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Authors: Pascal Garnier

The a26

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More Gallic noir

 

Praise forPascal Garnier:

 

‘Garnier’s take on the frailty of life has a bracing originality.’Sunday Times

 

‘… Bleak, often funny and never predictable.’Observer

 

‘Action-packed and full of gallows humour.’The Sunday Telegraph

 

‘Grimly humorous and tremendously dark … Superb.’Figaro Littéraire

 

‘Pascal Garnier is not just an accomplished stylist but also an exceptional storyteller …The Panda Theoryis both dazzlingly humane and heartbreakingly lucid.’Lire

The A26

Pascal Garnier

Translated from the Frenchby Melanie Florence

For Isa and Chantal

ContentsTitle PageDedicationThe A26About the AuthorCopyright

The third streetlamp at the end of the road had suddenly gone out. Yolande closed the eye she had glued to the shutter. The echo of the white light went on pulsing on her retina for a few seconds. When she opened her eye again there was only a black hole in the sky over the dead streetlamp.

‘I’ve stared at it for too long, and the bulb’s gone.’ Yolande shuddered and left the window. She had been watching the street not through a gap in the shutter but through a hole made specially. In the entire house this was the only opening on the outside world. Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole’.

Yolande could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy. She had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust. Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl. Youwould catch a glimpse of her sometimes in a way she had of sitting down, tugging her skirt over her knees, of running a hand through her hair, a surprisingly graceful movement in that wrinkled skin glove.

She had sat down at a table, an empty plate in front of her. Across the table another place was set. The ceiling lamp hung quite low, and was not strong enough to light up the rest of the dining room, shrouded in darkness. You could sense, however, that it was cluttered with objects and pieces of furniture. All the air in the room seemed to be concentrated around the table, held within the cone of light shed by the lampshade. Yolande waited, bolt upright in her chair.

‘I saw the school bus this morning. The children were in every colour imaginable. Getting off the bus, they were like sweets spilling out of a bag. No, it wasn’t this morning, it was yesterday, or even the day before. They really did look like sweets. It brightened up just then, a dash of blue between the clouds. In my day children weren’t dressed like that. You didn’t get all those fluorescent colours then, not anywhere. What else did I see? Any cars? Not many. Oh yes, there was the butcher this morning. I’m sure it was this morning. He comes every Sunday morning. I saw him parking, the old bastard. He’s always trying to see in. He’s been at it for years. He never sees anything, and he knows it.’

Beef, some stringy, some covered in fat, with a marrow bone to boil up for apot-au-feu.It was ready, had been cooking away all day.Bub, bub, bubble.The pan lid was lifting, dribbling out greyish froth, a powerful smell, strong like sweat. ‘What else did I see?’

Yolande showed no surprise at hearing the three quick taps at the door and the key turning in the lock. Her brother had always knocked three times to let her know it was him. There was no point, since no one ever came. But he did it anyway.

Yolande was still sitting with an empty plate. The room was cold, the cooker was off. Bernard hung up his wet coat. Underneath he was wearing an SNCF uniform. He was around fifty, and looked like the sort of person you would ask for some small change, the time or directions in the street. He kissed his sister ‘Good evening’ on the back of the neck as he went round to take his place opposite her. Locking his fingers, he cracked his knuckles before unfolding his napkin. He had a yellowish complexion and big dark shadows under his eyes. His flattened hair showed the circular imprint of his cap.

‘Haven’t you started? You should have, it’s late.’

‘No, I was waiting for you. I was wondering when the school bus last went by.’

‘Saturday morning, I expect.’

‘You’ve got mud all over you. Is it raining?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh.’

They were both equally still, sitting upright in their chairs. They looked at each other without really seeing, asked questions without waiting for an answer.

‘I had a puncture coming home from the station, near the building site. It’s all churned up round there. You’d think the earth was spewing up mud. That’s their machinery, excavators, rollers, all that stuff. The work’s coming along quickly, but it’s doing damage.’

‘Have you still got a temperature?’

‘Sometimes, but it goes over. I’m taking the tablets the doctor gave me. I’m a bit tired, that’s all.’

‘Shall I serve up?’

‘If you like.’

