? But what can you do? Everyone has his own taste. And she wrapped them up again in tattered tissue paper.
By then, Michel had been dead for seven years, and I have lived at Odile’s for three, so that means she has been a widow for ten years. Based on how rarely she speaks about Michel, you might think she doesn’t think about him often. There are people who can’t open up, who don’t like to talk about difficult things; you can only guess from their silence. The instinct to live extinguishes losses: they awaken more often in one person’s memory and less in another’s, before drifting off and falling asleep again; if the instinct to live and time did not deaden loss, many a sensitive heart would be rent apart.
We closed the doors of the cupboard: Odile will never open them again with me. And if my memory serves me right, just as we were closing the doors of the Louis XV-style armoire, now installed at the other end of the apartment, she told me about the little room I am returning to now, on the Seine, the bank so worn out by picnickers.
The little room is a garret, six flights up the old servants’ staircase. Her son Henri lived there when he was a student. There is a skylight in the hallway: Henri would climb out through it while he was studying for his exams. He would joke that being up on the roof cleared his head, it improved his memory. What a dreamer. Late at night, he would get a ladder and climb up there to have a look at nocturnal Paris from above.
After Henri had finished his studies and left for England, it was rented out to an Arab couple. They were so kind and sweet at first that you could never have imagined what a problem they would become. First one thing then another suit them. They didn’t pay the rent or electricity for months. Then the cooking started in the hallway: lamb couscous, and so on. Other tenants complained: they couldn’t get past, and the smell. What trouble she had getting rid of them. From then on, it was empty.
‘Empty for too long.’
I look at her quizzically. She shrugs her shoulders.
‘Could I go up and have a look?’
‘Of course, let’s go to the kitchen.’
I pull back a small table, draw back the bolts at the top and bottom of the door, open one lock with a big key, and another with a small one.
‘We haven’t gone through this door for many years.’ She says ‘we’, even though she lives alone in these five rooms. ‘After Fatima and Nazar finally moved out, it seems we locked it for good.’
I give a small push, and it seems to open a door to the past. To those long-gone times when the maids of the upper classes lived in chambres de bonnes under the roofs and came down special staircases straight into their masters’ kitchens. Maids could not enter by the same grand doors used by the masters and their guests. That way, they were less conspicuous, and it was more convenient for them.
‘Take a torch, the electricity’s disconnected. When you get to the top, it’s the third door on the left. And the light for the staircase is here, just press this switch.’
I climb the narrow winding stairs, which get even narrower towards the top, feeling like a burglar skulking around a stranger’s house; and at the same time, like a high school student, his heart trembling before a first date.
I turn the key and something cracks, like a nutshell. I stand on the threshold, and scan the walls of the dusky, sleeping room with the torch. I suddenly imagine a lonely abandoned tramp lying curled up in rags, his eyes flickering, trying, but not succeeding, to understand who has come to see him, turning towards me, a little confused, a little surprised: it has been so many years since anyone has vis- ited him. Like the objects, exhausted with their purposeless existence, having long ago lost the hope that anyone would ever need them again: a large table, a dresser, a couple of chairs, an empty bookcase.
From the nocturnal image coming through the window of zinc roofs, chim- neys and aerials, I turn to these pieces of furniture which I encountered just the other evening, and ask myself now: could I have foreseen that I would get along with them so well that it seems I have lived in this little room for ever? Just as I will never be able to remember how I first met Odile, perhaps I have always known her.
Translated by Karla Gruodis