Yolande took his plate and disappeared into the shadows. The ladle clanged against the side of the pot, and there was a sound of trickling juices. Yolande came back and handed the plate to Bernard. He took it, Yolande kept hold.

‘Have you been scared?’

Bernard looked away and gave the plate a gentle tug.

‘Yes, but it didn’t last. Give it here, I’m feeling better now.’

Yolande went back for her own food. From the shadows she said, without knowing whether it was a question or a statement, ‘You’ll get more and more scared.’

Bernard began to eat, mechanically.

‘That may be, I don’t know. Machon’s given me some new pills.’

Yolande ate in the same way, as if scooping water out of a boat.

‘I saw the butcher this morning. He tried to see in again.’

Bernard shrugged. ‘He can’t see anything.’

‘No, he can’t see anything.’

Then they stopped talking and finished their lukewarmpot-au-feu.

 

 

Through the closed shutters, shafts of light from the street picked out occasional sections of the chaos cluttering the dining room. A network of narrow passages built into the heaped-up jumble of furniture, books, clothing, all kinds of things, made it possible to get from one room to another provided you changed your shape to move like an Egyptian. Stacks of newspapers and magazines were more or less managing to prop up this rubbish tip, which threatened to collapse at any moment.

At the table, Yolande had swept the used plates, cutlery and glasses from the evening before into one corner. She was busy cutting pictures out of a magazine and sticking them on to pieces of cardboard to make a kind of jigsaw puzzle. By day the pendant lamp still oozed the same dead light as it did by night.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. Hisbody’s like this house, with seams hollowed out of it. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande hummed to herself, to the accompaniment of mice scrabbling and Bernard’s laboured breathing in the room next door.

He was asleep or pretending to be. He was fiddling with a sparkling pendant on a gilt chain: ‘More than yesterday and much less than tomorrow.’ He wouldn’t be going back to the doctor’s. Even before setting foot in the consulting room he had known it was his final visit, almost a matter of courtesy. As usual, Machon had adopted specially for him the jovial manner which he found so irritating. But yesterday evening he’d struck more false notes than usual, stumbling over his words while looking in vain for the prompt. In short, when he’d sent Bernard away, his eyes had belied what his lips were saying.

‘It’s a question of attitude, Monsieur Bonnet, and of willpower. You’ve got to fight, and keep on fighting. In any case, you’ll see, two or three days from now and you’ll be feeling much better. Don’t forget now, take three in the morning, three at noon and three in the evening.’

It was true, on leaving Bernard had felt relief, but that had had nothing to do with the medication. These regular appointments with the doctor, for months now, had been eating away at him as much as his illness, a never-endingchore. He who had never had a day’s illness in his life had experienced something like profound humiliation at handing himself over body and soul to Dr Machon, despite knowing him well. Every Wednesday for years now, the doctor had caught the train to Lille to see his mother. They had ended up exchanging greetings and passing the time of day until there had grown up between them not a friendship exactly, but a very pleasant acquaintanceship. As soon as he’d begun to feel ill Bernard had quite naturally turned to him. He’d soon regretted it, he had become his patient. Behind the large Empire-style desk he’d always felt like a suspect stripped for questioning, one of life’s miscreants. These days whenever he met the doctor at the station he felt naked in front of him, completely at a loss.

Bernard had crumpled up the prescription and got behind the wheel of his car. There had been no puncture beside the building site.

Spurts of water added whiskers to each side of his Renault 5. Bernard was discovering life in its most infinitesimal of guises. It was there, rounding out with yellow light each of the tiny raindrops starring the windscreen, million upon million of miniature light bulbs to illuminate so long a night. It was there too in the vibrations of the steering wheel in his hands, and in the dance of the windscreen wipers, which reminded him of the finale of a musical comedy. The anguish of doubt gave way to the strange nirvana of certainty. It was a matter of weeks, days, then. He had known for ages that he was dying, of course, but this evening he felt he had crossed a line. Deep down, these last months, it was hope which had made him sufferthe most. ‘Bernard Bonnet, your appeal has been refused.’ He felt liberated, he had nothing more to lose.

Then in the beam of the headlamps, he had seen the redhead, thumbing a lift, caught in a mesh of rain and dark.

‘What an awful night!’

‘Three months at the most,’ he had thought. She smelt of wet dog. She wasn’t even twenty, surely.

‘I’ve missed the bus to Brissy. Are you going that way?’

‘I’m going nearby, I can drop you off there.’

She had a big nose, big bust and big thighs and smelt of wide open spaces, the impetuousness of youth. Bernard’s uniform must have made her feel safe, as she was making herself at home, undoing her parka and shaking out her mop of red hair.

‘The next one’s not for half an hour, and I don’t want to wait. I’ll be eighteen in a month, and sitting my test. I’ve been saving up, and for a car as well. My brother-in-law’s going to sell me his – it’s a Renault 5, like yours.’

‘That’s nice.’

‘Don’t I know you? D’you work at the station?’

‘Yes.’

The stripes on her trousers looked like scratches. She had sturdy thighs, and the same smell as Yolande when she came home late from the factory. Their father would thump his fist on the table.

‘Have you seen the time?’

‘Well, how d’you expect me to get home? There isn’t a bus any more. There’s a war on, haven’t you heard? What are we having to eat?’

They always had the same, and she would always have some boyfriend waiting in the wings.

‘Why are you smiling?’

‘It’s you. You remind me of my sister when she was your age.’

‘Oh. What’s she called, your sister?’

‘Yolande.’

‘I’m Maryse. And what about you, what’s your first name?’

‘Bernard.’

‘Like my brother-in-law!’

She was practically family. Nothing for it but … He had stopped thinking about his death. This girl was like his life, a huge gift which he hadn’t dared even begin to unwrap.

‘What does your sister do?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Housewife and mother, then?’

‘Something like that.’

On each side of the road the houses dissolved in a wash of brown ink. A triangular yellow sign had appeared right in the middle of the road, forcing a diversion.

‘I’ve had it up to here with their ruddy motorway! We don’t need it, do we?’

‘The march of progress. If you’ll excuse me, I just have to stop for a few minutes, a call of —’

‘Got you!’

The girl’s laughter had sounded in his ear like the tinkling of the doorbell when you’re not expecting a visitor. The rain had slowed to barely a drizzle, the tears of a star freshening his face. Standing squarely in the mud, he had urinated against a concrete block bristling with metal rods. Work on the motorway had begun at the same time as his pain. With a wry smile, he noted how fast itwas progressing. The arched back of the unfinished A26 soared like a diving board into the violet sky. A star had appeared between two banks of cloud. His hard-on was so big that he hadn’t been able to do up his flies again. On the way back to the car his feet made a squelching sound with every step.

‘I’m sorry, I seem to have knocked my watch down. There’s a torch in the glove compartment.’

‘Would you like some help?’

‘That would be good. Thank you.’

The pair of them had been wading about in the mud, Maryse’s backside just a few centimetres from Bernard’s nose. A whole life kept on a leash. The girl had made no more noise than the air escaping from a punctured balloon when he had jumped on her. Lying on top of her wildly flailing body, he held her head down in a puddle. It had gone on for quite some time, the girl was sturdy. But the grip of Bernard’s hand on the back of her neck had finally proved too much for Maryse’s ‘nearly’ eighteen years. ‘Strong as death! I’m as strong as death!’ His eyes were like a hound’s when it bays at the moon. The movement in the water of the puddle became still. Soon it reflected nothing but a sky empty save for one quivering star. Bernard had loosened his grip. A slender gilt chain had got twisted round his wrist, at its end a small disc inscribed ‘More than yesterday and much less than tomorrow’.

The hardest part had been dragging her to the far side of the building site. There he had heaved the body into one of the holes which would be filled in with vast quantities of concrete the next day, and covered her with earth. Maryseno longer existed, had never existed perhaps.

Bernard let the chain drop back on to his belly. It was unbelievably heavy. He had thought he would give it to Yolande as a present. What would become of her without him? Nothing. She had stopped becoming the best part of fifty years ago.

She would go on, every morning knitting the little scrap of life which she then unravelled every night, tirelessly, without ever thinking there might be an end.

‘Bernard, there’s the grocer’s van!’

‘I’m tired, Yoyo. Do you really need something?’

‘Yes! Those little chocolate biscuits with the animals on. Please …’

‘OK. Give me my coat, will you?’

‘Get a few packets, just in case.’

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